NBA Breakout Players: Bigs

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In today’s NBA, the role of the big man is ever so fluid. You have your unicorns like Nikola Jokic and Kristaps Porzingis, you have your defensive anchors like Rudy Gobert and Clint Capela, and you have your guys that simply get the job done like Joel Embiid and Domantas Sabonis. Either way, there is no perfect formula or road map that outlines the path to success as an NBA big man.

The key is to find your niche, own it, and do it to the best of your ability, which all of the aforementioned guys certainly have. It took a few guys on the list such as Rudy Gobert and Domantas Sabonis a few seasons to really develop into the version of themselves that we know and admire today. So what big men could begin to turn that corner this season?

Today we will look at five bigs who I believe could be beginning to turn the corner, and why next season could be their biggest ones yet.

Daniel Gafford- Washington Wizards

Gafford will enter his third year in the NBA, but his first full season in DC. Gafford spent his rookie year as well as the first half of last season in Chicago with the Bulls before being traded to Washington at the deadline to provide some depth down low after Thomas Bryant went down with a torn ACL after just 10 games. In 23 games with the Wizards, Gafford put up very impressive numbers sharing time with Robin Lopez and Alex Len at Center.

In just 17.7 minutes per game, the former Arkansas Razorback averaged 10.1 points per game on 68.1% shooting from the floor with 5.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. Len and Lopez have both moved on to new teams and the Wizards have replaced them with Montrezl Harrell, and will also return Thomas Bryant once he gets healthy.

The reason that I am so high on Gafford is that his style of play should complement Spencer Dinwiddie and the rest of the new-look Wizards extremely well. In Dinwiddie’s introductory press conference, he spoke about how excited he was to team up with Gafford because of his ability to be a lob threat at the rim. Dinwiddie even compared it to his time in Brooklyn where he and DeAndre Jordan and he and Jarrett Allen were two of the top three lob tandems in the league in 2019-2020 where Dinwiddie averaged a career-high 6.8 assists per game.

Because Harrell and Bryant aren’t the athletes that Gafford is, this is something that should separate him and should lead to him getting more minutes in certain lineups. He should also get way more than 17.7 minutes per game this season, especially while Bryant is out, and if he does, his production should surely increase a good deal.

Robert Williams- Boston Celtics

Now many of you might scratch your head at this one due to the injury struggles that Williams has faced throughout his career. I am fully aware of this, so understand that this assumption is based solely upon my belief that The Timelord will finally catch a break this season and be healthy for the majority of the year. Let me also remind you that last season’s MVP runner-up, Joel Embiid missed his entire first two years and then played just 31 games in his third season before finally breaking through in year four and playing 63 games for Philadelphia.

Is this a completely unrelated case? Yes, but it goes to show that some patience can go a long way, especially with big men who typically take a bit longer to come into their own anyways. The Celtics seem to be under this same belief as they rewarded Williams’ potential with a four-year $54 million contract this offseason, which includes $48 million in guaranteed money for a guy who has played just 113 games in three NBA seasons.

Now, why did Williams make this list? Well in just 18.9 minutes last season, Williams averaged career highs in points, rebounds, blocks, assists, and most importantly, games played with 55. Williams finished the season with splits of 8.0 points on 72.1% shooting with 6.9 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 1.8 blocks per game in just 18.9 minutes.

Similar to Gafford, when Williams was on the floor, he was productive, even in limited minutes. The Celtics did bring back Enes Kanter and Al Horford, who have both previously spent time with the organization, but Williams should be the starter at center whenever he is healthy. Last season, the Celtics had to be extremely cautious with Williams’ minutes for obvious reasons, but if he can show up to training camp healthy, he too should see a rise in his workload in 2021-2022.

Just to give you a taste of the type of production that Williams brings to the table when he is even remotely healthy, let’s rewind to Game 1 of the playoffs this season against the Brooklyn Nets. In just 23 minutes, The Timelord tallied 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting with nine rebounds and nine blocks in 23 minutes. Yes, you read that right, he tallied nine blocks, which is a franchise playoff record for the Celtics. And Williams wasn’t even fully healthy, as he was still dealing with a turf toe injury that nagged for a large part of last season and eventually ended his playoff run. The bottom line here is that if he is healthy, big things are ahead for Williams in Boston.

Chris Boucher- Toronto Raptors

Some might call last season a breakout year for Boucher, as he burst onto the scene and doubled his scoring outputs from his 2019-2020 campaign while improving in every other statistical category. And those people would not be wrong, but I think that this season could be even greater for Boucher than the last one was. In 2020-2021 Boucher averaged 13.6 points on 51.4% shooting from the floor (38.3% three-pointers) with 6.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.5 triples, and 1.9 blocks per game, a mark that was good for fifth in the entire NBA.

The path that Chris Boucher is on reminds me too much of the one that Pascal Siakam was on before he became an All-NBA player and a household name in the NBA. Both had extremely quiet starts to their career including G-League stints and a lot of growing pains. In both of their third seasons in Toronto, they took huge leaps and more than doubled their scoring outputs. Toronto is known for having an amazing culture of player development, with players like Siakam as well as Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell being the poster children, and Chris Boucher seemingly being the next example.

Boucher and Siakam have a similar body type and skill set, and the first few years of their careers are eerily similar. With Toronto losing arguably their best player in franchise history in Kyle Lowry this offseason, and with Siakam trade rumors swirling, a new era of Toronto basketball is upon us, and their young prospects will certainly be the focus of the next few years. Boucher is the type of player that could help to lead a rebuild while also assisting in bringing along the young players on the roster. All in all, everything is stacking up for Boucher to expand on the year he had in 2020-2021, and he could even end up in the Most Improved Players discussion if things really fall in his favor.

Precious Achiuwa- Toronto Raptors

Achiuwa did not see much time in his rookie season in Miami playing behind Bam Adebayo, but a change of scenery should give him a fresh start and the opportunity in Toronto to get some much-needed game experience. The Raptors currently have Khem Birch and Chris Boucher at center, but Toronto has been known to play big lineups and Boucher will certainly get minutes at the four given his versatility and ability to stretch the floor. Boucher and Birch also played a ton together last season, so there will be room for Achiuwa.

In the final regular-season game and one of only two games on the season that he played at least 30 minutes, Achiuwa gave us a glimpse of his potential. The former Memphis standout tallied 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting with 10 rebounds, two steals, and one block in 42 minutes. In a January 12th loss to the Sixers, the only other game of the season that Achiuwa played at least 30 minutes, he tallied 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting to go with 13 rebounds, three assists, and one block.

The ability is there for Achiuwa, the opportunity was not in Miami as they were in win-now mode and already had an All-Star caliber player at his position. In Toronto, neither of which will be the case, so with more opportunity, and a larger margin for error, given their place in the pecking order in the Eastern Conference, Achiuwa could be someone to monitor this upcoming season.

Isaiah Stewart- Detroit Pistons

Stewart had a surprisingly solid rookie season and was able to land a spot on the All-Rookie team in 2020-2021. Stewart averaged 7.9 points on 55.3% from the floor (33.3% from three) with 6.7 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game in 21.4 minutes. Stewart led all rookies last season in total blocks, and total rebounds, and was able to get some decent playing time for a Detroit team that finished with the second-worst record in the NBA last season.

The Pistons parted ways with Mason Plumlee, and acquired Kelly Olynyk in the offseason as well as drafting Luka Garza, who was the consensus national player of the year at Iowa last season. Garza though is on a two-way, and the Pistons, who won’t be in the playoff picture this season, will likely be using this year to develop their young players like Stewart as well as fellow All-Rookie selection Saddiq Bey, and this year’s No.1 pick in Cade Cunningham.

To get an idea of the type of production that we could see this year, let’s take a look at Stewart’s numbers last year in games that he started. Stewart got the nod in 14 games last year and in those games, he averaged 12.7 points on 56.8% shooting from the floor with 9.4 rebounds, 1.1 assists, and 2.1 blocks in 29.2 minutes per game. For many of these young players, it is simply about getting an opportunity, and next season in Detroit, Stewart should have just that, and it could pay big dividends for managers who decide to take a swing at him on draft night.