In the arc of a basketball player’s career, there is nothing quite so pleasant and novel as the moment when it all starts to come together. The breakout is a sacred thing—an act of not just improvement, but revelation. There, in a breakout month or season or playoff series, is living proof of what a player might become. It’s the hint that James Harden might someday be a max player. It’s the atomic bomb dropped on Madison Square Garden that took Stephen Curry to another level. It’s the stretch of play that announced Nikola Jokic to the world, the string of shots that brought the advent of Dame Time, or the transformation of Paul George from helpful to vital. It’s not just stars, either. These breakouts happen every year all across the spectrum of play, sometimes with results as modest as a minimum-salary player ensuring that they can find continued work in the league.
This year saw breakouts of all kinds: from Victor Oladipo to Spencer Dinwiddie, Jayson Tatum to Fred VanVleet. What might 2019 hold? Which players might be in line for a breakout of their own, on whatever scale might matter?
De'Aaron Fox, Kings
NBA teams have the oppressive tendency to stifle their own speedy point guards in the name of structure. Dynamic athletes look as though they’ve been forced to play in their fathers’ suits, with every ounce of explosion muted by baggy sleeves and buttoned-up formalities. The best thing Sacramento has done for Fox this season is to let his game breathe. Rather than burden him with scripted action, the Kings opt for a more intuitive offense—driven by the revolutionary thought that perhaps a fast player should play fast. What was one of the slowest teams in the league last season has gone full throttle, and all of a sudden we can see Fox’s game for its electricity.
The downshifted Fox was unremarkable because he was stuck in his own head, forced to process the game at a different speed. The version we see now dashes back and forth around screens and re-screens, a dizzying creation and diversion of the play’s momentum. How can one preempt where Fox might go when he can change the direction of an entire play so effortlessly? Given any sort of rebound, Fox will sprint his way into opportunities, sometimes shifting his way through three or four defenders into dazzling layups. When that sort of player can pass, as Fox can, the game opens up to reveal its strategic depths. The nuances of every feint and stutter step become clear. And when that kind of creator can shoot, as Fox apparently (and surprisingly) can, he becomes a different sort of terror altogether.
Domantas Sabonis, Pacers
Most young players find their footing in the league based on discrete strengths: they can rack up rebounds, get buckets out of a pick-and-roll, or hit their open shots. The turn comes as a moment of clarity, in which this talented individual begins to grasp their place in the basketball universe. Passes become skip passes. Once haphazard movements are guided by intention. It’s the growing prospect that then sets the terms, rather than merely reacting to them. This juncture—the point at which a player starts to move beyond a collection of skills—is where we find Sabonis.
Sabonis is the same player he was last season, practically speaking, only with the benefit of better understanding what it is he needs to do. There are only a handful of bigs in the league better suited to catch a pass on the move and pick apart a defense from within. To an inexperienced big, the rotations and recovery from that vantage point can feel like a whirlwind. Every instinct urges them to move quickly—perhaps too quickly. For Sabonis, the choreography of those exchanges is more apparent now than ever. This is what happens when players reference the game slowing down: they no longer see this frenetic rush of defenders moving from one place to another, but where the help is coming from and how long it might take; whether a third defender has dropped down to muck up the play, and what that leaves exposed; and how a defense might react if it feels vulnerable. Sabonis isn’t just seeing the defenders in front of him, but the space between. That bit of basketball literacy makes all the difference.
John Collins, Hawks
When there are eyes on the Atlanta Hawks at all, they pull toward Trae Young—the slight, adventurous point guard more willing to launch 28-footers than any rookie in NBA history. That seems to suit Collins just fine. The more the focus stays with Young, the less likely a defense will be to track his teammate’s every move. Opponents might lose Collins as he slips to the rim, or forget to box him out when a jumper goes up. They might skim the scouting report and think of Collins as a vertical athlete, only to watch him put the ball on the floor, drive past defenders, and dunk just the same. He is the forgotten man of the 2017 draft class, a No. 19 pick already making good on his best-case scenario.
Watch Collins play and you’ll see flashes of every variety of modern big. There’s range to his jumper, even as he’s working to stabilize it. Chasing him off the line only allows Collins to slide comfortably into the lane, where he finds healthy alternatives as a matter of course. When working out of the pick-and-roll, Collins functions as a persistent lob threat; not only can he catch and finish off that initial momentum, but by waiting out the defense and lingering in the right spaces. Already Collins has shown aptitude in defending multiple positions, including the lively sort of wings and guards that make a big man’s life difficult. There’s no one quality from which a proper reputation might grow. Instead, Collins is all smooth shifts and rounded edges, revolving to fit the needs of a particular moment.