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Predicting the Breakout Stars of the 2024 NBA Playoffs

The NBA Playoffs offer an increased level of competitiveness designed to showcase the league’s very best players. With a fully deployed defense, opponent-specific game plans and a high level of intensity, superstars are often the only ones who can achieve consistent success.

Sometimes, though, players outside the top tier encounter playoff challenges in ways that surprise us — or at least they surprise fans who don’t spend the entire season following the newcomers from all 30 teams.

The players we consider potential breakout stars aren’t household names outside their home markets, and none of them have ever made an All-Star game. These are second, third and even fourth options for their own teams, but each of them has the game and the opportunity to treat the 2024 postseason as a coming out party.

If you’re not familiar with their games, there’s no need to apologize. These guys are ready to take their teams to the next level and make themselves widely known in the process.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Fans of the small-market Oklahoma City Thunder already know, and better-informed observers have been singing his praises for months. But the NBA’s wider audience, tuning in for the playoffs, is about to be introduced to second-year winger Jalen Williams.

J-Dub finished second in last season’s Rookie of the Year voting and deserves serious Most Improved Player consideration in the wake of a breakout sophomore campaign in which he went from solid starter to legitimate star. Despite Williams’ 19.2 points, 4.6 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 53.9/42.7/81.4 shooting split, he continues to fly under the radar. Some of that has to do with the MVP-level play of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the likely second Rookie of the Year season from rookie Chet Holmgren.

In addition to a polished three-level scoring package, extreme efficiency and a knack for going big when it matters most (Williams led OKC in fourth-quarter scoring), the extra attention the defense will pay to the bigger names of the Thunder need to be established to allow Williams to flourish.

Every postseason scouting report starts with the SGA slowing down, and the matchup issues that Holmgren presents as a floor spacing of 5 could mean J-Dub occupies the third spot on the opponent’s threat list. Williams’ downhill attacks and lethal mid-range arsenal are difficult enough to stop when he’s leading Oklahoma City’s offense without one or both of his team’s other stars on the floor.

If he’s a tertiary defensive priority in the postseason, he’s absolutely going to cook.

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Jalen Suggs is already playing with one of the league’s highest-revving engines, so the thought of the NBA’s best defensive guard turning up the intensity in a postseason setting should strike fear into opposing ball handlers.

Typically, breakout playoff stars earn recognition with high-scoring games or series-swinging clutch buckets. Suggs, who improved dramatically on offense moving from 32.7 percent from last season to 39.7 percent after increased volume in 2023-24, could take down some big players.

But it’s his extremely physical, ruthlessly disruptive, downright predatory defense that will get him noticed.

The Orlando Magic are in line to face the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round, which will put Suggs ahead of Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland. Prepare to be amazed by the 6-foot-1 guard’s ability to force ballhandlers into mistakes, refuse to be screened, deflect passes, force terrible shots and generally make life miserable for every unfortunate soul from the opposing team who happens to be near Suggs.

We’re also not talking about a defender who only plays in the backcourt. Suggs has the strength and competitiveness to gain wings and move forward. Just look at how he remains surgically attached to Kyle Kuzma and refuses to give any ground in what should be a significant size mismatch.

Suggs will open the eyes of fans and break the minds of opponents. It will be glorious or brutal depending on your perspective.

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It’s not like Aaron Gordon is an anonymous eleventh man on a lottery team. Many saw him perform well in last year’s championship round, and his performance in the dunk contest eight years ago put him on the map of the casual fan.

But the Denver Nuggets’ do-it-all forward is poised to earn new (and appropriate) praise this postseason.

This will be Denver’s second straight deep playoff run, and observers already familiar with Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray will have a chance to appreciate the subtle greatness of the supporting cast surrounding those two. Gordon, who can shut down any form of opposing attacking player with his elite isolation defense and whose mind fusion with Jokić in attack has only strengthened this season, will undoubtedly open some eyes.

Most of the praise Gordon will receive will come from fans better understanding and appreciating what he can do as they get a second full postseason look at his play. But some of that will be due to the change in how head coach Michael Malone uses him. Last year, Gordon logged an estimated 1.0 percent of his regular season minutes at center. That number jumped to 10.0 percent in 2023-24 as the Nuggets realized Gordon could handle bigger plays and that his passing could create intriguing, defensively dominant small-ball looks when Jokić was off the floor.

Watch those stretches in these playoffs. They offer a new facet to Gordon’s game and demonstrate another of the many ways he drives winning at a high level. Everyone remembers the role players who made huge contributions during multiple postseason runs. Gordon has a chance to join the ranks of the likes of Robert Horry, Danny Green, Andre Iguodala and others who didn’t star in the traditional sense but still left their mark on the biggest games.

Alternate path to a playoff escape: Hellacious highlights. If Gordon does that something like this in the postseason it will dominate the news cycle for at least 48 hours.

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Evan Mobley was something of a scapegoat for the Cleveland Cavaliers after last year’s brief postseason appearance. Involving him here is about more than just the hope that he can redeem himself. This season provided real signs that Mobley is willing to help Cleveland perform better.

Last postseason felt like a low point for Mobley, as he scored just 9.8 points in five games against the New York Knicks while turning the ball over 12 times against just 10 assists. Questions didn’t just arise about his ability to complete through contact and make decisions along the way; it felt like the answers did too. Mobley wasn’t up for the challenge, at least not in that particular match.

Although his regular season was interrupted several times by injury, Mobley made some encouraging strides. his assist percentage rose from 12.4 percent to a career-high 15.7 percent and he showed a greater ability to play with downhill power, attempting a higher percentage of his shots at point-blank range than ever before. Mobley also averaged more drives per game (despite playing fewer minutes) with a higher assist rate on those attacks than in 2022-2023.

Mobley’s growth (or perceived lack thereof) always seems to be a hot topic. Missed time made it harder to see progress last season, but the 22-year-old improved in important ways. He has a chance to remind everyone why he was considered one of the best young players in the league this time last year.

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Unless the Phoenix Suns make it to the Finals and find the Boston Celtics waiting for them, they won’t face a team with enough depth to provide Grayson Allen with a quality perimeter defender.

Obviously not higher than the fourth option when the Suns have all their biggest threats on the floor, Allen is the type of shooter who could swing multiple postseason games from beyond the arc. He led the league with a 46.1 percent goal percentage this season, largely because opponents never had the tools to pressure him. Often covered by dubious defenders, Allen zoomed around the floor for shots while on the move and hit a clean stoppage thanks to Jusuf Nurkić’s excellent short roll passing.

Allen was a key factor in his team’s success all season. He shot 49.6 percent from long range in Phoenix’s wins, and the Suns were 7-3 in games in which Allen made at least five threes. Normally, a player this dangerous would get the full attention of a defense. But because Phoenix has three top scorers ahead of Allen on the depth chart, no one can devote enough personnel or attention to the game plan to stop him.

With the Suns handing Allen a four-year extension worth $70 million on the final day of the regular season, the 28-year-old guard should enter the playoffs with a good head start. His financial future is secure, he will know he won’t see many top level defenders, and he is having the best year of his career.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through the 2023-24 regular season. Salary information via Spotrac.

Grant Hughes covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@gt_hughes), and subscribe to the Hardwood Knocks podcast, where he appears with Bleacher Report’s Then Favale.