There’s nothing like the smell of anticipation prior to the start of a new season.

Every team’s record is 0-0, and every NBA player’s statistics are wiped clean in the offseason. No one knows who’s truly good and who’s truly bad in the preseason.

And most importantly, no one knows who’s going to have a breakout season.

Not everyone can be Luka Doncic in Dallas, LeBron James with the Los Angeles Lakers or Giannis Antetokounmpo and (ex-Portland Trail Blazers star) Damian Lillard for the Milwaukee Bucks. But with a little critical thinking and statistical research, we can make some pretty good guesses about players who could be on the rise.

Identifying Breakout Candidates

You know the old saying… “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity?” It’s the same thing with breakout players. To identify a candidate, you need to look for players who have shown flashes of greatness in the past and now have the opportunity to turn those glimpses into a regularity. 

Another thing to consider is the old maxim that “history always repeats itself.” As it pertains to what we’re doing here, we can look at past breakout players to see what kind of players tend to take big one-year leaps.

To do that, we’re going to look at players from last year who received NBA Most Improved Player of the Year votes (Lauri Markkanen of the Utah Jazz, Shai Gigeous-Alexander of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Jalen Brunson of the New York Knicks finished 1-2-3) and try to find players who might be able to follow in their footsteps.

Now that we have the criteria established, here are five players who could break out in 2023-24. 

1. AJ Griffin, Atlanta Hawks

  • Top Comp from Last Year: Trey Murphy III, New Orleans Pelicans
  • The Case: Murphy was a post-lottery first-round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft who didn’t leave much of an impression during his rookie season. However, during his sophomore season, he excelled when granted more minutes (13.9 MPG to 31.0 MPG) and placed next to high-level offensive talent (Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum) because of his shooting, closeout attacking, size, and ability to play read-and-react basketball. Why can’t Griffin follow this developmental path? He was a mid-first-round pick. He didn’t make an AP All-Rookie team his freshman year. He will get more minutes this year (especially after the John Collins trade). He will get to play next to Trae Young and Dejounte Murray, who averaged 20.5 PPG in his first season with Atlanta after coming over from the San Antonio Spurs. Griffin can shoot (39% from 3 last season). He can attack closeouts. He has good size (6-foot-6 with a 7-foot-0 wingspan). And he (as the son of a coach) definitely knows how to play the game the right way. 
  • Honorable Mention: Christian Braun, Denver Nuggets

2. Mark Williams, Charlotte Hornets

  • Top Comp from Last Year: Nic Claxton, Brooklyn Nets
  • The Case: Heading into last season, Claxton was a raw big man with a ton of defensive talent. In 2022-23, the Nets surrounded this titan with good defensive personnel, and Claxton transformed into one of the best defenders in the league. He finished 2022-23 tied for fifth in our defensive DRIP rankings (minimum 500 minutes played).
Defensive DRIP leaders
  • If we had to pick out this year’s Claxton, it would have to be Williams. The power forward/center is an athletic marvel who’s already shown the aptitude to be an anchor. Last season, the Hornets gave up minus-5.5 fewer points per 100 when Williams was on the floor compared to when he was off of it (remember, with defense, the lower the number, the better). Now, he’s coming into the year with a healthy team and a coach (Steve Clifford) who has gotten organizational-wide buy in on the defensive side of the floor. As a team, the Hornets were seventh in defensive rating after the All-Star break. On top of all that, Williams will (hopefully) get to spend more time catching lobs thrown by the venerable LaMelo Ball. 
  • Honorable Mention: Onyeka Okongwu, Atlanta Hawks

3. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons

  • Top Comp from Last Year: Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana Pacers
  • The Case: Every year, we see a young on-ball offensive guard/wing ascend to All-Stardom. Last year, it was the former Kings guard Haliburton. The year before that, it was Darius Garland. And the year before that, it was Zach LaVine. This year, it could very well be Cunningham. People forget this because last season was almost completely lost to injury (he only played 12 games). But Cunningham was once the unquestionable No. 1 overall pick in a draft that included the likes of Evan Mobley (Cavs), Scottie Barnes (Raptors) and Franz Wagner (Magic). The playmaking point guard has averaged 17.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 1.2 steals through the first 76 games of his career and has a brand-new head coach in Monty Williams – one who has a history of helping groom young talent (i.e., Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges from his Phoenix Suns days). And while it is never wise to take away too much from open gym runs, Cunningham was the standout player in some scrimmages at Team USA’s training camp. If you’re going to rely on this type of evidence, it might as well be the kind you get from Team USA events. 
  • Honorable Mention: Desmond Bane, Memphis Grizzlies

4. Patrick Williams, Chicago Bulls

  • Top Comp from Last Year: Mikal Bridges, Brooklyn Nets
  • The Case: Ever since a young Paul George transformed himself from a 3-and-D novelty to a bonafide top-10 player (at his peak), people have been obsessed with young wings/forwards who can shoot, defend and create offense for themselves. The idea is that if you give them more of an opportunity to explore studio space, they can blossom into the two-way star that all teams covet. That is what was starting to happen with Bridges last NBA season after he got traded to the Nets. Jaden McDaniels of the Minnesota Timberwolves is a good candidate to fulfill that role this year. But the logjam of young offensive talent (Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns) could hinder his individual offensive growth. Meanwhile, Williams has demonstrated similar on-ball promise (he’s a career 43.0% midrange shooter on decent volume), and he’s flanked by aging star teammates (DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic, who re-signed as a free agent). Maybe the Bulls, in an attempt to sneakily load manage their oldies, increase Williams’ usage and give the fourth-year forward his chance to shine as they hope to reach the playoffs.
  • Honorable Mention: Jaden McDaniels, Minnesota Timberwolves

5. Jordan Poole, Washington Wizards

  • Top Comp from Last Year: Lauri Markkanen, Utah Jazz
  • The Case: Before becoming Lauri Legend in Utah, Markkanen had an uneven start to his NBA career. After being selected seventh overall in the 2017 NBA Draft and immediately traded away as a part of the Jimmy Butler deal, Markkanen struggled during his time in Chicago. From there, he found some success in his lone season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but it wasn’t until his stint in Salt Lake City that he really came into his own. Although they play different positions, Poole’s situation isn’t all that different from where Markkanen was last year. His first four seasons have been chalked full of high highs (like looking like the heir apparent to the Golden State Warriors dynasty) and low lows (like being banished from the team in a trade for a 38-year-old point guard whose best days are behind him). Poole is the exact type of player we’ve been trying to pinpoint in this exercise. He’s had some incredible flashes as a pure scorer (the Warriors’ 2022 postseason run), and now he’s got all the opportunity in the world to show what he can do (the rebuilding Wizards will likely designate him with the infinite green light). And if that doesn’t sell you, keep in mind that in 43 starts last year, Poole averaged 24.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists on 57.8 true-shooting field goal percentage.
  • Honorable Mention: Jalen Green, Houston Rockets

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