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NBCSports.com’s 50 best players in 5 years: Joel Embiid, De’Aaron Fox, players 15-11

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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, 25-21, and 20-16. These are players 15-11 on our list.

15. Jamal Murray

Last season was Jamal Murray’s breakout season. In just his third year in the NBA, he emerged as the second star Denver had been looking for next to Nikola Jokic. In the playoffs he cemented that rise when he stuck the dagger in the Spurs in that series finale, then went toe-to-toe with Damian Lillard for seven games. Casual fans may not have recognized it yet, but Murray was a star — and after the season Denver paid him like one.

Murray averaged 18.2 points a game while shooting 36.7 percent from three last season, plus he added 4.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists per night. He became only the ninth player in NBA history to average 18-4-4 as a 21-year-old (others who did it include Magic, Jordan, LeBron, and Kobe). The key for Denver wasn’t just the scoring threat, although that mattered, but also Murray kept the ball moving and made teams pay for focusing too much defensive attention on Jokic. In the playoffs, Murray upped his game and became the offensive bellwether for the team — when Murray struggled on offense (settling for too many contested mid-range jumpers) the Denver offense stalled out, but when he was confidently draining threes and moving the ball they were hard to stop.

After that season, Denver committed to Murray as their second star and gave him a five-year, $169.7million max contract extension (one that can become a supermax if Murray is named MVP or makes All-NBA, although those are longshots).

That contract was a bet by Denver that Murray can become an All-Star and maybe All-NBA level point guard — something that may be hard to do in the next couple of years because of the ridiculous guard depth in the NBA, but could and maybe should happen down the line. Murray is just 22, is still just tapping into his potential, and in five years will be entering his prime. If he continues to grow and evolve like our prognosticators believe he can, he will be one of the game’s elite guards, and he and Jokic will turn Denver into a consistent title contender.
—Kurt Helin

14. De'Aaron Fox

At USA Basketball training camp this summer, De’Aaron Fox left teammates and coaches shaking their head — they knew he was fast, but up close every day in practice it was still stunning. “His quickness is crazy, and his end-to-end speed is ridiculous,” Kemba Walker said. “He’s fast but he’s under control, which is really hard to do. That’s the most impressive thing about it.”

Fox has taken over the mantle of “fastest player with the ball in the NBA,” but his goals are much bigger than a mythical title. He told NBC Sports he was big on setting goals.

“I’m always looking toward the future, individually and I think everybody has to be a little selfish in that aspect,” Fox told NBC Sports. “To continue to grow, to continue to be the kind of player I can be, to put the league on notice that I’m here, I’m established, and just continue to grow as a man.”

Fox has personal goals — becoming an All-Star, to start — plus the team goal of getting the Kings to the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. To get there will take more than just speed, the craft of Fox’s game needs to catch up with that pace. Fox has to become a more consistent defender, for one. Also, last season saw Fox improve his shooting as he adjusted to the speed of the NBA — he finished 68.7 percent of his shots at the rim and shot 37.1 percent from three. Those are good numbers but not elite — Fox needs to be better to reach the next level. At USA camp, it seemed he was getting there. “He has really been knocking it down. That is what is going to take him to that next level,” Walker said of Fox’s jump shot. New Kings coach Luke Walton needs to give Fox the structure and accountability to do all that.

Fox is just 21 and is at the point in his career where he should be making leaps each season. In five years he will be only 26 and entering his prime. Maybe he will not be the fastest player in the league anymore (although he’ll be close) but as the craft of his game catches up with the speed he can be a force in the NBA. The kind of player Sacramento can build around — and ride into the playoffs. To start.
—Kurt Helin

13. Devin Booker

There are two Devin Booker debates:

How good is he?

How good will he be?

The discussions often occur simultaneously between people who don’t realize they’re answering different questions. Everyone just talks past each other. It’s exhausting.

Maybe by 2024, the conversations will converge.

Booker will be in his prime. His potential and output should nearly match. At long last, we’ll see how Booker – anointed before he deserved it, but possessing enough upside to eventually validate his supporters – will turn out.

Booker is an exceptional scorer for his age. Last season, he made real strides rounding out his offensive game – converting from all areas inside the arc, drawing fouls and distributing. He’s ready to be a go-to scorer. His knockdown 3-point shooting also gives him a chance to play a secondary role on a better team if he ever joins one.

Defense remains a huge shortcoming, though. That fits into larger questions about the habits Booker is developing.

Booker has won just 28% of his games with Phoenix. Nobody has lost so much in his first four seasons then become an All-NBA player since the merger. Not the NBA-ABA merger. The BAA-NBL merger. In 1949.

That’s not all Booker’s fault. The Suns have given him awful supporting casts. Last season, they didn’t even bother getting a point guard.

But last year was also the first time Phoenix performed better with Booker on than off. And Phoenix still played like just a 24-win team with Booker on the floor.

Booker has a lot to learn about the finer points of winning basketball. He’s also extremely talented and young. We’re betting on him figuring it out.
—Dan Feldman

12. Jayson Tatum

When asked during USA Basketball camp if the Celtics’ disappointing last season seemed to drag down people’s perception of him and his game, Jayson Tatum basically just shrugged. Maybe that was the case, but he was not worried about it. He was moving on.

That moving on includes playing for Team USA this summer in China at the World Cup. In a good sign for Celtics’ fans, in USA practices and scrimmages Tatum has looked more like his rookie-season self — smooth, athletic, and more aggressive. Someone with a complete game. He’s playing with a certain freedom again, not looking over his shoulder. That’s not to say things have gone perfectly — he shot 2-of-11 in the recent exhibition against Canada — but his understanding of the game and willingness to attack seem to be back, even as he works to figure out the FIBA/International game.

Boston needs Tatum to return to his trajectory as an elite player next season. Tatum had an impressive rookie season that had him looking like a franchise cornerstone (especially in the playoffs when he averaged 18.5 points a game and was a quality shot creator). However, he plateaued in his second season, likely in part due to the failed chemistry experiment the Celtics became. Tatum got hung up in that, not moving the ball and taking poor shots at points.

The USA experience and time with Gregg Popovich will help Tatum (and Jaylen Brown) move on from last season, there’s a lot of basketball knowledge to soak up. Tatum is just 21 and we expect him to get back on his trajectory to stardom, to grow into an elite NBA player with an all-around game that is hard to match. He is maturing, his game and shot selection are maturing along with him, and by the time we get to five years down the road Tatum will be entering his prime as one of the games elite players.
—Kurt Helin

11. Joel Embiid

It’s been five years since Embiid was drafted No. 3 overall and boy, does it feel more like fifty. So much has changed, not just with the 7-foot Cameroonian phenom, but the world around him. The Process is over and now we try to make sense of what is clearly this generation’s Shaq.

Embiid’s winding road, fairly or unfairly, makes projecting him difficult. No matter how many 30-15-5 nights Embiid puts up, it’s hard to put aside the injury variable that delayed his NBA career two years. With two surgeries on his navicular bone and nagging knee issues on that enormous frame, there’s no doubt that Embiid’s health record keeps him outside of the top-10.

Because if we look at Embiid’s age, talent and production, he should be much closer to the top, if not right at the top. At 25 years old, he’s at the front edge of his prime. He just averaged 27.5 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists while making over 100 jumpers outside 16 feet. There’s almost nothing he can’t do on the basketball court.

He’s getting smarter, too. Last season, he became the first 7-footer in NBA history to take at least 10 free throws a game and shoot over 80 percent at the line. Using the charity stripe to your advantage is usually the domain of highly-technical shooting guards like James Harden, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. Embiid is as surgical as they come and not in the way that defined his first two years in the league. If he can keep the injury woes away, we’ll probably look back wondering how we didn’t put him No. 1.
—Tom Haberstroh

Warriors owner Joe Lacob: We won’t tank

Former Warriors forward Harrison Barnes
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The Warriors are an NBA-worst 12-43. Stephen Curry will eventually get healthy. Klay Thompson will eventually get healthy.

This is Golden State’s best opportunity to secure a prime draft pick.

Warriors owner Joe Lacob, via Mark Medina of USA Today:

By the way, we’ll try to win every game. I’m not really about, ‘Let’s lose every game so we can get the best pick.’ You try to do that, you’re messing with the basketball gods. So we don’t believe in that.

Former Warriors executive Travis Schlenk (now Hawks general manager) admitted to tanking in 2012. Golden State had to convey its first-round pick if it didn’t land in the top seven. So, the Warriors traded their consensus top player, Monta Ellis, for an injured Andrew Bogut. Golden State lost 17 of its last 20 games, kept its pick and drafted Harrison Barnes.

The basketball gods were so mad, the Warriors went to the playoffs the next seven seasons and won three championships and two other conference titles.

Of course, Golden State will tank, which I define as any decision made – at least in part – to improve draft position through losing.

Management won’t instruct players not to give full effort. But tanking will show up in numerous other ways. The Warriors will be cautious with Curry’s and Thompson’s returns. Young players will get more minutes. If necessary, Steve Kerr might “experiment” with odd lineups not conducive to winning. Players often see these approaches, realize where the team is headed and lose focus late in lost seasons. That leads to even more losing.

Don’t get mad at Golden State for tanking. Hate the system that rewards it.

Though feel free to send a little animosity toward the Warriors for acting holier than though while tanking like everyone else does in a similar position.

Report: Kyrie Irving likely to miss an ‘extended period’ after shoulder procedure

Kyrie Irving
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Kyrie Irving injured his shoulder earlier this season, opted against surgery, missed 26 games, returned, injured his knee then aggravated his shoulder.

It might be time for that shoulder surgery.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends Irving’s season. The Nets are looking forward to pairing Irving and injured Kevin Durant next season.

This latest setback raises questions about Irving’s ability to stay healthy and productive. We shouldn’t assume Durant will ever return to his elite form, either. But at least Brooklyn has major upside with such talented players.

Even they don’t get an opportunity to take advantage this season, the Nets (25-28) will likely still make the playoffs. Spencer Dinwiddie will take charge at point guard, just as he did with Irving previously sidelined.

Brooklyn will visit Boston on March 3. Celtics fans were salty about Irving missing the Nets’ previous trip to Boston. I doubt that changes if Irving doesn’t face his former team in a couple weeks.

But Irving and Brooklyn are looking at the bigger picture after a significant injury like this.

Is Brandon Ingram worth a max contract? Will he get one?

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Brandon Ingram has made the leap to become an All-Star player this season. His jumper has become a weapon — another success story for Pelicans’ assistant coach Fred Vinson — and his ability to get to the bucket was never in question. Now he’s averaging 24.9 points per game and is shooting 40 percent from three (up from 33 percent the first three years of his career).

Will that get him a max contract this summer? Does he deserve one?

It depends on who you ask. From Tim Bontemps of ESPN:

Most executives believe Ingram isn’t worth a max contract, which makes his future difficult to predict.

“I wonder if [Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin] will hardball [Ingram] and say, ‘Get an offer,'” one executive asked. “Where is he getting it from?”

Another exec went the other way, suggesting Griffin could offer Ingram a full max to ensure he couldn’t take a short-term deal elsewhere, cementing him as the No. 2 option alongside Zion Williamson.

“Securing the extra year and not allowing him to sign a two-plus-one with someone is worth it,” the executive said. “Is the few million less you might save really worth the extra year?”

There are a number of struggling teams in need of talent that could step in and try to poach Ingram with a two-year max offer this summer: The Hawks, Hornets, Knicks, and Pistons all have the cap space and a fit.

Whether they will make that offer — possibly tying their hands in the 2021 free agent market — remains to be seen. Ingram is an All-Star averaging an efficient 24.9 points per game this season, he has real value, but max contract value? I’ve had sources this season tell me they expect he’d get the max but he wasn’t quite on that level.

Do the Pelicans see him as a max player?

They didn’t last summer. After the trade from the Lakers (which sent Anthony Davis to L.A.), Ingram didn’t get a max contract extension offer from New Orleans and told NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman he would “absolutely not” have signed for less. The Pelicans were hesitant to extend Ingram because he was coming off a season-ending injury — blood clots in his arm — that could linger, plus how well would he pair with Zion Williamson. Ingram had no hard feelings about it.

“I understood everything that went on with the contract and everything, because they wanted to know if I was going to be extremely healthy, if something was going to come back,” Ingram told NBC Sports. “Once I figured out the reason why they didn’t want to do the extension, we didn’t go any further with it. I knew it was not going to be the number we wanted.”

Ingram has stayed healthy, and the Pelicans are +7.3 points per 100 possessions when Ingram and Williamson are on the court together (small sample size alert). Ingram has more value to the up-and-coming Pelicans than he does any team trying to sign him away, meaning the Pelicans likely match any offer.

The question remains, will that offer be a max? Ingram expects it to be, but the rest of the league is undecided.

Nikola Jokic says he dropped 20-25 pounds during this season

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For November, Nikola Jokic averaged 15.8 points per game, with a below-league-average 51 true shooting percentage and hitting 23.6 percent from three.

In February, Jokic is averaging 27 points a game with a 66.3 true shooting percentage and is knocking down 35.3 percent of his shots from three.

The difference? He admitted he dropped 20-25 pounds during this season, thanks in large part to an improved diet. Look at what Jokic said to ESPN over the All-Star break.

“I think I didn’t shoot it that well in the first [part of the season], my shots were always off and short and I was a little bit overweight.”

He then went on to say he has dropped 20-25 pounds.

It was pretty obvious to observers that, despite playing for Serbia at the World Cup (where his team beat Team USA), he had shown up to Nuggets training camp heavy. Jokic is so skilled that even heavy he was a good player, but he was not the elite center the Nuggets need to be a threat.

He is back to being that Jokic now, looking like an All-NBA player who deserves some MVP ballot consideration — and the Nuggets need that version of him.

Denver comes out of the All-Star break as the two seed in the West, but only 3.5 games separate seeds 2-5. Denver has a tougher remaining schedule the rest of the way than any of the other teams in that mix, slip up a few games and the Nuggets could start the playoffs on the road.