The Golden State Warriors rule the NBA, and from the looks of things, that might be true for a little while. (Until Joe Lacob finally sees a payroll bill that makes his eyes roll out of his head, anyway.) As we prepare for a new season in which Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and company are heavy favorites to repeat, let’s focus not on the campaign’s likely endpoint, but rather on the thrilling neophytes whose continued growth and development will help make the journey so compelling every night.
This week, we’ll take a look at the best young players the NBA has to offer in a series called NBA 25 Under 25. First up: the multifaceted monsters who herald bold new possibilities for the sport, and whose presence could come to redefine the league.
One note before we begin: There’s one name you won’t see on this list whose omission might seem glaring: Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans. He won’t turn 25 until March. So why isn’t he here? Well, because he’s already here — an established superstar with two top-10 finishes in Most Valuable Player voting, four All-Star appearances (including the game’s all-time scoring record), two All-NBA First Team nods and two All-Defensive Second Team selections.
For the five players below, their league-shaking gifts have only just begun to burst into view. For Davis, they’ve been in full bloom for quite a while, and for our purposes, that makes him something different. (I promise: We think Anthony Davis is very great.)
And now, without further ado:
5. KRISTAPS PORZINGIS
Role: Lone beacon of light in long-benighted Gotham
As crotchety as I can be about the nomenclature, there is something of a standard definition for “unicorn” in the NBA world — a center who has the potential to both reliably shoot a high volume of 3-pointers and protect the rim.
The modern NBA game is all about creating space on offense and taking it away on defense. Having a five who’s a legitimate threat to rain fire from 24 feet away, draws his man out of the paint and removes the last line of defense at the basket gives ball-handlers an easier path to scoring. Having one who can reject, alter or discourage shots in the lane emboldens your defenders to play tighter and more aggressively up top, and makes generating and converting high-percentage shots more difficult. Get you a man who can do both, and you’ve really got something.
In spite of their perpetual dysfunction, the New York Knicks have something in Porzingis, who was blessed with the folkloric handle early in his rookie season by no less an authority on cool NBA stuff than Durant. The four-time NBA scoring champ recognized the rare combination of shooting skill and shot-swatting prowess that would make Porzingis the first player in NBA history to drain more than 150 3-pointers and block more than 250 shots in his first two pro seasons. Now, when we talk about inside-out big men who seem too good to be true, we use the name KD gave KP — a mythological moniker to match the fantastic reality.
As you’d expect from a 7-foot-3 dude with the wingspan of an aircraft carrier, Porzingis can have trouble defending in space. He’s got strides to make as a facilitator; his rebounding rate dipped as he spent more time parked at the arc; and his foul rate last season ticked north of 5.5 whistles per 100 possessions of floor time (though some of that is due to facing drivers with a full head of steam after blowing past the Knicks’ eternally permissive guards). In each of his first two seasons, his shooting percentages and scoring efficiency have tailed off after the All-Star break, and he’s missed 26 games in two years. There are warts.
Those flaws, though, don’t come close to spoiling the big picture.
Porzingis’ handle is tighter and more functional, and his gait running the floor lighter and more natural, than any skyscraper should have the right to expect. The pull-up, turnaround and pick-and-pop jumpers are feathery, with a quick release. He’s nimble enough to punish overly aggressive closeouts off the bounce, and enormous enough to swallow up drivers just by lifting his arms; only four dudes who played big minutes allowed a lower field-goal percentage at the rim.
The next evolutionary step, it seems, is for head coach Jeff Hornacek to find more opportunities for Porzingis to play center, and for the front office of Steve Mills and Scott Perry to craft a roster that can more effectively facilitate that. (Not an easy task, given how much money their predecessor tied up in Joakim Noah for the next three seasons.) New York was outscored by 24 points in 450 Porzingis-at-the-five minutes last season, according to NBAwowy.com’s lineup data, but within that negative number lives a glimpse of a brighter future. The Knicks scored 111.9 points per 100 possessions in those minutes, a rate of offensive efficiency on par with Mike D’Antoni’s go-go Rockets. Find some wings who can shoot and credibly defend — hello, hoped-for-best-case-scenarios of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Frank Ntilikina — crank up the tempo and have some fun.
4. NIKOLA JOKIC
Role: Young and (mostly) ambulatory Old Sabonis for a new generation
You’d be forgiven if you weren’t paying super close attention to Mike Malone’s 33-win 2015-16 Nuggets. If you were, though, you caught a glimpse of a 6-foot-10 Serbian center who’d lasted until the middle of the second round of the 2014 draft, but who was starting to look pretty special. Jokic built on that promising freshman campaign in a major way, turning in a sophomore year for the ages.
Jokic led the Nuggets in points, rebounds and blocked shots last season, while finishing second on the team in both steals and assists. And oh, man, those assists:
Jokic averaged 4.9 dimes per game, a number matched or bettered by only 14 players his size in Basketball-Reference.com’s database, despite averaging fewer than 28 minutes a night. He notched the helper on 28.8 percent of Denver’s buckets during his floor time, the highest assist rate for a center in more than 40 years. The Nuggets had the NBA’s best offense from mid-December on … which just so happened to coincide with Malone returning Jokic to the starting lineup (and, to be fair, shooting guard Gary Harris coming back from injury to give Jokic a key cutter and floor-spacer to feed).
His playmaking is equal parts natural and audacious — a combination of preternatural understanding of how teammates and defenders move, a conjurer’s vision for when and where scoring chances can be created, and a gambler’s guts to seize opportunities by putting the ball where others wouldn’t dare. Which, yes, is easier to do when you can see over everybody, but should be harder because behemoths aren’t supposed to do this:
What makes Jokic even more special is that when opponents played off him in hopes of short-circuiting Denver’s offense by taking away his cutters, he busted them up with push shots and a flat-footed J. Jokic shot a sparkling 51.9 percent from midrange last season, the NBA’s second-best mark among players who took at least 100 such shots, and 65 percent on shots between the restricted area and free-throw line, easily No. 1 among players with at least 50 attempts.
That touch helped make Jokic one of the NBA’s most efficient scorers. He finished fourth in True Shooting percentage (a stat that considers accuracy on 2-pointers, 3-pointers and free throws) and sixth in Effective Field Goal percentage (which accounts for threes being worth more than twos), despite making fewer than one-third of his long-ball tries. The bet here is the latter number will improve as Jokic gets more comfortable casting away from deep, as it has for Marc Gasol, a similar playmaking big who’s grown more accustomed to popping from the elbows to the arc. If defenders have to get in Jokic’s jersey 25 feet out, he might average seven or eight assists a game just by leading back-cutters to the basket through the acres of space.
Jokic isn’t an explosive athlete or a menacing rim protector — only two bigs who faced at least five shots a game allowed a higher field-goal percentage at the rim — but he rebounded, distributed and scored so well that he was still one of the most impressive second-year players in NBA history. That’s not hyperbole. Jokic’s 2016-17 season ranks 10th in Basketball-Reference.com’s database for Value Over Replacement Player among sophomores; seventh among second-year players in Player Efficiency Rating; and No. 1 with a bullet in Box Plus/Minus, which aims to identify how many more points per 100 possessions a player is worth than a league-average counterpart. This metric suggests that last year’s Jokic was, on balance, a more valuable contributor than Year 2 David Robinson, LeBron James or Charles Barkley.
Admittedly, that sounds kind of preposterous. Maybe you don’t see any way in the world that this once-chunky goofball is that kind of difference-maker. My recommendation: watch the Nuggets a few times this year. (They ought to be better after adding All-Star power forward Paul Millsap, who looks like a perfect two-way complement to Jokic.) Pay attention to how everything revolves around the unassuming giant slinging passes seemingly destined for either heartbreak or hosannas, like some kind of super-sized Manu. Before long, I’m betting you’ll come to see that a franchise in search of a cornerstone ever since trading Carmelo Anthony found what it was looking for while the rest of the league wasn’t looking.
3. JOEL EMBIID
Role: Full-time multiplatform source of joy; part-time basketball-playing revelation (availability TBD)
It seemed almost impossible that, after missing what were supposed to be his first two pro seasons with foot fractures, 2014’s No. 3 pick could really deliver on the hype and hope that attended his selection. And then, the 2016-17 season tipped off, and there was Embiid, up-faking from the arc before shaking and baking his way to a foul-line jumper for his first NBA points, and going on to score 20 in just 22 minutes.
There he was, putting up 18 and 10 with four blocks and three assists against Orlando. There he was, going 4-for-4 from downtown against the defending-champion Cavs, and hanging 25 in 26 minutes to beat the Pacers. This was real: Joel Embiid was actually playing and doing all the stuff in real NBA games that we read about in those breathless reports from workouts and practices past, and still finding time to try to make love connections with good girls gone bad.
Even operating under a minutes restriction intended to preserve his body that limited him to 28 minutes a night and only one half of back-to-back sets, Embiid inspired awe. He averaged 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 2.1 assists in just 25.4 minutes per game as a rookie, a level of per-minute production that evoked comparisons to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neal, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Yao Ming, Walt Bellamy and Anthony Davis. And he shot better than league-average from 3-point range on 4.5 attempts per 36 minutes.
While commandeering a frankly hilarious share of the Sixers’ offensive possessions, Embiid also proved to be an instant defensive game-changer. He was a fearsome interior deterrent, allowing a lower field-goal percentage at the rim than Defensive Player of the Year winner Draymond Green and runner-up Rudy Gobert, while also looking surprisingly comfortable moving in space for a 7-foot-2-inch, 260-plus-pound pivot. (“I want to be a multiple-time Defensive Player of the Year, so I love it, especially when you switch on guards,” Embiid told Michael Lee of The Vertical. “I love switching on them and locking them down. I take pride in stopping the other guy.”) When Embiid was on the floor, the Sixers allowed fewer points per possession than the league-leading San Antonio Spurs. When he sat, they conceded at a rate that would’ve made Philly one of the NBA’s half-dozen worst defenses.
When he suited up, Embiid looked like not only an All-Star, but one of the sport’s very best two-way players. He only saw 31 games of burn before suffering a meniscus tear and bone bruise in his left knee, though, prompting surgery that ended his whirlwind campaign after only 786 minutes. The injury cost him the Rookie of the Year honors that had seemed all but a formality while he was upright.
With his return expected for training camp, the minutes cap reportedly in the rear-view mirror, and two gifted new ball-handlers and a lights-out floor-spacer joining his crew, it seems like the only thing that can stop Embiid is his own body. Last season’s preview was thrilling enough; here’s hoping he stays healthy enough to give us the feature presentation we’ve all been waiting for.
2. KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS
Role: Most compelling reason in 15 years to go all-in
Towns hasn’t shot as many triples as Porzingis, or flashed the playmaking chops of Jokic, or displayed the immediate predilection toward NBA interior defense that Embiid showcased. He has, however:
• started all 164 games in his career to date (pretty important for your franchise player);
• become the first player to average 25 points and 10 rebounds per game before the end of his age-21 season since Shaq, and the youngest player ever to tally 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 200 assists in a single season;
• and averaged nearly 28-and-13 on wild shooting splits — 59 percent from the field (on 19 shots a game!), 42 percent from 3-point land, 85 percent from the foul line — for the final three months of the 2016-17 season.
So, y’know: pretty good!
Towns can bulldoze opponents on the block, sprint off pindown screens to drill catch-and-shoot jumpers, and face up and shake defenders off the bounce. He can shuffle his feet to move with guards on the perimeter, slide over from the weak side to erase drivers’ layups, clean the glass, run the break and drop no-look dimes. Watch him long enough and you find yourself feeling that there are no things he can’t do on a basketball court; there are only things he hasn’t done yet.
One of those things is lead a winning team, let alone one that’s broken through into the top eight in the brutally competitive Western Conference. That should change this season.
On paper, this looks like the best Minnesota team in at least a dozen years. Thanks to the additions of an All-NBA swingman in Jimmy Butler, a shooting upgrade at the point guard spot in Jeff Teague, a bruising defense-first veteran power forward in Taj Gibson, and an ankle-breaking microwave off the bench in Jamal Crawford, the Wolves will enter 2017-18 with legitimate hope of bringing postseason basketball to Minneapolis (correction: NBA postseason ball) for the first time since 2004. Tom Thibodeau and company made all those moves, on the heels of 29- and 31-win seasons, because they know that in Towns they have the genuine article — a cornerstone who, surrounded by pros to stimulate his development and complement his talents, can carry a team to franchise-defining heights.
The Twin Cities got everything Kevin Garnett could give, and got close once. This time, the Wolves want to start maximizing their All-World young big man early, and hopefully get many more shots at the brass ring.
1. GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO
Role: Everything at once
On the night of the 2013 NBA draft, I sat in the interview room at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and watched a little-known 18-year-old from Greece insist, despite speculation from draftniks that he’d be plying his trade overseas for a couple of years before ever putting on an NBA uniform, that he was in the United States to stay.
“I know I’m not ready, but I have a lot of a work ahead of me,” he said. “But I’m not afraid. I will give everything in the court, in the gym. And I will prove to the Milwaukee Bucks that they made the right choice.”
Four years later, that 6-foot-9 stringbean has become a 6-foot-11 showstopper, the NBA’s Most Improved Player, and the leader of a franchise with its sights set on becoming a postseason mainstay.
Let it never be said that Giannis isn’t a man of his word.
In his fourth pro season, Antetokounmpo not only averaged career highs in points, assists, rebounds, steals and blocks; he led his team in all five of those categories, too, and finished in the top 20 in the NBA in each one, as well. He made his first All-Star appearance, his first All-NBA appearance and his first All-Defensive Team appearance; spent time initiating Milwaukee’s offense and serving as its shot-blocking last line of defense, sometimes in the same lineups; and provided all-everything production that evoked names like Jordan, Kareem, Bird, KG, LeBron, Pippen, Barkley and Durant. His driving can devastate a defense, and the attention he draws makes life easier for his teammates, the lion’s share of whom shoot more efficiently off Giannis’ feeds than they do otherwise.
Giannis’ physical tools are unrivaled, and his aptitude for deploying them has grown so much so quickly that trying to conceive of an upper limit to his game fast becomes an exercise in considering the impossible. There is one (1) blemish of note: an iffy jumper that’s seen him shoot below 35 percent from midrange in each of the last two seasons, and below 30 percent from 3-point land in each of the last three. Given the vast, enveloping strides he has made elsewhere — as a ball-handler, facilitator, perimeter defender, rim protector and leader — betting against him refining that stroke seems dumb.
It is possible that a Bucks team with uncertainty elsewhere on the roster — the health of 2014 No. 2 pick Jabari Parker, the development of 2016 lottery selection (and potential unicorn-in-the-making) Thon Maker, whether the backcourt of Tony Snell and 2016-17 Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon can reproduce last year’s playoff-caliber work, etc. — sputters rather than soars; that Milwaukee’s progress won’t be linear, but rather that it will come in fits and starts, if it comes at all. Such is the nature of a league in which all but the very best teams tend to come with their fair share of question marks. In Antetokounmpo, though, the Bucks have an answer for just about anything the NBA can offer.
“Someone like him is God-given,” veteran guard Jason Terry told the New Yorker in February. “Heaven-sent.”
Why even suggest a limit on such a player, one whose ceiling isn’t yet in sight … if, in fact, it even exists?
“You know you won’t be Most Improved again because you were an All-Star starter, right?” Bucks play-by-play announcer Jim Paschke said during a recent conversation with Antetokounmpo. “You probably won’t win that award again.”
“Why?” Giannis asked. “I might be the MVP this year.”
“I said, ‘Most Improved,'” Paschke replied. “MVP, you can win.”
“OK, but … if I win the MVP, I can be the Most Improved,” Giannis said.
Sure, it sounds far-fetched. But remember: Giannis Antetokounmpo is a man of his word. Doubt him at your own peril.
More from our NBA 25 Under 25 series:
• Ben Simmons and the top five playmakers under age 25
• Bradley Beal, Devin Booker headline the NBA’s next generation of scorers
• Otto Porter and the unsung heroes who make good teams great
• Jusuf Nurkic and the young players on the verge of breaking out
• NBA 25 Under 25: Giannis, Brow, KAT and the next generation
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