Updated: Mar 9, 2021
Hard to believe that the NBA season is already reached the midway point. This season has been a roller coaster. We’ve had James Harden’s ugly divorce from the Rockets, which now has the Nets as arguably the team to beat in the East. My beloved Knicks are somehow right in the mix for the FOUR SEED (!!!!!!) in an admittedly top-heavy (and generally shitty) Eastern Conference. We’ve seen teams like the Timberwolves and Hawks give their respective coaches the pink slip. And I haven’t even mentioned the top seeds in the West. Is Anthony Davis’ injury a real cause for concern for the defending champs? Are the Jazz and Suns for real? Will Paul George finally get his shit together in crunch time? I, for one, can’t wait to see how everything shakes out following the All-Star break.
In the meantime, let’s focus on five players who have really come into their own this season to make a splash with their respective teams. Trust me, you’ll want to know what these guys are all about. Each one of them has a chance to be a real force in this league for years to come. Without further ado, let’s start our list of the NBA’s Top 5 Breakout Players with the only rookie on this list:
5. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets
LaMelo Ball is not a normal rookie. Pretty much every rookie (from the US, at least) has played on the AAU circuit, gone to college, and has a litany of publicly-available highlights from games against kids their age. Not Melo. Instead, we have videos of Melo douching it up in high school by pulling from half-court and cherry-picking like crazy en route to 92 points. After that, he basically disappeared overseas to go play in Narnia – oops, I meant Lithuania – and Australia. When he became officially draftable last season, I don’t think I was the only one saying “Man, this kid has some serious bust potential. Who the hell has he played?”
Well, I guess there’s a reason why I’m not an NBA GM. Melo is FOR REAL. He’s putting up 16/6/6 on 45% shooting and 38% on threes to go along with a robust 1.6 steals per game. Take a closer look at his stats since he was inserted into the starting lineup and they really start to jump off the page.
But Melo isn’t a player who you can describe by sheer numbers. You can tell how special this kid just by watching how he operates. He’s flashy, but he has a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and clearly has unbelievable court vision. He’s aggressive on offense, which is exactly what you need from a bigger, lead guard to open the floor up for everyone else. Plus, he has silenced critics by absolutely getting after it on the defensive end and hustling his ass off. The Hornets are now sitting at 17-18, good for 7th in the Eastern Conference standings. Who could have possibly predicted that Charlotte would be a playoff team this season?
4. Christian Wood, Houston Rockets
A couple of disclaimers here: Christian Wood has been injured for a major chunk of this season and the Rockets are sitting at 14th in the West with a cool 11-23 record. Regardless, the Rockets’ garbage record has nothing to do with Christian’s play (when he was on the floor). After bouncing around between 7 teams in 5 seasons, Christian seems to have found a home in Houston where he can finally start to maximize his potential. After playing as more of a traditional 4 role previously, the Rockets have allowed the long, 6-foot-10 gazelle to operate as a center. He’s rewarded them with 22 points, 10 boards, and 1.5 blocks per game, proving himself as a two-way terror and an absolute nightmare matchup for opposing defenses. Houston may be rebuilding for the immediate future, but if and when they eventually turn it around, Christian will be a major reason why.
3. Jerami Grant, Detroit Pistons
Back in December, I wrote the following about the Nuggets’ decision to let Jerami Grant leave in free agency: “The bad news is that the Nugs will regret letting Grant walk. He’s emerged as a really valuable 3&D player behind his stellar shooting in the Postseason. Denver’s floor spacing, pace, and switchability on defense will take a massive hit.”
Maybe I should be an NBA GM? The Nuggets are struggling (by their standards) at 20-15, good for 7th in the West. Grant, meanwhile, is killing it in Detroit. If the Pistons didn’t have the worst record in the East (10-25), he would almost certainly be an All-Star. He’s averaging 23.4 points (his previous career-high was 13.6) and career-highs in rebounds (5.3) and assists (2.9). He’s starting to create for himself, hitting 37% of his threes while playing his usual, stellar defense. As I said a few months ago, 3&D players like Jerami have tremendous value in today’s NBA. Detroit should consider themselves lucky they locked down a special one.
2. Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz
So I’ve always thought of Jordan Clarkson as a poor (like, I’m talking total destitution and squalor) man’s version of Lou Williams. They both come off the bench, possess the shit out of the ball, shoot a ton and avoid passing at all costs. It seems like he’s literally spent his entire 7-year career dribbling his way into stepback midrange jumpers at the end of the shot clock.
This year feels way different, though. I say “feels” because even though he’s averaging career-highs in points and assists, his counting stats are generally in line with his numbers from past years. But it just feels like he’s starting to figure it out. He’s taking less contested mid-range jumpers, substituting them for more threes and shots at the rim. He’s facilitating more than he ever has, (almost) always making the right play with the ball in his hands. He’s also dominating opposing bench lineups to the point where the Jazz are not experiencing much drop-off once Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert head to the bench. He’s the clear front-runner for Sixth Man of the Year and is a big reason why the Jazz have the best record in the NBA. Oh, and he’s shooting 97% from the free-throw line, and if you know me at all, that makes me automatically love him.
1. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
My guy Jayson Tatum gets all the love on the Celtics, and rightfully so. Dude’s a beast. This might be a scalding-hot take, but every time I watch the Celtics play, I come away thinking that Jaylen Brown might just have a higher ceiling. He’s starting to put it all together, and the stats show it this season. He’s averaging career-highs in points (24.8), assists (3.9), steals, blocks, three-point %, FG%, and more en route to his first career All-Star berth.
Beyond counting stats, he’s one of the few players in the NBA I truly enjoy watching play defense. Every single possession he’s up in dude’s faces, in a stance, making their lives hell. The Celtics are catching flak for repeatedly blowing second-half leads, and that is completely warranted. But people forget that Jayson and Jaylen are just 23 and 24 years old, respectively. Oh, and both are signed to long-term max extensions. They desperately need to move on from Kemba Walker, but the Celtics aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.