Every season, there are a handful of players that take massive leaps. This year was no exception. Benefiting from a mixture of an increase in opportunities and an improvement in their skillset, young players are often the ones who make those leaps. With so many young talents in the NBA, a large portion of them are likely to jump up in the league hierarchy. Whether it be from virtual unknowns to role players, or from solid starters to stars, there will undoubtedly be new names next year who will make waves in the league. So without further ado, here are the top ten players most likely to have a breakout season next year.
1. Brandon Ingram (21 yrs), New Orleans Pelicans
Before being diagnosed with blood clots, Brandon Ingram was emerging as a number one option–something that flew under the radar this past season due to all the drama with the Lakers. Largely due to his body archetype and skillset, Ingram has always intrigued. He has drawn comparisons to Kevin Durant but never seemed to be able to put it all together his first two seasons. Prior to his season ending injury, however, Ingram was starting to come into his own as a scorer. He averaged 23 points while shooting 56.5% from the field and 37.9% from 3 in his final 15 games of the season.
While the blood clot injury is concerning, the Pelicans still made him one of their featured key pieces in the recent blockbuster Anthony Davis trade. From this, it’s reasonable to assume that they’re expecting he’ll be able to play once the season begins. Even with the arrival of Zion, it’s likely that the Pelicans plan for him to be the number one scoring option on the team. The trade will give him the chance to continue the positive progression he was having. As a more featured option than he would be with the Lakers, next year will give Ingram the opportunity to make the leap from promising young player to superstar.
2. Jaren Jackson Jr. (19 yrs), Memphis Grizzlies
Next on the list is our first rookie, Jaren Jackson Jr. Jackson was part of the absolutely stacked top 5 picks in this year’s draft class, all of whom have a good chance of breaking out next season. Jackson, however, has the most convincing case since his role is the likeliest to increase next year. Jackson, who is still in his teens, put together a solid rookie season. He averaged 13.8 points on 50.6% percent shooting and 35.9% shooting from 3 along with 1.4 blocks per game. Unfortunately, a right quad injury knocked him out in February and caused him to miss the rest of the season.
Going into next season, however, Jackson’s minutes and touches should heavily increase. Former franchise face, Marc Gasol, is gone, and Mike Conley appears to be on his way out as well. Although the Grizzlies selected point guard Ja Morant in the draft, this might actually lead to more production for Jackson. Morant, who averaged over 10 assists in college, is an elite distributor who will likely look to get Jackson as involved as possible. Bursting with untapped potential on both ends of the floor, expect Jackson Jr. to break out and establish himself as the new face of the franchise next season.
3. Lonzo Ball (21 yrs), New Orleans Pelicans
We’re double dipping here in New Orleans with back-to-back breakout candidates coming from the Pelicans and the Anthony Davis trade. Up to this point, Lonzo Ball has had quite an interesting career. While he hasn’t been objectively bad, he also hasn’t come close to being the player his father, Lavar, has famously promised. With this trade, he’ll be getting out of the intense L.A. spotlight, and get the chance to distance himself from his father. With less pressure, New Orleans could be the perfect place for him to grow as a player.
In addition to all the off-court benefits this trade brings, New Orleans would also seem to be a good fit court-wise for Lonzo. One of Lonzo’s main strengths so far has been his transition play and court vision. In New Orleans, he’ll get to play with multiple other young players including Zion. This should allow him to play more to his strengths than he was able to on the Lakers. All in all, this appears to be an excellent fit for Lonzo, both on and off the court. If he’s unable to break out here, it’s hard to see him breaking out anywhere.
4. Dejounte Murray (22 yrs), San Antonio Spurs
A popular pick last year to break out, Dejounte Murray dashed those hopes when he tore his ACL, an injury that cost him the entire season. For Murray, next season will be his chance to remind everyone of why they were so high on him coming into this season. Although Murray is still raw on offense, his elite defense has more than made up for it so far in his career. With a Defensive Box Plus/Minus of 3.4 and a Defensive Net Rating of 98 in 2018, it was no surprise to see him named to the All-Defensive second team that year.
Only 22, a leap for him is very much in the cards, especially if he keeps improving his offensive game. Encouragingly, Murray’s offense was seeing an upward trend before his injury, as he more than doubled his scoring output. With a whole year of rehab complete, the Spurs will be hoping that Murray has refined his offense while continuing to be elite on the defensive side. If so, Murray and Derrick White, his teammate who experienced his own breakout season this year, could form possibly the best defensive backcourt in the league.
5. Jonathan Isaac (21 yrs), Orlando Magic
Despite struggling as a rookie to find his role on the Magic, Jonathan Isaac showed impressive growth in his sophomore season. Although he still struggles with consistency issues, Isaac had some very impressive stretches this season. His best stretch of the season occurred right before the all-star break when the Magic went 7-1 and re-inserted themselves back in the playoff race. During this stretch, Isaac averaged 14.5 points and 7.1 rebounds. Though Isaac still needs to work on his mechanics and feel for the game, it’s not hard to see why so many teams were so high on him in the draft. His 6’10” frame and athleticism has already enabled him to be a great defender, and his ability to step outside and knock down the three ball is invaluable for today’s offense.
This offseason however, could wind up with more opportunities for Isaac. Fellow big man Nikola Vuceivic, who made his first all-star team this season, is a free agent. Although Vuceivic still might stay, he’ll likely field offers from multiple teams looking to poach him. Losing Vuceivic would be bad for the Magic, but it could potentially result in Isaac getting more touches and opportunities. Isaac will also get the opportunity to fill in the vacuum as a team leader. It is true that even without Vucevic the Magic frontcourt would still be crowded, with fellow youngsters Aaron Gordon and Mo Bamba also in need of minutes. Isaac, however, probably has the highest ceiling of the trio. With another big minutes increase likely on the way, Isaac has a great shot at cementing himself as the main guy in Orlando.
6. Mitchell Robinson (21 yrs), New York Knicks
One of the few bright spots in yet another miserable Knicks season, Mitchell Robinson was a nice find for the team. He immediately proved to be an elite shot blocker, averaging 2.4 blocks in just 20.6 minutes a game while leading all rookies in PER at 22. Robinson, who fell hard in the draft last year as he didn’t play in the NCAA or another professional league, quickly established himself as one of the Knicks’ most highly valued prospects going forward. The Knicks were even unwilling to include him in a potential Anthony David trade package (via Shams).
Unfortunately for the Knicks, many of their off-season plans have gone up in smoke. They’ve missed out on Zion and Anthony Davis, and will likely miss out on Kyrie Irving as well as Kawhi Leonard. Meanwhile their biggest target, Kevin Durant, will probably be out the entire next season with a torn Achilles. While there are other free agents the Knicks could potentially pursue, none of the candidates would put them in championship caliber status. Thus, there remains a high possibility that they forgo this free agency class and wait for future offseasons. Although this route is obviously not ideal for the Knicks, it could be promising for Robinson individually, as he’ll likely receive more playing time as a result. Although there are glaring flaws in his game like his fouling tendencies (averaging almost 6 fouls per 36 minutes), Robinson is already an elite shot blocker. With a larger role next season, it’s easy to envision him having a breakout year
7. Pascal Siakam (25 yrs), Toronto Raptors
Fresh off a championship victory, Pascal Siakam should be a popular choice for breakout star of next season. Although he already broke out this year to the point where he won the Most Improved Player award, it isn’t unreasonable to believe that Siakam will have another breakout next year. This holds especially true after his finals performance where he averaged 19.8 points on 50.3% shooting. In the event Kawhi stays, Siakam will enter next season as the clear number two option for the Raptors on offense, and he’ll likely see another big increase in his usage rate and statistical production.
Where it gets really interesting, however, is the scenario in which Kawhi leaves. In that situation, Siakam would probably become the number one option for Toronto, and we’ll subsequently get a chance to see more of him as a leader. We’ll also be able to judge whether the Raptors’ record without Kawhi this year (17-5) was a lucky coincidence or a sign of more to come with Siakam at the helm.
8. Bam Adebayo (21 yrs), Miami Heat
Although most people would assume Hassan Whiteside is the starting center for the Miami Heat, Bam Adebayo actually averaged more minutes this season, and for good reason. Nine years younger and more than 20 million dollars less expensive, Adebayo is clearly the center of the future for the Heat. While his polish isn’t exactly where the Heat would prefer it to be right now, he’s incredibly explosive and often makes plays that energize the whole team. His initial stats might not be as exciting, with an average of just 8.9 points and 7.3 rebounds, the advanced stats paint a more insightful picture. With an above average Box Plus/Minus of 3 and VORP (value over replacement player) of 2.4, he’s definitely a young player to watch out for.
With Hassan Whiteside’s role on the team steadily shrinking in the past couple years, it’s likely that the Heat will expect Bam to take on an even larger role next season. Only 21, Bam is brimming with two-way potential, potential the Heat hope he unlocks with more opportunity next season. The Heat aren’t in a great cap situation, so it will likely be a while for them to become an active player in free agency again. This means improvement will have to come from within, and Adebayo is a prime candidate to do so.
9. Alex Caruso (25 yrs), Los Angeles Lakers
Alex Caruso? That’s right, Alex Caruso. Assuming he gets a new deal with the Lakers, Caruso should be a prime candidate for a breakout season next year. Already showing signs towards the end of this year’s regular season, he averaged 18.2 points and 8 assists in the final 6 games of the season. This stretch was capped off with a career-high 32 point explosion against the Clippers. Often treated as an afterthought at the beginning of the season, Caruso stepped up once injuries began to ravage the team. He successfully led the Lakers to some nice wins against the Clippers and Jazz while even appearing to earn the respect and approval of LebronJames.
Interestingly, Caruso may get the chance to become a staple of the rotation next season, perhaps even as a starter. The Lakers guard depth has been depleted by the Anthony Davis trade and Rajon Rondo may also depart in free agency. Although it’s possible that the Lakers add more guard depth this summer, Alex Caruso should, at the very least, be a regular role player for the Lakers. Hopefully, he’ll even get the chance to prove that his late surge at the end of this season was a harbinger for next season.
10. Jerami Grant (25 yrs), Oklahoma City Thunder
Although it may feel as if Jerami Grant has been in the league for a long time, Grant is still just 25. This season with the Thunder, he took encouraging steps forward as a 3 and D player. He averaged 13.6 points on 39.2% 3 point shooting while playing a key part on one of the best defenses in the league. While Grant has always been a quality glue guy who plays tough defense, his offensive production is something that has finally started to come around. Averaging career highs in points and shots per game, his offensive role has expanded, while his efficiency has stayed solid despite the increase in volume. The Thunder’s cap situation is messy, but Grant’s contract is quite the steal at just 9 million annually for the next two years.
Unfortunately, even Grant’s career best season wasn’t enough to keep the Thunder from flaming out in the first round again. Although Westbrook is considered the face of the franchise, Paul George was the better player overall for the season. Given how hard it would be to move Westbrook’s contract, however, a retool around Paul Georges unlikely. This means that the Thunder are probably stuck with their current roster, for better or worse. As shown in the playoffs, the Thunder sorely need a tertiary creator to become true contenders. Given their cap situation, it’s unlikely that it will come from outside the team. This presents a unique opportunity for Grant, especially since he showed improvement as a playmaker this year. If Westbrook and George are willing to take a slightly reduced role to let another guy get more touches, Grant could be the guy the Thunder count on to step up. If he’s able to continue his positive growth next year, we could be looking at a breakout season for Grant.