New year, new stars.
The start of every new season provides NBA players a fresh baseline to announce themselves to the rest of the league.
Last year, players like Ja Morant, Jordan Poole, Anthony Edwards and Anfernee Simons, among others, broke out and certified themselves as up-and-coming stars.
As we count down towards the 2022-23 regular season, let’s take a look at 22 players, in no particular order, who could be in for a breakout year:
Note: Second-year top-10 picks and rookies were excluded as it’s generally expected highly rated sophomores (Franz Wagner, Jonathan Kuminga, etc.) could make a leap.
James Wiseman, Golden State Warriors
As long as he stays healthy, Wiseman feels like a good bet to break out. The former No. 2 overall pick in 2020, the Warriors big man has been held back by injuries and did not play a single game last year. But the early returns of the 2022 preseason look great. He’s moving fluidly, generating high-percentage shots and converting them and should be a major lift to Golden State’s frontcourt depth.
De’Andre Hunter, Atlanta Hawks
After adding Dejounte Murray to pair with Trae Young in the backcourt, the Hawks look like potential risers in the East. But they’ll need others to step up, and it feels like a good time to bet that Hunter will do just that. The former No. 4 overall pick in 2019 has also dealt with a bad run of injuries having played just 76 games in the last two seasons, but this could be his statement year operating as a quality two-way forward. His 3-point clip jumping to 38% on 3.7 attempts last year is also a promising sign.
Devin Vassell, San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are embracing a rebuild, as evident after dealing Murray, a 2022 All-Star, over the offseason. With an All-Star guard out of the frame, someone will have to step up on an inexperienced roster, and the former No. 11 overall pick in 2020 could be that guy. Despite coming off the bench in 39 games, Vassell saw his minutes increase by an average of 17 to 27. He optimized that growth in an impressive way, upping his averages in points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, field goal percentage and three-point percentage. He causes havoc on both ends, so look for him to continue that in 2022-23.
Robert Williams III, Boston Celtics
You could say that Williams has already broken out on the big stage, having proven his worth to the Celtics during their run to the 2022 NBA Finals. But it feels like there’s still another level he can reach besides being a traditional rim finisher and shot blocker. If his free throw percentage growth is anything to go by (60% to 72% in four years), Boston should try encouraging him to shoot more 3s to open up the floor.
Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland, Denver Nuggets
Bones Hyland had a great start as a rookie with Denver, making the NBA All-Rookie Second Team after being drafted No. 26 overall. He was influential off the bench as a high-volume, microwave scorer who could hurt any defense with just a sliver of space to work with. If he adds more muscle and attacks the basket more often, his game will escalate to a new level. With Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. expected to be back healthy alongside Nikola Jokić, a Hyland jump will be crucial for Denver’s postseason odds.
Malik Monk, Sacramento Kings
The Los Angeles Lakers had a season to forget, but one positive that emerged was Malik Monk’s play. The former No. 11 overall pick in 2017 never found any momentum with Charlotte until his fourth and final season before the Lakers picked him up. Monk developed his three-level scoring abilities and was not a complete liability defensively as he used to be. Now he’s reunited with Kentucky running mate De’Aaron Fox in the Kings’ backcourt. Could that combination, combined with Davion Mitchell’s promising end to last season and Keegan Murray’s plug-and-play optimism, break Sacramento’s 16-year playoff drought?
Ziaire Williams, Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies were the unexpected riser in the West last season, with Ja Morant and Desmond Bane in the backcourt taking their play to a new level. If there’s another youngster that’s not named Jaren Jackson Jr. who could make the leap, it’s second-year forward Ziaire Williams. Yes, he was the No. 10 overall pick last year and that goes against the aforementioned note, but he wasn’t expected to go that high despite his potential. Memphis obviously saw something in him as he’s more of a playmaking/scoring wing than he is a traditional 3-and-D operator. Judging off Memphis’ draft record, this could be Williams’ year.
Alperen Şengün, Houston Rockets
The No. 16 overall pick in 2021, Şengün has a mesmerizing game as a playmaking center. His passing out of the high and low post is extremely reminiscent of that of Jokić, though he’s still more raw when it comes to scoring and defending. Having power forwards like Jabari Smith Jr., Tari Eason and Usman Garuba fighting for minutes should help defensively, though if Şengün can continue to add new offensive moves to his arsenal, the liabilities on that end might not matter in his sophomore season.
Deni Avdija, Washington Wizards
Perhaps the best positive sign for Avdija was that he played in every single game last year after a rough go with injuries as a rookie. Washington’s forward depth chart is pretty crowded, but this feels like it’s Avdija’s time to insert himself after being drafted ninth overall in 2020. The same goes for Rui Hachimura, who was drafted in the same spot the year prior, so the Wizards have two forwards who have something to prove – and that’s not counting sophomore Corey Kispert.
Talen Horton-Tucker, Utah Jazz
Lakers fans don’t want to hear this, but this might finally be Talen Horton-Tucker’s big moment. The 46th pick in 2019, Horton-Tucker displayed some encouraging signs of life from a scouting department with a great track record despite not having too many picks to play with. But Horton-Tucker never found any rhythm with Los Angeles, and his fit in a team with multiple poor shooters wasn’t likely going to work out anyways. Now in Utah and out of the spotlight, the floor is his. Collin Sexton is another worthy mention, but he’s already shown what he can do at his best; he just needs to reach that level again following awful leg injuries.
Patrick Williams, Chicago Bulls
If the Bulls are going to find growth this year, it might have to be internally. With Coby White also deserving a mention, Patrick Williams has to be that guy this year. After going No. 4 overall in 2020 and showing flashes as a rookie, he was limited to just 17 games last year due to a wrist injury. He looked solid in those contests and needs more game time to continue his development, but his unique profile – a 6-foot-7 forward with a 7-foot wingspan who can handle the ball and shoot – makes him a fun youngster to watch in 2022.
Quentin Grimes, New York Knicks
RJ Barrett moving up to small forward opens the door for someone at shooting guard. With Jalen Brunson’s addition locking down the 1 spot, someone has to step up to join him as the 2 guard. Evan Fournier might get it due to his experience, but Quentin Grimes, the 25th overall pick last year, will likely be knocking on the door sooner rather than later for the Knicks. In 45 games last year in a reserve role, he displayed some optimistic signs as a 38% shooter from deep on 4.1 attempts. The 6-foot-5 Grimes is definitely one to watch, even though New York hasn’t done much to bolster the roster since the 2021 postseason.
Tre Mann, Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder just have an absurd amount of youngsters that you could close your eyes and throw a dart and your guess to break out might be correct. But Tre Mann, the 18th overall selection last year, dropped some eye-catching games this past season and feels primed for a blooming sophomore campaign. He dug into his scoring bag last year and can certainly dig deeper, isn’t afraid to shoot and can initiate an offense. If he can find consistency on his 2-pointers and improve off the ball defensively, look out. Aleksej Pokuševski is another player to mention, though his profile and fit is still in the process of sorting itself out.
Trey Murphy III, New Orleans Pelicans
Speaking of players named Trey, how about Trey Murphy III down in New Orleans? He was selected right before Mann last year after being a late riser in the draft cycle and was a budding 3-and-D wing for the Pelicans during their sneaky-good playoff run. Herbert Jones already broke out after his stunning defensive outings, primarily in the postseason, so Murphy gets the nod here. With Zion Williamson returning to the fold, this entire franchise could make a Grizzlies-esque leap if they all stay healthy and get that internal growth.
Cam Johnson, Phoenix Suns
Despite being the top-seeded team out West last year, the Suns are entering the new year with more questions than answers. Jae Crowder reportedly wants out and the team is seeking a trade partner, which opens up the door for Cam Johnson, who has been improving every season in a bench role. Though he’s already 26 in his third season, the 11th overall pick in 2019 had some flashes of being more than just a catch-and-shoot forward last year. If the Suns want to be considered a serious contender after their fallout from this past postseason, Johnson taking another step forward will help tremendously.
Amir Coffey, Los Angeles Clippers
He doesn’t just have a great last name for those of us who love caffeine, but Amir Coffey is also a great player to watch. Formerly a two-way player for the Clippers, Coffey received a deserved promotion and contract extension to the 15-man roster following his play in the absence of Paul George in some parts of the season and Kawhi Leonard for the entire year. The 25-year-old forward has shown a willingness to handle the ball and score off the dribble, which fits the system of the Clippers’ bevy of rangy, two-way wings under Tyronn Lue.
Austin Reaves, Los Angeles Lakers
Staying in Southern California, no one expected an undrafted rookie to take over minutes from guys like Avery Bradley, Kent Bazemore and Wayne Ellington, among others, but Austin Reaves’ fresh legs made a significant difference when playing alongside LeBron James. He didn’t always flash on the box score, but he did have a phenomenal 31-point, 16-rebound, 10-assist triple-double against the Nuggets. Based on Reaves’ role with Oklahoma in college, he’s capable of producing more. Let’s see if new head coach Darvin Ham can extract another level out of the 24-year-old guard.
Cam Thomas, Brooklyn Nets
Brooklyn’s potential success this year largely depends on Ben Simmons’ availability alongside Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. We know what that duo can achieve when playing together, but they need that extra pep in their step. Cam Thomas, the 27th overall pick last year, has that step. Thomas possesses extraordinary shotmaking skills that makes the game look so simple, but honing his craft is the next phase to help the Nets thrive further. He only played 17.6 minutes a game last year, but Steve Nash needs to fit him into the team more often in 2022.
Sandro Mamukelashvili, Milwaukee Bucks
Coming out of Seton Hall, Sandro Mamukelashvili was an intriguing prospect that went No. 54 overall last year to Milwaukee. Big men are harder to develop in the NBA, so minutes were reasonably scarce to come by for Mamu. But the 2022 Summer League gave the 6-foot-11 center a better chance to let his skills shine, and he responded by averaging 17.0 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks in five games while shooting 47.6% from deep on 4.2 attempts. Another floor-spacing big to deploy alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo? Now that would be scary.
Aaron Nesmith, Indiana Pacers
Let’s get this out of the way: Tyrese Haliburton is the breakout candidate for Indiana. But he already exhibited those signs last year, so the under-the-radar pick here is Aaron Nesmith. The former No. 14 overall pick in 2020 never found a footing in Boston, but minutes in Indiana could help him get back on track. The 3-point game is the marquee aspect here. In his sophomore, and final, year in college, he hit 52.2% of his 3s on 8.2 attempts. Though it came on just a small sample size of 14 games, if the Pacers can get him to 38-to-42% on good volume, that will be massive for his development as he starts his third NBA season. Center Jalen Smith, the 10th overall pick in 2020 who went two spots before Haliburton, is another to keep tabs on.
Isaiah Livers, Detroit Pistons
Cade Cunningham is also the easy answer here, but he went No. 1 overall in 2021. Isaiah Livers, who went at No. 42 in the second round, posted some solid performances in 19 appearances towards the end of the season. The 6-foot-7 forward converted 42.2% of his 3s on 3.4 attempts and was solid defensively. With Saddiq Bey coming alive as a small forward, getting Livers more time at the 4 may be the way to go for head coach Dwane Casey.
Moses Moody, Golden State Warriors
The list started with the Warriors, and it’ll end with them. Golden State will probably have to move on from Andrew Wiggins if they want to lock down Poole long-term. That blow of losing someone of Wiggins’ quality may be lessened if Moses Moody steps up to the task. He went No. 14 overall last year but didn’t get too many reps to showcase his abilities in the regular season, but he came up huge in two playoff games. The Warriors’ plan of merging budding youngsters with future Hall of Famers has paid off so far, and they should continue to do so with Moody – and Kuminga – hoping to follow Poole’s footsteps.