As the elite talent of today (LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, etc.) fades over the next few years, the elite talent of tomorrow (Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, James Harden, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, etc.) figures to take over.
But what about the day after tomorrow?
Waiting behind all those All-Stars listed above are a group of players who help prove the theory that the NBA's depth appears to be never-ending and that its future is insanely bright.
Here are five extremely young players (23 and under) who've never made an All-Star team but figure to knock on the door sooner than later. Other notable non-All-Stars fitting the age requirement—like Ricky Rubio and Damian Lillard—have been omitted because, quite frankly, they've already proven themselves.
The most obvious selection on this hypothetical squad, Anthony Davis is as sure a lock as any 20-year-old can possibly be to eventually produce an incredibly successful NBA career on both ends of the floor.
While we’re still figuring out which position Davis is best fit to play, whether it be power forward or center, at the absolute worst, his contribution as a help defender in the paint should be elite as soon as this season.
Davis has the footwork, body type and athleticism to dominate pick-and-roll play on both offense and defense, and once he puts all the pieces together, he should be unstoppable in that area of the game. He's long enough to hedge and recover, quick enough to roll through the paint and force a defense to collapse and skilled enough to step out and knock down a jumper.
In 60 starts as a rookie, he averaged 13.5 points (on 51.6 percent shooting), 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. Moving forward, thanks to Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans and Ryan Anderson's willingness to score the ball, Davis doesn’t figure to have too many offensive responsibilities early in his career—which pushes his expectations on defense up even further.
By the time he’s 22, it’s entirely plausible for Davis’ name to pop up in serious conversations for Defensive Player of the Year.
Honorable Mention: Jonas Valanciunas, Andre Drummond
Favors was supposed to break out last season, but in hindsight, that belief was justifiably premature. The two best players on his team each played in the frontcourt, which figured to limit his minutes and opportunity to develop an offensive rhythm.
This year, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are both on different teams, giving Favors and his even younger frontcourt mate, Enes Kanter, all the minutes they need to develop.
On the glass, Favors has already shown he can rebound with anybody. In his first two seasons, at the ages of 19 and 20, he found himself among the top 10 for offensive rebounding percentage among those who played at least 60 games and 15 minutes per game, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
And defensively, he’s already shown an ability to improve his team’s play as an anchor on the back line. The Jazz allowed 2.7 fewer points per 100 possessions with Favors on the court last season, and he finished eighth overall with a block percentage of 5.7 percent (among similarly qualified players).
The Jazz aren’t expected to be very competitive this season, but Favors should turn more than a few heads with his stout play in the post.
Honorable Mention: Jared Sullinger, Tristan Thompson
The scariest takeaway from last season was everything LeBron James did in Games 6 and 7 of the NBA Finals. The second scariest was a then-21-year-old small forward who stared James in the eyes and didn’t even flinch.
It feels like the league could belong to Kawhi Leonard someday, and not just because he showed incredible poise during one of the most competitive NBA Finals in league history.
For that entire playoff run (21 starts), Leonard’s PER was 18.9 on just a 15.6 percent usage rate, according to Basketball-Reference.com. He attempted 10 shots per game and logged an impressive True Shooting percentage of 61.1 percent. As his role in San Antonio’s offense increases, Leonard’s stature and numbers should only grow.
He’s already one of the finest rebounders at his position (averaging 9.0 per game in the playoffs and 6.0 during the regular season) and an absolute monster on defense, especially when swiping down his meat-cleaver hands at opposing players driving to the basket. Those things have potential to serve as a road block for years to come, when his annual inclusion on All-Star team holds others his age at bay.
Honorable Mention: Harrison Barnes, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
The NBA has always placed great value on the ability to shoot, but never more so than today. If this trend keeps moving upward, shooting will be worth even more five years down the road.
By then, a 25-year-old Bradley Beal will start scratching the surface of his prime and three-pointers might be the central focus of every stable NBA offense. Given that projection, he has the right skill set at the right time.
Last year, Beal was one of two players (Kevin Martin being the other) to attempt at least 90 corner threes and make at least 50 percent of them, according to NBA.com/Stats. The future is obviously bright for Beal, and his smooth jumper should open up more doors in other areas of his game, especially once defenses start playing him aggressively on the perimeter.
Honorable Mention: Klay Thompson, Dion Waiters
The least “sure thing” on this list, Eric Bledsoe is a dangerous cocktail of high expectations and minimal experience (and a shaky jump shot).
The high expectations are created by gravity-defying athleticism, a sometimes unstoppable ability to attack the basket and on-ball defense at his position that puts him second only to Avery Bradley.
Bledsoe’s future is laid out as a franchise centerpiece for the Phoenix Suns, who traded for him this offseason and are looking to jump-start their rebuilding process with a 23-year-old point guard with All-Star potential.
It’ll be interesting to see how Bledsoe responds in his first year as an NBA team’s first scoring option, and whether any noticeable improvements to his offensive repertoire (and weak-side defense) will help support his place on this Up-and-Coming team.
Honorable Mention: Brandon Knight, Trey Burke