The term “breakout” gets thrown around a lot in the world of sports media. Every off-season we hear speculation from each of the major sports leagues regarding players on the verge of a “breakout”. For me, this term holds a different meaning that is dependent upon the context of the player in question. Some “breakouts” occur in the form of a superstar taking their game from an all-star level to an MVP level (i.e James Harden and Giannis Antetokoumpo these past few seasons). Another level of this term refers to players who have become rather faceless, having blended into the background amidst a sea of other players, returning to the limelight due to their impact on a contending team (Brook Lopez, Tobias Harris, and Patrick Beverley all fall into this category). Lastly, there is the classic tier of “breakouts” which refers to players who are on a rookie contract (usually), taking their games to an all-star or near all-star level (John Collins, D’Angelo Russell, and Julius Randle come to mind as examples of this). Using this model, I have determined some potential breakout candidates for the 2019-20 season in each of these established tiers.
All-Star Players With MVP Potential
C Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Jokic was the catalyst for an upstart Nuggets squad that pushed Golden State for the top seed in the West for the entire season. A walking triple-double threat every time he steps on the court, Jokic has a chance to be one of the most unconventional MVP candidates of all time if he can continue to produce like he did in 2018-19. If Denver once again finishes near the top of the Western Conference with Jokic averaging a statline similar to the one he sported last season (20.1 ppg, 10.8 rpg, and 7.2 apg), we could be seeing some major MVP consideration for the playmaking big man.
PG Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
In the now Kawhi-less Eastern Conference, there lies an opportunity for a new team to claim the keys to the conference. Why can’t that team be the Boston Celtics? With an excellent head coach (Brad Stevens), a hungry group of returning players with playoff experience (Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Smart), and the addition of two team-first starters who want nothing more than to win (Walker and Enes Kanter) this is a team that could very well return to its dominant 2017-18 form so long as the previous chemistry issues have been solved. If this best-case scenario comes to fruition it could result in MVP consideration for Walker, who could presumably match his per game averages from last season in Charlotte (25.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 5.9 apg) with better efficiency given the boost in talent around him.
PG Damian Lillard, Portland Trailblazers
Lillard is no stranger to MVP consideration, as he has been a top 5 finalist in the voting for the past couple seasons. Perhaps this is the season where he breaks through the proverbial glass ceiling, finally getting the award season attention he deserves. The best model for a Lillard MVP campaign would be following the James Harden/Stephen Curry mold, where he attempts 10-12 three-pointers per game and around 20-22 field goals per game while attempting to get to the free throw line as frequently as possible. If the Blazers were able to scheme for Lillard in this fashion, there is no doubt in my mind that he could get his averages in the 32/7/5 territory, MVP caliber numbers in every sense. Combining these prospective stats with the sustained success of the team itself would make for a bulletproof MVP case.
C Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
The only thing holding Embiid back from an MVP is himself. His conditioning and lower-body health have been a major setback in his development for his entire NBA career, so if he is able to get himself into appropriate shape there is no telling how dominant he could be. With the best Embiid stopper in the league now his teammate (Al Horford) there is a very good chance that we see Jo-Jo become even more unstoppable offensively, as his former tormenter can teach him ways to counter defenders that once stymied him. On paper, the Sixers seem to be a near lock for the top seed in the East. If this rings true and Embiid stays healthy (and in-shape) for the season, his averages of 27.5 ppg and 13.6 rpg could actually go up in conjunction with an improvement on the defensive end of the court (an expected result of this hypothetical scenario where Embiid improves his conditioning significantly).
SG Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
Mitchell might be a bit young for this list, as he has yet to even make an all-star team (either a testament to the strength of the Western Conference or an example of anti-rookie bias in the NBA) however, his usage warrants him a position here, as no other player projects as a Russell Westbrook-like player in the league for the next few seasons. Unlike Westbrook, Mitchell is a much more willing passer and a better shooter. The case for Mitchell as a potential MVP candidate hinges upon two variables, one is his ability to put up tangible numbers on a loaded squad in Utah, something that shouldn’t be too hard given the differential nature of new teammates Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley. However, the more important and uncertain variable would come in the form of Mitchell noticeably elevating the level of play for his teammates while compiling gaudy statistics. It is that aspect that has led to the NBA world condemning Westbrook as a selfish stat-padder, virtually blackballing him from future MVP consideration due to the perception (a fair perception) that his triple-double averages are incredibly hollow. If Mitchell can tow the fine line between big per game averages and substantial impact on winning games with limited inefficiency, he could very well find himself in the MVP conversation this year.
The Veteran Breakouts
C Enes Kanter, Boston Celtics
Kanter does two things very well as a center, he scores and he rebounds. As a defender, it could be argued that Kanter is among the worst in the league at his position. Teams will often target the Turkish big man when he is on the court, as his slow feet and limited bounce create severe deficiencies for him. If Brad Stevens’s system can somehow coax a net neutral defensive rating out of Kanter this season then there is a good chance that we could see the former number three overall pick as the recipient of cushy contract next offseason. With his solid shooting ability for the position and excellent rebounding, Kanter may very well emerge in a similar fashion to Brook Lopez in Milwaukee last season.
SF Josh Richardson, Philadelphia 76ers
It could be argued that Richardson was Miami’s best player last season, as his two-way impact was key to the team’s playoff push which ended up falling just short. In Philadelphia, Richardson will likely be tasked with taking some big shots, as he and Tobias Harris are now the most reliable shooters on the roster. If Richardson is up to the challenge of essentially replacing Jimmy Butler’s impact on the perimeter, then his rise should be considered a “breakout”, as his exploits in Miami were often overlooked given the perennial sub 500. nature of the Heat teams he was a part of. If the Sixers have any hope of contending for a title this season, then a player like Richardson will need to step up as a key “glue-guy” to hold the rest of the team together.
SG/SF Jeremy Lamb, Indiana Pacers
Despite being just 27 years old, it feels like Jeremy Lamb has been around forever. For the longest time Lamb was known as the disappointing former lottery pick who would never be anything more than an average three-and-D wing. However, during his exodus in Charlotte something miraculous occurred. Lamb became a pretty solid starting two-guard, with averages of 15.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg, and 2.2 apg. While his three ball only fell at a clip just below 35%, that can be chalked up to having to force shots as the defacto number two option for the Hornets. Now a member of the Indiana Pacers, Lamb joins a backcourt which already features two star talents in Victor Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon. If the Pacers are once again contenders in the East, Lamb should have plenty of chances to reestablish himself as one of the better two-way wings in the league, with an outside chance to contend for sixth man of the year (depending on what the starting lineup looks like).
SG Gary Harris, Denver Nuggets
Harris had a mini breakout during the playoffs last season, as he flexed his defensive prowess by smothering Damian Lillard and C.J McCollum during the Western Conference Semifinals. While Harris has been well established as an above-average two way guard in the NBA, he has a chance to emerge as a legitimate star for Denver this season if he can continue to improve offensively while maintaining his bulldog mentality on defense. While I doubt Harris will ever achieve a level of popularity that will get him into an all-star game (at least while he’s in Denver), I believe he has the talent to be an all-star level player.
C Dewayne Dedmon, Sacramento Kings
Dedmon is a prime candidate to emerge as this year’s version of Brook Lopez, as his three point shooting and rim protection could be key elements in elevating the Kings from a playoff contender to a championship contender. If Dedmon can continue to do what he did during his time in Atlanta then he should provide a stabilizing force for the young Kings, allowing even more spacing and defensive flexibility for Luke Walton. While they lack a Giannis Antetokoumpo, the Kings could very well follow the Bucks model for success by spacing the floor with Dedmon, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Buddy Hield while allowing De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley to do work in the paint.
Classic Breakout Candidates
PF/SF Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers
Kuzma has the chance to prove to the Lakers that they already have their third star this season, as he will be tasked with spacing the floor and providing supplementary scoring behind AD and Lebron. I can realistically see a situation where Kuzma becomes an elite sniper from three point range, averaging an efficient 20-23 ppg along with 7-8 rpg, garnering all-star consideration. Kuzma has proven to be a very special offensive talent in the past, so it would be no surprise to me if he were able to take his game to yet another level.
SF/PF Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
While he didn’t take the massive leap expected of him last year, it’s hard to fault Tatum for that, as his averages went up along the board despite the reincorporation of Gordon Hayward into the offense. With the toxic Kyrie Irving/Terry Rozier/Marcus Morris situation now in the past, there is no better time for Tatum’s breakthrough to occur. Alongside Hayward, Kemba Walker, and Jaylen Brown, Tatum will be relied upon heavily for scoring this season. Depending on how many touches Walker and Hayward soak up, Tatum could get anywhere from 15-18 shots per game, considering his 40% career mark from three point range and his wide array of skill moves on offense I have no doubt that Tatum could produce given the opportunity. Ultimately, Tatum’s breakthrough will rest on Coach Brad Stevens giving him the green light to shoot the ball, as well as his own dedication to improving shot selection and getting to the free throw line.
PG Dejounte Murray, San Antonio Spurs
Murray’s season was cut short before it could even get started last summer, as he suffered a season ending knee injury during the off-season. Prior to the injury, the Spurs had been incredibly enthusiastic about Murray’s development, expecting him to ascend to full blown star during the 2018-19 season. Despite the setback, I see no reason why this cannot come to fruition during the 2019-20 campaign, as Murray rejoins a veteran heavy Spurs team in desperate need of a floor general. If San Antonio somehow manages to weasel their way into the playoffs this season, it will be in no small part due to the performance of Murray.
PG Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
You don’t give a max contract out to just anyone. Denver clearly has high hopes for Murray this season, as his modern offensive game suggests that he could very well follow the same path as shooters like James Harden, Steph Curry, and Damian Lillard. There is an all-star game in Murray’s future, it very well could come during the upcoming campaign.
PF Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
With the departure of Kawhi Leonard, Spicy P will now become the future face of the Toronto Raptors. Personally, I don’t think Siakam is very special on the offensive end of the ball but I do see a chance for him to prove me wrong, as the Raptors offense should very well run directly through him.