The best part about the preseason is possibility. Everybody’s record is the same, and you can find reasons to be excited about just about every team in the league. Your favorite player probably told reporters on media day that he’s in the best shape of his life, and the national media is surely underrating your team because they are not taking into account that Young Player X is going to make the leap.
Let’s talk about Young Player X, then. Every season, there are guys who, through a combination of their work ethic and the opportunity presented to them, make giant strides. This can change the trajectory of a franchise and the course of a career. What follows is the All-Breakout team, composed of 12 up-and-comers who could establish themselves in the 2017-18 season.
Rodney Hood G / Jazz
Sometimes, making the leap isn’t about traditional player development; it is about mindset. Hood has the skills that you want from a primary playmaker — the ballhandling, the range, the in-between game, the ability to make plays for others out of the pick-and-roll — but he has never played anything but a supporting role in the NBA. Over the past few years, he has blended into Utah’s slow, pass-heavy, movement-oriented offense well, a perfect fit for the system because he is comfortable with or without the ball. This season, though, the Jazz need him to be more aggressive. They might even need him to be a bit selfish.
Like Gordon Hayward before him, Hood will be encouraged to become a go-to scorer. Per Basketball-Reference, Hood’s usage rate was 22.9 percent last season, which is about in line with what Hayward did in 2013-14, his fourth season in the league. Hood is entering his fourth year now, and his team likely needs that number to be closer to the 27.6 percent usage rate that Hayward had last season. Hood knows this, and he said at media day on Monday that his goal is to win the Most Improved Player award, per Andy Larson of ESPN 700. If he embraces an attacking mentality and emerges as the efficient leading man Utah hopes he can be, that goal will be within reach.
Brandon Ingram F / Lakers
I’m still thinking about Ingram’s lone summer league game, in which he dominated before hurting his leg late in the fourth quarter. In that game, he finished through contact easily and wowed the crowd with his ballhandling and improved shooting stroke. He looked like he was having the time of his life playing with Lonzo Ball, and he wanted to prove that he was worlds better than he was the previous year. If that version of Ingram is ready to go for the Lakers, they will be exciting.
Like Hood, Ingram is known as a smooth player, but he’s going to be dangerous when he learns to force the issue a bit more. His thin frame made it difficult for him in the paint as a rookie, but he appears to be stronger now. Adding muscle will continue to be a process, but as Giannis Antetokounmpo has shown, it’s possible to be an impact player before fully filling out. I’m bullish on Ingram taking a step forward this season, and I don’t think his first-year stats illustrate how much he grew over the course of the season. If everything goes right, he’ll be a major part of the Lakers offense as both a scorer and a playmaker, with Luke Walton’s decision to experiment with him at point guard paying off.
Jamal Murray G / Nuggets
Another second-year player, Murray’s main issue in his first year was consistency. He was capable of getting hot at any time, but there were also games where he wasn’t feeling it or wasn’t particularly involved. If he is going to live the life of a sparkplug scorer, that is how it will go. If he is going to develop into one of the Nuggets‘ core pieces and their primary creator in the backcourt, then things will have to change. I’d love to see Denver empower him the same way the Blazers did with C.J. McCollum in his Most Improved Player season — Murray is talented enough to reward them for it.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone said that there will be “a very interesting point guard battle in training camp,” via Denver Stiffs’ Ryan Blackburn. This means that Murray will have to beat Emmanuel Mudiay and Jameer Nelson for a starting spot. Given how much attention he attracts without the ball and the fact that Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap will be doing so much playmaking from the frontcourt, Murray should be considered the favorite. Now he has to earn his role and run with it.
Dante Exum G / Jazz
It feels like we’ve been waiting for Exum to break out forever, but this is only his third real season because a torn ACL cost him the entirety of 2015-16. It’s impossible to know whether or not Exum will ever be an above-average 3-point shooter or floor general, but he is still just 22 years old and his strengths are obvious. Few guards have his combination of size, length and quickness, enabling him to be a disruptive force defensively and guard multiple positions. On offense, he disappears way too easily when playing off the ball, but when he decides he wants to get to the basket, his ballhandling and long strides mean that he almost always finds his way there.
As is the case with Hood, Hayward’s departure means there will be more opportunities for Exum to assert himself. The presence of new starting point guard Ricky Rubio and rookie Donovan Mitchell, though, mean that he will not simply be given big minutes and more offensive responsibility. He is going to have to show that he deserves that.
Aaron Gordon F / Magic
Unsurprisingly, Gordon’s numbers were far better after the All-Star break, no longer having to spend any time masquerading as a small forward because of the Magic‘s glut of big men. In today’s NBA, Gordon would be better off playing center than revisiting that doomed experiment. Just like Exum, he was drafted in 2014 and has been featured on similar lists in years past. Unlike Exum, he has already proven himself to be a productive all-around NBA player. The question is how much more he can do, especially when it comes to playmaking and outside shooting.
Asking Gordon to be a wing was a bit much, but you can kind of understand Orlando’s thinking because of the flashes he has shown as a passer. He’s best as a cutter and a finisher, though, and the freaky hops you’ve seen in dunk contests are valuable when he’s rolling to the rim. Simply being used properly will result in a much better season; adding to his game would put him on the track toward stardom.
Victor Oladipo G / Pacers
Gordon’s former teammate in Orlando, Oladipo was supposed to step into the perfect situation to improve last season. In Oklahoma City, he would theoretically be able to both complement Russell Westbrook in the first unit and be the primary playmaker in the second unit. The reality was that he hardly spent any time running the show, and when he was on the floor, he was usually relegated to the role of spot-up shooter. Oladipo shot a career-high 36.1 percent from deep, but he never really looked like himself while the Thunder were playing Russball.
In Indiana, Oladipo has another opportunity to try to become the type of two-way player his tools suggest he can be. Next to guards like Cory Joseph and Darren Collison, he should have no qualms about controlling the offense and being more decisive with the ball. If he wants to become a more prolific and proficient 3-point shooter, that’s fantastic, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of him getting to the rim and drawing fouls. The Pacers will be looking for him to do that and establish some chemistry with big man Myles Turner, who played too well last season to be included here.
Norman Powell G / Raptors
You could argue that he has already broken out. Raptors coach Dwane Casey called Powell “our best attack player” on Monday, via Raptors Republic’s Blake Murphy, adding that he and free-agent addition C.J. Miles will compete for the starting small forward spot., and he has swung a couple of playoff series now. If his ceiling is simply being a long, athletic and somewhat stretchy role player, then he has reached it. There is, however, reason to believe he has more in him.
Powell is indeed a solid attacker, but he needs to finish much better around the basket and improve when it comes to making plays for others. All of that will become even easier if he finds consistency from 3-point range; while he has put in a ton of work on his shot since coming into the league, he only made 32.4 percent of his 3s in his second season. Toronto should encourage him to play with confidence and freedom this season — it needs to diversify its offense in the postseason, and it is already a much more versatile defensive team when Powell is on the court.
D’Angelo Russell G / Nets
It is hard to find a player this young and this divisive. Russell is 21, and the Nets are betting that he will make good on the potential that made him the No. 2 overall pick just two years ago. For a franchise in need of top-level talent with no short-term pressure to win, this is a sensible bet. Russell has the vision, pick-and-roll aptitude, range and size to be an elite offensive player, even if he didn’t produce like one with the Lakers.
In his third season, Russell should be asked to improve his efficiency, increase his assist numbers and make a commitment to playing solid defense. He has the statistical profile of a high-usage gunner who can pass a little bit, but a fully realized version of Russell would be equally dangerous shooting, driving and playing off the ball. His partnership with Jeremy Lin will be interesting, and if it works well, then there will be some second-guessing about why Los Angeles didn’t try pairing him with Ball.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope G / Lakers
For the first 39 games of 2016-17, it looked like Caldwell-Pope had turned the corner. He averaged 14.9 points, 3.0 assists and 3.5 rebounds, making 40.4 percent of his 3-pointers and handling the ball more than he ever had before. He seemed to be in line to earn a max contract, but then he hurt his shoulder, his numbers dipped and the Pistons essentially fell apart. They decided to trade for Avery Bradley instead of retaining him, which allowed the Lakers to rent him on a one-year, $18 million deal. They have to hope Caldwell-Pope will build on what he showed in the first half of last season, especially because he fits so well next to Ball and Ingram.
The problem is that it’s hard to know whether or not to buy into what he did for those 39 games. Over the course of his career, he has looked like a 3-and-D wing, but he has never actually been a consistent outside shooter and his teams tend to play better defense with him on the bench. Given that Caldwell-Pope is entering another contract year, the pressure is on him to prove that he is for real. If he makes the absolute most of this, he could be seen as a Klay Thompson lite.
Marcus Smart G / Celtics
The longest-tenured Celtic — hard to believe, but it’s true — has shed about 20 pounds, and the hope is that it will make him more explosive and able to defend the quickest players in the league more effectively without getting tired. Before the weight loss, Smart’s active, dogged defense was already crucial for Boston — it was not unusual to see him guarding point guards, big wings and even the occasional power forward in the same game. Now that Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder are out of the picture, he will be even more important.
Offensively, Smart has more playmaking skills than he’s given credit for, but overall he’s not where he needs to be. In three years, he has never posted a true shooting percentage above 49.1 percent and he has a career 3-point percentage of 29.1 percent — truly terrible numbers. If he ever becomes efficient with his shot, then he should naturally make progress as a driver and a finisher. Now would be a nice time to do that, with restricted free agency coming next summer if he doesn’t sign a contract extension before the season starts.
Skal Labissiere F / Kings
How much do late-season surges matter? If you’re OK with a 25-game sample size on a bad team, then maybe Labissiere has already emerged. As soon as the Kingstraded DeMarcus Cousins, Labissiere got a chance to play. In those couple of months, he flourished, averaging 17 points and 9.5 rebounds per 36 minutes while shooting 53.7 percent. If he maintains that kind of production over a whole season while playing a consistent role, the rest of the league will look crazy for letting him slip to No. 28 in the draft last June.
While I liked the Zach Randolph signing for Sacramento, I sincerely hope he doesn’t stop Labissiere from getting the minutes and touches he deserves. For a 21-year-old, the big man is extremely polished, with a deadly midrange jumper and nice touch on the inside. The next step is shooting 3s regularly — he went 3-for-8 on them in his rookie year.
Willie Cauley-Stein C / Kings
Labissiere’s frontcourt partner also thrived in his post-Cousins world, rebounding like crazy and displaying more offensive tools than the experts projected when he came out of Kentucky a couple of years ago. It’s hard for big dudes who don’t stretch the floor these days, but Cauley-Stein has worked on his midrange jumper and he improved his free-throw shooting significantly in the second half of the season.
If Cauley-Stein proves he must be guarded away from the basket, he will be the type of center who can actually stay on the court in a playoff series, thanks to his athleticism, defensive versatility and effectiveness as a rim-runner. If he improves his efficiency on post-ups, he could be a serious, two-way weapon. Sacramento has a ton of big men, but it needs to prioritize helping him make good on his upside.