In the ultra-competitive Western Conference, multiple playoff bids may be determined by presently unexpected or unproven players. Every game matters, particularly as franchises begin counting up the wins and losses headed into the springtime. Superstars can carry a roster, but it’s the breakout that helps them rise above their ceilings. Whether it be through renewed health, a new opportunity or old-fashioned development, a breakout player in the right situation could shift seeding, at the very least.
That may not be truer anywhere than in the Northwest Division, with three bona fide playoff teams, one with faint hopes of reaching the postseason and another that just might have a roster talented enough to play into May if it remains intact past the All-Star break. Today, Basketball Insiders kicks off a week of breakout-related analysis by predicting candidates for each team ahead of the preseason.
Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
If hype precludes a player from breaking out, then disregard this notice. But the working definition of a breakout player is one who significantly improves. In that respect, Porter has an advantage on the rest of the league, given that he logged exactly zero minutes last season and then didn’t even partake in this past Summer League — the latter circumstance due to a knee sprain suffered in practice.
Still, of course, Porter remains an unknown commodity, yet also the exact piece needed to accelerate the Nuggets’ growth. As a 6-foot-10 wing who can keep up with Jamal Murray in transition and knock down shots from deep to provide proper spacing for Nikola Jokić, Porter’s contributions will show up both on the court and in the box score.
MPJ putting on a show for the crowd!! pic.twitter.com/tgjUJwSu7E
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) October 5, 2019
“He’s a really good shooter. He can post up guys. He can go by guys. He’s a really talented player,” Jokić told The Denver Post. “We didn’t have a player like that just size-wise (last year).”
Clearly, Denver is already fanning the flames around Porter’s potential.
MPJ WITH THE 🔥ⓇⒶⓃⒼⒺ🔥 pic.twitter.com/zqfD3YWg9f
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) October 3, 2019
Yes, those are in-house highlights released with the explicit purpose of exciting fans, but they are also some of the first glimpses of Porter in action in years. If the reality of Porter compares at all to the theory of him, his breakout could push the Nuggets to the top of the West.
Zach Collins, Portland Trail Blazers
Collins got lost in some of the shuffle this offseason as the Blazers traded for Hassan Whiteside and Kent Bazemore, lauded Anfernee Simmons as their next great backcourt piece and preached patience in awaiting Jusuf Nurkić’s return from injury. Collins’ modest 6.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per game last year certainly did not much boost notice — well, at least for a little while.
With Nurkić sidelined in the playoffs, though, Collins posted 14.3 points and 7.5 rebounds per 36 minutes. He may have been playing only 17.2 minutes per game, but that was still a hefty contribution for a team that reached the Western Conference Finals. Collins’ strong defense remains a key factor and his growth is one of the greatest Portland-related plotlines to consider in 2019-20.
Given the severity of his broken leg, Nurkić may not be himself even if or when he returns this season. In that case, Portland may be better served relying on a youthful upstart in Collins rather than a tenured question mark in Whiteside.
Dante Exum, Utah Jazz
Part of the reason the Jazz are such a popular preseason pick for postseason success is the roster is filled with proven contributors. Of the top-six rotation players, arguably Donovan Mitchell or Bojan Bogdanović is the least established, the former a burgeoning superstar and the latter a six-year veteran. Both Utah and the world know what the peak of that roster brings to the table, with the exception of Exum. His health the last four seasons simply has not allowed him to make an imprint of note.
As much as bringing in Mike Conley and Bogdanović may lessen the scoring and creating workload on Mitchell, neither will fare well against physical point guards. Conley is only 6-foot-1 and Bogdanović is better suited against wings. Neither Portland’s Damian Lillard (6-foot-3) or Denver’s Jamal Murray (6-foot-4) is a towering player, but each will likely find success against Coney and/or Bogdanović.
That may be where Exum factors in. He stands 6-foot-6 and is still only 24. He should be able to handle stretches defending the best guards in the conference if the Jazz need that stopgap. Utah knows where its scoring will come from, and its backline of defense remains the league’s best thanks to Rudy Gobert, but funneling ball handlers into Gobert will still be a priority, and an avenue Exum can take to consistent playing time.
Exum remains a Hall of Fame member of the Sky-High Potential, But Always Hurt team — but it’s tough to leave him off this list nonetheless. Maybe, this year, finally, is Exum’s time to shine and, if so, the Jazz will be that much scarier.
Jake Layman, Minnesota Timberwolves
Of the Timberwolves’ moves this offseason, only one looked beyond the coming year. Minnesota signed Layman to a three-year, $11.2 million deal, the length more pertinent than the amount. Minnesota has intentions of developing the 6-foot-9 forward next to franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns, not just bringing Layman in to eat minutes until the next free-agent chase.
Layman’s and Towns’ roles do not overlap, either. If anything, Layman’s best offensive skill should complement Towns’ work from the high post, and even outside the arc, as an underrated passer.
“His ability to cut to the basket is really good,” Minnesota point guard Shabazz Napier said at Media Day. “He’s able to slash, shoot the ball tremendously well. He’s a high-flyer, very athletic. His IQ for the game, he understands what to do and what not to do.”
It was one thing for Napier to offer these compliments, but it was another for forward Jordan Bell to immediately nod vigorously at the mention of Layman’s cuts. Presumably, Bell has fallen victim to a cut or two in preseason workouts.
Layman may not manage much more than 10 or 11 points per game, but that could be a solid fit alongside Towns, something the Wolves are desperate for as they attempt to build the “sustainable” model first-year president Gersson Rosas seeks.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
For all the praise Gilgeous-Alexander deservedly received in his rookie season, he still averaged only 10.8 points and 3.3 assists per game. Whether or not the Thunder find a way to move Chris Paul and his onerous contract, Gilgeous-Alexander’s numbers should skyrocket to such an extent that his initials will no longer be a litmus test to discern an NBA fan’s breadth of basketball intellect.
That will be especially true as a strong season from him will alter public perception of the Paul George trade. Moving a top-tier point guard of the future for what could be only two seasons from an injured wing may not age as well as presumed all offseason. To wit, the Los Angeles Clippers originally wanted to keep Gilgeous-Alexander at all costs, but eventually budged only once two MVP-worthy candidates were on the table.
Oklahoma City’s roster is an utter curiosity at this point, but the one piece head coach Billy Donovan knows is not going anywhere is Gilgeous-Alexander. Pushing him to the forefront of the scheme will help the Thunder both in the short- and the long-term. And with Paul — one of the greatest guards in league history — he’s got the mentor to make things happen as well.
Whichever of these players breaks out, that so-called X-Factor could have an impact on the Western Conference playoff race, particularly the top three possibilities. Naturally, there could be another name altogether unexpected. Perhaps Minnesota starting point guard Jeff Teague suffers another injury and Napier stars in relief, maybe Nerlens Noel will shine in a contract year for Oklahoma City or it could be Mario Hezonja that becomes the third piece of Portland’s backcourt.
The unforeseen keep things entertaining — but if anybody wants to pull away from the pack in the Northwest Division, the breakout watch should be highly entertaining.