1 Aron Baynes, Boston Celtics
Aged 30, Baynes is no spring chicken compared to others in line for a breakout year. However, anyone worried about the lack of opportunities he will be given should study the Celtics’ options at the 5. Baynes is the Celtics' solitary true center, with Al Horford the only thing resembling a small-ball center. While not your usual breakout candidate, Baynes has been given a unique opportunity to put his talent on display.
After three years at the Spurs as a small-role player and two years with the Pistons playing behind Andre Drummond, Baynes has the opportunity to play a prominent role, on a contending team no less. On a Boston squad that struggled with rebounding last year, Baynes will play an important role in minimizing that deficit after general manager Danny Ainge traded away four of their top five rebounders from last season.
A defensive playmaker, Baynes will be significant at the opposite end of the court, too. That's because the defensively challenged Kyrie Irving will be playing in front of him and giving opponents ample opportunity to find the interior.
2 Nerlens Noel, Dallas Mavericks
It’s common knowledge that players perk up in a contract year. Nerlens Noel is playing his second contract year in a row after he absurdly rejected a four-year, $70 million deal, believing he could find better on the open market. That notion proved false as he ended up having to take a qualifying offer at just over four million. A defensive center, Noel is a valuable asset in spite of his failure to attract the bids he craved.
For Noel to see the payday he was hoping for, he must have a breakout year, particularly on the offensive end where he is yet to make a splash. So, with motivation in hand, can the 23-year-old make the jump? He’ll likely come off the bench when the Mavs have a fully healthy squad, with Dirk Nowitzki favored by coach Rick Carlisle. But expect Noel to see a few starts as Dallas aim to prolong Nowitzki’s already lengthy career.
Noel could also be an under-the-radar sixth man candidate, as he will earn plenty of minutes even if he doesn’t start. That will be dependent on him staying healthy, which was no small task for Noel while he was in Philadelphia. Regardless, a fresh start and unhampered run at NBA success away from the frontcourt gridlock in Philly should treat the sixth overall pick in 2013 well.
3 Clint Capela, Houston Rockets
If there was an unintended benefactor of the Chris Paul trade, it might be Clint Capela. The Rockets’ big man must be overflowing with joy given the arrival of lob city in Houston.
While Capela was effective on the offensive end and benefitted greatly from the spaced floor of the Rockets, he hasn’t yet fully developed as an athlete. He was often out-muscled by stronger centers (see his struggles against Steven Adams in the Rockets’ first-round playoff series against the Thunder), and had to play short spurts due to a lack of stamina. If his physical attributes can match his ability in the pick and roll and as the lob catcher, Capela will be in line for a career year.
With knockdown shooters and classy ball handlers around him, the Houston still have the squad to highlight the Swiss' strengths.
4 Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trailblazers
With one of the better starting backcourts in the league, the Trail Blazers' disappointing beginning to last season was perplexing. It seemed they were only a piece away from challenging for a high playoff seeding, and as it turned out that piece was Jusuf Nurkic.
Nurkic powered Portland’s charge towards the West eighth seed after their poor start, providing the interior presence they had been lacking. A solid rebounder and creative passer from the high post, his presence gives Portland’s guard tandem something to work off as defenses zone in on them too often. If his defense can improve and in the process lift Portland out of the doldrums of the NBA’s defensive rankings (24th, and the worst of any playoff team, a nightmare in their first-round matchup with the Warriors), then the Trail Blazers will be challenging for the playoffs in the stacked West again.
5 Cody Zeller, Charlotte Hornets
Hot Tip: just because Dwight Howard is the biggest name center that Charlotte has on the books doesn’t mean he’s their best. That title belongs to Cody Zeller, who won’t start due to coach Steve Clifford’s prior relationship with Howard, yet keep an eye on what is shaping as one of the NBA’s more interesting intra-squad battles.
In 20 games without Zeller last year, the Hornets went 3-17, missing his work ethic across the entire court. So what is Zeller good at? Kind of everything that you don’t get a stat for, which doesn’t earn you the universal kudos it should. However, in a league where so many players are chasing stats, having someone excited to do the dirty work like set screens makes the team tick. It’s what Draymond Green is good at, and exactly what Howard hasn’t done since 2010.
If the Hornets make the playoffs (which they should in an ultra-decimated Eastern Conference), maybe the Indiana product will get some of those props, too.
Who will be the top breakout center of 2017/18? Comment below!
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