Ten players set to lead the NBA into the future
By Vincent Frank
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.
"I don't think I've ever seen a better shooter than him," said Jerry West.
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.
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.
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