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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

The time Shaq peed in Suns teammate Lou Amundson’s shoes – and worse!

Suns players Lou Amundson and Shaquille O'Neal (Shaq)
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Gilbert Arenas has earned a reputation as the NBA player who relieved himself in a teammate’s shoe (Wizards forward Andray Blatche’s).

But Arenas’ tactic wasn’t unique.

Shaquille O’Neal got into a prank war with Suns teammate Lou Amundson during the 2008-09 season. It got intense as Phoenix, coached by Alvin Gentry, reached the final game of its season.

ESPN’s Amin Elhassan on “The Dan Le Batard Show With Stugotz” local hour, hosted by Mike Ryan:

Shaq is the big prankster, the big joker. But if you do something against him, there’s no tit for tat. There’s tit for nuclear war.

He goes to Lou’s locker, grabs his sneakers, pees in them.

That’s the start, right? He then goes and let’s just say “messes with” some of Lou’s haircare devices, like his brush and his comb and stuff. Messes with them. Let me put it this way: Messes with them in a way that – I was comfortable telling you he peed in the shoes. I’m not comfortable telling you what he did to the hair stuff. And then this part, I will tell you: He tampers with Lou’s mouth guard.

He tampers with it.

He tampers with it.

Lou shows up at like 8 or whenever he usually shows up. And he’s skittish and nervous. And Suns.com is there like, “What do you think Shaq is going to do?” “I don’t know. I think he’s going to do something, though.”

So, I’ll never forget this. He’s sitting at the locker, and he opens – he starts to reach for the sneakers and then looks at them and says, “Nah, something doesn’t feel right.” Opens the door up, pulls out a fresh pair of sneakers for the last game of the year, right? Again, this is irregular behavior. Usually, you have a couple of sneakers. You break them in for the year, and you switch between two or three or three or four, whatever. So to break out a whole brand new pair … was weird.

Most of the time when you’re an NBA player, you don’t put on the mouth guard immediately. You have it in a case, and you give the case to the trainer. Then, you go out to the bench. Then, when you’re about to come into the game, that’s when you grab your mouthpiece.

There’s no funnier image than Alvin drawing up a play, kneeling down, coaches standing around him. Lou is sitting there, because now he’s in the game. The guys who are in the game are usually seated. Sitting there just staring at the clipboard, like, “OK, coach. I got you.” And everyone else is just staring at Lou. No one’s paying attention.

Puts the mouth guard in. One, two [sounds of disgust], takes the mouth guard out and flings it with tremendous accuracy at the bench. Everyone starts dying. I remember going back and watching the broadcast, “Oh, Suns bench seems to be getting a lot of fun.” They had no idea what’s happening.

What did Shaq do to Amundson’s mouth guard? My imagination is running WILD.

Elhassan also explains why Grant Hill took 25 shots – his most in four years – in that game. Hill needed to score 26 points to average 12 points per game for the season, which would trigger a large bonus in his shoe contract. Hill’s gunning got him 27 points.

It’s a good podcast with other fun anecdotes and worth a listen.

Magic: Mo Bamba out for playoffs, undergoing post-coronavirus evaluation

Magic center Mo Bamba
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Mo Bamba contracted coronavirus, fell out of shape, recovered, joined the Magic in the bubble then struggled to contribute on the court.

Now, he’s departing the bubble for good.

Magic:

The Magic are huge underdogs in their first-round series against the Bucks. This doesn’t really change the equation. Bamba had already fallen from the rotation, which is now comprised of Nikola Vucevic and Khem Birch at center.

But it raises thorny long-term questions.

Bamba was the No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. Though he has underwhelmed so far, the Magic were still hoping he’d grow into a quality NBA player. Bamba at least improved from his rookie season.

His progress has obviously been halted. For how long? Will he face lasting effects?

Everyone is trying to get to the bottom of these difficult questions.

Reported Bulls coaching candidates: Kenny Atkinson, Stephen Silas, Darvin Ham, more

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The Bulls fired Jim Boylen. 76ers assistant Ime Udoka was reportedly frontrunner for the job, but Chicago will conduct a full search.

Who else is in the mix?

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

The broad search is expected to include former Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Mavericks assistant Stephen Silas, Bucks assistant Darvin Ham and 76ers assistant Ime Udoka, among others, sources said.

Atkinson is the only former head coach on that list. Like Tyronn Lue for win-now teams, Atkinson is the top available coach for rebuilding teams. (If fired by the 76ers, Brett Brown could supplant Atkinson.) Atkinson had a strong record of player development before Brooklyn shifted priorities.

The Bulls – with Zach LaVine, Coby White, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and a high first-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft – could use someone like him.

But Atkinson could have options, and Chicago might not be the most desirable opening.

Udoka, Silas, Ham and Unseld are all rising assistants who have earned head-coaching consideration. Interviews should help determine whether they’re ready for that step.

PBT NBA All-Bubble Awards

Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard and Rockets star James Harden
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The NBA will announce seeding-game awards tomorrow.

But the play-in is already set. Other playoff matchups are already set. The final seeding games today are just glorified scrimmages.

So, why wait to name the top performers in the bubble?

Here are our picks using the same format as the league – a Most Valuable Player, two five-player teams (no positions) and a coach:

Bubble MVP

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)

Kurt Helin: It isn’t simply that Damian Lillard led the bubble in scoring at 37.6 points per game. It wasn’t how he got those points, with ridiculously deep threes and driving layups. It was when he did it that makes him bubble MVP: When the Trail Blazers had a rough outing (as did Lillard) and looked like they might fade from postseason contention, he came back next game and dropped 61. Then 51 the game after that. Then 42 in the final bubble game with the playoffs on the line. Lillard was the ultimate leader and willed his team to the play-in series, and that’s what makes him MVP of the seeding games.
Dan Feldman: James Harden was more consistently good and even sometimes great. But nobody hit higher levels than Lillard, who stepped up in the biggest moments to lead Portland into the play-in with the eighth-place advantage. Lillard set an emotional tone for a team constantly vulnerable of falling from the playoff race, and he delivered on the court with brilliant offense. He wasn’t perfect, but he went to great lengths to ensure the Trail Blazers met their goal. That’s the bubble MVP.

All-Bubble teams

First team

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)
Devin Booker (Suns) James Harden (Rockets)
T.J. Warren (Pacers) Devin Booker (Suns)
Luka Doncic (Mavericks) T.J. Warren (Pacers)
James Harden (Rockets) Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

Second team

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Jayson Tatum (Celtics) Luka Doncic (Mavericks)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks) Michael Porter Jr. (Nuggets)
Kawhi Leonard (Clippers) Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)
DeMar DeRozan (Spurs) Paul George (Clippers)
Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks) Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks)

Kurt Helin: It was difficult leaving Antetokounmpo off the first team, he played brilliantly but his team was in cruise control (plus he took himself out of the last game by headbutting Moe Wagner). A few players such as Fred VanVleet and Michael Porter Jr. also almost made the cut.

Dan Feldman: Lillard, Harden, Booker and Warren were first-team locks. Antetokounmpo was absolutely dominant when he wanted to be, which was limited with the Bucks locking up the No. 1 seed early. Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, Chris Paul, Gary Trent Jr. and Fred VanVleet were among the contenders for the final second-team spots.

Coach of the Bubble

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Monty William (Suns) Monty William (Suns)

Kurt Helin: Every young team talked about it heading into the restart (and developing teams not invited to the restart begged for the same opportunity): Using the bubble games as a chance for a young core to grow and take a step forward. Except teams like Sacramento and New Orleans didn’t do that. Phoenix, behind Monty Williams did — they became the story of the bubble at 8-0. Devin Booker exploded and got himself in MVP talk, Deandre Ayton played brilliantly, and the Suns came from six-games back of Memphis to almost make the playoffs. Williams set the Suns up to be a playoff team in the West next season.

Dan Feldman: Phoenix went 8-0! That alone is pretty darned impressive, and the context reflects even more favorably on Williams. The Suns entered the bubble with the lowest playoff odds among the continuing 22 teams. Needing to make up 2.5 games and – more significantly – jump four (!) teams, Phoenix could have easily arrived unmotivated and ripe for distraction. Instead, Williams had the Suns playing fearlessly, cohesively and joyously. Williams even leaned heavily on his young players rather than his veterans, taking excellent advantage of a player-development opportunity and positioning Phoenix to ascend next season.