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NBA

Can the bubble's breakout stars thrive in the playoffs?

breakout-stars
Can VanVleet, Porter, Warren and Trent continue in the postseason? (NBAE/Getty Images)

The NBA bubble has been an unambiguous success throughout the seeding games. It has gone so smoothly, in fact, that it has allowed us to focus all of our attention on the surprisingly impressive on-court product.

Many players have played well in the bubble but some have surpassed even our most ambitious expectations.

Some of those players will fall short of the playoffs and will have a chance to ride that momentum into success next season. Those on this list, however, will have an immediate chance to prove in the playoffs that their performance over the past couple weeks wasn't an aberration.

Whether they were overlooked heading into the bubble or simply hadn't had a chance to perform at this level, these players have seized the opportunity for bubble stardom.

Fred VanVleet

Summer stardom is nothing new for Fred VanVleet. After returning to the team following the birth of his son during last year's Eastern Conference Finals, VanVleet torched the Bucks and Warriors en route to the Raptors' first title.

It seems the heat has suited him well this season too.

VanVleet has been Toronto's best player in the bubble. He's averaging 17.8 points while shooting 41.7 percent from three and getting to the line for almost six attempts per game. As defences have adjusted and played him as more of a scoring threat, he has seamlessly transitioned into a distributor and led the Raptors with 6.7 assists per game as well.

VanVleet was having an All-Defence-caliber season before the hiatus and that has held true even more so in the bubble. He has consistently locked up smaller guards and stifled players several inches taller who foolishly think they've stumbled into a mismatch. Toronto has had the best defence in the bubble by a country mile and VanVleet has been a foundational reason why.

This bubble success hasn't come as a result of a massive stylistic change. VanVleet has just expanded what he's done well all season on a larger scale and his improvement may be the most sustainable of any player on this list.

The Raptors achieved what they needed to in the seeding games. They locked up the two seed and not only avoided Milwaukee's half of the bracket but set up a likely path to a series with Boston that is years in the making. Regardless of how the season plays out, VanVleet has become a crucial piece to all of Toronto's success.

Michael Porter Jr.

Before injury concerns saw him nearly slip out of the lottery, Michael Porter Jr. was seen as a potential top overall pick. He's looked like that calibre of player so far in the bubble.

A 6-foot-10 fluid athlete, Porter Jr. has every physical tool you look for in an ideal wing scorer. He's put those traits to good use in the bubble, averaging 22.0 points and 8.6 rebounds and totalled the three highest-scoring games of his career.

The real surprise has been his efficiency. Porter Jr. has scored at that rate while shooting 55.1 percent from the floor and 42.2 percent from three. If he's a 40 percent 3-point shooter in addition to every offensive tool he already has, then the Nuggets are only a year or two away from having two viable MVP candidates.

Even without getting too far ahead of ourselves, Porter Jr. is an immediate core piece for the Nuggets this season. The popular belief has been that Denver is a star short of contention but Porter Jr. has that star power in spades. Even in just perception, his play in the bubble has elevated Denver's stock around the league.

Shooting regression will inevitably come but Jamal Murray and Will Barton's return to the lineup also means defences will be able to pay less attention to him. Porter Jr.'s share of shots may fall back to earth as a result, but the bubble has proven he is undoubtedly a star.

T.J. Warren

Averaging 31.0 points over a six-game stretch is impressive in any context. Doing so in the bubble comes with the added notoriety of becoming one of the highest-scoring players in the month of August in NBA history.

No one saw this coming from T.J. Warren. Entering Orlando, the Pacers were widely seen as a step below the top five in the East and losing Domantas Sabonis only further cemented that perception. Only after Warren became the best scorer on the planet for a couple weeks did that belief change.

As unfortunate as Sabonis' injury was, it opened the door for Warren to thrive in a larger role. He's at his best as a slightly undersized power forward, capable of blowing by flat-footed fours and overpower wings trying to play up. He's a pure tweener, one who's perfect for today's NBA.

A lot of Warren's success in the bubble has come from him getting to the rim. He's shooting 70.0 percent in the restricted area on 6.7 attempts per game. The only other players in the bubble shooting 70+ percent on that many attempts are Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Warren was a one-dimensional scorer early in his career but has slowly turned himself into a threat from all three levels. That said, if you're looking for regression, Warren's 3-point shooting is the most likely candidate.

Warren has shot 52.4 percent on 7.0 3s per game so far in the bubble. He's quietly shot over 40 percent from 3 in each of the past two seasons but 50+ percent on that volume isn't sustainable for long.

Warren's exceptional start in the bubble and earned the star treatment. Both from the media and opposing defences.

The Suns and Heat have been the only teams to have success slowing Warren down and they've done so by treating him like any other star wing. Jimmy Butler and Mikal Bridges are elite individual defenders but both teams did a fantastic job utilizing targeted double-teams to trap Warren and force him into bad decisions.

Warren has been incredible these past couple weeks and opposing defences have started to recognize they need to treat him like a star. Considering the success Miami and Phoenix have had slowing him down relative to the other four teams he's played, expect Warren's star treatment to continue into the playoffs.

Gary Trent Jr.

VanVleet, Porter Jr. and Warren all have solid claims as the best shooter so far in the bubble, but the current undisputed belt holder has to be Gary Trent Jr.

Before the hiatus, Trent Jr. had become a good - occasionally even great - 3-point shooter. He hit 38.8 percent of his 3s on mostly spot-up attempts but was a capable scorer off the dribble when called upon. He showed flashes that could develop into a great sharpshooter in the league for the next decade, but he never showed this.

Trent Jr. has shot an otherworldly 50.7 percent on 8.4 3s per game in the bubble. He's been unconscious, totalling two games with seven made 3s and another with six while maintaining efficiency usually only seen from seven-footers.

Unfortunately for him and the Blazers, Trent Jr. is probably the safest regression bet on this list. He's been the best shooter in the league these past couple weeks but almost all of his success has come off the back of blistering shooting. Basically three-quarters of his points have come off 3s so far in the bubble and at some point, his percentage will fall back to earth.

Even when that regression does come, his shooting performance so far in the bubble has changed his on-court value forever.

Trent Jr. is now an elite shooter. Whether in reality or just perception, he now has the ability to alter the gravity of defences and open up the court for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. With Trent Jr.'s shooting ability spacing the floor, an already potent Blazer offence becomes all the more dangerous.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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