10 underrated players primed to breakout in the NBA playoffs

Mikal Bridges, Brooklyn Nets - Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Mikal Bridges, Brooklyn Nets - Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports /
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There’s a little over a month left in the NBA regular season, but little has been figured out for the playoff picture. Sure, teams like Milwaukee, Boston, and Denver had solidified their grasp on the tops of their respective conferences, but the other playoff slots are all up for grabs. That leaves the door open for a host of potential breakout NBA players to make their mark in the postseason.

It’s hard to overstate how tightly knit each conference is right now. In the east, Philly and Cleveland are still jockeying for third, while a battle of the boroughs is taking place between New York and Brooklyn. Out west the separation between teams is even thinner, as the fourth-seed Suns and thirteenth-seed Jazz are only six games apart in the losses column.

That leaves the window open for surprise teams to crash the play-in picture on the way to one of the more equal playoffs we’ve seen in years. There isn’t a truly dominant team like the Golden State Warriors to sap the intrigue. Instead, there are a number of dark horse teams who could talk themselves into the idea that they could win it all.

To do so, they’ll need the help of a breakout player. Past champions like the 2019 Toronto Raptors and 2022 Golden State Warriors had Fred VanVleet and Jordan Poole respectively emerge in the postseason to help capture a chip. This year, there are many different players who could step up and deliver the same shot-in-the-arm for their playoff squads.

Breakout Player #1: Jarred Vanderbilt, Los Angeles Lakers

This isn’t just a case of “Lakers Exceptionalism”: although the team does dominate the news cycle, recently it’s been for good reason. Over their last ten games, the Lakers are 7-3 and boast the best defensive rating in the entire NBA. They’ve sprung up into the play-in picture even without Lebron James playing due to a tough foot injury.

Part of the defensive renaissance has been the return of Anthony Davis, but arguably the second-most significant player in the late-season turnaround has been Jarred Vanderbilt. The former Timberwolf and Jazzman isn’t a scorer and won’t blow you away on the stat sheet, but he’s the exact sort of player that Los Angeles has needed to shore up their rotation.

Vanderbilt is only averaging 7.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 1.4 steals, but he’s contributing in many subtle areas of the game. He sets good screens, cuts with force, and brings great defense on the other end. He can switch onto any player on the floor and use his sturdy frame and refined fundamentals to harass and frustrate bigs, ball-handlers, and anyone in between:

Nothing Vanderbilt does in a vacuum is going to blow anyone away, but his motor never dies and he’s quickly become an essential Laker. If the team can make its way into the playoffs, they’ll rely heavily on Vanderbilt to junk up the offensive sets of their opponents and lock up the opposing stars. With what we’ve seen from Vanderbilt so far, there’s little doubt he can do that and an elevated platform like national television could let the nation in on the dominant defense that NBA nerds know Vanderbilt for.