Each season, we see a few select players elevate their games to another level. This doesn't just mean an extra five points per game; we're talking about players that benefit their team in a new and profound way. In this article, I will be discussing four candidates that can take the leap this season.
Christian Wood, Houston Rockets
Last season, the Detroit Pistons were 25-year-old Christian Wood's fifth NBA team. He had been bouncing around the G League after going undrafted in 2015, but Wood proved he belonged in the last few games before COVID-19 halted play. In those final eight games before the stoppage, Wood averaged 24.8 points and 9.4 rebounds per game – numbers worthy of an All-Star selection. His stellar second half of the 2019-20 season earned him a three-year, $41 million contract with the Houston Rockets to become James Harden's new pick-and-roll partner.
Thus far, the Rockets have only played two games due to positive COVID-19 tests. Over these two games, Wood has an impressive 27 points and 8 rebounds per game – not a far cry from his numbers at the end of last season. In his second game against the Nuggets, Wood also went 4-for-5 from the 3-point line. That's yet another facet of his polished offensive game; he can shoot it, handle the ball like a big guard, and finish strongly in the paint. There's a large chance that Wood will earn his first All-Star selection and even the Most Improved Player Award this compact season.
Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns
Phoenix's trade for Chris Paul was a perfect one for third-year small forward Mikal Bridges' development. The Villanova product demonstrated his ability on both sides of the ball during the eight seeding games in the Orlando bubble. His stellar defense was a given trait coming out of college, but there were some questions about his offensive consistency. The Suns' offseason trade for Paul provided them with a true point guard to set his open teammates up, including Bridges.
Through four games, Bridges has averaged 15.5 points and 6.0 rebounds per game, shooting an impressive 45.5% from deep. If Bridges can keep his 3-point percentage in the high-30s to low-40s for the season, that should be considered a major success. He has been an excellent piece beside Paul, Devin Booker, and Deandre Ayton, and he might be the X-factor to Phoenix's playoff run in May.
OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors
Unlike the other players on this list, OG Anunoby is emerging as a difference-maker on defense. He is averaging career-best numbers in terms of points and rebounds per game, but Anunoby is officially a steel trap guarding anyone in the NBA. Like Bridges, he's a modern 3-and-D wing, but he has a sturdier frame at 6'8" and 232 pounds. Over the span of three games, Anunoby has guarded stars like DeMar DeRozan, Brandon Ingram, Ben Simmons, and Zion Williamson; in 78 possessions, he's allowed just 16 points.
Anunoby is currently averaging 3.3 steals per game, and while that's bound to regress as the season continues, it's a testament to how often he pokes the ball free. Those steals lead to fastbreak opportunities with a high probability for a Raptors basket. Anunoby has never been known for creating his own shot, but he doesn't have to. Guards like Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet allow for plenty of catch-and-shoot opportunities, something Anunoby has built his offensive approach around. He'll only become more dangerous as he refines what he does best.
Dejounte Murray, San Antonio Spurs
Many Spurs fans have long been awaiting Dejounte Murray to become their franchise point guard. He had missed all of the 2018-19 season with a torn ACL, but he already showed talent on defense. Murray was selected to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team in 2018, becoming the youngest player in league history to be selected as such. The question was whether he could perform equally on offense. Last season, he averaged 10.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 4.1 assists: not stellar numbers, but career-highs across the board.
So far this season, Murray has averaged 18.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 7.3 assists per game, including a stellar 29-7-7 performance last night against the Lakers. He's a twitchy athlete whose playmaking has taken an evident leap this year. Murray has always been an above-average rebounder, but it's nice to see him facilitating for his teammates. He's beginning to become a triple-double threat on any given night, a promising outlook for the San Antonio front office and fanbase.