The NBA is often regarded as the pinnacle of basketball competition because of its pace, physicality and long schedule. Thus, there are bound to be players who need time to adjust. Once they gain more experience adjusting to the mental and physical demands of the league, young players often note that the game begins to “slow down.” Once they reach this point, players give themselves an opportunity to showcase their talents and “break out.”
Here are three players primed for a breakout 2020-21 season.
Wood was a silver lining on the mediocre Detroit Pistons squad, having one of the most surprising and strong finishes to the shortened season. Although his overall 2019-20 stats weren’t mesmerizing by any means, he averaged 13.1 points per game and 6.3 rebounds, showing plenty of ability. To put his stats into context, over the last 15 games of the season, Wood averaged 23.9 ppg on 56.1% from the field. Assuming that Wood will still be a focal point of Detroit’s offense, it would not be surprising to see him average similar numbers throughout next season. Wood also shot 38.6% from three, being one of the Pistons’ only reliable lob threats. His ability to shoot from distance while being an effective pick-and-roll threat is why Wood is an ideal player for today’s game. Furthermore, Wood’s 6’10” frame, coupled with his mobility, allows him to set great screens, to disrupt passing lanes on the defensive end and to guard all five positions. Wood is only 25 years old, and if he can keep his momentum from the end of last season, he has All-Star potential, especially in a weaker Eastern Conference.
Michael Porter Jr.
Although Porter averaged a modest 9.3 ppg and 4.7 rebounds this year, he showed plenty of promise. Although the sample size isn’t huge, Porter demonstrated that he has the potential to be an excellent floor spacer, averaging 42.2% from downtown while shooting more than 50% from the field. Despite his inconsistency on both ends of the floor, Porter showed that he is not afraid of the big moment, hitting multiple clutch shots for the Denver Nuggets throughout the playoffs. Many rookies would likely shy away from taking big shots, especially after struggling as he did, but his confidence and itchy trigger finger are especially noteworthy.
Porter’s environment can’t be overlooked either. Unlike most lottery picks, he was drafted into Denver, a very stable team that already had two rising stars, Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić. In addition to its star duo, Denver had arguably the deepest roster in the NBA this season, with a great mix of veterans and young players. Of course, there are trade-offs with a winning environment for rookies: Porter would have likely had much better numbers across the board and received more minutes on the floor had he gone to a mediocre program. On the other hand, he likely learned invaluable winning habits in Denver from veterans such as Paul Millsap. Furthermore, Porter played a critical role in getting Denver to the Western Conference finals, an experience he would not have gotten on a bottom-feeder team.
Like all rookies, Porter still needs to improve many aspects of his game, such as his ball handling, defense and court awareness, if he wants to take the next step and be Denver’s third star. He will only improve with more experience, and even in the few minutes he received this year, he showed plenty of promise, leaving basketball fans wanting more.
Assuming Chris Paul is likely out of the mix next season, Gilgeous-Alexander is primed to take up the mantle. In addition to Paul, the Oklahoma City Thunder are rumored to be looking to shop other veteran players from this past season, including Steven Adams and Dennis Schröder. Barring any other blockbuster trades, Gilgeous-Alexander will likely be given the keys to playing as the Thunder’s offense next season.
Gilgeous-Alexander made a huge statistical leap between his rookie and sophomore seasons, mainly due to more minutes and shots. Likely the primary ballhandler next season, he should see another uptick in his stats across the board. Gilgeous-Alexander has proved he is an effective scorer, averaging 19 ppg this year on 47.1% shooting from the field. Although he did not shoot very well from three, only at a 34.7% clip, history suggests NBA guards of his caliber typically tend to improve their 3-point shot with more experience.
He likely won’t see the same increase in points as he did from his rookie year to sophomore year, but the main aspect of his game that’s bound to improve is his passing. Gilgeous-Alexander only averaged 3.3 assists per game this year, but he mainly played off the ball. He also played alongside two very ball-dominant players: Paul and Schröder. More experience in these situations is the best way a player can become a better distributor, and Gilgeous-Alexander should see plenty more opportunities to do so.
Gilgeous-Alexander must also improve on the defensive end, as his defense (or lack of it) was exploited by the Houston Rockets in the playoffs this year. Fortunately for Gilgeous-Alexander, he already has an advantage over other point guards with his 6’5’’ frame and notoriously long 7-foot wingspan. His size makes him an excellent rebounder, already averaging 5.9 rebounds per game this year as a shooting guard. Although this is down the line, if he can make the jump with his passing, he has the potential to average a triple-double like former Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook.
All signs point toward Gilgeous-Alexander having a breakout year, but he must improve his 3-point shooting, passing and defense if he wants to take it to the next level.