Top 9 Breakout Candidates for the 2017-18 NBA Season

Left to right: Buddy Hield, Jusuf Nurkic, Justise Winslow 

Left to right: Buddy Hield, Jusuf Nurkic, Justise Winslow 

By: Landon Kapusianyk

Last year, we saw a handful of NBA players “break out” by raising their games to a new level. Some were more expected to break out like Karl Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis - but some dark horses surprised us like Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo as well. That's what makes the sport fun!

The following list contains both my expected and surprise breakout players to watch for in 2017-18:

Justise Winslow – Miami Heat, G/F

The 2015 10th overall selection was hampered with injuries most of last year. Despite battling various ailments, Winslow suited up for almost twenty games and was a starter for most of them. The Heat missing out on the Gordon Hayward sweepstakes will prove to be a big break for Winslow, as he will retain his starting position at Small Forward.

Defensively, Winslow is elite. According to NBA.com, he ranked fifth in the league in defensive wins shares, holding opponents to an amazing 43 FG% last year.

On the offensive end, Winslow is a diverse player. His ability to handle the ball makes him a versatile piece, but he needs to improve his shooting. He averaged a dismal 35 FG% and only 20% from three in 2016-2017. However, this was not an issue for Winslow during his one year at Duke or rookie season, so I expect him to add shooting to his repertoire this season.

With a full year of health and playing on a team that heated up (pun intended) during the second half of last year, I believe Winslow will start gaining some attention.

Buddy Hield – Sacramento Kings, SG

The former Oklahoma Sooner standout spent the majority of last season struggling to find his touch with New Orleans. Then a disgruntled Boogie Cousins was dealt to the Pelicans with Buddy Hield and others heading to Sacramento. With the Kings, Hield hit his stride.

Hield’s greatest strength is his 3-point shooting. With the Pelicans, he shot a respectable 36% from deep. Post trade, he caught fire and shot a ludicrous 43%. Fuego! Also a proven spot up shooter, with Sacramento he showed that he can create his own shot as well.

The Kings finally seem to be heading in the right direction, with the addition of De’Aaron Fox in this year’s draft. Fox along with Hield are both blazing fast and offensively gifted players that will compliment each other for years to come.

Taking into account he is mostly viewed as an offensive specialist, typically you’d expect a lack of effort on defense. However, this is not the case. He's a solid defender that can hold his own. Opponent’s field goal percentage is a solid 45% when guarded by Hield.

Aaron Gordon – Orlando Magic, PF           

Aaron Gordon – the man that got robbed in 2016 NBA slam dunk contest. So we can assume he’s always playing with a chip on his shoulder, right? Unfortunately not. Nobody really cares about the dunk contest. But believe it or not, Aaron Gordon can do more than just dunk.

Gordon is a good finisher around the hoop, works well in the pick and roll and can take his man one-on-one. Physically, Gordon is more mature than the average 21-year-old NBA player. He looks like he started lifting weights when he was eight.

With Serge Ibaka gone, Gordon will have the opportunity to play the season at his natural position Power Forward. If Gordon can develop more shooting range, he could become a valuable stretch four and valid replacement for Ibaka.

With an expanded role, watch for Gordon to improve and potentially one day make the All-Star game one day for reasons other than dunking.

Andrew Wiggins – Minnesota Timberwolves, SF

This is by far my most frustrating case. Wiggins has the tools to become one of the top players in the league. Averaging 23 points per game, some might argue that the Canadian can’t possibly breakout since he's already a borderline star. Despite being a treat to watch on Youtube (shoutout to FreeDawkins), his game is still mired by gaping holes.

His defense is arguably some of the league’s worst. Opponents shoot a higher percentage when Wiggins guards them vs. shooting wide-open. How is that even possible? He loses defenders too easily and does not contest shots to the fullest of his ability. His athletic frame suggests he would be a defensive force coming into the NBA, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Scoring has never been a problem for Maple Jordan as he can beat his defender from just about anywhere. Wiggins possesses a great post game and is a fast break nightmare, all while being a threat to slash or splash from deep. With that said, I'm still unsure if he actually makes his teammates better. His rebounding and assisting need improvement. Even team owner, Glen Taylor expressed the following: 

He can’t be paid just for what he’s doing today. He’s got to be better
— Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor

With that being said, I am convinced that this is the year things turn around. The acquisition of Jimmy Butler will take some of the defensive pressure off Wiggins, as they are similar sizes and positions. Another year of Thibs screaming in Wiggins’ ear on defense won’t hurt either. It seems like the main thing holding the 2014 rookie of the year back is a lack of effort on the defensive side. Hopefully the prospect of new contract and a motivational meeting with the T-Wolves owner will get the former first overall pick on track defensively.

Skal Labissiere – Sacramento Kings, PF/C

Going slightly off the radar, the Haitian was not a household name before last year. Sooner or later you won’t be able to leave your house without hearing the name “Skal.” Okay, that may not be true, but I do think that Labissiere will build on an intriguing rookie season.

He's long with a wingspan of 7’1, suggesting potential to be a rim protector. Labisserie has a nice stroke for a near 7-footer that he displayed beautifully in a 32 point performance against the Phoenix Suns last season. Not bad for a guy who started playing organized basketball in 2010! During a brief 17 game stint with Sacramento’s G League affiliate Reno, he averaged 15 points, close to 8 rebounds and over a block.

In his new starting role and the abundance of rebounds now available considering Demarcus Cousins’ absence, look for Labissiere to make a name for himself.

Avery Bradley – Detroit Pistons, SG

Bradley battled hip pointer injuries most of last season, and was traded to Detroit this summer so Boston could clear cap space to land Gordon Hayward. In Detroit, he should see an expanded offensive role, as they do not posses the same caliber of players that Boston does.

Bradley has always been a great defensive guard since entering the league in 2010. Offensively he has progressed every year, expanding his skill set along the way. Shooting just under 40 percent from three and capable of driving past his defender, Bradley is a problem to guard. As Adrian Wojnarowski put it:

The Pistons are getting a rising star, as Bradley is viewed as one of the best perimeter defenders in the entire league, with a blossoming offensive game to match.

Notice keywords “rising” and “blossoming”. With Kentavious Caldwell-Pope now out of the picture, the Shooting Guard position will be all Bradley’s.

Jusuf Nurkic – Portland Trailblazers, C

This one seems almost too easy to put on this list. But here we are. Nicknamed the “Bosnian Beast” or my personal favourite: “Jokic 2.0”, Nurkic was in a tragic position in Denver for most of the season, stuck behind basically an identical player in Nikola Jokic. Both are hulking Europeans with great vision for their size. Now, enough with the comparisons before I confuse myself.

Post-trade to Portland, Nurkic exploded by almost doubling his points and rebounding totals as well as increasing his assists by two per game. He single handedly turned the Blazers’ defense from being one of the worst to one of the best. According to NBA.com, when Nurkic is on the court the Blazers average a 103.7 defensive rating, good enough for fifth best. Without him, their rating drops to 111, last in the NBA. During the playoffs, Portland stood no chance to win a game against Golden State because of Nurkic’s absence.

Despite the small sample size of just 20 games with Portland, I fully expect a huge season from Nurkic.

Willy Hernangomez – New York Knicks, C

The Knicks are going to be very bad this year, again. But one bright spot could be the emergence of Willy Hernangomez. The Spanish big-man posted a nice rookie season last year that earned him NBA All-Rookie first team honours.

Hernangomez is efficient finishing around the rim, owning a 53% field goal percentage. Defensively, he needs work on guarding bigger, stronger centers, but I believe that will come as he matures.

Hernangomez should see an increased role this year as the team’s starting center over Joakim Noah. It seems likely that Carmelo Anthony will not be part of the picture, which equates to more offense for the rest of the team.

Former Spanish league teammate and best buddy, Kristaps Porzingis, could possibly hurt Hernangomez’ growth slightly since he is the future face of the franchise and plays a similar position. With that being said, they could also form a dangerous 4 and 5 duo, playing off each other’s strengths.

Brandon Ingram – Los Angeles Lakers, SF

The second overall pick of the 2016 draft had a rookie season last year that was widely viewed as a disappointment. But that was before Lonzo Ball joined the Lakers. Ball will make all players around him better with his wizardly passing abilities and Ingram will be the main benefactor.

Ingram should start now over Luol Deng, who has also been involved in some trade rumours due to his massive salary. According to basketball-reference.com, the Duke product shot 41% from 3 during his one-year there. In his rookie season that dropped by more than 10% to 29%. He also shot just 2.4 three pointers per game. Next year, I believe Ingram will be more comfortable shooting and bump up those percentages/attempts thanks to Ball finding him for open looks.

Ingram and Ball are a duo that should excite Laker fans for year to come. Expect Ingram to rebound from his anticlimactic rookie season and show why Los Angeles drafted him so high two years ago.

Honourable Mention:

D’Angelo Russell, Tyler Ulis, Myles Turner, Zach Lavine, Jaylen Brown, Norman Powell