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NBCSports.com’s 50 best players in 5 years: Kawhi Leonard, Ben Simmons, players 10-6

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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, 20-16 and 15-11. These are players 10-6 on our list.

10. Trae Young

How fast and how far Trae Young can develop his game was on display before he ever stepped on an NBA court. In his first NBA Summer League game (in Salt Lake City) he missed his first 11 shots and looked like a guy struggling with the speed and length of the game. By the end of the Las Vegas Summer League, he was one of the best players in it, knocking down threes and finding teammates with spot-on passes.

The same thing happened during his NBA rookie season. He struggled at the start of it — in November he averaged 14 points a game, shot 19.8 percent from three, and struggled with turnovers. After the All-Star break Young averaged 24.7 points per game, shooting 34.8 percent from three, and he was pushing Luka Doncic for Rookie of the Year (Young came in second in that voting).

If he can grow that much in one year, how much can he develop in five years? The Hawks are betting a lot, they are banking that Young and John Collins (No. 24 on this countdown) can be the cornerstones of a contender in Atlanta. Right now they are young stars with All-Star aspirations, and to get the Hawks back to the playoffs. In five years, just making the playoffs should not be near good enough for the ATL.

Young can shoot with range, is a gifted passer, and is working on taking the next steps in his development. He has to get stronger (he reportedly added 10 pounds this summer), has to become a better defender, has to learn to finish better on drives (he needs a floater and to be able to score through or around contact better at the rim, ala Stephen Curry). Most of all, the Hawks need him to be a leader, to be the guy that pulls this franchise back to the postseason, and eventually all the way to heights not seen in decades in Atlanta.

Young has the skills to do all of that, he has the work ethic, and coach Lloyd Pierce is bringing him along at the right pace. If five years, as he is just on the front edge of his prime, we see Young developing into one of the game’s elite point guards. Because we’ve already seen the growth.
—Kurt Helin

9. Ben Simmons

The youngest player to average 15-7-7 and shoot 54% from the field:

Ben Simmons.

The second-youngest player to average 15-7-7 and shoot 54% from the field:

Ben Simmons.

LeBron James, Magic Johnson, and Wilt Chamberlain are the only other players to achieve that stat line at any point in their career.

Simmons, 23, is a special all-around talent. The 6-foot-10 point guard thrives in the open court. He quickly turns his defensive rebounds into fastbreaks the other way, attacks the basket and zips passes all over the court. His defense is stellar due both to his versatility and lockdown ability.

No wonder the 76ers gave him a max contract extension so quickly.

But he has a huge flaw: Jump shots.

Simmons even attempting a 3-pointer is news. Opponents ignore him on the perimeter, and he’s too uncomfortable to shoot. It bogs down Philadelphia’s halfcourt offense, which becomes an especially big problem in the slower-paced playoffs. It’s so difficult to win with a guard limited like that.

Maybe Simmons will improve. He wouldn’t be the first player to significantly upgrade his jumper while in the NBA. But he’s coming from so far behind. There’s even debate about which hand he should shoot with.

While Simmons is one of the safest bets to be a star in five years, it’s difficult to envision him becoming a superstar. There’s a ceiling on guards who can’t shoot from outside.

Yet, with all the other ways he contributes, Simmons should hit his head on that ceiling.
—Dan Feldman

8. Donovan Mitchell

How good has Donovan Mitchell become after just two NBA seasons? It’s all been on display with Team USA this summer, where he has stood out in games and practices, is one of the guys on that roster Gregg Popovich trusts to create shots and get buckets (along with veteran Kemba Walker), and he was named co-captain of the team. At age 22. (The other captains are veterans Walker and Marcus Smart.)

What’s important for Mitchell’s development — and Utah’s future — is that the lessons at Popovich University this summer are not just about things on the court, but about how to be a leader, how to prepare, how to take his game to the next level mentally. Last summer was about injury rehab for Mitchell, this summer has been about growth.

“Last summer was different,” Mitchell said when Team USA stopped in Los Angeles for training camp. “I’m healthy. I’ve been able to travel a little bit, but I’ve been able to put in work. And this is just another step to get better.”

Just how good can Mitchell be in five years? He will be 27, in his prime, and Utah believes he will lead the franchise back to the biggest stages, the ones they have not been on since the Stockton/Malone era. Mitchell this summer is showing he is up to that task, and with the right talent around him — Rudy Gobert will be just 32 in five years (and was No. 32 on this countdown), and in the short term Mitchell will have Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic on his team, too — that is a reachable goal.

Mitchell wants the pressure — he hasn’t shied away from the responsibility of leading Team USA. He is not shy about talking about his goals for the Jazz, which go beyond just making the playoffs again next season. But you can tell he has been at Popovich University this summer, because his words have been about team first, individual second, and doing whatever it takes to win. Bring that mentality back to Utah and Mitchell may lead the Jazz back to that lofty stage they want to return to.
—Kurt Helin

7. Karl-Anthony Towns

While on the Timberwolves, Jimmy Butler revealed the biggest problem with Karl-Anthony Towns.

“Who is the most talented player on our team?” Butler said. “KAT.”

The issue: Towns wasn’t Minnesota’s best player. Butler was.

Towns has all the tools. He’s big, mobile and skilled. The list of 7-footers who’ve shot 3-pointers and scored like him might end at Dirk Nowitzki.

But for all his talent, Towns hasn’t brought the necessary intensity. He has too often failed to assert himself offensively. His defensive effort and execution are consistently lacking. There just isn’t enough force in his game.

Towns started to come around late last season. Maybe that was because of super-max incentives in his five-year contract extension that begins this season. Maybe he legitimately turned a corner for good.

Either way, Towns is just 23. There’s so much time for him to figure this out. He’s already a star with this approach. If he develops a mindset to dominate, he could become the NBA’s very best player.

Towns always says all the right things. In the next five years, we expect him to do even more of them.
—Dan Feldman

6. Kawhi Leonard


This ranking is a big bet on health.

The question is not, “can Kawhi Leonard be a great player in five years at age 33?” He is an elite NBA talent now in his prime, one that just led the Toronto Raptors to an NBA title averaging 30.5 points and 9.1 rebounds a game in the playoffs. He is as good a perimeter defender as there is in the game right now, something that will not change much as he ages. Offensively he can get his own shot, create for others, he shot 37.1 percent from three last season, but what is most impressive is his footwork and ability to get to his spots on the floor. His mechanical, physical style will age well.

If he’s healthy.

That remains the cloud over Leonard. He played just 60 regular season games in Toronto as the Raptors let him set his own pace to stay healthy from the quadricep tendon issue that cost Leonard his final season in — and relationship with — San Antonio. In the playoffs Leonard was out there every game, but in compensating for his quad there was some pain in his other knee — which he played through and still won Finals MVP. But it raises concerns.

With the Clippers, expect more of the same — Leonard is going to be on a maintenance plan and get plenty of nights off during the regular season. (Between him and Paul George it’s caveat emptor if you buy tickets to see the Clippers.) The Clippers have depth, they plan to make the playoffs and when they get there be a healthy force of nature with a duo of the best two-way wings in the game on the roster, plus a deep bench. For the next few years, the Clippers should be title contenders.

Five years from now? The Clippers could still be contenders if Leonard is healthy. Our prognosticators are betting that he will be, that all the maintenance will pay off — and that Leonard will still be one of the game’s dominant forces. But it’s a bet.
—Kurt Helin

Memphis picks up first win since restart, beats Oklahoma City

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Dillon Brooks scored 22 points, and the Memphis Grizzlies claimed their first win since the restart with a 121-92 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday.

Jonas Valanciunas had 19 points and 11 rebounds and Ja Morant had 19 points and nine assists for the Grizzlies.

Memphis shot 55% and avoided falling into a tie with Portland for eight place in the Western Conference standings. Memphis is one game ahead of Portland, two games ahead of San Antonio, 2.5 ahead of Phoenix, and three games up on New Orleans and Sacramento.

Chris Paul scored 17 points and Luguentz Dort added 16 for the Thunder. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City’s leading scorer this season, finished with 10 points on 3 for 13 shooting.

The Thunder looked nothing like the team that rolled past the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday. Oklahoma City missed a chance to move into a tie with the Houston Rockets for fourth place in the West.

Oklahoma City led by 18 in the first quarter, but the Grizzlies rallied to take the lead in the second. Memphis led by nine in the final seconds of the first half. Danilo Gallinari hit a 3 for the Thunder with 4.6 seconds left, then Paul stole the inbounds pass and hit a corner 3 to cut the Grizzlies’ lead to 63-60 at halftime.

The Grizzlies outscored the Thunder 32-18 in the third quarter to go up 95-78 at the end of the period.

Rumor: Indiana coach Nate McMillan is on hot seat

Indiana coach hot seat
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Last season, Indiana’s Nate McMillan finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting, taking a team that lost star Victor Oladipo after just 36 games and still got them into the playoffs. McMillan is going to get COY votes again this year for much the same reason — his teams play good defense and overachieve.

Indiana coach Nate McMillan is also on the hot seat.

It’s surprising, and it’s just a rumor, but ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe had this conversation on a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast (hat tip PacersTalk.net).

Van Gundy: “I had two people come up to me since I’ve been here [in the NBA restart bubble] and say, ‘Nate McMillan’s in trouble.’”

Lowe: “It’s been the hottest rumor all season… What you’ve heard in Orlando’s been going around all season…

“Let me be clear: It’s just a rumor. I don’t know if it’s true. When you talk to people around the Pacers, they say, ‘It’s not true’ or ‘Where you’d hear that from?’”

Maybe management wants a more modern offense, the Pacers are bottom eight in both three pointers attempted and pace. Overall, Indiana’s offense is middle of the pack (18th in the league), which is not bad considering it was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level).

It’s hard to imagine that the Pacers would make a change this offseason, which will be short and give a new coach less time to ramp up a program. Plus, does owner Herb Simon want to pay two coaches? The finances of the league are helping other coaches keep their jobs.

More than all that, McMillan doesn’t deserve to be fired.

Not that “deserved” has had much to do with NBA coaches keeping their jobs in the past.

 

Phoenix Suns, a perfect 4-0 in the bubble, are growing and thinking playoffs

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The last time Devin Booker walked off the court as a winner in four consecutive games, these were the opponents: Hampton, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Notre Dame.

That is, until now.

Booker and the Phoenix Suns – the team that came to the NBA restart at Walt Disney World with the worst record in the Western Conference and the second-worst record of the 22 teams in the field – are perhaps the best story of the bubble.

They’re 4-0 at Disney, breathing real life into playoff hopes that basically were nonexistent when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. It’s the team’s first four-game winning streak since December 2018; Booker missed one of those games, so it’s his first run of four wins in a row since helping Kentucky make its Final Four run in 2015.

“It definitely feels like a tournament, a big AAU tournament, the March Madness tournament,” Phoenix’s Cameron Payne said Friday. “That’s something I never even got a chance to be in, but hey, I’ll take this.”

The Suns started their bubble run with a win over Washington and followed that with victories against three playoff-bound teams – first Dallas, then the Los Angeles Clippers (both of those games being 117-115 finals, the win over the Clippers sealed by a Booker buzzer-beater) and next a 114-99 victory Thursday over Indiana.

A team that had a stretch of four wins in 20 games during November and December, then a run of four wins in 15 games during January and February, got to the bubble and are now 4-for-4.

The Suns are riding a 10-year playoff drought, the second-longest current one in the NBA, but now they’re thinking big and for good reason.

“Well, you know, this is in the fledgling stages, for sure,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do. And there’s a process that we’ve kind of gotten ourselves involved in and we’re going to stick to that. So, fun? I don’t have time to have fun right now. It’s always good to win, but I’m working right now. And I want guys to understand, it’s fun when you win – but then you’ve got to turn the page and get right back to work.”

Williams understands the reality for the Suns right now. They entered Friday 1-1/2 games out of ninth place and the play-in series that will decide the last postseason berth in the West. And while the 4-0 start has been noteworthy, even an 8-0 mark in the seeding games wouldn’t guarantee the Suns a trip to that play-in round.

The Suns play Miami on Saturday, then finish the regular season against Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Dallas.

“I’ve been in five years now and haven’t had that much success,” Booker said. “But, you know, I’m working hard every day to turn that narrative and change that narrative. We have a good bunch in here to do it. A lot of young players mixed with some veteran presence and it’s a good look for us. So, we’re going to keep our head down, keep working.

“I don’t think anybody here is worried about 4-0. We still have plans and goals for this team to reach and 4-0 wasn’t it.”

Booker is averaging 28 points in the four games. Deandre Ayton, another big piece of the young Suns’ core, is averaging 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. There are six players averaging double figures in all, including Payne, who is shooting 53% from 3-point range in his first four games with the Suns.

“We definitely feel good,” Payne said. “We’re not here for no reason.”

Report: NBA players bypassing ‘snitch’ hotline to call Adam Silver directly

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No NBA players have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the bubble. And they want to keep it that way. A championship and a lot of money are on the line.

That means preventing players from having close contact with anyone outside the bubble. And, in case someone contracts coronavirus, wearing masks (intact masks) to prevent a wider outbreak.

The NBA set up a hotline – quickly dubbed the “snitch” hotline – for players to report violations.

Chris Haynes of TNT:

Players have been circumventing that process. Sources informed me that multiple players are personally calling commissioner Adam Silver to issue their complaints with things they’re seeing in the bubble.

Adam Silver is accessible to players – particularly the president of the union.

I’m not sure about tattling straight to the top boss when there are other protocols in place. Are hotline calls not resulting in changed behavior?

Either way, it’s important for the NBA to keep players safe – both for their health and the league’s revenue (about half of which goes to players in salary). So, cut Chris Paul anyone calling Silver a break. They’re at least trying to help. And so far, violations inside the bubble have led to reminders, not harsher discipline.