The past two seasons have seen a pair of the most surprising All-Star turns in recent NBA memory. Victor Oladipo was on his third team in three seasons when he transformed his body in the summer of 2017 and made a leap few saw coming. Likewise, the Los Angeles Lakers attached D’Angelo Russell to a salary dump in 2017, only to watch his unlikely ascension this past season with the Brooklyn Nets.
Both were No. 2 overall picks not five years removed from their drafts, so they had the pedigree to become stars entering the NBA, but their teams — and the general basketball-viewing public — lost faith in their ability to ever achieve that potential.
These are not your typical breakout candidates. Generally, in these conversations, we think of a Jamal Murray, whose trajectory already seems bound for stardom. Lottery picks Brandon Ingram, Jaylen Brown, Buddy Hield, Jayson Tatum and Lauri Markkanen have all shown enough that their rise would not come as a surprise.
We also think of an Anfernee Simons, who is getting an incredible amount of hype this summer as a potential rising star after being selected by the Portland Trail Blazers late in the first round of last year’s draft. San Antonio Spurs guard Dejounte Murray was on a similar path last year before tearing his ACL in the preseason. Oladipo and Russell had passed the point of being trendy breakout candidates.
Just as 2018 is too early a draft class to consider someone a breakout candidate of this ilk, there is also a point where high lottery picks are truly past the point of no return. It’s probably time for us to retire Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s candidacy. Unless you still believe in Nerlens Noel, who missed his first season with the Philadelphia 76ers due to a knee injury, 2013 is probably the cutoff point here. I’m not sure how many residents are still on Anthony Bennett, Alex Len or Ben McLemore islands.
With this said, here are the candidates who meet the criteria to become the next Oladipo or Russell — recent lottery picks whose potential we quit on too early.
Jabari Parker, Atlanta Hawks
Unlike Andrew Wiggins, who was taken just ahead of him at No. 1, Parker never landed a lucrative rookie extension. Whereas the Minnesota Timberwolves believed enough in the ability of Wiggins (who might also belong on this list) to pay him the max, the Milwaukee Bucks let Parker walk after four years and two knee surgeries.
Even then, the Chicago Bulls only guaranteed him one season — and traded him to the Washington Wizards midway through it. His comments about not signing for defense and complaints about his role did not do him any favors in his hometown.
He has shown flashes — the 20.1 points per game he averaged before blowing out his ACL for a second time in 2017 and the 38.3 percent clip from 3-point range upon returning the following season — but his reconstructed knee robbed him of the athleticism that made him a high school phenom on both ends of the floor.
Is there a chance — now two years removed from his second surgery, surrounded by a wealth of young talent and facing zero expectations — that Parker finally emerges as a legitimate threat in Atlanta? Probably not, but maybe. Just maybe.
Other qualifying 2014 draft candidates: Wiggins, Aaron Gordon, Dante Exum, Noah Vonleh, Elfrid Payton
Justise Winslow, Miami Heat
Winslow has quietly been solid for a few years running under Erik Spoelstra. His 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists in 29.7 minutes per game last season were all career highs, even if they were not nearly the star-worthy stuff we expected from a guy for whom Danny Ainge nearly traded a wealth of first-round picks.
Quietly, Winslow has manned the point forward position with surprising deftness and turned a weakness into a strength, shooting 37.7 percent on nearly three 3-point attempts per game over the past two seasons. It’s all enough to make you wonder why his usage rate wasn’t higher on a Heat team that missed the playoffs.
He could remain under-utilized with Jimmy Butler now on the other wing, but Winslow seems like the sort of hard-nosed player who may respond to the maniacal demands of his new All-Star teammate, unlike the aforementioned Wiggins.
Might the attention paid to Butler and the opportunity created by the exits of Dwyane Wade, Josh Richardson and Hassan Whiteside open the door for Winslow’s star turn? More likely he fills a similar complementary role, but hope springs eternal.
Other qualifying 2015 draft candidates: Jahlil Okafor, Mario Hezonja, Willie Cauley-Stein, Emmanuel Mudiay, Stanley Johnson, Frank Kaminsky, Trey Lyles
Jakob Poeltl, San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are loaded with traditional breakout candidates. We already mentioned Murray, and 2018 first-round pick Lonnie Walker’s season was also derailed by injury. Derrick White’s 36-point playoff performance made believers out of a lot of us, and Bryn Forbes has steadily progressed in each of his first three seasons.
There’s been less hype surrounding Poeltl, who joined the Spurs as part of the Kawhi Leonard trade. His regular season production dipped from a promising reserve role on the Toronto Raptors, and while he averaged a double-double per 36 minutes in starting all seven playoff games for San Antonio, he was often unplayable against Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic. He is also not the only one Jokic routinely abused.
With a full offseason under his belt in the Spurs organization, would we be all that surprised to see Poeltl make the leap that so many have under Gregg Popovich? Other players on the roster are probably a safer bet, and it is the longest of shots for all those guys to break out collectively, but if any team were to do it, it’s them.
Other qualifying 2016 draft candidates: Dragan Bender, Kris Dunn, Marquese Chriss, Thon Maker, Taurean Prince, Denzel Valentine
Dennis Smith Jr., New York Knicks
Smith’s explosive athleticism caught our attention in his rookie season with the Dallas Mavericks, just as it did in high school. But the Mavs quickly learned that his high-usage, low-efficiency brand of basketball was not a good fit for incoming sensation Luka Doncic, and they sent him packing in the Kristaps Porzingis deal.
New York may come to the same realization. His field-goal percentage is just north of 40 percent in two NBA seasons, while his 3-point and free-throw percentages upon joining the Knicks fell short of 30 percent and 60 percent, respectively. That’s less than ideal for a guy who averaged more shots than anyone else on the team.
The Knicks have made several talent upgrades — notably R.J. Barrett and Julius Randle — even if they overloaded on veteran power forwards. With fellow unlikely breakout candidates Elffrid Payton and Frank Ntilikina as the only other point guards on the roster, there will be plenty of opportunity for Smith. Will he seize it? Knicks history would suggest otherwise, but this could finally be their year. Or not.
Other qualifying 2017 draft candidates: Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson, Frank Ntilikina, Zach Collins, Malik Monk, Luke Kennard, Bam Adebayo
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