Seven breakout candidates ready for fantasy stardom

Cade Cunningham returns to the court with lofty expectations. EPA/CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON SHUTTERSTOCK OUT

Finding the next breakout star or two can be crucial in fantasy basketball, and in the NBA third-year players tend to shine.

Here's a look at seven breakout candidates as we head into the 2023-24 season.

Cade Cunningham, PG/SG, Detroit Pistons

Cunningham, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA draft, was limited to just 12 games last season for the Pistons because of a shin injury that required surgery. He should come into this season fully healthy and is easily the best player on a young team with one of the most intriguing up-and-coming rosters in the league.

Cunningham, who's entering his third season, was cruising last year, racking up 19.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.6 blocks and 1.4 3-pointers before being shut down in early December. Yes, it's a small sample but he can do everything, is a good free throw shooter, and appears to be a can't-miss fantasy superstar as long as he can stay healthy. If he can play in 75 games, he's going to be a fantasy monster.

Devin Vassell, SG/SF, San Antonio Spurs

Victor Wembanyama is grabbing all the headlines in San Antonio but Vassell came into his own in fantasy leagues last season by averaging 18.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.1 steals and 2.7 3-pointers in 38 games.

He was sidelined for a couple of months with a knee injury but is coming into this season healthy, and the former No. 11 pick is primed for a full explosion in his fourth NBA season. He can contribute in nearly every statistical category, doesn't turn the ball over much and has solid shooting percentages. He should be a blast to watch while running the court with Wemby and if his body holds up, he could end up being a Top 15 player this season.

Bennedict Mathurin, SG/SF, Indiana Pacers

Mathurin was one of the rookie surprises of last season when he played in 78 games, made 17 starts and averaged 16.7 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.6 steals and 1.3 3-pointers while shooting 43.4% from the field and 82.8% from the line.

The Pacers are truly one of the league's most intriguing up-and-coming teams and Tyrese Haliburton appears to really enjoy playing with Mathurin. The biggest question is whether he'll start over Buddy Hield, but the fact he was in the first five in the Pacers' first two preseason games is a great sign. The only holes in his game last season were the low steals (0.6) and blocks (0.2), and he could easily take a big step forward in the steals department this season. The Pacers love him and fantasy managers will too.

Cameron Johnson, SF/PF, Brooklyn Nets

The 6-foot-8 forward can play several positions and has shown improvement in each of his five NBA seasons. He had the best stint of his career after being traded to the Nets last season with 16.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.3 blocks and 2.3 3-pointers in 25 games; all of those numbers were career bests aside from the blocks and triples.

The Nets should start Ben Simmons, Spencer Dinwiddie, last season's breakout star Mikal Bridges and Nic Claxton alongside Johnson, and he should remain unchallenged for minutes at power forward this year.

The Nets need someone besides Bridges to score and Johnson appears to be ready to handle a full workload this season. He's currently dealing with a hamstring injury, which will be worth monitoring until fantasy draft day is here, but if he can play in 75 games a full breakout should be coming in his sixth season.

Shaedon Sharpe, SG/SF, Portland Trail Blazers

Sharpe appeared in 80 games for the Blazers as a rookie and made 15 starts, averaging 9.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.3 blocks and 1.3 3-pointers over the course of the season.

He's one of the league's most exciting (and high-flying) young dunkers and should start at small forward this season, meaning his minutes should be closer to 30 per game as opposed to the 22 MPG he saw as a rookie.

The Blazers should start rookie Scoot Henderson, Anfernee Simons, Jerami Grant and Deandre Ayton this season with Damian Lillard now in Milwaukee and Sharpe has a chance to become one of the focal points of their offense. While it's possible we could be a year early on a full Sharpe breakout season, the opportunities are going to be there for him this year and he is primed to easily increase his numbers across the board with at least a mini-breakout campaign.

Keegan Murray, SF/PF, Sacramento Kings

Murray played in 80 games last season as a rookie and made 78 starts, averaging 12.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks and 2.6 3-pointers while shooting 45.3% from the floor and 76.5% from the stripe.

Murray should start alongside De'Aaron Fox, Kevin Huerter, Harrison Barnes and Domantas Sabonis and minutes shouldn't be a problem after he averaged nearly 30 a game as a rookie. We may be a year early on Murray but he has a year of experience under his belt and the Kings are expecting a big leap forward for the former Iowa star.

He's already an elite 3-point shooter and has shown early signs of being more aggressive inside early into this preseason. It would not be surprising to see him flirt with doubling last season's production in most categories, which would easily make him a full breakout player in 2023-24.

Mark Williams, C, Charlotte Hornets

Williams is on a ton of breakout lists this year and is coming off a pleasant rookie season that saw him play in 43 games and average 9.0 points, 7.1 rebounds, 0.7 steals and 1.0 blocks in just 19 minutes. He also made 17 starts and his numbers rose to 11.6 points, 9.8 boards, 0.6 steals and 1.1 blocks in nearly 27 minutes per game when he wasn't coming off the bench.

He should remain unchallenged for center minutes with Nick Richards backing him up in Charlotte and will be a favorite pick-and-roll target for point guard LaMelo Ball. Williams should also be capable of building on his early success with a lot more opportunity this season. He's not a great free throw shooter (69.1%) but he'll help make up for that with the blocks and stellar field goal shooting (63.7% last season).

And the best news is that he's widely available later in most drafts. As long as Williams can stay healthy, he appears to be a lock for a breakout season and he's another player who could flirt with doubling his core numbers in year two.