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Ranking the Top 10 NBA Breakout Candidates This Season

Zach Buckley

They got next.

Each NBA season spawns a new batch of breakout ballers, and the 2022-23 campaign will be no different. If anything, it might be more active than most seasons in terms of sending up-and-comers into orbit.

The list of potential breakout candidate is extensive, but we've whittled it down to a top 10 with the players subjectively ranked by the likelihood of a breakout combined with the size, scope and significance of that ascension.

10. Aleksej Pokusevski, Oklahoma City Thunder

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This is either audacious or absurd, as Aleksej Pokusevski has both a mountain of upside and a glaring lack of polish. That combination has so far manifested in a 37.6 career field-goal percentage for the 7-footer.

Clearly, that potential is prioritized here, thanks in no small part to some brief flashes of improvement last season. While the sample size is admittedly minuscule, it's hard not to get giddy about the way he handled his eight outings of 30-plus minutes, during which he averaged 13.4 points, 8.3 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks.

"If you looked at certain points of Poku's season last year, you would have been like, geez, this is rough," Thunder general manager Sam Presti told reporters. "And then there would be other nights where he'd be—by the end of the year, he's really improved."

If Pokusevski ever puts it all together, he could be special. There aren't a lot of 7-footers who are as comfortable on the perimeter as he is.

Predicting a breakout requires a certain level of boldness, since his game and frame could both use more work, but his talent and opportunity—with Chet Holmgren (foot) sidelined for the season and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (MCL sprain) already on the shelf—just might make it happen.

9. James Wiseman, Golden State Warriors

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James Wiseman, the No. 2 pick in 2020, has just 39 big-league outings under his belt so far. His rocky rookie year was prematurely ended by a meniscus tear that wound up wiping out his entire sophomore season, too.

While nothing has gone to plan so far, that could all change in a hurry. It sounds like he's finally healthy, and the time off also gave him a chance to improve his instincts and awareness, which might have been his biggest weaknesses as a freshman.

"I'm really thrilled with James' progress physically—he looks great, he feels great, the knee is fine—and then also mentally," Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters. "He's picking up concepts much quicker. It's the first time that he's had a real training camp. From Day 1 to Day 3, you can see that he's picking everything up and he's making the necessary adjustments."

Elite physical tools and raw skills had taken Wiseman this far, but if he makes the mental side a strength, then he could skyrocket toward stardom. He is a 7'0", 240-pounder who can play above the rim at both ends and potentially stretch out opposing defenses with a burgeoning jumper. If he has truly elevated during his absence, he could push for a starting spot and make the defending champs that much harder to handle.

8. Jalen Smith, Indiana Pacers

AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

Jalen Smith's February trade from the Phoenix Suns to the Indiana Pacers was more than a fresh start. It was a full-fledged transformation, morphing 2020's No. 10 pick from a draft bust to a building block almost overnight.

The same inside-out appeal that once had scouts salivating came roaring back like it never left. Before the trade, he was giving the Suns just 6.0 points (on 46 percent shooting) and 4.8 rebounds across his 13.2 minutes per night. After the deal, he started pumping in 13.4 points (53.1 percent) and 7.6 rebounds in 24.7 minutes, plus 1.4 three-pointers and 1.0 blocks.

For context, only eight players averaged 13 points, seven boards, one three and one block last season. All of them averaged at least 29 minutes per night, too.

Give Smith that kind of run—certainly possible with Indy leaning into a rebuild—and his box scores might go bananas. Across his 22 outings in the Circle City, his per-36-minutes averages landed at 19.6 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.1 threes (37.3 percent shooting) and 1.5 blocks.

7. Devin Vassell, San Antonio Spurs

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Few things are better at greasing the gears for a breakout than an expanded opportunity. That's a big reason why Devin Vassell holds down the No. 7 spot.

Times are a-changin' in the Alamo City, where the Spurs have spent the past year-plus unloading almost every win-now veteran and diving into the refreshing waters of a rebuild. This summer's trade of Dejounte Murray looms especially large, as San Antonio's former floor general handled the Association's fourth-most touches per game last season (87.5).

The Spurs will likely divvy those up by committee, and Vassell should see a huge chunk of those opportunities, particularly if Keldon Johnson needs more time than expected to deal with his dislocated shoulder. If Vassell sees enough chances, he could level up from a three-and-D ace to an offensive creator.

Granted, that's projecting quite a bit of growth, but he typically soared when he was allowed to spread his wings last season. He logged at least 30 minutes 21 times last season, averaging 14.6 points on 41.4/38.8/86.8 shooting, 5.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists (against 0.9 turnovers) and 1.2 steals in those contests.

6. Anfernee Simons, Portland Trail Blazers

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Some might argue Anfernee Simons broke out last season when he set a slew of personal-bests, including 17.3 points, 3.9 assists and 3.1 three-pointers. I'd argue that notion sells his ceiling short.

He is 23 years old. He has made 35 starts at the NBA level, 30 of which came last season. To think we've seen anything near his peak is ridiculous, and he'd be the first to tell you.

"I want to be an All-Star," Simons told reporters at media day. "That's one of my personal goals."

Simons has the electrifying talent to make that happen. He's a former Slam Dunk Contest champ who's also a 39.2 percent career three-point shooter (41.3 percent over the past two seasons). He's also looking at increased opportunities as CJ McCollum's replacement and potentially even more efficient shooting lines now that he'll be able to play off of a healthy Damian Lillard.

5. Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets

AP Photo/David Zalubowski

It might feel like we have a good grasp on the type of player Michael Porter Jr. is at this point, since he's been in the league four seasons now and was firmly on the NBA radar before that. And yet, he has basically played a season-and-a-half (125 games, 71 starts) because of injuries.

We haven't seen his finalized version or probably anything even close to it. Sure, he averaged 19.0 points and 7.3 rebounds in 2020-21, but that might be small potatoes compared to what he posts going forward. He's a 6'10", three-level scorer, which sounds like (and often is) an unguardable combination—so long as he's healthy.

"I'm here now, and I don't have any limitations," Porter told reporters at media day. "I'm excited."

Nuggets fans should be thrilled, too. Heck, hoop heads all over should be ecstatic to see what Porter can do. He's an effortlessly smooth scorer who shot better than 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from three in each of his first two seasons. Oh, and he shares the floor with a pair of top-shelf playmakers in Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray, who can both pull attention away from Porter and feed him in his sweet spots.

Porter has long flashed star potential, but this campaign could showcase his actual ascension.

4. Lauri Markkanen, Utah Jazz

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The Jazz are in the market for a new franchise face after sending out both Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell in blockbuster swaps this summer. Positioning Lauri Markkanen as a potential replacement might sound like wishful thinking, but maybe not if you watched him at EuroBasket, where his 27.9 points per game ranked second to only Giannis Antetokounmpo.

"I kind of showed myself that I can do multiple things on the floor on both ends, and so it kind of built my confidence back up, and so I feel ready to go for the year," he told reporters. "... I feel confident, and I think that showed the way I could play basketball."

Markkanen, the No. 7 pick in 2017, has the size-skill combo to support a huge climb up the hoops hierarchy, but that spike hasn't happened yet. The Chicago Bulls minimized his role the longer they had him, and the Cleveland Cavaliers forced him out of position as a 7'0", 240-pound small forward who played a complementary role.

Everything could be different in Salt Lake City, though, where he could have a chance to feast all-you-can-eat style on offensive chances. In his second season, he put up 18.7 points and 9.0 rebounds per night. He could dwarf those numbers if he beats out Collin Sexton for the chance to play focal point for the overhauled Jazz.

3. Jalen Green, Houston Rockets

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How many people spent last season's stretch run watching the rebuilding Rockets? You're easily forgiven if you did not, as Houston's 5-26 finish was a tank-tastic display of mostly bad basketball.

If you diverted your attention, though, you might have missed the spectacular switch-flip by Jalen Green. After a mess of missed shots and brutal decisions earlier in the season, he apparently spent his All-Star break sprinting up floors toward his sky-high ceiling:

Green captured the final Western Conference Rookie of the Month award last season while scoring 30-plus points in five consecutive games and erupting for 41 points on 53.8 percent shooting in the finale. He scored at least 25 points in 11 different outings, all but two of which came in March and April.

As delectable as that late surge was, it was merely an appetizer for what comes next. While the Rockets again loaded up on young talent this offseason, this offense should continue to run through Green and provide him with ample opportunities to send his stat line into another atmosphere.

2. Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana Pacers

AP Photo/Chris Szagola

When Tyrese Haliburton was traded from the Sacramento Kings to the Pacers, it was a trajectory-changer. He intrigued for the Kings as a complementary piece and maybe something more if given an expanded role, but in the Circle City, he shined.

Across 26 contests, he averaged 17.5 points, 9.6 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.8 steals while posting a pristine 50.2/41.6/84.9 shooting slash. Only two players averaged 19 points, nine assists and four boards last season—James Harden and Dejounte Murray—and neither of them shot anywhere near 50 percent from the field or 40 percent from range.

Could that stretch have been Haliburton's breakout? It's possible, but 26 games (31.7 percent of a full season) isn't exactly enough time to solidify a star. Plus, why wouldn't he be better now that he'll have a full training camp to grow in his role and gain a better understanding of his teammates and system?

Sacramento put him in an awkward spot, sharing a backcourt with De'Aaron Fox and later seeing that guard group get further crowded by the addition of Davion Mitchell. In Indiana, Haliburton sits front and center of the Pacers' rebuild, and the clarity of his standing within the organization should yield even bigger numbers.

1. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons

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Last season, Cade Cunningham emerged from the All-Star break at a sprint. He entered the intermission as a solid player and came out of it as borderline spectacular, spiking his output in points (15.7 to 21.1), assists (5.2 to 6.5) and field-goal shooting (39.4 to 45.7).

So, did last year's top pick rest on his laurels after such an eye-opening stretch run? Not. At. All. Instead, the playmaker bulked up his 6'6" frame with an extra 20 pounds of muscle to better hold up over the course of an 82-game marathon.

"Having a stronger body ... it's a lot harder to get hurt," Cunningham said, per The Athletic's James L. Edwards III. "I think I'll be able to take more bumps and handle the physicality of the NBA. I'll be a lot more prepared for it this year."

If the added weight does nothing else, it could help keep Cunningham on the court (he missed 18 games last season) and fresher for longer. His field-goal shooting (42.5 to 40.4) and three-point accuracy (32.0 to 30.8) both dipped after halftime last season.

His distribution could perk up, too, given the offseason investments made by Detroit's front office. The Pistons built around Cunningham, adding two lottery picks in Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren before swinging a trade for veteran scoring forward and sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanović.

Statistics used courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com.

Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.


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