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Five NBA Breakout Candidates to Watch

Can Jayson Tatum sharpen his game and take it to the next level? Will Jonathan Issac take the necessary strides to become a star? Here are five breakout candidates for the 2019-20 NBA season.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

NBA prediction season means anyone with a Twitter handle can get in the mix and offer their opinion, so why not take a crack at the most finicky of the bunch–Most Improved Player. Pascal Siakam is both last year’s winner and a case study in why MIP is a tough crystal ball to gaze into. He was deployed almost exclusively from the bench in 2017-18, flew under the scouts’ radar in our 2018-19 season preview and surprised everyone by starting 79 of 80 games and taking large statistical leaps in points, rebounds, assists, threes, etc. He did it by seizing a starting frontcourt role he never relinquished, one made available by injuries to OG Anunoby, the departure of Jakob Poeltl and the decline of Jonas Valanciunas.

So, what are the criteria here? With Siakam in mind, I followed his blueprint for winning the MIP and selected young players with room to grow and something to prove sliding into bigger roles for competitive franchises. Bam Adebayo and Marvin Bagley III are established bench contributors stepping into starting roles on teams with outside shots at the postseason. Jayson Tatum and Jonathan Isaac are promising youngsters with starting experience whose teams will need an uptick in productivity to build upon last season’s playoff runs. And Dejounte Murray is looking to restart a promising career after missing all of last season with an ACL tear.

Let’s explore each of these players’ initial cases for MIP consideration below.

Bam Adebayo – Miami Heat

The 6’10”, 255- pound center enters his third year with the expectation that he will slide into a full-time starting role for the first time. The Heat finally jettisoned resident malcontent Hassan Whiteside in the offseason (much to Bam’s delight), the main obstacle that stood between Adebayo and more minutes last season. An athletic specimen with enough skill and strength to be effective in the frontcourt despite his smaller stature, Adebayo posted 8.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 23.3 minutes per game last year. Those numbers should rise as his minutes do, and Adebayo might average a double-double on the season if he continues his upward trend. 

The Heat front office dubbed him untouchable in trade talks, offseason arrival Jimmy Butler called him the heart of the team and it’s clear Adebayo has made a strong positive impression on the rest of the league in just two years. His lack of a three-point shot (3-of-15 last season) and the inches he gives up to most other centers may handcuff him as a five in the modern NBA, but his physical gifts are undeniable. If Adebayo can supplement those with any sort of shooting beyond the elbow, it should be enough to compensate for his vertical disadvantages and enter his name into the MIP conversation this season.

Jonathan Isaac – Orlando Magic

Isaac enters his third year looking to build on a solid first full NBA season after an ankle injury marred his rookie campaign. He started 64 of his 75 games in 2018-19, averaging 9.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 26.6 minutes per night. Isaac made his biggest strides on the defensive end in 2018-19, learning to use his lanky frame to switch cleanly and defend both the perimeter and paint effectively. However, he will need to make strides offensively to become an MIP candidate. A solid foundation is already in place; Isaac hit 51% of his shots from inside the arc and 80.6% from the stripe last season but canned just 32.3% of his threes. 

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Though Nikola Vucevic is still the Magic’s best player and anchor down low, Isaac and Aaron Gordon should benefit from the attention opposing defenses will pay to their All-Star teammate and continue developing chemistry that should benefit Isaac’s scoring output. With a playoff run to build off and a roster full of young talent back in the fold for another season, Isaac should make a solid push for the MIP award if he can take the necessary strides on the offensive end.

Jayson Tatum – Boston Celtics

2018-19 was a strange season for Jayson Tatum. He improved on his impressive offensive output as a rookie and logged 15.7 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 31.1 minutes per night las year. But his two-point, three-point and true shooting percentages all dipped, his defensive rating worsened and his value over replacement player rating (VORP) dropped by a full point. However, a busy offseason for the Celtics provides Tatum an opportunity to hit the reset button. With the departure of Al Horford looming large as the Celtics begin the season without a strong defender at the center position, Tatum will likely be asked to step in and help contain opponents’ frontcourt talent while potentially playing the three, four or five depending on Brad Stevens’ needs. 

Tatum also appears to be a prime candidate to help replace some of Horford’s 13.6 points per game on the other end, and he and Kemba Walker got a head start on building chemistry this summer that should pay dividends immediately, especially in the pick-and-roll. If Tatum can tidy up his shot selection and defense for a reshaped Celtics roster that will look to him as one of their leaders on both ends, he will be in position to blossom into the superstar (and MIP candidate) NBA GMs believe he can become.

Dejounte Murray – San Antonio Spurs

After spending all of last year rehabbing a torn ACL suffered in the preseason, Murray returns for his third NBA campaign. Prior to the knee injury, Murray turned in a solid 2017-18 season, logging 8.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.9 assists while playing 21.5 minutes a night. He started about half of San Antonio’s games, establishing himself as a tenacious perimeter defender and finishing second on the team to Kawhi Leonard in defensive rating at 101. That’s impressive for a second-year guy playing under the harsh gaze of Pop, but Murray must improve his shot to stand any chance of entering the MIP conversation. He hit just 45.4% from two and 26.5 percent from three (on 34 attempts) in 2017-18, but appears to have worked on his form while rehabbing last year. 

Regardless, the Spurs deep stable of guards that includes Derrick White, Paddy Mills, Bryn Forbes and Lonnie Walker should take some pressure off Murray to contribute right away and allow him to gradually find his groove. If he can find consistency from range, continue distributing effectively to LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, and lock down the starting point guard spot, Murray should enjoy the breakout season he missed out on last year.

Marvin Bagley III – Sacramento Kings

Though his highlight reel may have been a bit shorter than some of his fellow 2018 lottery picks’, Bagley made the All-Rookie team and contributed 14.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.0 assists on 25.3 minutes a night off the bench. Similar to Adebayo’s situation in Miami, Bagley will benefit from the departure of last year’s first-string center in Willy Cauley-Stein and move into a starting frontcourt role. Bagley has the potential to average a double-double on the season with his expected uptick in minutes, especially since he proved to be an excellent fit in the Kings’ up-tempo system that should continue under Luke Walton. 

However, that all hinges on Bagley handling opposing fours and fives on the defensive end, where he demonstrated a tendency to get bullied off his spot by larger bigs. Bagley will also be expected to step out to the perimeter and knock down more shots, as he only hit 31.3 percent of his triples last season. Walton already stated he wants his team taking at least 35 three-pointers per game, so opportunities for clean looks will be available as defenses sag off Bagley to keep the Kings’ bevy of more lethal shooters covered. Though Bagley may have a bit further to go than the other players on this list, better shooting from range and defensive improvements inside can catapult him directly into the MIP conversation.