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NBCSports.com’s 50 best players in 5 years: Anthony Davis, Zion, Giannis, the top 5 players

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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.

Below is our final installment, our top five. If you want to see the rest, follow these links to players 50-4645-41, 40-36, 35-31, 30-26, 25-21, 20-16, 15-11 and 10-6.

5. Zion Williamson

What is there to say about Zion that hasn’t already been said? I’ll put it bluntly — I think Zion is the kind of talent that can redefine the way basketball has to be played in the NBA the same way that Steph Curry did, that LeBron James did, that Shaquille O’Neal did. His physical tools, his skill-set, and his basketball IQ are all that high.

For my money, I think Zion’s ceiling is if you took Draymond Green and gave him one of those NoS boosters from the early The Fast and the Furious movies. He can guard the five spot in the league. He can protect the rim. He is going to be the best grab-and-go big man that we have ever seen. He is going to be a point center. He is a terrific passer and he can read the floor well. I think what makes Green so effective for Golden State is his ability to make the right decision in 4-on-3 and 3-on-2 situations as defenses are forced to key on Steph and Klay in ball-screen actions, and Zion has that in him as well.

The big question for me is going to be how well his health holds up. He’s 270-something pounds with a vertical leap that gets damn near four feet. Imagine standing on top of your kitchen counter and jumping off of it. That’s what it is like for Zion every time he lands. Think about what your knees and ankles would feel like jumping off your kitchen counter hundreds or thousands of times a day. That’s what Zion is going to have to deal with.

But if he can remain healthy and if he doesn’t get ruined by a franchise failing him, he is going to be special. I have no doubt about it.
—Rob Dauster

4. Nikola Jokic

Imagine we made this list in 2014 for 2019. Nikola Jokic had just been the No. 41 overall pick in the draft, and he was headed toward another season in the Adriatic League. Even suggesting considering him would’ve gotten laughed out of the room.

Now, Jokic is a reigning All-NBA first-team player. He’s the best-passing center in NBA history. And he’s just 24.

What an incredible rise.

Jokic is the only second-round pick in these rankings. He’s not a great athlete. But he quickly impressed with his great feel for the game. It shows in his passing. It shows in his nose for the ball on rebounds. It even shows on his defense.

That’s the area Jokic can most improve. Though his basketball intelligence translates to defense, Jokic’s athletic limitations also factor prominently. It’s difficult to build a championship-level defense with a center like that. If Jokic gets in even better shape, maybe he’d be more of a defensive difference-maker.

Jokic is already moving past another recent flaw – offensive passiveness. When he asserts himself as a scorer, the Nuggets are much better. He has the touch to justify taking a lot of shots. In some ways, it seems Jokic can’t always believe he belongs as a focal point.

This would have very recently been unfathomable.
—Dan Feldman

3. Luka Doncic

The question before the 2018 draft was not “is Luka Doncic going to be good?” Everyone knew he would be, at 19 he was the EuroLeague MVP. He had the highest floor of anyone in that draft.

The question was, “what is his ceiling?” Or, put more bluntly, could he be an NBA superstar? And with that would he put in the work needed to reach that ceiling? The concern was that at 19 he had already come relatively close to maxing out his skills, that he didn’t have the upside of others in the draft. Was he going to be athletic enough to dominate in the NBA? He had the size, he had the court vision, but would he be able to become a good enough shooter, put in the work on his body, and become an elite NBA player?

After watching his rookie season, the answer is yes.

Doncic averaged 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 6 assists a game in a historic rookie season that had him as the Rookie of the Year. He already makes decisions and plays like a 10-year veteran when coming off the pick-and-roll, his feel for the game is amazing. His court vision and passing were everything that were advertised, but it comes in a physically strong 6’7” package that allows him to see the court, pass over smaller players, and he showed he could handle contact.

He looks every bit the future superstar, a franchise anchor for the Mavericks. Dallas is now pairing him with Kristaps Porzingis in what could be one of the league’s best duos in a few years. (How well the pick-and-pop Porzingis pairs with Doncic, who wants to survey the floor and not just attack the rim coming off the pick, remains to be seen, but talented players tend to figure things out.)

There are a few things that need to follow to reach that potential. His defense needs to improve. He needs to cut down on turnovers (he had an 11.9 turnover ratio last season according to NBA.com, which is higher than the Mavs want to see, and it held down his assist to turnover ratio to 1.74).

The biggest issue is conditioning. Doncic seemed to plateau at points in his first season in the NBA, having never played that many games before (something not uncommon for American rookies coming out of college). Doncic shot 34.8 percent from three before the All-Star break but 26.4 percent after as his legs were a bit dead. His efficiency dropped across the board as the season wore on. Doncic has been working on his body — he admits he hasn’t med the six-pack challenge yet — and Mark Cuban arranged a personal chef for Doncic so he eats better. Doncic is putting in the work to maximize his gifts.

Doncic may not have the crazy improvement curve of some NBA players coming out of college, but he doesn’t need to — his rookie season did not look like a rookie season. He looked like a veteran and put up All-Star level numbers. Five years from now, when his body is right and he is used to the NBA game — and is still just 25 and entering his prime — we project him to be one of the NBA’s best players. A franchise cornerstone. A guy a title contender can be built around because he can both score and set up others. A guy who lived up to all the hype surrounding him as he came out of Europe. A superstar.
—Kurt Helin

2. Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis was on his way to a career year when he requested a trade from the Pelicans. Let that sink in for a moment. Davis – who’d already made three All-NBA first teams – had elevated his game even higher.

The trade request nuked Davis’ and New Orleans’ seasons. The saga damaged Davis’ reputation. Few appreciated what he was doing last year. Few wanted to appreciate what he was doing last year.

But Davis is still an elite player who, at age 26, might be just bursting into his prime.

Davis can do it all. Offensively. Defensively. Inside. Outside. He is the best, most-complete big man in the game today.

If we’re going to nitpick, he’s more of a finisher than a creator. That should work just fine playing with LeBron James on the Lakers. But in the long run, the NBA’s second-best player is usually more capable of manufacturing a bucket when his team needs one.

Maybe Davis is just so good at everything else, he’ll still deserve this lofty ranking without improved individual-scoring ability. I’d bet on him developing that skill, though. His offensive tools certainly make it attainable.

Last season was the first time Davis shined as a passer. He’s clearly still adding to his game.

That ought to terrify the rest of the league.
—Dan Feldman

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo


Giannis Antetokounmpo (age 24) just won Most Valuable Player over James Harden (age 30) and Paul George (age 29). Just two other MVPs in NBA history have been so much younger than the second- and third-place finishers.

In 1958, Bill Russell won MVP then won 10 more championships and four more MVPs in his career. In 1972, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won MVP than won five more championships and four more MVPs in his career.

Antetokounmpo is poised to take over the NBA for a long time.

The Bucks forward is a lethal attacker. He can get to the rim in so many ways – with his long strides in transition, snaking his way through set defenses with his plus ball-handling, bumping opponents in the post. Then, he finishes with craft and power.

He might be even better defensively. Antetokounmpo’s length and mobility allow him to smother opponents on and off the ball.

The Bucks have done so well to build a system around him. They space the floor for him offensively. They match up defensively. Everything is set up for him to thrive.

That’s not to mitigate his dominance. Rather, it’s a huge compliment. Only the very best players justify being catered to this way.

It’s still unknown whether Antetokounmpo will spend his next five years in Milwaukee. As much as the Bucks have done for him lately, it took a while to get going. Every NBA MVP besides Kevin Garnett, who first advanced in his ninth year, won a playoff series in his first five seasons. Antetokounmpo just won his first series in his sixth season.

Milwaukee stalled in the conference finals against the eventual-champion Raptors. Antetokounmpo just didn’t know how to elevate his game at that high level, how to adjust when the opponent locks in on him. He needed the lesson. I’m convinced he’ll be better for it.

We’re only entering the era of Antetokounmpo. An MVP is nice.  Playoff success comes next.
—Dan Feldman

Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum commends Jody Allen for no vote

Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum
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The Trail Blazers, owned by Jody Allen, cast the lone dissenting vote on the NBA’s plan to resume with 22 teams.

Why?

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Portland guard CJ McCollum:

Damian Lillard expressed his concern: He wanted the Trail Blazers to have a real chance at making the playoffs. They got that.

Wojnarowski mentioned how lottery odds are calculated – relevant only if Portland misses the postseason and something current players tend not to dwell on.

This feels incongruous.

Was safety a concern? The risk of coronavirus is higher with 22 teams than 20. However, it’s higher with 20 teams than 16.

The Trail Blazers are 17th in the league. And nobody publicly mentioned health. Having just 20 teams – especially with a group stage – would’ve given Portland an easier path into the top 16. (It’s unclear how many teams would’ve made the playoffs with a group stage).

NBA commissioner Adam Silver wanted everyone to unite behind this plan. Even other owners who disagreed with the plan voted for it. But with the Trail Blazers’ no vote, Allen engendered greater support from her players. If nothing else, that has value.

Report: NBA eying in mid-July 2021 NBA Finals in advance of Olympics

Tokyo Olympics
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The NBA plans to rush through the 2020 offseason and begin the 2020-21 season Dec. 1… just to rush through the 2020-21 season.

Frank Isola of The Athletic:

The NBA Finals normally begin 226 days after the regular-season opener with an 18-day window to play the best-of-seven series. So, based on a typical timeline, a Dec. 1 opener would mean the Finals would be held July 15 – Aug. 1., 2021.

The Tokyo Olympics are slated to begin July 23, 2021.

So, something must give.

It probably won’t be regular-season games. As much as the NBA would like its players to get exposure in the Olympics, owners will be extremely reluctant to surrender direct revenue. Likewise, the many NBA players not headed to the Olympics should share similar financial concerns.

More likely, the league will reduce the number of rest days during the 2020-21 season. That seems risky given the drastic disruptions already affecting conditioning entering the season.

It’s also possible players whose NBA teams advance deep enough in the playoffs just won’t be able to play in the Olympics (or Olympic Qualifying Tournaments, which are scheduled for June and July 2021).

Like with many things affected by coronavirus, there are no good answers – just hard decisions on what to compromise.

Details leak on life inside Orlando bubble: Daily testing, 1,600 people, 2K crowd noise at games

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Players do not report to the Walt Dinsey World campus in Orlando for another month to restart the NBA season — and it will be weeks after that before games start on July 31 — but we’re beginning to learn more about life inside that bubble.

A bubble the players from a couple of teams could be in for more than three months.

On a Friday conference call, representatives of the National Basketball Players Association backed the 22-team return-to-play format.  Out of that call, we learned some more details about what life will be like in the bubble, courtesy Shams Charania of The Athletic. Among his notes:

– 1,600 maximum people on campus
– Coronavirus testing every day; minimum seven days of quarantine for a player who tests positive
– There could be crowd noise via NBA 2K video game sounds, but the NBA and NBPA is still discussing creative opportunities

That 1,600 people in the bubble/campus includes players and staffs from teams (about 770 people) plus referees, league personnel, broadcasters, and more. It fills up quickly, which is why family members — likely just three per player — will not be allowed until after at least the second round of the playoffs when a number of teams have cleared out (an issue for players).

Players were asked once in the bubble not to leave, and the same applied to their families when they arrive. This is not a summer vacation at Disney World. While there are no armed guards or security to keep players and staff on the campus, the goal was to create a safe environment and people heading out into greater Orlando, for whatever reason, sets that goal back.

The daily testing will be done by the NBPA and will involve mouth or light nasal swabs, not the invasive ones. Also, there will be no antibody testing, and no blood tests.

Teams will get a three-hour practice window during training camp and on off-days, which will include time in the provided wight room. After that, the equipment will be sanitized before the next team uses the courts.

Crowd noise — as seen on the Bundesliga soccer broadcasts from Germany seen here in the USA — is controversial. While the league is talking to the makers of the NBA 2K video game about piped-in crowd noise, that is definitely a topic still up for discussion.

As Keith Smith discussed on the ProBasketballTalk Podcast this week, games in Orlando are expected to be played sort of like at Summer League, with some starting at noon (or early afternoon) and alternating on courts all day. East Coast teams will likely have the earlier slots while there could be some 10 p.m. Eastern start times for a couple of West Coast teams (where it would still be just 7 p.m.).

We previously knew players would be allowed to golf and eat at outdoor restaurants at the Disney resort, so long as they followed social distancing guidelines.

For everything we know about life in the bubble, there are far more questions left unanswered. In the next month we will learn a lot more.

 

NBA players’ union approves 22-team format restart of season

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It’s not perfect and there are still details to be worked out — including exactly when next season will start — but the NBA players are on board with 22-team restart plan for the NBA season in Orlando.

Friday the National Basketball Players Association, with 28 team representatives on the conference call, voted to approve the 22-team plan. Here is the official statement from the union:

“The Board of Player Representatives of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) has approved further negotiations with the NBA on a 22-team return to play scenario to restart the 2019-20 NBA season. Various details remain to be negotiated and the acceptance of the scenario would still require that all parties reach agreement on all issues relevant to resuming play.”

This was expected. NBA Commissioner has worked closely with players union president Chris Paul of the Thunder and executive director Michelle Roberts throughout the process. There were no big surprises in the plan by the time it came up for a vote. Nobody got everything they wanted but everyone got a plan they could live with.

The issues still to be negotiated include some of the health and safety procedures — although players were informed on Friday’s call there will be daily testing and were asked not to leave the Orlando bubble — as well as the timing of the off-season and the start date of next season.

The biggest issue to be figured out still, of course, will be money.

It’s money that ultimately got owners and players to come together behind the 22-team format. It plays regular-season games — called “seeding games” — that can be broadcast on regional sports networks (helping those teams) plus a full playoffs with seven-game series broadcast on ESPN/ABC and TNT. Exactly what the financial picture for the league will be next season is still murky, but the sides are talking.

In terms of pure player safety, the league could have done better going straight to the 16-game postseason, but this was the balance of risk and financial reward the league settled upon.

The details of the format continue to leak out, and some of that is still to be negotiated, but with the player vote all sides have come together behind a plan.

The question becomes, can they pull it off?