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It takes some NBA rookies a half-season to get comfortable.
The following five are primed for breakouts in the second half of the 2018-19 season, either based on a return to full health, a projected increase in usage or expected improvement moving forward.
Two of them could play significant roles for their team’s push toward a playoff birth. The other three play for lottery-bound franchises, which suggests they should start seeing more minutes and shots from here on out as their teams jostle for pingpong balls.
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Kevin Huerter’s breakout has already started in recent weeks. Given how convincing it’s looked, he’s a rookie to continue buying stock in.
Huerter is averaging 15.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists in January, squashing any preseason notion that suggested he was simply a spot-up shooter. His 29-point night against the Philadelphia 76ers on Jan. 11 included a back-to-the-basket hook shot, a cut for a dunk, an alley-oop, three three-pointers off different dribble moves, a driving lefty layup and a floater in the lane.
Huerter’s identity and value will continue to revolve around shooting, which he executes with obvious comfort and ease. But he’s developed into a legitimate threat off the bounce, as he’s able to create, score and play-make with the ball.
A strong basketball IQ also shows up on his passes and defensive reads, which makes him serviceable even in games when his shot is off.
The Atlanta Hawks won’t be rushing Kent Bazemore back from his ankle injury, and Jeremy Lin could be on the move at the trade deadline. As such, Huerter should have the opportunity to earn significant minutes moving forward. And with a green light to play through mistakes and launch away, it wouldn’t be surprising if he finishes in the Nos. 5-7 range on the final rookie ladder.
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Marvin Bagley III is back climbing the rookie ladder after he missed 11 games to a knee injury.
Averaging 12.0 points and 7.0 rebounds since his return on Jan. 10, the No. 2 overall pick is making a case for minutes over Nemanja Bjelica. Bagley doesn’t have Bjelica’s shooting range, but his athleticism and quick jump around the rim should continue translating to higher activity in terms of easy baskets and rebounds.
As he builds his confidence and comfort with more reps, his post and short-corner skills should come alive. Bagley is capable of creating and converting a number of back-to-the-basket shots, while he’ll always remain a threat to face up and attack, maintain body control and finish on the move, particularly against centers.
He isn’t ready to give the Sacramento Kings consistent shooting from any level. However, he will make the occasional rise-and-fire mid-range jumper and open spot-up three in rhythm.
Between his tools/athleticism and budding offensive versatility, Bagley possesses enough talent and game to make an impact down the stretch as the Kings jostle for the playoffs.
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Kept in check by an ankle injury, referees’ whistles and Enes Kanter, Mitchell Robinson is a second-half breakout candidate. With the New York Knicks headed straight for the lottery dais, they should continue to prioritize their young players’ development over their record.
Kanter played only 19 minutes on Monday against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and at this stage, it would seem surprising if he wasn’t traded or bought out. Luke Kornet is also expected to miss weeks after suffering a left ankle sprain, per Mike Vorkunov of The Athletic.
Robinson’s outing against OKC on Martin Luther King Jr. Day was a typical one for the talented yet unpolished rookie: eight points on 4-of-4 shooting (three dunks and a putback), six rebounds, two blocks and six fouls in 16 minutes. Even with minimal feel or skill, his tools, athleticism and motor translate to easy baskets and defensive playmaking.
Quick, long, explosive, 7’1″ and energetic, he’s already fit to win battles around and above the rim.
As long as he doesn’t foul out by halftime, Robinson should continue factoring into games just by running the floor, diving to the basket, crashing the offensive glass and flying around defensively.
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Miles Bridges may have gotten the rookie wall out of the way. After a rough stretch from December until mid-January, he averaged 10.3 points in 18.5 minutes over the Charlotte Hornets’ last four games.
His shot-making figures to return, given his 127 career threes at Michigan State and the sizzling start he had in Charlotte. Meanwhile, his explosiveness around the basket isn’t going anywhere, and as long as he plays enough minutes, his mix of quickness, power, bounce and coordination will continue leading to buckets around the rim.
His limited in-between game is what’s always held him back. Still, Bridges is sharper than his current 15.4 percent shooting mark on pull-ups suggests. It’s worth betting on that number to rise over the second half of the season.
And though it could be a reach, his reported participation in the Slam Dunk Contest during All-Star Weekend may spark some extra confidence.
Bridges’ stock would also receive a boost if the Hornets found a taker for Nicolas Batum at the trade deadline. Regardless, given the rookie’s ability to play both forward spots and small-ball center, opportunities are bound to reappear.
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Chandler Hutchison appears to be locked into a regular role, and sooner or later, his offensive feel should catch up and result in larger scoring outbursts.
Even without a high skill level, he’s shooting 46.6 percent on the year, mostly by slashing, cutting and running in transition. Hutchison is an exciting, nimble athlete for his size, mixing in long strides, footwork, body control and explosion off one foot.
He’s shot 57.6 percent over the Chicago Bulls’ last five games, averaging 9.6 points and 6.0 rebounds in 28.0 minutes during that stretch.
It’s unrealistic to expect Hutchison shoot from outside with any consistency, but he’s made four threes during this five-game span. He’s a capable enough shot-maker to heat up in 30-plus minutes, which head coach Jim Boylen has given him three times this month.
With the Bulls competing for the league’s worst record, Hutchison’s development should take priority down the stretch, especially with No. 7 overall pick Wendell Carter Jr. expected to miss the rest of the season.