It's pretty easy to be bummed out about the 2020-21 NBA season - the compressed schedule has led to injuries galore to important players and very uneven results from game to game. At the same time, if you focus on some of the positives from this year, you'll probably notice that there's been impressive growth shown by a ton of players. Some superstars took their game to a new level; some players went from being stars to superstars; some made the leap from promising prospect to star, and some simply showed significant growth over the course of their rookie or sophomore season.
Here are 30 players who have enjoyed breakout seasons in 2020-21:
When we think about players having breakout seasons, we often look past the league's best players and focus on young players that are making their first leap. While there's nothing wrong with that per se, it sometimes causes you to miss an elite player's breakout season happening right in front of you. Nikola Jokic is having a historically great offensive season this year and has proven that he can be one of the league's leading scorers if that's what his team needs him to be (26.2 PPG - a career-high by 6.1 PPG). And if the increased scoring weren't impressive enough, the Joker is also averaging career-highs in RPG (10.9), APG (8.5), and three-point percentage (41.2). He's damn near averaging a 55-40-90 (57-41-86)!! Jokic is a complete, one-man offensive system and is having the best year of his career.
Speaking of MVP candidates enjoying breakout seasons, Joel Embiid's finally added the consistency element that was lagging in past seasons, getting into the best shape of his life, and has been dominating the NBA more than any player this year. Embiid's averaging a career-highs in points (29.2/game), field goal percentage (51.1), three-point percentage (37.7), free throw attempts (11.2/game), makes (9.6/game) and percentage (85.2) as well as net offensive/defensive rating (plus-18!!) this season for the best team in the Eastern Conference. He may not win the MVP due to missed games, but his major breakout season cannot be ignored.
Zion Williamson is having the definition of a breakout season. After only playing 24 games as a rookie - a stellar 24 games to be sure - Williamson has vaulted his way into the All-NBA conversation as a 20-year-old in his sophomore season, averaging 27.0 PPG, 7.1 RPG, and 3.7 APG on a staggering 61.6 percent shooting from the field. While his assist numbers don't jump off the page, his playmaking has improved immensely as the Pelicans are effectively playing him at point guard now. It's ironic that we all figured the next Shaq would be some seven-footer who could dominate in the paint and shoot threes - instead, it's a 6-foot-7, 284-pound tank who shoots about 70 percent of his shots at the rim and over 95 percent of his shots inside 10-feet.
Julius Randle is an All-NBA shoo-in as well as the front-runner for the NBA's Most Improved Player this year. He's maximizing his abilities for Tom Thibodeau and the surprisingly competent New York Knicks. We knew that Coach Thibs would force Randle to defend harder than he'd ever defended before, but we had no idea Randle would average career-highs in PPG (24.1), RPG (10.4), APG (5.9), and three-point shooting (42.1 percent). He's also leading the league in MPG, averaging 37.5. Randle's always had tons of potential, it's great to see him put everything together this season.
While his numbers have only increased incrementally, Donovan Mitchell is enjoying a nice breakout season and, until his recent ankle injury, had a case as a sleeper MVP candidate as he's helped lead the Jazz to the best record in the NBA through three-quarters of the season. Mitchell is averaging career-highs in PPG (26.4), APG (5.2), RPG (4.4), and three-point percentage (38.6), and appears to be the closest thing we've seen to Dwyane Wade, who, interestingly enough, happens to be a new minority owner of the Jazz.
Though the Bulls are heading in the wrong direction as of late, it shouldn't diminish how impressive Zach LaVine has been this season. The seventh-year player not only made his first All-Star team but is also averaging career-bests in PPG (27.5), APG (5.1), RPG (5.1), and all shooting percentages. Simply put, he's taken his game to a new level and is undoubtedly one of the best offensive players in the league.
Much like LaVine, De'Aaron Fox is having a stellar season in spite of his team's struggles. Fox is averaging 25.2 PPG (4.1 PPG than his previous career-high) this year and has averaged an impressive 28.5 PPG and 6.6 APG since the All-Star break. Fox and Tyrese Haliburton (also on this list) are the lone bright spots on a crummy Kings organization that is still trying to recover from the sins of Vlade Divac.
One of the reasons the NBA Draft can be such a crapshoot is that it's difficult to predict which players are going to improve like Jaylen Brown. Instead of developing linearly into the three-and-D wing most expected him to be when the Celtics selected him third overall in the 2016 draft, Brown has improved exponentially by adding something new to his game each season. This year, he added elite footwork and isolation moves to his repertoire and became a go-to player on offense, increasing his PPG from 20.3 to 24.8. He also increased his playmaking, improving his APG from 2.1 to 3.4. Brown should be in the mix for the Most Improved Player award at season's end.
Yes, Nikola Vucevic, a 30-year-old who already had an All-Star appearance on his resume, has had a breakout season this year. Before this season in which he's averaging 23.8 PPG, his previous career-high was 20.8 PPG. His three-point shooting is also much better than it's ever been (41.1 percent, compared to his 36 percent career-average) and rebounding (11.5 RPG) and passing (3.7 APG) about as well as he ever has in his career. This is probably his ceiling as a player, so he deserves a shoutout for maximizing his potential this late in his career.
After competing for an All-Star spot during the first half of the season, the Thunder have effectively shut Shai Gilgeous-Alexander down (possibly for the rest of the season) to keep him completely healthy and, more importantly, tank for a good draft pick. Before being shut down, SGA was averaging 23.7 PPG, 5.9 APG, and 4.7 RPG with 51-42-81 shooting splits, a huge improvement from the leap he made the previous season. SGA has a shot at being a superstar if OKC continues to build around him intelligently.
After a choppy start to the season with coronavirus and contact-tracing issues, Michael Porter Jr. has really turned it on the past couple of months. Over his last 25 games, MPJ is averaging 23.0 PPG and 8.0 RPG on 56-47-80 shooting. This stellar play validates what we saw from him in the Orlando Bubble: MPJ will be an All-Star before long.
Scary Terry Rozier is quietly having an All-Star-caliber season for the Hornets. Not only is Rozier averaging a career-best 20.4 PPG, but he's also doing it in a highly efficient manner (46-40-83 shooting splits), and doing it when it matters the most (54-50-90 in the clutch). The Hornets should have a formidable guard rotation for years to come with LaMelo Ball, Rozier, Malik Monk, and Devonte' Graham.
Speaking of LaMelo, he also deserves to be on this list of breakout players after taking the league by storm during his rookie season. In 42 games, Ball has averaged 15.8 PPG, 6.2 APG, and 5.9 RPG while having a very respectable 45-38-79 shooting splits. Ball also showed marked improvement as the season progress - averaging 19.1 PPG and shooting 42.1 percent from beyond the arc during the 22 games that he started - a great sign for the up-and-coming Hornets.
Viewed as a bit of an afterthought because of Zion Williamson's and Ja Morant's immediate success, RJ Barrett has quietly made a nice jump in his second season and is the second-best player on a legitimate playoff team. Barrett is averaging 17.6 PPG, 5.7 RPG, and 3.0 APG to go along with 45-39-74 shooting splits - all significant improvements from his rookie season. It wasn't clear after his rookie year, but Barrett absolutely has the potential to be an All-Star.
While the Cavs have had an up-and-down season, Collin Sexton has enjoyed a breakout year in 2020-21. He's increased his scoring (up to 24.4 PPG from 20.8 PPG), playmaking (up to 4.1 APG from 3.0), and is getting to the free-throw line more than ever (6.0 FTA). It looked as though Sexton was going to end up being a spark-plug shooter after his first season and a half, but since the post-All-Star break of last season through this year, Sexton has proven that his ceiling is much higher.
After a rough start to his rookie season, this season's no. 1 overall pick has rapidly improved since Chris Finch was hired and Karl-Anthony Towns returned from having coronavirus. Over the past 33 games, Edwards is averaging 22.8 PPG, 5.5 RPG, and 3.0 APG, including a 42-point explosion in a surprising win over the Suns. He certainly has all of the physical attributes you'd ever want in a lead guard, so as long as Edwards nails the mental part of the game, we could be looking at a future superstar.
"Great pick" and "Sacramento Kings" aren't exactly synonymous, but Tyrese Haliburton appears to have bucked the trend. Haliburton, a highly efficient, do-it-all sophomore guard out of Iowa State, puzzlingly slide on draft night to the 12th pick where the Kings happily scooped him up. In his rookie year, he's averaged 13.0 PPG and 5.3 APG with efficient 47-41-86 shooting splits and figures to be a pillar for the Kings along with De'Aaron Fox for years to come.
Christian Wood's emergence as an All-Star-caliber player must have some in the Rockets' organization wondering what might have been had James Harden not been so disgruntled and forced his way out of Houston. In his first season as a full-time starter, Wood has been quite impressive, averaging 21.0 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 1.2 BPG, and has shot 51.6 percent from the field and 38.3 percent from three. He'll be a very good number two for whomever the Rockets land in the 2021 NBA Draft.
After a very hot start to the season, Jerami Grant has fallen back to earth a bit. That being said, he still deserves some recognition for the fine year he's had. Grant is averaging 22.5 PPG for the Pistons - almost 10 more PPG than his previous career-best. And while his efficiency has fallen off a bit, he still has solid 43-35-85 shooting splits, suggesting he can at least be a number two or three player if the Pistons are able to land a franchise player in the 2021 NBA Draft.
In his third NBA season, Mikal Bridges has proven that, at the very worst, he'll at least be a nice three-and-D wing for the rest of the decade. If he keeps improving as he has, Bridges will have the chance to be even more. The 6-foot-6 two-guard with Go-Go Gadget arms is averaging 13.2 PPG with 53-41-82 shooting splits and often guarding the other team's best player for the second-seeded Suns. Things are certainly looking up in Phoenix.
After his impressive showing against James Harden in the Orlando Bubble, Lu Dort has shown that his two-way performance was not an aberration, but rather, a sign of things to come. Dort has continued his Tony Allen-like defensive ways and has actually displayed some nice offensive potential, averaging 14.3 PPG. While his shooting efficiency still leaves a lot to be desired, he's a streaky enough shooter to occasionally catch fire from beyond the arc and go off for 42 points as he did against the Jazz last month. If he could ever develop a reliable three-point shot, he'd be one of the best two-way players in basketball.
Even before his insane 17 for 19 FG, 44-point masterpiece against the Cavs last month, Gary Trent Jr. had been having an excellent third season, averaging, by far, a career-high in PPG (15.2) and shooting 38.9 percent from three. Similar to Mikal Bridges, Trent will definitely be a good three-and-D player in the league but has the upside to maybe even be an all-star when he's in his prime.
The presumptive Sixth Man of the Year winner, Jordan Clarkson, has emerged as the heir to the Lou Williams' throne as the league's best, but most consistent heat check guys off the bench in the NBA (that title had previously been held by Jamal Crawford). Through 60 games, Clarkson is averaging 17.4 PPG and shooting a blistering 92.2 percent from the free-throw line. Clarkson could be the key to Utah's fortunes come playoff time.
Chris Boucher might end up receiving votes for both the NBA's Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year awards. The 6-foot-9, 200-pound rangy center can block shots with the best of them (1.9 BPG) and bury three-pointers on the perimeter (38.9 percent from distance). He's also increased his scoring per game from 6.6 last season to 13.6 this season. If the Raptors are able to sneak into the Play-In Tournament, expect to see some increased intrigue around Boucher moving forward.
Jalen Brunson is having the best season of his three-year career this year, averaging 12.4 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 3.4 APG, and shooting 51.8 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from three. In fact, if Jordan Clarkson hadn't jumped out to such a seemingly insurmountable lead in the Sixth Man of the Year race, Brunson's season would probably be garnering more attention. He's good enough to be a starter in the NBA at this point and is easily one of the best bargains in the league in year three of a four-year, $6.1M deal.
After looking like he could be out of the league at one point last year, Malik Monk turned things around this season, averaging 13.0 PPG and doing it on very efficient shooting (46-43-82 shooting splits). Monk, who is set to become a restricted free agent this off-season, might be setting himself up for a nice payday if he performs well for Charlotte down the stretch run of the season and playoffs.
After a slow start to the season, Lonzo Ball has turned it on and reminded people why he was the no. 2 pick of the 2017 NBA Draft. Ball is putting up a career-high 14.4 PPG with career-bests in all shooting splits. Ball essentially played himself out of trade rumors and appears to be a potential long-term fit alongside Zion Williamson in New Orleans.
Keldon Johnson has come a long way since the beginning of 2020. After barely playing before the bubble, Johnson showcased some skills in Orlando and has enjoyed a nice breakout season. In 59 games, Johnson has averaged 12.9 PPG and 6.4 RPG this year and looks to be a pillar in San Antonio's future as a two-way force at small forward.
After Lakers fans took things perhaps a bit too far this preseason with the Talen Horton-Tucker hype, THT has actually had an impressive year as a 20-year-old on a team defending the title. On the season, he's averaging 8.6 PPG, but during the period in which LeBron was down with an injury, he averaged 10.3 PPG and 3.0 APG in only 22.8 MPG. It'll be interesting to see if he's played well enough to get serious playoff minutes on a veteran-heavy squad.
Did you know that Saddiq Bey is the only rookie to win Player of the Week in the NBA this season? The no. 19 overall pick is averaging 11.6 PPG and 4.3 RPG this season and has very solid shooting splits (40-38-86) for a rookie. He projects to be a nice three-and-D wing for the Pistons in the future - much of which will depend on the team's fate in the 2021 NBA Draft.