Analyzing the Breakout Stars of the NBA Bubble

Michael Porter Jr. and Gary Trent Jr. headline a list of players that have taken their game to a new level just in time for the NBA playoffs.
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On one hand, it’s probably important not to overreact to anything that happens in the bubble, given the nature of the circumstances and how starkly different this has been from regular NBA competition. But at the same time, we’ve seen a number of young players around the league step into increased minutes and start to turn corners individually over the past couple of weeks, and in situations with postseason implications, no less. Flash in the pan or not, all we really have is the moment, and these guys are increasing their value around the league and playing their way into bigger roles, accordingly. Here’s a glance at five of the most notable bubble breakouts (apologies to T.J. Warren, but for the sake of the exercise, I limited this to players on rookie deals).

Michael Porter Jr., Nuggets

Due to injuries and a cautious overall approach heading into the playoffs, the bubble games have been something of a testing ground for the Nuggets, who have been able to hand additional minutes to their bench wings with Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton all missing time. Without question, Porter has been the primary beneficiary, with 37, 30 and 27-point performances and four double-doubles under his belt through five games and a major role in the rotation seemingly secure moving forward. Porter slipped to Denver at No. 14 in the 2018 draft as lottery teams passed due to a mixture of injury and intel-related concerns after a lost one-and-done season. But there’s never been much question among scouts about what Porter brings to the table at full strength (the answer being buckets), and he’s finally started to turn in the receipts. While still not much of a playmaker, this version of Porter looks fully capable of helping the Nuggets in the playoffs, and potentially helping them get over the top in due time.

Porter’s fit in Denver has always been strong in theory, given the emphasis on spacing around Nikola Jokic, but he‘s also started to figure out how to fit in, something he’s never been asked to do before. He’s contributed majorly as a rebounder, played more willing defense, and shown some ability as an off-ball cutter (an easier task given the number of playmakers in the Nuggets’ rotation). Porter has always been able to shoot over defenders off the dribble and make the most of tough, contested looks, but that can’t be your entire package at this level, and the apparent expansion of his game is certainly promising. How Mike Malone chooses to deploy him with a full deck will be an intriguing playoff subplot, but at this rate it’s hard to see Porter coming out of the lineup. Having seen Porter live in high school, it’s hard to say this is a total surprise, but his success always felt contingent on his health. And while it’s very early to call, many of the teams that chose to look elsewhere on draft night are probably kicking themselves in hindsight.

Gary Trent Jr., Trail Blazers

Trent’s emergence as a legit bench wing has been a massive development for the Trail Blazers, who have been without Trevor Ariza as they mount their postseason chase. There’s never been any question Trent can make threes, but he fell to the 37th pick in the 2018 draft due in part to the perception he was sort of a one-note player—Trent shot 40% on six threes per game, but averaged less than two assists per-40 minutes in his one year at Duke. Well, give Portland credit: he’s spent two years developing in their organization and has turned it on when called upon in the bubble. He’s now made 29 of 51 threes and averaged 20.6 points in his first five games before laying a bit of an egg on Sunday. This type of clip may not be totally sustainable (and he’s only shot nine free throws, pointing to his jumper-heavy diet), but it’s clear what Trent can do when his confidence is riding high, and Terry Stotts has handed him major minutes in a shorter, playoff-like rotation as a result.

The most important factor here has actually been Trent’s level of commitment to defense, which had never been his calling card at any level. If what he’s shown is any indication, it may end up turning the 21-year-old into a major commodity on his next contract. Trent has been a frequent pest with his activity and toughness and has suddenly become viable in crunch-time minutes. He’s bought in on that end right now, and if that proves to be real, it’s a massive development for Portland’s future—even with some eventual shooting regression, Trent sure looks like the type of two-way wing the Blazers have been searching for to complement Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. His all-around growth points to this being more than simply a hot-hand situation.

Miami Heat's Duncan Robinson goes to the basket as Phoenix Suns' Deandre Ayton defends

Duncan Robinson, Heat

Robinson has picked up where he left off, and the undrafted find has continued to look like one of the most dangerous three-point specialists in the NBA, even as defenses place more emphasis on slowing him down. He’s still not a stellar defender, and the Heat may not close games with him on the floor in the postseason, but he’s strung together three straight 20-point games and will play a serious part in Miami’s playoff run. The Heat have been banged up and missing Jimmy Butler, but they’ve been markedly better offensively with Robinson on the floor drawing attention from opposing wings. Whether or not he starts siphoning minutes away from Tyler Herro and Andre Iguodala when Miami has its full complement of guards remains to be seen, but he’s become a luxury for Erik Spoelstra’s rotation and someone who has to be accounted for at all times. Players who move without the ball and make shots off the catch as well as Robinson are few and far between, and he’s on track for a significant raise on his next deal.

Mikal Bridges, Suns

Despite his limited impact as a scorer, Bridges’ contributions as a defensive jack-of-all-trades have played a part in the Suns’ surprising run as one of the hottest teams in Orlando. The recipe here isn’t all that shocking—Bridges has always had elite length for his position and the know-how to capably defend the two, three and four spots. But his accelerated growth into one of the league’s better defenders has certainly been notable, The Suns handed him major minutes for the majority of the season, and as expected, there were ups and downs, but Bridges appears to have taken a big leap in terms of consistency and confidence. He’s matched up with Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic and a scalding T.J. Warren, and done a more than respectable job trying to slow them down. We may not find out exactly what Phoenix has until the league can return to play outside the bubble, but right now, what Bridges has done on an individual level—with Kelly Oubre out, no less—feels legit.

Keldon Johnson, Spurs

Several of the Spurs’ young players have left strong impressions in the bubble, but Johnson’s contributions have been the most surprising. After spending much of the season getting minutes in the G League, Johnson has been a fixture in San Antonio’s bubble rotation and looked ready to contribute moving forward, posting a career-high 20-point game against Denver and showing off an improved perimeter shot, albeit on a low number of attempts. His toughness, competitive spirit and scoring ability have started to shine through, and per usual he’s done most of his damage around the rim. But he’s stepped up defensively, and if his catch-and-shoot play is for real, he should be able to fill a valuable role for San Antonio moving forward. He’s the type of glue guy whose actual on-court value adds up to more than the sum of his skills, and after a so-so year at Kentucky, he looks to be back on track. It’s been a valuable showcase for Johnson, and he looks like the Spurs’ latest strong value at No. 29th in last year’s draft.