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NBCSports.com’s 50 best players in 5 years: Kyrie Irving, Deandre Ayton, players 25-21

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What is the NBA going to look like in five years? Who will be the game’s best players? The All-Stars, the guys on the cover of 2K24, the guys with signature shoe deals?

As a fun summer project, the NBA team at NBCSports.com put our heads together, pulled out our crystal balls, and tried to project forward who would be the 50 best players in the NBA in five years — in the summer of 2024. We took into account a player’s age, his potential ceiling and how likely he is to reach it, injury history, and more. The team working on this included Dan Feldman, Tom Haberstroh, Rob Dauster, Tommy Beer, Steve Alexander, and Kurt Helin (and thanks to Tess Quinlan and Mia Zanzucchi for the design help).

There were plenty of disagreements (and we don’t expect you to agree with all of our list), but here it is.

Here is the link to here are the links to players 50-4645-41, 40-36, 35-31 and 30-26., and These are players 25-21 on our list.

25. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander landed in an almost perfect spot as a rookie — playing for a smart, player-friendly coach in Doc Rivers, who built up his point guard’s confidence, showed him how to be professional, and how to prepare. Gilgeous-Alexander started 73 games for a 48-win playoff team, averaging 10.8 points and 3.3 assists per game — as a rookie. His potential shone through as the season wore on, and in the playoffs Rivers trusted him to be matched up on Stephen Curry.

All of that is why Oklahoma City demanded Gilgeous-Alexander in the Paul George trade (the Clippers didn’t want to give him up, but had no real choice).

How Gilgeous-Alexander will develop from here on out will be interesting to watch. His role is changing, and the playing environment and coaching style is changing. He’s not going to be Russell Westbrook — nobody is, plus they have very different games. Gilgeous-Alexander is more traditional point guard, more game manager, not an explosive isolation specialist who gets buckets.

As OKC drafts more and more young players over the course of the coming years, as they rebuild, Gilgeous-Alexander will be asked to be more of a leader, to pass along the lessons she learned to the young players that put on the Thunder blue. He’s got the maturity and game to handle it. Thunder fans are going to love him.
—Kurt Helin

24. John Collins

Collins is ranked in front of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and can topple just about anything or anyone. (I’ll count it.) Don’t let the pogo-stick bounce obscure the burgeoning skill-set that Collins boasts already. 

In his final game of the season, Collins scored 20 points, pulled down 25 boards, tallied six assists and hit a corner three for good measure. You know the last four players that have registered at least 20 points, 25 rebounds and six assists in a single game like Collins did? Fellow Demon Deacon Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley. Not bad company.

I made the declaration earlier this summer that Collins and Trae Young could be this generation’s Amar’e Stoudemire and Steve Nash. I stand by that. Collins may not be as strong and polished offensively as Stoudemire, but they play with the same force around the basket. Every time Collins dunks, you wonder what the basket ever did to him to deserve that assault.

Collins is still a work in progress on the defensive end. Stoudemire never really figured it out — hear ex-Sun staffer Amin Elhassan explain why at the 59:45 mark on a recent Habershow! — but Collins is still 21 years old with the physical tools to get there. If he wants to jump even higher on this list, that’s the place to start. Even still, John the Baptist is a nightly 20-and-10 threat and to me, will be an All-Star in 2019-20 — and not just relegated to the dunk contest.
—Tom Haberstroh

23. Kyrie Irving

Kyrie Irving wanted out of the shadow of LeBron James in Cleveland and found in Boston that being the guy in the center of the spotlight — the guy expected to lead both on and off the court — was not so easy. How ugly it got this past season in Boston will leave a scar on Irving’s Hall of Fame resume.

None of that changes the fact he is an elite point guard in his prime at age 27. Brooklyn is getting a guy with some of the best handles in the league, a career 39 percent shooter from three, and a guy who has stepped up on the biggest of stages and had monster playoff games (he has a dozen 30+ point playoff games, and a ring). In five years, at age 32, Irving will be past his prime, but those skills will not have faded so much as to drop him out of the top 25 in the league.

Brooklyn will help shape Irving’s legacy — he goes to a playoff team with a strong established culture through coach Kenny Atkinson, an organization with good young players already seen on this list in Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert. In a year, once healthy, Kevin Durant will join them and form a squad that should be a title contender in the East. The questions abound: How does Irving fit in? How does his game evolve? His leadership skills?

In 15 years or so when he enters the Hall of Fame and we think about Irving, we will think of the Game 7 title-winner for Cleveland, and from there his career went… where? There is a lot still to be determined about Irving’s legacy, but in five years we know he’s still going to be a quality point guard who is a dangerous shooter from deep and can win a team a lot of games.
—Kurt Helin

22. Ja Morant

Ja Morant has the potential to be a special point guard in the NBA, but it is not simply because of his off-the-charts athletic ability. To be clear, that helps. Russell Westbrook, John Wall, healthy Derrick Rose. Those guys are the elite of the elite athletically – like Morant – and they are the players that have helped usher in a new era of point guard play at the NBA level.

Now, Morant is not quite as developed physically as those three are. The best comparison in that sense is probably De'Aaron Fox, another spindly guard with sprinter’s speed and a jump shot that needs fine-tuning. He may not be there yet, but you will see him later on this list. We like him. The difference between Morant and Fox is passing ability. Morant has yet to play an NBA game, but I firmly believe he is going to be among the ten best players in the entire NBA when it comes to court vision, passing and the ability to make plays and create shots for teammates out of ball-screens. He’s a different player, a different caliber athlete and a much different shooter than Trae Young, but when it comes to their ability to read the floor and make every pass they need to be able to make, Morant is on the same level entering the league as Young.

He has a chance, in the next 5-10 years, to assert himself as the best point guard in the NBA. That’s what his ceiling is.
—Rob Dauster

21. Deandre Ayton

Ayton’s impressive numbers as a rookie — 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, shooting 58.5 percent — would win Rookie of the Year a lot of seasons. (Last season was a special rookie class, however, and Ayton finished third in the voting, making All-Rookie first team.) As a rookie Ayton showed impressive footwork in and around the basket, he’s a good cutter off the ball, makes smart and quick decisions (those decisions can improve, but for a rookie he did well), and decent passing skills. Considering he did this on a Suns team without a quality point guard to consistently feed him the rock is even more impressive (Ricky Rubio, who spent the last handful of years throwing lobs to Rudy Gobert, takes over at the point in Phoenix and that will help Ayton get the ball in positions he can do damage.)

Ayton is going to be an offensive force in five years, at age 26, especially if he adds some range to his shot and the Suns let him explore other aspects of his game. However, how high he ultimately should be on this list will depend on a couple of other things. The big one is his defense — he struggled on this end as a rookie, with his recognition and as a rim protector. Ayton needs to become a defensive anchor for the Suns. The way the NBA is evolving, an offense-only big man who is not a good rim protector has a limited role (think Enes Kanter). Ayton is young — in five years will be just 26 — and after the All-Star break he showed signs of improvement on that end. Ayton has time to become a better defender, but that needs to be the priority. Last season, then Suns’ coach Igor Kokoskov threw Ayton out to guard guys like LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo, which speaks to Ayton’s athleticism and showed some of the potential he must tap into. It’s a start. For the Suns to reach their potential with the Ayton/Booker duo, Ayton must be a force on both ends.

The other question: How does Ayton evolve in a league where there are fewer traditional NBA centers and bigs are prized more for their skills and shooting than ability to back someone down in the post or just catch lobs. Ayton has the tools to be more than what we saw from him. As a rookie, 51 percent of Ayton’s shots came at the rim and 77 percent in the paint — and he made those efficiently. On the baseline just outside the key he can hit, too. Almost 90 percent of his shots come off zero or one-dribble — he’s making quick decisions, catching and finishing, something likely not to change with Rubio getting him the ball.

But ultimately Ayton has to be a threat to do more on offense to really grow his game. To be an offensive force as a true center in this league a player’s game has to look more like Joel Embiid (or a healthy DeMarcus Cousins). Ayton has the athleticism and potential to get there. Will he put in the work and reach that potential is the question — and the answer will determine just how far the Booker/Ayton pairing will go.
—Kurt Helin

Kobe Bryant dies in helicopter crash

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Kobe Bryant, the legendary Laker star who was saluted by LeBron James on Saturday night, has died in a helicopter crash in Southern California, sources have confirmed to NBC Sports.

The crash took place in Calabasas, an area about 30 miles northeast of the Staples Center, where Kobe stared as a player for more than a decade. It is not far from the Mamba Academy athletic training center where Kobe was active. It was a foggy day in Southern California, which could have contributed to the crash.

The crash killed five people, of which Kobe was one.

Kobe was 41. He and his wife Vanessa have four daughters. It is unclear at this time if any of his family was on board the helicopter with him.

Kobe had a 20-year NBA career that will send him to the Hall of Fame (once he becomes eligible). He was a five-time NBA Champion, a 15-time All-NBA player, NBA MVP, two-time scoring champion, two-time Finals MVP, 18-time All-Star, and a player who influenced a generation who came up after him. His work ethic was legendary and was part of what rubbed off on LeBron and many others.

Kobe’s death came just a day after LeBron passed him for third All-Time in NBA scoring, which led LeBron to talk unscripted for more than five minutes about how he had grown up idolizing Kobe and the influence Kobe had on his life.

Love from former teammates, players pours in as LeBron James passes Kobe

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With a running layup across the lane Saturday night, LeBron James passed Kobe Bryant, moving up to third on the NBA’s All-Time scoring list.

After that, the love started to pour in for LeBron.

First it came from his teammates, then from the crowd at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, smart basketball fans who appreciate greatness when they see it.

Next Kobe Bryant Tweeted his congratulations.

Then the love flowed in from across the spectrum, including former teammates and other players. Here is just a taste.

LeBron trails only Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the scoring list, with LeBron 4,733 points back of Kareem. The scoring champ was on SiriusXM NBA Radio this past week and he also showed his appreciation for LeBron — and added LeBron could pass him.

“I think it is up to LeBron. If he wants to do it, he’ll do it. He has the talent. He has the opportunity. So it’s just up to him as to how he wants to end his career. I certainly cannot be upset about it. The reason that they keep these records is so that we learn how we are improving. And we learn how to teach the game, taking note of the accomplishments of the great players. So, hey, it’s a natural progression. I don’t have any problem with it.”

Rumor: J.R. Smith to get workout with Los Angeles Lakers

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This is probably nothing.

The Lakers head into the trade deadline — where they have limited players and picks to make a move — and the buyout market looking for a secondary playmaker to come off the bench, plus some more shooting.

J.R. Smith doesn’t fit either of those needs at this point in his career, but he is going to get a workout with the Lakers, reports Brandon ‘Scoop B’ Robinson at Heavy.com.

According to a Lakers source close to the situation, Smith will get a workout with the Los Angeles Lakers next week.

“There are no guarantees,” said the source. “They want to see what he can do and if it is a fit, we’ll take it from there.”

Smith and LeBron James have a history together going back to AAU ball, and Smith was on LeBron’s 2016 title team in Cleveland. Smith also made the blunder in Game 1 of the 2018 Finals that cost the Cavaliers any hope in that series.

However, if the Lakers wanted Smith, they could have signed him at any point this summer. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

Smith evolved into a gunner off the bench, a high volume shooter and scorer who creates shots for himself, which won his Sixth Man of the Year back in 2013 but does not fit what the Lakers are looking for right now.

Also, Smith’s skills have been in decline. Last season, Smith, 34, played just 11 games for the Cavaliers — none after November — and struggled with his shot, hitting 30.8 percent from three and he had a dreadful true shooting percentage of 44.4 (he is a career 37.3 percent shooter from three). Smith did not want to be part of a rebuild in Cleveland and asked to be traded, but the team could not find a taker that wanted Smith’s contract and would send a pick back for him. Cleveland waived Smith in July and, while he met with the Bucks, he has been without a contract since.

Don’t read much into Smith getting a workout, there could be a lot of reasons for this. Maybe this gets him on another team’s radar, but it’s hard to see how he helps the Lakers take a step forward right now.

Once again Zach LaVine has huge game against Cavaliers, scores 44 in win (VIDEO)

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CLEVELAND (AP) — Zach LaVine scored 44 points for another dominating performance against Cleveland and the Chicago Bulls defeated the Cavaliers 118-106 on Saturday night.

LaVine made 16 of 30 shots and had 27 points at halftime. The 6-foot-5 guard also finished with 10 rebounds and eight assists, falling just short of his first career triple-double.

It was LaVine’s second big game against Cleveland in eight days. He scored 42 points on Jan. 20, including 21 in the fourth quarter when the Bulls rallied from a 15-point deficit to win.

Cleveland, which has lost seven straight and 12 of 14, had no better success stopping LaVine this time. He drove past his defender for clear looks at the basket, scored when he was double teamed in the lane, hit five 3-pointers and was 7 of 8 from the line.

LaVine was held to 16 points when the Cavaliers beat the Bulls in Cleveland on Oct. 30. The teams play for the fourth and final time this season in Chicago on March 10.

Tomas Satoransky had 19 points for the Bulls, who were coming off a home loss to Sacramento on Friday and arrived in around 1:30 a.m.

Kevin Love scored 20 points and had 11 rebounds for Cleveland. Collin Sexton and Cedi Osman each had 18 points.

The game was tied at 69 midway through the third quarter before the Bulls went on a 30-7 run to go ahead 99-76. Chicago outscored Cleveland 40-19 in the period.

Cleveland cut a 24-point deficit to 112-103 with two minutes to play, but got no closer. The Cavaliers had lopsided home losses to New York and Washington this week.

Chicago didn’t play like a team that’s been plagued by injuries. Forward Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls’ second-leading scorer, will miss four to six weeks because of an injured right hip. The 7-footer had an MRI on Thursday after experiencing soreness in the hip for about a week.