Joel Embiid

Getty Images

Kobe Bryant on best NBA duo: “I think it matters what they put around those two guys”

1 Comment

James Harden and Russell Westbrook. LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Eventually there will be Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, plus Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

The NBA is stacked with elite duos that are NBA contenders, and figuring out which twosome will fit best together has become part of making a prediction for who will win the NBA title.

Kobe Bryant was asked that in an interview by ESPN and he went another direction (hat tip Hoop Rumors).

“It doesn’t matter. I think it matters what they put around those two guys, and then what is the offensive and defensive system they’re going to be executing. You could have marquee names and put those marquee names together, and guess if they could play together or not, but it ultimately comes down to what system do you have them in and how does that affect the rest of the guys.”

He’s right. The Warriors had a big three but do they win without Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, solid bigs, and everyone there buying into Steve Kerr’s system? LeBron and Irving in Cleveland needed Kevin Love and J.R. Smith (pre-meltdown mistake) to win in 2016. The big three of LeBron/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh had Ray Allen and other guys to hit big shots, plus they lost before they all bought into Eric Spoelstra’s system. The Spurs won five rings with Tim Duncan/Tony Parker/Manu Ginobili but always were the ultimate system team under Gregg Popovich.

It’s why a lot of pundits lean toward the Clippers when looking at the coming season — this was a 48-win, hard-to-play-against team well coached by Doc Rivers last season before Leonard and George showed up. But, will the Clippers be the same team and play with the same passion this season? Do the Lakers have the guard play needed to contend, and can Frank Vogel get them on the same page (can he keep his job)? Do the Rockets have the depth after their starting five? Will any of those teams fully buy into the coach’s system?

What makes this NBA season so fascinating and wide open is that every team has plenty of questions, there is no juggernaut. But next June, we may be talking less about the best duo and more about what Kobe said — which supporting cast and system worked best?

 

NBCsports.com’s “50 best players in 5 years” recap: Players 25-1

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
4 Comments

This summer, the NBA team at NBCSports.com decided to take on a thought experiment: 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?

We 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. There were plenty of disagreements (and we don’t expect you to agree with all of our list), but we came up with one.

This is a quick recap of the players in the top 25, with an excerpt from the write up of each player. Here is a link to the summary of players 50-26, and if you want more detail here are the links to players 25-21, 20-16, 15-11, 10-6, and the top five.

25. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Age in 2024: 26)
How Gilgeous-Alexander will develop from here on out will be interesting to watch. His role is changing, and the playing environment and coaching style is changing. He’s not going to be Russell Westbrook — nobody is, plus they have very different games. Gilgeous-Alexander is more traditional point guard, more game manager, not an explosive isolation specialist who gets buckets.(Kurt Helin)

24. John Collins (Age in 2024: 26)
I made the declaration earlier this summer that Collins and Trae Young could be this generation’s Amar’e Stoudemire and Steve Nash. I stand by that. Collins may not be as strong and polished offensively as Stoudemire, but they play with the same force around the basket. Every time Collins dunks, you wonder what the basket ever did to him to deserve that assault.. (Tom Haberstroh)

23. Kyrie Irving (Age in 2024: 32)
Brooklyn will help shape Irving’s legacy — he goes to a playoff team with a strong established culture through coach Kenny Atkinson, an organization with good young players already seen on this list in Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert. In a year, once healthy, Kevin Durant will join them and form a squad that should be a title contender in the East. The questions abound: How does Irving fit in? How does his game evolve? His leadership skills? (Kurt Helin)

22. Ja Morant (Age in 2024: 25)
The best comparison in that sense is probably De'Aaron Fox, another spindly guard with sprinter’s speed and a jump shot that needs fine-tuning… The difference between Morant and Fox is passing ability. Morant has yet to play an NBA game, but I firmly believe he is going to be among the ten best players in the entire NBA when it comes to court vision, passing and the ability to make plays and create shots for teammates out of ball-screens. (Rob Dauster)

21. Deandre Ayton (Age in 2024: 26)
Ayton is going to be an offensive force in five years, at age 26, especially if he adds some range to his shot and the Suns let him explore other aspects of his game. However, how high he ultimately should be on this list will depend on a couple of other things. The big one is his defense — he struggled on this end as a rookie, with his recognition and as a rim protector. Ayton needs to become a defensive anchor for the Suns. The way the NBA is evolving, an offense-only big man who is not a good rim protector has a limited role. (Kurt Helin)

20. Pascal Siakam (Age in 2024: 30)
Siakam will be in his prime the next five years, and the question now becomes just where is his ceiling? He’s a 6’9” elite athlete who is a strong perimeter defender on one end and can create his own shot on the other. There are not a lot of those around. Raptors’ coach Nick Nurse said that Siakam now has “gotta be the man” for the Raptors, can he be that No. 1 option… Siakam got a lot of wide-open looks at threes last season, with defenses often focused on Kawhi Leonard, but how will he adapt when he is the guy at the top of the opponent’s scouting report? (Kurt Helin)

19. Kristaps Porzingis (Age in 2024: 29)
When healthy Porzingis is a 7’3″ unicorn of a big man who can defend inside, run the floor, and knockdown threes. He averaged 17.8 points and 7.1 rebounds a game over his career with the Knicks, all while shooting 36.1 percent from three. There are no other big men who bring his skill set to the game. But will we get the same Porzingis going forward? How well will he move coming back from that ACL, and can he stay healthy?(Kurt Helin)

18. James Harden (Age in 2024: 34)
The questions for evaluators in this series were, “How good will Harden be at age 34 heading into his age 35 season? How will his game age?” Probably pretty well, which is why he is still so high on this list. Harden’s game is all about craft, it’s not built on his explosive athleticism or his freakish skills for someone so tall. Harden’s unconventional, hesitation-filled game is more about throwing his defenders off-balance — he has a lot of old-man-at-the-Y in his game. That will still work well as he ages.(Kurt Helin)

17. Bradley Beal (Age in 2024: 31)
Beal is going to be one of the top shooting guards in the game the next five years as he is just entering his prime. Beal has made more threes in his career than any other player through their age 25 season (Beal has 1,071, Klay Thompson is second at 1,060, then Stephen Curry is third with 905). Beal can shoot the three (35.1 percent last season), put the ball on the floor and drive, moves well off the ball (he ran more total miles last season during games — 222.7 total, or 2.75 per game — than any player in the league), and is an active and willing defender. (Kurt Helin)

16. Jaren Jackson Jr. (Age in 2024: 24)
This kid has Chris Bosh written all over him — and he can be even better. It feels odd to call him “kid” when his game screams wily veteran. Jackson Jr. is still just 19 years old, but he already can stretch the floor and block shots like a seasoned big… Jackson’s game is tailor made for the pace-and-space era. He made 51 triples last season and converted 35.9 percent of his tries beyond the arc, making him one of the sweetest shooting bigs in the league already. He has a guard-like handle and moves fluidly on the block. (Tom Haberstroh)

15. Jamal Murray (Age in 2024: 27)
Murray averaged 18.2 points a game while shooting 36.7 percent from three last season, plus he added 4.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists per night… The key for Denver wasn’t just the scoring threat, although that mattered, but also Murray kept the ball moving and made teams pay for focusing too much defensive attention on Jokic. In the playoffs, Murray upped his game and became the offensive bellwether for the team — when Murray struggled on offense (settling for too many contested mid-range jumpers) the Denver offense stalled out, but when he was confidently draining threes and moving the ball they were hard to stop. (Kurt Helin)

14. De’Aaron Fox (Age in 2024: 26)
“I’m always looking toward the future, individually and I think everybody has to be a little selfish in that aspect,” Fox told NBC Sports. “To continue to grow, to continue to be the kind of player I can be, to put the league on notice that I’m here, I’m established, and just continue to grow as a man.”

Fox has personal goals — becoming an All-Star, to start — plus the team goal of getting the Kings to the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. To get there will take more than just speed, the craft of Fox’s game needs to catch up with that pace. (Kurt Helin)

13. Devin Booker (Age in 2024: 27)
Booker is an exceptional scorer for his age. Last season, he made real strides rounding out his offensive game – converting from all areas inside the arc, drawing fouls and distributing. He’s ready to be a go-to scorer. His knockdown 3-point shooting also gives him a chance to play a secondary role on a better team if he ever joins one. Defense remains a huge shortcoming, though. That fits into larger questions about the habits Booker is developing. (Dan Feldman)

12. Jayson Tatum (Age in 2024: 26)
Boston needs Tatum to return to his trajectory as an elite player next season. Tatum had an impressive rookie season that had him looking like a franchise cornerstone (especially in the playoffs when he averaged 18.5 points a game and was a quality shot creator). However, he plateaued in his second season, likely in part due to the failed chemistry experiment the Celtics became. Tatum got hung up in that, not moving the ball and his shot selection getting worse. The USA Basketball experience and time with Gregg Popovich will help Tatum move on from last season, there’s a lot of basketball knowledge to soak up. (Kurt Helin)

11. Joel Embiid (Age in 2024: 30)
Embiid’s winding road, fairly or unfairly, makes projecting him difficult. No matter how many 30-15-5 nights Embiid puts up, it’s hard to put aside the injury variable that delayed his NBA career two years. With two surgeries on his navicular bone and nagging knee issues on that enormous frame, there’s no doubt that Embiid’s health record keeps him outside of the top-10.

Because if we look at Embiid’s age, talent and production, he should be much closer to the top, if not right at the top. At 25 years old, he’s at the front edge of his prime. He just averaged 27.5 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists while making over 100 jumpers outside 16 feet. There’s almost nothing he can’t do on the basketball court. (Tom Haberstroh)

10. Trae Young (Age in 2024: 25)
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. (Kurt Helin)

9. Ben Simmons (Age in 2024: 28)
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… 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. (Dan Feldman)

8. Donovan Mitchell (Age in 2024: 27)
“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 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. (Kurt Helin)

7. Karl-Anthony Towns (Age in 2024: 28)
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… 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. (Dan Feldman)

6. Kawhi Leonard (Age in 2024: 33)
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. (Kurt Helin)

5. Zion Williamson (Age in 2024: 24)
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… 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. (Rob Dauster)

4. Nikola Jokic (Age in 2024: 29)
Jokic is a reigning All-NBA first-team player. He’s the best-passing center in NBA history. And he’s just 24… 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. (Dan Feldman)

3. Luka Doncic (Age in 2024: 25)
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… 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… The biggest issue is conditioning. (Kurt Helin)

2. Anthony Davis (Age in 2024: 31)
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… 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 (Age in 2024: 29)
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. (Dan Feldman)

Mark Cuban on difference between NBA and NFL: “The NBA markets its players”

11 Comments

Football is the most popular and dominant of the American sports domestically, and with that the NFL remains the 800-pound gorilla of American sports.

Or, maybe that’s 700-pound gorilla. In recent years, football in general and the NFL in particular have lost momentum. It’s not just that viewership numbers are down (that’s something every major sport is dealing with as younger generations consume media differently, in ways that don’t fit the traditional model), it’s that youth participation numbers are dropping as well. That’s a troubling sign for the sport.

Meanwhile, the NBA seems to be picking up momentum behind popular young stars such as Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Mark Cuban, governor of the Dallas Mavericks, spoke about the difference between the NBA and NFL when he appeared on “Kanell and Bell” on CBS Sports HQ Tuesday.

“The NFL sells the NFL. The NBA sells its players. The NFL markets the NFL. The NBA markets its players, and players drive who we are in the NBA. You couldn’t identify 90 percent of NFL players if they were standing right in front of you. That’s a big part of their core problem. If you look at the social media following of NFL players, it’s not that big … So, that’s an issue for NFL players, and I’m thinking it’s by design from the NFL because that’s what gives them more leverage. NFL players don’t make nearly as much off the field, other than the quarterback and maybe one skill position player, maybe two per team, as NBA players do, because they just don’t have the brand or visibility. That gives the NFL a lot more negotiating power, and I think that’s something that the NFL should be helping their players with more.”

The NFL certainly works to control its marketing and message much more tightly. However, other factors help the NBA market its players — they are not wearing helmets on the court, so we see their faces more, and there are fewer NBA players. To be fair, most fans couldn’t identify NBA players on the back half of the bench most of the time, but the starters and stars do get more facetime. And the league does encourage them to speak out on social issues and to build their brands.

With that comes the player empowerment in the NBA that troubles some… but not Cuban.

“Unlike every other professional sports league, we’re a talent-driven league … We get the benefits of that. Our guys have the biggest social media following, our guys have the biggest social impact when there’s issues around the country, around the world. Guys have made the effort to develop those followings, and to build themselves as brands, and the NBA is the only professional sport that has really benefited from that, and the trade-off from that is the talent has more power, and in reality that’s just real world … I don’t have a problem with it.”

Cuban went on to say he thought the player movement this summer — and the fact the title chase is the most wide open it has been in many years — is going to be good for the league. Rather than just LeBron’s Lakers and Curry’s Warriors selling out buildings, now there will be more teams attracting fans. That’s good for business in Cuban’s eyes.

All these comments will sit well with players. However, the NBA faces the same challenges as the NFL and other leagues in adapting to modern viewing habits, and more importantly figuring out how to make that profitable. No league has quite figured that out.

With Bucks hoping to take off, leaving behind Malcolm Brogdon a risky choice

AP Photo/David Zalubowski
3 Comments

Next season is the Bucks’ time.

They shouldn’t wait.

They can’t wait.

Milwaukee is very good. Good enough to win a championship. There are no overwhelmingly dominant-looking teams this year. Most of the top contenders will beat up on each other out West. In the Eastern Conference, the 76ers must develop chemistry after a major roster makeover, and Kevin Durant‘s injury puts the Nets another year away from title contention. The Bucks got a necessary and hard-learned lesson in how to compete deep in the playoffs last season. They look primed now.

Giannis Antetokounmpo will also be eligible for a super-max contract extension next offseason. His willingness to re-up might depend on Milwaukee’s success this season. The Bucks remaining elite is totally predicated on keeping the 24-year-old MVP. His satisfaction with the team must be the priority.

With all that swirling, Milwaukee parted with restricted free agent Malcolm Brogdon.

A young talented guard the Bucks held matching rights on – gone. In return, they got absolutely nothing that will directly help them in the ultra-important upcoming season.

Maybe that was the right call. By signing-and-trading Brogdon to the Pacers, Milwaukee got a first-rounder and two second-rounders and avoided paying a red-flagged player $85 million over four years. There’s a case the Bucks got enough value and preserved enough flexibility to justify the move, even considering next season’s high stakes.

But this was also an essential decision for avoiding the luxury tax. That can’t be dismissed. If Milwaukee weakened its roster due to a refusal to pay the luxury tax this season of all seasons, that’d be incredibly disappointing.

This could be a choice that significantly shapes the Bucks for the next decade. I wish I had a better sense of their motivations.

At least Milwaukee got done the rest of its heavy lifting this summer and even rebounded nicely from the loss of Brogdon.

The Bucks re-signed Khris Middleton for less than the max (five years, $177.5 million). It was essential to keep Antetokounmpo’s lone supporting star.

Brook Lopez – with his 3-point shooting and interior defense – is even more important to Milwaukee’s identity. In a tricky situation due to holding only his Non-Bird Rights, the Bucks cleared enough cap space to re-sign him for four years, $52 million.

Milwaukee also had enough cap space to re-sign George Hill (three years, $28,771,806 with $20 million guaranteed). Hill played well in the playoffs. He’s also 33. It’s worth signing Hill to this deal. He can back up Eric Bledsoe, who struggled the last two postseasons, and help at shooting guard with Brogdon gone. But it’s far from certain Hill will live up to this contract.

The Bucks found surprising reinforcements at shooting guard with Wesley Matthews (1+1 minimum) and Kyle Korver (one-year minimum). Both are past their primes, but that’s tremendous value for those two. The big question: Would they have come to Milwaukee if Brogdon hadn’t left open so much playing time? That must be considered in the Brogdon evaluation, but again, it’s difficult to discern.

Robin Lopez signed for the room exception on 1+1. He’ll back up his twin brother. The Bucks could use Robin’s size at the position, especially with Joel Embiid and Philadelphia looking like the top threat in the East.

These are all good deals for Milwaukee. This offseason could have gone far worse for the Bucks given the steps they had to take to open cap space for Brook Lopez and Hill.

Milwaukee traded the overpaid but still helpful Tony Snell and No. 30 pick to the Pistons for Jon Leuer then waived Leuer, accepting a $3,169,348 over the next three years. That was a nasty set of transactions, but it was necessary. The Bucks also lost Nikola Mirotic, who returned to Europe.

After that, it was standard low-end roster moves. Adding Dragan Bender is intriguing. Adding Thanasis Antetokounmpo is the cost of doing business.

It just keeps coming back to Brogdon. How much will the Bucks miss him? How much did his departure improve their ability to lure Matthews and Korver? What will Milwaukee do with the draft picks acquired from Indiana?

That last one is a biggie. Trade those picks in the right deal, and the roster next could be even than it would have been with Brogdon – especially if ownership is willing to enter the luxury tax.

I just have a hard time figuring out where the Bucks stand on that, and it makes me uneasy about their summer.

Offseason grade: C

NBCSports.com’s 50 best players in 5 years: Players 45-41

Sean Berry/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

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 players 50-46. These are players 45-41 on our list.

45. Brandon Ingram

Brandon Ingram is about to embark on a season that will tell us a lot about his future, about where he and his game will be when he turns 26.

Ingram — all skinny arms and legs, with potential he is trying to figure out — has been the poster child for the phrase “development is not linear.” There are stretches of games he looks like what the Lakers hoped to get in their No. 2 pick, a top-two scoring option for an NBA team. Then there are times you forget he is even on the court. His role kept shifting in Los Angeles — from being the first scoring option to trying to play next to LeBron James (something a lot of players have struggled with over the years) — making it especially hard to figure out who Ingram is, exactly. Maybe a fresh start in New Orleans will help Ingram find his game.

Let’s hope Ingram is healthy and on the court in 2024 — he missed the end of last season with Deep Vein Thrombosis (more commonly called blood clots). If it’s recurring it can end his career (as it did with Chris Bosh among others). Ingram had surgery and the prognosis has been favorable, he’s expected to be able to continue in the NBA, but a lot of teams (the Pelicans included) will want to wait and see what happens this season before offering a long-term contract (Ingram is a restricted free agent next summer).

Those teams also will want to see how Ingram reacts to his new home and team. Will it be another year of a slow start with Ingram coming on in the second half? Last season his second-half surge started when he began to show much better decision making about when to try to finish at the rim vs. when to kick out and find teammates. On a new team, one that wants to get out and run, will that improved decision making — as well as finishing at the rim — continue?

Consistency of doing these things well has been the issue in Ingram’s career. He needs to be more consistent shooting the three, on the boards, and defensively. He’s got the potential to do all of that very well, but it just hasn’t consistently come together for him yet. If he gets it all together this ranking will be too low, but our panel was not convinced he will find that consistency. He hasn’t done it so far.
—Kurt Helin

44. Jarrett Allen

Jarrett Allen is old school — and we’re not just talking the Afro (although that is sweet). It’s his game and persona. Allen is a center who wants to play in the paint on offense and hang back and protect the rim on defense, plus he will crash the glass. He’s not trying to step out to the arc, or get the ball and face-up, instead he’s going to set picks and roll, catch and score around the rim, grab boards, and on defense try to shut down anyone who is looking to attack. Allen also comes with old-school competitiveness and work ethic. He’s a quiet leader and an old soul. A throwback in the best of ways.

All of that has made Allan one of the anchors for the Nets, part of what lifted Brooklyn to the playoffs last season. Allen, in two seasons, became part of the Nets’ foundation that attracted Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.

Just how good can Allen ultimately be?

Very good if you ask anyone with the Nets. Former teammate Ed Davis thought Allen could become a $100 million player. Allen’s game and athleticism put his ceiling incredibly high.

To reach that ceiling, he has to become more physical and maybe stretch out his ability to score a little. One of the biggest knocks on Allen is he gets outmuscled inside, which in a conference with Joel Embiid (who is not going anywhere in the next five years) and even Brook Lopez, can be an issue. Allen looked stronger at Summer League, but that’s Summer League. He has to show it against the men of the NBA. Also, Allen took 68 percent of his shots in the restricted area and 90 percent in the paint last season, and while he is efficient at those if he can stretch it out it would be a boost.

Does Brooklyn believe in Allen? They just gave DeAndre Jordan a four-year, $40 million contract. While a lot of that is political (Jordan is one of Durant’s best friends), it’s a shot across the bow of Allen, who is going to have to prove he deserves to be the starter and the guy getting big minutes. Allen will do that, how soon is the question. This season? In a few? When he can prove it and get close to his ceiling will determine if Allen can get all that money Ed Davis thinks he should get paid.
—Kurt Helin

43. Victor Oladipo

Victor Oladipo – who was widely dismissed as insufficient return for Paul George – flourished early in the 2017-18 season. It was certainly enough to force reconsideration of the Pacers-Thunder deal. But it was still a small sample, not enough to conclude Oladipo had actually become a star and wasn’t on just a blip of a hot streak.

“I think this is who I am,” Oladipo said.

He spent the rest of the season proving it. Oladipo became an All-Star and ran away with Most Improved Player.

He’ll have to prove himself again. This time, he’ll get far more benefit of the doubt.

Oladipo has played like a star just a season and a half. He’s missed half of last season with a quad injury that could cause him to miss a significant chunk of next season, too. There’s no guarantee he reverts to peak form, let alone remains this good at age 32.

But Oladipo’s competitiveness, work ethic and tenacity are inspiring. Of the NBA’s go-to-scorer guards, none defend like him. He developed primary skills like shooting and ball-handling without losing his edge. Oladipo is easy to support, and he’ll have plenty of backers in this next stage of his career.
—Dan Feldman

42. CJ McCollum

CJ McCollum assuaged a lot of the fears Portland Trail Blazers fans had about him this postseason. When teams keyed off on Damian Lillard, McCollum was there to pick up the slack, continuing to pressure opposing defenses until they relented in defeat. The year culminated for McCollum during his Game 7 performance against the Denver Nuggets. He scored 37 points, sealing the game with a step-back jumper from the left elbow with 11.4 seconds left that was very Michael Jordan-esque.

So, now what?

McCollum just signed a new contract with the Trail Blazers that will keep him in Portland through 2023-24. At age 27, it seems likely McCollum will continue to get better on defense. We have already seen improvement this very postseason by running mate Lillard, who was one of the more effective point guard defenders.

Five years from now, Lillard and McCollum might not be paired up together. But the NBA is a place where not every star guard who can score 20 a night deserves his own team. That’s how you end up with a league of Devin Bookers.

McCollum is a worker, and more importantly, has a mentality that he is a top dog. Lillard or not, McCollum will try to get the rest of the league to recognize his undeniability, and the only way to do that is to get better on D. I’d expect big changes in the next 24 months.
—Dane Delgado

41. R.J. Barrett

I said this before the draft. I said this to Knicks fans after the draft. And I’ll say it again right here. In October of 2018, the 2019 NBA Draft was the RJ Barrett draft. He was the consensus projected No. 1 pick. He was the consensus Preseason National Player of the Year in college basketball. He was the guy that we all thought every franchise in the NBA would be tanking for the chance to draft.

And all he did during his one and done season with Duke was average a cool 22 points, seven boards, and four assists, a stat line that we haven’t seen anyone post since Penny Hardaway did is as a junior in 1992. Penny was a 21 year old playing in the GMWC. RJ was an 18 year old playing in the ACC.

That’s impressive.

I’ll add this: I also understand why there are people who question what RJ’s fit will be at the NBA level. There are legitimate concerns about his jumper. He’s left-hand dominant. He has not proven to be a lock-down defender. He’s ball-dominant, and he might not be good enough to play on the ball in the NBA. But after talking with people around the Duke program and that know RJ, I think that it is worth noting that he’s wired the way that Kawhi Leonard is and Kobe Bryant was. He’s uber-competitive. He has that alpha in him. And, most importantly, he is a worker. He may not end up having the potential to be a superstar in the NBA, but I do think he is the kind of person that is going to find a way to maximize every skill and physical tool he has. Put another way, I’m betting on RJ hitting his ceiling because I’m betting on that human being finding a way to figure it out.
—Rob Dauster