Before he became an integral part of Toronto’s championship roster and the NBA’s Most Improved Player, Pascal Siakam averaged 20.7 minutes per game in 2017-18 and shot 22 percent from behind the arc. He didn’t crack Sports Illustrated or ESPN’s top 100 player lists heading into the season. He was understandably off the radar.
Siakam’s story is unusual and unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. But if you’re searching for the next Siakam and using similar parameters to find him (younger than 24, less than 21 MPG a game last season), here are some of the best options to break out in a big way.
Zach Collins, F/C, Portland Trail Blazers
It’s not often you see a player ranked 11th in minutes per game on his own team swing a playoff series, but that’s what Collins did in the Western Conference semifinals against the Denver Nuggets. With Portland on the brink of elimination, Collins replaced an ineffective Al-Farouq Aminu and collected 21 points and nine blocks in the final two wins of the series for the Blazers.
Despite being only 21, the breakout felt like a long time coming for Collins, the 10th pick of the 2017 draft. Collins had shown all the tools to be an effective rim runner and shot blocker as a rookie—good end-to-end speed, soft hands, the ability to track the ball—and, in his rookie season, he even registered the best defensive field goal percentage allowed at the rim (47 percent) of any player who appeared in at least 40 games.
Still, it was easy to see why Collins never became a more reliable member of Terry Stotts’s regular-season rotation. Aside from lacking the strength to finish through contact, Collins couldn’t defend on the perimeter like Aminu, he couldn’t make the same baseline cuts that Moe Harkless did, he couldn’t set the kind of screens and demand real estate the way Jusuf Nurkic (and later, Enes Kanter) did, and he couldn’t shoot it like Meyers Leonard.
Stotts won’t get to play Goldilocks when going down the Blazers bench this season. With Aminu (Magic), Harkless (Clippers), Leonard (Heat), Kanter (Celtics), and Evan Turner (Hawks) gone, and Nurkic still recovering from injury until sometime around February, Collins is now the longest-tenured member of Portland’s frontcourt and the player most familiar with the idiosyncrasies of Stotts’s offense. There’s a higher skill level present, especially on the block, than Collins has been allowed to fully exhibit yet.
Recently acquired veterans like Hassan Whiteside, Anthony Tolliver, and Pau Gasol will be tempting to play, but the best thing for Portland’s long-term health would be for Collins to grow into the rare mobile 7-footer who can block shots and stretch the floor, no matter whether that time comes at the 4 or the 5. Stotts will have to make concessions while Collins continues to add strength, but they’re worth making for a big who can do so many different things. Portland needs someone other than Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to pop, and Collins is the best bet to do it.
De’Anthony Melton, G, Memphis Grizzlies
Phoenix went the baptism-by-fire route with Melton, throwing the second-round pick into the starting point guard role on an overmatched team. It went how you’d expect, but there were enough splashes of playmaking on both ends to generate intrigue elsewhere. Although the trade between Memphis and Phoenix also involved a former no. 4 pick in Josh Jackson, Melton could easily become the best player in the deal.
Melton has the vision, unselfishness, and pace to be effective at the point, but he’s a total nonthreat as a shooter off the dribble. The 6-foot-4 guard hit a dreadful 19.1 percent from the field his rookie season, and while it’s not a shot he relies on, it made him an easy “duck under” candidate on ball screens and limited his effectiveness in getting to the rim. Point guards who can’t shoot are a dying breed for a reason.
Melton’s 36 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, however, could provide a path to playing time on the barren wings in Memphis. With Ja Morant and Tyus Jones comfortably handling the lead ballhandling duties, it might be the only way for Melton to see significant time. With no hope of contending this season, new coach Taylor Jenkins should pour minutes into Melton over every other Grizzly wing to see if he can make the transition.
The reason? With a 6-foot-9 wingspan and major anticipation skills off the ball, Melton ranked second in the NBA in deflections as a rookie and had the best steal percentage (3.3 percent) of anyone who played at least 900 minutes last season. The last rookie to post a higher steal percentage (playing a minimum of 900 minutes) than Melton was Rajon Rondo in 2006-07, and typically, steal percentage correlates well with NBA success. Melton hustles, rebounds out of his area, and will make the right pass more often than not. He plays hard enough to mask some of his warts, especially as a tertiary offensive option, making him a fine spiritual successor to the Grit and Grind wings of the past. There’s potential here.
Harry Giles, F/C, Sacramento Kings
Sacramento’s summer made me want to go destroy Castle Byers: I know the Kings had to grow up, but part of me wishes they could play the unsuspected underdog in shootouts forever. Dreaming on the potential of a Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles frontcourt pairing was no small part of last season’s fun, and even though the duo didn’t produce positive net ratings in limited court time together, you could see the chemistry between them developing, with both players proving interchangeable in the high-low post equation.
It’s rare to see a young big man possess the awareness and passing IQ that Giles does. There have been only 10 other rookies (over 6-foot-10, playing a minimum of 800 minutes) in NBA history to have an assist percentage higher than Giles, and the list includes some of the best passing bigs we’ve ever seen: Bill Walton, Nikola Jokic, Blake Griffin, and Lamar Odom, to name a few. Giles is lacking as a jump shooter, and his nondunk finishes around the rim can be on the ambitious side, but he understands spacing and passing windows well beyond his years.
The fear is that a suddenly crowded frontcourt featuring Harrison Barnes, Trevor Ariza, Dewayne Dedmon, Nemanja Bjelica, and Richaun Holmes will leave Giles with a similar role as last season. It’s understandable that Sacramento wants to make a push for the postseason, and that new head coach Luke Walton may opt for better pace-and-space options, but the former no. 1 player in the class of 2016 has talent that simply can’t be ignored. Giles needs court time to fully grasp his new physical limitations following multiple knee surgeries, work out his foul issues, and develop a more comfortable midrange game, but it’s time well spent. Don’t grow up too fast, Kings.
Mitchell Robinson, C, New York Knicks
Temporarily ignore the fact that New York spent a combined $57 million for next season this summer on four different power forwards when the league is using power forwards less and less, and revert your attention back to the monster rookie season Robinson just had. Robinson’s 69.4 field goal percentage is the highest a rookie has ever posted (playing a minimum of 800 minutes), and his block percentage as a rookie is second only to Manute Bol’s. Robinson had fewer missed field goals and free throws combined (143) than he had blocked shots (161) last season. That’s absurd.
Robinson patrolled the air almost solely on instinct and athleticism, pulling off at least one play a game that would make your jaw drop. And while it’s less sexy than the highlights and big numbers, the Knicks were better on both ends (plus-3.6 net rating) with Robinson on the floor, something incredibly rare for a rookie center this raw. Sets with multiple actions would occasionally leave him looking like a lost puppy, but there was always a self-awareness present with Robinson, even in garbage time, that has escaped some of his athletic contemporaries (example: JaVale McGee). Robinson knows he’s on the floor to roll to the rim and to protect it on the other end, and he’s shown massive upside in that role.
Still, Knicks head coach David Fizdale is in the unenviable position of needing to win games to retain his job, despite having a roster incapable of doing so, needing to placate his frontcourt veterans with playing time in order to keep the locker room, and having a young center who needs that time more. Doing the right thing is usually the right thing—the need for Robinson to play outweighs the need for anyone else to save face for what happened this offseason. He’s sure as hell more likely to save someone’s job than Bobby Portis is.
OG Anunoby, SF, Toronto Raptors
Anunoby’s hype train lost some steam during his sophomore campaign, as his shooting regressed and there was little evidence of major growth elsewhere. After a season-ending emergency appendectomy that kept him out of the postseason, the pendulum of public opinion on him has probably swung too far in the other direction.
There isn’t a player who will benefit more by receiving regular starter’s minutes than Anunoby. In the 32 games last season in which Anunoby received between 20 and 29 minutes of playing time, he shot 48 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from behind the arc with a plus-minus of plus-3.2. But in the 31 games Anunoby received between 10 and 19 minutes, those numbers dropped to 39.2 and 27.6 percent with a plus-minus of minus-9.2. The pressure of coming in cold and performing quickly should be removed now, as the Raptors have a Fun Guy–sized hole at small forward to fill.
The breakout happened for Siakam with increased opportunity in his third season; Anunoby already has all the physical tools to get to the rim with regularity and will take on a heavier scoring load by default. For Toronto to stay in the hunt, lightning may need to strike twice.