John Hollinger ESPN Insider November 2, 2010
Free Kevin Love!
The movement breaking out in Minnesota to release the Timberwolves' best player from his 25-minute-per-game shackles has spread far and wide, especially since the one obstacle to increased playing time -- a frontcourt pairing with the equally immobile Al Jefferson -- was rectified over the summer.
Instead, Love sat out the fourth quarter on opening day so that journeyman Anthony Tolliver could play in crunch time, and the two following games have brought no greater solace to Love fans.
This comes despite no decline in Love's freakish output on the glass. In his third NBA season, Love is averaging an eye-popping 20.8 rebounds per 40 minutes and ranks third in the league in rebound rate (25.6). He's been in a bit of a shooting slump at 34.2 percent through three games, but even so, the 22-year-old is averaging better than a point every two minutes; he's also entitled to miss a few shots after leading the NBA in player efficiency rate (PER) during the preseason.
Despite his recent stints on the pine, however, Love is still the captain of this year's All-Breakout Team. That's right, it's that time again -- we're nominating this year's candidates for breakout seasons. Last year's squad included the league's Most Improved Player (Aaron Brooks) and the runner-up (Kevin Durant), along with a couple of picks we'd like to have back. (Elton Brand? Seriously, John, wutdahell?)
This year we're looking harder at players who are deeper into their career and showed improvement over the summer, and a bit less at the second-year phenoms (actually, I have only two second-year players this time). While young players remain dominant, this year's squad focuses more on third- and fourth-year players.
Getting back to Love: He qualifies on multiple levels. First, he was really good a year ago, with an All-Star-caliber PER of 20.72. Second, one of the barriers to his playing more has been removed with the Jefferson trade. Third, he improved over the summer, busting out an accurate 3-point shot. Finally, even though he hasn't played significantly more in the first three games, I maintain that no team could possibly be stupid enough to keep a player of this caliber in such a limited role all season … especially one with options as limited as Minnesota's.
So Love is my captain, as well as my Most Improved pick, in spite of his franchise's obstinance. Now let's meet the rest of the 15-man roster.
Group I: I know what you did last summer
Everybody in this group showed up in training camp looking far better than they had in previous years, and managed to carry it through the first few games.
Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies
The public perception is that Conley's five-year, $45 million extension is preposterous. Those who have seen him in preseason and the first three regular-season games, however, will tell you that Conley is one of the league's most improved players.
"He appears much faster," said one scout who wasn't sure if Conley had genuinely become faster or simply figured out how to make use of his speed on the basketball court. Conley also appears to have a bigger role in the offense than last year's pass-to-the-wing-and-jog-to-the-weakside-corner routine.
A career 38.3 percent 3-point shooter, Conley needed only to make his drive-and-dish game more of a weapon to become one of the league's better operators; for years I'd been puzzled by his inability to do so given his quickness. Apparently, he's starting to figure it out. I'm still not sure if it makes him a $45 million player, but this extension might not seem nearly as silly in a couple of months.
(By the way, for those asking why Memphis' Marc Gasol also wasn't extended: As a second-round pick originally, he's not on a rookie-scale contract. The maximum Memphis could give him in an extension starts at just under $4 million a year, which I think we can all agree is a wee bit below the Bearded Wonder's market value.)
Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers
The story for Hibbert isn't the 18.3 points per game (up from 11.7 last season); it's the other stuff. For starters, he appears to have lost weight and is now in much better condition. That helps him play longer stretches; more importantly, his fitness helps him avoid the fouls that prevented him from playing long stretches previously. Hibbert has just 11 personals in 104 minutes thus far, and at that rate he can average in the high 30s in minutes. Last season his foul trouble was so persistent he averaged just 25.1.
Second, Hibbert has begun to read double-teams and make incisive passes for easy buckets. He has 14 dimes in three games, including several in which he turned to read the defense and found a cutter at the rim. He's reportedly been working with assistant coach Vitaly Potapenko on his post game, and it appears to be paying dividends.
Lou Williams, Philadelphia 76ers
Philly's backcourt is crowded enough that I'm not sure if Williams will get consistently high minutes, especially given Doug Collins' erratic rotations so far. (He started Jason Kapono the first two games. And it reportedly wasn't on a dare or as part of a super-early lottery-tanking strategy. He genuinely thought it gave him the best chance of winning. Also, somebody needs to tell Doug that Marreese Speights is on the team.)
But here's what's caught my eye about Williams: 18 free throw attempts in three games. That doesn't seem to be an accident. He's come back from the summer with a very effective shot-fake move that he's using to get defenders in the air and then draw fouls on jump shots. Williams averaged a little better than a free throw for every three field goal attempts last season and still had a very solid 57.6 true shooting percentage; should that free throw number jump this season, as I suspect it will, he'll be one of the league's most efficient backcourt scorers.
Arron Afflalo, Denver Nuggets
Afflalo followed up a very strong preseason by erupting for 22 in the Nuggets' surprise blowout of Utah on opening night. While he's cooled off a bit since then, he does have three straight double-figure efforts after averaging just 8.8 points per game last season.
In particular, he seems both more willing and more able to put the ball on the floor and get to the basket. Afflalo's bread-and-butter will always be spotting up for 3s, but complementing it with the threat of the drive should make him a more potent offensive force … as well as making defenders think twice when closing out on his 3-pointer.
Group II: Opportunity knocks
Increased minutes and increased touches tend to accelerate our perception of improvement. These players look genuinely better, but the greater part of their increase in perceived value will come from a boost in their stats.
Andrea Bargnani, Toronto Raptors
I don't think Reggie Evans is an NBA starter by any means, but one thing Evans' presence has done is allow Bargnani to be Bargnani. Unfettered by any worries over things like screening, defending or rebounding (he has only nine boards in three games), Il Mago -- Italian for "The Magician" -- has moved to the perimeter and bombed away. To great effect, I might add: He's averaging 23.3 points per game and has only four total turnovers on the season. This is the scorer Toronto thought it was getting with the top overall pick in 2006; Chris Bosh's departure may be giving him the breathing room to finally become that player.
Paul Millsap, Utah Jazz
Everyone already knows what Millsap can do after his amazing double-double streak during Carlos Boozer's injury two seasons ago, so it's no surprise that Millsap has thrived as a full-time starter thus far. Even as Utah stumbled out of the gate, Millsap has been rock solid, averaging 21.3 points and 12.3 boards and shooting 63.4 percent in Utah's first three games. He won't keep up that lofty pace, but he's a good bet to put up numbers that aren't too far off from what Boozer was giving them.
Dorell Wright, Golden State Warriors
I was skeptical of Wright's 38.9 percent 3-point mark in Miami last season, but he's passing the eye test in a big way in his new gig with the Warriors. As Golden State's starting small forward he's stroking the long ball confidently, making 11 of 20 in his first three games while providing the rarest of rarities -- a solid defensive presence -- on the wing. I thought he'd be the weak link in the Warriors' starting five, but it's not looking that way so far. If he can stay healthy, he figures to be a factor in the Most Improved voting.
Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics
It's not exactly a state secret that Rondo can play. What's different this season is that the Celtics appear to be running much more offense through him than in previous seasons. He's on par for a career high in usage rate, which helps explain how he has 50 assists in three games. Plus, he seems destined to average close to 40 minutes a game given Boston's iffy situation at backup point guard and the age of his cohorts.
Additionally, Rondo is 24 years old, which is pretty close to the peak age for his class of player. Speedy point guards tend to bloom younger than other positions, so if Rondo was going to bust out, this would seem to be the year.
D.J. Augustin, Charlotte Bobcats
I like Augustin this season on multiple fronts. First, my projection system picked him to have one of the league's greatest PER gains. Second, he's likely to double his minutes from the 18.4 he played last season, as Raymond Felton's departure made him the starter at the point by default. And finally, he can play a lot better than he did a year ago. Augustin had an impressive rookie season but regressed badly as a sophomore. But between his quickness going to the rim and his 3-point shot he should be able to score consistently, and so far (17.3 points per game) he has.
Ramon Sessions, Cleveland Cavaliers
Liberated from a horrendous fit in Minnesota's triangle, Sessions could prove a steal as a third guard in Cleveland. While he uncorked an epic stinker in Friday's 20-point loss in Toronto, he was very good in the Cavs' other two games and should thrive in a system that is likely to place the ball in his hands frequently -- much as he succeeded in a similar environment in Milwaukee.
Group III: Injury timeouts
Because of injury -- either this season, last season, or both -- these players are under the radar in the early part of the season. But keep an eye on them as we get deeper in the calendar, because they could be big stories by spring.
Rodrigue Beaubois, Dallas Mavericks
I still don't know whether Dallas has the stones to blow up its guard rotation and let Beaubois energize what's become a fairly staid offense, but given how well he played last season, the Mavs should seriously consider it. Beaubois averaged 22.7 points per 40 minutes last season and led all rookies in PER -- yes, it was Beaubois, and not Stephen Curry or Tyreke Evans. He broke his left foot over the summer and still hasn't returned, so he'll be trying to burrow his way into an established, veteran rotation. But he might be good enough that the Mavs have no choice.
Nicolas Batum, Portland Trail Blazers
Because Batum missed most of 2009-10 with a shoulder injury and then aggravated it in the playoffs, his stellar performance in 37 late-season games (51.9 percent shooting, 17.31 PER) garnered relatively little attention. He's in the lineup from Day 1 this season, and played very well in Portland's first three games before mysteriously getting lifted after 18 minutes Monday night in a loss to the Bulls. He's only 21 and he's a career 39 percent 3-point shooter who will have plenty of opportunities given the attention Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge draw; it's quite possible he scores in the midteens on average.
Anthony Randolph, New York Knicks
Randolph missed all but eight games last season with an ankle injury and then sprained it in preseason with the Knicks. He hasn't played a regular-season game with his new team, and we have to start being concerned about how prone he is to injuries. But the 21-year-old is still one of the most unique players in the league, a Camby-esque shot-blocker who can handle the ball like a guard and score around the basket.
Randolph was a Jekyll-and-Hyde player in Golden State, but one suspects that further maturity and a move away from the Warriors' poisonous environment could help him considerably. PER-wise, he projected to have the league's largest improvement in 2010-11, to a stratospheric 21.48. The minutes are there for the taking in a thin Knicks frontcourt, especially since Amare Stoudemire can easily shift to center.
Group V: Let's be clear what we mean by "breakout"
James Johnson, Chicago Bulls
He's not going to emerge as any kind of star and is trapped behind Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer at the forward spots, so temper your expectations. However, Johnson looks to be in vastly better shape than he was last season and has played very well in his chances, both in preseason and the regular season. The Bulls aren't terribly deep, so he should get opportunities, and he has one other item in his favor: turnovers. Johnson had a shockingly high turnover rate as a rookie, but paradoxically mistake-prone rookies tend to make a lot more progress in subsequent seasons. Johnson appears to be following that trend line.
Finally, three other players -- Sacramento's Darnell Jackson, Charlotte's Derrick Brown and the Clippers' DeAndre Jordan -- warrant mention under this heading. None of them will play heavy minutes, but I've been impressed with the early-season work of each. If my All-Breakout team were allowed three D-League assignees for my final cuts, they'd be on it.