Ben Miller, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
With the preseason kicking off in about a week, fantasy draft season is here. As usual, it’s fairly clear who the top players will be, but while those players are obviously important for the overall success of a fantasy team, it’s also essential to find a few guys who may have the potential to take the next step.
Whether it’s an increase in usage, a boost in minutes, or just an overall sharpening of skills that translates to better production across the board, the following players could be in position for breakout fantasy seasons in 2017-18.
Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
The seventh overall pick in last year’s draft had a solid rookie campaign, playing in all 82 games and posting averages of 9.9 points, 2.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.4 three-pointers across 21.5 minutes. With the Emmanuel Mudiay experiment potentially nearing it’s conclusion, Murray could be Denver’s point guard of the future, and he’s capable of playing both guard spots.
At just 20 years old, Murray should continue to grow in all facets of the game and with a significant increase in playing time likely in store, he should have no problem boosting his production. He’s already demonstrated an ability to score in bunches, but with the addition of Paul Millsap and the return of up-and-comer Nikola Jokic, Murray should have plenty of opportunities to up his assist numbers as well, especially if he spends more time on-ball this season.
Russell is coming off his second season playing for the dysfunctional Lakers, but he still posted respectable numbers with 15.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.4 steals over 28.7 minutes per game. The mercurial guard appeared to wear out his welcome, however, and he was shipped to the Nets in June, as the Lakers shifted focus to a future centered around Lonzo Ball.
Russell now joins a Brooklyn organization that finished with an even worse record than the Lakers. After shipping Brook Lopez to Los Angeles in the Russell deal, the Nets lack proven scorers, which leaves Russell as one of the primary options to pick up the slack. Russell won’t be guaranteed a starting role, but he’s got the most upside and highest pedigree of any player on the roster, so coach Kenny Atkinson figures to hand him the reins at some point. If that’s ultimately the case, Russell will have an opportunity to truly run a team for the first time in his young career.
Dennis Smith, Jr., Dallas Mavericks
Smith is one of the rare rookies who could end up making a significant fantasy impact from day one. A strong showing at the Las Vegas Summer League has shifted the hype into overdrive, but there’s reason to believe Smith can live up to the billing. One of the most athletic players in the 2017 class, Smith attacks the rim relentlessly, and while he’s not a great three-point shooter, he’s comfortable pulling up off the dribble and shooting off the catch.
With just Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell in the way, Smith will likely step in as the starter right away, putting him in one of the best basketball situations of any rookie. With the Mavs unlikely to contend for a playoff spot, priority will be placed on Smith’s development, which should translate to a heavy workload.
[Watch on Yahoo: Ravens vs. Jaguars live from London Sept. 24]
Taurean Prince, Atlanta Hawks
With arguably the least-talented roster in the league, the Hawks feature a few breakout candidates. Following the departure of three of the team’s top four scorers from last year — Paul Millsap, Dwight Howard, Tim Hardaway, Jr. — both Dennis Schroder and Kent Bazemore will take on more of the offensive burden by default.
However, Prince may be the name to keep an eye on. After struggling to see the floor for the majority of his rookie campaign, Prince ended up averaging 10.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.2 steals over the last 17 games of the season, while also continuing to show improvement in the team’s first round playoff series against the Wizards.
Given the deconstruction of the roster, Prince now looks like the favorite to start at small forward. While the Hawks aren’t going to win many games, what could be a significant increase in playing time should allow the 23-year-old Prince to take the next step as a fantasy player.
Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Booker is already on the ascent toward star status and is coming off a sophomore season in which he the led the Suns with averages of 22.1 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.9 three-pointers across 78 games. After becoming the sixth player in history to score 70 points in a contest last season against the Celtics, the 20-year-old should once again enter the year as a top scoring threat. That was the case last season, though, and in order to truly “break out” in a fantasy context, Booker will need to become a more efficient scorer and up his defensive production and consistency.
Honorable Mention: Kent Bazemore, Skal Labissiere, Jaylen Brown, Brandon Ingram