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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

Australian NBL pumps breaks on report LaMelo Ball has bought a team

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It was a stunning headline, especially considering LaMelo Ball is just 18:

He bought a team in the Australian National Basketball League, specifically the Illawarra Hawks, the team he played for some last season. It’s an insane story.

And it’s not quite true. At least not yet. The NBL released a statement that pumped the breaks on the idea of a sale to Ball and his manager, Jermaine Jackson. Part of the statement reads:

“The league can confirm LaMelo Ball and his management had discussions about being involved with the club while he was playing in the NBL last season. At this point we are continuing to work with current licence holder Simon Stratford on a number of options for what we hope will be a fruitful outcome for Illawarra and the NBL.

The NBL has final approval on any transfer of licence and no application has been made to date. The NBL has no further comment at this stage.

Did LaMelo and his manager jump the gun? Or, is this a negotiating ploy by the NBL and Stratford to get more money by jacking up the price on a sale?

Those two follow a host of other questions, including what percentage of the team would Ball and his manager own? What would their involvement be?

Ineligible for college stateside, Ball chose to play in Australia under the NBL’s Next Stars program. It worked, he’s projected to be a top-five, maybe top-three pick. He left the NBL after suffering a season-ending foot injury, although that came under a cloud of criticism from Hawks owner Stratford.

The ultimate revenge would be to buy the team, if that is actually happening.

Doc Rivers’ reaction when Clippers traded for Lou Williams, “I was not having Lou”

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Lou Williams is integral to the Clippers’ title dreams.

Since coming to the Clippers, he has averaged 20.6 points a game off the bench, twice winning Sixth Man of the Year, and his pick-and-roll with Montrezl Harrell is as smooth and dangerous a combo as there is in the league. Come the playoffs, while teams are trying to deal with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Lou Williams will be a change of pace scorer with a second unit that can quickly tilt the game towards Los Angeles.

But when Williams first got to the Clippers, Doc Rivers was not thrilled.

Rivers talked about Williams on The Bob Ryan and Jeff Goodman Podcast (hat tip SI).

“When we traded for Lou, I was not having Lou,” Rivers said. “I saw a guy that kept getting traded. And I appreciated his offense, but not nearly, never thought it was this good… When he finally showed up three days before training camp, I was not having him. I was like, ‘We’re not gonna work’, you know?..

“I brought him up in the office and I told him my feelings,” Rivers said. “I said, ‘Lou, you’re one of these guys that wanna do whatever you wanna do, and you don’t want to buy-in. We asked everybody to come in. Everyone did except for you… I don’t know how this is gonna work.’ And he said, ‘I’ve been traded five years in a row. Why would I buy-in to you?’, and I didn’t have an answer.”

Both Williams and Rivers have bought into each other now. Williams has control of the offense when he is in and Rivers said he just wants Williams to “be in the right place” on defense. That defense leads to issues playing Williams at the end of big games, but used as a scorer Williams is tough to deal with.

He can still get buckets with the best of them.

 

For NBA coaches, the new game is a waiting game

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MIAMI (AP) — Orlando’s Steve Clifford figures he’s like every other NBA coach right now: Wake up, go to whatever now serves as the office, study his own team, maybe think about possible opponents, and resume planning.

Of course, nobody knows what they’re planning for — or when these plans will get used.

A stoppage in play doesn’t mean vacation time has arrived for NBA coaches, especially those like Clifford in position to take their teams to the postseason — assuming this pandemic-interrupted season is able to resume. They’re all spending more time at home, not able to run practices, but none seem to be sitting idly either.

“Not knowing the restart date is the toughest challenge professionally,” Clifford said. “Obviously, we’re all limited in what we can do, and basketball takes a back seat right now to family and health. But I will say this: When I talk to our guys, the one common question that comes up is ‘When do you think we can start again?’”

And that’s a question with no answer. The waiting game is the only game in town right now.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra was coaching the fourth quarter against Charlotte on March 11 when the NBA announced it was suspending the season, a move made once it became known that Utah center Rudy Gobert was the league’s first player to test positive for COVID-19. Spoelstra found out right after the final buzzer, as he walked to the Heat locker room.

He instantly realized that losing to the Hornets that night didn’t ultimately matter much. Spoelstra and his staff are holding Zoom meetings every other day, but he’s also enjoying the benefits of time away — getting more time with his two young sons, his wife and grilling for the family most nights — and is emphasizing to his coaches and players that this is a time to help those less fortunate.

He’s checking the news as well, on a limited basis.

“My routine is checking after dinner, and I usually get on my computer, watch a little bit of what’s going on,” said Spoelstra, who often wears a T-shirt emblazoned with “Stay Positive” and like many coaches he taped a video telling fans the importance of hand-washing and other precautions. “So, I’m staying abreast of the current status of things, but I definitely do not try to start my day that way and I do not obsess about it during the day.”

Dallas coach Rick Carlisle also went the video-message route, doing one for the going-stir-crazy crowd to demonstrate his “Balance, Balance, Shot Drill” that allows players to work on their shooting form even when they don’t have access to a court or a rim.

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan took advantage of downtime to appear on a virtual coaches clinic, and had a safety message for those who attended — online, of course — before spending about an hour breaking down his philosophy.

This is the first in-season stoppage of its kind in NBA history, but Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer is equating the unknown — in terms of when the next game will be — to what the league went through with lockout-shortened seasons in 1998-99 and 2011-12.

His message to his staff: Things may be slow now, but when the suspension ends the pace of everything will be frantic. So while some projects like things in the video room and breakdowns of his roster are being tackled, Budenholzer is also having staff get ready for potential playoff opponents with a first-round series against either Brooklyn or Orlando likely for the NBA-leading Bucks.

“Things happen really fast, whether it’s three games in three nights, or playoff series are shorter or the time between the end of the regular season to the first playoff game, everything can be shorter or can happen quicker,” Budenholzer said. “We can put a little bit of money in the bank now with preparation for first round but also if you go a little bit deeper, the East.”

For 30 teams, 30 coaches, there’s many ways to spend the down time.

And they all know that they’re in the same boat — waiting and wondering.

“It’s hard for all of us,” Clifford said. “It’s hard to set a plan for yourself that will have you ready. But that’s the parallel, not just for us, but for everyone around the world no matter what profession that you’re in.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci was a high school point guard

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You know Dr. Anthony Fauci as the guy trying to inject facts and reason-based decisions into the federal government’s response to the coronavirus epidemic. You’ve seen him, the guy with the Sisyphean task of standing behind President Donald Trump at press conferences and not reacting with shock or disgust.

It turns out he was a high school baller.

In a profile of Fauci, the Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen wrote about Fauci the high school point guard, who led his 1-16 team to a win against Fordham Prep, led by future Knicks executive Donnie Walsh.

Classic point guard, excellent ballhandler, pesky defender. Six of his classmates and teammates described him as a tenacious competitor in short shorts and striped socks whose feistiness on the court defied some parts of his personality and reflected others.

That sounds like a young version of the person he is now.

Dr. Fauci is one of the people the NBA is listening to as it tries to figure out if or when the league can re-start and what its next steps might be. Right now, all of that is beyond the NBA’s control and more in the hands of the rest of us and whether we as a society follow Dr. Fauci’s suggestions.