Going in to the 2018-19 season, only true fantasy basketball fanatics, league-pass junkies and Raptors diehards were likely to have heard the name “Pascal Siakam” spoken in a context not directly related to the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders initiative.
The Cameroonian forward was coming off a 2017-18 in which he’d played all 81 games but started in just 5, and was averaging under 6 points and 4 rebounds per game in his two-year Toronto career whilst shooting a miserable 18% from three.
Then 2018 rolled around. “Spicy P” emerged from the post-Derozan shadows to start 79 regular season games; putting up regular-season averages of 17 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists per game, shooting 37% from beyond the arc, and playing the all-important role of Kawhi-lite when the Board Man didn’t play back-to-backs. In the playoffs, he improved those numbers to 19.0 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists during Toronto’s mythical post-season run, including 26 points and 10 rebounds in their Finals-clinching Game 6 win.
Not surprisingly, in June Siakam won the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award for season 2018-19, beating out D’Angelo Russell and De’Aaron Fox to take out the most back-handed title in sports.
The fact that the NBA even has an award recognising a player’s transition from league nobody to budding superstar should tell you all you need to know about the capacity of a basketball player for exponential improvement.
So, who’s going to be next year’s Spicy-P? Let’s check out 5 of the NBA’s top breakout candidates.
Jaren Jackson Jr
We are unabashed fans of “Triple-J” here at Sportstips.com, and with the current profile of the Grizzlies roster there’s no reason why he can’t be the league’s next great two-way big man.
The 19-year-old (yep, he’s that young) centre had some injury issues in his rookie year but still put up 13.8 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game in 58 appearances on a decimated Memphis roster in just his second-year removed from high school. Given he only played 26 minutes per game, though, his numbers per 36 spike to 19.0, 1.9 and 6.5.
A young Pau Gasol is widely decried as the style of player Jackson most resembles. By way of comparison, in Pau’s 21-year-old rookie season with the Grizz his per 36 numbers were 17.3. 2.0 and 8.7.
Second-overall pick Ja Morant is the perfect foil for Jackson’s currently-limited offensive game. With Morant’s superb passing ability there’s every chance that – along with a proper NBA offseason under his belt and a decent hike in minutes as his fitness improves – Jackson can start to push that 20/10 range as early as next season.
Still don’t believe us? Check out this outstanding video from brilliant Youtube channel, ThinkingBasketball.
The Nuggets are building a formidable roster out west, and a sizeable chunk of their future aspirations rest on the shoulders of Gary Harris.
Shooting – as evidenced by the incessant chatter around the possibility of Denver making a play for Bradley Beal – is currently the Nuggets’ glaring weakness. Harris provides that in spades.
Harris has always been an elite defender, and shot as high as 42% from three in 2016-7 before regressing down to 39.6% in 2017-18 and 33.9% last year.
The problem with “G-Money” is his body; with just 57 games last year, 67 in 2017-18 and 57 in 2016-17.
If Harris can put in a big offseason, get his body in shape and return to the days of averaging 17.5 points and shooting nearly 50% from the floor (as he did in 2017-18), the 25-year-old becomes a key cog in the Nuggets offense. All Nikola Jokic needs is shooters around him, and if Harris can take some heat away from Jamal Murray he becomes an integral part of their championship aspirations.
3 and D wings are all the rage in the NBA at the moment in the wake of Kawhi Leonard’s emergence as an all-time. Harris fits that bill perfectly.
The New Orleans Pelicans are the toast of the NBA after their stunning, Zion-led offseason, but there’s one crucial piece of their on-the-fly rebuild which is flying under the radar; Brandon Ingram.
Concerns surrounding the mysterious blood clots which ruined Ingram’s 2018-19 season seem to have lowered his value significantly, but David Griffin and the Pelicans still valued him highly enough to make the 6-foot-9 forward the key piece in the Anthony Davis trade.
Despite Zion’s arrival, and the accompanying additions of Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick and Derrick Favors, Ingram is clearly the number 1 scoring option in New Orleans for the foreseeable future. In his final 15 games last season (before being struck down with those aforementioned blood clots) he averaged 23 points, shot 56.5% from the field and finally seemed to take the step towards Kevin Durant-esque stardom which had been promised since his arrival in the league.
Next year – with the Pelicans clearly fancying themselves as an outside playoff chance – Ingram is likely to get thrown the keys to the offense straight out of the gate. Don’t be surprised to see him taking 16-20 shots per game and upping last year’s 18.3 points per game to somewhere between 23 and 25.
Finally, the spectre of Hassan Whiteside and his horrific contract have been shipped away from the Miami Heat. In his place we are finally going to get to see what the mystique of Bam Adebayo is all about.
Long touted as a defensive freak, if Bam can start to add an offensive element to his game then the ceiling is infinite. Check out this video; the quickness of his feet on defense is something else.
Bam is still just 21 years old, despite his outrageous ability on defense. He struggled a bit last year – averages of just 8.9 points and 7.3 rebounds will attest to that – but the absence of Whiteside and addition of Jimmy Butler creates a new dynamic in Miami. Butler has already shown his ability to work with a generational two-way centre in Philadelphia, and if he and Bam can find some chemistry early on then the sky is the limit.
The time is now for Bam. Pat Riley’s decision to trade Whiteside to Portland despite landing Butler is as clear an indication as any that the Heat have full faith in Bam’s potential to polish up his offensive skills and become a true scoring centre.
A jump in minutes to 30+ (from 23.3 last year) is likely to lead to Bam posting something near 15/10/2 averages, and right in the frame for MIP.
Thanks to a devastating ACL injury, 2018-19 ended up not being Murray’s breakout year. 2019-20 might be.
It’s hard not to see the Spurs’ young PG exploding on to the NBA scene at some point in his career. His 2017-18 Per 36 numbers were outstanding; 13.5 points, 4.8 assists and 9.5 rebounds shooting 45.4% from the floor.
Oh, and he was named to the NBA All-Defense second team at the age of 21.
Murray’s stifling defense has been his defining trait since his college career at Washington, and a Defensive Box Plus/Minus of 3.4 and a Net Rating of 98 in that 2017-2018 season is all the evidence you need that he is going to be one of the NBA’s best defensive guards for the next 7-8 years.
If he can add an outside shot (31.6% career 3-point percentage) or even a mid-range shot (34% career shooting percentage from outside 3 feet) then look out. This kid is going to be special. Maybe as soon as this year, depending on how quickly he finds his feet in his return from injury.
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Image by: Erik Drost