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NBCSports.com’s 50 best players in 5 years: Kristaps Porzingis, James Harden, players 20-16

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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, 30-26, and 25-21. These are players 20-16 on our list.

20. Pascal Siakam

Last season the switch flipped for Pascal Siakam.

He went from promising young player to critical contributor on both ends for a championship team. He became a guy who could average 21.3 points per game for a month (February). What fueled the change was his jump shot started falling — the season before he shot 22 percent from three, but last season that jumped to 36.9 percent, and with that came more attempts. Coach Nick Nurse believed in Siakam, gave him some freedom and touches, and Siakam responded with a Most Improved Player season.

Siakam will be in his prime the next five years, and the question now becomes just where is his ceiling? He’s a 6’9” elite athlete who is a strong perimeter defender on one end and can create his own shot on the other. There are not a lot of those around. Nurse said that Siakam now has “gotta be the man” for the Raptors, can he be that No. 1 option (Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol will start this season in Toronto but likely are not there a year from now). Siakam got a lot of wide-open looks at threes last season, with defenses often focused on Kawhi Leonard, but how will he adapt when he is the guy at the top of the opponent’s scouting report? (To be fair, defenses focused on him more and more last season with Leonard sitting out games, but this is a new level.)

The next step for Siakam All-Star and maybe All-NBA level seasons. He’s got that in him, both in terms of raw talent and in terms of the work ethic to reach those goals. In five years, he’s going to be one of the game’s elite wings.
—Kurt Helin

19. Kristaps Porzingis

One of the ways we looked at how to evaluate players for this project, projecting out five years ahead, was to ask this question: If you were a GM who could give a player a five-year max contract right now, would you with this guy? And how comfortable would you be with that fifth year?

The Dallas Mavericks answered that question on Kristaps Porzingis with a resounding “we believe” this summer, inking the big man to a five-year, $158 million max extension. They want to pair him and Luka Doncic as the cornerstone of a contending team for years to come (their new Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki).

That’s a big bet on Porzingis as he returns from missing an entire season with a torn ACL — there is not a lot of precedent for mobile guys this size coming back from this injury. When healthy Porzingis is a 7’3″ unicorn of a big man who can defend inside, run the floor, and knockdown threes. He averaged 17.8 points and 7.1 rebounds a game over his career with the Knicks, all while shooting 36.1 percent from three. There are no other big men who bring his skill set to the game.

But will we get the same Porzingis going forward? How well will he move coming back from that ACL, and can he stay healthy? Our evaluators think he can get back to form, or close to it at least, and that why he is on the teens in this list. But if he can get all the way back and stay healthy — two big “ifs” — this ranking will be too low.
—Kurt Helin

18. James Harden

James Harden is the greatest offensive force in the NBA right now. One of the — or, if you ask GM Daryl Morey, THE — most unstoppable offensive force the game has ever seen.

Morey could be right. Harden averaged 36.1 points per game last season, shot 36.8 percent from three, plus dished out 7.5 assists and pulled down 6.6 rebounds a night. His step-back three is the most unguardable shot in the game today. The beard is an unstoppable force right now (unless you take the ball out of his hands to make sure Russell Westbrook is happy, but that’s also a discussion for another day).

The questions for evaluators in this series were, “How good will Harden be at age 34 heading into his age 35 season? How will his game age?”

Probably pretty well, which is why he is still so high on this list (while some of his current elite contemporaries were down farther around 30 on our list). Harden’s game is all about craft, it’s not built on his explosive athleticism or his freakish skills for someone so tall. Harden’s unconventional, hesitation-filled game is more about throwing his defenders off-balance — he has a lot of old-man-at-the-Y in his game. That will still work well as he ages. Harden has logged a lot of miles on his body, and while he’s stayed healthy so far that will be harder and harder to do. Still, there’s no reason to think the perpetual MVP candidate will not still be able to go out in five years, isolate on a defender, and just get a bucket. He’s going to be able to create space and get off his shot. Which is why in five years he’s still going to have a lot of value.
—Kurt Helin

17. Bradley Beal

Right now Bradley Beal is standing at one of the crossroads in his career. The two-time All-Star — who averaged 25.6 points, 5 rebounds and 5.5 assists a game last season — has heard his name come up in trade rumors, but on the other hand the Wizards have put a three-year, $111 million max contract extension on the table in front of him, trying to lock him up.

What does Beal want to do? He has yet to take the safe route and sign the extension, but it sits there on the table if he wants it. He could say he’s not signing any extension with the franchise, essentially forcing a trade. Or — and this may be the most logical option — he can just wait, sign a four-year, $154 million extension next summer, and if he makes the All-NBA team (he was seventh in guard voting last season but there are only six All-NBA guard spots), Beal can get a $250+ million max extension from the Wizards.

Whatever he chooses, wherever he is playing, Beal is going to be one of the top shooting guards in the game the next five years as he is just entering his prime (he will be 31 in 2024). Beal has made more threes in his career than any other player through their age 25 season (Beal has 1,071, Klay Thompson is second at 1,060, then Stephen Curry is third with 905). Beal can shoot the three (35.1 percent last season), put the ball on the floor and drive, moves well off the ball (he ran more total miles last season during games — 222.7 total, or 2.75 per game — than any player in the league), and is an active and willing defender.

With John Wall out likely for the entire coming season in Washington, the Wizards become Beal’s team. He is option No. 1 on offense, the guy who gets to have the ball in his hands when he wants it. Beal is going to get to eat all he wants on offense next season for the Wizards. Providing he still wants to be in Washington.
—Kurt Helin

16. Jaren Jackson Jr.

This kid has Chris Bosh written all over him — and he can be even better. It feels odd to call him “kid” when his game screams wily veteran. Jackson Jr., is still just 19 years old, but he already can stretch the floor and block shots like a seasoned big.

There’s a reason why Kevin Garnett is one of his top statistical comps, but I like the Bosh parallel because of how he came into the league in a similar vein. Drafted No. 4 overall in a stacked draft with Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley, it’s easy to overlook Jackson Jr.’s production, especially playing in a small market like Memphis.

But Jackson’s game is tailor made for the pace-and-space era. He made 51 triples last season and converted 35.9 percent of his tries beyond the arc, making him one of the sweetest shooting bigs in the league already. He has a guard-like handle and moves fluidly on the block. On the other end, he has a great nose for creating turnovers, but there’s plenty of room to grow as a rim protector. If he can iron out his focus and court awareness on the defensive side, he can be a perennial All-Star like Bosh.

With Ja Morant in town, this could be the most promising tandem in the NBA. Jackson Jr., is so young that he still wouldn’t be in his 30s if we looked 10 years down the line instead of five. Get on board now.
—Tom Haberstroh

Watch Zion Williamson get his first NBA dunk, an alley-oop finish from Jrue Holiday

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Zion Williamson was impressive in his NBA debut, but he did it from three, not with dunks.

That changed just 40 seconds into his second game.

It was a lob from Jrue Holiday against a Denver defense that did not get back fast enough. Zion and the Pelicans wanted to do this in his debut but give the Spurs credit, they got back in transition and cut off these opportunities. The very shorthanded Nuggets did not.

There will be a lot more Zion dunks — and a lot more spectacular ones — but you never forget your first.

 

 

Michael Jordan on LeBron James comparisons: ‘We play in different eras’

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LeBron James — who on Saturday night likely will move past Kobe Bryant into third on the all-time NBA scoring list — has reached the point in his legendary career that he only can be compared to other legends.

Specifically, Michael Jordan.

Jordan, now the owner and face of the Charlotte Hornets, was in Paris to watch his team lose to the Milwaukee Bucks, and tried to downplay comparisons to LeBron.

“We play in different eras. He’s an unbelievable player. He’s one of the best players in the world, if not the best player in the world. I know its a natural tendency to compare eras to eras and it’s going to continue to happen. I’m a fan of his, I love watching him play. As you can see, our league is starting to expand on very talented players. I think he’s made his mark, he will continue to do so. But when you start the comparisons, I think it is what it is. It’s just a stand-up measurement. I take it with a grain of salt. He’s a heck of a basketball player without a doubt.” 

Does anyone think the ultra-competitive Jordan actually believes that? Of course not, we saw his Hall of Fame speech. But for fun, let’s take MJ’s words at face value.

Jordan is right. Both that it’s nearly impossible to compare NBA players across eras and that people will continue to do it anyway.

Jordan was a better one-on-one scorer playing in an era where the rules pushed the game toward isolation basketball and playing through contact. LeBron is a much better passer with better court vision in an era where driving-and-kicking to the corner, or making a skip-pass against an overloaded defense, is the smarter basketball play. Jordan broke open barriers as a player who is a brand off the court, but LeBron expanded that in a social-media era and added in a social conscience.

Both are legendary players, both are products of their generation, and both are Mount Rushmore players. Which player you think is the better player says more about you, your age, and your preferred style of play than it does LeBron or Jordan.

But please, commence the arguing in the comments.

Greek Freak makes himself at home in Paris, scores 30 points, Bucks beat Hornets

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PARIS — Giannis Antetokounmpo had 30 points and 12 rebounds and the NBA-leading Milwaukee Bucks beat the Charlotte Hornets 116-103 on Friday night in the first NBA regular-season game in France.

Milwaukee improved to 40-6 with its eighth straight victory. The Bucks have the best 46-game start in franchise history. They were 39-7 in 1970-71 when they went on to win the NBA championship.

Eric Bledsoe added 20 points and five assists for the Bucks.

Malik Monk led Charlotte with 31 points. The Hornets have lost eight in a row.

Milwaukee rallied to tie it at 78 going into the fourth quarter. Pat Connaughton put the Bucks in front with a dunk in the fourth. Then Antetokounmpo got going, drawing a foul as he slalomed through the defense.

Report: Needing depth at center, Dallas trades for Willie Cauley-Stein from Golden State

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Dallas took a big hit this week when center Dwight Powell went down with a torn Achilles. The Mavericks’ starting center was a critical pick-and-roll partner with Luka Doncic, a roll man and vertical threat that allowed Kristaps Porzingis to space the floor (along with other Dallas shooters), plus Powell was a solid team defender.

Willie Cauley-Stein is going to get a chance to fill that role.

Golden State is trading Cauley-Stein to Dallas for a second-round pick.

Dallas just made a trade for Justin Patton to waive him and clear out a roster spot for this trade.

Cauley-Stein is averaging an efficient 7.9 points and 6.2 rebounds a game for Golden State. More importantly for Dallas, he provides the athletic dive man, a threat on the roll they need to keep things open for Doncic.

Dallas could have waited out the market to try and land a better center, but this gives them a reliable fit for minimal cost (a late second-round pick, they kept Golden State’s own second rounder). Cauley-Stein will split time at the five with Kristaps Porzingis, Maxi Kleber, and Boban Marjanovic.

For those of you crunching the numbers at home:

For Golden State, in the short term, this move creates a couple of open roster spots. One of those likely will be used to re-sign Marquese Chriss, who was waived last week. The other roster spot likely will go to Ky Bowman.

Golden State adds a pick and a trade exception for sending out a player that was not part of their long-term plans anyway.