Whether or not it’s a fair practice, it’s a cardinal pastime for NBA fans to both laud and smear upcoming talent. It’s fun to jump on a fledgling player’s bandwagon in hopes of seeing his career carried out in glory. Conversely, it’s fiendish but irresistible to prognosticate certain players as overhyped and somehow root for their failure — we do this all the time as sports fans for various, petty reasons.
More to the point, hardcore NBA fans like to be right about hoop-related matters, so naturally many of us fancy ourselves as scouts or even basketball oracles. We’re not, of course: The careers of NBA athletes don’t always correlate with our expectations. Random, unforseen acts of fate and intangible processes make sports unpredictable — if we wholly knew what was going to happen in competition then it wouldn’t be fun to watch.
With all of that hedging out of the way, here’s an unranked list of 15 rising stars and their projected career paths. All the statistics herein were pulled for corroboration from NBA.com and ESPN’s 2016-17 Hollinger NBA Player Statistics.
The criteria for this list include: Each player must have no more than four years of experience in the NBA, each player must have been a first-round pick, and each player must be no more than 25-years-old. Not every promising young baller will be assessed in this article — guys like C.J. McCollum, Nikola Jokic, and Zach LaVine are awesome, but we only have 15 slots and their futures can be forecasted another time.
Of course, don’t expect every projection to end up on the nose — the wheel of NBA fortune is often erratic and fitful. Whether or not you agree (and you likely won’t agree with every projection), we’d love it if you posted your thoughts in the comments!
15. Andre Drummond
Drafted: 1st Round, 9th Overall by DET (2012)
It’s not impossible, but at this point it doesn’t look like Andre Drummond is going to evolve into a diverse offensive threat. Perhaps becoming an elite defender one day is more likely. For now, the sum of his value lies in tenacious rebounding and violent dunks and that’s okay.
Drummond is second in the association this season in OREB and third in overall RPG — meaning he creates oodles of value for Detroit by providing second and third chances at possessions. Despite declines in PPG and BPG from last season, the 280-pound center is still posting an impressive 20.76 PER — that’s mostly attributable to his rebounding.
Although he’s decent at leveraging his size on defense and in pick-and-rolls, Drummond has yet to yield the sweet fruits of his frame. Even without optimizing his game, he’s been an effective brute for the Pistons. I’d like to think that there’s a dormant, unrealized aspect of Drummond’s game that we haven’t seen yet, but that potential probably should have appeared by now.
14. Bradley Beal
Drafted: 1st Round, 3rd Overall by WSH (2012)
He’s never been reputed as an especially dynamic or athletic player, but Bradley Beal’s marksmanship has propelled him to being one of the highest-scoring shooting guards in the league this season with 21.6 PPG. Beal is heaving 7.1 three-point attempts per game for Washington and making a respectable 39% of them.
The Florida product is producing career bests in PPG, FT%, FG%, and AST midway through his 2016-2017 campaign. Perhaps he’s reaching a personal apex, but it demands mention that John Wall is propping up Beal’s numbers.
According to PickandPopovich.com, Beal shot a paltry 32.3% from deep last season when John Wall was injured. Compare that to 46.6% once Wall returned to action. Without Wall’s nonstop probing and penetration, Beal suffered — he is not adept at creating his own offense; and furthermore the ball often stops moving once it reaches Beal, even if his window to shoot is narrow.
As long as Beal is teamed with an elite drive-and-kicker like Wall to fragment opposing defenses, he can and will continue to thrive: He doesn’t need to ignite action if a player of Wall’s skillset is spearheading the offense. Beal can hone his quick, accurate jumper to good results. Plus, his ceiling remains undiscovered.
13. Jabari Parker
Drafted: 1st Round, 2nd Overall by MIL (2014)
Jabari Parker’s arrival in Milwaukee was begat by expectations that he was a prodigious NBA-ready scorer. After injuries and NBA growing pains hampered his first two years, Parker’s offensive prowess has been on full display this season to the tune of 20.5 PPG and 2.9 AST. He’s shooting a career high 40% from deep; mostly via penetration kick-outs but also pull-ups.
The 6‘8 steamroller is nimble. He handles the ball like a guard, allowing him to blow past bigger forwards on the perimeter while his size allows him to bulldoze smaller forwards on the block. He isn’t the shrewdest play-maker, but with a certain Greek, Malcolm Brogdon, and Matthew Dellavedova initiating the lion’s share of the Bucks’ offense, Parker (for now) can focus on finding seams and getting open so his assist-happy teammates can feed him.
Given Parker’s requisite for the ball in order to flourish/score, some doubt if he can coexist with Giannis. Furthermore, like many of the young players on this list, Parker’s defense is scarce; he is routinely flown past by opposing forwards on the perimeter and overpowered under the basket.
The 21-year-old has holes to patch up before he can be a pillar on a high-level team. It’s not beyond him to improve. His ability to get buckets is special, and can be a winning asset for Parker and his team if placed in the right schematic context.
12. Dennis Schroder
Drafted: 1st Round, 17th Overall by ATL (2013)
Dennis Schroeder is marshaling the Hawks pretty well in the wake of Jeff Teague’s exodus from Atlanta: This season the German point guard is averaging more AST (6.2) than Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving; granted all three are called upon for more scoring than Schroeder. Still, Schroeder’s 17.37 PER and better than two-to-one AST/TO ratio have been key to the Hawks’ success.
The 23-year-old is finishing more tidily at the bucket this season, as his career-best .469 FG% would indicate. The three-point line has also been kinder to Schroeder this season: .361 from beyond the arc is a new high, though the season isn’t over yet. His ability to penetrate with speed has never been questioned; his errant shooting and lackluster finishing were more problematic in past seasons. This year, Schroeder has cleaned up his scoring at the rack. He’s been more or less as judicious as you’d expect a seasoned point guard to be.
Defense is not a strong suit for Schroeder, and it probably never will be given his slightness of stature. Bigger guards can post up and bully the 172-pound Schroeder to great results. His offensive potential, however, seems higher this season now since he’s become the full-time PG. He’s poised to have a solid career, though his output will be overshadowed by the deep profusion of point guard talent in today’s NBA.
11. Julius Randle
Drafted: 1st Round, 7th Overall by LAL (2014)
Among the Lakers’ youthful core of D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Jordan Clarkson and co., Julius Randle has perhaps shown the most promise of the bunch this season — granted Russell has been half-decent and Ingram is a few years developmentally behind the others.
Randle’s rebounding has been solid and his offensive tool kit seems to be slowly taking form — he’s averaging 13.2 PPG and 8.5 RPG on the season. At 6‘9 and 250 pounds, Randle is capable of pirouetting around his defenders with his quickness, fiery handles, and kinesthetic grace. He’s also capable (and eager) to simply plow through his opposition to reach the bucket.
Most of Randle’s promise is derived from his combo of finesse and power. The Dallas native can bring a rebound upcourt himself and initiate his team’s offense, but he can also loom in the post and muscle up on defenders. With his assists per game (4.0) almost double his figure from last season, Randle is showing glimpses of being a dynamic, inventive offensive force.
What’s keeping Randle from top-notch status? For one, he’s not much of a factor on defense: The young forward is not as interruptive as an elite big should be. Randle’s BPG and SPG are negligible. Furthermore, his range is limited, and even at the bucket Julius doesn’t finish at a satisfactory rate.
The tools are there for Randle. His ceiling is high. It doesn’t, however, seem as if he’ll put it all together in short order. The Lakers don’t need Randle to emerge as elite as long as their nucleus can coalesce, and its members reach a semblance of their respective potentials.
10. Myles Turner
Drafted: 1st Round, 11th Overall by IND (2015)
Along with Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, Myles Turner is among the throng of big men from the 2015 draft class making booming impacts this season. Turner is the most overlooked of the trio, but he’s worthy of some shine.
The 20-year-old’s PER sits at a pretty 20.12 so far this season. The big Texan is getting more touches this year than last, and as such his numbers have all increased while his efficiency has remained steady.
Abiding by the modern model for deluxe NBA big men, Turner wields a killer jump-shot. He scores with step-backs, fadeaways, and even spot-up jumpers. He’s shooting 40% from three-point range this season — good in general but eye-popping for a 6‘11 center who’s also fourth in the league in BPG (2.3). He may be a refined shooter, but that doesn’t mean he plays dainty basketball: Turner’s size and masterful block timing allow him to be a difference maker on defense.
Again, there are a slew of talented, burgeoning big men cropping up in the NBA. It’s hard to stand out amid the thicket. Still, Turner glides under the national radar more than he should. His versatile, savvy offense coupled with his hellacious shot-blocking will make Turner a cornerstone with Indiana for the long haul.
9. Rudy Gobert
Drafted: 1st Round, 27th Overall by DEN (2013)
It’s unfortunate for Rudy Gobert that bustling defense and rebounding aren’t as sexy as high-volume scoring. If they were, then the French center would receive more buzz.
Gobert has emerged as Utah’s defensive anchor and one of the most intimidating defensive presences in the league. While racking up an astounding 22.29 PER this season, Gobert leads the NBA in BPG with 2.5 and is fifth in RPG with 12.7. He’s not the focal point of the Jazz’s offense, but Gobert trails only DeAndre Jordan in FG% (66.8).
Efficiency and tenacity give Gobert a leg-up on opposing big men, who Gobert punishes cruelly if he’s not boxed out or given due attention. He’s hawkish on the offensive glass; providing Utah with lots of redo possessions they would not have without Gobert.
At 24, Gobert is perhaps already the most valuable defensive player in the game — if not he’s easily among the best . His size and unrelenting approach have boosted the Jazz to relevance and there’s no sign of the big Frenchman wavering. While he may be overlooked for future All-Star consideration because he doesn’t score prolifically, Gobert could go down as the best overall defender of this generation.
Long-Term Projection: fringe perennial All-Star consideration; among the two most dominant defensive forces in the NBA of his era; perennial all-NBA defender; will be among all-time leaders in blocks
8. Karl-Anthony Towns
Drafted: 1st Round, 1st Overall by MIN (2015)
Karl-Anthony Towns has met, if not exceeded, his first-pick pedigree since joining the Timberwolves in 2015. Today’s crop of fledgling front court players is very promising, and Towns is perhaps the most dazzling prospect of them all.
“Prospect” actually doesn’t apply anymore: Towns has already validated himself as a topflight NBA player during his Rookie of the Year campaign, a season in which he authored one of the best offensive seasons a rookie ever has. This season, the 20-year-old has built upon last season’s momentum; scoring 22.5 PPG with 12.0 RPG and a 23.38 PER so far.
KAT’s well-roundedness on offense keeps his defenders bewildered. On top of scoring from the post with a variety of moves, Towns ices spot-up jumpers from deep; he glides to the elbow confidently and hits short-range jumpers; he crashes the boards and plays above the rim; and he feeds his cutting teammates with heads-up passes from the paint. On offense, Towns is a phenomenon.
Metrically and statistically, Towns is a pedestrian defender. More NBA experience will likely improve KAT’s defensive guile, thereby adding to his overall value. Furthermore, it will be a pleasure to see how his already advanced offensive game improves in time.
Towns will be a fixture at All-Star Weekend for years, and he may exceed that legacy to become enshrined in basketball lore.
7. Kristaps Porzingis
Drafted: 1st Round, 4th Overall by NY (2014)
Knick fans were largely dismayed by the team’s selection of Kristaps Porzingis with the fourth-overall pick in 2014. It didn’t take the Latvian long to warm himself to New York, though.
There’s no sophomore slump for Porzingis: The 7’3 forward is averaging 18.9 PPG, 7.1 RPG, and nearly 2.0 BPG this season. His bizarre blend of skyscraping height and shooting finesse have afforded Porzingis favorable results in the NBA. While his post game is still in development, Porzingis thrives in pick-and-pop sets, and when spotting up with his stainless jumper.
His range at his size makes Porzingis an asset — his drawn-out game gives opposing big men fits. The 21-year-old, however, stands to improve in several areas, especially in his low-post defending and rebounding. If he bulks up with age, that should afford him more control in the low post — he already has the footwork and presence of mind to be a menace under the basket.
Best cast scenario: Porzingis gains the magnitude to become a bona fide post presence to complement his crisp outside game. If that doesn’t happen, though, he’s still an invaluable offensive player with a high ceiling.
6. Devin Booker
Drafted: 1st Round, 13th Overall by PHX (2015)
Devin Booker has broken out this season due to his prolific scoring (20.5 PPG). The Kentucky product has been intensively relied on in isolation sets by Suns’ coach Earl Watson: Booker, despite his rawness, ranks among NBA leaders in iso possessions per game.
While Brooker drew comparisons to Klay Thompson out of college in acknowledgment of his shooting clout, the 20-year-old has been utilized like a Kobe Bryant simulacrum. The result has been gaudy scoring totals for Booker, though the Suns are floundering using their Booker-centric offense. Because of poor team results and relative inefficiency, enthusiasm for Booker’s future should be tempered a bit. This isn’t to say that Booker is bad or even that his future will fall short of expectation. It’s just that Booker’s scoring, and general esteem, is inflated by his overuse.
Clearly Booker is a gifted scorer who can capitalize on teeny margins due to his pinpoint jumper. However, he’s shooting just 42.3% from the field while taking 17.5 shots per game; many of them are hotly contested attempts since defenses tend to swarm Booker. His AST/TO has crept to barely above even for the season — Booker is not facilitating Phoenix’s offense to optimal results.
The potential for eliteness is visible in Booker’s keen scoring, and he’s been more effective in recent weeks. Also, he’s not even old enough to gain entry into a sports bar. Development is inevitable. Let’s not act like he’s already a world beater, though, or that he’s the next Kobe. We’ll see.
5. Anthony Davis
Drafted: 1st Round, 1st Overall by NO (2013)
Anthony Davis has already materialized as one of the top two-way players in the NBA; meeting the sky-high expectations that scouts planted on him before his one-year stint at Kentucky. What are his limits?
This season, Davis is third in the league in PPG (28.6) and BPG (2.4). While doing his part to make the unibrow in vogue, Davis is cementing himself as stable, iconic NBA star — and he’s only 23.
Combing through his advanced stats for this season, there are some very minor dips from Davis’s past few seasons: his TO Ratio (8.4) and OFFRTG (102.9) this season don’t match his career bests. Given how prolific and heavily utilized Davis has been, however, these downturns are negligible, especially considering that his surrounding cast isn’t great.
The Chicago native’s post game and ever-improving jumper (Davis leads the league in Elbow PPG this season at 3.9) will continue to dominate the league for years. He’s already staked himself as an uncontainable offensive juggernaut. The future will tell us where AD’s ceiling is, but even if his improvement arc stalls and he merely remains healthy and consistent, he’ll be a possible Hall of Famer; particularly if his Pelicans can become more competitive.
4. Andrew Wiggins
Drafted: 1st Round, 1st Overall by CLE (2014)
Andrew Wiggins, despite his rampant scoring ability, hasn’t shaken the nitpickers: his slack defense, inability to pass, and his inconsistent three-point shooting have all been subject to scrutiny. It’s true that Wiggins hasn’t shored up every aspect of his game. It’s wrong, though, to dismiss Wiggins and abandon hope. The Canadian forward is still outstanding and he’s only 21.
Primarily a mid-to-short range shooter but also a sophisticated finisher at the rim, Wiggins’s game has measurably improved in certain areas this season — he’s averaging almost a rebound more per game this season (4.3) than last, and his 3P% has climbed up to 34% from 30%. The 1st-overall pick in 2014 has slightly regressed in other categories, though, including BPG, SPG, and turnovers. Wiggy is also drawing less fouls while netting a smaller percentage of his free throws when the ref does blow the whistle.
On defense, Wiggins sometimes gets overpowered by larger forwards or darted past by fleet ones: his DefRtg sits at a middling 108.5. So there’s room for improvement clearly but there’s also plenty of time to make strides. His talent for creating his own shots is remarkable, and it needs only to be paired with another top-notch asset for Wiggins to become an even thornier force — honing his defensive presence and/or court vision could put Wiggins over the top. Until then, the Kobe Bryant comparisons of his college days seem farfetched.
For now, Wiggins has the benefit of playing with other developing stars in Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine, so he doesn’t have to solely bare the weight of turning around a franchise.
3. Joel Embiid
Drafted: 1st Round, 3rd by Overall PHI (2014)
Amid the deranged voyage that has been 76ers basketball over the past several seasons, Joel Embiid is the kind of treasure that Philadelphia must have been scrambling for.
Embiid’s rookie campaign has been remarkable: The 22-year-old is 15th in PER league-wide and second in BPG behind Rudy Gobert. He’s been a go-to offensive weapon for Philly, averaging 19.9 PPG. Using brisk drop steps, loads of fakes, turn-around jump shots and jump hooks among other tricks, Embiid has shown a polished and rounded offensive arsenal to complement his defensive authority in the paint. He pairs veteran poise with youthful boldness around the rim.
The future is rosy for Embiid, granted he can avoid injuries and stay on the floor. During his time at Kansas and in high school, the Cameroon native was saddled by knee and back problems. Unless his body fails him, Embiid is positioned to be among the league’s elite front court players for years to come.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Drafted: 1st Round, 15th Overall by MIL (2013)
Giannis Antetokounmpo was not as highly touted as most of the other players on this list before entering the draft. The Bucks received a titanic boon by selecting Giannis 15th overall that in 2013, and four years later it’s clear that he should have been picked up much sooner.
Although his trajectory surely will letup at some point, Antetokounmpo’s ascension has been meteoric: “The Greek Freak” has tuned his shooting and ball-handling splendidly since becoming Milwaukee’s primary offensive initiator last season. Standing at 6’11, it is indeed freakish for such a tall player with front court abilities to be so sprightly and canny with the ball in his hands.
Anteokounmpo is an inevitability. The 22-year-old is already top-ten in PER this season (27.89), and his efficiency metrics along with his normal stats across the board have improved every season since his arrival.
Expect to see Giannis stoke up his stat lines, from rebounding to blocks to assists, for seasons to come. If his three-point shot comes along, then the Greek colossus will become even more implacable.
Given his anomalous skillset, proven all-around ability, and his seeming dedication to greatness, the young point-forward is on course for a Hall of Fame career. Giannis still needs to prove that he can at least sustain his current level of play for more than a year. There’s no reason to think he can’t.
1. D’Angelo Russell
Drafted: 1st Round, 2nd Overallby LAL (2015)
Predicting D’Angelo Russell’s future success is tough. His ability to flourish may depend on his inclination to do the work it takes to become a star player. The young point guard is lauded for his vision and play-making ability; and Russell’s NBA output so far has been decent but porous.
Russell ranks 168th in AST/TO ration this season among players who average at least 20 MPG. Off the ball, Russell lacks potent catch-and-shoot ability and he’s hitting just 39% from the field in 2016-2017. His defense is sorely lacking.
Blemishes aside, the Ohio State product is a fast and cagey playmaker who has shown improvements from last season: Russell’s 106 OFFRTG this season is nearly a ten-point jump from 2015-2016.
There’s star potential in D’Angelo Russell. It will be interesting to see how the budding PG progresses through his next few seasons. Until further notice, Russell is capable of becoming a premier point guard within several years, but so far his greatness has mostly appeared in brief flashes.
Long-Term Projection: top 10 point guard; fringe perennial All-Star consideration
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