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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

Damian Lillard throws pass away from basket, off Tobias Harris, into hoop (video)

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Damian Lillard was making everything yesterday.

EVERYTHING.

Lillard, who scored 51 points in the Trail Blazers’ win over the 76ers, even got a bucket on this wild pass off Tobias Harris.

Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good. It’s even better to be both.

LeBron James admits he’s still adjusting to playing without fans

LeBron James
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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LeBron James has played to overflowing gyms and arenas since he was a sophomore in high school. There is always a crowd around him to watch him play. Or a massive crowd of reporters around him after the game. Or throngs of fans when he travels through China on a shoe tour. LeBron has always packed the house.

Until now. There are no crowds, no fans at the NBA’s restart at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. It’s now games in a stripped-down, made-for-television gym. And LeBron admitted to reporters after the latest Lakers’ loss he is still adjusting. Via Mark Medina of the USA Today.

“I am getting more and more used to being out there. It’s a very weird dynamic. I haven’t played in an empty gym in a very, very long time,” James said following the Lakers’ 116-111 loss to the Indiana Pacers on Saturday. “It’s been a very long time since no one has been watching me play the game. I’m just trying to find that rhythm and lock in…

“I’m getting more and more comfortable playing in an empty gym,” James said. “Just having the backdrop here is a lot different from playing in a high school gym or a college arena where you’re playing in the summer time, whatever the case may be. It’s very dark, extremely dark. You can literally hear a feather hit the ground. I’m just getting more and more comfortable playing with my game here in the bubble.”

LeBron has still been very good in the bubble — 21.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 6.4 assists a game — but he has not been quite the otherworldly, MVP candidate level player he was before the shutdown. His true shooting percentage of 51.9 at the restart is down from 57.7 before the break (and it has been below the league average since the restart). The Laker offense overall has scored less than a point per possession in the bubble and has been the worst offense in Orlando (leading to a 2-4 record so far). It’s not all LeBron, the Lakers as a team have struggled to get their pre-hiatus traction back, the chemistry is not quite right. But we know who leads this team.

LeBron and company also know they need to find that rhythm soon. They will enter the playoffs as the No. 1 seed and face and eight seed — likely Portland or Memphis — that had to battle its way into the postseason. That team, whoever it is, will come in battle-tested and motivated.

The fans will not be there to pick up LeBron and the Lakers.

“I definitely love playing in front of the fans. The fans are what make the game,” James said. “Without the fans, I wouldn’t be who I am today. To all the fans out there that come watch me play, I miss you guys and hopefully someday I can get back to that interaction.”

Someday we all hope for that.

In the short term, LeBron and the Lakers need to find their groove in a fanless world.

 

Three Things to Know: Turn out the lights, the party’s over for New Orleans

Pelicans out of playoffs
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) Turn out the lights, the party’s over for New Orleans…

Phoenix, on the other hand, is still trying to crash that party.

Which is not how anyone saw this going (except maybe Monty Williams). Before players flew to Orlando to be part of the NBA’s restart project, it seemed the dream of hoop fans everywhere (not to mention television executives) was LeBron James vs. Zion Williamson in the first round of the playoffs.

That dream is dead. Turn out the lights on the LeBron/Zion party.

The New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings were casualties over the weekend in the West playoff chase — or, more accurately, the race to get into the play-in series to earn the eighth seed and a shot at the Lakers. Both were mathematically eliminated Sunday.

LeBron will still be there in that first round. However, Zion and the Pelicans’ chances of meeting him were essentially done after they lost to the Spurs on Sunday, 122-113. Maybe they were done when Zion had to leave the bubble for family reasons. The Pelicans got good play from J.J. Redick (31 points Sunday), who saw his 13-season playoff streak end, but overall the offense struggled and was inconsistent. New Orleans will play out the string of two more games in the bubble then spend an offseason wondering how to make a talented roster fit together better — and how to keep Zion on the court.

There will be a play-in series in the West, and it’s likely between Portland and Memphis.

Phoenix, however, has become the darling of the bubble having gone 5-0 and they want to crash that party. Whether they get in the door or not will be decided in the next two days. Monday the Suns take on the dangerous Oklahoma City Thunder and Chris Paul, then on Tuesday they face the shorthanded 76ers. For Phoenix, despite the 5-0 start, those are virtually must-win games. As well as they played, they have to make up for an unimpressive first 65 games and they have a lot of work to do.

The playoff party out West is just getting started. Zion Williamson just didn’t get an invite.

2) Joel Embiid‘s ankle injury leaves 76ers with more questions than answers

When Ben Simmons had to leave the bubble for knee surgery, it meant Joel Embiid had even more weight to carry for Philadelphia.

Now he appears to be joining Simmons in watching Sixers games on television — Embiid left Sunday’s game with an ankle injury and did not return.

There are no details as of this writing on Embiid’s condition and his potential return. Philadelphia has two more seeding games left — their next one is Tuesday against the red-hot Suns — before the playoffs start next week.

Should Philly sit Embiid until the playoffs start next week? The condition of Embiid’s ankle plays the biggest role in that answer, but a Sixers team that has not been able to get healthy may put the focus on that rather than trying to pass the Pacers or Heat in the standings.

This is a Philadelphia team that coach Brett Brown said preseason he thought could get the No. 1 seed in the East. Instead — in part due to injuries but maybe in larger part due to a flawed roster construction by GM Elton Brand that focused on size and defense over shooting — they likely enter the postseason as a stumbling sixth seed. A dangerous team on paper that never came together on the court.

How to correct that for next season, and how to get healthy and keep their stars on the court, are looming big questions for Philly.

For now, the question is, “when does Embiid return?

3) How’s that for a bounce-back game: Damian Lillard drops 51

Portland needed a win to keep itself in the driver’s seat to make the play-in series in the West. Damian Lillard needed a bounce-back game after a rough outing against the Clippers the day before.

How about 51 points from Lillard? That should cover it.

“It wasn’t really so much my performance yesterday and I wanted to perform a certain way today,” Lillard told reporters after the game. “It was like, we let one slip that we should have had yesterday, and I’m a big part of why it got away from us. So tonight, I was like ‘That’s not going to happen.'”

It didn’t happen. Portland sits as the nine seed in the West with games against Dallas and Brooklyn left on the schedule. For Lillard and company it’s simple — win those and they are in the play-in series, and from there they have a good shot at making the playoffs. Lose a game and it opens the door for the Spurs or Suns.

Lillard doesn’t sound like a guy who is going to let that happen.

Watch Damian Lillard put up 51 on shorthanded 76ers

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Everything is back to normal for Damian Lillard.

The All-Star point guard scored 51 points after a frustrating finish a night earlier, and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Philadelphia 76ers 124-121 on Sunday.

On Saturday against the Los Angeles Clippers, Lillard missed a pair of free throws with 18.6 seconds to go and a 3-pointer with 9.5 seconds left in a 122-117 loss. Clippers players Paul George and Patrick Beverley were seen laughing at Lillard’s misfortune.

Lillard got the last laugh Sunday by scoring 18 points in the fourth quarter.

“It wasn’t really so much my performance yesterday and I wanted to perform a certain way today,” he said. “It was like, we let one slip that we should have had yesterday, and I’m a big part of why it got away from us. So tonight, I was like ‘That’s not going to happen.’”

Portland bounced back and pulled within a half-game of Memphis for eighth place in the Western Conference. The Trail Blazers increased their chances of qualifying for the play-in series, which will start Saturday.

The 76ers lost much more than the game. All-Star center Joel Embiid left in the first quarter with what the team called a left ankle injury, and he did not return. He contested a shot, then backed up and stepped awkwardly into the stanchion. He had been averaging 30 points per game since the restart.

76ers coach Brett Brown wouldn’t say whether Embiid would miss time.

“I’m going to learn more physically,” Brown said. “I don’t know enough to comment on it.”

It was more bad injury news for the 76ers. All-Star point guard Ben Simmons is out indefinitely with an injured left knee.

Josh Richardson scored a season-high 34 points and Alec Burks added 20 for Philadelphia. The 76ers would have moved into a tie with the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat for fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings with a win.

Without their stars, the 76ers fell behind by 17 in the second quarter and trailed 67-58 at halftime.

The game tightened up late. Philadelphia’s Al Horford hit a 3-pointer to trim Portland’s lead to 122-121. Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic made two free throws with 10.2 seconds remaining to put his team up three. Richardson missed a 3-pointer for Philadelphia, and the 76ers couldn’t get another shot off after a scramble for the rebound.

“I thought our guys fought,” Brown said. “I really thought the spirit of the group was fantastic. We called upon many different players that I think played with a spirit and a passion that you’re proud of.”