One of our favourite things to do each NBA season is try and anticipate which of the NBA’s mid-tier talents are set to take the leap up to the upper echelon of NBA stardom.
First though, a bit of a definition. We’ve already named our top-5 “breakout” candidates, and this is a completely different list. A “break-out” is someone who comes from the clouds to establish themselves as a potential superstar – the Pascal Siakam type – who no one outside of hardcore fans is really aware of prior to the season.
What we’re striving to put forward here is a list of players currently outside the top 32 in the league (in terms of power rankings), who we believe by the end of the season will find themselves as household names and universally recognised as one of the NBA’s most marketable stars.
Enough talking, let’s get in to it!
5. Kristaps Porzingis
Some would argue the Large Latvian is already one of the league’s premier stars but, after nearly two full years out of the game and a trade out of the Big Apple the the 7 ft 3 in Porzingis has just started to fade out of the public consciousness.
Sports Illustrated’s annual list of the NBA’s Top 100 players ranked the newly-minted Maverick as the 37th-best player in the league, behind the likes of Andre Drummond and Jayson Tatum and barely ahead of the incredibly inconsistent Jamal Murray.
To put it frankly, that’s an absurd under-evaluation for one of the most sweet-shooting big-men we’ve ever seen play the game.
The concern seems to centre around Porzingis’ ability (or lack thereof) to get back to 100% fitness after an ACL injury suffered in February 2018. We don’t share those reservations – 18+ months between outings on an NBA floor is more than enough time to recover. If recent pictures of Porzingod are anything to go by, he spent most of that time lifting copious amounts of iron.
Speaking of 2018, in that year – prior to his injury – Porzingis recorded the best start to a season EVER for a Knicks player, earning 300 points through 10 games and a spot as an Eastern Conference All-Star reserve. In 48 games he was averaging 25.2 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks per 36 minutes while shooting a terrifying 39.5% from three.
The thought of Luka Doncic’s transcendent passing ability being able to facilitate Porzingis on the perimeter, in the pick & roll AND on fast breaks is one of the more imposing prospects in basketball at the moment. We can’t wait.
4. John Collins
If we were ranking the most underrated players in the league currently then Collins would be right at the top.
Last season, he averaged 19.8 points and 9.8 rebounds while putting up a 62.7 true shooting percentage. Want to know the only two other players to have more 19 points, nine boards and a 60 true shooting percentage percent?
Karl-Anthony Towns and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
That’s the kind of company we’re talking about here, and yet Sports Illustrated’s ratings have Collins languishing in 51st position, behind Danilo Gallinari and Gary Harris.
In truth, the 22-year-old Collins’ outstanding season was overshadowed by the Trae Young hype-train, and many would say rightly so. But, as Young continues to improve, so will Collins. After the All-Star break last season both Young and Collins increased their productivity significantly, with Young directly assisting Collins on almost a full basket more per game after the break than before.
If the preseason is anything to go by, that number is going to leap even more this year.
Overall, in the second half of 2018-19 Collins averaged an All-Star-calibre 20.3 points and 10.3 boards per game. For context, just seven players – Antetokounmpo, Towns, Nikola Jokic, Nikola Vucevic, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid and Russell Westbrook averaged more than 20 points and 10 rebounds per game last season.
If Collins and Young can lead the up-start Hawks to consistent competitiveness in a wide-open Eastern Conference – and maybe *shock horror* even contend for a playoff spot, the raw athleticism and abundance of fundamental post-moves in Collins’ arsenal are going to make him a sexy prospect for neutral fans.
Just remember us when he becomes your new favourite player.
3. Buddy Hield
There was one player who made as many threes as Buddy Hield did last season (278) at the same percentage or better (42.7%). His name was Stephen Curry. Only one player in NBA HISTORY has taken more threes than Hield did while shooting at a percentage better than 40%.
No prizes for guessing who that was.
The comparison between Hield and Curry is more-than-justified. Hield – after just his third year in the NBA – is already one of the best three-point shooters in the league. He can take and make from anywhere, and does so with a frightening level of reckless abandon.
After averaging a tad over 20 points per game last year and shooting nearly 46% from the floor, Hield entering his fourth season in the NBA, which means that he is likely to be a restricted free agent next summer. Murmurs are abounding that he is expecting a maximum value extension, or at least something close.
26-year-old players in a contract year playing on a high-volume-shooting, up-tempo team don’t tend to have bad years. So far this preseason – as he puts his case for an early extension in the strongest terms possible – Hield is averaging nearly 20 points per game in just over 27 minutes, whilst also chipping in more than 3 assists.
The Kings are primed for breakout success in a stacked Western Conference this season, and Hield is going to be a huge part of it. As teams become even more wary of De’Aaron Fox’s freakish ability to get to the hoop so will they be forced to sag off players on the perimeter.
That breeds well for a guy whose entire basketball career has been built around racking them up and knocking them down.
2. Zach LaVine
We’ve all seen Zach LaVine’s highlight-reel slams, but this guy is a lot more than just your standard Derrick Jones Jnr-style dunk-comp-specialist.
Sure, his hops are elite – even off the back of a shattering knee injury – but his overall skill as an offensive weapon is only growing by the day.
Prior to the injury the knock on LaVine was his willingness to settle for outside jumpers rather than push it to the rack. Well, that’s certainly something he’s improved on in the time since.
Last year he went to the free throw line for almost six free throw attempts per game a mark that compares favourably with the likes of Jimmy Butler, DeMar DeRozan, and Kemba Walker, renowned rim-attackers.
On a soon-to-be competitive Chicago team quietly starting to stockpile some genuine weapons in Otto Porter Jnr, Wendell Carter Jnr and Coby White, LaVine now has the necessary talent around him to take the leap in the NBA’s upper tier. If he stays healthy, there’s no reason Chicago can’t push for playoffs in the East, and nothing to suggest that LaVine can’t maintain his 23.7 point per game average and potentially push his effective field goal % back up to the heights of 2016-17’s 54%.
1. De’Aaron Fox
Here’s the thing: if you don’t like De’Aaron Fox, you don’t like NBA basketball.
Last season he averaged 17 points and seven assists per game, shot 46% from the field and proved himself as one of – if not THE – fastest players in the league, as well as a premier defender at the guard position.
Fox also established himself as one of the best distributors in the league, and is only set to get better as the Kings’ young offense clicks in to gear.
The key is whether he can maintain his outside shooting. The knock on Fox coming in to the league was his ability as a three-point shooter, which is why his 37% hit-rate from beyond the arc last season feels like it might be a slight anomaly rather than the rule.
Still, it may not matter if he can continue to get to the rim like this:
De’Aaron Fox doing De’Aaron Fox things. pic.twitter.com/71rnfXX3Ex
— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) October 4, 2019
We are all aboard the Sacramento Kings train, and would not at all be surprised to see the make a leap in to the top 6 in the West by the end of the season. If they do, then Fox will find himself as one of the most popular players in the league.