Fantasy Basketball breakout stars 2023: Cade Cunningham, Devin Vassell among NBA players poised for big leaps

Opening tip of the 2023 NBA season creeps ever closer, with the defending-champion Nuggets set to take on the Lakers on Tuesday, Oct. 24. With fantasy basketball draft season upon us, now is the time to pinpoint the NBA players who seem poised to make massive leaps into stardom this season.

Of course, we’ve got you covered with rankings, sleepers, and breakouts, the latter of which highlights the players who could go from relative unknown to household fantasy name and greatly outlast their average draft position. But this column will cover the players drafted outside of the top 20 who could easily finish the season ranked top 10 in 9-cat formats.

Just like in the real game, finding star talent at a discount rate in fantasy hoops can win you a championship. Even the least knowledgeable in a 10-team league can pick stars in the first couple rounds — finding elite talent in the third, fourth, fifth rounds and later is what sets you apart from the pack. 

Anyone who drafted Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Mikal Bridges in the fifth or sixth round last year knows what we’re talking about. SGA took a huge leap and emerged into an MVP candidate, ultimately finishing second in Yahoo category leagues. Bridges got traded to Brooklyn in the Kevin Durant deal, then went nuclear and wound up finishing as the sixth-ranked player.

We’re talking about true game changers, both on the hardwood and in fantasy land. Let’s take a look at the five players we could realistically see making the biggest leaps into fantasy basketball stardom in 2023-24. 

Top 200 rankings | Breakout players | Sleepers | ‘Do not draft’ list

2023 Fantasy Basketball breakout star candidates

Cade Cunningham, Pistons

Many fantasy hoops managers enter their drafts weary of Cunningham, the former No. 1 pick who has dealt with myriad injuries throughout his first couple seasons in the Association. Hey, we get it — dude’s played just 76 games out of a possible 164 — but he’s healthy right now and he’s more than capable of emerging into a superstar very soon

Cunningham and his camp made the right decision to deal with his shin injury head-on last year — left tibial stress fractures don’t tend to heal themselves with rest. By going under the knife, the 6-6 point guard set himself up well to come back stronger. His 71-game absence also allowed the Pistons to draft another lottery pick in Ausar Thompson, a stud in his own right who should coexist well with Cade and fellow young talents Jalen Duren and Jaden Ivey.

Also in the offseason, Detroit went out and got arguably the best available head coach in the game, Monty Williams, after he was kicked to the curb by the Suns. Williams should not only make Cunningham a better player — he should also make him an even smarter player (that’s something, because Cade was already considered one of the higher-IQ young players). 

Cunningham has size, speed, intelligence, good coaching, and an ever-improving young nucleus around him. He’s got a star-caliber offensive game with solid foundational skills on defense. Across the 11 games he played before getting shut down last year, he averaged 21.4 points, 6.5 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.2 steals, and 0.7 blocks in 34.1 minutes. He also shot 84.4 percent from the free-throw stripe. Even a slight uptick in shooting and playmaking, and we’re talking about a guy who could easily finish in the top 10-15 in 9-cat leagues. We would love to land him late in the 2nd round.

Devin Vassell, Spurs 

This might also qualify for our “bold fantasy basketball statements” column, but we’re confident that Vassell will blossom into a top-25 talent this NBA season if the Spurs commit to making him one of their two go-to offensive options. The swingman only played 34 games last season, but in that span he flashed his insane skill set as a scorer and playmaker. 

Vassell reached 29 points three different times during the ’22-23 campaign, and he scored at least 20 points in 18 of his 34 games. At 6-foot-5, he’s taller than most two-guards, quicker than most forwards, and capable of driving to the hoop or stopping on a dime to drop a silky jumper. He can also dish the rock, having recorded four-plus assists 19 different times, and he has the hops, athleticism, and surprising strength to crash the boards.

It’s Vassell’s decision-making that Gregg Popovich likes — not just his shooting stroke, but his shot selection; not just his highlight-reel moves, but his ability to make the right play the majority of the time. If Vassell can continue to evolve offensively while also taking a step forward on the defensive end, Wemby won’t be the only star we’ll be talking about in San Antonio this year.

Jamal Murray, Nuggets

The Nuggets’ NBA Finals run affirmed plenty of what we already knew about Nikola Jokic, but it also reminded the world that Jamal Murray is back and he’s ready to be declared a superstar sooner than later.

We always knew Murray was good — his tantalizing run during the COVID playoffs had hoops-heads dubbing him “Bubble Jamal” and “Bubble MVP.” But his emergence in the 2023 NBA Playoffs vaulted him to a whole different level.

Suddenly Murray was taking over the most meaningful games against the biggest stars in the sport. He was playing defense, grabbing boards, moving without the ball, and making hustle plays — stuff we saw Steph Curry do in the Warriors’ 2022 championship run.

Murray’s a fantastic shooter and playmaker, and he has all the tools to be just as impactful as other fantasy star point guards like Fred VanVleet. If Mike Malone, Jokic, and the Nuggets continue to entrust him with more offensive responsibilities like they did last postseason, Murray won’t just become a first-time All-Star this season — he might become a fantasy superstar, finishing in the top 30 of category leagues. Don’t sleep on him!

Zach LaVine, Bulls 

LaVine and DeMar DeRozan have been on a see-sawing ride in Chicago over the past few years, but the final few months of the 2022-23 NBA season showed us which offensive star we should trust the most in Billy Donovan’s offense. LaVine not only vastly outplayed and outshot DeMar from February on — he also saw his usage rate skyrocket during that span.

It only makes sense that DeRozan take a rightful step back and allow LaVine the ability to flourish as an emerging superstar. LaVine’s 28 — six years younger than DeMar — and he’s coming off his healthiest season since his sophomore year in the NBA.

His shot has looked healthy, too — in the aforementioned stretch between Feb. 1 and March 31 last season, the wingman shot 52.5 percent from the floor, 39.8 percent from three, and 86.5 percent from the line despite seeing his highest usage rates of the season.

The dude gets better the more opportunities he gets, and we think he can become one of the best this season. He quietly finished 28th in 9-cat leagues last season, yet Yahoo has him O-ranked at 49!? That’s preposterous. We’re not saying to draft LaVine before the fourth round — we’re just saying that you’ll inevitably regret it if you let him slip to the end of the fifth.

Darius Garland and Evan Mobley, Cavaliers

Hey, bonus content! We saved our best for last for ya with two for the price of one! Look, we get it — Donovan Mitchell’s a stud and Jarrett Allen’s a beast. But we have seen and heard so many trade rumors around Spida and JA that it’s hard for us to believe these two will remain in Cleveland for the entirety of the 2023-24 season.

The Cavs have two superstars in the making in Garland and Mobley — if Koby Altman and Mike Gansey put the right supporting cast around them, the sky’s the limit. Both these guys are 9-cat gems who would undoubtedly have fantasy league-altering impacts with bigger on-court roles.

Garland is a pure scorer, solid shooter, and underrated passer who could easily average 25/10/4 without Mitchell in the picture — not to mention flirt with 50/40/90 shooting splits. Mobley has Defensive Player of the Year upside and remains one of the finest fantasy draft picks for field goal percentage, block, and rebound builds given his solid floor and massive ceiling.

If Allen and Mitchell do both stay in Cleveland all season, Mobley and Garland should finish in the 40-50 range in 9-cats. But if Allen and Mitchell get dealt, a top-25 finish for both these young players would be 100 percent in the realm of possibilities.

We would draft Mobley over Nikola Vucevic, Myles Turner, and Julius Randle in a New York minute, and we would take Garland over LeBron James and Jrue Holiday in a heartbeat. Upside, upside, upside! That’s the name of the game, and teams with young breakout stars beat squads with old, overvalued stars in fantasy every single year.

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