Lauri Markkanen, Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson took the NBA world by storm last season.
Putting together career years, all three guys turned heads and were among the top vote-getters for the NBA’s Most Improved Player (or I guess the George Mikan Trophy, as the league is trying to get us to call it).
Picking breakout candidates is similar to throwing darts blindfolded after a case of Michelob Ultra, but nevertheless, it’s a fun exercise and gives a chance to highlight the rising stars of the league. Some of these will be wrong. Maybe one will be right. Here are the five breakout candidates for the 2023-24 NBA season, either as players transitioning into stars, good starters or impactful role players in the league.
1. Jalen Green, Houston Rockets
While former No. 2 overall picks in their third seasons don’t typically fall into the category of breakout stars, Green makes the exception to that rule.
His first two years in Houston, despite strong scoring totals, haven’t exactly looked like a future all-star, even if there have been flashes of an elite two-guard.
Still, it’s fair to label Green’s first two seasons in the league as somewhat of a disappointment.
Last season, he was bottom five in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage for players who took 15 or more shots per game.
He only outpaced Terry Rozier, Paolo Banchero, RJ Barrett and Kelly Oubre Jr. Things were bad enough in Houston that wholesale changes were made this offseason, bringing in head coach Ime Udoka and a massive spending spree on veterans Fred VanVleet, Dillon Brooks and Jock Landale.
It remains to be seen if these changes will have a positive impact, but it was clear the young core needed a massive shakeup (rookie Jabari Smith Jr. also had a slow start to his rookie season, but came on strong toward the end and starred in summer league).
Despite all that negativity, players as talented as Green typically have a way of working out. He’s an elite athlete, has the potential of an elite shot maker and can get to the basket at will. You can still see the improvement in his game from year one to year two, including a scoring uptick and improved playmaking and efficiency metrics last season. Even if it just meant that at best he’s a net-neutral player at this point in his career, it’s a progression for the young star.
The important thing for Green stockholders is to remember that growth isn’t always linear.
The breakout of young stars like Luka Doncic and Trae Young has put somewhat unfair expectations on players like Green, who take a little longer to figure it out. The time is ticking on his chance to prove himself though, as he enters year three on a five-year rookie deal. The great Kobe Bryant struggled his first two years in the league (very similar to Green in efficiency), before a strong third season showed his true potential.
Not to say Green is close to becoming the Bean, but he still has the talent to be an all-star this season. With several new faces in the locker room, Houston is giving him the tools to accomplish that.
2. Trey Murphy III, New Orleans Pelicans
Murphy has become just about everyone’s pick for a breakout season, but it’s easy to see why.
The 6-foot-9 wing for the New Orleans Pelicans has all the intangibles to be a star in the NBA. He had a huge bump his sophomore season, jumping up nine points per game (14.5 ppg in year two) on 48/40/90 shooting splits. That is rare air and bordering on greatness.
While it’s hard to tell if Murphy III will actually be a 50/40/90 player in the future as his volume increases (just 10 field goals per game), he’s got the qualities to do it. He’s built like a player from NBA 2K, with a long frame, elite vertical leap and the jump shot to pair with it. He finishes through contact and has the makings of an elite scorer at all three levels.
Murphy III still isn’t a finished product. His ball handling still needs work in tight spaces, and he’s still very much a floor spacing, catch-and-shoot option over a shot creator. 82 percent of his field goals were assisted, while he took just 34 midrange shots and converted 10 of them. Those are both areas he will have to continue to show improvement on to become an all-star caliber player.
The last thing Murphy III needs is the opportunity to realize his insane potential. CJ McCollum, Brandon Ingram and Zion Williams are locked in the starting lineup, plus defensive stalwart Herbert Jones is in the mix, meaning wing minutes aren’t exactly plentiful for New Orleans.
3. Josh Green, Dallas Mavericks
Straying away from third-year breakout stars, Green could be the reverse option of what happened to Markkanen and Brunson last season. Now with Reggie Bullock out of the mix (and the potential of Tim Hardaway Jr. still being traded a possibility), Green has a chance in a contract year to get himself paid.
Growth isn’t always linear, and Green is the embodiment of that belief. He’s gotten incrementally better each of his first three seasons, proving to be a valued rotation player last season for the first time in his career. Dallas doubled down on that belief this offseason, sending Bullock to San Antonio in the trade that got them Grant Williams, their new starting power forward. A wing duo of Green and Williams looks small in stature, but both have played bigger than their listed heights before, and both have proven to be great corner 3-point shooters. Green shot 39 percent on corner 3-pointers last season, including an impressive 47 percent mark on left corner 3-point attempts.
Green also thrives in transition, where he did most of his work. He’s great at finishing on the break above the rim, and also making passes when caught against a bigger defensive player.
These qualities will be better utilized with a full season of Kyrie Irving, as Dallas has notoriously been one of the slowest-paced teams in the league.
The Mavericks have been clamoring for an athletic wing to handle starting capabilities, and Green has his chance to prove himself as that guy. The team needs him to shoot with more confidence (just 6.4 field goal attempts last season) and continue to make them at a high level.
Green has a lot of money riding on this season, and Dallas has a desire to get back into the playoffs. It should be a win-win scenario for the two sides.
4. Vlatko Cancar, Denver Nuggets
The world champion Denver Nuggets lost two major bench players Jeff Green and Bruce Brown. With limited financial flexibility, they brought back veteran players DeAndre Jordan and Reggie Jackson, but are betting mostly on internal development to round out their rotation.
Filling the void will be some combination of younger players Zeke Nnaji, Vlatko Cancar, Peyton Watson and rookies Julian Strawther and Hunter Tyson. For now, my money is on Cancar, who showed flashes of productivity in meaningful minutes last season.
Cancar thrives in the offensive end as a cutter and floor spacer, scoring nearly 70 percent at the rim and 44 percent on corner 3-pointers. Luckily for him, playing with two-time MVP Nikola Jokic can give you plenty of opportunities to do those things.
By the playoffs, Denver was largely sticking to an eight-man rotation with Green, Brown and rookie Christian Braun off the bench. For the most part, it worked, as the team’s bench was +0.7 for the postseason, and had positive production even when their superstar sat.
Which makes the idea of internal development so tricky. Denver is betting on culture to win out, but after finally finding a bench that could be reliable, it’s a big risk to ask several players to thrive in bigger roles. Cancar has the offensive talent to thrive in Denver, and the athleticism to be a good enough defensive player in the league in a Jeff Green-like role.
5. Tyus Jones, Washington Wizards
Long considered one of the best backup point guards in the NBA, Jones is going to get his chance to start. As part of the trade that sent Marcus Smart to Memphis, Jones ends up in Washington next to newly acquired backcourt partner Jordan Poole.
To be clear, Washington will not be a very competitive basketball team, but Poole and Jones both have an opportunity to prove themselves in bigger roles next season.
The question for Jones is can his ultra-efficient play translate into starting point guard minutes and situations? He’s been one of the most positively impactful bench players in the league for several years, including a 122 offensive rating last season. He’s a great jump shooter, and is able to drive and kick at a high level as well.
Jones has thrived off very few mistakes throughout his career, averaging 5.2 assists to just 0.9 turnovers a year ago. If Jones can continue to be that guy, he’ll find himself a starting point guard role for a very long time in the NBA.