Figuring out which young players are poised for breakout years is a major component to fantasy basketball success, and young forwards seem to have it a little easier than young point guards (more pressure to run the offense) or young centers (steeper learning curve defensively).
As a result, we often see young forwards that are taken near the middle or end of drafts have breakout seasons and provide excellent fantasy value for the owners who believed in them.
TWELVE BREAK OUT FORWARDS BETWEEN 20-25 YEARS OLD
(players listed youngest to oldest):
Aaron Gordon (2nd season, 20 years old)
As a rookie, the ultra-athletic Gordon played just 17 mpg over 47 games, scoring a mere 5.2 points on sub-45 percent shooting from the field. He dealt with injuries, a coaching change, and the usual rookie struggles. But you can toss that season out the window, because we’re going to see a different Aaron Gordon from here on out.
Playing in the Orlando Summer League, Gordon appeared to be quicker, stronger and smoother, as well as much more confident, decisive and efficient. The result? A monster stat line of 32.7 minutes, 21.7 points, 11.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.7 blocks and 2.0 threes per game on 50 percent shooting, in a span of three games over four days. Yes, that’s a very small sample size, and no, he’s not going to duplicate those stats in the regular season. The point is that Gordon is ready for a much bigger role in 2015-16, and that his stat ceiling is quite high. Just be prepared to reach for Gordon, because others in your league will have their eyes on him too.
Julius Randle (2nd season, 20 years old)
Randle had one of the roughest 2014-15 seasons, as he broke his leg in his NBA debut, playing just 14 minutes before going down. So it was nice to see him back on the court in the Vegas Summer League, where he played in four games and averaged a modest 11.5 points, four rebounds and one steal. Better numbers would have been nice to see, but Julius was nervous and rusty after sitting out for so long.
While the Lakers have plenty of talented guards and swingmen, their group of bigs is far from dominant. Roy Hibbert is trying to re-establish himself in the tougher Western Conference, and both Brandon Bass and Tarik Black have limited ceilings. That’s why the development of Randle is so important, and he’s getting better every day. After five preseason games, Randle is averaging a solid 12.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.2 steals in just 24.4 minutes per game, while shooting an efficient 52.8% from the field. Those are great signs for the season ahead!
Kyle Anderson (2nd season, 22 years old)
Anderson struggled as a rookie, but he didn’t get much of a chance (just 10.8 mpg over 33 NBA games). However, he did dominate the D-League to the tune of 21.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.5 blocks per game, giving his confidence a nice boost. He also kept that strong play rolling into summer league.
Playing in 10 games over 15 days, Anderson managed to post 18.9 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.4 steals and .9 blocks in just 28 mpg over the summer. His poor 3-point shooting dragged him down to under 40 percent shooting from the field, but he made nearly 78 percent of his freebies while getting to the line an impressive 8.3 times per game. More importantly, Kyle showed so much poise and his team played so well that he was named MVP of the Vegas Summer League. His chances of cracking the Spurs’ rotation look much better this year.
TJ Warren (2nd season, 22 years old)
Warren barely played before the All-Star break last year, scoring a mere 3.6 points in 9.2 minutes over 16 games. After the break he got a real chance, and impressed with 7.8 points and 2.8 boards in 19.5 mpg over 24 games, on an ultra-efficient 55 percent shooting from the field. Before you dismiss that high percentage, consider that TJ shot 53.5 percent from the field in college, leading the ACC in that category in both of his college seasons.
Warren simply doesn’t settle for bad shots, and he has a knack for getting in the paint to do most of his damage. Sure enough, in seven summer league games Warren continued to score efficiently, averaging 18.7 point on 54 percent and 74 percent. On the downside, TJ is not comfortable behind the 3-point line, and he’s a poor defensive rebounder and assist man. But he plays to his strengths, and the Suns would be wise to give him a larger role this season.
Otto Porter (3rd season, 22 years old)
Porter made some nice strides in year two, but he was hardly a reliable fantasy option last year, posting just six points and three rebounds in 19.4 mpg. But in the postseason he stepped that up to 33.1 minutes, 10 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.2 treys over 10 games, which was a very encouraging sign for Wizards fans.
And with Paul Pierce now in Los Angeles, Otto has a big opportunity in 2015-16. To understand Porter’s stat potential, consider that he averaged 16.2 points, 7.5 boards, 2.7 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.4 threes on 48 percent field, 42 percent three and 78 percent free throw shooting as a 19 year old sophomore at Georgetown. So he does possess all-around stat stuffing ability, and with newfound confidence and a 30+ minute role in front of him, look for Otto to take a big leap this season.
Doug McDermott (2nd season, 23 years old)
McDermott’s rookie year was pretty disastrous, as a right knee injury and Tom Thibodeau limited him to just 36 games played and under nine minutes per game. As a result he struggled with his shot, shooting 40 percent from the field and 32 percent from behind the arc, after converting on 55 percent of his field goals and 46 percent of his 3-pointers in college. That’s a huge gap, but it’s way too early to write him off.
Thankfully, Dougie McBuckets enters 2015-16 healthy and with a new head coach in Fred Hoiberg, a former sharpshooter himself. After five preseason games, Hoiberg’s offense seems tailor made for DcMermott’s shooting abilities, as he’s posted 16.6 points in 31.2 minutes per game, while launching 37 threes and making 16 of them. Don’t expect much on the defensive end (his steals and blocks are nearly non-existent), but the dude can get buckets! And with Mike Dunleavy likely out for a big chunk of the season as he recovers from back surgery, Dougie simply needs to seize his opportunity.
Mitch McGary (2nd season, 23 years old)
McGary’s NBA debut last season was delayed due to a broken bone in his left foot, but once he got on the court his high-energy style of play was apparent. His per 36 minute stats of 14.9 points, 12.2 rebounds (3.9 offensive), 1.2 steals and 1.2 blocks weren’t bad at all for a rookie, and he shot over 53 percent from the floor. Once OKC’s season ended he made it a point to improve his diet and shed some weight, and Mitch played even better in summer league, getting up and down the court with ease.
With Nick Collison on his last legs, it’s time for McGary to move ahead of him for good in the Thunder rotation. And even if he starts the season as OKC’s fourth best big man (behind Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams and Enes Kanter), Mitch is versatile enough to play alongside all three of them, and he’s just one injury away from getting big minutes. If you’re not a Mitch McGary fan yet, you will be very soon.
Harrison Barnes (4th season, 23 years old)
Harrison elevated his game a couple of levels last season, but his fantasy stats still weren’t very eye-popping, as his 10.1 points, 5.5 boards, 1.4 assists and .7 steals per game were nothing special. But his strong 52 percent shooting on twos and 40.5 percent shooting on threes was a great sign, as he looked very comfortable and confident in Steve Kerr’s well-oiled offense.
Barnes’ minutes may continue to hover around 30 mpg (28.3 minutes per game in each of the last two seasons), but he only needs a few more touches per game to start being a real scoring threat, and there’s lots of room for improvement in his 72 percent free throw mark and his mediocre steals and blocks. Given his youth, athleticism and the Warriors’ potent offense, Barnes is a pretty safe bet to improve in 2015-16.
Meyers Leonard (4th season, 23 years old)
In last year’s regular season, Leonard played just 15.4 minutes per game over 55 games. Still, he was very effective and efficient when he was on the court, becoming only the second player in the past five seasons (Kevin Durant in 2012-13) to post a 50/40/90 season (minimum 300 total points). He also stepped up in the playoffs, averaging 7.8 points and 6.6 boards in just 21.2 minutes, while drawing Marc Gasol away from the rim by shooting a blistering 10-13 from behind the 3-point arc. This ability to spread the floor (combined with the departures of LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez) makes Leonard a lock to join Portland’s starting lineup this season.
With small forwards Al-Farouq Aminu amd Moe Harkless still shaky from 3-point range, and fellow big men Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis unproven mid-range shooters (with non-existent 3-point range), Meyers and Noah Vonleh are the Blazers’ only frontcourt rotation players who can reliably drain outside shots. As such, we can expect a lot of pick and pop and trailing threes in transition from Leonard this year. And while he’s unlikely to shoot over 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from behind the arc in an increased offensive role, Meyers should still post solid fantasy stats this season. Don’t sleep!
Nikola Mirotic (2nd season, 24 years old)
The fact that Mirotic isn’t a great defender and yet he still earned rotation minutes as a rookie under Tom Thibodeau was eye opening in itself. Now throw in his clutch scoring (led the NBA in 4th quarter scoring during the month of March) and his James Harden-esque ability to focus on either launching threes (6.8 three point attempts per 36 minutes) or get to the free throw line (6.2 free throw attempts per 36 minutes), and you have a very intriguing Euro big man.
Now teamed up with a new head coach, Nikola should play a much bigger role in his 2nd season, while shooting the ball a bit better thanks to having a year of experience and extra confidence under his belt. Fred Hoiberg’s teams at Iowa St. played at a fast pace and attempted LOTS of threes, an environment where Mirotic can thrive. And don’t discount how valuable it is for a young big man to learn under the likes of Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah, while at the same time being ready to play extra minutes when one of those veterans gets hurt.
Jae Crowder (4th season, 25 years old)
When talking about Jae Crowder, a great place to start is his jersey number. Because when you’re an NBA player and you wear number 99, you’re making a statement that you’re a little different than everyone else, which Jae seems to embrace. Now I haven’t watched football in a long time, but I sure as hell remember how intimidating Warren Sapp was in his number 99 jersey. And Crowder’s chiseled 6-foot-6, 235+ pound frame is very reminiscent of a physical football player.
￼ After playing low key minutes off the bench for Dallas, Crowder finally saw major rotation minutes after being traded to Boston last year. In the regular season he posted 9.5 points and 4.6 rebounds in 24 mpg as a Celtic, which translates to a respectable 14 points and nearly seven boards per 36 minutes. Jae also displayed newfound aggressiveness in a Boston uniform, getting to the free throw line 3.4 times per 36 minutes (as opposed to only 1.8 FTA per 36 minutes over 181 games with Dallas).
One area where Crowder shines is on defense, as he has the strength and bulk to match up with many power forwards, but the quick feet and low center of gravity to stay with many swingmen. He also has quick, strong hands, as evidenced by his 1.6 steals per 36 minutes for his career. When playing only 16-20 minutes per game those steals aren’t very useful, but if Crowder earns a 28+ minute role this season as expected, he’ll quietly crack the Top 40 steals leaderboard.
Crowder best showed off his ability and potential in Boston’s game three playoff matchup vs. LeBron James and Cleveland. Crowder played 31 minutes off the bench that game, scoring an efficient 16 points on 5-6 FG shooting, making 2-3 threes and going 4-5 from the foul line, to go along with seven rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocks. Sure, LeBron still posted 31 points and 11 boards in 42 minutes that game, but Crowder didn’t back down or show any fear when they were matched up with each other, similar to Jimmy Butler in the 2013 playoffs. That type of performance is what earned Jae a fresh $35 million contract in the offseason, and it’s the perfect stepping stone for him to have a breakout year in 2015-16.
Al-Farouq Aminu (6th season, 25 years old)
Aminu played only 18.5 mpg in the regular season last year, but he got extra minutes and picked up his play when it mattered most, in the postseason. Playing in five playoff games vs. Houston (and getting extra run after Chandler Parsons went down, Aminu responded with 11.2 points per game on 55 percent shooting from the field and 7-11 shooting from behind the 3-point arc, along with a sweet 7.2 boards, 2.0 steals and 1.6 blocks per playoff contest. Al-Farouq’s long arms and active defense was on full display, and his confident 3-point shooting stroke was a potential revelation.
Aminu has always been a plus rebounder and defender, but his limited scoring (10.3 points per 36 minutes for his career) and poor outside shooting (sub-29 percent 3-point shooting for his career) have always held him back. Still, Aminu’s defense and athleticism alone have earned him major minutes in the past, as he started 136 games for New Orleans from 2012-2014. And after signing with Portland for $30 million as one of the first free agent signings of 2015, Aminu is expected to start at small forward and play major minutes for the Blazers in 2015-16.
Last season Aminu took the first step in becoming a 3-point threat by cutting back on his long twos and attempting more threes. In 2013-14, over 20 percent of Al-Farouq’s shot attempts were long twos and less than 10 percent were 3-balls. But in 2014-15, only seven percent of his shots were long twos, with nearly 35 percent being 3-balls. He simply needs to become a respectable 3-point shooter (over 33 percent), and then teams will have to honor his range and the rest of his offensive game will open up.
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For our next post we’ll examine Point Guards, perhaps the most important position for fantasy hoops.