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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

Teams forced into difficult choices to trim traveling parties for restart

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The 22 teams participating in the NBA restart were all at the Disney campus together for the first time Friday.

None of them, however, made it to the Orlando, Florida, area with their usual travel party.

Leaving families behind for several weeks — or maybe even three months, depending on how deep a team goes in the playoffs — during a pandemic isn’t the only hardship that teams are dealing with during this restart. Space limitations within the quasi-bubble at Disney also meant that teams had to cut their official traveling parties down to 37, including players, so many people who usually travel with a club aren’t on this trip.

“We’re not able to take everybody — and that stinks, because of the amount of work that they all put in every single day,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said. “We’ve tried to identify how to be the most efficient we can be with people that can be excellent remotely as well. I think that that’s one of the things that we’ve had to identify. In some cases, their excellence remotely probably hurt their chances of going initially.”

It’s expected that as the bubble population shrinks after six teams are eliminated from playoff contention and then eight more are ousted in the first postseason round, teams will be allowed to bring in more staff.

But until then, while teams are playing games on-site at Disney, there will be plenty of work done back in home markets and home arenas as well. Some teams left player development coaches behind, some even left assistant coaches, and all teams traveled with only one media relations staffer and one equipment manager. In normal circumstances, some teams travel with as many as three people to handle media requirements and two for equipment.

“You know, it’s tough,” Orlando President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said. “We kind of shied away from some of the language that was being thrown around — the whole idea of essential (staff) and non-essential (staff). It’s not about that. This is a very narrowly defined circumstance, and it requires certain skill sets to address this circumstance.”

Players counted against the list of 37, and most teams brought the full complement of 17 players. That left 20 spots for coaches, assistant coaches, player development, video, security, strength and conditioning, athletic training, media relations and content creators.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said the process of figuring out who goes and who doesn’t was brutal.

“We already have had a model of everybody sharing responsibilities,” Spoelstra said. “We already had a meeting about this where there’s an absolute understanding that this is an ‘all hands on deck’ situation. And that means bags, laundry, cleanup, everything … that’s not just for equipment managers, that’s everybody — coaches, trainers, weight room staff, head coach, coaches, we’re all going to be involved in every aspect of it.”

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan also expressed disappointment that tough decisions had to be made on the staffing end.

He completely understands the NBA perspective. Keeping the number of people in the bubble manageable is a key part of the NBA’s plan for being able to finish the season; the more people in the bubble, the more risk there is of something going wrong.

“Everybody deserves the opportunity, but for the safety of the league and the players we can’t do that,” Donovan said. “So, what we’ve got to do is understand, whether it’s myself or assistant coaches, we may have to be setting up video equipment, we may have to have one of our coaches filming practice in Orlando. There’s things that we’re going to have to do that are going to be outside the box that will normally been taken care of.”

Chris Paul playing cornhole. Luka Doncic trick shots. Welcome to life in the NBA bubble.

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Teams have emerged from quarantine in the Walt Disney World campus in Orlando, getting some run in on the court, and are starting to explore life in the NBA bubble.

Then they are documenting it on social media.

For example, Chris Paul and Darius Bazley played some cornhole.

Dallas’ Luka Doncic was hitting trick shots on the court.

Then Doncic and Boban Marjanovic were doing Disney Channel ads.

Complaints about the food by players have died down, in part because they are out of quarantine and get a choice of restaurants, in part because they saw the backlash and realized the complaints looked elitist. Or maybe it’s just the Mickey pancakes.

Everyone is out and exploring the campus and having fun…

Well, except for Robin Lopez, who sees no reason to leave his room.

Zion Williamson “just went back to square one” with quarantine workouts

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Zion Williamson looks cut — like he spent the entire quarantine doing workouts — and ready to be a force at the NBA restart in Orlando.

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What workouts did Zion Williamson do during the break to get that look? He took everything back down to step one and built it up again working out with his stepfather Lee Anderson, Williamson told reporters on Friday (hat tip Andrew Lopez of ESPN):

“It just felt like I was 5 years old again,” Williamson said Friday. “Just went back to square one, tried to get my body where it needs to be, get my fundamentals back to square one and start from there. So yeah, it was just like starting over at 5 again. It was a great process to learn it all over.”

Williamson did a little more than that. He also had approval from the league to go to the Pelicans practice facility throughout the quarantine and get treatment on his knee, the one that kept him out the first 45 games of the season. So he stayed healthy.

He also worked on other aspects of this game, such as his jump shot. Williamson took 76.7% of his shot attempts at the rim this season, and while getting to the rim is critical to his game, he’s going to have confidence in his shot and knock down jumpers to reach higher levels in the league.

The Pelicans enter the bubble 3.5 games back of Memphis for the eighth seed in the West, and with the softest schedule of any team in Orlando (matching their schedule before the interruption), they have a legitimate chance of forcing a two-game play-in series. It’s not easy, but there is a path to the playoffs for New Orleans (setting up a Zion vs. LeBron James first-round showdown that league broadcast partners are drooling over).

A stronger, improved Zion could help get the Pelicans there.

Paul George: “I feel great again,” says Clippers finally fully healthy

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Paul George symbolized the Clippers’ health all season long. George missed the first 11 games of the season recovering from shoulder surgery, then all season long it was still a lingering issue — until the suspension of play gave him time to heal.

“The whole season, all the way up until maybe a month or two ago, I had to always do shoulder rehab stuff, warming the shoulder up,” George said Friday on a conference call with reporters. “Just so much went into stuff I had to do before I actually took a foot on the floor. Now I feel great again.”

It wasn’t just Paul George, the Clippers had Kawhi Leonard managing his knee/thigh issue and an assortment of other injuries that didn’t give Doc Rivers the full arsenal at his disposal. That was until around the All-Star break — after that break Los Angeles went 7-2 with a +11.5 net rating that was best in the league by far.

The season being shut down may have halted that momentum, but it also gave a banged-up Los Angeles roster a chance to get healthy.

“For this team, man, I think our aspirations, again, this time off has given us what we needed,” George said. “We had some guys that was banged up, nagging injuries. The more time gave us more time for us to aid those injuries and to get back to 100.”

Health matters — which is why Montrez Harrell brought his own personal, portable sauna, a secret Reggie Jackson let out of the bag.

Health matters to Rivers, too, but what he wants more is that team chemistry back — and the Clippers have a long way to go on that end in Rivers’ eyes.

“This is not a normal way of starting back,” Rivers said of the mini-training camp all 22 teams at the NBA restart will get in Orlando. “Usually going into training camp, guys have been scrimmaging for three and four weeks, they’ve been playing, shooting on hoops. That’s not happening. This is a group, some of the guys have not touched a basketball or seen a gym until two weeks ago. We got a lot of work to do on both ends.”

The Clippers are not alone, every team is going to take time to find its rhythm again. Pick-and-roll combos need to get used to reading each other (and the defense) again at full speed, defensive rotations will be a step slow, and a few passes are going to head into the bench rather than the player in the corner.

When the Clippers get that rhythm back, with a healthy roster — finally — they again become a legitimate threat to win it all.

First, they just need to navigate the bubble. And maybe borrow Harrell’s sauna.