Believe it or not, the 2018/19 NBA season is almost half way over already. All-Star voting is open, the best and worst teams in the league are already pretty clear-cut, and those players in the midst of breakout campaigns have already staked their claims to the Most Improved Player award.
Last year, players such as Victor Oladipo, Tyreke Evans and Andre Drummond had by this point in the year shown that they had made a leap to whatever their next level was. There thus follows in no particular order nine more players to have done the same in 2018/19 thus far.
- Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder
One of the most obvious and well-known breakout players this season has been George. He has of course been an elite NBA player for a long time; his four year maximum value contract did not just fall out of the sky. Yet he is posting career-highs all over the board; literally every one of his 26.3 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 2.2 steals and 0.7 blocks per game are career-high marks. Rarely do players make leaps in their ninth NBA season, yet George has done so, to the point that Russell Westbrook is arguably no longer even the best player on his own team. George has been the leading defensive player on one of the league’s leading defensive teams, and is also up there amount the leading scorers in the league as well. And so while he has become one of the very priciest players in the league in fantasy, it is justified.
- Montrezl Harrell, L.A. Clippers
Harrell has been a good NBA player throughout his career, yet it has been in a limited role. His strength, athleticism and hustle have made him an impactful player off the bench, someone who would go to the glass and the basket at every opportunity, dunking whatever he could and generally bringing the havoc as a reserve. Yet he has also been steadily improving his skill level, and that has paid big dividends this season. Harrell ‘s numbers of 15.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.9 steals and 1.5 blocks per game are all sizeable increases on what he has done before, and while his scoring is as efficient as ever (.650% true shooting percentage), he is doing so more via isolating in the post than through sheer hustle and athleticism. He still comes off the bench, having not started a game all season, yet he is very much in the running for the Sixth man of the Year title that his team mate Lou Williams currently owns. And from a fantasy point of view, he still doesn’t even cost in the teens.
- Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors
Leonard started the season incredibly cheap on account of missing almost all of last year, and how little he did in the short time he did manage. And because of this, he has been possibly the best fantasy pick all season. Having also been rested for half of every back-to-back thus far, Leonard has been able to keep his price below the elite line until very recently, despite playing like one of the NBA’s very best once again. Indeed, he is playing better than ever before; with the exception of the 3.5 assists per game he posted in 2016/17, Kawhi’s basic numbers of 26.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists are all career highs. And he is of course also flanking that with top-tier defence, itself amply demonstrated by averages of 1.8 steals and 0.6 blocks per game. Leonard is the modern day Scottie Pippen who for much of this season cost only the amount of a latter day Scottie Pippen, and we have taken advantage of this on many if not most occasions.
- Tobias Harris, L.A. Clippers
Harrell’s team mate on the Clippers has been continuing the breakout that he began last season. After his trade to the Clippers from the Detroit Pistons in mid-season, Harris averaged 19.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game in the final 32 contests of the season, yet he has built those numbers up to 21.0 points and 8.2 rebounds per game thus far in this one. Both are comfortably career-highs, and both reflect Harris’s continued development into a primary NBA scoring option. The player with limited perimeter skill is now one of the better large scoring wings in the game, shooting very effectively from the outside (47.4% on all jump shots, 42.5% from three-point range, and 55.7% on those straight-on pull-up twos he drops on anyone trying to run him off the three-point line) and being the Clippers’ go-to guy offensively. And yet despite this, Harris is still yet to achieve an elite price in fantasy, making him a good pick pretty much every night.
- Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic
Rare is the eighth season breakout, yet here is is. Vucevic has long been a good player, averaging double-doubles in four previous seasons and coming very close on two other occasions, despite a career average of only 29.9 minutes per game. Yet never before has he played with the efficiency and the fire that he has done this season, and it is being reflected in his numbers. Many of the pick-and-pop mid0range shots of years past have given way to three-point looks, and Vucevic is hitting them at a career-best 38.6% mark. He is also scoring heavily in the post and having great success as a passer, hitting both cutters and shooters to the tune of 3.7 assists per game. And even the rebounding is up, to a career-best 12.1 per game. Flanked with his 20.5 points per game, Vucevic is among the most productive centres in the game, and while nothing will make him an elite NBA defender, a man producing this much so efficiently and consistently offensively is always worth our time in fantasy.
- Julius Randle, New Orleans Pelicans
Randle’s breakout began last season, really, when he became a 16.1 points per game scorer for the Lakers, coming on particularly strong in the second half of the year. It was not so much a contract year push as it was the continued development of a man who has improved consistently throughout his four healthy NBA seasons. This season, his first outside of Los Angeles, Randle has pushed the envelop further, all the way up to 19.6 points per game. The higher pace of the Pelicans is a factor, as is the presence of Anthony Davis alongside him; Randle is also hitting a few more jump shots (32.3% three-point shooting on the season), even if he cannot hit any from the right side for whatever reason. From a fantasy point of view, Randle is starting to become among the highest priced power forwards in the game, a position with an odd vacuum at the highest priced points.
- Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
Siakam was a starter for much of his rookie season, a key reserve last year, and is now a full-time, big minute starter. He is a far more complete and confident player now than he was when starting as a rookie, too. The post player of his New Mexico State days has given way to an extremely adept and confident ball handler, whose desire, skill and physical profile make him quite the prototype for the modern day stretch four position. Siakam has also been hitting a few more of those long-range jumpers that have eluded him in his career thus far – 32.4% from three-point range is not great, but it is at least heading in the right direction – and all of both the basic and advanced metrics show him to be a very effective non-star starter. And who knows, given how quick his rate of improvement to this point has been, maybe there is more to come from the power forward version of Jimmy Butler.
- De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
They always say it takes point guards a season to learn the NBA game, particularly ones so young. Fox’s enormous overall improvements in between his first and second seasons seem to lend credibility to that theory. His numbers have shot up all the way to 18.0 points, 7.7 assists, 3.6 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 0.6 blocks per game, all significant increases on the 11.6/4.4/2.8/1.0/0.3 he posted as a rookie. Fox has done this in only 4.1 more minutes per game, and while a scoring efficiency increase (.559% true shooting percentage way up on his .478% as a rookie) is partly why, as is the improved team around him, he is the one who is making the team improved around him. As other point guards in his price range drop off or plateau, Fox has instead been a very solid fantasy pick pretty much every night.
- Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls
Over the summer, LaVine was made a rich man. Coming off of a serious ACL injury, and looking extremely out of sorts in his short late-seasoon return in 2017/18, LaVine entered an ill-timed free agency with a lot of questions. Yet the above struggles did not stop him from getting paid. The Sacramento Kings gave him an ambitious $78 million in restricted free agency to pair with Fox above, but the Bulls then matched it, equally ambitious that their key returning piece for Jimmy Butler would go on to be much more convincing of a lead guard and primary scorer than he ever has been prior. And he has; in 30 games thus far, LaVine has averaged 23.9 points per game, a full five points higher than his previous best season. LaVine has done so on a team that has lacked for much support around him, and has looked far more confidence and skilled on the ball all year. And in fantasy, given how low his price was to start the season, he has thus far been a boon throughout.