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November 8, 2007
Identifying Breakout Players
The Payoff

by Kevin Pelton

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Projecting breakout seasons is a favorite pastime of analysts and fantasy players alike. Is there a better way to make these predictions, a method to the madness? Perhaps so. Yesterday, I looked back on the past projections made by the "Diamond Rating," invented by my former colleague Kevin Broom, and found a reasonably successful track record.

Now, it's time to look forward instead of backward. Based on per-minute performance and minutes per game, I've calculated the Diamond Rating for 2006-07. As I did yesterday, I've removed players older than 27 or with more than five years of experience, those who averaged over 30 minutes per game and those who played fewer than 250 total minutes.

Here are the top ten players as ranked by the Diamond Ranking with commentary on their subjective chances of breaking out.

  1. Paul Millsap, Utah - 18.8. A second-round pick in 2006, Millsap posted an incredible rookie season, a big reason why Utah was one of the league's biggest surprises. Per 40 minutes, Millsap averaged 15.2 points and 11.5 rebounds while shooting 52.5% from the field. Normally, that would make him a strong breakout candidate, but the Jazz's frontcourt of Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur isn't likely to give Millsap much more opportunity in the near future. He gave a preview of what he might be capable of midway through last season, averaging 12.5 points and 8.8 rebounds per game when first Boozer and later Okur were injured.
  2. Matt Bonner, San Antonio - 17.8. I'm willing to venture that this is the only breakout list on which you'll find the Red Rocket. Bonner is useful to the Spurs as a shooting specialist off the bench, but other than picking up more minutes as Robert Horry continues down the path toward retirement, it's pretty safe to say he won't be breaking out any time soon. Bonner's high ranking is due to the combination of his limited minutes and a defensive rating artificially inflated by his getting some credit for the Spurs' strong defense.
  3. Renaldo Balkman, New York - 17.1. A year into Balkman's career, it looks like Isiah Thomas is going to have the last laugh on critics who derided him for taking the lightly-regarded South Carolina product in the first round. Balkman's college numbers showed his ability to make a major impact with defense and rebounding. That continued during Balkman's rookie season; he averaged 11.1 rebounds, 2.1 steals and 1.7 blocks per 40 minutes. The Knicks' Defensive Rating was 9.2 points lower per 100 possessions with Balkman on the floor. Quentin Richardson is entrenched as the starter in New York, but Thomas would do well to give most of Jared Jeffries' minutes to Balkman.
  4. Tyrus Thomas, Chicago - 17.1. The enduring memory of Thomas' rookie campaign was his torching in the media after he declared he was only participating in the Sprite Rising Stars Slam Dunk Contest for the prize money. That image should be replaced by one of his on-the-court production before long. Thomas showed immense defensive potential, ranking in the NBA's top 10 in the Defensive Composite Score Jon Nichols put together for 82games.com. Despite that production, Scott Skiles was reluctant to use Thomas for extended periods. He averaged 21.3 minutes per game in March as Chicago went 10-4, but Andres Nocioni's return cut into that PT thereafter. Still, Thomas opened the season as the Bulls' starter at power forward and is easily the player on this list most likely to break out.
  5. Sergio Rodriguez, Portland - 16.5. Five NBA point guards averaged at least 10 assists per 40 minutes last season--Steve Nash (13.2, which blew away the rest of the league), T.J. Ford (10.6), Deron Williams (10.1), Jason Kidd (10.0)...and Rodriguez (10.1). A burst of lightning who is one of my favorite players to watch, Rodriguez has a style of play, and an occasional tendency to turn the ball over, that is at odds with Coach Nate McMillan's preference for a controlled half-court game. Just 21, Rodriguez probably has another year of studying under McMillan in short bursts of playing time before earning a bigger role. With Jarrett Jack's long-term status in Portland up in the air, Rodriguez could step into a starting job next season. He has massive star potential.
  6. Jose Calderon, Toronto - 16.1. Let's give it up for Spanish point guards! Calderon hardly wasted away on the bench, averaging 20.7 minutes per game, but split time at the point with Ford. Both players gave Toronto excellent production at point guard. Calderon was seventh in the league in assists per 40 minutes (9.6), just behind his countryman. Not just a passer, Calderon shot 52.1% from the field and averaged 16.6 points per 40 minutes. I figure Calderon to take a step back in 2007-08 because his two-point percentage was so good a year ago (55.3%, second to Nash amongst point guards) and that number tends to fluctuate wildly. Calderon remains an underrated player who will force his way into a full-time job before long.
  7. Josh Boone, New Jersey - 15.9. Boone's NBA debut was delayed by shoulder surgery that forced him to miss all of training camp and November. Uncertain about Boone's availability, the Nets traded for Mikki Moore; when Nenad Krstic went down for the season with a torn ACL, Moore quickly claimed the starting job and enjoyed a career year, leaving Boone as a part-time player. A lot of Boone's rating was tied to his 57.9% shooting, which might be tough to keep up, but his youth works in his favor.
  8. James Singleton, TAU Ceramica - 15.3. This is a name to tuck away for the future. Singleton signed with TAU Ceramica in Spain this summer and subsequently tore his ACL in October, but he'll be back in the NBA at some point. He spent the last two years with the Clippers and showed great promise as a rookie before being buried behind Corey Maggette, Quinton Ross and Tim Thomas. Singleton is an incredible leaper and very active. The downside is he's something of a tweener, without much floor game at small forward or the size to play power forward. He's also 27, which is a negative when it comes to predicting a breakout. Despite that, he's an NBA talent.
  9. Leon Powe, Boston - 15.1. Danny Ainge has always had a knack for finding talent late in the first round and in the second round, and Powe might be the latest example of that skill. The Cal product averaged 14.7 points and 12.0 rebounds per 40 minutes as a rookie and showed a rare ability to get to the free-throw line, averaging .81 free-throw attempts for every field-goal attempt, good for third in the league. Despite the purging of the Celtics roster, Doc Rivers has favored veterans off the bench, and Powe is behind vet Brian Scalabrine in the Boston rotation.
  10. Ronny Turiaf, L.A. Lakers - 14.7. In his second season out of Gonzaga, Turiaf established himself as a valuable part of the Lakers' rotation up front, averaging 14.1 points and 2.9 blocks per 40 minutes and shooting 54.9% from the field. Still, it was a surprise when he seized a starting role in training camp, one that he has yet to relinquish. Turiaf's minutes are limited by the depth of the Lakers frontcourt, but his energy and knack for hustle plays will keep him in the rotation.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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