NBA: Ranking the top 5 future beasts of the East

NBA

Dec 5, 2015; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) drives for the basket against New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis (6) in the first quarter at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Five years from now, which up-and-coming NBA stars will own the Eastern Conference? Here are projected rankings for the top five.

The NBA is a rapidly evolving ecosystem, and it’s amazing how much can happen over a simple five-year span. Dynasties emerge and crumble, promising rookies are traded away, and the cycle from good team to bad team can seemingly happen overnight.

If you need further proof, consider that five years ago today, LeBron James didn’t have a single championship to his name and was 0-2 in the Finals. Safe to say his legacy has changed drastically since then.

Here in 2017, it seems like a foregone conclusion that LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers will meet the Golden State Warriors in the Finals for the third straight year, which would mark the only time in NBA history the same two teams have met in the championship round three times in a row.

That’s exciting in and of itself, especially with how much star power each team has, but for some fans, it takes some of the excitement out of the postseason with the title bout contenders feeling like a foregone conclusion. Even if the Warriors don’t get there, we’ll see the San Antonio Spurs — a team NBA fans are more than familiar with by now — in their place.

But what about another five years down the road, when LeBron will be 37 years old and the league will be wide open for a new generation of superstars?

In the spirit of unpredictability and injecting some life back into a somewhat predictable NBA season, it’s time to take a look at five youngsters in the Eastern Conference who will own the league five years from now, with precedence given to the ones who will be in the middle of their primes, rather than on the tail-end of them.

Honorable Mentions:  Ben Simmons, Jabari Parker, Andre Drummond, Justise Winslow

NBA

Dec 5, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving (2) gestures to team mates after sinking a three point basket against Toronto Raptors in the second half at Air Canada Centre. Cleveland won 116-112. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

5. Kyrie Irving

How could we NOT give some love to one of the NBA’s most controversial stars who will only be 29 years old five years down the line? For as much scrutiny as Kyrie Irving gets, people forget this guy is only 24 years old and has shown substantial improvement since the start of last year’s playoffs.

His teams didn’t win before LeBron James got there. Yeah, but he still somehow led the Cleveland Cavaliers to 33 wins with no help at age 22. He’s too injury-prone. Probably true, but isn’t that part of the reason it’s taken him so “long” to put everything together? He doesn’t play defense or get enough assists. Also true, but with LeBron James and a stout Cavs defense covering for him, does he really need to?

In the 2016 NBA Finals, we saw Kyrie at his best and at his worst. The first two games, he was an iso-disaster. After that, he was the quintessential complement LeBron James needed and a huge reason Cleveland clawed its way back in the series.

This season, Irving is averaging 23.9 points and 6.0 assists per game while shooting 48.1 percent from the field and 42.0 percent from three-point range — ALL career-highs, except for assists (6.1 APG in 2013-14).

He’ll need to shore up his defense and playmaking by then, and the fact that he’ll be 29 and entering the tail-end of his athletic prime holds him back in these rankings. But if the Cavs are looking for their successor to King James, it’s this frequently criticized superstar and clutch shot-maker who just finished outplaying the NBA’s first unanimous MVP in last year’s Finals.

NBA

Jan 5, 2017; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner (33) smiles after a made basket in the second half of the game against the Brooklyn Nets at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Indiana Pacers beat the Brooklyn Nets 121-109. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

4. Myles Turner

If not for the three players ahead of him on this list, we’d be exalting Myles Turner as the stretch-5 who will own the East for years to come. At age 20, he’s already starting at center for the Indiana Pacers, and though they rank 16th in defensive efficiency, Turner and his 2.5 blocks per game (third in the NBA) can hardly be blamed for it.

In just his second season, Turner is averaging 15.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. He’s shooting 53.8 percent from the floor and 42.9 percent from three-point range. Before you wonder, ‘Well okay, but how many threes is he actually shooting?,” suffice it to say that his 1.6 attempts per game make him a legitimate stretch-5.

Right now, the Pacers are still Paul George’s team. But even with a revamped roster that includes PG-13, Turner, Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young, they aren’t having the season people were expecting.

Five years from now, George will be 31 and either playing for another team or enjoying his twilight years as a second or third option. It won’t be long before this is Turner’s team, and with such elite shot-blocking abilities and shooting prowess already coming to the forefront at age 20, the future is incredibly bright for this youngster.

NBA

Jan 3, 2017; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) reacts after being fouled against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the second quarter at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

3. Joel Embiid

We only have a 24-game sample size to work with, and it’s worth noting that due to Joel Embiid’s injury problems, he’s playing with restricted minutes and missing the second night of back-to-back contests.

However, assuming Emibiid can put together a healthy NBA career, there’s no reason to think he’ll be anything less than dominant. Even in limited minutes as a rookie, he’s absolutely destroying the opposition.

Despite playing only 25.1 minutes a night, the Philadelphia 76ers’ star center is averaging 19.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game — ALL of which leads this year’s rookie class by a substantial margin. Embiid also ranks fourth in the entire league in blocks per game.

Embiid is only shooting 46.2 percent from the field overall, but he’s also converting a jaw-dropping 38.2 percent of his three-pointers — a feat nearly unheard of for a seven-foot rookie. As he campaigns for a rookie All-Star appearance with Rihanna rhetoric and fake Donald Trump retweets, Embiid is rapidly becoming a cultural phenomenon.

His health concerns and an exceedingly small sample size hold him back in these rankings, but no one should be surprised if he manages to climb to No. 2 or No. 1 on this list five years from now. He’s an unbelievable talent with a well-rounded game, and if Ben Simmons is half as revolutionary, the Sixers are going to be in a great place for the foreseeable future. Trust The Process, indeed.

NBA

Dec 9, 2016; Sacramento, CA, USA; New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis (6) against the Sacramento Kings during the second quarter at Golden 1 Center. The Knicks defeated the Kings 103-100. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

2. Kristaps Porzingis

Out of all the seven-footers with three-point shooting ability in the East, Kristaps Porzingis just might have the highest ceiling. If the New York Knicks are looking for the savior of their franchise, they don’t need to look any further than the young man Kevin Durant once called a unicorn.

Those “unicorns” who can shoot the three, defend the rim and score from all over the floor are become less and less rare thanks to names like KP, Myles Turner and Karl-Anthony Towns, but Porzingis is already turning the Knicks into his team…despite Carmelo Anthony still being on the roster.

At age 21, the Zinger is averaging 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game. He ranks seventh in the NBA in blocks per game, and he’s also shooting a scorching 41 percent from three-point range on 5.2 attempts per game.

From his put-back dunks to his shot-blocking instincts to his refined perimeter shooting, Porzingis is going to be an absolute star in this league. As he gets stronger and more empowered on the offensive end, the only obstacle to leading New York back to championship glory is the Knicks being able to put quality talent around him.

Luckily the franchise has plenty of time to figure that out, but make no mistake about it: With KP at the helm, the Knicks are going to be a problem in the East for years to come.

NBA

Jan 4, 2017; New York, NY, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) is congratulated after scoring the game winning basket at the buzzer against New York Knicks during the second half at Madison Square Garden. The Bucks won 105-104. Mandatory Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

Before this breakout 2016-17 season that has “Most Improved Player of the Year” written all over it, Giannis Antetokounmpo might have ranked second behind Kristaps Porzingis on a list like this.

But seemingly overnight, we’ve gone from “Giannis is going to be good” to “Giannis is going to make the All-Star team this year” to “Holy s**t, Giannis is going to own the Eastern Conference for years to come.”

Despite not having Khris Middleton for a single game so far this season, the Milwaukee Bucks have overachieved with their 18-17 record — good for sixth in the Eastern Conference standings. The reason? At only 22 years old, the Greek Freak has become an absolute two-way terror.

With his all-encompassing arms, lanky frame, deceptive quickness and unearthly strides, Antetokounmpo is a nightmare to cover on offense and an even bigger challenge on defense. As he continues to refine his perimeter jump shot, the rest of the league should be VERY concerned about the day he learns how to consistently knock down three-pointers.

That’s really the only weak area of his game right now, which shouldn’t come as a surprise for the guy who’s leading Milwaukee in scoring, rebounding, assists, blocks AND steals.

In fact, if Giannis can keep up his current stat line of 24.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 2.1 blocks and 1.9 steals per game, he’d be the only player in NBA history to average such a stat line. AT AGE 22.

From his sky high dunks to his highlight reel blocks to his rebounding and passing, Giannis is the point forward of the future. With Middleton, Jabari Parker and Malcolm Brogdon looking like promising youngsters as well, it may not be long before the Giannis-led Bucks are a serious problem in the East.

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