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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

Fans plan to give out pro-Hong Kong t-shirts at Lakers, Raptors opening nights

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We are not yet out of the thick of things regarding the NBA and China. There are murmurings about how upset people are up with Daryl Morey back here domestically, and the beginning of the season will start with a sort of weird pall over it. NBA fans, perhaps the most socially progressive in major American sports, won’t soon forget responses from Adam Silver and LeBron James on the matter, which they’ve seen as limp-wristed.

To that end, there are two fan groups who are looking to spread pro-Hong Kong t-shirts during opening night games in the NBA next week.

Folks at Staples Center in Los Angeles should expect to see t-shirts in solidarity with protesters in Hong Kong being handed out as the Lakers take on the Clippers on Oct. 22. A reddit user going by the pseudonym Sun Lared posted to the Lakers subreddit about printing up t-shirts, and their GoFundMe reached a reported $43,000 before donations were disabled, according to LA Mag.

Via Twitter:

Inspired by Lared, another GoFundMe has reached $34,000 as of publication to hand out free t-shirts as the New Orleans Pelicans travel to Ontario to take on the Toronto Raptors on October 22nd.

Mother these t-shirts make it onto the backs of fans, and whether they make it inside the arenas for those basketball games is another thing altogether. It certainly will be an interesting PR debacle if the NBA continues to confiscate pro-Hong Kong t-shirts and signs the way they’ve done during the preseason already.

This isn’t going away any time soon.

Zion Williamson has right knee soreness, won’t play final preseason game

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It’s the preseason, and so teams are trying to be extra cautious with their stars. That will apparently be the case this week as No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson has reportedly not traveled with his New Orlean Pelicans for the final preseason game of the year against the New York Knicks.

Williamson has apparently strained his right knee, and his not heading to New York with the team isn’t looking like it’s just for rest as the regular season approaches. Williamson may actually have a bit of soreness working against him right now, which is the last thing any NBA fans want to hear right now.

Via Twitter:

The release from the Pelicans says that Williamson remained in Louisiana to undergo further testing on his right knee.

Hopefully this is nothing serious and the season can get off to a thrilling start. It certainly looks to be headed in that direction based off of how Williamson has performed already in preseason action.

New Orleans kicks off the regular season on Oct. 22 against the defending champion Toronto Raptors in Ontario.

Michael Jordan opens first of 2 medical clinics in Charlotte

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — An emotional Michael Jordan unveiled the first of two medical clinics he and his family funded in Charlotte, North Carolina that will provide care to underprivileged members of the community.

The six-time NBA champion and Hornets owner was on hand Thursday for the grand opening of the $7 million Novant Health Michael Jordan Family Medical Clinic. Tears streamed down Jordan’s cheeks as he said, “this is a very emotional thing for me to be able to give back to a community that has supported me over the years.”

The clinic, located in a lower-income section of the city, will provide vital access to primary and preventive care to individuals in the community, including those who are uninsured or underinsured.

Jordan vowed to do more, saying “this is just the start of a battle of being able to touch as many people as we can.”

Jordan first announced the $7 million gift in 2017.

Andrew Wiggins doesn’t agree with people who don’t rank him very high

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This season, his sixth, is going to be the season where Andrew Wiggins looks and plays like he loves the game. His steadily-declining shooting percentages are going to rocket back up. He’s going to break out as an elite player who should have gone No. 1, and not just a guy who gets empty-calorie points.

That’s what Wiggins is thinking, anyway.

ESPN put out its list of top 100 players in the league and very reasonably did not have Wiggins on it, despite him scoring 18.1 points per game last season. In an excellent job of trying to create a second story out of the 100 list by asking about the “snub,” Wiggins said he isn’t worried about what people say about the four-years, $122 million still on his contract, but he wants to re-establish himself, he told Eric Woodyard of ESPN.

“Everyone is counting pockets. Some people are mad about [it], some people are happy for you,” Wiggins told ESPN. “That’s how the world goes, especially when you’ve got something they don’t have or do something they don’t do. That’s how the world goes.

“Even when I averaged almost 24 points and got the max deal, people were still saying stuff,” he added. “Look at max players and some max players don’t average as much, but it is what it is. I’m just trying to get right, get back on track.”

If you just shrugged your shoulders, join the rest of the league.

Most Timberwolves fans have moved on from counting Wiggins as the second star to help out Karl-Anthony Towns. Most front office people on other teams have moved on as well, as evidenced by Wiggins’ nonexistent trade value (sources around the league say Minnesota has tested the market only to find no team that wants that contract unless the Timberwolves throw in sweeteners). 

Minnesota’s new head of basketball operations Gersson Rosas said Wiggins has to be a ‘main contributor’ if the Timberwolves are going to return to the playoffs. Which is one reason most experts have them missing out.

But Wiggins believes in himself. Timberwolves fans should expect and want nothing less than that, they just may not want to get their own expectations too high.