The NBA is an ever-changing league, and with the departure of superstars like Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, that means 2016-17 could be the year that the league is taken over by newer, younger stars. There are established players like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry, but Father Time is undefeated, and these players will wear down and make way for an even newer generation of stars.
While some of these players may be relatively unknown, and others may be stars already, this list looks at 15 players who are ready to step up their game in a big way in the upcoming season and could challenge the likes of the aforementioned for their place in the top 15, or "elite" category, of players in the NBA.
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15 Emmanuel Mudiay
Mudiay was one of the most over looked and undervalued rookies this past season, but showcased the amazing skills and athleticism he had all year long in Denver, giving them confidence for the team going forward. He averaged fairly solid numbers for a rookie, and with a team who likes to place a face paced style, he will no doubt see those rise in the near future, especially as Denver adds more talent to the roster. He was named to the NBA All Rookie Second Team, quite an achievement for an unknown who wasn’t talked about, and showed much more potential towards the end of the season. He might not be in the MVP conversation at seasons end, but don’t be surprised if he makes the All-Star team and continues to rise as a star in the league.
14 Jordan Clarkson
Among all the hype of DeAngelo Russell and this years Brandon Ingram, some fans may not realize what a talent Jordan Clarkson is, as he was easily the brightest spot on a Lakers team that in 2016 bid farewell to a legend like Kobe Bryant. With an ability to play either Guard spot, Clarkson will be invaluable to this team moving forward, as they are looking to develop a lot of young talent, as well as get back to the prestige and success that the franchise have become known for. He may be overshadowed with hype by the aforementioned Russell and Ingram, but if Clarkson is given any decent amount of court time at all, he will prove that he is the piece the Lakers should be building around, and will truly take the league by storm.
13 Reggie Jackson
The Detroit Pistons are well on their way to reclaiming past glory, as they possess one of the best centers in the game, but the most underrated player, perhaps in the entire league runs the point for that team, former OKC player, Reggie Jackson. Jackson has been in the league since 2011, and was overshadowed by the big 2 in OKC, but now after 2 seasons away from that organization, he finds himself at the head of one of the most promising teams in the NBA, with whom another solid addition could become a championship contender. Don’t expect Jackson to be leading the league in scoring or assists, but he could be around the top in every major category in the next few years, and will find himself among the elite PG’s in the NBA.
12 Giannis Antetokounmpo
The ‘Greek Freak’ is rightly titled, as he is one of the most physically imposing and versatile young players in the league, who will look to continue the overall improvement of the Milwaukee Bucks as they look to continue their ascent in the Eastern Conference. Despite being just 21, Giannis has been a member of the Bucks since the 2013 season, and has gradually improved each year, and in 2016 was on the cusp of breaking out as a genuine superstar in the NBA. His figures across the board have gone up each year in the league, and if it is the case this year, he will be one of the most well rounded, versatile players in the league, and if you don’t know the Greek Freak by now, you will very soon.
11 Isaiah Thomas
Isaiah Thomas may be small in stature, but he is an amazingly talented offensive player, now running the offense with a Celtics team who looks full of potential, after adding Al Horford in the offseason. His defense will always be a liability, but the Celtics with Brad Stevens at the helm are a good system defense, and the rest of the team will hold up their end of the bargain, meaning Thomas is ready to become the offensive weapon that those who follow him know he can be. He may struggle against talented and athletic guards like Russell Westbrook and John Wall, but given the right opportunities and the team playing up to their standard around him, Thomas could become the star and the face of the franchise that the Celtics have been searching for.
10 Victor Oladipo
Victor Oladipo, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant all in the same lineup, what a year it’s going to be for the Thunder… Oh wait a second. This would have been a fantastic scoring trio, one that could have challenged the Warriors in the West, but Kevin Durant had to leave to join the Warriors, leaving Westbrook and Oladipo primed to do it themselves. Westbrook has long been one of the top 2-3 players in the league, but Victor has a chance to prove how talented he is by playing alongside Russ, and has a chance to make Durant regret the decision to leave. Oladipo has the athleticism and scoring ability to be one of the best shooting guards in the league, and while he won’t ever be in the same category as Russ, this could be a year where he experiences great success on a team, and becomes a true star in the NBA.
9 Jabari Parker
Parker, who came into the league alongside Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embid, was looking like a star in the making during his 2014-15 rookie season, but unfortunately he went down with an ACL injury in December before he could truly get going. He came back even stronger last season, starting 72 games while averaging a solid 14.1 points per game along with 5.2 rebounds.
Now that he has a full season under his belt, look for the Duke University standout to improve even more in 2016-17, on his way to becoming one of the elite players in the game and maybe even joining the ranks of fellow former Blue Devil Grant Hill.
8 Ben Simmons
The only rookie on this list, Ben Simmons was drafted first overall in the 2016 draft to the Philadelphia 76ers, and with his all around game being compared to LeBron James, there is no doubting Simmons will be a ‘once in a generation’ talent. The 6ers team isn’t looking to compete for a title anytime soon, but are accumulating some fantastic young talent, and the Aussie Simmons may be the final piece in the puzzle for Philly to finally look on the upswing again. The youngster only played one season at LSU, and while he was accused of coasting through the year and not giving 100% in every game, there is no doubting his upside. His jumper could use some improvement, but he has an amazing all around game, with an ability to pass, defend and get to the rim, he will be a star in no time.
7 Andrew Wiggins
Andrew Wiggins thought he may have been playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers with other young talents like Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, but LeBron James returned and he was sent to the Timberwolves in the trade for Kevin Love. While he would have loved to play on a championship winning team a year ago, the former Rookie of the Year now has a team built around him and Karl-Anthony Towns, with the potential to be a future powerhouse over in the much deeper Western Conference. The Canadian is one of the best young stars in the NBA, and although he hasn’t quite got the accolades of other players, he is certain to be a multiple time All Star, and if the talent around him plays well, he could be a big player in the Western Conference Finals and potentially an MVP candidate.
6 Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker has been an amazing player ever since he starred in a NCAA Tournament victor with UConn, but has never quite cracked the level of superstar since entering the NBA with Charlotte. The Hornets are improving however, and finally look to be putting together a powerhouse team after acquiring much young talent a few years ago, and the key to their success is a young point guard, with one of the most vicious cross overs in the entire NBA. Charlotte can’t be disappointed with his improvements, and the player he has since become, but the Walker they drafted was predicted to be a top 5 point guard in the NBA, and if that is to happen, 2016 could be the year, and with the entire team improvements, expect his numbers to again be on the rise.
5 Kristaps Porzingis
Most Knicks fans at the time of the draft were not happy with the team drafting Latvian youngster Kristaps Porzingis, but a year later, fans couldn’t be more excited about the prospect of his future. The 7 footer showed promise on both ends of the court, with the ability to pass, shoot and defend, and with an improved team around him, fans all around the world will soon know his name as one of the top players in the league. Whether the Knicks are as good as they think they are or not, Porzingis has nothing but upside with his game, and an improvement in all phases of his game could make him the next Dirk Nowitzki, potentially even better, something Knicks fans didn’t believe at all just after the draft.
4 Karl-Anthony Towns
Though he will be heading into his sophomore year in the NBA, winning Rookie of the Year his first go round, Karl-Anthony Towns is already one of the most intimidating and talented big men in the game. In an NBA game where talented big men are limited (Demarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond headline a small class), and if he improves like people around the league think, Towns could be one of the top 2-3 centers in just his second year. With the size and shooting talent anyone could dream of, Towns will need to mature quickly, as he is surrounded by a young, talented Timberwolves team which includes Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, and if their hopes of a playoff run are to be met, KAT will have to be right in the middle of it.
3 Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes was pushed out of Golden State to make room for an incoming Kevin Durant, and found himself alongside former teammate Andrew Bogut in Dallas, with a chance to prove that he is more than a product of the team he used to play on. Barnes has the talent to be one of the best 2-way forwards in the game, and while he may not get the same amount of open shots as he did playing with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, but the Dallas team he is on can now run through him. He has the ability to play great defense against whoever he steps up against, and if the rest of the team can play consistently around him, Dallas should make the playoffs and Barnes will cement himself as an elite forward in the NBA.
2 DeMar DeRozan
DeRozan showed flashes of the highlight, top tier player he could be this upcoming year during team USA’s run in Rio, and especially their exhibition games leading into it, but now it’s time for him to do it for the Raptors. He has a great running mate in Kyle Lowry, and a pretty impressive, deep team around him, making this one all but a guarantee, as DeMar has the ability to be a great scorer and an even more amazing dunker in this league for years to come. The Raptors are looking like a huge threat in the East, as they made the Eastern Conference Finals a year ago, meaning DeRozan has to step up in the biggest moment, and that could catapult him into superstardom immediately.
1 Jimmy Butler
There are arguments to be made that Jimmy Butler is already a superstar in the NBA, but now the Bulls have officially become his team, endorsed by Dwayne Wade and Rajon Rondo, it is time for him to show just how good a player he is. The Bulls aren’t predicted to be the playoff powerhouse that they have been seen as in recent years, but if Butler can lead this team deep into the post season, there will be no doubting that he is a top 10 player in the league. Don’t expect the Bulls to challenge the Raptors, Celtics or Cavaliers for the Eastern Conference title this year, but if Butler can continue his gradual improvement, he will be the franchise star that the Bulls have been looking for.
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