Breakthroughs and Bouncebacks

The coming season, as always, will have its share of surprises, disappointments, and delights. Today, we’re focusing on the latter.

I wanted to look at players that I think will have big seasons and show meaningful improvement. To make it harder on myself and more interesting for you all, I avoided second-year players, like Cade Cunningham, or guys who missed the entirety of last year with injury, like Kawhi and Zion.

I’m curious to know who you all think will breakout or breakthrough this year; let me know in the comments or on Twitter @bballispoetry.

Breakthroughs

RJ Barrett

Barrett is one of the most interesting players in the league. Ask ten front office personnel what they think his ceiling and ideal role are, and you’ll get ten different answers. A top-ranked high school recruit who played with (and was overshadowed by) Zion Williamson at Duke, Barrett has shown lightbulb flashes of greatness amidst long bouts of cave-dark inconsistency.

Playing with a steady point guard (the newly-signed Jalen Brunson) for the first time in his career could unlock his potential. Barrett had a strange 2021-2022 season that saw his distance shooting plummet after a promising sophomore campaign. RJ dropped from a strong 44% on corner threes in 2020-2021 to an anemic 31% last season, while his midrange game abandoned him entirely (he shot significantly worse on midranges than his much-maligned fellow forward, Julius Randle, or even the beleaguered Russell Westbrook).

But, as always, RJ showed too much promise to get down on him entirely. Barrett shifted his shot diet halfway through the season, eschewing corner threes to put his head down and doggedly attack the hoop. After Jan 15th, a massive 44% of his shots were at the rim, and he averaged over eight free throws per game in the second half of the season.

He also showed reasonable accuracy on all-important non-corner threes. These separate primary scorers from secondary options, stars from role players, and it’s encouraging to see Barrett consistently hitting around league-average rates.

Star players don’t really need corner threes, anyway. If Barrett can improve his finishing at the rim and maintain his touch from above-the-break threes, a top-15 scorer is hiding in that 6’7”, rhino-strong frame. With Brunson steadying the offense and springing StaRJ open for the best looks of his career, he’s a good candidate for a big season next year.

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Precious Achiuwa

Precious is wild. It’s impossible to predict what will happen when he touches the ball. Will he immediately dribble off of his knee? Drain a contested three-pointer? Break up a two-on-one with a clever feint-and-recover? Miss a wide-open layup? It’s always an exhilarating gamble, as long as you’re not betting on (or against) Toronto:

Synergy Sports breaks every play down into one of ten categories to describe what the player did, like “isolation” or “cut” or “pick-and-roll roller.” Precious, almost impossibly, is below the 40th percentile in every category. Basically, he wasn’t much good at anything. His eyes are bigger than his skill level, and for a bouncy big guy, he can’t finish around the rim at all. His passes are often off the mark, he makes suboptimal decisions, and he never seems to quite be in the right spot.

So why do I think he could be a breakout candidate this season? Well, for one, he was killing it on defense by the year’s end. On a Raptors team without any traditional centers, he frequently was the guy guarding the Joel Embiids and Giannis Anteotkounmpos of the world, and he did a pretty darn good job, rating out as an elite interior defender.

That same Synergy sports put him above the 59th percentile defending every play type except one (pick-and-roll ballhandler, not something he had to do too often). Precious doesn’t foul as much as you’d expect, given his wildness on offense. He utilizes a quick second jump and strong hands to deter opponents at the rim, where he held opponents to 54.7% shooting within 6 feet of the basket, almost nine percentage points lower than expected.

Offensively, all Achiuwa’s bad parts somehow still intrigue. He has a better handle than most big men (which, up until now, he’s mostly used to dribble himself into trouble). He shot 36% from three last season and got better as the year went on (it’s more about which threes he’s taking than his inherent ability). And he has an endless motor, the kind of guy who seems like he’ll keep putting in the work in the offseason to get better. Precious became noticeably better as the season ran its course, and he should benefit from working with the same coaching staff for an entire offseason.

Achiuwa’s defense and size alone guarantee him a playing time floor of ~20 minutes per game. Finishing and decision-making, his two biggest weaknesses, are both things that young players can easily improve. We’ll see if his offense can level up and get him to the 28-30 minute range.

Nassir Little

This one could be tricky. Little showed signs of breaking out in his injury-abbreviated third season, in which he averaged nearly ten points on reasonable efficiency. The problem is that the Trail Blazers now have a whole boatload of players roughly Little’s size and shape in what’s become a crowded rotation (rookies Shaedon Sharpe and Jabari Walker, Josh Hart, Justise Winslow, Greg Brown, Jerami Grant, etc.).

So why am I still high on Little? Nobody else brings the combination of offense and defense to this team that Nassir can when he’s at his best. He can credibly guard shooting guards, small forwards, and power forwards, and Synergy Sports pegs him as an above-average defender at any spot. At 6’6” on a good day, he’s a little shorter than you’d like, but he’s 220 pounds of muscle with an endless 7’1” wingspan, which allows him to dance along the positional spectrum at will.

Little’s three-point shot is better in theory than in practice, as he only shot 33% from deep last season, but he has solid midrange ability and can create his own shot in a pinch. He’s also an above-average finisher at the rim, either in transition or off the bounce.

Nassir’s biggest problem has always been his health, which has betrayed him throughout his career. But he’s the rare well-rounded player on a Blazers’ roster with few, so if he can stay on the court, a breakout season seems likely.

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Bouncebacks

Bradley Beal

The man got paid, signing a fully-guaranteed deal for five years and over $250 million despite having made the All-NBA team just once in his career. His play last season was not encouraging for Wizards fans (they exist, I swear!), but there are reasons to think he can turn things around this year.

Beal averaged 30+ points per game in each of the two seasons prior to 2021-2022 on reasonable efficiency. Last year, however, he struggled to find his shot before an injury to his left (non-shooting) wrist cut his season short.

But there were glimmers of hope to be found. Beal’s three-point percentage increased every month from October to January, when he was shut down. He averaged a career-high 6.6 assists per game last season as he willingly ceded some shots (19.3 FGA per game compared to 23.0 the year prior) to facilitate for his teammates. I loved this simple play Washington ran to have an inverted inside-out attack against Charlotte’s zone defense. Power forward Kyle Kuzma brings the ball up, Beal flashes from the baseline to the middle, the defense collapses like a fading star, and Beal hits the open Daniel Gafford for an easy dunk:

Despite his struggles from deep, he finished well at the rim (67%, in the 90th percentile for combo guards) and on deep midranges (45%, an elite mark at these volumes).

Beal’s defense, to my eyes, wasn’t quite as bad as it has been at times in the past (although a lot may be circumstantial, as I detailed here). I can’t think of another player whose defensive abilities have gone up and down as much as Beal’s have over the years. Hopefully, we’re escaping the nadir, since he can save a little more energy on offense to exert on defense.

Finally, last season was the first of his career where the team did better offensively without him than it did with him (and the Wiz were much better defensively when he was on the court, so he still rated as a positive in plus/minus). With Kristaps Porzingis, Kyle Kuzma, Monte Morris, and (most likely) Deni Avdija fleshing out an underrated starting five, I think Beal is primed for a return to his typical shooting form to go with sustained levels of playmaking and defense.

James Harden

I have a big article about James Harden coming very soon, so I don’t want to spoil it too much. All I’ll say here is that he unlocks the best version of Tyrese Maxey and Joel Embiid we’ve ever seen. Leaning fully into a distributor role could pay big dividends for Harden, who seems to finally understand that his window is closing.

John Collins

Collins has been a low-key fascination of mine since his breakout role in the 2021 playoffs. He’s a big man as equally capable of splashing threes as catching an overthrown lob for a shocking slam. He rarely turns the ball over, and he’s shown he can raise his rebounding and defending in the playoffs. What’s not to love?

You’d have to ask Trae Young, as the two young guys have butted heads throughout their respective careers. Collins has agitated for a more prominent role on offense and criticized Young for ball-hoggery. He’s also been accused of drifting in some games where he becomes frustrated.

Last season was John’s worst since his rookie campaign, as he was hampered by injuries and struck by the general malaise that infected everyone on the Hawks roster. Trade rumors have dogged him for years but intensified over the offseason. It’s hard to know what uniform he’ll be wearing come October.

But I’m betting on the talent, the athleticism, and the attitude. This is a man who once dunked on MVP runner-up Joel Embiid so preposterously hard that Collins accidentally put him in a headlock and then showed up to the game the next day in a shirt with that very image on it:

See the source image

And that was in the playoffs! Collins has had two seasons of 40% shooting from outside, he averaged 10 rebounds per game a couple of years ago, and he’s an excellent free throw shooter (when he gets to the line). Defensively, I would love to see him on a different team that holds him accountable, as I think he can be an above-average defender.

Collins is an All-Star talent who still can’t rent a car. He needs to find a home where he feels wanted to truly flourish, and I’m hoping he’ll find the change of scenery he needs for a bounceback campaign.

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at basketballpoetry.com that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.

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