When the NBA’s next generation of superstars stepped back and surveyed the league during the All-Star break, what did they see?
They saw the Grizzlies as the surprise story of the season, sitting third in the West at 41-19 led by a young core Memphis drafted and developed: Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Desmond Bane (among others). It’s a similar story in Cleveland with the 35-23 Cavaliers. They followed that same draft-and-develop model with Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Evan Mobley, and then a young Jarrett Allen was added. Minnesota is another story along the same lines, sitting at 31-28, the Timberwolves look like a playoff team behind a home-grown core of Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, and bringing in a young D'Angelo Russell.
The Phoenix Suns are the NBA’s best team, a roster built around a young core they drafted and developed — Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Payne, Cameron Johnson — with just one big free agent move to bring it all together (Chris Paul).
All of those teams are doing better than the spotlight-grabbing assembled super teams in Los Angeles and Brooklyn. The Lakers have LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook, while the Nets are stacked with Kevin Durant (out injured) and Kyrie Irving, plus swapped James Harden for Ben Simmons — and those “powerhouses” appear headed for the play-in tournament.
The NBA’s young stars noticed — and they are looking to follow a different playbook than the last generation of superstars.
“Those are examples of rebuilds that were successful. That’s what we’re trying to be with the Pistons,” last year’s No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham said of the Grizzlies, Cavaliers and others. “Seeing teams like that, how they done it, how they play — they play with a lot of energy they play fast — those are things we’re trying to do with the Pistons. Being able to watch those games and see how they’re having so much fun playing basketball, you can see a different joy in it. Those guys are in year three of their career or whatever and I can definitely see that in our future with the Pistons.”
The Grizzlies’ Bane was around a lot of the league’s young stars All-Star weekend in Cleveland — because he competed in both the Rising Stars and 3-point contests — and they let him know the Grizzlies have become role models.
“Everybody’s impressed with what we’re doing,” Bane said. “Some of these other guys are on teams that are trying to get to where we’re at and, I’m not going to say they are jealous, but you know they are definitely happy for us and maybe wish they were in our shoes. Everybody’s dream is to be a playoff team, and a team that can contend and do special things in the postseason, and we’re one of those teams.”
The challenge for those young teams is to focus on development through more losing than they have ever done in their lives. For most NBA players, from junior high through AAU and college, they were the best player (or one of the best) on a team that won a lot of games. Even on a good NBA team, they will do more losing than they ever have done before.
“We lost a lot last year, but I don’t see myself as a loser,” said Jaden McDaniels, the Timberwolves’ second-year forward. “So just having a winning mentality, even if it’s going bad or good, it just keeps you confident.”
“As much as losing sucks, it’s probably the worst feeling that I feel, I try to keep it that way while I’m losing so I remember how bad I want to win and how bad I need to work to win…” the Pistons’ Cunningham said.
“We’re a young team going through these things. It’s tough, sometimes breaking off a bunch of losses in a row, but eventually when I’m on the other side winning games, I’ll look back at these times and know I went through it.”
And he wants to do it with the team they are building in Detroit. That’s the lesson this generation of young NBA Stars is learning.