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Just over a week into the NBA bubble experience, the league’s restart has been surprisingly high-quality. Aside from the vast majority of these games having something at stake in terms of playoff positioning, the action itself hasn’t been as sloppy as expected for a league full of guys who were away from NBA basketball for four months.
That’s not to say there haven’t been struggles, but the pleasant surprises of the bubble have far outshone the more disappointing storylines. The Phoenix Suns are surging in their coming-of-age moment. The Portland Trail Blazers are pushing hard for that 8-seed. And all around the association, we’re seeing younger players — who might as well be coming off an entire offseason — adding new elements to their games.
Bearing that in mind, it’s time to take a look at five players who are breaking out in Orlando despite still being relatively under-the-radar. While younger breakout stars like T.J. Warren and Devin Booker are obvious, let’s pay some respect to the lesser-known names you might have missed so far
Honorable Mentions: Troy Brown Jr., Jerome Robinson, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Grayson Allen, Cameron Payne, Cameron Johnson
5. Danuel House Jr.
Danuel House is the oldest inclusion on this list at 27 years old, but since this is only his fourth year in the league, and because he only just earned a well-deserved three-year contract from the Houston Rockets last summer, it feels right to pay tribute to how he’s rewarded Mike D’Antoni’s squad.
In the Rockets’ ultra small-ball lineup, House is perhaps the least-recognizable name in the starting lineup, yet his 3-and-D skill-set is intrinsic to making it work. Through four games, he’s averaging 16.8 points a night on .460/.410/1.000 shooting splits — well up from the 10.6 points per game on .432/.372/.807 splits he posted during the regular season. Maybe it’s a small sample size, but House seems to have found the perfect NBA home with Houston.
4. Mikal Bridges
Much like his numbers from the regular season, Mikal Bridges’ stats in the bubble hardly leap off the page. Averaging 9.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.5 steals per game on 43.8 percent shooting from the floor and 28.6 percent from 3-point range, one might be tempted into thinking he’s actually struggled in the bubble.
However, as much as his offense has dropped off from where it was during the scrimmage stage, Bridges’ All-Defensive Team-caliber defense has been a massive, underlying force behind the Suns’ success. Devin Booker’s unforgettable game-winner doesn’t happen without Bridges’ tip steal just beforehand, and according to NBA.com, he’s held his opponents to 35.7 percent shooting in the bubble — 10.5 percent worse than they’d normally shoot.
That includes holding Kawhi Leonard (seven points on 2-of-8 shooting), Paul George (zero points on 0-of-2 shooting), Luka Doncic (15 points on 5-of-10 shooting) and T.J. Warren (seven points on 3-of-9 shooting) in check in their individual matchups. Those stars wound up getting theirs, but it was almost always as a result of offensive sets designed to get those players the hell away from Bridges’ all-encompassing limbs. Once his offense comes along, this Suns youngster will emerge as a true two-way star.
3. Derrick White
DeMar DeRozan (22.3 points per game) is the main attraction for the San Antonio Spurs thanks to his name recognition and late heroics in the bubble, but Derrick White (21.3 points per game) is hot on his heels in the scoring column. Even better, he’s shooting a scorching 45.5 percent from deep on 8.3 attempts per game to go along with 5.5 assists and 4.8 rebounds.
That’s a pretty drastic step forward for a guy who averaged 11.0 points per game during the regular season, but we saw a similar leap in last year’s playoffs, when he jumped to 15.1 points per game in San Antonio’s seven-game series against the Denver Nuggets. Keep your eye on this third-year wing as the Spurs attempt to make it a record 23 straight trips to the postseason, because if they pull it off, he’ll have something to do with it.
2. Gary Trent Jr.
Damian Lillard is a walking fireball and Carmelo Anthony is earning praise for finally accepting his “Olympic Melo” role, but the Blazers wouldn’t be on such a tear without such elevated contributions from Gary Trent Jr. After posting just 8.2 points in 20.6 minutes per game during the regular season, Trent has joined Dame, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic as Portland’s fourth 20-points-per-game scorer in the bubble.
As is the case with the rest of the players on this list, four games is a small sample size. But Trent has ignited from beyond the arc, making a staggering 22 of his 35 long-range attempts (62.9 percent) in that span. This is the second-year leap Blazers fans hoped to see from Anfernee Simons, only it’s Trent who’s been their microwave bench scorer in the most unlikely of situations.
1. Michael Porter Jr.
Okay, so we’re stretching a little bit in the “under-the-radar” department, but considering what Michael Porter Jr. is doing in the bubble after averaging just 15.2 minutes per game during the regular season, he deserves his own shout-out (just don’t ask him about the coronavirus).
The Nuggets rookie, after struggling with an 11-point, 4-for-11 shooting night in Denver’s first seeding game, has been a human torch since then. He dropped a career-high 37 points and 12 rebounds in an overtime win against the Oklahoma City Thunder, followed it up with 30 points and 15 boards against the Spurs and then kept it going with 27 points and 12 rebounds against Portland.
Even including that poor opening game, Porter boasts .578/.500/.941 shooting splits in Orlando thus far. Sure, the Nuggets need more minutes from him with Jamal Murray and Gary Harris still sidelined, but he’s actually delivering in those minutes and already looks like a franchise cornerstone, which is all Denver could’ve hoped for in his first season.
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