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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

LeBron James on 2011 NBA Finals: ‘I lost my love for the game’

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LeBron James became a villain by leaving the Cavaliers for the Heat on The Decision in 2010. He arrived in Miami promising “not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” championships.

By the end of his first season with the Heat, he was beaten down. The Mavericks topped Miami in the NBA Finals, winning the last three games of the series. While Miami blew its 2-1 lead, LeBron averaged 15.3 points and 4.7 turnovers per game. He shot 2-for-12 on 3-pointers and 4-for-10 on free throws.

After Game 6, he callously mocked his critics:

“All the people that were rooting for me to fail… at the end of the day, tomorrow they have to wake up and have the same life that (they had) before they woke up today,” James said. “They got the same personal problems they had today. And I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things I want to do.”

ESPN:

LeBron emerged from his funk and led the Heat to consecutive titles. He returned to Cleveland and won another title there. He’s now with the Lakers leading another championship pursuit.

He plays well. He plays smartly. He plays with joy. He often rises to the biggest occasions.

LeBron probably had to go through a setback like the 2011 Finals to sharpen his mental edge. But it’s incredible how far he has come from the defeated player who left that series against Dallas.

Tristan Thompson on Cavaliers anonymously griping about John Beilein: ‘Y’all better find them names ‘cause I’ll pull up on ‘em right now’

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The Athletic – quoting at least three unnamed players – reported the Cavaliers are rebelling against John Beilein’s collegiate coaching style.

Cleveland big Tristan Thompson, via Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com:

“Y’all better find them names ‘cause I’ll pull up on ‘em right now,” Thompson said. “You can’t do that s—.

“At the end of the day if you’re going to build a culture and a family, you can’t have that Chatty Patty s— going on. That s— is whack to me. Everyone’s got to look in the mirror, there’s only so much coach can do and there’s only so much we can do. Do we have the best roster in the NBA? No. But we’re going to go out there and compete every night. Guys got to look in the mirror. So I hope whoever reported that was just bulls——g and blamed it on a player.”

That’s quite the rhetoric from Thompson. I wonder whether he has the same energy in the locker room.

Thompson confronting his teammates would certainly raise the stakes. And make no mistake: His teammates are among the unnamed sources. The report not only specifically cited players, it said “Veterans and younger players, from all corners of the roster” are having issues with Beilein.

Even if he supports his coach, that’s a lot for Thompson to take on.

But if he’s looking for a place to start, I have a guess.

Report: Raptors president Masai Ujiri would be intrigued by Knicks

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The Knicks are reportedly “obsessed” with Raptors president Masai Ujiri.

Would he actually leave Toronto?

Howard Beck of Bleacher Report:

Sources also say Ujiri would be intrigued by the challenge of fixing the Knicks, the chance to build something from scratch and, not insignificantly, by the opportunity to elevate his Giants of Africa philanthropy by working in the New York market.

Influential voices in the NBA have strongly advised Ujiri not to take the job, if it’s ever offered, sources say. But those same sources say Ujiri might do it anyway, if the money is right, if he’s granted the necessary autonomy and if Dolan funds Giants of Africa as generously as the Raptors ownership group has.

Ujiri’s contract is believed to run through 2021 but with an out clause under certain circumstances. He turned down a lucrative extension last summer, sources said, leaving the impression that he wants to keep his options open.

Michael Grange of Sportsnet:

contrary to a report that Ujiri turned down an extension – there has never been one been offered, according to sources

There’s no good reason to believe one reporter’s unnamed sources over another reporter’s unnamed sources in this case. Maybe the Raptors offered an extension. Maybe they didn’t.

Without knowing the terms, it doesn’t matter much for predicting Ujiri’s future, anyway. If it were truly a “lucrative” offer, that’d indicate Ujiri values flexibility more than staying in Toronto. But if it were a lower offer considering how much time is left on his current deal, that could mean Ujiri is just trying to negotiate more from the Raptors.

Still, even Grange wrote extensively on way Ujiri might go to New York. There’s smoke here.

The upside of running the Knicks is higher than the upside of running the Raptors. That’s just the reality of market, ownership spending and team prestige.

The Knicks also have owner James Dolan and all the complications he brings. He will be New York’s biggest obstacle in any attempt to lure Ujiri. Past dismissive comments can easily get written off to Ujiri having a competitive streak. Dolan – particularly his temperament and insistence on keeping unproductive employees around – is the real challenge.

Ujiri has a good thing going in Toronto. I doubt he’s rushing to leave. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if he’s at least willing to hear out the Knicks.

It’s not Showtime 2, but Lakers fast break surprising, running past teams

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LOS ANGELES — Sunday night, the Los Angeles Lakers ran past the Timberwolves.

Literally.

The Lakers got their first bucket when Anthony Davis got a rebound, pushed the ball up the court himself, and went coast-to-coast for an and-1 lay-up. Soon after LeBron James was throwing look-aheads to a sprinting Davis.

Los Angeles had 17 fast-break points in the first quarter, on their way to 32 for the game. The Lakers kept getting easy buckets in transition, which kept a feisty Timberwolves team in the rear-view mirror.

That happens a lot. Talk to opposing the coaches about the Lakers and you hear about their length defensively, the activity of their big men, and how the LeBron/Davis pick-and-roll leaves defenders with impossible choices.

The fast break points sneak up on teams. These Lakers are not the second coming of Showtime, but the break has become a vital weapon for them.

“The transition game over the past couple of weeks has really picked up,” Lakers’ coach Frank Vogel said.

Los Angeles averages 18.4 fast break points per game, third most in the NBA, but that number doesn’t tell the entire story. The Lakers add as many points per game on transition plays as any team in the league, looking at the advanced stats at Cleaning the Glass (which filters out garbage time in its numbers). The Lakers start 16 percent of possessions in transition, eight highest percentage in the league, and they have a ridiculous 130.8 offensive rating when they do get out and run, third best in the NBA.

Maybe more importantly, the players love it. They want to run. Vogel praised Davis’ “old school, smash mouth” 50 points against Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves, but he did that in part by rim-running hard in transition and getting some easy dunks early.

“For me, I like to get out and run, get some easy buckets first, especially on the break get a lob or a lay-up, see the ball go through the basket and go from there,” Davis said of those early transition buckets Sunday.

Transition points have to start with a stop and a rebound, which has been the focal point of Vogel and the coaching staff. Once the break starts it’s much more straightforward —get LeBron the rock and just run.

“Prior to the Denver game (Dec. 3), we had not been rebounding the basketball very well,” Vogel said. “With a strong message delivered that we’re not going to reach our potential if we continue to be poor on the glass and rely on our athleticism to rebound rather than really committing to hitting people — and if we secure the rebound and hold people to one shot — then we’re dealing with live rebounds and we’re able to run.

“We always encourage our guys to run their patterns. LeBron James, he’s just unbelievable with his throw aheads. He’s putting the ball on target in narrow spaces and getting guys easy lay-ups.

“So I think it starts on the defensive end with the defensive glass and then LeBron running the action.”

Those easy transition buckets make it much harder to beat the Lakers and are a key reason they are a West-leading 21-3. Los Angeles is difficult to score against with all its length, and it has the sixth best defense in the NBA. Against teams like that, giving up easy transition buckets almost guarantees a loss. Teams can’t make up the ground.

Which sounds a lot like the Showtime Lakers.

This year’s Lakers’ edition may not be Magic to Worthy for the tomahawk dunk, but it’s closer to it than the Lakers have been in a long time. Even if it’s not what people notice first.

Keep the pace up and these Lakers may be able to run their way to some of the success — and the rings — of those Showtime Lakers.