1 Terry Rozier, Boston Celtics
With the depth chart undergoing significant changes in Boston, Rozier will be required to expand his role at the new Eastern Conference superpower. Last year, the 16th overall draft pick from 2015 saw his minutes more than double, rising from 8 to 17.1 per game in his sophomore season.
With Avery Bradley being traded to make space for the incoming Gordon Hayward, the Celtics have lost depth at the guard position, as Kyrie Irving and Hayward are their only legitimate options to handle the ball. This means Rozier will be required to lead more often and increase his offensive efficiency while doing so.
A liability on offense in his first season, Rozier made great strides last year in shooting percentages and averaged 40.2% from the field, and 36.8% from three in their run to the Eastern Conference finals, playing 16.3 minutes per game in the process. A dependable backup point guard in only his third year, Rozier will spend plenty of time leading a bench group with tremendous potential. This newfound responsibility will only accelerate his development.
2 D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets
With all the drama that followed him in Los Angeles, a trade to Brooklyn may be the best thing for D’Angelo Russell. Magic Johnson may have delivered some scathing criticism of Russell on his way out of town, claiming Russell lacks leadership, but that will only act as motivation for the former Buckeye as he begins a new stage of his career in Brooklyn.
While not quite showing the potential or immediate impact we expect from a second overall pick, the 21-year-old has demonstrated flashes of brilliance in his two years in LA. On a good night, his well-rounded game can be an asset to the team as he can create for himself, runs the pick and roll effectively, and shoots well from all areas of the floor. No doubt, the key to improvement is consistency, as there are too many games where he goes missing.
As a combo guard, Russell will spend some time as the off guard in a lineup featuring the injury prone Jeremy Lin. At their best, the two should form a dynamic guard pairing. While Russell is far from a sure-fire superstar, this new environment is exactly what he needed, while Brooklyn now have a player with potential.
3 Dante Exum, Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz just lost their top player in Hayward, so who will take up the mantle in Salt Lake City now? Australian hoops fans are hoping it’s Dante Exum, the fifth pick in 2014, who after a promising rookie season saw his next year wiped off the books due to an ACL injury sustained on national team duties. His return year didn’t quite go to plan, as his offensive development stagnated and he spent time with the Jazz’s D-League affiliate as a result.
While Exum's injury hasn't hampered his athleticism and he remains a solid defender, his shooting splits remain low at 42.7%/29.5%/79.5% for last season. While his athleticism is reflected in a respectable overall shooting percentage, it’s the criminally low 29.5% from three that’s worrying. That figure wasn’t from lack of trying either as Exum hoisted up over six attempts per game.
There’s reason for optimism, though, as passing wizard Ricky Rubio comes into the squad to create better shooting opportunities for his teammates. With the assist-minded Rubio being the only major addition to a squad that lost Hayward and George Hill, there’s a seat at the table available in Utah to be the lead on offense. Exum has the potential to snatch it.
4 Ron Baker, New York Knicks
The cauldron of New York takes no prisoners - it’s kill or be killed, hunt or be hunted. The Knicks are sitting ducks right now with a point guard rotation consisting of Ron Baker, Ramon Sessions, and rookie Frank Ntilikina. In today’s NBA, such a thin lead guard rotation seems absurd; it’s crucial that one of them develops quickly.
Baker could start for the Knicks when their season tips off on October 19 in Oklahoma, and that still seems as ridiculous as it would have three months ago before the Knicks’ rocky offseason when it was assumed that somebody else would be brought in.
While barely playing at the start of the 2016/17 season, Baker ended up averaging 16.5 minutes per game for a return of 4.1 points, 1.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists. Though he was primarily played for his defense, being a high-effort defender with good awareness, he was serviceable in leading an offense, even if he wasn’t creating for himself.
With New York destined to be bad, Baker is going to be given time to grow. Not so much by the press, or the fans who will be all over the team every time they step out into Madison Square Garden, but by the coaching staff who have little option but to throw Baker out there and see how he develops. For an undrafted free agent from Wichita State with a funny haircut, one who’s become more of a cult hero than anything, Baker's not doing badly.
5 Dejounte Murray, San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs' culture is one of the most tried and trusted in the NBA. Gregg Popovich knows what he’s doing and will bring the best out in his players. Every list of ‘breakout players’ should include a Spurs youngster or two, as Popovich consistently finds diamonds in the rough. Last year, he uncovered Jonathon Simmons. This year, Dejounte Murray will be unleashed.
With Coach Pop’s ability and Murray’s potential in mind, he seems the ideal player to take over from Tony Parker when the Frenchman finally retires. In many games last year when Parker didn’t play, Patty Mills was kept in his bench role with Murray starting. Popovich has been careful not to expose Murray too early, but those rare starts served him well as he put together neat performances in the playoffs, averaging 11/10/5 in their closeout game against the Rockets in the Western Conference semi-finals.
Murray's length and athleticism should see him develop into a serviceable defensive guard and nightmare matchup for perimeter players facing the Spurs, whose star asset Kawhi Leonard draws plenty of attention from the opposition. That might provide a window of opportunity for Murray to thrive.
Who will be the breakout point guard of 2017/18? Comment below!
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