One of the most fascinating aspects of being a sports fan is the sense of attachment, usually inexplicable, that you develop toward certain players. You know little about them when they first enter the league, but over the course of a few years they start to feel like a close friend, maybe even family, and gradually you find yourself deeply invested in their success.
That's why it's so rewarding when a player you love starts to make the proverbial leap -- from a solid, complementary fan favorite to a household name, an All-Star, maybe even a budding franchise legend. Just last season we saw three first-time All-Stars -- Zach LaVine, Julius Randle and Jaylen Brown -- who made it to the brightest of all international stages due to a time-old sports phenomenon:
The breakout season.
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It doesn't always result in an All-Star bid, but every year there are multiple NBA players whose unexpected performances make fans, analysts and peers stand up and take notice. Below, we've gone through every team and identified the one player who seems to be on the cusp of major improvement.
Here are the most likely breakout candidates from each NBA team entering the 2021-22 season.
De'Andre Hunter took a leap last season, and it could be Reddish's turn this year. The 6-8 wing was limited to just 26 games last season, during which he put up abysmal shooting percentages -- 36.5 percent from the field and 26 percent from 3-point range. So why is he a breakout candidate? Reddish returned from a lengthy absence to play in four games during the Hawks' Eastern Conference finals loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. In his first playoff appearance, Reddish confidently averaged 12.8 points on 53/64/80 shooting splits in just 23 minutes per game, including an eye-opening 21-point performance on 6-for-7 3-point shooting in the Game 6 loss.
Reddish also has the potential to be a defensive menace, averaging 1.5 steals per 36 minutes over his first two NBA seasons. The only thing preventing Reddish from a breakout season could be playing time, since the Hawks are pretty deep on the wing and have a lot of talented scorers. If he plays the way he did in the playoffs, however, Nate McMillan will have no choice but to keep him on the court.
That's right, folks. Time Lord season is upon us. Williams earned a four-year, $54 million extension from the Celtics this summer, which I deemed their most underrated offseason move, and that will likely come with an increased role on both ends of the floor for the 6-8 center. Williams is an athletic freak who skies above the rim to catch lobs while erasing shots at the other end, but the real intrigue comes in his passing and playmaking ability. Williams led all NBA centers in offensive efficiency including assists, per Synergy Sports, averaging 15.2 points, 13.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 3.3 blocks per 36 minutes. New Celtics head coach Ime Udoka may look to use Williams as more of a facilitator, whether he starts or comes off the bench behind Al Horford.
"There's not really pressure, because this is what we pray and we work for," Williams said of his increased role. "It's a little different. But, like I said, there's no pressure. It's our job."
It's hard to pick a breakout candidate on a roster laden with veterans, but Carter could be in line for increased playing time given Kyrie Irving's tenuous vaccination situation, James Harden's recent injury history and the miles on 33-year-old Patty Mills' legs. Coming over from Phoenix this offseason to beef up Brooklyn's defense, Carter puts the clamps on opposing guards, but has also developed into a 40 percent 3-point shooter over the last two seasons. He was in the 82nd percentile in catch-and-shoot situations, per Synergy, which bodes well for his role alongside the Nets' elite playmakers. His numbers probably won't be mind-boggling, but there's a chance Carter could become an important part of Brooklyn's title quest.
"We knew he could shoot it, but we've been, I think, pleasantly surprised with how well," Nets coach Steve Nash said of Carter, who went 5 for 8 from 3-point range in his first two preseason games. "He's shot very well throughout camp. He's very dedicated to his craft. He's in there every day shooting, so it's not a surprise to us. We want him to step up and shoot and be aggressive. He defends, but he's a good offensive player as well."
A long, slender 6-9 wing, McDaniels struggled to find consistent playing time for the first half of last season, but injuries opened up more opportunity for him later in the year. In 18 starts, he averaged 11.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.9 assists in just over 30 minutes per game, while hitting 34 percent of his 3-pointers. Given his speed and athleticism, McDaniels is also a useful transition weapon for a team that has played at the fastest pace in the NBA so far this preseason. Charlotte added wings Kelly Oubre Jr. and Wes Iwundu this offseason to go along with Gordon Hayward and Miles Bridges, but it appears that McDaniels has earned a rotation spot with a strong camp thus far.
"Everything I've seen to this point in camp says he's got to play, and he's got to play minutes," said Hornets head coach James Borrego. "But it's up to him to keep those minutes and continue to put pressure on us to put him out there."
Williams might not make a huge statistical leap due to the offensive firepower around him in the Bulls lineup, but he could certainly make a name for himself on the other end of the floor. Once healthy, he'll be expected to guard one of the opponent's top offensive weapons on a nightly basis. Williams also showed offensive promise last season, shooting 39 percent on nearly two 3-point attempts per game. With all the attention put on Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic, he could walk into a lot of open looks. If Chicago is able to make the postseason, the 20-year-old will likely be the subject of plenty of spot shadows highlighting his defensive work on some of the league's best perimeter scorers.
Those who watch a decent amount of Cavs games may argue that Garland broke out last season, but it's safe to say that he's not exactly on the national radar yet. That could change this season, as the third-year point guard appears ready to make another leap after a strong sophomore campaign in which he increased his scoring average by five points and his assist average by two. He also put up impressive 45/40/85 shooting splits, while hitting a respectable 36 percent of his pull-up 3s. Garland wasn't ranked in Ricky Rubio should also help take Garland's game to the next level.entering this season, and that could look like a big omission at the end of the year if he's able to stay healthy. Cleveland bringing in veteran point guard
"I have to give him a lot of credit, the jump [Garland] made from first year to second year," Rubio said. "He has a lot of weapons, a lot of tools that can be used. Really quick guard who can shoot and knows the game real well. Hopefully, I can help him become a better player. But at the end of the day, it's up to him."
The Mavs have a lot of known quantities, so picking a breakout candidate is pretty difficult. A 6-foot-5, strong, athletic wing, Green certainly has a chance to make a leap this season, but he's going to have to earn it. He struggled to find minutes under Rick Carlisle, who is notoriously hesitant to trust rookies, and new coach Jason Kidd said over the summer that he hopes he and his development staff can help get Green "to the next level." That progression will start with Green improving on the 4-for-25 3-point shooting from last season. He shot 36 percent in his one season at Arizona and his form looks solid, so it's conceivable that a summer of work will lead to better results from deep. He has also shown brief glimpses of strong court awareness and passing ability.
Defensively, Green has the chance to be elite, and that will likely be his fastest ticket to earning minutes early this season.
As much as we all want the Bol Bol breakout season, Dozier is a much more realistic candidate. The 6-5 guard is entering his fifth season, and should get the opportunity for consistent minutes with Jamal Murray presumably out for the majority of the regular season. Dozier looked good after Murray tore his ACL in April, averaging 11 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists in 28.5 minutes per game before missing the last seven games of the season with his own injury. The main area of improvement for Dozier (and pretty much everyone in the league) is his 3-point efficiency, so it's a good sign that he shot 38.5 percent on over four attempts per game in his first three preseason contests.
"He's not fighting for minutes, he's not fighting for my respect. I'm a huge PJ Dozier fan," Nuggets head coach Mike Malone said during training camp. "I understand the importance of PJ Dozier because of the versatility that he brings. He's a guy that can play 1, 2 or 3 on offense and he can guard 1-4 on defense."
A relentless ball of energy and strength, Stewart should see increased opportunity in his sophomore season for the rebuilding Pistons, and his per 36-minute averages of 13.3 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks suggest that he'll be ready to produce. He's a bully on defense with great shot-blocking instincts, and an offensive rebound/putback machine on the other end. Detroit opened the door for more Stewart minutes by trading Mason Plumlee, and new acquisition Kelly Olynyk's ability to stretch the floor even makes some double-big lineups an option for Pistons coach Dwane Casey.
"For us, everything is going to start with defense," Stewart said. "We're going to be a defensive-minded team. When we're out there, just make everything hard on our opponents. Every team that comes in, we want them to come into the game knowing it's going to be a hard night."
Stewart has also shown intriguing flashes from the 3-point line, knocking down 33 percent of his 63 attempts last season. As his confidence and accuracy from deep grows, it will only open up other aspects of his game.
The Warriors have been hyping up Poole since the beginning of last season, and we're starting to see why. After a rough start to his sophomore campaign, Poole came into his own toward the end of the year, averaging 15.4 points on 37.5 percent 3-point shooting over his final 14 games. He clearly carried that momentum into the preseason, where he put up 25 points and 3.3 assists in his first three games, while knocking down 44 percent of his nearly 11 3-point attempts per game.
"It doesn't matter who's out there, he's gonna let it fly, which I love," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of Poole. "His confidence is overflowing, so it's good stuff. He's had a great camp, just like we expected."
With Klay Thompson still out to begin the season, it appears that the starting shooting guard spot is Poole's to lose. The Warriors flourished last season with Poole and Curry on the floor together, putting up a devastating plus-17.9 net rating in 221 minutes.
"It's not like we're trying to overcomplicate things and only find Steph [Curry]," Poole said. "He's good enough where he's going to get his shots and he's going to get open. But they still want me to be aggressive. There's really good cohesiveness out there right now with the group we have."
With John Wall not expected to suit up for the Rockets this season, point guard duties will rest in the hands of the dynamic Porter, who averaged 16.6 points, 6.3 assists and 3.8 rebounds in 26 games to close out last season with Houston. The 21-year-old will certainly put up numbers, but he'll need to improve his efficiency, especially from 3-point range, in order to have a true breakout season. So far, so good on that front. After shooting 31 percent last season, Porter went 7 for 15 from deep in his first two preseason games, with averages of 18.5 points and 4.5 assists. Turnovers have also been an issue for Porter, but that comes with the territory of learning how to be a starting NBA point guard, and should improve as the season goes along. After beginning his career with numerous off-court issues, Porter has a chance to find a home in Houston.
"This organization saved my life, potentially," Porter said at Rockets Media Day. "I just love being here and I want to be here for a while. I needed a new scenery and they picked me up when I was down. ... They gave me love and confidence in myself, and motivation to become a better player and person. They've invested a lot in me, and I try to give them my all to repay them in some way."
Another team chocked full of veteran talent, the Pacers don't have much room for a breakout player to emerge. Since we have to pick, however, let's go with Brissett, who finished last season strong as Indiana dealt with numerous injuries to its frontcourt. He averaged 13.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 16 starts to end the season, while shooting 42 percent on nearly five 3-point attempts per game. With TJ Warren still out due to a foot injury, Brissett should be able to earn minutes off the bench at the four, and could earn a permanent spot if he continues to impress.
"[Brissett] is one of those guys that's sort of a jack of all trades," Pacers guard Malcolm Brogdon said. "You can throw him in any spot, three to the five, and he can guard and he can score at any position on the floor. He's just gotten better at everything he does."
Mann became an excellent role player for the Clippers last season, but he'll be asked to do much more with Kawhi Leonard out of the lineup for the foreseeable future. Mann proved he could perform on the big stage, averaging 11.2 points and 3.1 rebounds on 42 percent 3-point shooting after entering the regular rotation in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Jazz. His 39-point, seven 3-pointer performance as the Clippers closed out Utah was one of the signature moments of the playoffs. Mann is an essential member of the Clippers defense, and he'll have more opportunities to increase his 3-point volume and aggressiveness toward the rim, which could lead to a breakout season.
"The game has slowed down for him. He understands, picks and chooses his spots," Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said of Mann. "He's really improved as a player."
If you've followed the Lakers even peripherally over the past couple seasons, you're probably fatigued with all the Horton-Tucker hype. After earning a three-year, $32 million deal this summer, this is THT's chance to justify it. The starting shooting guard position is wide open, and Horton-Tucker is a leading candidate. His skills are obvious when you watch him, but in order for things to work next to LeBron James and Russell Westbrook, Horton-Tucker will need to significantly improve on the 28 percent he shot from 3-point range last season. Still, his per 36-minute averages of 16.2 points, five assists and 4.7 rebounds speak for themselves, to go along with his rangy defensive potential.
"There's nothing Talen doesn't have to keep him from being an elite player," Lakers vice president of basketball operations Rob Pelinka said.
Grayson Allen's departure should open up more opportunity for Bane, who was incredibly efficient on the offensive end as a rookie last season with per 36-minute averages of 14.8 points and five rebounds on 47/43/81 shooting splits. He's already one of the most lethal spot-up shooters in the league, in the 91st percentile in catch-and-shoot situations, per Synergy. He also has a sneaky floater game that will come in handy if he gets run off the 3-point line more often this season.
"Playing with Ja [Morant] and Jaren [Jackson Jr.] and guys like that, I'm gonna get some opportunity and some easy looks," Bane said. "So just being able to capitalize on those is important."
Herro had a breakout postseason run in the bubble, but didn't make the jump most expected in his sophomore season. That being said, his scoring, rebounding and assist averages all increased, and his field goal percentage also went up. Given Miami's top-heavy roster this season, Herro needs to be the primary scorer and playmaker off the bench for the Heat to be a contender. He looks the part so far, reportedly adding 15 pounds of muscle and putting up 25.3 points, five rebounds and 3.3 assists in his first three preseason games, while hitting 50 percent of his 3-pointers.
"This is a league that's becoming a league of skill and he's developing into one of the most skilled players in this league," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Herro. "You can see he gets where he needs to get. He can get to different levels on the floor. So, it's a very good start for him."
There are some frontcourt minutes to fill with PJ Tucker in Miami, and Nwora is certainly making his case during training camp. In his first two preseason games, Nwora averaged 23 points, six rebounds and 2.5 assists in just under 28 minutes per game, going 7 for 14 from the 3-point line in the process. At 6-8, Nwora is versatile enough to play four or potentially small-ball five, though he'll need to keep up defensively to earn Mike Budenholzer's trust. He's also working to improve as a playmaker in the pass-heavy Bucks offense.
"I've been working on it every day. There are even some days where we will start a workout and I'm just doing straight passing," Nwora said. "So it's been good. It's only going to make me better. I'm going to keep trying to play the right way. That's what's gonna get me on the court."
The Wolves have been thin on the wing for a few years now, and McDaniels may be the answer. The 6-9 Washington product made 27 starts as a rookie, averaging 8.3 points and 4.2 rebounds on 37 percent 3-point shooting in the final 25 games of the season. He was in the 65th percentile in catch-and-shoot situations last season, per Synergy, and he should get plenty of open looks playing alongside Karl-Anthony Towns, D'Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards. Defensively, McDaniels has tremendous potential as his frame begins to fill out, and his length and timing allowed him to block a shot per game last season.
"What he's doing at the defensive end of the floor right now is special," Wolves coach Chris Finch said of McDaniels last season. "I can't remember a 19-year-old defender, rookie, coming in and having this type of impact -- battling a multitude of positions and making a great impact for his team."
Alexander-Walker is in competition for a starting spot in the Pelicans backcourt, but he should have a big impact no matter his role. For what it's worth, the third-year guard looked much more comfortable with the first unit last season, averaging 19 points, five rebounds and three assists in 13 starts, while shooting 41 percent from 3-point range.
"Would I like to start? Yeah, everyone would. But I think it's about the team," Alexander-Walker said during camp. "It's about winning. It's about contributing. That's my main thing. ... It's not really about the title, per se, but what it really comes down to -- winning games, making the playoffs, trying to do something special here."
At 6-6, Alexander-Walker has the size to play either guard position, but he'll need to improve his playmaking in order to be relied upon as a point guard. The good news is that New Orleans can play unorthodox lineups with Zion Williamson as the de facto point guard on offense, which allows Alexander-Walker to thrive as a slasher and scorer, where he's been effective so far in his young career.
The Knicks' resurgence last season was all the more surprising because it mostly came without Robinson, who was sidelined for all but 31 games due to injury. It looks like he'll be healthy to start this season, which makes him the Knicks' prime breakout candidate. Robinson set the all-time record for field goal percentage two seasons ago, and is arguably the most talented shot-blocker in the NBA with his size, athleticism and timing. He's especially adept at using his tremendous length to erase 3-point attempts from unsuspecting shooters.
Robinson was averaging just over 27 minutes per game before his season-ending injury, and he should get close to that, if not exceed it, this season. He also averaged just 3.6 personal fouls per 36 minutes, down from 5.3 over his first two years in the league, which obviously helps keep him on the floor for longer stretches. With the addition of another playmaker in Kemba Walker and a floor-spacer in Evan Fournier, Robinson could have a big season as a lob threat in the dunker spot, in addition to his defensive exploits.
A large contingent of NBA Twitter would love for the Poku revolution to begin in earnest, but he's probably still a year or two away from a breakout season. Instead keep your eye on Bazley, the 6-8 forward who increased his scoring average by nearly 10 points last season out of necessity on the rebuilding Thunder. He can increase that total even more this season if he improves on his dismal efficiency from last year, when he shot under 40 percent from the field, including 29 percent from 3-point range on over five attempts per game. Getting better in those areas seems likely now that he's had a year of being on opposing scouting reports for the first time in his career. Still just 21 years old, Bazley also seems to have developed a strong connection with OKC head coach Mark Daigneault.
"He is an amazing, amazing person. I am so grateful to be coached by him on and off the court," Bazley said of Daigneault. "He has helped me grow so much. He is one of the reasons I feel so comfortable coming into this year."
There are going to be plenty of shots available for the rebuilding Magic this season, and Carter is a prime candidate to take advantage of the extra opportunity. The former No. 7 overall pick came over from the Bulls in the Nikola Vucevic deal, averaging 11.7 points and 8.8 rebounds in 22 games with Orlando to end the season. He's looked much more aggressive offensively this preseason, and went 4 for 9 from 3-point range in his first three games -- an area that he's been trying to develop since he came into the league. Carter should be the starting center, though new head coach Jamahl Mosley has experimented with playing Carter and Mo Bamba together at times.
"One thing about Wendell is he's a hooper," Bamba said. "He [goes] out there -- [playing the] four or five -- and just [goes] out there and play[s] and make[s] defenses have to adjust to it."
If Carter stays healthy, averages of 15 points, 10 rebounds and a block per game seem within sight, and the ceiling is even higher.
A breakout season from Maxey seemed much more likely when Ben Simmons was MIA, but even if he's back in the fold, Maxey should still have a productive year. The 6-2 combo guard finished with per 36-minute averages of 18.8 points, 4.6 assists and four rebounds as a rookie, and showcased an impressive floater game that landed him in the 79th percentile in efficiency, according to Synergy.
Maxey is more of a natural scorer, but he's working on his playmaking to be able to run the offense with the second unit (or as a starter if Simmons remains out).
"It's gonna take time, but I have the ultimate confidence and they help me a lot," Maxey said during camp. "Seth [Curry], Tobias [Harris], Danny [Green], Joel [Embiid], everybody. They help me a lot, and I trust in them and we'll figure it out."
Some would argue that Bridges already broke out during the Suns' run to the NBA Finals, but his numbers could take another leap this season as he continues to expand his offensive game. A tremendous role player on both ends of the floor, Bridges could venture into "supporting star" territory if he continues to gain confidence in the off-the-dribble and fadeaway game that he teased during the playoffs.
"People will still try to label [Bridges] as a 3-and-D guy, and I've told you guys multiple times that's not even close to his game," Suns All-Star Devin Booker said during the NBA Finals. "If teams want to try to make him be the one to beat them, he'll do it."
There's very little room for a breakout candidate on the veteran-filled Blazers roster, but if forced to pick, Little seems like the best option. He dropped in and out of the rotation last season, but he showcased his potential by scoring 30 points in 29 minutes, including 5-for-7 3-pointers, in a short-handed loss to the Bucks in February. It might take an injury to open up regular minutes for Little, but he's shown that he knows how to take advantage of them, and has drawn praise from teammates during camp.
"One leg, two legs, he can fly," Blazers forward Larry Nance Jr. said. "And it looks like he has really worked on his game this summer. He's shooting it well. He came in super aggressive to camp."
In a limited sample size, Little proved that he can finish around the rim with his strength and athleticism, landing in the 79th percentile according to Synergy.
There's a reason the Kings reportedly wouldn't include Haliburton in trade discussions for Ben Simmons. As a rookie last season, Haliburton was in the 91st percentile in offensive efficiency including assists, according to Synergy, placing him alongside perennial All-Stars like Damian Lillard, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Over his last 10 games of the season, Haliburton put up 13.1 points, 6.5 assists and 1.8 steals on 44/40/91 shooting splits in just under 29 minutes per game. He's already a borderline elite pick-and-roll playmaker given his ability to shoot, get to the basket and set up his teammates.
He's still going to have issues on the defensive end, but Haliburton should put up some big numbers this season, especially if the Kings end up moving Buddy Hield.
Someone needs to step up for the Spurs with DeMar DeRozan and his team-leading usage rate now in Chicago, and Johnson seems like a strong candidate. Johnson scored 20 or more points nine times last season, and his gold medal experience with Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics over the summer can only lead to good things for the third-year forward. After the Olympic win, Draymond Green gave credit to Johnson, who was a surprising addition to the roster, to say the least.
"We got a young 21-year-old they said shouldn't be here. They gave [Spurs/Team USA coach Gregg Popovich] s--- for it," Green said of Johnson. "And he brought more energy than anybody. That's what we needed."
One way Johnson's stats could increase significantly is through 3-point volume. The Spurs seem to be emphasizing 3s more during the preseason, averaging 34.7 attempts per 100 possessions, compared to 28.3 last season. Therefore Johnson should easily be able to eclipse his 2.6 3-point attempts per game from last season, which will also open up the lane for his explosive finishing ability.
Anunoby has improved in each of his first four NBA seasons, but he might be ready to explode this year. With Kyle Lowry in Miami, Anunoby will receive more scoring and playmaking responsibility, areas where he's made great strides over the course of his career thus far. Somewhat quietly, he averaged nearly 16 points last season while shooting 40 percent on over six 3-point attempts per game. He was in the 85th percentile in catch-and-shoot situations, according to Synergy, but shot fewer than one pull-up 3-pointer per game. This preseason, however, he's doing stuff like this:
If Anunoby has the opportunity and confidence to shoot these kinds of self-created 3-pointers to go along with his lockdown defense, it could put him in fringe All-Star territory. For what it's worth, it sounds like Raptors coach Nick Nurse is willing to live with some of the growing pains along the way.
"[Anunoby] is getting a lot of chances to play a lot of one-on-one, some more post-ups, etc.," Nurse said, via the Toronto Star. "I'm not so sure that's the great rhythm of our offense that we're going to see all the time, but it is part of developing him now and using this time to do that. There is maybe a little bit of a longer … runway."
When you finish with the best record in the NBA, there's usually not much room for a breakout star the next season. That's the case with this year's Jazz, who have known commodities at basically every rotation spot. As much as I'd love to choose my fellow Yale alum Miye Oni, I just can't see enough backcourt minutes available for him to have a true breakout season. By that logic, we'll go with Paschall, who could give the Jazz an added dimension as a small-ball center -- a position where he had success at times with Golden State. Paschall can occasionally be a microwave scorer and brings a ton of energy, so Quin Snyder might find him an appealing option in certain matchups where playing Hassan Whiteside doesn't make much sense.
Is Paschall going to average 20 points per game? No. But he could establish himself as a useful role player on a very good team that encourages shooters to let it fly.
"Having the freedom to shoot this many 3s, I feel like for any player that gives a lot of confidence," said Paschall, who shot 33 percent from 3-point range last season. "It gives a lot of confidence when shooting and knowing that you're not going to get yelled at for taking the shot."
Watch Daniel Gafford play basketball for five minutes and you'll come away intrigued, at the very least -- smitten, most likely. The bouncy 6-10 center was a revelation after coming over from the Bulls last season, putting up gaudy per 36-minute averages of 20.6 points, 11.3 rebounds and 3.6 blocks in 23 games with Washington while shooting 68 percent from the field. He enters this season as the presumed starter, at least until Thomas Bryant recovers from ACL surgery, so Gafford should get the opportunity to show whether he can perform in a larger, more significant role. Given the pressure that Spencer Dinwiddie and Bradley Beal can put on the rim, Gafford should see his fair share of dunks off dump-offs and lobs.
"The shot-blocking, his ability to change shots around the rim, to run the floor, to finish above the rim and be a presence to put pressure on the rim as a roller. His flexibility, his versatility; he's very fluid," first-year Wizards head coach Wes Unseld Jr. said of Gafford. "For a lot of guys that big, it doesn't come easy."