If it feels like we’ve barely moved on from the last NBA season, it’s because we barely have. Nonetheless, the 2021 NBA season is just about upon us. Each and every season a handful of players breakout and find a new level. With the slew of exceptional circumstances that this season presents, we could see a hatful of players thrive in the unusual environment.
Between the usual array of youngsters stepping up their level of performance, or stepping into larger roles, we’ll also witness many young players stepping up on a relatively random basis as they fill in for more established veterans who will – despite the NBA’s best efforts – surely have their loads monitored and managed.
With that in mind, lets dive right in to who could experience a major breakout in the new NBA season.
Coming into his third season, the 22-year-old Ayton is primed to truly break out and perhaps contend for All-Star honours. Despite a less than auspicious start to his last campaign – via a 25 game suspension – Ayton put up impressive raw numbers: 18.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks. Whilst the numbers are impressive, it was the little things that Ayton improved upon that stood out.
Ayton’s much-maligned defense improved exponentially. After a rookie season spent chasing shadows, Ayton calmed down to a remarkable degree. He usually stopped chasing blocks which in turn gave him better rebounding position. He improved his technique on the perimeter which allowed him to better corral guards on the switch.
At the other end of the floor, he became a crunching screen setter after slipping practically every screen he ‘set’ in his rookie campaign, in the process forming a potent partnership in the pick and roll with both Devin Booker and the departed Ricky Rubio. Given Rubio’s replacement in Chris Paul happens to be a pick and roll maestro and a notorious task master, it stands to reason that Ayton continues to progress and starts to at least somewhat justify the team’s decision to draft him over Luka Doncic.
Michael Porter Jr
Perhaps the most hyped player on this list, Porter broke out in the Orlando bubble. With Will Barton missing and Gary Harris not available until the middle of the first round of the playoffs, Porter emerged as a legitimate third offensive option in Denver’s potent offensive machine. In the eight game play-in tournament, he has electric: 22 points and 8.6 boards whilst shooting a blistering 42% from deep. With the confidence that he should take from his bubble experience, a full preseason behind him, and a clearer path to minutes with Jerami Grant’s defection to Detroit, Porter should be able to solidify that role.
As it always does with Porter – and, to be honest, anyone on a Michael Malone coached team – defense will be a huge factor in Porters development; “It’s something that I’m taking head-on’ Porter told the Denver Post. Despite his long limbs and smooth moving athleticism, Porter isn’t quick laterally and doesn’t project to be a plus defender, but if he can just be serviceable and play within the team defensive scheme, as he did in the bubble, that will be enough.
Anunoby’s stop/start career finally started to come together in the Orlando bubble. His raw numbers (10.6 points, 5.3 boards, 1.6 assists, 2.1 steals/blocks and 51/39/71 shooting splits) don’t exactly jump off the page, but the eye test told a different story.
As well as his usual stellar one-on-one defense, Anunoby took on greater responsibility at the offensive end of the floor as a secondary playmaker – especially off the catch – and creator. He even took on more late-game responsibility.
With Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka both leaving for pastures anew, some of the younger Raptors will need to step up and contribute on a regular basis. In fairness, Anunoby doesn’t project out to be a first or even second option on offense, though these sort of projections have been wrong before – as teammate Pascal Siakam proves – though the Raptors will need him to become a viable support player. To do that he’ll need to continue to improve on his play making and he’ll need to start taking more than the 3.3 attempts from beyond the arc that he took in 2020. If he can maintain something like his 39% success rate from last season on 5+ attempts, then we’re looking at a genuine two way star.
In a regularly scheduled season, Coby White might have already experienced his breakout. Over his last nine games before the shutdown the rookie out of UNC averaged 26.1 points per game, doubling his season average to that point. He also handed out 4.4 assists in that span against an average of 2.7 over the season. There was some hot shooting inflating those numbers – White hit almost four trey’s a game at 43% over those last nine contests – but it can’t be doubted that the stoppage occurred at exactly the wrong time for the Chicago guard.
His encouraging form in the preseason as well as the confirmation from new coach Billy Donovan that White will supplant the steady veteran Tomas Satoransky in the starting lineup should see him get more opportunities in the pick and roll. With shooters around him and a competent coach (first time for a long while we’ve been able to say that about the Bulls) backing him in, look for White to shine.
A combination of COVID and a foot injury limited Bryant to 46 games last season and there was a clear demarcation between his play prior to and post shutdown. In the ‘regular’ season, Bryant posted 13.9 points, 8.5 boards, 2.7 assists and a block. In the bubble that improved to 18.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.9 three’s and a pair of blocks per game. Without Bradley Beal or Davis Bertans, his responsibility and therefore usage shot up, but Bryant’s efficiency numbers didn’t meaningfully drop away.
With Beal and Bertans back, as well as Russell Westbrook in town, Bryant won’t be asked to shoulder nearly the same load. That said, if his shot blocking and three-point shooting are real (40.7% from deep last season) then he could be a genuine stretch weapon, opening the lane for Beal and Westbrook (as well as the underrated Troy Brown Jr) whilst being a reasonable anchor at the defensive end. Look for Bryant to post stats somewhere between his bubble and pre-bubble numbers.
Johnson’s rookie campaign took a turn for the better in Orlando, when he was moved into the starting unit. He responded with 13.3 points and 5.9 boards alongside 35% shooting from beyond the arc. As a team, Phoenix ranked 29th in the league in open three-point attempts, per Second Spectrum. For everything that Rubio provided to the Suns, Chris Paul is a clear upgrade. Danilo Gallinari by himself averaged, at 3.9 open attempts, almost 40% of Phoenix’s attempts as a team. It stands to reason that Johnson – Paul’s new stretch four – is going to see a whole lot of open space to let his dead-eye jumper fly.
Those open half court looks should compensate for the one area where Paul will hurt the Suns – transition offense. Rubio is a masterful open court orchestrator, where as Paul has preferred to slow it down for about a decade. Nevertheless, Johnson should thrive playing alongside the Point God.