• Last season, we saw players such as Clint Capela and Victor Oladipo take their games to another level. So who's poised for a breakout year this season? The Crossover selects five candidates to make the leap.
By Michael Shapiro
August 16, 2018

With over two months before the season opener, we’re now in peak optimism season in the NBA. Teams will spend the lead-up to training camp touting their roster additions, and players will take to social media for a peek inside their workouts and offseason training. The doldrums of winter have yet to set in, and the playoffs are still in sight for every organization, even the Kings.

But not all the bluster is to be dismissed. A slimmed-down Victor Oladipo lifted Indiana out of a presumed post-Paul George rebuild last season, and the ascension of Clint Capela helped vault the Rockets' attack to the top of the NBA. One player’s offseason improvement can make all the difference for a franchise.

So who can be counted on for a breakout campaign in 2018-19? Here are our top five candidates.

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Jayson Tatum, Celtics

The plan to bring Tatum along slowly amongst Boston’s treasure chest of wings quickly evaporated on opening night when Gordon Hayward broke his left leg, ending his season before it even began. Then just 19-years-old, Tatum was immediately vaulted into the starting lineup, counted on to provide added scoring punch in Hayward’s absence. Even with the league’s top tactician in Brad Stevens, it was a tall task for a player who had yet to start his freshman season at Duke a year prior.

Tatum didn’t just provide an adequate replacement for Hayward's role. Come playoff time, he emerged as Boston’s leading scorer, going toe-to-toe with LeBron in the Eastern Conference finals. Now, he’s the Celtics’ most untradeable asset, and a candidate for All-NBA honors next season.

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Watch Tatum operate on the wing and it looks as though he’s a 10-year veteran. He sports a treasure chest of moves, providing a quality facsimile of Paul Pierce, but with a longer wingspan. Tatum has noted he molded his game after Kobe Bryant as well, and it shows. Watch Tatum spin baseline and sink a fadeaway or split a double-team off the pick-and-roll, and it’s easy to get flashbacks to the Black Mamba.

The St. Louis native is more than a high-volume scorer. He blended perfectly with Kyrie Irving when Uncle Drew carried ball-handling duties for much of last season, serving as an elite spot-up shooter. Tatum shot 43% from three last season, including an absurd 56% on corner threes. Even with an assumed regression next season, Tatum should still be lethal from beyond the arc. Danny Ainge has struck gold again, and now has a future MVP candidate on his hands.

Lauri Markkanen, Bulls

The Arizona product entered his rookie season with an already-polished jumper, drawing comparisons to Kristaps Porzingis and fellow Wildcat Channing Frye from the perimeter. A legit 7-footer, Markkanen ranked second in the Pac-12 in three-point percentage as a freshman, able to stretch the floor far beyond the arc. The NBA line would be no obstacle.

Markkanen was as good as advertised from three. He shot 37% as a rookie, serving as a vital perimeter presence alongside Chicago’s crew of spacing-deficient guards. His shooting alone would have made for a positive rookie season.

While the 21-year-old’s threes lived up to the hype, it was his prowess of the bounce that made the biggest impression. Markkanen showed a deft handle and array of canny fakes in the post, adding a mean streak to boot. The Finnisher lived up to his nickname, unafraid of contact and eager to fight for position in the post. The stereotype of the soft European big man doesn’t apply here.

Markkanen has all the tools to be a future All-Star, and it looks as though he has the mindset, too. He seemed to take his matchup with Porzingis personally in early January, demanding the ball down the stretch en route to a career-high 33 points in a road victory. The Bulls enter 2018-19 on the outside of the East playoff picture, but Chicago is now home to the NBA’s newest unicorn.

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Fred VanVleet, Raptors

If we’re judging by measurables, it’s a minor miracle that Fred VanVleet is a consistent NBA rotation player. He’s charitably listed at 6’0”, spent four years at a mid-major college before entering the draft, and isn’t exactly fleet of foot, somewhat ironic considering his last name.

But not only does VanVleet survive in Toronto, he thrives. Just two years into the league the Wichita State product has become one of the smartest guards in the NBA, a crafty floor general with an upper-echelon feel for the game. VanVleet saw a 13 minutes per game boost last season, excelling as the maestro of Toronto’s bench mob. And after averaging 15 points and six assists per 36 minutes last season, he should be in line for a starting nod in 2018-19.

Two of the NBA’s best five-man lineups included VanVleet last season, including the No. 2 unit featuring VanVleet, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. The Raptors had an offensive rating of 115 with VanVleet on the floor in 2017-18, a mark that would have led the league.

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VanVleet brought a chameleon quality to Toronto lineups, seamlessly transitioning from spot-up specialist to the Raptors’ primary dime disher. He fed Pascal Siakam for constant layups and dunks, and developed a beautiful dance with Valanciunas, attaching himself to the defender’s hip between flipping a floater or swinging the ball to an open Raptor on the perimeter. He often looked less like a sophomore and more like a 10-year vet.  

VanVleet has been an integral figure in advancing Toronto’s pace in his two seasons with the team. Toronto ranked No. 29 in the league in pace before his arrival. Last season they crept into the top half, settling at No. 13. Expect new head coach Nick Nurse to continue that trend in 2018-19.

A new era has dawned in Toronto after the jettisoning of DeMar DeRozan, and Kawhi Leonard’s impending free agency will loom in The Six throughout the season. But whether the Raptors spend the rest of the decade in title contention or in a rebuild, VanVleet is an asset they’ll want to hold close.

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Jamal Murray, Nuggets

Murray saw an uptick in every major statistical category in 2017-18, establishing himself as the future of Denver’s backcourt alongside Gary Harris. Now, Murray will enter his third NBA season with the pressures of carrying the Nuggets’ offensive load, serving as Denver’s premiere ball-handler as Nikola Jokic holds down the paint.

Questions loomed over Murray’s positional outlook coming out of Kentucky. He was viewed as a tweener, sporting more turnovers than assists in one season with John Calipari. While some assumed his ultimate NBA destiny would be as a three-point marksman, Murray became much more in year two, establishing himself as a viable point guard.

Murray developed an artful pick-and-roll with Jokic in 2017-18, specializing in sprinting to the corner or wing after dumping the ball to his center. He’s also become more adept at attacking bigs off a switch, smoothly crossing up Steven Adams and blowing by DeAndre Jordan. Murray’s improvement in year two brought him into esteemed company, ranking fifth all-time in true shooting percentage for guards 21-and-under. The players above Murray on that list? Magic Johnson, Eric Gordon, Michael Jordan and Andre Iguodala.

Murray’s jump shot has assured his place in Denver’s starting lineup for the considerable future. And if he can deliver a similar year to 2017-18 this season, Murray could be earning a significant contract extension sooner than later.

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Montrezl Harrell, Clippers

Lob City is officially dead, and while replacing Chris Paul and Blake Griffin could take up to a decade, it looks as though Los Angeles already has its DeAndre Jordan replacement in tow.

The 24-year-old Harrell assumed greater responsibility on the Clippers’ roster last season, morphing from solely an energy presence off the bench to a reliable defender and agile finisher in the pick-and-roll. Harrell often looked more active than Jordan as the season wound down in March and April, especially when defending on switches. Harrell is light on his feet with strong instincts, able to help and recover with ease. He’s nowhere near the shot blocker Jordan is, but he brings more versatility to the center spot.

The offensive skill set is still a work in progress. Don’t expect Harrell to be more than a strong screener and rim runner, but he does use his body well near the tin. Jordan has a knack for snagging tip-ins off misses, pouncing when the defense swarms a guard in the lane.

Harrell inked a two-year, $12 million deal in the offseason, and another uptick in production in 2018-19 could make him a serious bargain.