NBA’s Expected, Surprise And Overdue Breakout Players

Every NBA team hopes one of its young players will have a breakout season. Who is making “the leap” like we expected and who has come out of nowhere?

Nov 25, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) shoots over Denver Nuggets forward Nikola Jokic (15) in the fourth quarter at the Pepsi Center. The Thunder won 132-129. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Every NBA team hopes one of its young players can make “the leap” to another level of production. Some are expected and happen (Scottie Pippen after Michael Jordan‘s first retirement).

Others are viewed as sure things that, for various reasons, wind up regressing or leveling off instead (Serge Ibaka every year since 2013).

Breakout players are fun, because they upset the established order of the elite. DeMar DeRozan, currently the league’s third-leading scorer, has never been named to any All-NBA teams in his career.

Now, you’d be hard-pressed to name a better 2-guard than him. Who takes the fall in the pecking order? Will DeRozan still be making us answer that question in April?

Players were given a hard look if their “leap” took place on a terrible team. Harrison Barnes is putting up more than 20 points per game for league-worst Dallas, but Anthony Davis is producing at historic levels while his teammates are dropping like flies.

We’re pretty sure the latter is significant, but the former looks a lot like the first eight years of Shareef Abdur-Rahim.

With that in mind, here’s a look at the league’s expected, surprise and overdue breakout players one month into the NBA season.

Nov 26, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) drives to the basket in front of Detroit Pistons guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5) during the fourth quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Expected Breakout Player: Russell Westbrook

2015-16 stats: 23.5 ppg, 10. 4 apg, 7.8 rpg, 31.6 USG%, 27.6 PER
2016-17 stats: 31.2 ppg, 11.1 apg, 9.9 rpg, 40.8 USG%, 30.6 PER

Mother of God.

To be fair, we should have seen this coming after seeing what Russell Westbrook did sans-Kevin Durant (injury) in 2014-15. Aside from the sheer volume of production, however, we’re also seeing the kind of efficiency we thought had a snowball’s chance in hell at happening.

Westbrook’s true shooting percentage (so far, anyway) is actually the second-best mark of his career, just 0.7percent worse than last season

Only 0.7-percent worse after brutally subtracting Durant from the equation? Wow. Credit Westbrook’s increasing comfort level with the long ball. He’s chucking a career-high 5.4 attempts per contest … and making a career-best 33.7 percent of them.

It’s the version of Westbrook no one outside of OKC wants to think about: unleashed and able to do damage from anywhere on the court.

Honorable Mention: James Harden, Jimmy Butler, Damian Lillard

Nov 18, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Jameer Nelson (1) defends against Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) in overtime at the Pepsi Center. The Raptors won 113-111 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Surprise Breakout Player: DeMar DeRozan

2015-16 stats: 23.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.0 apg, 1.0 spg, 44.6 FG%, 21. 5 PER
2016-16 stats: 30.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.1 apg, 1.4 spg, 48.8 FG%, 27.0 PER

The mid-range game is dead, they said. Shoot threes or take it to the rim, they said.

DeMar DeRozan has ignored the efficiency purists his entire career. Instead of adding new, trendy weapons to his skill set, the eight-year pro has simply gotten better at what he does best.

The result is a guy nobody had pegged as the next best two-guard in the league, but who looks every bit the part now.

Keep in mind that his overall efficiency has increased despite 1) his shot attempts jumping from 17.7 to 22.6 per contest and 2) DeRozan is shooting 8 percent worse from three this season.

How? He’s simply drilling a lot more of those “low-quality” mid-range and short-range attempts. Per NBA.com, DeRozan is making 47.4 percent of his mid-range jumpers … compared to just 38.0 percent last year.

Again, we’ll need to see if this holds up over the course of the season, but no one has been able to stop DeRozan yet.

Honorable Mention: Isaiah Thomas, Kemba Walker

Nov 27, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) shoots the ball past Dallas Mavericks center Andrew Bogut (6) during the second half at the American Airlines Center. The Mavericks won 91-81. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Overdue Breakout Player: Anthony Davis

2015-16 stats: 24.3 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 2.0 bpg, 49.3 FG%, 25.0 PER
2016-16 stats: 30.5 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 2.7 bpg, 51.9 FG%, 31.9 PER

If it feels unfair to tab a 23-year-old as “overdue” for a breakout season, just remember that he was All-NBA First Team in 2014-15.

After that year and his first taste of the playoffs, AD-23 was considered the can’t-miss next superstar who would eventually supplant LeBron James and Stephen Curry as the best player on the planet.

But then Steph got ridonkulous, LeBron responded by being even better than that when it mattered, and Anthony Davis got lost in the shuffle thanks to a combination of injuries and flat-lining production.

Turns out we were either ahead of ourselves or Davis just wanted to make us wait a little longer. Simply put, he is attacking the way we all hoped he would with that ridiculous skill set.

He’s shooting a career-high 21.4 times per game and getting to the line a league-leading 10.7 free throws per contest.

More importantly, Davis is cashing on his opportunities. His shooting percentage (51.9) is back up around his career average after turning in his only sub-.500 effort last year.

Ditto for his free throw shooting, which dipped to 75.8 percent last season before bouncing back to its current and career-best 81.3-percent clip.

Every other facet of Davis’ game is also up. It’s just a shame all of it is going toward another likely trip to the lottery for the Pelicans. Is he the next version of Kevin Garnett and Dominique Wilkins, Hall of Famers who wasted their prime years on non-contenders?

Let’s hope not, because this guy’s game needs to be seen in May.

Honorable Mention: Bradley Beal, Kyrie Irving

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