As we near the NBA’s stretch run, which players will step up and put their teams in a better position than they are currently in? The Crossover staff picked breakout stars to keep an eye on as the season dwindles down.
Rohan Nadkarni: Mike Conley, Utah Jazz
Granted it was only four games, but Mike Conley put together probably his best stretch in a couple months leading up to the All-Star break. In those four contests, Conley averaged 20.3 points per game for the Jazz, as well as five rebounds and nearly five assists per night.
With Utah now firmly in its stride after a slow start to the season, and Conley looking closer to his normal self after recovering from a knee injury, I think he could certainly have a breakout stretch over the final third of the season.
Conley has always been immensely talented, and he makes too much sense on the Jazz not to be an important piece. As long as he’s healthy (and the team is helping by resting him on back to backs), he should be an incredibly valuable player. And with Utah playing so well as a team, Conley can be worked back in at his pace without the immediate pressure to perform. That all seems like a combination for sustained success.
After an injury-marred December and a shaky return in late January, the stage is set for Conley to become the player the Jazz thought he could be when they traded for him, that is, an off-ball marksman who can also very credibly reduce handling duties for Donovan Mitchell. As long as he’s methodically worked back in, I see no reason why Conley shouldn’t finally begin to thrive.
Mark Bechtel: CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers
Will CJ McCollum be the NBA’s breakout star down the stretch? I dunno. But is he set up to be? Yes.
Keep in mind that Portland is a team that advanced to the conference finals last year and might have made the Finals if Adam Silver had magically decreed that fourth quarters don’t count. They won’t be an easy out if they make the playoffs. But first they have to get there.
The Blazers are four games behind Memphis for the final playoff spot in the West, meaning they’re clearly in every-game-counts mode with just 26 games left. The Blazers get the Grizzlies twice—both at home—and the rest of the schedule is far more favorable than Memphis’. Also, the Grizz, who have won 16 of 21, are outperforming their numbers; they’ve got a Pythagorean record of 25–29, or three games worse than reality. So don’t count out a Portland rally—but the Blazers are going to have to weather the loss of Damian Lillard, who’s sidelined with a groin injury. That means McCollum will have the ball in his hands more, and there will be more of an onus on him to score.
How will they do it? The Blazers’ offense relies heavily upon pick-and-rolls with Lillard. Nobody except Trae Young runs more, and nobody in the league runs them as effectively as Lillard, who averages 1.13 points per play on them. McCollum isn’t bad (he’s at 0.90 on about half as many p-and-r’s per game). The question is, what does coach Terry Stotts do? Have McCollum play more like Lillard, or move the ball around more? The latter seems like the obvious way to go—square pegs and round holes and all—but Portland, dead last in the league in assists (by a lot), isn’t exactly stacked with great passers.
Assuming the Blazers survive the stretch that Lillard is out, they are still going to have to start guarding people to have a chance to sneak back into the playoffs. But they’re also going to need an offense that runs more efficiently; Lillard, who is having a career year, can’t do much more. McCollum, though, can.
Elizabeth Swinton: D’Angelo Russell, Minnesota Timberwolves
D’Angelo Russell has not been under the best circumstances this season. Coming off an All-Star year, he was the leading scorer on the league-worst Warriors and has also battled with injuries. Russell has put up improved numbers this season despite his situation (23.6 points, 3.7 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game on 43.1% shooting), but the point guard now finds himself in a new environment in Minnesota.
A Russell partnership with Karl-Anthony Towns can be a bright spot in an otherwise underwhelming season for the Timberwolves (16-37). The ceiling of the duo—who have been friends off the court—has yet to be seen, with the two having played just one game together and combining for 45 points in a loss to Toronto on Feb. 10. The Timberwolves likely do not have a postseason to play for, but new scenery for Russell can provide an opportunity for a breakout stretch alongside Towns with fresh motivation—and can potentially offer a winning formula for Minnesota.
Michael Shapiro: Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
Jamal Murray made strides in the 2019 playoffs, though he still remained shaky in spurts down the stretch against both San Antonio and Portland. The Canadian point guard hasn’t been perfect this season, but he’s becoming a more stable second option next to Nikola Jokic. Murray isn’t afraid to take a big shot. He shined against both the Jazz and the Lakers in February before the All-Star break. If Murray continues his strong stretch, Denver should be able to hold onto the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.
Ben Pickman: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder have been one of the league's biggest surprises prior to All-Star Weekend. While Chris Paul's resurgence as one of the league's best guards is one reason for the team's success, second-year guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has looked like a future All-Star throughout his team's first 55 games as well. Gilgeous-Alexander was the young centerpiece in the Thunder's return for Paul George and he's averaged 19.5 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game in 2019-20, up substantially from his rookie season. Oklahoma City sits just 1.5 games out of the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference and while it's unlikely it'll grab one of the conference's top four seeds, it's largely outperformed preseason expectations. If the Thunder are able to muster up a postseason push, Gilgeous-Alexander will be one central reason why.