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

Five teams most likely to trade for Kyrie Irving before deadline

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Kyrie Irving wants a trade out of Brooklyn. Now. Before the Feb. 9 trade deadline.

It’s no sure thing a massive trade like this comes together in less than a week, but it has spiced up what was a relatively flavorless trade deadline to this point (with all due respect to Rui Hachimura).

Irving’s trade request asks some tough questions of the team’s interested in him. The incentive to make a deal is obvious — landing one of the game’s biggest names and an elite shot creator averaging 27.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game while shooting 37.4% from 3. On the other hand is the long list of disruptions he has caused the Nets and other teams he’s been on, combined with the fact he is asking out in Brooklyn partly because they would not give him a four-year max contract extension. Does a team trading for Irving look at his track record and want to lock him up for that long? (To be clear, a team that trades for him is limited two a two-year, $78.6 million extension; he might want to re-sign with the team as a free agent, a risk for the team acquiring him.)

What may best sum up the trade market for Irving: Teams calling are more interested in what this means for Kevin Durant than Irving (according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN).

Still, teams will be interested. Here are the top five worth watching.

1) Los Angeles Lakers

When reaching out to league sources in the wake of the Irving bombshell, the Lakers were the first name off everyone’s lips. Which makes sense because the sides discussed the idea last summer but never pulled off the trade. Now, more than halfway through the season, with the Lakers three games below .500 and sitting outside even the play-in tournament, there is a sense of desperation to do something so as not to squander an All-NBA season from LeBron James. Is that enough to get a deal done?

LeBron is trying to add some pressure.

The trade would, at its core, involve Russell Westbrook and the Lakers’ two available first-round picks (2027 and 2029), likely unprotected (although Wojnarowski reports the Lakers “privately expressing limitations on offering significant trade assets for Irving”).

That doesn’t mean Westbrook is headed to Brooklyn, the sides likely will engage a third team in the deal (San Antonio has cap space, and the Lakers have talked to the Jazz) to take on Westbrook in exchange for draft compensation. However, putting together a trade that works for everyone gets difficult, which is why one never happened this summer.

It’s obvious why the Lakers want to do this trade. Irving playing next to Lebron and Anthony Davis makes the Lakers potential contenders in a West where nobody has run away with the conference (even if Denver is trying).

It’s less obvious why this is the best option for the Nets.

In a direct swap, Westbrook — even with the added depth of a quality young role player — is a dramatic drop-off from All-Star starter Irving. Plus, in a straight-up Westbrook for Irving deal the Nets take on more salary, adding $56 million to a luxury tax bill already at $109 million (numbers via Bobby Marks of ESPN). Whether the Nets would be more enticed by a three-team trade depends on the other team and players involved, but if the Nets are going to hold on to Durant they need to find a way to stay a contender, and that won’t be easy to do in any trade with the Lakers.

2) Phoenix Suns

The Suns can make a trade work in a couple of different ways, but they all center around Chris Paul heading to Brooklyn — a big name but a player whose game has fallen off this season at age 37. The trade likely would involve either Jae Crowder or Cameron Johnson — both of whom need to be paid after this season — plus some picks headed to Brooklyn.

The Suns need half-court scoring, and an Irving and Devin Booker backcourt would be a force that could get Phoenix back in the mix at the top of the West. Would soon-to-be new owner Matt Ishbia be willing to pay big and go into the tax for Irving in future years? Would the Nets consider CP3 and some depth at the four enough to pull the trigger?

3) Dallas Mavericks

It’s no secret the Mavericks are desperate to find a second star and shot creator to go next to Luka Dončić, who is wearing himself out carrying this team. It’s also no secret that coach Jason Kidd and former Nike executive turned Mavericks GM Nico Harrison have strong relationships with Irving. Is that enough?

A trade can be constructed by sending former Net Spencer Dinwiddie back to Brooklyn along with just made available Dorian Finney-Smith, plus draft picks (there are reports the Mavericks are also hesitant to go heavy on draft picks in an Irving trade). Marc Stein reports that Dallas might want to unload one of its longer contracts in a trade, such as Tim Hardaway Jr. or Dāvis Bertāns.

Would some combination of those players plus a few picks be enough to interest Brooklyn? Is Dallas interested in signing Irving for the long-term, a four-year deal this offseason? Those questions could hold up the deal.

4) Miami Heat

Miami was on Irving’s leaked “places I would be willing to be traded” list last summer. Considering the Heat have struggled this season (despite the better play of late) and their struggles at point guard, it’s easy to see Miami’s interest.

However, it’s difficult to make a trade work. The Heat would want to send back Kyle Lowry, but there likely is little interest from Brooklyn in taking him on (he has a fully guaranteed $29.7 million on the books for next season). The Nets might want Tyler Herro, but he is in the poison pill year between signing his extension and it kicking in (the trade numbers going out and coming back are different for Herro under the CBA, making a trade very difficult to pull off).

Would the Heat want to sign Irving long-term? Is he a fit with the Heat culture?

You know Pat Riley will make the call, he’s always aggressive and wants to win now. But he’s not putting a player over the franchise, and he won’t give up too much to get a deal done.

5) Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers are always aggressive as a front office, they need point guard help (someone who can create in the backcourt), and the owner is more than happy to spend if it means winning. The Clippers are loaded with mid-level salaries — Norman Powell, Marcus Morris, Luke Kennard, Robert Covington, Reggie Jackson, Nicholas Batum — who can be packaged to make a deal work. They also have good young players to temp the Nets, such as Terance Mann and Brandon Boston Jr.

Is another high-priced mercurial star prone to missing time what the Clippers need right now? They will make calls, but it feels like a long shot.

Brooks given one-game suspension for shot to Mitchell (who was fined)

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Dillon Brooks did earn a suspension for hitting Donovan Mitchell in the “groin,” but he got off light.

Brooks was suspended one game and Mitchell got a $20,000 fine for their altercation during the Cavaliers’ win against the Grizzlies on Thursday night, the league announced.

“Brooks initiated the altercation by striking Mitchell in the groin area in an unsportsmanlike manner,” the NBA said in a release announcing the fine. “Mitchell then escalated the situation by throwing the game ball at and pushing Brooks, after which both players continued to physically engage with one another.”

Both Brooks and Mitchell were given Flagrant 2 fouls and ejected.

Brooks will serve his suspension Sunday against the Raptors. The one-game suspension is going to cost Brooks $78,621 in salary.

It’s difficult to watch the video of the altercation and not think that it was an intentional act by Brooks. As such, a one-game suspension seems soft and certainly isn’t sending a message of deterrence to other players. After the game Thursday, Mitchell fired shots at Brooks for the act.

The two teams do not meet again this season.

Reports: Kyrie Irving demands trade before Feb. 9 deadline

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Kyrie Irving‘s agent tried to spark contract extension talks with the Nets recently, but Brooklyn felt no rush to dive into those talks, and the offer they did make — not for a full four years and filled with guarantees for Irving to meet — increased Irving’s frustration with the organization. The Nets, wisely, wanted to see more out of Irving before talking about the future, while Irving has felt everything with Brooklyn has been conditional.

Irving responded with a bombshell, demanding a trade before the Feb. 9 deadline. Shams Charania of The Athletic was first with the news, but Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report have since confirmed it.

 

So much for a quiet trade deadline.

There are so many angles to this bombshell, but the sense of Irving feeling disrespected by Nets management and ownership is not new. Charania added this detail in his story at The Athletic:

The Nets recently offered Irving an extension with guarantee stipulations, according to league sources, an offer which was declined.

Irving wants a four-year, full max extension, no stipulations, Charania reports. That’s also what he wanted when he pushed for a contract extension with the Nets last summer, but after a couple of seasons of disruptions and him missing a lot of games due to his COVID vaccination status, the Nets were not interested in cementing their relationship long-term (Irving did look around for a new home, but that went nowhere).

The disruptions carried over into this season when Irving was suspended for what became eight games due to a Tweet promoting an antisemitic documentary. Through all this, the Nets fired Steve Nash as coach.

Whatever has happened off the court, when Irving has been on the court he has been his elite playmaking self, averaging 27.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game. Fans voted him in an All-Star starter, and he has carried the Nets while Kevin Durant has been out.

While the Nets don’t want to give away Irving in a trade, if he’s gone this summer as a free agent they need to find a deal to get something in return (and ideally keep their status as a potential, maybe fringe, contender in the East). The Nets are not wrong that all the places Irving would want to go as a free agent will require a sign-and-trade, which gives Brooklyn some leverage. Irving has some leverage here, too: If Team X comes up with a trade the Nets like but Irving lets it be known he won’t re-sign there as a free agent, it limits what teams will offer.

When checking with league sources,  the first name on everyone’s lips are the Lakers, with a package centered around Russell Westbrook and both of the Lakers’ unprotected future picks (a trade that was discussed last summer). The Lakers likely have to sweeten that pot a little with another young player. Adding Irving to the mix with LeBron James and Anthony Davis does make the Lakers a threat to come out of a West with no dominant team, and Los Angeles might be willing to extend or re-sign Irving to a longer deal, they are all in on winning now.

Other teams that come up in conversations are the Heat (a team looking for point guard help and a spark, but does Irving fit the Miami team culture?), the Mavericks need another star next to Luka Dončić, and the Clippers are always active and aggressive at the trade deadline. Shams Charania of The Athletic reports the Suns are interested. Other teams looking to make the leap up to contender status may try to throw their hat in the ring. Considering Irving’s reputation as a challenge for coaches and front office staff, it will be interesting to see how many teams are interested in Irving’s extensions/contract demands.

Whatever direction this goes expect the Irving trade rumors to fly for the next six days.

 

Damian Lillard reportedly to take part in 3-point contest All-Star weekend

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The All-Star Saturday night 3-point contest has passed the Dunk Contest in watchability because the stars still do it. Look at this year’s Dunk Contest, there are some interesting athletes involved, and maybe it becomes a memorable event. Still, there will be no Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, or Anthony Edwards (the way that Jordan, Kobe, and other greats took part in the contest back in the day).

However, the stars turn out for the 3-point contest. This year, that starts with Damian Lillard, according to Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report and TNT.

The coaches selected Lillard as one of the All-Star Game reserves, he was already headed to Salt Lake City. This is Lillard’s third time in the 3-point Shootout.

Over the coming week, expect a lot more big names to jump into the 3-point contest — the best shooters in the game want to do this event (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have each done it multiple times, although whether they will this year is unknown).

All-Star Saturday night: Come for the 3-point Shootout, hang around for the Dunk Contest.