Jamal Murray, Tyler Herro and more NBA bubble breakouts that will carry on next season.
We’re less than a month removed from the end of the 2019–20 season, but the focus has already shifted to a rapidly approaching 2020–21. And with a crowded title chase ahead, separating the contenders from the pretenders is easier said than done.
The unique nature of last season adds an interesting wrinkle as we look to project next season. Certain teams fell well short of expectations in the NBA bubble—hello, Bucks and Clippers—while some outpaced expectations. A handful of non-superstars played like All-NBA talents, leaving evaluators to scratch their heads as they look to the season ahead.
So which standout performances were legit as teams eye the Finals next June? We at The Crossover assessed the future for the most impressive bubble breakouts from 2020.
Jamal Murray, Nuggets
Murray was already a relatively well-known name entering the NBA bubble, and the Kentucky product flashed his impressive offensive arsenal in the 2019 playoffs. But Denver’s point guard took his game to another level in Orlando. Murray went from a streaky scorer to a true leading man, taking a large share of late-game playmaking responsibility from Nikola Jokić. Many questioned Murray’s $170 million extension when it was signed in July 2019. One year later, there’s little doubt Murray is a legit max player.
The 23-year-old shot a dominant 45.3% from three in the 2020 postseason, but it’s unfair to consider his 19-game sample as a simple hot stretch. Murray often flashes the shot-making ability of a young Steph Curry, able to fire off triples from every considerable location and angle. And it’s more than a sweet stroke that’s led to such optimism in Denver. Murray is a premier competitor. He frankly seemed annoyed at the idea of the Nuggets as anything but a true contender throughout last season, displaying a belief in his team uncommon for most young guards. We’ll still consider Jokić Denver’s best player, but make no mistake. Murray is the Nuggets’ heartbeat. He’s also a legitimate All-NBA talent. Denver should have one of the league’s top duos throughout the next decade thanks to Murray’s ascendance down the stretch in 2020.
Tyler Herro, Heat
Herro sports the same competitive fire as Denver’s point guard, which is unlikely to be a coincidence considering their shared alma mater. But it’s hard to ascribe Herro’s mental makeup solely to the tutelage of John Calipari. Herro has an innate belief in himself. The opponent doesn’t seem to matter, nor does the arena. We can discuss Herro’s smooth stroke ad nauseam. It’s his mentality that makes him a true fit in Miami.
The Heat’s young guard rode his confidence to an impressive 16 points per game in the 2020 playoffs, which included a 37-point eruption in a Game 5 win over the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. But perhaps we shouldn’t get too far ahead of ourselves when considering Herro’s offensive ceiling in 2020–21. The Lakers flummoxed Herro with consistent ball pressure throughout the Finals, feasting on his weak handle and slight frame. Neither flaw is disqualifying—especially for a 20-year-old—but it’s important to note the shortcomings. With some potential shooting regression in play, it’s hard to imagine Herro nearing 20 points per game next season.
We shouldn’t minimize Herro’s impact by considering only his scoring. Herro takes advantage of his considerable size to be a legitimately impactful rebounding guard, channeling a certain Miami legend in the process. Herro is able to grab rebounds and push the pace in transition, leading to easy scores for a sometimes-stilted half-court attack. Herro can also guard larger wing, which proved increasingly helpful as Herro played alongside Goran Dragić in 2019–20. The All-Star Game is likely at least a year away for Herro. Yet he can still make a marked impact in 2020–21. With continued growth, Miami will remain a leading Finals contender in Herro’s second season.
Deandre Ayton, Suns
Ayton’s breakout in 2019–20 isn’t confined solely to his performance in Orlando, but he sports a small enough sample size to be considered on this list. And what we saw down the stretch from Ayton suggests a potential leap for the Suns in 2020–21.
It was far from a perfect start to Ayton’s career after he was selected No. 1 in the 2018 NBA Draft. The Arizona product failed to pair his touch on the perimeter with any discernible force at the rim, hindering Phoenix as they looked to build a legitimate contender. But the start of Ayton’s career hasn’t necessarily been a harbinger of things to come. He appears to have turned the corner in 2019-20, with his performance in the bubble only entrenching his status as a franchise building block.
Ayton didn’t shoot a blistering mark from the field in Orlando, yet his impact continued to be significant as he embraced his physical gifts. Phoenix’s center is now a legitimate screener after slipping everything in sight as a rookie. He’s agile on the perimeter and an effective weak-side shot blocker, and while he still makes his fair share of mental mistakes, there’s legitimate All-Star potential at play. Add Chris Paul to the equation in 2020–21, and we could see Ayton’s growth accelerate. A strong third season is necessary for the Suns to reach the postseason for the first time since 2010.
T.J. Warren, Pacers
Murray and Herro’s bubble breakouts provided reason for optimism, with continued improvement likely for both guards entering 2020-21. It could be hard to T.J. Warren to continue on a similar trajectory, especially if Indiana takes a step back in a crowded Eastern Conference. The former Suns forward remains an impressive mid-range scorer and quality finisher at the rim. But it’s likely his scoring outbursts in the bubble are more an outlier than a sign of things to come.
Indiana’s roster composition could be what ultimately dictates Warren’s success in 2019–20, and as currently constructed, the Pacers pieces could hinder his progress. The twin towers look from Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner clogs the paint, despite Turner’s considerable stretch. Victor Oladipo is a fairly ball-dominant guard, creating an awkward tug-of-war between him and Warren. There could be little breathing room for Warren, barring a roster retooling before opening night. Expecting a continued breakout in 2020–21 is a risky bet.
Michael Porter Jr., Nuggets
The Nuggets were one of the leading stories of the NBA bubble, and rightfully so after erasing a pair of 3–1 deficits en route to the Western Conference finals. And it wasn’t just Murray’s ascent that fueled Denver’s impressive showing. Another Denver youngster made a big leap in the NBA bubble, one that could propel the Nuggets to the top of the West sooner rather than later.
Michael Porter Jr. fulfilled his tantalizing scoring potential in the NBA bubble, including a four-game stretch in which he averaged nearly 30 points per game. Squint hard enough and you see the outline of a young Kevin Durant, with Porter rising well above defenders to splash threes with a 6’10” frame. Most sharpshooters at Porter’s size are largely stationary, having to rely on either catch-and-shoot opportunities or the occasional touch in the post. Porter doesn’t have the same limitations. He’s downright smooth off the bounce, able to create separation with a crossover or impressive step-back. Denver’s ceiling previously felt limited as it searched for a third star alongside Murray and Jokić. Porter began to fill that void in Orlando, and he should continue to do so in 2020–21. There could be dips in Porter’s shooting efficiency next season, but his talent is undeniable. His standout performance in the bubble is in no way a mirage.