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A career year is the most brilliant type of NBA breakout.
The stars align, the basketball gods grant their blessing, and players put forth a campaign greater than any they’ll ever produce.
At times, these meteoric rises can seemingly come with no rhyme or reason.
Who pegged Paul George as an MVP finalist ahead of last season? Considering he’d never finished higher than ninth, we’ll conservatively guesstimate nobody. Who foresaw Nikola Vucevic making his All-Star debut? He was on a shortlist of the Association’s likeliest trade candidates given his expiring contract and the arrival of Mohamed Bamba.
But maybe we just glossed over the tea leaves.
George was finally free of the distractions from his trade request out of Indiana, his transition to Oklahoma City and the constant (and, as we now know, prescient) speculation linking him to Los Angeles. Having the security of a four-year, $137 million deal probably didn’t hurt, either. Meanwhile, Vooch should’ve been at maximum motivation for the same reasons he seemed on the trade block.
While this by no means makes career years predictable, it suggests that the right amount of research and forward-thinking analysis can help identify potential candidates. In fact, if you’re buying player stocks ahead of the 2019-20 season, these stars seem primed for career campaigns.
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Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls
The only time LaVine gets mentioned among NBA stars is when the discussion revolves around the league’s best aerial artists. But that could change this season.
He produced at an All-Star level last year—one of 14 players to average 23 points, four assists and four rebounds—but the numbers failed to resonate on a 60-loss team. The Bulls could be much improved this time around due to a healthy Lauri Markkanen, a healthy Wendell Carter Jr., a full season of Otto Porter Jr. and the offseason additions of Coby White and Tomas Satoransky.
Chicago’s upgrades at point guard should lessen LaVine’s need to create for others, which will put him in an ideal role as a (probable) No. 1 scorer and secondary table-setter. He isn’t guaranteed to lose volume, but the extra support could improve his already encouraging efficiency (46.7/37.4/83.2 slash line in 2018-19).
Looking long-term, though, the 24-year-old could already be running short on time as Chicago’s leading man. Markkanen looks primed to carry the mantle sooner than later, and White or Carter might pick it up if he falters.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
Never mind that Towns is 23 years old and only entering his fifth NBA season. He might be the league’s most gifted offensive big man right now—full stop. The Ringer’s Danny Chau explained:
“Nikola Jokic is a better passer but even at his most assertive won’t take over a game on offense the same way KAT can; Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Anthony Davis all have rightful claims at being better two-way players, but none can shoot nearly as well from distance, which might be just as meaningful to the way teams game-plan around a star.”
Building off Towns’ established level won’t be easy. He’s already producing nearly unprecedented stat lines, and there is only so much potential upward mobility for a 51.8/40.0/83.6 percent shooter.
The bigger reason he’s left off this list, though, is something he can’t control: the quality of his supporting cast.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are in experimentation mode when it comes to building around him, and they hope “to have that formula come to fruition three or four years down the road,” per Jace Frederick of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
For now, Towns doesn’t have the costars needed to put forth his best. Give Jarrett Culver and Josh Okogie time to mature and Andrew Wiggins a chance to either figure things out or stop being a burden on the Wolves’ books, and then we can start talking career-year potential for KAT.
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Andre Drummond has a pair of All-Star selections, an All-NBA honor and three rebounding titles to his credit, but his best could be yet to come.
In case you hadn’t noticed—the Detroit Pistons’ mileage on the treadmill of mediocrity hasn’t been the easiest on the eyes—the bouncy big man has added to his arsenal. Two seasons back, he climbed from atrocious to adequate at the free-throw line and dramatically improved as a distributor. This past year, he delivered his strongest defensive effort to date.
While it’s hard to say what’s next, it’s easy to imagine something is in the works.
By declining his $28.8 million player option for 2020-21, he could enter free agency in a summer mostly devoid of marquee names. If he waited a year, he might be a forgotten face in a player pool that could feature Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James and more.
In other words, Drummond should approach this as a contract year. If he does, his numbers could continue to climb on a Pistons team lacking high-level talent beyond him and Blake Griffin. Drummond hit another gear down the stretch (18.6 points and 16.5 boards per game over his final 35 appearances), and first-year skipper Dwane Casey had previously praised his growth.
“He’s trying to expand his game, and he’s doing everything we’re asking him to do,” Casey said, per Rod Beard of the Detroit News. “He’s doing a great job of screening, and you can’t name me a better rebounder in the world than Andre Drummond.”
This might be Drummond’s best remaining chance to take a massive leap as the Motor City could soon see sweeping changes. Reggie Jackson is a free agent in 2020, and Griffin could be one the following year. If Drummond’s surrounding cast changes—either in-house or with a different team—he may never again have this blend of support and a starring role.
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Draymond Green has made a habit of beating the odds.
He wasn’t a top-30 recruit in his high school class. He wasn’t a top-30 pick in the 2012 draft. He was a ‘tweener when some NBA teams still feared that label, and he never blew people away with his athleticism.
And yet he was as critical to one of the most dominant dynasties in NBA history as anyone. Still shy of his 30th birthday—that’s coming in March—he’s already a three-time All-Star, a three-time champion, a two-time All-NBA selection and, as of early August, a $100 million man.
He’s at his best proving people wrong, which he didn’t need to do much when his Golden State Warriors were at the peak of their powers. But with Kevin Durant gone and Klay Thompson sidelined indefinitely by a torn ACL, Green finally has that beloved underdog label back.
“It’s been a while since we’ve been the underdog,” Green told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols. “But it brings that underdog chip back, and I miss that chip. … So to the oddsmakers, thanks. You got me where I am today. I look forward to where they take me again.”
An energized and motivated Draymond is a powerful force, and that could become more statistically clear than ever.
While the forward has long been an advanced-analytics darling, Golden State needs more traditional production from him to offset the missing firepower. With increases in volume and aggressiveness, he could post career bests in points, assists and rebounds, perhaps flirting with a triple-double average in a best-case scenario.
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Kyrie Irving should feel at home with the Brooklyn Nets.
He grew up in nearby West Orange, New Jersey. He’s bringing along his close friend, Kevin Durant, and former Team USA Olympic teammate DeAndre Jordan. He’s in a destination he hand-selected and with an organization he surely studied inside and out.
“I think this is the first time Kyrie is choosing where he wants to be,” YES Network’s Sarah Kustok said on the Crossover podcast. “This is not through a trade and not through the draft. This is Kyrie saying ‘I have a multitude of options, and this is the place where I feel comfortable,’ and it seems like something that he is thought about for a long time.”
Comfort isn’t discussed often enough with NBA fits. Irving lost that feeling in Cleveland as he couldn’t shake the shadow of LeBron James. He never seemed to thrive in Boston, where he failed to connect with his younger teammates and wasn’t the best fit for head coach Brad Stevens’ system.
Everything could change in Brooklyn.
Irving will have near-total control of this offense for most or all of the 2018-19 season while Durant works his way back from a ruptured Achilles. He also walks into a system better suited to his skills—Brooklyn ran more isolations and more pick-and-rolls than Boston—and a supporting cast with more defined roles and complementary talents.
He has enough help to avoid being on an island, but his place atop the hierarchy is unquestioned. In other words, he can increase his output to career levels without doing much (if any) harm to his efficiency.
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Kemba Walker‘s most talented NBA teammate to date is arguably Al Jefferson. His most successful squad was the 2015-16 Charlotte Hornets, who won 48 games before the Miami Heat bounced them out of the first round.
This could be a banner year for the Bronx native, both for what he’ll do individually and what will happen around him.
By joining the Boston Celtics, he has upgraded his supporting cast to feature the likes of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward. Walker has also put himself under the wing of head coach Brad Stevens, who once propped up Isaiah Thomas to a 28.9 points-per-game scoring average and a fifth-place finish in MVP voting.
“It’s a perfect fit,” Walker told Kristian Winfield of the New York Daily News. “[Kyrie Irving] left, so there was an open spot for me. Great young talent, and they wanted me. When you have interest and when you feel wanted, that’s what people want.”
With more scoring help than ever, Walker could improve on his career highs of 44.4 percent shooting from the field and 39.9 percent three-point accuracy. But this should be his offense to pilot—Tatum and Brown are still developing, while Hayward keeps searching for his post-injury niche—which means he could also challenge his personal bests of 25.6 points and 6.1 assists.
With Walker’s 30th birthday awaiting him in May, this could be the best combination he’ll ever have of individual talent, athletic prowess and team support.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.