The term "breakout" is defined differently across the fantasy community, but I'm using breakout to describe players that should exceed their average draft position (ADP) and see a boon in minutes and opportunity. I've excluded popular industry breakout candidates such as point guard Tyrese Haliburton and shooting guard Anthony Edwards because they're sporting ADPs in the second round — 16.0 and 21.8, respectively. And hey, I get it. I have Haliburton as a late-first-round pick and shared my thoughts on his potential in my early first-round mock draft. If you need further support of his upside, I recommend reading this Haliburton manifesto.
Ok, so if I'm not going to praise Tyrese Haliburton or Mr. Hustle, Anthony Edwards, who is left?
It might be early for some to predict a breakout for a player in his second NBA season, but after finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting last season, the Detroit Pistons point guard is destined for fantasy stardom right now. Currently, he's going in drafts as a mid-third-round pick at 33.3, but he has the skill set to propel him into a top-20 player — a substantial leap from his 89th per game value finish last season.
One thing is clear — he's the best player on his team and is poised to take another step forward after building off a successful rookie season where he stacked up pretty well amongst his peers.
Pts/g: 17.3 (2nd on Pistons)
Asts/g: 5.6 (1st)
Rebs/g: 5.5 (3rd)
Stls/g: 1.2 (2nd)
Blks/g: 0.7 (3rd)
FT%: 84.8 (3rd)
3PM/g: 1.8 (3rd)
The departure of Jerami Grant opens the door for Cade to become the primary scorer. With a revamped Pistons roster that includes an elite floor spacer in Bojan Bogdanovic, a shot creator in Jaden Ivey and rim runner in Jalen Duren — he has more weapons to showcase his abilities as a playmaker as well.
He's in rare territory regarding his ability to stuff the stat sheet on both ends of the floor. Cunningham is amongst legends — like LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and Magic Johnson — and perennial All-Stars as one of 15 players under the age of 23 to average at least 17.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.0 steal, and 0.7 blocks in a season (Data courtesy of Stathead).
From a fantasy perspective, he'll only need to improve his field goal percentage (41.6%) and cut down on his turnovers (3.7/g) to make him an elite fantasy player. In terms of the box score, I'd use his last 20 games post the All-Star break as the floor for this upcoming season. 21.1 points, 5.7 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.3 threes, 1.1 steals and 0.7 blocks with a 30.2 percent usage rate across 34 minutes per night. A 30% usage plus the keys to a blossoming offense equals fantasy gold.
Ready for a flag plant? De'Aaron Fox will be selected to his first All-Star team in the 2022-2023 season. With that will come the best fantasy performance of his career. Why am I ready to take this leap of faith? I believe he and Domantas Sabonis are a truly dynamic duo that will flourish in their first full season together in Sacramento.
Fox put up All-Star-worthy numbers in 2020-2021, producing 25.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.8 threes and 1.2 steals while shooting 48% from the field per game. He followed that up with 23.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.3 threes and 1.2 steals while shooting 47% from the field. However, some additional context is required.
When the Sacramento Kings initially drafted Haliburton in the 2020-2021 season, it didn't seem to hinder Fox's game. That all changed last season when it was clear one of the two had to go. Alas, the Kings chose Fox as their franchise player and shipped Haliburton to Indiana for Domantas Sabonis — pairing up Fox with one of the most unselfish playmaking All-Star forward/centers in the NBA. And "Fox and Ox" was born.
It's a small sample size, but notice how much Sabonis' presence positively impacted De'Aaron Fox in the 360 minutes they played together last season. Fox improved in the following categories: scoring, rebounding, assists, field goal percentage, and three-pointers made.
Overall, Fox finished 98th in per-game value last season, but I think he heads closer to his post-Haliburton trade numbers this season. He turns 25 this year and is on the cusp of his prime. He's spent the offseason refining his three-point shot, free-throw, and playing more off-ball under new Kings head coach Mike Brown. If he can reduce his turnovers and improve his career 72.5% free-throw percentage, he will exceed his fourth-round ADP. The Kings roster is also enhanced by bringing in his former college teammate G Malik Monk, Hawks G/F Kevin Huerter and drafting F Keegan Murray. All pieces that should help Fox deliver his best real-life and fantasy season to date with an imminent breakout that propels him to be a top-35 player in fantasy basketball this season.
Jalen Brunson, New York Knicks
I know what you're thinking. A New York Knick — as a breakout candidate — but hear me out. Points, assists, efficiency and reliability don't grow on trees, especially in the mid-rounds of fantasy drafts.
The four-year pro saw his role expand from bench contributor getting 25 minutes per game in 2020-2021 to starter in 2021-22, playing 32 minutes per contest. More time on the floor amounted to career-highs in points (16.3), rebounds (3.4), assists (4.8), free-throw percentage (84%) and steals (0.8). And, he did this alongside Luka Doncic, one of the most ball-dominant players in the game. Doncic commanded a 36.8 percent usage rate (second in the NBA and highest of his career). Despite being an outstanding role player next to an All-Star, Brunson finished 99th in per-game value last season. Not great, but what popped off the page was Brunson's stats in 20 games last season, including the playoffs, without Luka. He went from 16.0 to 22.2 points per game, while his assists jumped from 3.9 to 7.1 when Luka wasn't on the court.
What we didn't see coming next was Brunson putting the Mavs on his back without Luka in the first-round series versus the Jazz in the NBA playoffs. He averaged 32/5/5 in the first three games and 28/5/4 for the series.
He'd go on to average 21.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.4 threes, 0.8 steals, and 1.1 turnovers across 18 playoff games in the 2022 playoffs, putting the NBA on notice that he's destined for more.
Brunson was paid handsomely this offseason to become the starting point guard for the Knicks, who have publicly struggled to find a consistent, healthy floor general for years. Brunson's breakout is on the horizon as I'm projecting he'll see his usage, assists, and points all increase as a result of playing close to 35 minutes per night like his peers Julius Randle and RJ Barrett. Brunson also had the fifth-highest assist to turnover ratio among qualifiers last season, with at least a 20% usage rate.
The savvy combo guard also excels as a pick-and-roll ball handler. Per John Schuhmann, using Synergy play-type tracking, Brunson generated the third highest points per possession the last two seasons among pick-and-roll ball handlers with only Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Curry ahead of him. Brunson also had the highest FG% among the star-studded top-5 list that also included Damian Lillard and Kevin Durant.
The Knicks had one of the worst teams offensively last season, finishing in the bottom-10 in offensive rating (109.7). It's no secret that Randle and Barrett are ball-stoppers, but that's why Brunson was sought after. His ability to facilitate while also playing off the ball will help the Knicks offense flow. Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau has been complimentary of Brunson's leadership, IQ, and skillset, too. With such limited ball-handlers on this team, Brunson's opportunity to shine is ripe for the taking. Brunson will exceed his sixth-round value and become a consistent and efficient combo guard that anchors fantasy teams should they miss out on the top-tier point guards in the early rounds.