The NBA playoffs are not just a place where stars perform at peak efficiency. They are also a platform for lesser-known players to break out of their shells and introduce themselves to national audiences, sometimes giving their teams huge, albeit somewhat unexpected boosts.
A great example of that came in 2002-03, when a rookie-year Tayshaun Prince, who had been in and out of the rotation his entire inaugural campaign, only seeing action in 42 games for the loaded Detroit Pistons, had a 20-point outburst out of nowhere in Game 7 of the team’s opening series, one that helped spring Detroit to the next round of the playoffs and complete a 3-1 comeback against Tracy McGrady and the Orlando Magic.
Prince’s scoring average that entire previous regular season? 3.3 points per contest.
That was a breakout performance for a player who’d go on to win a championship, make four All-Defensive Teams and even take home Olympic gold with Team USA.
A more recent example would be Miami Heat guard Tyler Herro, who, in his first postseason, put up a 19.2/6.3/4.8 stat line in the Eastern Conference Finals while shooting over 52 percent from the floor, giving Miami the boost they needed to complete their surprising run to the 2020 Finals.
There are various breakout candidates this year, too; we are here to present seven young players we believe could be surprising catalysts for their squads ahead of the 2020-21 NBA playoffs.
Check it out below.
Note: A few of the players below, primarily those that play for the Charlotte Hornets, Golden State Warriors, Washington Wizards, Memphis Grizzlies and even, potentially, the Los Angeles Lakers, will have to get through the play-in tournament before they reach the playoffs. These breakout predictions are based on them making it through that round and reaching the actual playoffs.
Deandre Ayton (Phoenix)
The advanced stats along with the eye test would all agree: Deandre Ayton is having the best campaign of his career in this, his third season of NBA basketball.
However, he’s still putting up just 14.4 points nightly, only getting to the foul stripe 2.5 times per game (a paltry mark considering his elite physical attributes and high skill level) and the Phoenix Suns are merely 0.6 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor (that number was 4.5 points per 100 possessions last season).
That’s all to say, the young Bahamian center is still too inconsistent, something that has been apparent even recently for the Suns. In March, Ayton had a 12-game stretch where he was dominating opponents on both ends of the floor, averaging 17.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.2 blocks while shooting over 69 percent from the floor.
It looked like Ayton had turned the corner for Phoenix at the perfect time, just ahead of the first playoff run of his career.
However, the big man’s numbers have taken another dive recently, as Ayton is putting up just 10.2 points, 9.4 rebounds and 0.8 steals over his last nine games, including porous defensive performances against the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors, where he had a combined -18 plus/minus.
Ayton’s recent run of form can only be classified as concerning, especially considering how close we are to the postseason.
Regardless, the Suns have a strong team around the former No. 1 overall pick, great leadership in Chris Paul and head coach Monty Williams, and Ayton himself is too talented for us not to have an eye on him as far as a potential postseason breakout candidate.
Even if it doesn’t include him putting up 25 points per game, Ayton’s defense and rebounding are going to be massive for Phoenix’s chances at an extended playoff run, and if he’s able to do those two things at a high level while finishing his chances down low, we could be looking at a breakout for the supremely talented 22-year-old coming soon.
For the latest Deandre Ayton rumors, click here.
Talen Horton-Tucker (LA Lakers)
The Lakers have made clear how high they are on Talen Horton-Tucker and his potential, going as far as to reportedly make him off-limits in trade talks with the Toronto Raptors for Kyle Lowry.
Lately, we’ve started to see why Los Angeles held so firm in that stance, as the young 2-guard is playing some of his best basketball as we approach the 2020-21 postseason, averaging 18.0 points, 3.5 rebounds, 10.0 assists and 2.0 steals over his last two games.
Horton-Tucker’s recent hot form included hitting a game-winning three in overtime against the feisty New York Knicks with just over 20 seconds left on the clock:
TALEN. HORTON. TUCKER.
— NBA (@NBA) May 12, 2021
Guards with good strength who can score from all three levels tend to fare well for contenders in the postseason, and considering this is already Horton-Tucker’s second playoff run of his blossoming career, we have our eye on him as far as a potential postseason breakout candidate.
For the latest Talen Horton-Tucker rumors, click here.
Miles Bridges (Charlotte)
Like Ayton, Charlotte Hornets swingman Miles Bridges is having the best season of his career in 2020-21.
What’s more, prior to having to sit out the last 10 days due to COVID-19 protocols, his form was really starting to peak, as Bridges’ last 14 games before being sidelined were extremely impressive: 20.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 0.9 blocks on very tidy 51.7/43.9/82.9 percent shooting splits.
Bridges’ name may be more popular than ever this season thanks to his fun connection with rookie LaMelo Ball, his high-flying dunks and announcer Eric Collins’ downright insane calls of his big plays…
…but the third-year forward has legitimately improved his game in all facets in 2020-21, including as a shooter, playmaker and defender.
That’s why this year, for the first time in his career, Bridges possesses a positive swing rating; Charlotte has been 5.7 points per 100 possessions better with the former Michigan State standout on the floor this season. Over his first two campaigns, that number was actually -5.7 points per 100 possessions, so this year has been a total reversal in impact for the athletic Bridges.
Keep an eye on Bridges during the Hornets’ impending playoff run, as the play-in tournament could be a great time for him to have a legitimate breakout on a national stage.
For the latest Miles Bridges rumors, click here.
Daniel Gafford (Washington)
To say Washington Wizards big man Daniel Gafford is playing the best basketball of his career recently would be an understatement, as the Arkansas product has gone from looking like a fringe NBA player over his first season-and-a-half to averaging 10.1 points and 1.8 blocks over his first 21 games with his new team.
Oh, and mind you, he’s putting up those numbers in fewer than 18 minutes nightly, meaning that per-36 minutes, Gafford is putting up 20.7 points, 11.5 rebounds and 3.6 blocks.
Whether Gafford looking this good as a Wizard is an indictment on the Chicago Bulls, the team who drafted and then traded him for… Troy Brown Jr is not something we’re here to rehash.
What matters here is, Gafford is in a much better place for his career now, and Washington is undoubtedly thrilled to have picked him up.
Gafford is the exact type of young player who tends to excel in the postseason, where the physicality really starts to ramp up. His athleticism and toughness down low, as well as his rim protection, should shine brightly when the lights of the playoffs arrive for Washington.
Another reason we think Gafford could be due for a breakout is the fact that even despite how well he’s performed in his role with the Wizards, he still ranks just eighth on the 10 in minutes since reaching Washington at 17.7 minutes per contest.
That’s barely more than Robin Lopez (17.2) and Alex Len (16.5), the team’s two other centers. We expect Gafford’s minutes to trend up in the postseason at the expense of playing time for Lopez and Len, which could make Gafford’s numbers and impact that much more impressive.
If you like high-energy, shot-swatting, rim-rattling big men, keep an eye on Gafford and the Wizards in the play-in tournament.
For the latest Daniel Gafford rumors, click here.
Kevin Huerter (Atlanta)
Kevin Huerter’s raw numbers may not be that impressive this season, and there are obvious reasons for that, including how much scoring talent the Atlanta Hawks added over the offseason.
But the advanced stats actually grade Huerter out a bit more kindly than his raw averages would indicate, as according to BPM, VORP and WS/48, this has actually been the best season of the young guard’s career.
The Hawks legitimately have a fun, deep and tough roster, so although it may tough for Huerter to stand out in the upcoming playoffs, the modern NBA places such an emphasis on shooting that a player with his skill set, that of a bouncy sharpshooter who can hit shots with his feet or off the dribble, could get hot and shine come postseason time.
After all, not that long ago in mid-April, Huerter did have an eight-game stretch where he put up 16.8 points, 3.5 assists and 1.9 steals while shooting nearly 55 percent from the floor and 41 percent from beyond the arc.
Atlanta would be thrilled to get that from him for another eight-game stretch in the playoffs, and it wouldn’t totally shock us to see it happen.
For the latest Kevin Huerter rumors, click here.
De'Anthony Melton (Memphis)
De’Anthony Melton may not be a household name – not yet, anyway – but out of all the players listed here, he is the closest we have to another Tayshaun Prince type in that his impact defensively on the wing is even more impressive than his offensive contributions.
Even so, Melton has turned himself into a solid shooter this campaign, as the third-year player is hitting a noteworthy 43 percent of his threes in 2020-21, way up from his 29.4 percent outside shooting mark over his first two combined seasons.
He’s even developed into a good playmaker out of the pick-and-roll, per Synergy Sports, so his offense is actually a positive despite the fact he doesn’t even average double-digit points. Synergy Sports gives Melton another good rating as an overall offensive player, placing him in the 52nd percentile, i.e., the top half of the league, as a scorer.
Considering the fact that Melton is an even better defender than he is a scorer, by a considerable margin at that, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Memphis Grizzlies are an astounding 9.0 points per 100 possessions better with Melton on the floor in 2020-21.
Looking for a Prince-esque breakout candidate for the playoffs, a.k.a a two-way wing with spot-up shooting touch and tenacious defensive chops? Look no further than Melton.
For the latest De’Anthony Melton rumors, click here.
Jordan Poole (Golden State)
The Golden State Warriors are playing the best they have all season now, as we approach the playoffs, and although Stephen Curry deserves almost all of the credit for that, the team’s surrounding pieces also warrant some attention for stepping up recently.
One such player is our final breakout candidate, Jordan Poole, who has really turned it up in the month of May. Over his last seven games, Poole is averaging 15.3 points, 2.4 three-pointers and shooting 46.6 percent from the floor.
During Poole’s playing time in that span, Golden State has outscored opponents by 42 points, proving that his impact has been far from empty.
And when you further factor in Poole actually left the Warriors’ rotation for weeks earlier in the season to spend time in the G League, his recent outburst looks all the more impressive.
Regardless, confident bucket-getters sometimes get hot at the right time in the playoffs, which is why we think Poole, with how hot he’s been recently on the court, could be another noteworthy breakout candidate for the 2020-21 postseason.
For the latest Jordan Poole rumors, click here.