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Five Potential Out-of-Nowhere Breakouts to Watch for in the NBA Playoffs

Wild cards are essential in the postseason, and these five hidden gems could help decide the outcome of the first round and gain their fair share of publicity in the process

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

No one really knew who Goran Dragic was before the 2010 playoffs. He was a 2008 second-round pick from Slovenia who had spent his first two seasons in the NBA backing up Steve Nash without ever getting the chance to be a primary ball handler. That all changed when Dragic exploded for 23 fourth-quarter points in Game 3 of the Suns’ second-round series against the Spurs, giving Phoenix a 3–0 lead and effectively ending San Antonio’s season. It was a sign of things to come for Dragic, who has gone on to become one of the best point guards in the league. Having a rotation player with his talent in such a small role allowed the Suns to punch above their weight in the postseason.

As a playoff series progresses and the two teams become more familiar with each other, having a wild card off the bench becomes crucial. The defense is going to take away the other team’s favorite offensive sets, and offenses are often forced to rely on their supporting cast to win. It’s the perfect opportunity for a younger player to put his fingerprints on a series. While a breakthrough performance in the regular season can slip under the national radar, everyone sits up and takes notice when it happens in the playoffs. Dragic was always destined for bigger and better things, but what he did against the Spurs made it easier for other teams to envision him in a lead role.

So which relatively anonymous players might have a Dragic-like breakout in this year’s playoffs? The key is to look for guys in supporting roles who make their teams the best possible versions of themselves. A coach can lean on a steady veteran without as much upside in the regular season, but no one wants to be eliminated with any bullets left in the holster. Here are five hidden gems with tremendous upside potential who could swing a series in the right situation. If things go right for them, you could be hearing a lot more about these guys over the next few weeks:

Kelly Oubre Jr., Wizards

After barely playing as a rookie, Oubre has become an important contributor for the Wizards in his second season in the NBA. He was taken with the no. 15 pick in the 2015 draft, but he has more talent than the average mid-first-round selection. Coming out of high school, Oubre was rated as highly as fellow wings Justise Winslow and Stanley Johnson (both selected in the top 10), but a smaller role in his only season at Kansas pushed him out of the lottery.

At 6-foot-7 and 205 pounds with a freakish 7-foot-2 wingspan, Oubre has ideal physical dimensions for a wing player. His ceiling on the offensive end will be determined by his 3-point shot, as he’s shooting only 29 percent from long range on 2.4 attempts per game this season. He has unlimited potential defensively, though: His combination of length and quickness allows him to slide among several positions and hound smaller players into tough shots. When Oubre is on the court, the Wizards can play lineups with as much athleticism as any team in the league.

Going small is Washington’s nuclear option: It’s at its best with Oubre and Otto Porter Jr. at the forward positions. In 200 minutes this season, the Wizards have a net rating of plus-17.4 when those two play with John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Marcin Gortat. Only Golden State has more productive heavy-usage lineups (with at least 200 minutes played this season). Atlanta’s best chance in its first-round series is for Dwight Howard and Paul Millsap to play so well together that it forces Scott Brooks to keep two traditional big men on the floor. The Hawks don’t have the firepower to keep up with the Wizards if both teams downsize, especially if Oubre is making 3s.

Tim Hardaway Jr., Hawks

Most thought the Hawks were waving the white flag when they traded Kyle Korver to the Cavs for spare parts in January, but Hardaway’s emergence has allowed them to survive on the perimeter without the former All-Star. Atlanta rescued Hardaway from the scrap heap after two up-and-down seasons with the Knicks, and he could become the latest graduate of “Hawks University” to cash in. Kent Bazemore signed a four-year, $70 million contract with the Hawks last offseason and he has been coming off the bench behind Hardaway in recent weeks.

Hardaway’s playing time has increased in each month this season, steadily rising from 21 minutes per game in November to 33 minutes per game in April. He has pulled off the rare double of averaging a career high in points per game (14.5) and field goal percentage (45.5 percent), and he gives the Hawks some badly needed scoring punch on the perimeter. They have played great defense with Dwight Howard in the middle, with the fourth-most efficient defense in the league; they just haven’t been able to score enough (27th in offensive rating) to keep their heads above water.

Hardaway has the best net rating (plus-3.1) of any player who has been in the Hawks rotation all season, and he will need to have a huge series for them to have any chance at knocking off the Wizards. He has shined against elite competition, with a 36-point game against the Cavs, a 33-point game against the Rockets, and 29-point games against the Spurs and Wizards.

With the size (6-foot-6 and 205 pounds) and shooting ability (35.7 percent from 3 on 5.3 attempts per game) that every team in the NBA is looking for on the wing, Hardaway could set himself up to make a lot of money in the summer if he plays well in the first round.

JaMychal Green, Grizzlies

Green established himself as an NBA-caliber player last season after a wave of injuries decimated the Grizzlies rotation, but, understandably, few people were paying attention to a team that got swept by the Spurs after backing into the playoffs. Green is still starting at power forward this season with everyone healthy, as new coach David Fizdale decided the best way to extend Zach Randolph’s career and match up with faster teams was to bring him off the bench. The Grizzlies are facing the Spurs in the first round once again, and Green will have to keep LaMarcus Aldridge, who has had 40-point games in two of the past three postseasons, in check.

Getting to this point has been a winding journey for Green, who went undrafted out of Alabama in 2012. He spent three years bouncing back and forth between the D-League and Europe before signing a 10-day contract with the Spurs in early 2015 and eventually catching on with the Grizzlies. After shooting only 17 3s in four seasons in college, he painstakingly turned himself into a respectable long-range shooter, shooting 38 percent from 3 on 1.9 attempts per game this season. Green gives the Grizzlies the best of both worlds: the size (6-foot-9 and 227 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan) to bang inside and the athleticism to survive on the perimeter.

Green is one of the better defensive power forwards in the league. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, he is in the 93th percentile among players defending the roll man in the pick-and-roll this season, and he rates as above average in isolations and when switching screens and defending the ball handler. The key for Memphis will be getting offense from Green, as they desperately need a third option in their starting lineup next to Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. The Spurs, who have the best defense in the league, are not going to let the Grizzlies’ best two players beat them.

Dewayne Dedmon, Spurs

When Pau Gasol went down with a broken hand in January, Dedmon grabbed hold of the starting center position in San Antonio and hasn’t let go since. He’s exactly the type of hyperathletic big man that the Spurs have been missing in recent years, and they will need him to come up big just to make it to the Western Conference finals. Dedmon could go from guarding Marc Gasol all over the floor in the first round to dealing with James Harden and Clint Capela in the pick-and-roll in the second.

Dedmon, a late bloomer who didn’t start playing basketball until his senior year of high school, went undrafted out of USC in 2013, and he spent the past three seasons backing up Nikola Vucevic in Orlando. At 7 feet and 245 pounds with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, Dedmon is one of the longest and most athletic big men in the league. He has thrived as a hyperefficient finisher in San Antonio, where he is shooting a career-high field goal percentage (62.7 percent) on a career-low usage rating (12.2). Dedmon fits his role perfectly: He has the highest rebound rate (20.9 percent) and block percentage (3.8 percent) of any member of the Spurs rotation.

The Spurs struggled with the size and athleticism of the Clippers and Thunder in their past two playoff defeats, and they made a wholesale renovation of their frontcourt rotation in the offseason. Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw, and David West are gone, with Dedmon, Gasol, and David Lee in their place. Gasol and Lee are both more skilled than Dedmon, but neither was considered much of a defensive player before coming to San Antonio, and they could struggle to stay on the floor if opposing teams go small against them. The X factor for San Antonio is Dedmon, who has the tools to be a low-rent version of DeAndre Jordan.

Jerami Grant, Thunder

Grant has played reasonably well for Oklahoma City since coming over in a trade from Philadelphia in the first week of the season. At 6-foot-9 and 210 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, the 23-year-old is an insane athlete who can make spectacular plays way above the rim. The biggest issue for him in the NBA has been channeling that athleticism within the context of a half-court offense. Grant is averaging 19.1 minutes per game this season for the Thunder, but he may need to play a much bigger role against the Rockets.

Everything in Houston starts with James Harden in the pick-and-roll, and Grant is the most qualified of the Oklahoma City power forwards to defend ball handlers in that play (per Synergy Sports):

*Only counting Gibson’s production with the Thunder

Not only can Grant switch screens and defend in space, he’s also the best outside shooter of the four, shooting 37.2 percent from 3 on 1.5 attempts per game. There is a lot of upside left in Grant, and the Thunder will need him to tap into it if they are going to keep up with the Rockets. In an ideal world, Oklahoma City would be able to use its advantage in size to bully Houston and force it into playing bigger lineups that don’t spread the floor as well for Harden. However, if the Thunder end up losing the battle of styles, their best bet is to unleash Grant and see what he can do with more minutes.