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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

LeBron and Lakers top Tatum’s big afternoon for Celtics 114-112

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LOS ANGELES (AP) LeBron James scored 29 points and put the Lakers ahead on a fallaway jumper with 30 seconds to play, and Los Angeles split its season series with the Boston Celtics with a 114-112 victory Sunday.

James missed a tying free throw moments before he coolly nailed the shot the put the Lakers ahead to stay in a frenetic fourth quarter to cap the latest chapter of this famed NBA rivalry.

Anthony Davis had 32 points and 13 rebounds in the fifth straight win overall for the Lakers, who took a 32-point blowout loss in Boston last month.

Davis hit two free throws with 12.3 seconds left and added one more with 6.7 seconds to play, before Jayson Tatum was called for charging in the final second as he attempted to create one last basket.

Tatum matched his career high with 41 points for the Celtics, who had won 12 of 14 starting with that dominant win over the Lakers in January.

Boston turned the ball over with 15.5 seconds left after James’ big shot, and Celtics coach Brad Stevens got a technical foul for arguing about it. Davis missed that free throw, however.

Grant Williams hit two free throws for Boston immediately afterward, and Davis hit one of two to give a final chance to the Celtics.

Jaylen Brown scored 20 points for Boston, but Kemba Walker missed his second straight game with left knee soreness.

The rematch was far more competitive than the teams’ first meeting this season, with both taking small leads in the fourth quarter before the exciting finish.

Davis’ third 3-pointer put the Lakers up 108-105 with 2:08 to play, but Gordon Hayward hit a jumper before Brown’s 3-pointer put the Celtics back ahead 110-108 with 1:17 to go.

With the Lakers’ immediate return to excellence since beating out Boston to acquire Davis last summer, these longtime rivals are both playoff-bound championship contenders yet again.

Los Angeles is comfortably atop the Western Conference standings, while the Celtics sit third in the East. Both teams have a decent shot of meeting in the NBA Finals for the 13th time if they continue to grow from big games like this thriller.

Tatum underlined his growing superstardom by matching the career high he set against New Orleans last month. He scored 16 points in a five-minute barrage alone during the third quarter, finishing the period with 18.

The Lakers hung in with 16 points in the third from Davis after his quiet first half.

Walker scored 20 points against the Lakers last month to beat James for the first time in the stars’ 29 career meetings. The Lakers took their worst loss of the season in that initial meeting while getting just 23 minutes from Davis, who had just returned from a two-week injury absence.

The rematch featured much more defense than the teams’ first meeting, with Rajon Rondo and Brown both making big steals for their respective clubs. Only Tatum made a major offensive impact in the first half with 19 points.

TIP-INS

Celtics: Walker’s injury is “not a long-term thing,” Stevens said. Walker did work in the weight room before the game. … The bench scored just five points in the first three quarters, including only one field goal, and finished with 11 points.

Lakers: James went down in pain early in the fourth quarter when Daniel Theis ran into him under the basket. James stayed in the game after a timeout. … Rondo spent much of the pregame warmup chatting with Kevin Garnett, his longtime Celtics teammate. Garnett then watched the game from the baseline near the LA bench with Lakers part-owner Patrick Soon-Shiong. … The matchup is always a hot ticket for celebrities. Fans near courtside included Eddie Murphy, Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington.

UP NEXT

Celtics: Visit the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday night.

Lakers: Host the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday night.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Jaren Jackson Jr. out for at least two weeks for Grizzlies

Jaren Jackson Jr. and Gordon Hayward
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The Memphis Grizzlies announced that Jaren Jackson Jr. suffered a sprained left knee late during the second quarter of Friday’s game vs the Los Angeles Lakers:

Memphis says Jackson will be re-evaluated in two weeks.

In his second year, Jackson has been a big part of the Grizzlies surprising success. Memphis is currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with a record of 28-28. Jackson has proven to be an ideal running mate for rookie point guard Ja Morant, as the Grizzlies have rebuilt quicker than anyone expected.

With Jackson out, Memphis will need to replace 16.9 points and 1.6 blocks per game. Jackson also regularly functions as the Grizzlies backup center, sliding over to play the pivot when starter Jonas Valanciunas is out.

With Jackson out for at least two weeks, and potentially longer, Memphis will lean on Kyle Anderson and rookie Brandon Clarke at the four. The trickle-down impact may be more minutes for backup center Gorgui Dieng, who was acquired at the trade deadline, up front behind Valanciunas. In addition, Josh Jackson, who spent the first few months of the season in the G-League, has had a bit of resurgence in recent weeks. With Anderson likely to play more at power forward, Jackson may see even more minutes on the wing.

Ben Simmons out at least through Monday

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Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons‘ troublesome back will keep him out at least through Monday reports NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Serena Winters. Winters reports that Simmons went through testing upon the Sixers return to Philadelphia on Sunday and will have further testing done on Monday:

Simmons missed the first game back from the All-Star break on Thursday due to back soreness. He then exited Saturday night’s game at the Milwaukee Bucks after playing less than five minutes.

Simmons went to his second-straight All-Star game last week. He’s averaged 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 8.2 assists and a league-leading 2.1 steals per game through 54 games this season.

An up-and-down season sees Philadelphia currently fifth in the Eastern Conference. The 76ers are an equal 1.5 games behind Miami for fourth and ahead of Indiana in sixth. The Sixers would love to climb to fourth for homecourt advantage in the postseason, as they’ve been dominant at home with a 26-2 record, while underwhelming on the road at just 9-20.

With Joel Embiid continuing to suffer from injuries, while also having his minutes managed, Philadelphia can’t afford to be without Simmons for long. The 76ers added depth on the wing at the trade deadline with Alec Bucks and Glenn Robinson III, but have little behind Simmons at point guard. Raul Neto started in Simmons’ place on Thursday, but did not play on Saturday until the game was well in-hand for Milwaukee.

Lance Stephenson hopes strong season in China springboards him back to NBA

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The Chinese Basketball Association season is up in the air because of the Coronavirus outbreak. The season is postponed and, while there is talk of restarting it on April 1, there are more questions than answers about that plan right now.

Lance Stephenson was in China playing for the Liaoning Flying Leopards and — as many American scorers can do against the soft defenses in the CBA — put up impressive numbers. Stephenson is hoping to use that as a springboard back to the NBA, reports Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Will it work for Stephenson? Maybe. It only takes one GM looking for a little scoring punch down the stretch to buy-in.

However, GMs also know the numbers are inflated in China and it doesn’t translate to being able to do the same thing in the NBA. Jimmer Fredette is example 1A. Or, here are the top five scorers in the Chinese league so far this season:

1. Dominique Jones (Jilin Northeast Tigers) 37.8
2. Joe Young (Nanjing Monkey Kings) 35.9
3. Darius Adams (Qingdao Eagles) 34.9
4. Tyler Hansbrough (Sichuan Blue Whales) 32.3
5. Jonathan Gibson (Jiangsu Dragons) 31.2

All of those guys, and a lot more, would like to use China as a springboard back to the NBA. That, however, is proving to be a long leap.