Fresh off the Golden State Warriors winning their first title in 40 years, we figured it made sense to check in on what the future of the NBA might bring. More so than in previous generations, the young players around the Association seem to be ready to help continue the growth of a sport that fell on some hard times following Michael Jordan’s departure.
Blessed with solid young men, most of whom are just as great off the court as they are on game day, the future of the NBA is incredibly bright. It’s an interesting dynamic to look at, especially after we ran a similar article focusing on the NFL earlier this month. There seems to be a trend away from the NBA being a bad-boy league, with all the focus now turning to football in that regard.
From Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook to Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard, young basketball players today seem to have a sense of community—an understanding that they are looked up to. And more than that, there is some transcendent young talent on the court.
Here are 10 NBA players ready to lead the league into the future.
1. Anthony Davis, Forward, New Orleans Pelicans
There is absolutely nothing stopping Davis from becoming the best player in the Association within the next couple years. At just 21-years-old this past regular season, the former No. 1 overall pick put up an average of 24.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. He also shot 54 percent from the field and tallied a league-leading 2.9 blocks per outing. These are some tremendous numbers for a seasoned veteran. Considering they came from a player that isn’t even close to hitting his ceiling, they go to show us just how good Davis can be moving forward.
“Every few years the NBA presents a new prodigy, supernaturally gifted and relentlessly driven,” Sports Illustrated scribe Lee Jenkins wrote about Davis back in December of 2014. “Ant—as he is called, sans irony, like a bouncer named Tiny—is listed at 6’ 10″, 220 pounds (“245 now,” he interjects), with a wingspan longer than Yao Ming stands and a gait that can cover the floor in a dozen cartoonish strides.”
Those are glowing remarks from a scribe that has been around to see some of the top stars grow on a NBA stage over the years. They also represent just how much Davis is respected around the basketball landscape.
If it’s not pushing the tempo down the court and forcing pressure on the defense, it’s showing range on intermediate jump shots. If it’s not electric dunks and great low-post moves, it’s all about playing elite-level defense and protecting the rim. Davis’ overall game is among the absolute best in the Association, and he’s going to be just 22 entering his fourth season in the NBA this upcoming October. The sky is almost literally the limit for Davis here.
2. Stephen Curry, Guard, Golden State Warriors
Part of this project is to look at players that are going to redefine their specific position as we know it. Coming off an MVP performance, Curry has already started to redefine the point guard position. He’s broke his own record for most three-pointers in a season two consecutive years. He just finished up a playoff performance that saw him break the previous three-point mark by over 45 successful conversions. Equally as important, he led the Warriors to their first NBA title in 40 years.
What Curry did this season is nothing short of amazing, and it didn’t go unnoticed:
“Truly, from the eye test, he’s the greatest there’s ever been,” future Hall of Famer Steve Nash said about Curry’s shooting. “The only pause I have is from fear of being ignorant,” he said. “Am I missing someone? Does he need to play longer or do it longer? Does he have to do it in the playoffs more years? But my first reaction is, ‘Why not?’ He’s as good as anyone I can think of on every level—pure shooting, array of shots, percentage, getting hot, plays to the end—he checks all the boxes.”
That’s mighty high praise from a point guard that acted as a transcendent figure during his lengthy NBA career.
However, the praise didn’t even come close to stopping there:
Jerry West on Steph Curry: "I don't think I've ever seen a better shooter than him." @br_radio
— Howard Beck (@HowardBeck) June 7, 2015
Here we are, talking about two of the best shooters in Association history comparing Curry to some of the greatest shooters the game has ever seen. Not only that, indicating that he stands above the rest.
With outstanding ball-handling skills, the best shot in league history and an ability to dish on a dime, Curry is the standard for all point guards into the future—that transcendent guy that will be the barometer upon which all others are compared to.
As with almost every other player on this list, Curry’s character and off-court attributes also need to be taken into account. The father of a young girl, husband to a young wife and son to a former NBA player, he does everything right off the court. In fact, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver recently addressed just what it might mean to have Curry as the face of the Association moving forward.
“I also think he’s a player of great character,” Silver said of Curry back in February, via San Jose Mercury News. “He’s the kind of player commissioners dream about.”
It’s a combination of all these factors that places Curry near the top of this list. And now that his ankle injuries are behind him, the ceiling is limitless.
3. Russell Westbrook, Guard, Oklahoma City Thunder
If Curry is the standard upon which all other points guards will be judged moving forward, where does that leave Westbrook? By definition, this former UCLA standout runs the ship in Oklahoma City, but he’s not in any way your traditional point guard. Rather, I would say Westbrook is a combo-guard extraordinaire. This is to say, Russ can take over a game by dishing out 20-plus assists. He can dominate the opposing team by pulling down double-digit rebounds. And yes, he can throw down 50 points in the beat of a heart. Heck, he’s come close to doing all three in one game.
In attempting to compare Russ to anyone of the past, it’s nearly impossible. As to where someone like former Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas was your standard-bearer for leading an offense during the Bad Boys run of the 1980’s, he didn’t need to throw down a triple-double on a consistent basis to keep his team competitive. And while he did just that on a consistent basis, Magic Johnson had all the help in the world during the Lakers glory days. Despite missing the playoffs, what Russ did this past season was nothing short of extraordinary. For us viewing his amazing performances on a nightly basis, it was akin to the first time us older folk played Nintendo. It was nothing we had ever seen before.
For an entire two-month span in February and March, Westbrook averaged 30-plus points, eight-plus rebounds and double-digit assists. During that 26-game span, the MVP candidate put up nine triple-doubles. For comparison’s sake, there were 35 total triple-doubles in the NBA this past regular season from guys not named Russell Westbrook.
“There are many times throughout a season that you may not feel like playing. You may not want to play on this night, or against this team,” Westbrook said back in April, via Sports Illustrated. “But I don’t feel that way. This is one of the best jobs in the world, and you never know how long you’ll be able to do it—how long you’ll be able to run like this and jump like this. So I go for it. I go for it every time. It may look angry, but it’s the only way I know.”
It’s this type of mentality that sets Westbrook apart from other players around the NBA. He brings it with passion and determination every single night, no matter the situation his team finds itself in. This is represented by the perception Russ had as an out-of-control player when he entered the league back in 2008. “He couldn’t play point guard,” some said. “He wasn’t a great jump shooter,” others said.
From indicating his best-case scenario was Leandro Barbosa to thoughts that the then Seattle Sonics drafted Westbrook too high at No. 4 overall that summer, there were plenty of skeptics. The evolution of Westbrook’s game over the past several seasons is something that stands out above anything else in the Association during that span.
Off the court, Westbrook is a stand-up guy. Following his MVP performance at the All-Star Game earlier this year, the Thunder guard showed that altruism in an era where selfishness reigns supreme can still impact the lives of those around you.
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) April 6, 2015
These types of acts usually go unnoticed around the sports world, and Russ wasn’t seeking praise from the press. Instead, he just wanted to help a single mother in need. If these are the types of guys the NBA is going to build itself around moving forward, it is in great hands.
4. Kevin Durant, Forward, Oklahoma City Thunder
Durant may have missed most of this past regular season with a foot injury, but he remains one of the top players in the game. And at just 26 year old, there’s absolutely no telling where this guys career will rank in relation to the all-time greats when he calls it a day. Already a NBA MVP and four-time league scoring champion, Durant has more than lived up his status as a top lottery pick.
The future remains up in the air for this star. He’s set to become a free agent after the 2015-16 season, and will be the most highly sought-after guy on the open market (not named King James) in recent NBA history. Durant’s legacy in the future may depend heavily on whether he remains in Oklahoma City to continue building a championship contender or bolts for larger media markets, all of whom will be waiting in line to sign him. Knowing Durant’s personality, the answer may very well be a long-term future in Oklahoma City:
If you listened to Durant’s MVP speech from last June (linked above), you understand that this is a mentality that defines him. And even as he went through a frustrating injury-filled 2014-15 campaign, the former No. 2 overall pick reminded us of what separates him from other stars around the Association. He’s humble in the face of the overwhelming limelight. He remains true to his roots. And above all else, he hasn’t let success get in the way of hard work, inspiring teammates to do just the same.
5. Andrew Wiggins, Forward, Minnesota Timberwolves
Still known as the guy the Cleveland Cavaliers traded for Kevin Love, Wiggins is in the process of shedding that label. Coming off a Rookie of the Year performance that saw him average nearly 17 points and 4.6 rebounds per outing, there is little doubt that Wiggins is the future face of a franchise that hasn’t had much to write home about since the Kevin Garnett days. The last great hope for T’Wolves head coach/president/co-owner Flip Saunders, it appears that Minnesota committed highway robbery by adding Wiggins to the mix for a player in Love who would rather play third fiddle for the Cavaliers than lead Minnesota back to the top (or to the top for the first time).
The hope in Minnesota is that it’s a role Wiggins will embrace moving forward. He’s the best young player the franchise has had since Garnett made the jump from high school basketball in Chicago to the NBA back in 1995. We all know the fan base could surely use someone to root for—someone that’s in it for the long haul. Here’s to hoping Wiggins is that guy.
6. DeAndre Jordan, Center, Los Angeles Clippers
Not since Dennis Rodman in his heyday have we seen an interior presence dominate the boards the way Jordan has over the past two seasons. The dude averaged 15 rebounds per game last season, including nearly five offensive boards. Those are some absolutely insane numbers right there. And unlike Rodman, Jordan has the size (6-foot-11) to continue his domination of the boards.
It’s this type of interior presence that can help stem the tide of slash and dash points guards we are seeing enter the league today. Rim protectors of Jordan’s ilk are few and far between. They can change the entire dynamic of a game. More than that, they can help change a playoff series in one fell swoop.
Now a free agent, the soon-to-be 27-year-old center, will have his pick of the litter. He can find a team that is one elite interior defender away from making some noise in the playoffs. Heck, he can help one of the top teams remain yearly contenders for the foreseeable future. Just imagine Jordan on a team like the Golden State Warriors (not an impossibility) or Atlanta Hawks. Ouch!
7. Damian Lillard, Guard, Portland Blazers
“Dame,” as he is known, is yet another unexpected success story out of Oakland, California. Originally just a two-star recruit out of high school after transferring multiple times prior to graduation, Lillard ended up playing college ball at Weber State. From Oakland to Utah, it took a while for this 6-foot-3 guard to catch the attention of scouts, but after an injury-plagued 2010-11 season, Lillard did just that.
Even after being selected No. 6 overall by Portland in the 2012 NBA draft, Lillard stayed true to his roots and promises he had made by going back to Weber State to graduate. This despite the fact that he was already a millionaire with little need for a college degree.
Yet another young star with a great head on his shoulders, Lillard had this to say at his graduation:
“I remembered the reason I came here. The reason I came here was because a lot of the values that my family placed in me was a lot of things the basketball program stood for. And when I came here, there were a lot of things that I picked up that, in my life now, is the big reason why I have been able to be so successful.”
On the court, Lillard jumped onto the scene as a rookie, scoring 19.0 points and dishing out 6.5 assists per game in 2012-13. He has followed that up with two consecutive All-Star Game appearances while playing in all 82 games in each of his first three seasons with Portland. Lillard might not be the transcendent player Westbrook and Curry are, but he’s already made a major impact in the Association. He’s shown other youngsters that a 175-pound, two-star recruit can make it to the game’s biggest stage. He’s done so personifying what it means to be a class act on and off the court.
8. DeMarcus Cousins, Center, Sacramento Kings
Here’s a highly volatile player that breaks the trend of others included in this article. Enigmatic in every sense of the word, the outspoken Cousins could very well be one of the most physically talented basketball players to step foot on a court in generations. A 6-foot-11, 270-pound frame combined with stealth-like speed and outstanding rebounding ability, Cousins has a chance to redefine the center position as we know it.
The former No. 5 overall pick from Kentucky is coming off a 2014-15 campaign that saw him average 24.1 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. Despite his team’s lack of success, this enabled Cousins to earn his first All-Star appearance. And at just 24-year-old, the sky is really the limit here:
“I’ve been in basketball a long, long time, and I have to say he’s the most talented big guy I have ever seen,” Sacramento Kings general manager Vlade Divac said back in March, via ESPN.com. “Shaq wasn’t talented — he was just strong. I was talented, but I wasn’t strong.”
Now Divac might be a bit blinded by his current role in Sacramento, but those are some pretty intriguing words from someone who went up against the best big men in the modern history of the NBA.
Amid trade rumors, it’s going to be interesting to see how Cousins career pans out from here. He could very well turn out to be one of those talented players that never takes the next step—the next perennial All-Star that lets ego get in the way of team-wide accomplishments. It really is going to be all about the maturation process here. If Cousins puts the works in, matures as a man and buys into what successful basketball people are telling him, he could very well be the next great center in a league that has just a couple such players.
9. Draymond Green, Forward, Golden State Warriors
Fresh off a rare triple-double performance in the Warriors series-clinching Game 6 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, this passionate forward is going to get paid during the summer. What Green did to bring toughness and personality to the NBA champions simply can’t be overstated. He’s not the most-talented player in the league. He doesn’t do one thing great. Heck, he’s probably never going to be a perennial All-Star in the NBA.
None of that matters.
— NBA (@NBA) June 17, 2015
Green is the type of player that every team is going to go shopping for when all is said and done. He can shoot the three (34 percent this year), he can defend all five positions on the court and he can play point forward. All these things combined makes Green one of the most valuable players on the best team in the Association.
Playing with an obvious chip on his shoulder and with an outspoken personality, Green entered the NBA as a second-round pick without much fanfare. He wasn’t skilled offensively, played like a bull in a china shop, and simply didn’t look like anything more than a deep bench option. Using that chip on his shoulder, Green went to work to improve every aspect of the game. And when all was said and done this year, the former Michigan State standout was out there putting up a triple-double in a championship-clinching game against the self-anointed best player in the world.
Statistically, Green’s 2014-15 season was tremendous. He averaged 11.7 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game, all numbers that inched upwards during the postseason. However, statistics are the last thing we should look at when it comes to Green’s impact on the game.
“I think Draymond has a lot of Dennis Rodman in him,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said back in March, via CSN Bay Area. “He defies positions, he guards anybody. He’s quick enough to stay in front of point guards, he’s big and strong and tough at the rim and rebounds like crazy.”
An agitator to be sure, I think Kerr is selling Green a bit short here. Rodman had absolutely no offensive game to speak of, let alone the ability to step outside and hit the three. It could be said that Green is a stretch four with an ability to play against five positions defensively. Think about that one for a second.
More than that, Green’s inclusion on this list is a representation of how the league has changed. With the help of this year’s version of the Warriors, the blueprint has been laid down right in front of us. It’s a blueprint that values role players (jack-of-all-trades types) over selfish, me first guys. It’s also a blueprint that not many teams will be able to follow, because there’s only one player in the Association of Green’s ilk.
10. LeBron James, Forward, Cleveland Cavaliers
King James may be 30-year-old. He might have logged an ungodly amount of minutes throughout his NBA career. He might not play long enough to be considered “the future of the NBA.” None of that really matters right now. Even in a losing effort, what James did during the 2015 NBA Finals was nothing short of extraordinary:
LeBron James Leads Both Teams – NBA Finals
>>1st to lead in all categories in Finals history
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 17, 2015
If this is what turning 30 looks like, I am pretty sure most 20-year-old’s would love to just fast forward 10 years or so. It seems that James, who might just now be entering his prime, is getting stronger with age.
Critics will call on the 2-4 Finals record. Others will say that he didn’t stick around long enough to build a championship team in Cleveland the first time. Again, none of that matters.
James is the best player in the world today. He led an injury-laden team, with the likes of J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert playing important roles, to two wins from a NBA title. He did this against a historically good Warriors team. He did this putting up some of the greatest numbers we have seen in the history of the NBA Finals.
If anyone can play until his mid-to-late 30’s, and still put up MVP-worthy performances, it’s James. He’s an 11-time All-Star, four-time MVP, two-time NBA champion and a two-time Olympic Gold medalist. He’s reached the pinnacle of the NBA with one team, while leading another team just short of that ultimate goal twice. He’s put an entire city on his back, and helped said city revitalize itself due to his simple presence as a professional sports athlete.
While we hesitate to put James on this list because of his age, there was no other reason to exclude him. The personification of a generational talent, James still has plenty left in the tank.
Photo: USA Today Sports