Every single one of us has, at one point or another, felt like NBA Nostradamus after making a bold breakout-season prediction that turned out to be true. It’s nice to feel smart. But the truth is there’s no linear progression to any of this. The NBA is better off for it. What fun would it be if every player’s journey was known from the start? The unpredictability adds a certain thrill to the league.
We’ve all heard about players coming to training camp in the best shape of their lives, having trimmed weight and added new skills to their games. It’s fun to feel hopeful, but we often get let down, especially with young players and rookies, who typically get overhyped. A fervent fan base will understandably dissect every cold streak or boneheaded pass. But our high expectations can color those excusable youthful mistakes.
It often takes a special alignment of circumstances for players to break out. They need the right opportunity. And it helps to be in the right system with the right set of teammates.
Every player marches to the beat of his own developmental drum and it can be tremendously difficult to predict if or when his rise will come. But that’s not going to stop us from forecasting the future. Here are three different players facing three different routes to a potential breakout season this year.
Consider the case of Brandon Ingram, who was selected no. 2 by the Lakers in 2016. Ingram was (over)hyped as the next Kevin Durant, but failed to log a single Rookie of the Year vote after averaging an inefficient 9.4 points per game. All his flaws were apparent under the bright lights of Staples Center in ways that weren’t clear for observers who merely glanced at predraft highlight-video packages on YouTube.
A rookie’s shine wears off quickly, like how a new car depreciates the second it leaves the lot. ESPN’s 2016 redraft had Ingram selected behind the likes of Juan Hernangomez, Skal Labissiere, and Ante Zizic. Just-another-guy types like Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic (who is still unsigned) made various summer top-100 player lists over Ingram. So did old heads such as Manu Ginobili and Pau Gasol. I’m not here to argue with my basketball-writing colleagues, who I respect dearly, but aren’t we trying to project forward?
It’s mind-boggling that so many fans and media members have already soured on him. There are endless instances in which truly great players or role players get off to slow starts in their careers for one reason or another. Remember Dirk Nowitzki’s rookie season? Nowitzki stunk in his first year. Dallas fans called him “Irk” since he couldn’t play defense. He even thought about going back to Germany. In the book Dirk Nowitzki: German Wunderkind, Nowitzki described his rookie season as “jumping out of an airplane hoping the parachute would somehow open.” After James Harden struggled as a rookie, Real GM user sugarscape wrote, “He’s a bust. His in-game athleticism is poor and he’s not very big or skilled. There is no decisiveness to his game either. His upside is Aaron McKie.”
You can go on and on with examples. This isn’t to say Ingram is a guaranteed star. But we shouldn’t overreact to players who struggle early on, or who get off to blistering starts. (Hello, Michael Carter-Williams and Tyreke Evans.) In the case of Ingram, his early bumps were expected and explainable due to his immature physique. ESPN’s Baxter Holmes published a tremendous profile last year detailing Ingram’s “sickening” daily diet that’d help him add weight to his once-196-pound frame. If you read it, you know about where he was and how far he’d have to go.
Patience should’ve been the prerequisite for Ingram. He was a late bloomer in high school who stood only 6-foot-2 as a freshman and didn’t become a nationally known star until his senior season. At Duke, he struggled early on before exploding late. He was one of the youngest players in the 2016 draft class, turning 19 only eight weeks before the start of the season. As a rookie, he was a toothpick battling against freakish athletes over a long, grueling schedule, while playing for a team devoid of significant talent. Context matters. It would’ve been stunning had Ingram not struggled.
But entering Year 2, it’s time to start expecting something from Ingram. His situation is better. Lonzo Ball should enhance everyone on the court with his playmaking prowess. Brook Lopez will space the floor in ways no Laker big man could last season. Ingram has also gained weight, mainly in his lower body, which should help him absorb contact and keep defenders from easily bumping him off the line as he attacks the rim. Ingram rarely got to the free throw line, and he shot only 51.7 percent on attempts within eight feet of the rim, well below the league average.
With a slim frame, he’ll never carry a significant amount of bulk, so he’ll need to learn how to play lean. By the middle of last season, he started to show major flashes. Ingram scored in double figures in 18 of 21 games after the break despite battling right patellar tendinitis that caused him to miss three matches and leave due to injury in two others. Zoom in closer and you’ll find a nine-game stretch from March 5-21 in which Ingram averaged 15.2 points per game with a 56.5 effective field goal percentage. He began resembling the player who shined at Duke. But it happened near the end of the season, when no one is paying attention to bottom-feeding teams. The Lakers were tanking, losers of 16 of their first 18 games after the break. Ingram wasn’t just a garbage-time hero, either. Legitimate strides were being made throughout games.
Ingram’s progress seemed to have been forgotten until his explosive 26-point game in the Las Vegas summer league. He’s still the guy who could someday score efficiently from all three levels of the floor in a wide variety of play types:
He’s still the guy with a unique knack for playmaking as a 6-foot-9 forward. Ingram had bricklaying Lakers teammates and is now surrounded by shooters like Ball, Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Kyle Kuzma. Ingram is advanced navigating pick-and-rolls, using hesitations, pace, and deception to create space. He’s even better at purely passing the ball, which shows in his decision-making and on-target accuracy.
Like so many players, Ingram’s ultimate success will come down to his jumper. He shot only 24.5 percent on above-the-break 3s last season, a percentage that’ll undoubtedly need to improve. The Lakers coaching staff worked with him this offseason on tweaking his mechanics. If Ingram starts unloading the ball more quickly by hopping into his shots rather than one-two stepping, it’ll lead to far less heavily contested looks. If his confidence doesn’t sway, he won’t hesitate or stop the ball as frequently as he did as a rookie. When Ingram is assertive, he is at his most effective. If his shot begins to fall like it did at Duke, then the rest of his game will open.
An NBA executive told me this summer that his studies suggest that “busts” are mostly a result of the teams, whether it be poor coaching or archaic scouting methods in the draft room that overvalue the player in the first place. We can’t pick our parents, but some players might’ve seen better fates had they fallen into a different environment on draft night. Not all players end up with second chances; D’Angelo Russell is fortunate to get his in Brooklyn.
It was less than three years ago when Russell first burst onto the public’s NBA draft radar. At the time, I asked a scout about the Ohio State freshman guard’s personality. He said Russell was humble, yet driven and confident, and that he learned how to work harder and smarter after being coached at Montverde Academy. Russell was highly recruited by top colleges, but didn’t receive national hype until his freshman year. No one could’ve expected him to go one-and-done. As the scout explained, even Russell was shocked his life was advancing so quickly. “I didn’t plan on it," Russell told Chad Ford months later. "I mean, it was always a dream. But to suddenly have the dream happen so soon. It was kind of scary."
It sure sounded like Russell was a kid who wasn’t taking everything happening to him for granted. But the D’Angelo the scout described isn’t the D’Angelo we know today. Russell is now the former no. 2 pick who failed to meet expectations with the Lakers and burned a number of bridges along the way. During his two seasons with Los Angeles, the 21-year-old ranked below the 30th percentile in overall scoring efficiency, per Synergy. He’s known by many as more of a Snapchat snitch than as an NBA athlete. Both before and after he was fired by the Lakers, former Lakers head coach Byron Scott openly ripped Russell’s maturity, and questions continued being peppered at Luke Walton. The Lakers dumped Russell and drafted LaVar Ball’s son as his replacement. Russell is still just 21 years old.
“When you’re able to get a talent like that in your gym, you’re excited about that,” Nets GM Sean Marks said regarding his young star’s mental makeup at Russell’s introductory presser. “But I’m not concerned about the maturity and so forth. What I am concerned about is what he brings and what our culture is, and how we can help develop him as a basketball player and a young man.” There are still doubts, but Marks is taking the right approach in addressing them.
It’s not a death sentence for guards drafted in the first round to be dealt early in their careers. True, there are disasters like Jonny Flynn and Sebastian Telfair. But there’s also Chauncey Billups, who got dumped by the Celtics because Rick Pitino impatiently pursued the playoffs. The Suns dealt Steve Nash because they acquired Jason Kidd, just as the Grizzlies moved Kyle Lowry because they drafted Mike Conley.
All those teams had their reasons for dealing their young guards, and the Lakers had theirs, too. Los Angeles got rid of Russell with Timofey Mozgov for Brook Lopez and the no. 27 pick (Kyle Kuzma) because they needed to dump Mozgov’s massive salary in order to open the cap space next offseason to chase LeBron James and Paul George (and possibly a third stylish superstar). With three years and $48 million remaining on Mozgov’s contract, Russell was the sweetener to make the deal acceptable for Brooklyn. “D’Angelo’s a special player and definitely don’t want to attach the name ‘expendable’ next to him because he’s an extraordinary talent,” Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said after the trade, also citing Lopez and the Kuzma pick as reasons for the deal. “We accomplished so much in one trade, it was really the perfect storm for us and we feel like it’s going to have a big impact.”
It wouldn’t be hard to imagine Marks saying those same words verbatim. The Nets are essentially a startup that’s still hiring, and they’re on a trajectory that fits Russell’s path. Young companies need to take calculated risks, and betting on a former no. 2 pick who has shown shimmers of superstardom seems like a good one. Russell has had multiple ice-in-my-veins moments through two years. A notable performance from last season came in his first game back from a leg injury in late January, when he nearly notched a triple-double with 22 points, 10 assists, and seven rebounds against Denver.
Russell occasionally flashes the game-changing playmaking skills he did at Ohio State, but under the microscope of the NBA, his weaknesses are more apparent. There’s room for growth, though. We got a taste of how Russell might operate in a multi-ball-handler offense last season under Walton, but now with the Nets he should get an increased opportunity that could accelerate his development. Kenny Atkinson runs a free-flowing motion offense that emphasizes their own brand of Moreyball with a high rate of layups and 3s. With Jeremy Lin likely serving as the primary ball handler, Russell will get chances to make strides both on and off the ball.
Russell shot a near league-average 36.8 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s the last two years in Los Angeles, per SportVU. Those numbers would be better if Russell wasn’t plagued by the same issue he had in college: footwork. He too often lands with a wide base, like he does in both clips above, which causes him to miss short. If Nets director of player development Adam Harrington can get Russell to land with a more repeatable motion, and Russell turns those lessons into habits, look for his percentages to rise.
For Russell to truly take the next step as a player he’ll need his interior scoring to improve significantly. Of the 97 players with a minimum of 100 shots in the restricted area last season, Russell ranked 86th in field goal percentage, per NBA.com/stats. He’s an under-the-rim player, so adding more dynamic finishing moves and learning how to better absorb contact would help him. Russell can still be a contributor without finishing or drawing a high rate of fouls. But when his shot isn’t falling, the ability to get to the rim would allow him to remain a source of offense.
Players themselves don’t always need to change situations in order for a breakout season to be imminent. Sometimes the environment they’re in shifts from beneath them. Look at Utah. During the Jazz’s exit meetings, general manager Dennis Lindsey told Rodney Hood to get ready for a bigger role, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. After Gordon Hayward left Utah for Boston, Hood’s progress only became more pertinent to the team’s success moving forward. “We believe Rodney Hood can be a primary scorer,” Lindsey said in July. “It’s time for us to pivot; it’s time for us to move on.”
Hood has shown flashes. He scored 20 or more points five times in the last month of his rookie season. For a 25-game stretch in the middle of his second season, Hood averaged 18.5 points on a 55.7 effective field goal percentage (eFG%). Hayward missed the first six games of the 2016-17 season with a dislocated finger, and Hood took full advantage by averaging 17.4 points with a 55.3 eFG%. Then, on November 29, Hood suffered a right-hamstring strain, the first of various injuries that derailed his season. The Duke product played only 59 games as a hyperextension, a bone contusion, and an LCL sprain to his right knee thwarted his third season.
It’s not the first time Hood has missed extended time. In 2011-12 as a freshman at Mississippi State, he had a deep bone bruise on his left knee. In 2013, while practicing for USA Basketball, he suffered a right Achilles tendon strain. As a rookie in 2014-15, he missed 29 games with plantar fasciitis to both his left and right feet (and he missed three other games due to gastrointestinal distress and a concussion).
Hood’s track record suggests he’s Mr. Glass; the best ability is availability. The Jazz have to hope it isn’t an issue moving forward. What Utah needs from Hood is something more than glimpses. The film and the numbers reveal reason for optimism.
The table below shows Hayward’s averages per 36 minutes against Hood’s numbers per 36 with Hayward off the floor, according to NBA.com/stats.
Statistics Per 36 Minutes
|Hood (Hayward Off-court)||22.2||17.7||4.8||2||54.2|
The fact that Hood’s per-36 numbers with Hayward off the floor are nearly a perfect match against Hayward’s per-36 stats should inject some hope into the veins of Jazz fans. Sure, per-36 averages can be extremely misleading—we’re merely extrapolating a smaller sample size out to a larger minutes distribution. (To that extreme, JaVale McGee averaged 23 points per 36 minutes last season!) It’s conceivable that the more minutes Hood plays, the more his numbers will plateau.
Hood’s stats also could’ve been boosted by the fact that when Hayward was on the bench, the opponent’s best defender might’ve been, too. Hood could’ve just been munching on scrubs. But talented players like Hood can elevate their play when fed chances, and we’ll soon see what happens with an increase in reps. “We feel like we can help players get better, and now we have a track record,” Lindsey said to the Salt Lake Tribune. “Guys know that if they are doing what’s needed in-house, they have a base to improve.”
If Jazz head coach Quin Snyder starts plugging Hood into the same type of role that helped Hayward blossom, then maybe Hood could follow suit. Utah used the pick-and-roll to finish 39 percent of its possessions last season, per Synergy, which was third most in the NBA. Expect to see a lot of screens for Hood:
Hood’s herky-jerky movements are visually addictive (and effective). He moves with quick, sudden movements that often leave his defenders trailing, and he bursts into his jumpers to get shots off. In all three seasons of his NBA career, he’s finished in at least the 75th percentile for scoring efficiency in the pick-and-roll, per Synergy. He can pass, too:
At Duke, Hood’s dribble was so high that it sometimes went over his shoulder, leaving him prone to getting stripped. Every year in the league, he’s tightened his handle more and more, which has only enhanced his playmaking. He has excellent passing vision and is even better at throwing darts into the breadbasket of his teammates. Versatility is a premium skill in the NBA, so it’s nice to have a 6-foot-8 wing who can pass as well as he scores.
With Ricky Rubio at point guard, however, Hood will frequently get pushed off the ball. That’s fine, because Hood is a reliable shooter who has knocked down 39.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s since entering the NBA, per SportVU. Hood does more than just stand in the corner and wave his hands to call for the ball; he works for the ball off screens and handoffs.
Snyder loved using quirky actions to put Hayward into positions to succeed, and it now seems reasonable to expect to see Hood in those spots. Here’s an example of a cool play Snyder could use for Hood:
Most dribble handoffs go downhill, with the big man delivering the rock to the ball handler who is running toward the rim. This play goes uphill, with Rudy Gobert standing at the top of the key, and Hayward sprinting from the paint and through the 3-point line. The odd angle leaves defenders eating dust. If they’re dazed and confused, Gobert is open for lobs, or Hayward could launch from anywhere on the court. The same uphill play was run occasionally for Hood, and he did well showing off his sweet stroke:
Shooting is nice, but for Hood to truly close the gap with Hayward—and sustain success even when his shot isn’t falling—he’ll need to make tremendous strides inside. Hayward masterfully absorbs contact like a trampoline and scores inside at an elite rate using acrobatic, ambidextrous finishes. Meanwhile, over Hood’s three seasons, he’s shot a dismal 45 percent on shots around the basket, per Synergy Sports. Hood was told by Lindsey to become more consistent and get better at drawing fouls, so they’ve at least made it a priority.
“There were a lot of challenges we gave Rodney,” Lindsey told the Salt Lake Tribune. “And he’s responded this summer. He’s going to be given a prominent role, and his development will be significant to us.” It might be unfair to expect Hood to replicate Hayward’s All-Star campaign, but he’ll get the chance to be the Most Improved Player. Will he capture it or just let it slip?