Just what is a breakout player, anyway? As with many sports-related concepts, it might not be what you think it is.
To illustrate, consider three players who garnered a lot of votes for last season's NBA Most Improved Player award.
After signing with the Houston Rockets, Omer Asik stepped out of the shadow he resided under in Chicago as Joakim Noah's backup. His per-game averages leaped at the switch, with his scoring vaulting from 3.1 to 10.1 and rebounds from 5.3 to 11.7. Even Asik's blocks increased from 1.0 to 1.1. However, the biggest change in Asik's traditional stat line was that he tacked on nearly 1,500 minutes from his last season with the Bulls.
It's often a change in role that marks a breakout season, and that's not only a function of court time, but also how a player is used in his team's scheme. Asik burned more possessions and grabbed a higher rate of defensive rebounds in Houston, but both of those categories are greatly impacted by how a player is deployed. Asik's offensive rebound rate declined and his block rate dropped almost in half. At the bottom line, Asik's offensive rating, which measures how many points he's worth per 100 possessions, was 105.6, almost exactly what it was in two seasons in Chicago.
Don't misunderstand, Asik got better with his increased opportunity. Just look at his free throw shooting, which improved from 46 percent to 56 percent. But in reality, it wasn't so much that Asik broke out as a Rocket; it was that his performance as a Bull demanded a larger role.
The same phenomenon explains last season's MIP winner, Indiana's Paul George. George added 1,000 more minutes to his ledger, but his per-possession performance was nearly the same as the season before. The big change came in assist rate, part of the consequence of assuming the role of injured forward Danny Granger. George got more shots with greater offensive responsibility, but his turnovers climbed and his shooting efficiency slipped.
Overall, the increased volume boosted George's value, and even his dynamic playoff performance was largely a function of his court time climbing to 41 minutes per game. Still, George stepped up a level, and that it happened at age 22 was not surprising: Basketball players exhibit their most growth during their early 20s.
Role changes and age don't explain everything: NBA experience also matters. Chicago's Jimmy Butler spent the bulk of his rookie season as a Tom Thibodeau redshirt, but last season drew 2,134 minutes. He improved across the board, with a 48-point increase in true shooting percentage, upticks in rebounding, assists, steals and blocks, and a decrease in turnovers. At the bottom line, he added 2.7 points of PER and nearly 100 points of winning percentage. That the improvement came in Butler's second NBA season was typical -- in college the phenomenon is called the "sophomore leap" and it also often manifests at the NBA level.
So when you're considering the following list of top five breakout candidates for the 2013-14 season, remember the three most common routes a player takes to such a season: (1) He's in his second season; (2) he's playing a larger role with his team; and (3) he's in his early 20s. Of course, sometimes it's a combination of those factors. (Take note, fantasy leaguers.)