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Seven Breakout Candidates for the 2021–22 NBA Season

Which young players could make significant progress this year? Here’s our list of rising stars to watch.
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Each year comes with the possibility of young players’ elevating their game in significant fashion. With the season tipping off in less than 24 hours, I’ve identified seven potential breakout players to watch closely as games get underway this week. Not all of these possible developments come with league-shifting implications, but I’d bet on significant progress from all of these guys.

OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors

There’s been a lot of chatter about Anunoby’s taking a major step forward as a scorer, which he backed up with strong play in four preseason games. The Raptors certainly seem excited as well, with Nick Nurse’s praising his progress as a shooter and the team’s beginning to orient its offense in Anunoby’s direction.

Known primarily as a defensive-minded wing coming out of college, the 24-year-old Anunoby has shown impressive skill progression. He took a huge step as a three-point shooter in Year 4, making 39.8% on six attempts per game. His improvement as a ballhandler and overall comfort creating shots for himself is readily evident on film, and while he wasn’t a reliable pull-up shooter last year, that arrow is clearly pointing up. If an assertive Anunoby continues to knock down jumpers with that type of confidence, Pascal Siakam’s eventual return may not affect his usage all that much.

Defensively, Anunoby is already one of the league’s more menacing wings, picking up tough assignments, covering ground and space with his length, and playing with aggression and poise. Toronto’s addition of ultra-active rookie Scottie Barnes will take some of the matchup pressure away in some situations, but Anunoby will soak up minutes against the league’s best wing scorers when it matters most. You wonder how long it will take for Nurse to deploy switchable frontcourts with Anunoby, Barnes and a healthy Siakam together. I’m fascinated by what the new-look Raptors can do this year—it won’t shock me if they wind up firmly in the running for one of the final playoff spots in the East—and Anunoby’s development is central to those efforts. He may not be a legit No. 1 option in the end, but the fact we’re even having that conversation now is pretty remarkable.

Kevin Porter Jr., Houston Rockets

You may not remember that Kevin Porter Jr. put up 50 points on 26 shots (including nine threes, and adding 11 assists) against the Bucks back in late April … but you probably should. It may have been a relatively meaningless late-season game, but not many players in the league can get an efficient 50 points on a given night in any context, period. Not that that’s going to be the norm, of course, but Porter is shifty, explosive and fully capable of making a leap.

Porter fell to the 30th pick in the 2019 draft primarily due to off-court questions—teams’ concerns weren’t assuaged after a tumultuous year at USC—but his basketball ability has never really been in question, and the rebuilding Rockets are going to put the ball in his hands every night and live with the results. He’ll have to coexist with Jalen Green, but it’s a worthwhile experiment, and the intersection of skills and presumable volume in Houston will give the 21-year-old Porter a long runway to leave his mark.

Of course, this is all assuming Porter can stay on course. He only landed with the Rockets following his effective dismissal from Cleveland, after an offseason weapons charge kept him inactive to start the season, and a January locker room incident directly led to his being traded to Houston (for a top-55-protected second-round pick, aka nothing). The Rockets sent him to the G League bubble, where he excelled, after which he averaged 16.6 points and 6.3 assists in 26 games with the big club. Porter’s ceiling remains significant: He is a creative scorer who has started to blossom as a playmaker, and if he starts to find a level of consistency on and off the floor, there is real star potential here. Houston is going to find out what it has this season, regardless, but the Rockets’ weird rebuild could be extremely intriguing, despite all the losses that are probably coming.

Darius Garland, Cleveland Cavaliers

Garland finished last season on a high note, averaging 20.5 points on 48% shooting and 7.3 assists in 15 April games, and enters his third year with room for more improvement. Amid the swirl of Collin Sexton trade rumors lies the popular concept that Garland is Cleveland’s most talented guard, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the offensive usage tilt more in his direction. He’s not the physical, aggressive scorer Sexton is, but Garland is a gifted passer and ball-screen guard who is willing to get others involved and has a much better chance of involving the Cavs’ promising bigs. There’s pressure on Cleveland to make progress, and it’s Garland who has the best chance to make that happen. He’s so difficult to defend in space, and there’s real potential in a long-term partnership with Evan Mobley.

Cleveland looks set to start Mobley and Jarrett Allen together up front — which is meaningful in that it should give the diminutive Garland-Sexton backcourt ample defensive coverage for the first time. It’s not likely Garland has much more to offer on that end of the floor, and the Cavs may be wise to stagger their guards more to try and maximize ballhandling opportunities for both, as well as fielding additional competent wing defenders for more of the game. Keep in mind the Cavs will still have to find minutes for Lauri Markkanen and (presumably) Kevin Love but still don’t have enough shooting on the roster, which may muck up the spacing.

Garland may never be a great paint finisher, but if he starts finding his way to the foul line (he shot just 2.4 free throws per game last season) and upping his physicality, it could go a long way. He is a slithery ballhandler and has started to get comfortable. Cleveland would be wise to give him more free reign and see what happens.

Robert Williams III, Boston Celtics

The 24-year-old Williams got a four-year, $54 million extension from Boston after staying mostly healthy last season and showing signs of progress as the year went on. His nine-block game against the Nets in the Celtics’ playoff opener certainly turned heads, and he’s expected to be the full-time starter moving forward.

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While he’s yet to log more than 20 minutes per game in any of his three seasons, Williams did average a double double per 36 minutes in each campaign, and it’s obvious that the productivity should be there as long as he can earn the playing time. He is exceptionally gifted physically and always has been an underrated passer, slipping from a projected late-lottery selection to 27th in the 2018 draft primarily due to concerns over his work ethic and off-court habits. Ability hasn’t been the issue, but he’s missed time with injuries and hasn’t always been the best option at the end of games.

If Williams stays healthy and on course, the upside is pretty significant here, even as a center who rarely offers up a jump shot. He’s a 72% career shooter from the field, living off dunks and putbacks, with the type of length and quickness off the floor that’s hard to match. While I wouldn’t expect him to go full Clint Capela this year, that’s certainly the blueprint, and it’s at least worth noting that Capela took his big leap to double-double production in Year 4, as well.

The Celtics brought in Al Horford and Enes Kanter to soak up bench minutes, and Williams still has to prove he can close games defensively and limit mental mistakes over long stretches. But his ability is obvious, the opportunity is going to be there and the Celtics should be able to space the floor around him adequately. It would help him out if Boston had more playmaking on the roster—there’s not a true pass-first player in the rotation—but Williams can certainly thrive in spite of that.

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Jordan Poole, Golden State Warriors

We’re still not sure exactly when Klay Thompson will be back; we do know the Warriors need to make the playoffs, and that the interim shooting guard job belongs to the 22-year-old Poole. There’s an opportunity for him to seize major minutes coming off a sophomore season when he flashed serious signs of turning the corner amid a collectively disappointing year for Golden State.

Poole was not very good as a rookie, causing some around the league to write him off entirely. But it’s past time to reevaluate the circumstances here—he was excellent in last season’s G League bubble, and over six scattered regular-season games in which he played 30 minutes or more (small sample-size alert, yes), Poole averaged 23 points on 50% shooting. He’s taking the game more seriously, he’s improved his ball skills and his confidence now falls more commensurate with his capabilities.

Poole’s growth is a crucial development for the Warriors, who threw a ton of offseason darts in search of perimeter help, drafting Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga and signing Otto Porter and the ancient Andre Iguodala to help soak up minutes at the two, three and four spots. It’s not clear how much any of those four should be relied upon, nor what level of immediate effectiveness we should expect from Thompson in his eventual return.

Poole should be able to bite off as much as he can chew playing off Steph Curry and Draymond Green, and he’s capable of shooting closer to 40% than 35% from distance if he settles down a bit on the shot-selection front. Whether he’s the starter when Thompson is back isn’t really the point: If Poole proves worthy of 25-plus minutes per game, that’s a step in the right direction for Golden State. Having seen him improve over the past 18 months, all of it feels pretty realistic.

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Daniel Gafford, Washington Wizards

Gafford looked like the answer to the Wizards’ big-man problem after Washington acquired him from Chicago midseason, and he enters the fall as the team’s starter up front, ahead of Montrezl Harrell. There’s a real opportunity for the third-year center to grab hold of the job before Thomas Bryant returns from an ACL injury (the Wizards expect him back in December). Gafford was a late-blooming prospect but stood out in his sophomore year at Arkansas, and still slipped to No. 38 in the 2019 draft, coming off the board after fellow toolsy bigs Mfiondu Kabengele, Nic Claxton and Bruno Fernando. He’s on track to be the best player out of that group: He plays hard, he competes defensively and he’s been extremely effective cleaning up offensively in the paint. In his 23-game stint with the Wizards, he averaged 20.6 points, 11.3 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per -36 minutes while shooting 68% from the field.

Russell Westbrook is gone, so there will be extra rebounds to go around in Washington. Harrell will push him for time, but if Gafford plays 30ish minutes a night early in the season, it’s easy to see double doubles on the horizon. He’s never going to be the most expansively skilled big—don’t expect him to start launching threes or playmaking for teammates—but he does have a clear understanding of what he needs to be moving forward, which tends to be a marker of success when it comes to nonshooting centers. Gafford is better defensively than Bryant and Harrell and just turned 23. He should be part of the solution for the Wizards, and his sheer productivity bodes well.

Keldon Johnson, San Antonio Spurs

Johnson grabbed hold of a full-time starting role with the Spurs last season and has clearly become a major piece of their future, with his summer stint as a bench player for Gregg Popovich at the Olympics affirming his promising trajectory. With DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay now elsewhere and San Antonio focused on accelerating the growth of its younger players, there should be way more than 10 shots per game headed Johnson’s way.

Known to this point for his nonstop motor and ability to get downhill, Johnson is also a skilled midrange scorer, which should continue to manifest as he gets comfortable and should eventually translate more consistently from three-point range (he’s not quite there yet, but at least he’s shooting them). Look for him to expand his arsenal moving forward—the Spurs will certainly encourage it. Johnson has proven capable of imposing himself on defenders with physicality and strength while also employing nimble footwork. It’s not hard to see him upping the scoring totals significantly without a huge drop in efficiency.

The real question with him is how much of a passer he can be, as he’s never seen the floor especially well dating back to high school. It’s not that Johnson is a selfish player, but he’s not quite a traditional Spurs forward who can improvise with the pass under pressure. Whether the Popovich magic will help him work that into his game remains to be seen, but Johnson just turned 22, and the thought of him continuing to adapt in San Antonio’s system is pretty intriguing. Dejounte Murray and Derrick White tend to get more of the attention, but it’s Johnson who may be the most promising long-term piece of the three.

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