Just what is a breakout player, anyway? As with many sports-related concepts, it might not be what you think it is.
To illustrate, consider three players who garnered a lot of votes for last season's NBA Most Improved Player award.
After signing with the Houston Rockets, Omer Asik stepped out of the shadow he resided under in Chicago as Joakim Noah's backup. His per-game averages leaped at the switch, with his scoring vaulting from 3.1 to 10.1 and rebounds from 5.3 to 11.7. Even Asik's blocks increased from 1.0 to 1.1. However, the biggest change in Asik's traditional stat line was that he tacked on nearly 1,500 minutes from his last season with the Bulls.
It's often a change in role that marks a breakout season, and that's not only a function of court time, but also how a player is used in his team's scheme. Asik burned more possessions and grabbed a higher rate of defensive rebounds in Houston, but both of those categories are greatly impacted by how a player is deployed. Asik's offensive rebound rate declined and his block rate dropped almost in half. At the bottom line, Asik's offensive rating, which measures how many points he's worth per 100 possessions, was 105.6, almost exactly what it was in two seasons in Chicago.
Don't misunderstand, Asik got better with his increased opportunity. Just look at his free throw shooting, which improved from 46 percent to 56 percent. But in reality, it wasn't so much that Asik broke out as a Rocket; it was that his performance as a Bull demanded a larger role.
The same phenomenon explains last season's MIP winner, Indiana's Paul George. George added 1,000 more minutes to his ledger, but his per-possession performance was nearly the same as the season before. The big change came in assist rate, part of the consequence of assuming the role of injured forward Danny Granger. George got more shots with greater offensive responsibility, but his turnovers climbed and his shooting efficiency slipped.
Overall, the increased volume boosted George's value, and even his dynamic playoff performance was largely a function of his court time climbing to 41 minutes per game. Still, George stepped up a level, and that it happened at age 22 was not surprising: Basketball players exhibit their most growth during their early 20s.
Role changes and age don't explain everything: NBA experience also matters. Chicago's Jimmy Butler spent the bulk of his rookie season as a Tom Thibodeau redshirt, but last season drew 2,134 minutes. He improved across the board, with a 48-point increase in true shooting percentage, upticks in rebounding, assists, steals and blocks, and a decrease in turnovers. At the bottom line, he added 2.7 points of PER and nearly 100 points of winning percentage. That the improvement came in Butler's second NBA season was typical -- in college the phenomenon is called the "sophomore leap" and it also often manifests at the NBA level.
So when you're considering the following list of top five breakout candidates for the 2013-14 season, remember the three most common routes a player takes to such a season: (1) He's in his second season; (2) he's playing a larger role with his team; and (3) he's in his early 20s. Of course, sometimes it's a combination of those factors. (Take note, fantasy leaguers.)
1. Bradley Beal | Washington Wizards
WARP: plus-4.2 | WIN%: plus-.076
Beal fits two of our criteria for breakout candidates in that he just turned 20 in June and is entering his second NBA season. The ability to shoot a high percentage with a high volume from 3-point range is an excellent marker for a future big-time scorer. Besides Beal, the only rookies age 20 or under who have qualified for the 3-point title, hit at least 38 percent from deep and played at least 1,500 minutes have been Kyrie Irving, Brandon Knight, Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Mike Miller. All of those players, as you may have noticed, have evolved into more than shooting specialists.
2. Andre Drummond | Detroit Pistons
WARP: plus-3.0 | WIN%: minus-.022
If there is a preseason favorite for most improved player, it's probably Drummond. He's projected to decline a smidgeon in winning percentage, but that's because his rookie year figure of .665 was so high that some historical regression is almost a given. However, Drummond is slated to start in the middle for Detroit this season, and his rookie season level of 20.7 minutes per game should increase by at least seven or eight minutes, depending on his ability to avoid fouls. If he plays 30 minutes per game, you can pencil Drummond in for 12-13 points, 11-12 rebounds and a block rate that will contend for tops in the league, all while shooting 60 percent from the floor. The Drummond-Brandon Jennings pick-and-roll should be one of the more exhilarating play calls any coach will make in the coming season.
3. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
WARP: plus-3.3 | WIN%: plus-.040
What constitutes a breakout for a player who is already one of the league's biggest stars? Two things: health and wins. One reason to expect the former is actually the latter. In other words, the Cavaliers have been careful with Irving toward the end of his first two seasons because the team was well out of playoff contention. This season, not only does the law of averages suggest Irving is due for a healthier campaign, but a beefed-up Cleveland roster will make Irving's presence a necessity next spring as the Cavs seek to lock up a playoff seed. The improved talent around Irving also should make him even more efficient, which along with the natural growth curve for a player so young should mean yet another leap in value. For Irving, that means becoming a top-10 player in the NBA.
4. Kawhi Leonard | San Antonio Spurs
WARP: plus-2.5 | WIN%: plus-.045
You have to be careful about reading too much into playoff breakouts. Not only is the sample size small, but numbers are skewed because you see the same lineup advantages and mismatches played out game after game. However, Leonard has hit 41.4 percent from 3-point range in his 35 career playoff games, and last season averaged 37 minutes per game during the postseason. None of that factors into his projection, which sees Leonard occupying a larger role in the San Antonio rotation as the core continues to grow older. What we saw in the playoffs suggests that Leonard is ready to become what the numbers suggest he can be.
5. Enes Kanter | Utah Jazz
WARP: plus-1.9 | WIN%: minus-.057
You can make an argument for Kanter or teammate Derrick Favors to be listed here, as both are expected to move into full-blown starting roles. For Favors, it's a matter of proving he can cut his off-the-bench foul rate without losing any of the aggressiveness that makes him an elite offensive rebounder. Kanter simply needs to do what he's been doing as a reserve. Last season, he averaged 16.9 points and 10.2 rebounds per 36 minutes while shooting 54.4 percent from the field -- all at the age of 20. Look out.
I think Jonas Valunciunas should have been added to this list.