NBA Stars Who Haven't Even Hit Their Prime Yet
Superstar talents often grace the NBA landscape in cycles.
Rarely have this many eras of elite-level players overlapped the way they are now.
Generational holdovers like Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett are giving their respective fanbases more than just a nostalgic feeling. Peak performers like LeBron James, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony have left their fingerprints all over the league's gate receipts and conference standings.
But what, perhaps, gives the next few seasons their greatest intrigue are the number of wildly productive stars who have yet to reach their ceiling. Many have seen success already, hordes of it even, but all have room for continued growth.
As weaknesses are minimized or, preferably, reworked into strengths, these already great players have the potential for even better average stat lines. What happens after that? Well, that's usually when champions are born.
*Only players under the age of 26 were considered for this list.
**Unless otherwise specified, statistics are from Basketball-Reference.com.
2012-13 Production: 22.9 PPG, 6.9 APG, 3.1 TOPG, .451/.453/.900, 21.3 PER
Don't read too much into Stephen Curry's stat line just yet. Despite the fact that he's a four-year veteran, analysts are still debating over whether he's actually a true point guard as if there's still a need for position designations in this move to more amorphous schemes.
No matter which description you opt to throw his way (scorer, shooter, combo guard), just don't forget to include the word "star" somewhere in it. Forget last season's All-Star snub, egregious as it was; just know that Curry was the seventh-most prolific scorer in the league and one of only three top-10 scorers to average at least 6.5 assists.
As impressive as that sounds, though, there's still the possibility for tremendous upward mobility.
Standing 6'3" and tipping the scales at 185 pounds soaking wet, Curry's never going to be an elite defender. But Golden State has anticipated some hiccups on that end and surrounded him with no fewer than four players who can share the backcourt with Curry and defend a supercharged floor general (Toney Douglas, Kent Bazemore, Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson).
The more wind he has in his sails, the more efficient his sharpshooting can become. He has a 50/40/90 shooting stroke (a 48.0 field-goal percentage derailed his bid to join that exclusive group in his sophomore season) with handles and a soft touch near the basket to help pad his shooting slash if needed.
If Curry can keep improving his assist-to-turnover ratio (career-best 2.23-1 last season), he'll transform those All-Star debates into All-NBA discussions.
Best-Case Stat Line: 23.5 PPG, 7.5 APG, 2.5 TOPG, .505/.450/.905
2012-13 Production: 28.1 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 4.6 APG, .510/.416/.905, 28.3 PER
Kevin Durant's basketball resume suggests he's already entered his prime. He's a three-time scoring champion, a four-time All-Star, a four-time All-NBA first-team selection and the key contributor on an NBA Finals participant.
The history books, though, say that the "Durantula" has even greater years ahead of him. ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin said NBA circles consider a player's prime to be around age 28 when they have played "seven or eight years in the league." Durant doesn't turn 25 until September 29, and the 2012-13 season was his sixth year of NBA service.
Despite the fact that Durant finally lost his stranglehold on the scoring crown last season, it's hard to argue that this wasn't his finest statistical showing to date. Offensively, he set career highs in field-goal and free-throw percentages and assists. Defensively, he topped his previous bests in steals (1.4), blocks (1.3), defensive rating (100 points allowed per 100 possessions) and defensive win shares (5.3).
He may not have as much room for growth as most on this list—a credit to what he's already accomplished—but there are still improvements he can make.
Largely, he'll only need to keep building on the areas he clearly addressed last season: defending and distributing. With his length (7'5" wingspan) and ability to flesh out his 235-pound frame, he has All-Defensive team potential. If Jeremy Lamb or Reggie Jackson emerges as Oklahoma City's needed third perimeter scorer, Durant's assist number could continue climbing.
Barring major injury, he should be a mainstay on All-Star and All-NBA rosters for the next decade. There shouldn't be a question as to whether he can start a championship ring collection; the only question is how many he'll acquire before he decides to walk away.
Best-Case Stat Line: 29.5 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 5.5 APG, .545/.420/.910
2012-13 Production: 17.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 4.1 APG, .419/.362/.807, 16.8 PER
What can opportunity do for you?
For Paul George, his opportunity (a nagging knee injury that cost Danny Granger all but 74 minutes last season) spurred one of the brightest breakout campaigns in the league. Back at his natural small forward spot, the former Fresno State star saw his name enter the superstar conversation and his team, the Indiana Pacers, solidify their standing in the championship hunt.
The Swiss Army knife finished 2012-13 as a top-25 scorer (25th overall), a top-30 rebounder (27th) and a top-40 distributor (37th). His statistical gains turned plenty of hoops heads, as George finished the year with his first All-Star Game appearance, first All-NBA selection (third team) and first All-Defensive nod (second team).
Indiana fans found plenty of reasons to celebrate his emergence, but his tantalizing intrigue stems from the fact that he still has so much more to offer.
As his exposure increased, his shooting success rates trended the wrong way. His field-goal percentage was the lowest of his career, and he lost more than two percentage points off his three-point shooting from the season prior. Given his smooth, seemingly effortless stroke, there's more than just optimism behind the belief that his shooting numbers are headed back in the right direction.
With more players brought in to lighten George's offensive load next season (Luis Scola, Chris Copeland and C.J. Watson), he should be able to raise what was already a career-best player efficiency rating.
Becoming a fixture on All-Star and All-Defensive rosters is now the expectation. Adding titles like "NBA champion" and "All-NBA First Team" should only be a matter of time.
Best-Case Stat Line: 23.5 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 4.5 APG, .465/.395/.825
2012-13 Production: 18.0 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 3.7 APG, 53.8 FG%, 66.0 FT%, 22.4 PER
His stardom doesn't need to be debated. He was one of only three players to average at least 18 points and eight rebounds last season, and he paced that trio in field-goal percentage and assists.
If you're still holding on to the misguided belief that all he does is dunk, it's time to step away from the highlight shows. Nearly 22 percent of his field goals came from beyond 10 feet from the basket in 2012-13, and he generates far more offensive chances on the low block than he's given credit for.
Still, the criticisms aren't completely unfounded.
His post game is still a work in progress, and improving his shooting from 16 to 23 feet (just 34 percent) would go a long way toward opening up the floor to make better use of his elite athleticism.
On the opposite end of the floor, he needs to continue his development (career-low 102 points allowed per 100 possessions last season). His relatively short 6'11" wingspan will keep him from ever being a dominant rim protector, but his quickness and mobility should make him an asset for his ability to switch on the perimeter.
He's already an All-Star fixture, and that might not change for the next decade. Given his physical gifts, a handful of All-NBA first-team selections and an NBA title or two are far from being out of the question.
Best-Case Stat Line: 22.5 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 4.0 APG, 55.5 FG%, 72.0 FT%
2012-13 Production: 25.9 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 5.8 APG, .438/.368/.851, 23.0 PER
James Harden proved that he could thrive in the shadows as a supersub with the Oklahoma City Thunder. But under the spotlight as the Houston Rockets' leading man, he shattered his already high ceiling.
In the process, he went from being the Sixth Man of the Year in 2011-12, to a first-time All-Star and third-team All-NBA performer last season.
Only four players averaged more points than Harden last season, and none had fewer offensive pieces to work with. Defenses knew where Houston was trying to go with the basketball, and Harden still managed to piece together a shooting season that fell closely in line with his career averages (.441/.370/.842).
He's seen dramatic improvement during each of his four seasons in the league, but his fifth year could be his best yet.
With Dwight Howard on board, Harden's no longer the obvious focus for opposing defenses. That game plan becomes even harder to assemble if Houston's young guns (Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin, Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas) enter next season locked and loaded.
If the attention from defenders drops, then Harden's turnovers (career-high 3.8 last season) should fall along with it. He's already flirted with 50/40/90 status before (.491/.390/.846 in 2011-12) and could join that exclusive club in the next season or two.
He has All-NBA first-team talent and the players around him to compete for a title for the next few seasons.
We've already been forced to re-evaluate his potential climb up the superstar rankings, but for now that's an exercise in futility. His future has never looked brighter, and he has all of the pieces to maximize his talent.
Best-Case Stat Line: 25.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 6.5 APG, .505/.415/.885
2012-13 Production: 22.5 PPG, 5.9 APG, 3.2 TOPG, .452/.391/.855, 21.4 PER
Irving's a dominant scorer right now. If he wasn't so far ahead of his teammates on the offensive end—he was the only member of the Cleveland Cavaliers to average more than 15 points—his efficiency level could soar.
He's a gifted passer, but he needs more consistent producers around him to spike his distributing numbers.
His days of waiting for help could be coming to an end. The offseason arrivals of top pick Anthony Bennett, former All-Star Andrew Bynum and veteran Jarrett Jack, combined with the continued development of Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson, have positioned the Cavaliers to reach heights previously unseen in Irving's two-year tenure.
That added support will help Irving realize his massive potential as a more traditional point guard. His scoring numbers could hold steady—a testament to his offensive gifts—but he has the instincts and passing ability to make dramatic strides in his assist-to-turnover production.
He'll battle for best point guard recognition when Chris Paul vacates his throne, and All-NBA recognition could come in hordes. He has the makeup to shoulder a championship-caliber franchise; whether he'll flash that ability in Cleveland remains to be seen.
Best-Case Stat Line: 23.5 PPG, 8.0 APG, 2.5 TOPG, .475/.415/.900
2012-13 Production: 18.3 PPG, 14.0 RPG, 2.3 APG, .352/.217/.704, 17.9 PER
Kevin Love might have had a season to forget in 2012-13, but it was nowhere near damaging enough to diminish his potential for greatness.
Despite being limited to just 18 games by a pair of hand fractures—which clearly still affected the career 44.9 percent shooter when he did play—he still chased down 1.6 more boards than rebounding champion Dwight Howard (12.4).
The fact that his shooting numbers plummeted so violently and he still managed an above-average efficiency rating speaks volumes about the different ways he can positively impact the game.
He cleans the glass as well as anyone in the league, and his outlet passes are a sight to behold. He's 6'10" with great shooting range, and his superior passing skills are evident even on short touch passes.
With Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and Shabazz Muhammad bringing a badly needed scoring punch to the Minnesota Timberwolves' perimeter, there's more than just health promising the return of gaudy shooting numbers for Love.
Not only will those additions help Love find more high-efficiency scoring chances, it will also open up the floor for his instinctive ball movement to take over.
While the defensive end of the floor will never be kind to Love, the offensive end will offer limitless riches. All-Star support and All-NBA selections are, undoubtedly, a mainstay for his future. If he can find his way to a secondary scorer role on another franchise, he could add a championship or two to his resume.
Best-Case Stat Line: 25.0 PPG, 16.0 RPG, 4.0 APG, .485/.410/.885
2011-12 Production: 21.8 PPG, 7.9 APG, 3.1 TOPG, .435/.312/.812, 23.0 PER
It's impossible to have a realistic conversation about Chicago Bulls superstar Derrick Rose without some sort of caveat regarding his ACL rehab. While plenty of players have recovered from this injury and went on to have wildly productive careers, there's going to be an uncertainty about his explosiveness until he finally gets back out on the floor.
With that said, he still holds one of the brightest futures in the league.
The youngest MVP in NBA history, his accomplishments to date are staggering. He's been a top-10 scorer (seventh, 25.0 in 2010-11) and would have been a top-10 distributor (eighth) had he played enough games to qualify in the category in 2011-12. He's been voted to three All-Star Games in four seasons and needed only three seasons to garner All-NBA first-team support.
So, what might Rose at his prime look like?
His combination of skills, confidence and tenacity should yield multiple MVP awards, assuming his athleticism emerges from his lengthy absence—he has not played since April 28, 2012—unscathed.
As for those more attractive accolades, championships and NBA Finals MVPs, both seem well within his grasp. The Bulls were a force without their dynamic leader last season; with Rose back in the mix, Chicago should battle the Miami Heat for NBA supremacy.
Best-Case Stat Line: 27.0 PPG, 8.5 APG, 2.75 TOPG, .495/.340/.875
2012-13 Production: 18.5 PPG, 7.6 APG, 3.2 TOPG, .441/.267/.804, 20.8 PER
John Wall's physical gifts are mesmerizing.
A stress injury in his right knee delayed the start of his 2012-13 campaign for more than two months, but that didn't stop him from making another step toward the elite class of perimeter playmakers.
His stats spiked nearly across the board. He set new career highs in scoring, player efficiency rating, true shooting percentage (52.1) and offensive rating (105), and he posted career bests in defensive rating (103) and turnover percentage (15.3).
Still, there's plenty of room for upward mobility, and the Washington Wizards clearly think Wall can maximize his potential after they invested $80 million in the former Kentucky star this summer.
The biggest area for Wall to address is his wavering jump shot. A mechanical overhaul of his form has been under way for more than a year. The results have been slow to translate to the stat sheet, but he did set career-high shooting marks from 10 to 16 feet (37.9 percent) and 16 to 23 feet (37.2) last season.
Once he has a reliable mid-range jumper in his arsenal, he should race to that highly coveted unguardable realm. He's already been punishing defenders with the pass, so the combined threat of dribble drives, distribution and a soft shooting touch will be too much for most defenders to account for.
He has All-NBA potential on both ends of the floor and should start taking some MVP shares if the Wizards can make their anticipated leap next season.
Best-Case Stat Line: 21.5 PPG, 9.5 APG, 3.0 TOPG, .475/.295/.835
2012-13 Production: 23.2 PPG, 7.4 APG, 3.3 TOPG, .438/.323/.800, 23.9 PER
While the Oklahoma City Thunder will remain championship contenders as long as Kevin Durant remains on the roster, Russell Westbrook holds the biggest responsibility in helping them get over that hump.
The good news for Thunder fans is that Westbrook is not one to shy away from a challenge.
The torn meniscus he suffered in his right knee during the second game of Oklahoma City's postseason run forced the five-year veteran to miss the first game of his career.
Prior to the injury, Westbrook had put forth one of the finest seasons of his career. He set career bests in rebounds, player efficiency rating, offensive rating (111), defensive rating (103) and win shares (11.6), while dropping his turnover percentage as low as it had ever been (13.2) despite taking on a career-high usage rate (32.8).
If that usage rate loses a few percentage points—preferably due to the emergence of Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb—Westbrook's efficiency could climb as he'll be better able to pick and choose his spots.
A more selective Westbrook means he'll recover the two field-goal percentage points he lost last season and then some. It should also ease his turnover numbers down to respectable levels, something he's improved upon in each of his five seasons.
It's only a matter of time before Westbrook cracks the All-NBA first-team ranks, and his consecutive All-Star Game selections streak (three and counting) should go unthreatened at least through his early 30s. Durant's presence probably keeps MVP honors out of Westbrook's future, but they should have multiple deep playoff runs together.
Best-Case Stat Line: 24.5 PPG, 8.5 APG, 3.0 TOPG, .475/.350/.865