An NBA players’ prime is a fickle mistress. Whether it be due to injury or an inconsistent role on a given team, the prime years of a players’ life could be wasted. I did a quick study of player’s prime performance years and age curve by taking a look at 100 different players and the best five-year stretch of each of their careers, according to basketball-reference’s VORP statistic. Of course, this isn’t a scientifically exact process and there wasn’t a huge sample size, but more or less an equal amount of players from each position were used, as well as an equal amount of stars, role players, rotations guys and bench warmers. By looking at players over the past 30 years, you can start to see a trend in terms when players are going to have their “break out” season, and when their prime years are going to end. With this in mind, lets try and predict who might be poised for a break out year.
So what is the use of this? There are several ways to read into this data, but one interesting fashion of interpreting it is the ages that most players are when they seem to break out and the age players usually are when they decline. For example, at age 23, 24 percent of the players were in their prime but at age 24, it was 46 percent. That’s an approximately 192 percent increase. Of course the increase between 23 and 22 is even steeper, but since only 24% of the players were in their prime at age 23, it probably isn’t the best representative for “break out age.”
Even more interesting is applying these concepts to today’s NBA. Perhaps it’s possible to discern some break out candidates. Since age 24 is a common starting point for a player’s prime, looking at players that were 23 years old last season is the starting point to determining break out candidates. Using basketball-reference’s play index, I pulled up a list of all age 23 players from last year that played at least 800 minutes and had a usage rate of at least 19 percent, since a break out candidate would probably have to show at least some ability as a ball handler. Afterwards, I used ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus to eliminate all players who had a DRPM of less than -1.00. This is because players that can’t play D, either have a ceiling on their playing time because of their poor defense (Shabazz Muhammad, Trey Burke, Enes Kanter) or are so good offensively that they’ve already “broken out” (Kyrie Irving.) Superior defensive numbers for players are also often a derivative of athletic ability, which in turn implies potential to improve.
Those four stipulations leave us with six players: Jared Sullinger, Jeremy Lamb, Jonas Valanciunas, Rodney Hood, Tobias Harris and Victor Oladipo. As mentioned earlier, players with especially freakish physical tools and impressive athletic ability are usually considered to have a higher ceiling by most talent evaluators, so I attempted to find their pre-draft combine results. It was tough to find a vertical for Valanciunas but according to Chad Ford, he is a 7 footer with a 7’4 wing span and 9’3 standing reach, so he certainly stands out. On the other hand, as much as I personally love Rodney Hood, his 29 inch standing vertical and 6’8 wing span are unimpressive considering his size and position. Victor Oladipo has a wing span 5 inches longer than his height, a 33 inch standing vertical and a 42-inch max vert. Tobias Harris has a “+5” wingspan and a 31.5/37.5 standing/max vert. Jeremy Lamb has an impressive “+7” wingspan and well above average vertical numbers. Finally, Jared Sullinger has a solid wing span but his max vertical is only 31 inches and he isn’t exactly known as the quickest or most high-ceiling guy. It is interesting however, that he came so close to “qualifying” for the final list and is actually on the same team as Valanciunas. Perhaps, the Raptors do have some potential to improve this year, contrary to popular opinion.
Anyway, with Sullinger and Hood eliminated, just four players remain. Here is a short write up on each of them and their chances of “breaking out”:
Jonas Valanciunas – his interior play on offense is unquestionably one of the best in the league. He is equally effective as a roll man and a post threat. However, post ups are increasingly falling out of favor in the league, and teams tend to value bigs that are able to protect the paint. Valanciunas certainly has the length to be a solid deterrent on the defensive end, but so far in his career he hasn’t been able to live up to that potential. Perhaps this is the year that he finally does? Unfortunately, there are plenty of reasons to doubt that it will actually happen. He always seems a little slow to respond on pick and rolls and has some troubling issues with his defensive footwork, even though he is actually relatively mobile overall. These problems remind me of Enes Kanter and even though Valanciunas’s physical profile isn’t at all similar to Kanter’s, the strengths and weaknesses of his game very much are.
Tobias Harris – I’m much more optimistic about Harris’s chance to be a break out player. In particular, with Reggie Jackson out for at least the first month of the season, Harris has a chance to become the go to scorer for the Pistons. Andre Drummond isn’t really a top offensive option and with Jackson out, Harris might be Detroit’s best bet to become their primary ball handler. He showed some improvement as a passer and three-point shooter after joining the Pistons last season and seems to fit well next to Marcus Morris. It’s likely that he continues to improve in both of those categories and has a chance to really spread his wings and show out while Jackson recovers. Perhaps this will be a blessing in disguise for the Pistons, without RJ they will certainly have some struggles, but if Harris is able to take the next step early on, the Pistons can really threaten some teams later when Jackson is back and it really matters.
Jeremy Lamb – Lowkey, Lamb is one of the most underrated SGs in the league. His unbelievable length allows him to be much more effective on defense than people realize, even though he hasn’t always shown the best effort on that end. Surely, Steve Clifford has good reasons to keep Lamb nailed to the bench, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still become a useful player in this league. Courtney Lee is gone and at this point of his career Marco Belinelli shouldn’t be starting for a team that plans to advance in the playoffs. If Lamb has come in to this season with a new mentality, and Clifford gives him a shot, this may indeed be a break out season. Lamb has the talent to be effective on a lot of teams, it’s more a matter of staying focused and consistent mentally. However, those are also pretty big ifs and in his past, Lamb has given too many reasons to doubt a positive outcome to them. He seems to be the biggest wildcard on this list.
Victor Oladipo – This is the somewhat obvious one. The only question is whether the Thunder will have enough shooting around Oladipo and Russell Westbrook to open up the paint for their drives and allow them to properly operate. Otherwise, Oladipo was already terrific in the last 40-50 games of 2015-16 and unless the Thunder really self-destruct, I think this one is all but in the books as a break out.
Well those are my break out candidates. There are plenty of other players, such as Jabari Parker or Derrick Williams, who have the potential to exceed expectations and really take a leap in terms of their production, but based on the numbers, these are the four best options. So place your bets now on these Most Improved Players contenders, and enjoy their possible rise to relevance if they play for your team.