This article is part of our NBA Offseason series.
With the dust now almost fully settled from one of the busiest free agency periods in league history, it's time to take a look at which players are in position to make significant strides in 2016-17.
Last season saw the likes of C.J. McCollum, Rodney Hood, and Jae Crowder, among others, grow into household names due to a combination of improvement and opportunity. Those two elements – the latter, in particular – are what can catapult players toward star status in the NBA, as well as in fantasy.
With that in mind, let's more closely examine nine players who are poised to make the leap to the next level in 2016-17:
Giannis AntetokounmpoAntetokounmpo already had a mini-breakout last season, when he averaged 18.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.9 blocks over the Bucks' final 26 games. Now, he has to prove he can sustain that elite-level production over the course of a full year.
Over his first 55 games, Antetokounmpo's scoring (16.0) and rebounding (7.3) numbers weren't all that different from those of his late-season surge, but it was his assist production (2.8 per game through 55 games) that made a dramatic leap. Even after bringing in Matthew Dellavedova and hanging on to Michael Carter-Williams (for now, at least), the Bucks maintain committed to the idea of using Antetokounmpo primarily at point guard.
The move from the wing is what led to the jump in production, after all, though Milwaukee wasn't a markedly better team with Antetokounmpo running the show. In fact, the Bucks finished with a lower win percentage after the All-Star break (.392) than before (.407). Still, it was clear that they'd found an exploitable advantage, one that should become even more dangerous with a better supporting cast.
The Bucks finished last in the league in made threes last season, while Antetokounmpo's individual struggles as an outside shooter persisted. Antetokounmpo doesn't have to be Klay Thompson, but he has to be enough of a threat from beyond the arc to open up driving lanes.
Myles TurnerParting ways with Frank Vogel remains a questionable, at best, decision, but there's no doubt the Pacers got better, at least on the court, this summer. Acquiring Thaddeus Young before the draft filled an obvious need, while Indianapolis native Jeff Teague brings a new dynamic at point guard alongside Monta Ellis. With Paul George looking the part of a borderline MVP candidate again, Indiana has the making of a potential top-four team in the East. But it's the development of Turner that will ultimately determine this team's ceiling.
Considering he played only one up-and-down season at Texas, Turner is already further along in his development at this point than most expected. He turned heads as a sparring partner for DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus Cousins at Team USA camp last month and won't turn 21 until late-March.
The 11th overall pick in last June's draft put up relatively modest numbers as a rookie, averaging 10.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks across 60 games, but he split time with Ian Mahinmi and was limited by an early season thumb fracture. With Mahinmi now in Washington, the center position is Turner's for the taking, and he should easily creep toward 30 minutes per game, even with Al Jefferson looming as a bench option.
The concern is the additions of Teague and Young could mean Turner is no better than the No. 4 option, offensively, within the first unit. That could mean a significant jump in scoring is unlikely, though Turner should still be a strong source of rebounds and blocked shots with a handful of three-pointers sprinkled in.
Ben SimmonsIncluding a rookie on this list is admittedly somewhat of a cop-out, since there's no real basis on which to compare year-to-year progression. That said, Simmons will be given every opportunity to be the man in Philly, and that should translate to strong fantasy production right away.
LSU collapsing down the stretch and missing the NCAA Tournament cast a gloomy light on Simmons' lone collegiate season, masking what was, statistically, one of the best all-around freshman campaigns in recent memory. Simmons finished fourth in the SEC in scoring, fifth in assists, second in steals and third in minutes, all while leading the conference in rebounding and PER (29.0). On top of that, Simmons became the only player in the last two-plus decades to record at least 150 assists and 380 rebounds in a season.
Playing in a system built around his playmaking ability certainly helped, but Simmons enters a situation in Philadelphia where his skills as a world-class passer and primary ball-handler will still be frequently utilized. Will he struggle as a jump-shooter? Probably. But Simmons is an excellent finisher around the rim and has already shown that he won't force shots he's not confident he can make. Only three players in the country got to the line more often than Simmons last season, so what he lacks in three-point production, he'll be able to partially mitigate with what should be a high free throw rate.
At the end of the day, the Sixers aren't going to be a very good team and Simmons will endure his fair share of struggles. Even so, his all-category production easily makes him the No. 1 fantasy rookie. Something like Lamar Odom's rookie season in 1999-00 – 16.6ppg, 7.8rpg, 4.2apg, 1.2spg, 1.3bpg – seems like a realistic projection, though Odom was a markedly better outside shooter than Simmons is at this point in his development. Simmons, though, could offer higher assist numbers, depending upon how much time he spends as the Sixers' de facto point guard.
Justise WinslowDwyane Wade, Luol Deng and Joe Johnson accounted for nearly a third of Miami's field goal attempts last season, and that's with Iso Joe playing only 24 games in a Heat uniform.
Whether Winslow is truly ready to step up and fill the void may not ultimately matter – he's going to see big minutes out of necessity. Miami drafted Winslow with the idea that he'd be gradually groomed as the heir apparent to Wade – a South Beach version of the seamless transition in alpha dog status from Tim Duncan to Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio.
But with Wade heading north, that process has now been kicked into overdrive, and it's tough to look at Winslow's rookie year and declare him ready to be a primary offensive weapon. Winslow looked timid, at times, offensively and shot just 27.6% from beyond the arc, eighth-worst in the NBA among players who attempted at least 100 threes. The steady presence of Goran Dragic will help, as will keeping Hassan Whiteside, but there are still concerns about Winslow's readiness.
All that said, the Heat don't have much choice. Unless they're ready to hand things over to Dion Waiters and Wayne Ellington, throwing Winslow into the fire in Year 2 may be what's best for him, and the franchise, long-term. Winslow may not improve much from an efficiency standpoint, but his role within the offense should increase – although that may depend on how often he's playing alongside Waiters – as should his assist volume.
Consider this: Winslow ranked 262nd in usage rate (12.5%) among the 274 players who played at least 1,000 minutes last season. With Wade, Johnson, and Deng out of the picture, that number should rise significantly, especially when considering Wade, alone, used nearly 32% of the Heat's possessions when he was on the floor last season.
Enes KanterThe simple rationale here is with Serge Ibaka in Orlando, Kanter should easily slide into a larger role after playing almost exclusively off the bench last season. That's partially true, but it's not as if Ibaka's departure left the Thunder void of capable frontcourt players.
Emerging star Steven Adams is still the anchor at center, while newcomers Ersan Ilyasova and Domantas Sabonis will be fixtures in the rotation. Ilyasova may even be the favorite to start over Kanter at power forward, with his floor-stretching ability more closely mirroring that of Ibaka. Of course, Kanter is the superior interior scorer and rebounder, but he still struggles enough defensively and hasn't quite expanded his range to the point that he's a true spacer, though he did hit 10 threes last season.
Regardless, whether he starts or comes off the bench, Kanter should see a rather significant uptick in playing time after seeing only 21.0 minutes per game in 2015-16. In that time, he was among the best per-minute producers in the NBA, ranking fourth among qualified players in rebounds per 100 possessions (19.2), first in offensive rebounding rate (16.7), and joining LaMarcus Aldridge, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, and Nik Vucevic as the only players to average 20 points and 10 rebounds per-36 minutes.
In the absence of Ibaka and Kevin Durant, the Thunder will need more of Kanter's offensive contributions, even if that means sacrificing some versatility on the defensive end. Given all that's happened in OKC this summer, it's difficult to project exactly how Kanter will fit, but we could see something similar to how he was used after the trade from Utah last season. In 26 games – Durant missed all 26 due to injury, Ibaka missed 18 – Kanter played just over 31 minutes per game and averaged 18.7 points, 11.0 rebounds and 1.1 assists on 56.6% shooting. If the minutes are there, those numbers are certainly replicable.
Otto PorterThe Wizards only got marginally better this summer, essentially swapping Nene for Ian Mahinmi and adding a few depth pieces. If this team believes it can return to the playoffs, it'll not only be counting on the health of Brad Beal and John Wall, but also on the continued improvement of Porter.
After what was essentially a lost rookie year, Porter has markedly improved each of the last two seasons, finishing 2015-16 with career-highs across the board, including a 36.7% mark from beyond the arc while nearly tripling his three-point volume. Porter's selectiveness is what makes him so efficient offensively, but to take the next step he'll need to be a more aggressive attacker (1.7 FTA/game last season), rather than settling for jumpers in the mid-range.
Still only 23, Porter has plenty of room to grow, and while he'll likely never be dominant in any one area, he's strong enough across the board to provide all-category production at what should be a relatively low cost.
D'Angelo RussellA number of factors – Snapchat-gate, the Kobe saga, Byron Scott – masked what was actually an encouraging rookie season for No. 2 overall pick. While he initially struggled to adjust to the NBA game, Russell came into his own over the season's second half, putting together post-break averages of 15.1 points, 3.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists while knocking down 38.9% of his threes.
Russell was one of only five rookie point guards in the last 20 years to average at least 13 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists per game while shooting north of 35% from three, joining a club that also counts Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, and Brandon Jennings (!!!) – who accomplished the rare feat of shooting better from three than from the field as a rookie – as its members. Of course, those numbers are somewhat cherry-picked – for what it's worth, Russell's TS% (50.7) and eFG% (47.8) were significantly lower than those of Lillard, Irving and Curry – but they help illustrate the relative rarity that is a strong-shooting rookie point guard.
Who knows, maybe Russell goes down a similar path to Jennings', or perhaps he follows a more Irving-like trajectory – realistically, probably somewhere in between – but he showed enough as a playmaker to warrant optimism as the Lakers transition into what should be a much more amicable situation for the 20-year-old.
Gone is the unquantifiable spectre of Bryant, but the transition on the sideline from get-off-my-lawn to let's-catch-some-waves-bro is what might ultimately make the biggest difference. In theory, at least, Russell should be able to play (even more) confidently without the critical eye of Byron Scott tugging on his leash. Luke Walton has forged a reputation as a player's coach for a reason, and it's difficult to overstate the effect that can have on a young player, especially one who went through what Russell did last season.
Dennis SchroderSchroder's erratic play has cast doubt on his ability to be a full-time point guard, but Atlanta put its full faith in the 22-year-old when it sent Jeff Teague to the Pacers in June.
Schroder has never averaged more than the 20.3 minutes per game he saw last season, when he produced 11.0 points, 4.4 assists and 2.6 rebounds per game. Efficiency-wise, 42.1% shooting (32.2% 3Pt) leaves plenty to be desired, but Schroder's attacking, borderline-reckless style of play doesn't exactly lend to careful shot selection. With Teague gone, Jarrett Jack, fresh off of a torn ACL, looms as Schroder's only true competition for playing time outside of journeyman Malcolm Delaney. For a Hawks team that expects to return to the playoffs, that could mean Schroder ends up ranking among the top 20 or 30 players in minutes next season.
The looming question is how the exit of Al Horford and arrival of Dwight Howard will impact Mike Budenholzer's offense. Schroder excels as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and meshed well alongside the pick-and-pop-friendly Horford. Howard isn't a catch-and-shoot threat, so Schroder will have to adjust to defenders trapping harder and longer without the fear of leaving a jump shooter wide open a few feet away. But Howard is still a capable roll man, so if defenders sag to cut off the hard roll, Schroder has to be threat to shoot. Confidence isn't an issue, but Schroder converted only 32.2% of his threes last season – a regression from his 2014-15 mark – and shot just 23.2% from three off the dribble. That number will have to improve to prevent defenders from sinking and clogging the middle of the floor.
Clint CapelaLike Schroder, Capela will benefit greatly from the departure of a productive veteran. Without Dwight Howard, Capela's role should expand drastically as the only true center on a pace-and-space team that should score in bunches.
Howard's style of play clashed with the ball-dominant tendencies of James Harden, but Capela isn't a player who demands the ball on the block to score. He was effective as Harden's pick-and-roll partner last season, and that should only continue with increased volume, not to mention better shooters to spread the floor for Harden.
Capela isn't going to be vintage Amar'e Stoudemire for Mike D'Antoni, but his athleticism and tenacious rebounding should allow him to do a respectable impression. If Capela nears 30 minutes per game, a very realistic number, he could be a 12/10/2 guy who shoots north of 55% from the floor. From a fantasy perspective, Capela's atrocious free throw shooting – career 37.9%, better than only Andre Drummond among players with 200 FTA last season – remains a major hindrance, even if the volume isn't all that high.