Top breakout candidates to target in fantasy basketball drafts

By Alex Barutha, RotoWire

Special to Yahoo Sports

A handful of players make “The Leap” every season, whether it be into the All-Star discussion, into a starting spot, or into a high-usage backup role. Identifying players who fit that mold is an ever-important part of winning fantasy leagues.

Let’s dive right into who could be destined for a breakout in 2020-21.

Proven fantasy stars with room to grow:

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Boston Celtics' Jayson Tatum (0)
Jayson Tatum could take the next step this season. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

With Gordon Hayward gone and Kemba Walker set to miss about a month of the season, the Celtics are Tatum’s team. During the Celtics’ final 40 games (regular season and playoffs), Tatum averaged 26.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 3.4 threes, and 2.3 combined steals-plus-blocks in 37.6 minutes. If he can keep up similar numbers this season, he’ll be worth a first-round pick. Don’t sleep on Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart seeing real boosts to their fantasy value as well — they just don’t have the upside of Tatum.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

Gilgeous-Alexander has this team to himself after general manager Sam Presti cleaned house. He’ll presumably be shifting back to point guard and could lead the Thunder in every statistical category. We haven’t seen SGA in this type of role before, but the organization apparently wants to throw him into the fire. He had 21 performances last season with at least 40 Yahoo Fantasy Points, including a 20/20/10 triple-double.

High-Upside Starters:

Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks

Robinson is on this list for the second year in a row after seeing only 23.1 minutes per game last season — when he was supposed to break out. He remains on this list because his upside is through the roof. In the 15 career games that Robinson has seen 30-plus minutes, he’s averaging 11.8 points on 74.5 percent shooting, 11.6 rebounds, and 4.8 combined steals-plus-blocks. What could prevent Robinson from reaching his potential will be foul trouble and a lack of “discipline” and “professionalism,” as new Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said recently. Pairing him with Nerlens Noel in your drafts is a good way to curb some of the potential downside.

Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets

Last season, we got a taste of what scouts loved about Porter coming out of high school. In the 22 appearances (regular season and playoffs) that Porter saw at least 24 minutes, he averaged 17.7 points on 52%/45%/87% shooting while also grabbing 8.8 rebounds. It’s clear Porter is a naturally gifted shooter and offensive rebounder who has insane upside. Concerns remain about his injury potential — he missed all of his rookie year and essentially all of his freshman season in college — not to mention his lack of defense and playmaking. That said, with the Nuggets losing Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee, they’ll need to lean on whatever Porter can give them.

Christian Wood, Houston Rockets

We saw Wood’s potential last season. During his final 15 appearances with Detroit, he averaged 22.3 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.7 threes, and 1.9 combined blocks-plus-steals in 34.0 minutes. He figures to see a smaller role with the Rockets, but how much smaller? He clearly still has the potential to be the team’s second-leading scorer and leading rebounder. And if James Harden gets traded, which seems increasingly likely, that would presumably flow more offense through Wood. His current ADP is in the 50s, which seems very reflective of his potential.

Solid Starters:

Dejounte Murray, San Antonio Spurs

Young players on the Spurs are always a gamble because coach Gregg Popovich loves making them earn their minutes. But Murray is in a great position this season to be the focus of a rebuild in San Antonio. Both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are in contract years and are candidates to be dealt before the trade deadline. Derrick White and Keldon Johnson are also both expected to be out for the regular-season opener, so more minutes will be available for Murray right out of the gate. Across Murray’s final 19 appearances last season, he averaged 13.6 points, 6.2 rebounds, 4.9 assists, and 1.8 steals. The main barrier Murray has to break through from a development standpoint is not taking as many mid-range jumpers.

OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors

With Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka gone, Anunoby could see increased responsibilities this season. He may be destined to be a low-usage offensive player, but he’s a solid rebounder, defender, and three-point shooter. He averaged 10.6 points on 51%/39%/71%, 5.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.3 threes, and 2.1 combined steals-plus-blocks last season. If he really wants to make waves, however, he’ll need to start shooting threes at volume and making his free throws.

Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies

With Jaren Jackson out for the early portion of the season — that’s as specific as Memphis has been — due to a torn meniscus, Clarke should start the season at power forward. He had a strong rookie season, ranking 106th in fantasy on a per-game basis in just 22.4 minutes per game. In the 24 games that he saw at least 24 minutes last season, he averaged 15.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 1.8 combined blocks-plus-steals. He also derives fantasy value from his excellent percentages, shooting 61.8 percent from the field and 75.9 percent from the free-throw line last season.

Coby White, Chicago Bulls

White caught fire at the end of last season. Over the final 11 games, White averaged 23.7 points, 4.5 assists, 3.9 rebounds, 3.4 threes, and 1.1 steals in 33.9 minutes. With Kris Dunn moving on to Atlanta, White has the point guard spot practically to himself. He’ll be fighting for shot attempts with Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen, but that trio should make up the core offensive attack for the Bulls. I’m not banking on White scoring 20 points per game, but if he can score in the mid-to-high teens with an improvement in either passing or defense, he’ll have a great campaign.

Thomas Bryant, Washington Wizards

A mid-season foot injury caused Bryant to struggle during the bulk of the season, but he bookended the year well. Before the injury, he averaged 13.9 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.0 blocks across 28.3 minutes in 18 appearances. In the bubble, he averaged 18.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, 1.9 threes, 1.5 assists, and 1.4 steals in 31.0 minutes. That’s a pretty solid 26-game sample, and we shouldn’t be surprised if Bryant’s numbers this season were somewhere in between. Russell Westbrook could help him find more open looks as well.

Bench Options and Late-Round Fliers:

Donte DiVincenzo, Milwaukee Bucks

DiVincenzo needed just 23.0 minutes per game last season to rank 115th in fantasy on a per-game basis. He should see closer to 30 minutes this season for the Bucks, as he’s the expected starter at shooting guard. DiVincenzo may never become a dynamic scorer, but he’s a great rebounder for a guard, a solid passer, and an excellent defender. Per 36 minutes last season, he averaged 14.4 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 2.5 combined steals-plus-blocks. That his absolute ceiling for this season, but something in that realm is a possibility.

RJ Barrett, New York Knicks

Make no mistake: Barrett’s rookie year was awful, as he ranked 254th in fantasy on a per-game basis. We’ve seen rookie guards struggle before though, and a bounce back is possible for Barrett. At the very least, he should be given plenty of opportunities to prove whether or not he can take a step forward given how desperate the team is for him to pan out. To be an effective fantasy player, he needs to clean up ... well ... a little bit of everything. The percentages were especially awful, as Barrett shot 40%/32%/61%.

Marvin Bagley, Sacramento Kings

Bagley’s first two seasons in the league have been derailed by injury, but he’s flashed upside. When seeing 30-plus minutes, he’s averaging 20.1 points, 10.7 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 2.2 combined blocks-plus-steals. This year is a great chance to grab him after Pick 100, banking on a healthy, breakout campaign from the former No. 2 overall pick.

Mason Plumlee and Jerami Grant, Detroit Pistons

Both of these guys will have more potential if Blake Griffin and/or Derrick Rose get dealt, but they should see higher usage than last season regardless. Grant figures to start at small forward and launch more shots than we’ve ever seen from him. Plumlee should start at center and should see more playing time than ever before. In 257 career starts, Plumlee is averaging a solid 10.1 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 1.9 combined blocks-plus-steals in 26.2 minutes. He could certainly see more action than that with Detroit.

Darius Bazley, Oklahoma City Thunder

Bazley played well in seeding games, averaging 13.0 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.4 threes, and 1.5 assists in 27.5 minutes. Given how thin OKC’s roster is, he should have an opportunity to see that kind of run, if not more, this season.

Juan Hernangomez, Minnesota Timberwolves

After being traded from the Nuggets to the Wolves last season, Hernangomez averaged 12.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.1 threes, 1.3 assists, and 1.0 steals in 29.4 minutes. He’s expected to start for Minnesota this season, so we may see comparable numbers from him.

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