5-on-5: Debating Ball, Embiid, Booker and future #NBArank stars
As our annual #NBArank list hits the top 50, our panel of NBA experts breaks down the big questions from the results.
Who is primed to leap into the top 10 next? Which young players are on the verge of stardom?
And will Isaiah Thomas or Jae Crowder (both ranked in the 30s) help the Cleveland Cavaliers more this season?
1. Which player not in the top 30 is most likely to become a top-10 player?
Tim MacMahon, ESPN.com: If the basketball gods have any mercy in their hearts, Joel Embiid will stay healthy. If he plays 70-plus games — granted, a big if considering his injury history — he will soar up the list next season. Embiid is one of the most unique talents the league has ever seen. He’s a blend of Marc Gasol’s skills with DeAndre Jordan’s athleticism. A decade from now, Embiid could be in conversations about the best big men of all time … or one of the most tantalizing what-if stories in NBA history.
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Insider: Joel Embiid. What you’re looking for in this group is a player who is primed to make the leap because of prior injury and/or youth. Embiid checks off both boxes. In his last 10 games prior to hurting his knee, the big man averaged 23.4 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.6 blocks and one 3-pointer per game — all as a 22-year-old. And offenses couldn’t score against him. He’s a top-10 player when healthy.
Micah Adams, ESPN Stats & Information: If health wasn’t a glaring concern, I’d say Joel Embiid. But to become a top-10 player in this star-studded league, playing 35 minutes a night and at least 75 games seems like a prerequisite and I’m not sure Embiid gets there. So I’ll roll with Lonzo Ball reaching the rare Jason Kidd-level peak as an elite player who doesn’t necessarily become an elite scorer.
Baxter Holmes, ESPN.com: If Embiid can stay healthy and continues to build on the incredible promise that he showcased in 31 games last season, then it’s not hard to imagine Mr. Process as an NBA MVP candidate in the near future.
Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: Joel Embiid already produced at a borderline top-10 rate in 2016-17 as a rookie when he was on the court, ranking 17th among regular players in win percentage (the per-minute version of my wins above replacement player metric). “When on the court” is key: Embiid will have to stay healthy and be able to play a full workload to be considered a top-10 player. But the level of performance is already almost there, and anyone else outside the top 30 must improve dramatically to get to that level.
2. Which young guards do you expect to make the top 30 within the next two years?
Haberstroh: CJ McCollum may already be there. To really cement his spot, he needs to take advantage of his free-throw stroke and get to the line more. He led the league with 91.2 percent shooting at the stripe, but earned just 3.7 trips per game. He could be a 50/40/90 guy if he can draw the whistle better on his rim attacks.
Holmes: CJ McCollum and Devin Booker. McCollum’s scoring average has risen every season, and at just 25, you have to expect he’ll only get better from here. Booker, meanwhile, showcased his frightening scoring talents last season in a 70-point outburst in Boston. What’s even more frightening: Booker is somehow only 20.
MacMahon: McCollum should be top 30 now. He will be next season. Devin Booker, Lonzo Ball and Dennis Smith Jr. are on their way. Analytics don’t put Booker in a favorable light, but I’ll take my chances on a dude who averaged 22 points per game at age 20 and embraces all that comes along with being the face of a franchise. Ball will be the best passer of his generation. Smith is already on a short list with Russell Westbrook and John Wall as the league’s most athletic point guards.
Pelton: That’s only a small jump for McCollum, so even though he has less development ahead of him he’s probably the most likely to get there. Devin Booker looks like the best bet of the younger prospects based on his prodigious scoring, which should translate into a high rating. The next two years are a bit aggressive for Ball, Fultz and Smith, though I think all three will move into the top 30 at some point in the not-so-distant future.
Adams: Since CJ McCollum was ranked No. 26 entering last season, it feels like cheating to pick the Blazers bucket-getter, whose currently ranked No. 31. My answer here is once again Ball, who I think learns the ropes quicker than expected. I know it was summer league and I know it’s perhaps harder to excel early at point guard than any other position, but count me in the club as someone blown away by his feel for the game and ability to elevate others in Vegas.
3. Which young forwards or big men do you expect to make the top 30 within the next two years?
Pelton: Embiid could be there if he plays a full season. Myles Turner is just a small jump away at age 21. Of the rest, I’d give Andrew Wiggins and Aaron Gordon the best chance of improving into the top 30, given their youth. I’m more confident that Wiggins will be rated in the top 30 at some point than that he will actually be one of the 30 players who does the most to help their team win.
Holmes: Again, Embiid seems destined to reach the top 30 if he stays healthy, but the talent, skills, athleticism and all-around game that he boasts at his age (23) is tough to top. And Steven Adams continues to improve in virtually every area in every season; at 24, he has already established himself as one of the NBA’s top centers.
Haberstroh: Give me Clint Capela if I can’t pick Embiid again. The Swiss big man will be catching lobs every other play now that lob god Chris Paul is in the fold. As a 22-year-old, Capela placed fifth in the NBA in dunks last season while playing just 23.9 minutes per game. You’re looking at DeAndre Jordan 2.0. If he can beef up and defend at a high-level, watch out.
Adams: Joel Embiid’s per-minute production is so off the charts that even if he averages only 28 minutes and plays 60 games, he’d still be a top-30 player. Remember, the 76ers outscored teams by more than three points per 100 possessions with him on the floor last season while posting a defensive rating that would have led the league. The list of players who can make that type of profound impact is short.
MacMahon: Embiid is the easy answer. Capela requires much more projection, but a young, springy big man who knows his role couldn’t ask for a better situation than he’s in with the Rockets. Capela accepts that his offensive duties consist of screening, rolling, finishing and rebounding — and he excels at those tasks. He’ll get easy buckets by the bunches playing with James Harden and Chris Paul, and the respect he commands as an above-the-rim threat will be a critical element for an elite offense. Capela, 22, is still developing defensively, but he has the tools to be a premier rim protector.
4. Who is the most underrated player so far?
Holmes: This is a tough one, but I’ll go with Booker at No. 61. I’m not saying he should be in the top 10 next season, but given his mighty leap forward in production from his freshman to sophomore seasons, and expectations that he’ll continue to rise, I could easily see him 20 spots higher.
Haberstroh: Carmelo Anthony. I used to think he was one of the most overrated players in the NBA. Now? He’s better than this ranking. He played in a toxic atmosphere in which the GM was openly antagonizing him and forcing him to play in a broken system. Put Melo in Houston and watch his stock soar into the top 25.
Pelton: Al Horford. Because he didn’t put up impressive scoring (14.0 PPG) and rebounding (6.8 RPG) numbers last season, I think Horford’s value to the Celtics was overlooked. His playmaking was incredibly valuable, he can defend in the paint and on the perimeter and he was probably Boston’s best player in the playoffs. I’d have him 5-10 spots higher than No. 41.
MacMahon: Was Phil Jackson part of our panel? I’m trying to figure out how Carmelo Anthony came in at No. 64 behind much less accomplished small forwards. Melo has flaws, but he’s still one of the best pure scorers in the league. Nitpick his efficiency if you want, but at least acknowledge the challenges that come with playing in such a dysfunctional atmosphere. If he gets his wish of getting traded to Houston, where he’d get great looks created for him, Anthony will thrive.
Adams: Brook Lopez at No. 51 seems about 20-25 spots too low. There’s a stigma associated with Lopez that he’s a complete defensive liability, even though he held opponents to a lower field-goal percentage at the rim than Hassan Whiteside last season. He’s the NBA’s best stretch-5 and is a perfect fit in Los Angeles as he’ll draw opposing centers away from the rim for Julius Randle’s bulldozing tactics and directly benefit from Lonzo Ball’s playmaking.
5. Who will help the Cavs more next season: No. 33 Isaiah Thomas or No. 38 Jae Crowder?
MacMahon: Crowder will make more of an impact in the regular season, much of which Thomas could likely to miss as he recovers from his hip injury. But nobody in Cleveland cares all that much about the regular season. For the Cavs to make their fourth straight NBA Finals, they’ll probably need a healthy Thomas delivering clutch baskets in the playoffs. Here’s betting that happens.
Haberstroh: Jae Crowder. If Thomas was healthy or we had any semblance of a timetable for his return, this would be an easy pick. Alas, I’m going to side with Crowder, who can actually play now. Crowder will help store LeBron’s energy on the defensive end while giving him an elite 3-point target alongside Kevin Love and JR Smith.
Adams: The regular season almost doesn’t matter for Cleveland so I’m approaching this question as who will help them more in a postseason run. We all know Thomas can score, but his playmaking will shine surrounded by all those shooters. LeBron James is no longer the only real playmaker on the roster who can get Kevin Love, Kyle Korver, JR Smith and Channing Frye cooking from the outside.
Holmes: I’ll say Crowder simply because Thomas’ hip remains such a big question mark and, as the saying goes, the most important ability is availability. And beyond questions about when Thomas returns to action, it’s not clear if he’ll be able to return to his form of last season. Given that, Crowder, an impact player in his own right, wins by default.
Pelton: Given what we know about the state of Thomas’ health, probably Crowder. It’s looking unlikely that Thomas will play anything close to 82 games during the regular season, and we also don’t know whether Thomas will be at full strength when he does play. Given the breadth of Crowder’s contributions and the important role he’ll play in Cleveland, if Thomas is at less than 100 percent Crowder is more valuable.
Debating Ball, Embiid, Booker and future #NBArank stars