In any given year, the NBA is chock-o-block with surprises. Whether it be the out-of-the-blue trade, the surprise breakout or the unlikely contender, there is never a lack of the unexpected.
True to form, the 2018-19 regular and postseason had unexpected in spades.
There were a number of anomalies last year, both good and bad. The Toronto Raptors were expected to contend, but few had them as champions going into the year. The Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets were two of the NBA’s most highly touted, but both floundered amidst chemistry issues and overall poor play. The Los Angeles Clippers, a top team in the Western Conference at the time, traded arguably their most important player, Tobias Harris, to the Philadelphia 76ers midseason.
And, of course, there were the players that came out of nowhere to contribute.
Pascal Siakam, now Mr. Most Improved, was a star for the Raptors after two so-so seasons prior. Likewise, D’Angelo Russell led the Brooklyn Nets out of the NBA’s basement en route to his first All-Star campaign. De’Aaron Fox proved to be a Sacramento Kings cornerstone and one of the best young players in the league, after a rookie season that showed too little promise for a top-5 pick. Montrezl Harrell, an afterthought in the Clippers-Rockets Chris Paul trade two years ago, proved an integral cog for Los Angeles and finished third in the vote for Sixth Man of the Year.
The list goes on and on to an almost unbelievable extent. That’s just how the NBA goes; some players, unfortunately, just go unnoticed until they force their way into the conversation. Analysis and prediction can only go so far.
But, that said, several different players would seem to fit the mold cast by those aforementioned players (and the many others before them). Who among them could prove the NBA’s next big-time breakout?
Bam Adebayo – Miami HEAT
With Hassan Whiteside gone to Portland, a big opportunity is knocking for Bam Adebayo.
Adebayo is an explosive athlete that has done a bit of everything in his two seasons at the NBA level. He isn’t overly exceptional at any one thing, but there is serious value in a player as multifaceted as Adebayo can be when he’s at his best.
And now, with his main competition for minutes gone, his numbers should only improve.
The counting stats don’t do him justice, but it was obvious in watching that Adebayo was a major presence when on the floor. In 23.3 minutes per game, Adebayo averaged just 8.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.8 blocks. But, per 36 minutes, he impressed to the tune of a 13.7 point, 11.2 rebound double-double to go along with 3.5 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.2 blocks.
He isn’t going to be the next best point-big, but Adebayo should have plenty of opportunities to establish himself as a threat both as a passer and just generally on the offensive end. More time on the defensive end, and another offseason under his belt, should come with a boost in defensive production as well.
While he may not get as many touches because of his presence, playing with Jimmy Butler, who the HEAT brought in via a sign-and-trade with the Philadelphia 76ers, should only further enable Adebayo’s game, both offensively and defensively, as well.
Miles Bridges – Charlotte Hornets
The Charlotte Hornets are not going to be good in 2019. Fans, fortunately, won’t lack for bright spots.
Rookie PJ Washington is an intriguing piece that could step in and contribute right away. Meanwhile, eccentric personality and new addition Terry Rozier should provide plenty of entertaining moments and some solid basketball play in what could be a grueling season.
And, of course, there will be second-year wing Miles Bridges.
A ferocious dunker and uber-athlete, Bridges looked the part often last season. While, like Adebayo, his stats don’t look like much – 7.5 points, 4 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 21.2 minutes per game – there is plenty there to be hopeful for. Aside from those explosive dunks, Bridges showed impressive instincts on the defensive end with some well-timed, highlight-reel worthy blocks.
When given the opportunity, Bridges also proved capable as an offensive threat. His shooting wasn’t the best, but it was far from the worse and could see some major improvement in his second year.
And, let’s be honest – someone has to pick up the slack left by Kemba Walker’s departure. So, why not Bridges?
Bridges shot just 46.4 percent from the floor and 32.5 percent from three last season but, he has the ability to be a potent offensive weapon. With much of their offense from last year now vacated, the Hornets are going to give their young guys every chance to take over that role as an offensive hub.
With an abundance of minutes expected to come his way, don’t be surprised if Bridges pops.
Zach Collins – Portland Trail Blazers
Zach Collins is another player that could benefit from a restructured roster.
The team added Anthony Tolliver and Whiteside in early July, but there is still a relatively large hole left in the Portland frontcourt. Jusuf Nurkic is expected to miss most of next season with a leg injury, while Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless, Enes Kanter and Meyers Leonard have found their way out of Portland. Tolliver and Whiteside should help offset those losses, but they aren’t a cure-all for the Trail Blazers; Tolliver is 34 and just finished a less-than-stellar season in Minnesota, while the motivational issues with Whiteside are known.
Enter Collins, who struggled often last year but managed to show up big when Portland needed him to.
Collins wasn’t great in the regular season. In fact, he looked mediocre at best; stuck in the frontcourt logjam, he managed just over 17 minutes per game and posted 6.6 points and 4.2 rebounds. But, when the postseason came around, Collins stepped up.
In their second-round series against the Denver Nuggets, the Trail Blazers were in bad shape. Nurkic was gone and Kanter was nursing a shoulder injury that probably should have ended his season. In their absence, Collins stepped up and managed turned the series around. In the final three games, Collins managed an effective 11.7 points, 4 rebounds and 3.7 blocks as the Trail Blazers clawed their way to the Western Conference Finals.
The 3.7 blocks per game would have led the NBA last season; if Collins could bring that on a consistent basis, he would be as one of the league’s best defenders. It would also be a major boon for Portland and an affirmation that he is the player they hoped he would become when they took him 10th overall in 2017.
Mitchell Robinson – New York Knicks
Mitchell Robinson, given what was expected of him, has already proven quite the surprise.
A highly touted but, ultimately unknown commodity, Robinson dropped to the Knicks in the second round of the 2018 NBA Draft. He proved himself a force to be reckoned with in short order, as he made his presence felt on the defensive end with block after block after block.
Robinson finished the season fourth in total blocks (161) and second in blocks per game (2.4). He was almost a non-factor on offense, and he struggled mightily with fouls, but Robinson proved that he belonged in the NBA.
And now, with an entire offseason to work on his game, he may only improve from there.
If Robinson can curb the foul trouble, he could find himself in the running for Defensive Player of the Year – he’s just that talented on that side of the floor. Everything beyond that is a bonus for the Knicks, who should give him every opportunity to improve after they whiffed in free agency and pivoted toward the long term.
The team brought in a number of frontcourt players, including Taj Gibson, Marcus Morris, Bobby Portis and Julius Randle, but did so on short term deals. In fact, their presence could serve to Robinson’s benefit, should he pull anything from their respective offensive games.
The starting five-spot should be Robinson’s to lose. If he can run with it, Robinson could put the NBA on notice.
These aren’t the only players that could find their way up the NBA latter next season. In fact, should one of these players prove the next big thing, it may seem underwhelming given the NBA’s penchant for the unexpected.
However, these men are some of the few that, to some degree or another, appear poised to make a leap in their development.
As it was with Siakam, Russell, Fox and Harrell before them, the talent hasn’t always been evident for these players, but they have the ability to be some of the best the NBA has to offer. It may just be a matter of them taking initiative with their game and advantage of the opportunities that lay before them.