Back in 2012 during his Oklahoma City Thunder days, I was one of the first to publicly write about James Harden as a superstar. I had seen the topic broached on a message board that I frequent, and the support given for Harden's superstar candidacy was a bunch of "advanced" stats and analytics that showed him to be vastly outperforming most shooting guards, but simply not getting enough minutes to actually be acknowledged as a superstar. The next year he was signed by the Houston Rockets, and the rest is history. History that likely continues with his first MVP trophy this season.
Since then, I'm often asked to try to predict the next hidden gem utilizing that same type of approach. So let's throw a hat in the ring for 2018-19 and point out several players that could be on the verge of a breakout next season based on one of the composite boxscore stats, PER. I'm not predicting these to be future MVP winners, but they are players to have on your fantasy radar next season as they could potentially produce valuable numbers in the near future.
Kris Dunn, Chicago Bulls: Dunn had a chance to make the leap this season, and may have well been on his way before injuries took him down. His PER score improved from 8.1 as a rookie playing 17.1 minutes per game to 14.5 as a sophomore playing 29.3 minutes per game. His per-36 numbers for this season would be:
16.5 PPG (42.9 FG%, 73.0 FT%), 7.3 APG, 5.2 RPG, 2.5 SPG, 1.0 3-pointers, 0.6 BPG, 3.5 TO
Those would be strong numbers, but if he improves as much next season as he did this one, those stats could be even better next year as the starting point guard for the Bulls.
Dejounte Murray, San Antonio Spurs: Murray had flashes of production as a rookie and was named a starter relatively early in his sophomore season. However, he was still raw, still playing in an equal-opportunity Gregg Popovich system, and over the second half of the season has had to contend with the return of veteran Tony Parker to the rotation. Even still, he has improved considerably over his first two seasons as a pro, as exemplified by going from a 9.6 PER in 8.5 minutes per game as a rookie to a 14.7 PER in 21.1 MPG as a sophomore. His per-36 numbers for this season would be:
13.3 PPG (44.3 FG%, 69.5 FT%), 9.5 RPG, 4.9 APG, 1..9 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 0.2 3-pointers, 2.8 TO
Murray's strength is his defense, and his combo of size and athleticism makes him a strong rebounder for a guard. His per-36 rebound numbers are likely too high for next season, but he does have the opportunity to lead guards in that category if he gets starter minutes in 2018-19. His assist-to-turnover ratio improved significantly from his rookie season (1.3) to his sophomore one (1.8), and if he's earned more of Popovich's trust those assist numbers could start to go up next season.
Trey Lyles, Denver Nuggets: Lyles spent his first two seasons as a member of the Utah Jazz, but he struggled as a sophomore to a PER of 9.9 in 16.3 minutes per game. This season, in his first as a member of the Denver Nuggets, he has improved his play dramatically, as reflected in his PER of 18.1 in 19.6 minutes per game. He also showed that he could be relied upon as a starter over an extended period earlier in the season, while Paul Millsap was injured. His per-36 minute numbers this season:
18.9 PPG (49.2 FG%, 69.7 FT%), 9.0 RPG, 2.3 APG, 2.2 3-pointers, 0.9 BPG, 0.8 SPG, 1.6 TO
It is unclear whether the Nuggets will bring Millsap back next season, and if they do then he likely remains the starting power forward. However, if Millsap moves on, Lyles has the potential to hit those per-36 minute numbers as soon as 2018-19.
Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers: Sabonis spent his rookie season with the Oklahoma City Thunder and struggled a bit with a PER of 6.9 in 20.1 minutes per game. He has improved dramatically in his second season, now with the Indiana Pacers, as his PER has increased to 17.3 in 24.6 minutes per game. He has shown that he can produce as a double-double threat all season long, but particularly when he's been able to start in place of Myles Turner. Sabonis' per-36 numbers from this season:
16.7 PPG (51.9 FG%, 73.4 FT%), 11.4 RPG, 3.0 APG, 0.7 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 0.3 3-pointers, 2.8 TO
Sabonis clearly has the ability to average those numbers next season, and perhaps even more if he improves again in year three. However, he is unlikely to reach that level of production because Turner is still ahead of him, and expected to grow into a star player himself. They could potentially start together, but if so Sabonis' numbers would likely change because one of them would have to take on more of a perimeter role and it's unclear if Sabonis could do that. But if for whatever reason Sabonis gets to start full-time as a center next season, he very well could have 20-10 upside.
Montrezl Harrell, LA Clippers: Harrell spent his first two seasons as a member of the Houston Rockets, and improved significantly from his rookie season (14.6 PER in 9.7 MPG) to his sophomore one (19.2 PER in 18.3 MPG). However, his per-minute production has jumped in a huge way in his third season, now as a member of the LA Clippers, to a PER of 25.0 in 16.4 MPG. If he reached the minutes requirement, that PER score would tie for seventh in the NBA this year with Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving. Here are his per-36 numbers from this season:
23.5 PPG (64.0 FG%, 64.7 FT%), 8.7 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.5 BPG, 1.0 SPG, 1.9 TO
Harrell has also shown that he can scale up his production with more opportunity this season, as he averaged 15.3 points with 66.4 FG% in 18.8 MPG over 16 games from February 23 to March 25. The Clippers are in a bit of lineup flux moving forward, as they regroup this offseason after two franchise-shaking trades in the last year. If Harrell is able to earn starter minutes moving forward, his field goal percentage could drop slightly, but he does have 20/10 upside.