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Ten NBA Players on the Verge of a Breakthrough

A new season means new players stepping to the forefront. Here are a handful who look like they could make a leap two weeks into 2021-22.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One of the best parts of a new season is seeing who’s taking their games to the next level. After two weeks, a bunch of players have flashed major improvements, including more than a few who could end up on Most Improved Player of the Year ballots by season’s end. Here are 10 players who look primed for breakthroughs, what it’ll take for them to sustain their success, and how their play impacts their team.

Miles Bridges, Charlotte

Bridges is showing why he bet on himself and refused a four-year, $60 million contract extension before the season. He showed flashes of stardom last season with his shot creation; now he’s doubled his scoring from 12.7 up to 24.1 points per game. If he can keep producing at this clip, his next deal will be more like $120 million.

The Hornets likely wanted the 23-year-old forward to prove what he was capable of before paying him big money. Bridges told me on Monday that Hornets head coach James Borrego met with him after last season ended and told him to work on his ballhandling during the summer because an expanded role could be in store for him.

“He seen how I improved. He knew I would be creating more for the offense,” Bridges said over the phone. “Coach gives me the freedom to do that sometimes, so I know I’ll get the reps and get more comfortable.”

The Hornets have indeed fed Bridges more touches and shots, especially isolations, which he’s logging nearly three times as often per game as last season: from 1.8 to 5.0 isolations, according to Second Spectrum. Though he isn’t a shifty ankle-breaker type of scorer, he blends an explosive first step with decisive movements and pure strength to get to the basket. He has enough dexterity and too much quickness off the dribble for most bigs, and he’s too strong for guards and many wings.

For as long as opponents continue to put their best perimeter defender on LaMelo Ball, they’ll need to decide whether to put their second best on Bridges or Gordon Hayward. If Hayward can stay healthy and if Bridges continues producing at the level he is now, Charlotte will continue to present matchup issues and Bridges will keep feasting.

“Certain lineups, almost everybody has a mismatch,” Bridges said. “That’s what makes us a dangerous offense.”

Bridges has also expanded his shooting range off the dribble, and the Hornets are giving him the leash to launch. Last season, he attempted only 0.5 shots per game from 3 after taking at least one dribble; this season, he’s attempting 1.2. So far, he’s hitting only 18.2 percent of those 3-pointers, but last season he was making 40 percent; he looks more fluid finding those shots and could see his results improve.

The Hornets are tailoring Bridges’s role to his skills. Whether it’s sustainable remains to be seen, but it’s not like Bridges is simply riding a hot shooting streak. He’s doing far more than he did last season. More cutting. More spot-up shooting. More sprinting the floor to get available for lobs. He’s doing all the dirty work while showing progress in areas that could eventually make him a star.

Ja Morant, Memphis

Morant established himself as one of the game’s best young point guards in his first two seasons. The bulk of his offense revolved around getting to the basket, as the dynamic ball handler finished at an elite level or created scoring chances for his teammates. But shooting from the perimeter was a weakness; through his first two seasons, he shot only 31.7 percent from 3 and 40.5 percent from midrange outside of the paint. This season, Morant is posting superstar scoring numbers—27 points on 60.1 percent true shooting—and the difference comes from the perimeter.

Through eight games, Morant is shooting 36.6 percent from 3, primarily from shots off the dribble. This past summer, he focused on his jumper. “The work is always gonna show,” Morant told reporters last month. “Each and every day, I’m shooting those shots in workouts. Any time I have a chance to shoot that shot, I’m shooting it with all the confidence in the world.”

Morant certainly looks more comfortable shooting 3s than ever. But is it sustainable? It’s always a fair question when a player who hasn’t historically shot well suddenly shoots the lights out. But I’m buying his progress.

Morant has always had soft touch from floater range, on layups, and from the free throw line. Becoming a quality shooter was a matter of tweaking his mechanics. Before, it was rigid. Now it’s as fluid as his glides to the rim.

He also has a track record of improving over time. Morant didn’t receive a Division I offer until his senior year in high school. He wasn’t a top NBA prospect after his freshman season at Murray State, either, but he got much better as a sophomore. Now he’s following a similar path in the NBA.

Tyler Herro, Miami

After shining as a rookie in the bubble, Herro fizzled as a sophomore. This season, he is taking a leap by playing like he’s back at Disney World, except better. Herro is averaging 22.4 points and 4.4 assists on 57.8 percent true shooting off the bench for the 6-1 Heat. But forget the numbers: Herro now plays a mature brand of basketball. He’s making high-IQ plays that go beyond the box score, with cuts to the rim, back screens, and passes out of the pick-and-roll.

“I’ve come a long way,” Herro said after Miami’s season opener. “This organization and this coaching staff has really helped me take my game to the next level with the ball in my hand and be able to see the game before things happen.”

Herro might be coming off the bench, but he has been empowered to be Miami’s top scorer, leading the team with 18.1 shots per game, up from 12.9 last season. Half of those shots come from the midrange, according to Cleaning the Glass. Herro is utilizing floaters, runners, pull-ups, and fadeaways like a ’90s star.

If Herro’s perimeter shot-making ability is legit, he would be the perfect complement to the rest of the roster. Jimmy Butler has a slashing, downhill style. Kyle Lowry is more of a shot creator. Bam Adebayo is an excellent two-way big. P.J. Tucker is P.J. Tucker. Duncan Robinson has a flamethrower jumper. But none of them can create a 3-pointer off the bounce like Herro does for Miami.

“Confidence is born out of a lot of sweat behind the scenes,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said last month. This quote reads like a coach’s cliché, but Spoelstra’s not wrong. Herro has evolved because of the investment he and the Heat have put into his game. If this level of production is for real, Miami’s Finals odds will rise alongside Herro.

OG Anunoby, Toronto

Though Anunoby’s raw averages are way up from last season (15.9 points to 20.3), his efficiency is down (60.5 percent true shooting to 52). For Anunoby to make an even bigger leap, he’ll need to start putting the ball in the basket more often. But the fact he’s showing skill as a secondary shot creator while Pascal Siakam is sidelined is a positive development for the Raptors. Anunoby entered the NBA in 2017 as a projected 3-and-D role player who could defend multiple positions and hit spot-up 3s. But doing much of anything off the dribble was an adventure.

At this point, at only age 24, Anunoby can handle the ball enough so that opponents can’t stick slower-footed defenders on him. He’s still not a lead ball handler, but he’s too quick now. And with youth still on his side, there’s plenty more time for him to blossom even more.


Cole Anthony, Orlando

“There was 14 dudes picked ahead of me,” Cole Anthony said after scoring 24 points last month against the Raptors. “You think there’s 14 dudes better than me in that draft? I’m just curious. What do you think?”

Hey Cole, great question. Right now, there aren’t. As a rookie, you were an inefficient small guard who took a ton of shots only because the Magic stunk and had no choice but to feed shots to their first-rounder. All of the growing pains have been worth it, though. Now you’re averaging 18.7 points and 5.4 assists while shooting 40.3 percent from 3. Good job!

The encouraging sign for Magic fans wondering whether Anthony is for real is that he got progressively better last season. Decisions were happening quicker, and the tough shots he tends to take were falling. That’s just been ramped up even more. After all, Anthony was an elite high school prospect. Maybe he just needed time to adjust.

Harrison Barnes, Sacramento

At 29 years old, Barnes is the old geezer of this list. But moving from 16.1 points to 23.3 points per game makes him a worthy addition. While he won’t continue shooting 47.3 percent from 3 (compared to 37.8 percent for his career), his scoring volume is replicable. Barnes isn’t exactly better skills-wise, but his usage has changed. This season, he’s shooting seven times from 3 per game, up from 3.4 for his career and 4.4 last season. Barnes has become a knockdown shooter off the catch. It makes sense to feed him attempts.

Desmond Bane, Memphis

It’s not just Morant pushing Memphis to new heights offensively. It’s the man with the coolest last name in the NBA: Bane.

Bane is doing a little bit of everything on offense en route to averaging 17.5 points as a starter (up from 9.2 coming off the bench last season). He’s a great shooter who has made subtle tweaks to his release point since college to shoot more smoothly off the dribble. This has opened up his ability to generate buckets in the pick-and-roll for himself or for others.

With his high basketball IQ, feel for cutting, and defensive ability, Bane is now the perfect backcourt partner for Morant.

The Grizzlies need their defense to step up to take a leap in the West. But with Morant and Bane making progress, Memphis is still taking big steps forward.

Jakob Poeltl, San Antonio

No one would blame you if you didn’t watch San Antonio in recent years. The legends are gone. The playoff streak is over. The Spurs have built a solid foundation of young players like Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson, and Josh Primo, yet their future will likely be shaped by the players they draft in the years to come.

But while they’re waiting, the Spurs have managed to turn Jakob Poeltl into another core contributor. Acquired from Toronto as part of the Kawhi Leonard trade, Poeltl, 26, has gone from a good to great rim protector.

Poeltl doesn’t block many shots, but he deters a bunch of them because he’s always in the right position. Opponents shoot 10 percentage points worse than average when defended by Poeltl within 6 feet of the rim.

On offense, Poeltl is carrying a heavier load than before, logging 36 touches in the frontcourt per game, which leads the team and is up 14 from last season. Poeltl isn’t flashy, but he’s a strong interior finisher and a slick passer. San Antonio trusts him to make the right play, and he usually does. The Spurs may lack a star, but guys like Poeltl (who’ll miss some time because of NBA COVID health and safety protocols) give them a good group of supporting pieces.

Cam Reddish, Atlanta

Remember Reddish’s Shaqtin’ a Fool moment from his rookie season?

At the time, Reddish couldn’t dribble, shoot, or do much of anything on offense. But versatile defense was his calling card through two seasons, and his flashes on offense were enough to keep fans invested. This season, things are finally clicking.

Reddish has a far tighter handle that he uses to run offense when Trae Young isn’t on the floor. He’s comfortable in the pick-and-roll, and now he has a more consistent jump shot. With Reddish’s defensive ability, his emerging offense could soon make him one of the better two-way role players in the league. That’s the type of support Young and the Hawks will need to go even deeper in the playoffs.

Mo Bamba, Orlando

Folks, Bamba has arrived. So far this season, the no. 6 pick in 2018 is averaging career highs across the board: 11.7 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 2.0 blocks in 31.9 minutes.

Should Steve Clifford go to prison for not giving regular minutes to Bamba in past seasons? Yes. Should Jamahl Mosley be named Emperor of Mars? Yes. Thank goodness Orlando hired a head coach who values player development. Bamba, Anthony, and many other young guys on the team have been given the freedom to make mistakes and play through them.

To Bamba’s credit, he has improved his body so he can withstand contact in the paint. And he’s finally shooting a high percentage from 3. Consistent minutes certainly helps though.

On defense, he’s straight-up hustling. Many young bigs take years to show good awareness on defense, and at 23, Bamba looks more comfortable than ever. He has good positioning in the pick-and-roll, and he uses his 7-foot-10 wingspan to block or alter shots inside. Bamba still needs to get much stronger. Bigs can still back him down and overpower him on the post. Bamba has made significant progress, but there’s still so much more room to grow.