NBA: Young Players on Eliminated Teams Ready for a Breakout

Miles BridgesThe NBA’s altered format to finish the 2019-20 season includes 22 teams that will reconvene in late July to finish the season. Unfortunately, that means the other eight teams will have to go almost nine months between games, since the 2020-21 campaign is scheduled to begin in December.

These teams may not be playing for a while, but we can still get excited about what next season holds for them. USA Betting has identified one young player on each team that is out of the playoff picture who should be ready for a breakout next season.

Charlotte Hornets: Miles Bridges

The Hornets’ future isn’t the brightest. They have some decent young players, but they are missing a true blue-chip prospect that can really lead the team’s rebuild.

I believe Bridges is the player with the most star potential on the roster. His averages of 13 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game on a below-average 52 true-shooting percentage aren’t excellent, but he did improve throughout the season. The fact that he was as effective as he was is impressive, because the Hornets played the NBA’s slowest pace. Bridges is a high-flying dunker who excels in transition and would benefit from more opportunities against defenses that aren’t set.

Next year will be Bridges’ third year, which is typically the most common time for a breakout. I think the Hornets will give their 6’6” forward lots of opportunities to prove whether he is worth building around.

Chicago Bulls: Lauri Markkanen

Markkanen may seem like a weird breakout choice given what he has already accomplished in the league. As a sophomore in 2018-19, he put up 18.7 points and 9 rebounds per game and looked like a future All-Star for the Bulls.

He regressed in 2019-20. His minutes, scoring and rebounding all declined significantly as Chicago limped its way to a disappointing 22-43 season. The Bulls used Markkanen in more of a role-playing stretch 4 role, letting him shoot pick-and-pop threes but not really running their offense through him whatsoever. This is a shame considering Markkanen is a much more versatile offensive option than just a guy who shoots open spot-up threes.

I strongly anticipate that the Bulls will fire head coach Jim Boylen very soon. He has been reviled by fans throughout his tenure and reports have also surfaced that players have criticized him strongly. If Boylen is out, the new head coach will likely open things up for Markkanen and allow him to show off his all-around game once again next season.

New York Knicks: Mitchell Robinson

The Knicks’ offensive strategy for the last several weeks of the season before it was suspended was pretty simple: bulldoze the ball inside, get the ball up near the rim and aggressively chase the offensive rebound. New York ranked last in the NBA in three-point attempts per game (23.8) by a wide margin since February but was first in offensive rebound rate (32.5). The plan wasn’t too bad, since the Knicks went 8-9 in that stretch of games.

Robinson, the Knicks’ 22-year-old center, was the ringleader of New York’s strategy. When the Knicks took a shot with him on the floor, there was a 13.7 percent chance that Robinson would rebound it. That is an astounding rate given that the defense usually has the inside track to retrieve those misses. New York’s young 7-footer also excelled at finishing plays with his length and athleticism, making 74.2 percent of his field-goal attempts to set an NBA record.

The problem for Robinson is that he played just 23.1 minutes per game. The two things holding Robinson back from more playing time are foul trouble and a lack of versatility.

Foul trouble became much less of a problem for him throughout the season, so I expect that improvement to continue. In terms of versatility, I have seen workout videos with him showing off very good ball-handling ability and a nice-looking three-point shot. I expect Robinson to come into next season ready to play starters’ minutes and to make a positive impact for the Knicks.

Detroit Pistons: Christian Wood

Wood finished this season with a bang, averaging 24 points and 9.6 rebounds on a 57.1/38.9/76.4 shooting slash in nine games after the All-Star break. He was solid all season, but he really flourished once the Pistons finally unleashed him as a full-time starter and featured him in their offense.

Next year, expect Detroit to continue letting Wood do his thing. With Andre Drummond traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Blake Griffin constantly dealing with injuries, there’s no reason to put the restrictions back on. Detroit just doesn’t have enough high-quality offensive options to justify taking away reps from Wood.

To be honest, Wood may not be a Piston next season. He is an unrestricted free agent and may elect to flee to a better team. However, I predict that Detroit will realize its big man depth without him is terrible and will give him a whole bunch of money to persuade him to stay.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Josh Okogie

The Timberwolves are clearly an offensive-minded team. The three main core pieces moving forward look to be D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Karl-Anthony Towns. Unfortunately for Minnesota, all three players are not good defensively.

That’s where Okogie comes in. I would personally argue that he deserves to be mentioned as part of Minnesota’s core, as well. He is just 6’4”, but he has a 7-foot wingspan and a thick 215-pound frame. He uses his physical gifts, energy and instincts to defend all different types of perimeter players.

Offensively, Okogie is somewhat shaky. His lack of a three-point shot is a concern, but he did find a way to attain a 64.4 true-shooting percentage in the final 17 games of this season. He does a nice job scoring on cuts and in transition and is surprisingly consistent on offense.

I think Minnesota will give big minutes to Okogie next season and will watch him emerge as a reliable starting-caliber wing.

Atlanta Hawks: Kevin Huerter

Huerter’s promising rookie season gave way to a sophomore campaign that can only be classified as a slight disappointment. His statistics on a per-possession basis remained essentially the same and the Hawks were a bad team yet again.

When you look beneath the surface, though, there is some important context missing from Huerter’s numbers. “Red Velvet” missed all of training camp due to a knee injury, then he injured his shoulder in November and missed a few weeks before having to find his groove again after returning.

Huerter is known as a pure shooter, but he averaged 5.5 assists per game over his last 15 contests. He looked much more confident with the ball in his hands and had a stretch of 16 double-figure scoring performances in 18 games starting in late January.

Next year, I anticipate the Hawks unleashing Huerter as a sixth man, letting him display his combination of outside shooting and playmaking mostly when offensive superstar Trae Young gets his rest on the bench. This should be Huerter’s best role down the line.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Kevin Porter Jr.

The Cavaliers’ future is uncertain. They have a whole bunch of veteran big men and two young lottery pick guards (Collin Sexton and Darius Garland) who look like they don’t fit together at all.

One thing I’m reasonably certain of is that Porter is going to be a starter for the Cavs sooner rather than later. The 20-year-old wing was very inconsistent on the offensive end, but his steady defense was a pleasant surprise and his strong scoring games (12 games of at least 15 points) were good enough to justify keeping him as a key building block.

The Cavs’ lottery pick in this offseason’s draft will help dictate the team’s approach moving forward. Regardless, though, KPJ is a nice fit for the starting lineup moving forward as a defensive-minded wing who can play on or off the ball.

Golden State Warriors: Marquese Chriss

It’s going to be tough for any young player on the Warriors to truly break out next season with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Kevon Looney returning as core players next season and leading the charge for Golden State.

Chriss’ production won’t be huge next year, but he is going to feast inside with all the attention opponents pay to Curry and Thompson and the outside shooting they provide. He was an efficient nightly double-double threat starting in February this year, and that was with Thompson out and Curry only joining at the very end.

The 22-year-old Chriss is unlikely ever to live up to his high draft position, but he is going to be one of the NBA’s better big men off the bench next year with his athleticism, shot blocking and surprisingly effective passing.