[NBA] The 4-Point Play: 10 Breakout Players to Watch This Season

Death, taxes, and horrifyingly awful fall programming on the WB…some things are inevitable. In the NBA we have the inevitable rise of a small group of breakout players.

Typically these are players whose numbers have been ignored by the sports media for the simple fact that the sample size isn’t big enough for them to waste time on letting you know who they are. They could also be players who don’t fit the NBA’s “Kobe-ized” marking niche and who the NBA pretends have the significance of mitochondria. They tend to be labeled “underrated” or something stupid like that and then one day the NBA realizes they have to tell you about them somehow so they give them some “Most Improved” player award, which is brought to us by “Got Milk” or “Post Toasties” or “Smirnoff Ice”. Were they most improved? Not really. But it’s the NBA’s way of saying, “Hey sorry we ignored this guy for so long, we’re just stupid marketing hacks and this guy’s Q rating wasn’t high enough.”

When I’m looking at possible breakout players I’m looking at some very specific things:

1- Increased role and minutes on a new or renovated team.

2- Any player making the jump from their 2nd to 3rd season in the league.

3- Any player who, the year prior, had fantastic per-minute numbers, but who didn’t play for whatever reason. (Most often because some idiotic coach or owner wanted a higher paid player to play instead.)

4- Any player who has flown under the media radar for stupid reasons having nothing to do with actual output. (Typically, these would be good young players on nakedly awful teams or players with reputations that are undeserved.)

This season I have isolated 10 players that I believe will make a large, to major, impact on their team’s fortunes this upcoming season. As you might imagine 5 of them are in the Eastern Conference and 5 of them are out West, which means you can smell a 2 part column coming from a mile away.

Part 1: 5 Breakout Players From the Eastern Conference

1- Al Jefferson:Lost in all of the madness around what Antoine Walker brought the Celtics last year, and it wasn’t as much as the media said, was the play of Al Jefferson. As with almost any rookie there were some issues on defense. There were missed assignments and a lack of understanding how to defend better in the post. However, I said he’d be a breakout player so let’s look at why.

The first thing you notice about Al Jefferson is a very healthy FG%. What makes his 53% so interesting is that he isn’t a truly big-time athletic body. He doesn’t have the speed or the explosiveness of an Amare Stoudemire and instead has a body a bit more like Zach Randolf. Typically, with young players you either get post men with shoddy FG% numbers or you get guys that are so explosive they don’t need to understand the post up game and can dunk on everyone. It’s rare you see a guy who, as a young player, doesn’t need to rock the rim every time to get a very decent shot off. Al Jefferson appears to be one of those guy. If he can maintain the healthy FG% there is no reason why he can’t average 15 ppg in a Doc Rivers system that stresses diversity and ball movement. One final aspect to this is that in the final month of the regular season Al’s FG% was up near 59% in the 11 games he played that month…..a very good trend.

Lastly, I looked at his rounding and blocked shots. If you want to last a long time in this league at the power forward position you’re going to have to rebound the ball and block some shots. Now, eventually I’m going to write a column about why the blocked shot is overrated, but until I do let’s talk about it as a function of defense. For now we will just assume that being a top rated shot blocker has as much importance as everyone says it does and we’ll assume that any number up near the “Ben Wallace” area means a player is certainly an intimidating player. Rebounding is rebounding, but I want to look at his rebounding in a way that stresses his value while he was, rather than on a per-game basis.

I first stumbled upon rebound-rate in the Pro Basketball Prospectus, put out by John Hollinger, and immediately I liked what I felt it could tell us about where a player could project to as a rebounder. What rebound-rate measures is the % of missed shots that X player got to while he was in the game. This stats takes minutes totally out of the equation and is a good tool to view players who don’t have a huge body of work to look at…at least on a total minutes level. To give you and idea of what is elite let’s look at a player that we all believe is a great rebounder and then see how this stat backs up that assumption.

Last year Ben Wallace had a rebound-rate of 19.7. Typiclly, this is going to land him in the top 5 of any given year. His all-time high is 23.2 and that’s a fantastic number given the pace of today’s NBA game.

I mention Wallace so we can talk about Al. Al Jefferson, last year, had a rebound rate of 17.3. To put this in perspective you are looking at a number that would regularly landing him near the top 20 players in the NBA for rebounding. One would assume that as he gained more experience he would develop an even better feel for positioning and I think a high in the mid-to-high 18’s would be in his reach.

So what we could be looking at is a player who is a top 10 rebounder and still has a well developed post-up game. A very good combination in a young player.

2- Caron Butler: Now I understand what you’re thinking, why would I put a top 10 rookie pick and publicized player on a “breakout” list. Well, my rationale is simply that I believe he will transform from a player labled as “possibly the next “Paul Pierce” to actually being almost exactly like Paul Pierce.

Obviously, he does not have the same game as Paul. His is more of a post up game; a kind of hammering that punishes defenses from within….much like Bonzi Wells in his prime. However, what I’m looking at are statistics and what they show about his overall effectiveness. That is to say I don’t particularly care HOW a player get’s 45% from the floor and 21ppg, but THAT he gets 45% from the floor and 21ppg.

Caron Butler has a fantastic opportunity to become a prime time player and name. In LA he was having a fairly mediocre season until Lamar Odom went down with an injury near the end of the season. This pushed Butlers minutes way up and it also made him a part of the offense to the point where the team let him play his game. When this happened he seized the moment and took off. The final month of the season showed a glimpse of what I think we will see this year with him: 22.8ppg, 7.6rpg, 46% shooting. To put that in perspective each of those numbers better those of Paul Pierce, a player whom I think Butler will now be the equal of in effectiveness….at least on the offensive end.

3- Jason Williams: This won’t be a breakout for Jason Williams. This won’t be a re-breakout for Jason Williams. I consider this a re-re-breakout for the man once called (maybe still called) White Chocolate.

The reason I think we will see the best season from Jason Williams is that he is finally playing on a team in which he is the unquestioned option at PG AND he is playing for a team with players who shoot such a high FG%, that he is very likely to post individual bests in assists and turnover ratio.

The questions about Jason Williams always stem from his shot selection and his defense. The defense will be better if for no other reason than he has the big fella behind him to erase mistakes that he may make on the perimeter…..it’s something he really never had in Sacramento or Memphis. That will slowly change his reputation from being putrid in defense to just being kinda bad.

The shot selection will be his final bugaboo. Can he get it in his head that those pull-up 3’s in transition are a horrible alternative to giving the ball off to a center who can shoot almost 60% from the floor and a SG who could lead the position in FG efficiency? I think that if Jason Williams was the type of guy who got his rocks off on shooting, he would be in big trouble and I would forsee no change in his style of game. However, one of Williams’ strengths is that he gets real pleasure, and takes real pride, in BEING a good passer….in making the assist. I think when he sees that he has a great opportunity to lead the league in assists, he will be less likely to take those wild shots and instead use that possession to rack up another dime. I think after this season he will be seen as the kind of PG that teams can win with, and I don’t know many people that believe that as of right now.

4- Nenad Krstic: I hate using very small samples of data and making predictions like this, however in this case I have to do it. If you saw what Krstic did against Shaq in the playoffs last year, then you know: this guy can play.

In those playoffs he played heavy minutes and did some real damage to the Heat. 18 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 56% from the field. Obviously, you would have liked to have seen better rebounding from the big man, but he was picked in the 2002 draft for his offensive ability and agility, not his defense and rebounding. If those things come it’s a great boon for the Nets, if they don’t they at least should get what they expected to get when they took him 3 years ago.

The other reason I like him to break out is the system he plays with, the PG he plays with, and the balanced offense he plays on. Having Jason Kidd as your PG can do nothing but help make your job easier. He isn’t going to have to work as hard as other bigs to get position. He will be found on the break where his athletic ability will be used. And shares the post with nobody that should take his low post touches away, because the only other big man to speak of (if we have to speak of one) is one of the Collins twins and who cares which one it is….neither mean very much.

Finally, I also believe that there is no reason he should get double-teamed on a nightly basis. He shares the court with Richard Jefferson, Jason Kidd, and Vince Carter. This should give him ample space to operate down low without the kind of attention he might see on less talented teams. All of this points to a sizable increase on his prior numbers and a much larger responsibility for a team looking to get back to the finals after a 2 year drought.

5- Tyson Chandler: 15 and 10, 13 and 13, 22 and 10, 14 and 11. That is what Chandler did last year against the Wizards in the playoffs when Scott Skiles finally put the crack pipe down and started playing his best post defender and rebounder.

Some things to me make no sense. Often times last year much of what didn’t make sense in my life came from Chicago. It began with his starting of Chris Duhon at PG simply because Duhon reminded Skiles of himself; it continued with moving his true PG, Kirk Hinrich, to SG in a position he was clearly uncomfortable playing; it finished with his inconsistent play of Tyson Chandler.

There are many signs that point to Tyson Chandler finally breaking out. His rebound rate has improved every year since he joined the league (from 14.4 to 19.8) as has his FT% and raw rebounding totals.

Another sign could be his defensive statistics. While hardly bulletproof there are some signs that his impact on the Bulls defense is large. Last year the team allowed 102 points per 100 possessions when Chandler was not in the game. When Chandler was in the game that number dropped to a bit over 100 points per 100 possessions.

The biggest sign, however, could be his contract. He got a huge deal over the summer in the neighborhood of six years and 60-75 million dollars. With that kind of coin spent on him, it will be very hard for Skiles to justify him sitting large portions of games. Only foul trouble should force Chandler into fewer minutes than his skill level would dictate.

It’s difficult to know where to project Chandler. He can score many points from his offensive rebounding, and yet there is a tremendous amount of growth that can happen in his offensive game. It’s possible he could get up to 17ppg at his peak. His rebounding can still improve and it’s already very good, I think it’s very likely that he follows a similar route to Darryll Dawkins during his prime….with slightly better rebounding.

That wraps up this weeks column. Come back next week when I look out west to see what players have the best shot at breaking out.

Want some other writers to read:

Patrick Nguyen: He says some things. I agree with things. Especially about Barry Bonds. If you want to know what in the hell Im talking about go read him. He calls someone “a big ole teabag”. Is it me? Is it Barry? Is it Venus Williams? Is it himself? Find out.

Dr. Jay Gauss: He talks about the vulva and it’s functions. Don’t believe me? Find out.

Todd Rogers: He knows NFL. He has already decided that there are must win games next week for 3 teams. Is your favorite team one of them?

Questions? Comments? Email me