Updated: Jan 25, 2021
Somehow, with EVERYTHING going on these days, the 2020-2021 NBA season is in full swing! There have been hiccups – some of which were expected, some not so much. In the “expected” category, the NBA shrewdly released only the first half of the schedule so that the league could maintain flexibility with game postponements/cancellations due to the Big Rona. In the “unexpected” category, we had a domestic terrorist attack on the US Capitol, which (probably? Who the hell knows) caused Kyrie Irving to miss seven games for personal reasons. Despite all of the off-court drama and storylines so far this season (what’s up, James Harden?), each team has more or less played around 15 games. While not a huge sample size, that’s enough for me to gauge who spent the most time in the lab this offseason. With that said, here are the Top 5 breakout NBA players so far in this 2020-2021 season.
5. Keldon Johnson, San Antonio Spurs
For those unfamiliar, Keldon Johnson played one season at Kentucky before Coach Cal told him he was ready to go get paid. Heading into the 2019 NBA Draft, analysts pegged Keldon as a fringe lottery pick for his potential as a 3-and-D wing. However, he eventually slipped to 29th overall as talent evaluators saw him as the type of guy who does a lot of things well but doesn’t excel in any particular category. Experts also questioned his ceiling as a 6’5 wing, even in today’s small-ball league.
Fortunately, Gregg Popovich doesn’t give one singular shit about “experts” and “analysts.” Instead, Pop has done what he does best – finds a kid who’s willing to work and helps him maximize his potential. After only playing Keldon for 17 games as a rookie (and giving him very limited minutes), Pop has really taken the training wheels off in Year 2. Keldon has responded by becoming the Spurs’ most dependable wing, averaging 14.1/7.1/2.3 while playing stout defense, taking care of the ball, and posting efficient shooting stats. The Spurs may have faded into semi-irrelevance with former studs DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge at the helm, but Keldon represents a glimmer of hope as San Antonio looks to build for the future.
4. Luguentz Dort, Oklahoma City Thunder
I absolutely love Lu Dort, and his fantastic name is just one of the reasons why. Lu came out of Arizona State in 2019 with the reputation as an absolute defensive stud who could moonlight as an NFL linebacker if he wanted to. Unfortunately, his offensive projection was something along the lines of “stand in the corner, don’t get in anyone’s way, and maybe try to get an offensive rebound every once in a while.” For that reason, he went undrafted in 2019 and signed with the Thunder, half-expecting to be a G-Leaguer.
Lu ended up impressing some people within the Thunder organization last season in 36 games, but mostly as a defensive stopper (you may remember his legendary defense on James Harden in the Bubble). He was nearly invisible on offense though, averaging just 6.8 points per game and mostly standing still out on the perimeter. However, this season has been a different story. Lu is still playing his usual lockdown defense, but he’s all of a sudden averaging 13.4 points on 43.7% shooting from beyond the arc (on decent volume). He’s also showing overall growth on the offensive end with his ballhandling, playmaking, and movement off the ball. Lu may not get a ton of mainstream attention, but guys who can defend their ass off and shoot 44% on threes are primed to make a LOT of money in today’s NBA. Hopefully, Sam Presti uses his 9,000 draft picks to get Lu, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and company some help in OKC.
3. De’Andre Hunter, Atlanta Hawks
DISCLAIMER: I’m a Virginia alum and will forever love De’Andre Hunter for leading the Hoos to the 2019 NCAA Championship. Regardless, Dre’s improvement this season has been startling. For background, the Hawks traded up in the 2019 NBA Draft to snag Dre at #4 overall, thinking he would be a stout, versatile defender with the potential to provide some value on offense. Objectively speaking, Dre’s rookie season was a total shitshow as he looked a step slow on defense, couldn’t get much going offensively, and generally seemed unsure of himself. As a relatively quiet kid thrust into a major media market with the pressure of being a top-five pick, his early struggles didn’t come as a surprise to many.
The real surprise is how dramatically Dre has improved in Year 2. He’s scoring 16.7 points on 58%/40%/87% shooting, which is about as legit as it gets. He’s also pulling down 6.2 boards per game and looks much quicker and more engaged on defense. On MLK Day, everything clicked for Dre as he took over late in the game, dropping 25 points on 8-15 shooting in a win over the Timberwolves. Less than a week later, he dropped a career-high 33 points against the Bucks on 13-21 shooting. Perhaps most importantly, Dre really looks like he’s discovering himself and playing with confidence. He’s even picked up a couple of technical fouls this season, which would have been UNHEARD OF prior to this season. If Dre continues to improve his skills and his confidence, he’ll be a very valuable player in this league for a long time.
2. Julius Randle, New York Knicks
When the Knicks signed Julius Randle to a three-year, $63 million contract before the 2019-2020 season, I had a few thoughts (another disclaimer: I’m a huge Knicks fan). Most were along the lines of “THIS is the alternative to KD and Kyrie?!” or “Why the fuck are we signing so many power forwards?” Safe to say I wasn’t too enthused about the signing, and Julius’ solid-but-unspectacular performance last season didn’t do much to convince me otherwise.
However, this season has been an absolute revelation under new coach Tom Thibodeau. Julius is averaging career-highs in nearly every statistical category, putting up 22.8/11.0/6.1 while shooting 53% from the field and 36% from three. Julius’ renaissance has mostly been a product of Thibs’ revolutionary idea of transforming Julius into a facilitator on the perimeter. I imagine Thibs’ thought process went something like this: “our point guards all suck ass, so why not let Julius handle the ball and make some plays?” The approach is working so far, as the Knicks are a stellar 7-8. You might think stellar is a strong word for a sub-.500 record, but please just let me have this one. I’ve been through enough.
1. Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers
Last season, the Cavaliers drafted point guard Darius Garland at #5 overall to pair with second-year guard Collin Sexton in hopes that the duo would lead the Cavs’ backcourt for the next decade-plus. The pair responded with, uh, subpar play. And by that, I mean Collin ranked 182nd in the NBA in win shares while Darius ranked 529th… out of 529 possible players. YIKES. Between their shitty performances and Kevin Love’s 8,000th injury since the 2016 title, the Cavs finished 19-46, good for dead last in the Eastern Conference.
This season has been a completely different story. Sexton and Garland have both improved so dramatically that NBA sportswriters have dubbed them “Sexland.” Collin especially looks like a completely different player, averaging 27.0 points and draining 50% of his threes. He also spoiled Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving’s first game together last Wednesday by scoring 42 points, including TWENTY CONSECUTIVE POINTS (!!!!!!) in overtime and double overtime. Based on the state of the Cavs franchise, they must be THRILLED about their 7-7 record and the encouraging play from the Young Bull himself.