Young NBA Studs Who Will Redefine the Superstar Narrative
When Michael Jordan was the best player in the world, the league’s future superstar pool looking up at him were visionless to anything but how he used his freakishly coordinated athleticism and brilliant scoring ability to win championships.
Jordan was the best defender at his position for much of his career, but that’s since become an overshadowed footnote to all he accomplished with the ball in his hands (mythically and typically, with the clock ticking to zero).
Once Jordan retired, those trying to fill his shoes struggled to match his dominance, in part because they mimicked his style of play. That was foolish, and the league as a whole (especially aesthetically) suffered for it.
The best player since Jordan is LeBron James, in large part because he’s gone about attacking opponents in more ways than simply scoring the ball. James’ greatest skill is his ability to pass, whether it be initiating a pick-and-roll or penetrating to the basket and forcing the defense to collapse.
He scores a ton but in an efficient way, rarely wasting a possession with a contested jumper and instead using his abilities elsewhere to make those around him better (such as setting screens, rebounding, guarding the opposing team’s best player, etc.).
While it isn’t fair or accurate to compare Jordan’s responsibilities with a modern day superstar, thanks to LeBron James we know this player must be accountable for so much more than putting the ball in the basket (which is the ultimate scale Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady—a few heirs to Jordan’s thrown—were graded on).
It’s a mindset we’ve already seen the league’s future stars realize as they attempt to incorporate James’ All-Universe skill set into their own profile. This is the new definition of a superstar, mostly thanks to rule changes and smarter, more devastating defensive play.
Here are four young players who are either centimeters away from superstardom already, or are potentially on the right track. (Only four because we’re talking about superstar level talent here, an elite category just a handful of players are slotted in every year.)
They aren’t necessarily "redefining" the superstar narrative, because only the best of the best (James) can hold that responsibility. These four won’t eventually become the four best players in the world, but their positions, team-wide responsibility and playing style offers them the potential to pave the current superstar narrative’s road with harder concrete.
4. Harrison Barnes
It's arguable whether Harrison Barnes possesses the ceiling of a "superstar," capable of being the best player on a championship contender who simultaneously makes those around him better.
But since he is just 21 years old, it's too early to tell. In his rookie season Barnes showed poise in the postseason against the San Antonio Spurs, one of the most composed basketball teams in NBA history. He posted a True Shooting percentage of 54.4 percent in 12 playoff games, and had no issue bullying smaller players in the post or blowing by larger forwards off the dribble.
Where Barnes stands to improve is in the pick-and-roll game, where he hardly had an opportunity to show his potential. According to SynergySports, Barnes shot 40.7 percent on 54 attempts as the ball-handler on a pick-and-roll last year. Not the worst number, indicating he might be able to expand on it as his career progresses.
Barnes also shot 35.9 percent from behind the three-point line on just 1.8 attempts per game—definitely something to keep an eye on as his volume increases.
Defensively, Barnes has a lot to learn, but his numbers last year were actually pretty great for a rookie. In isolation situations he held opponents to 32.1 percent shooting on over 80 attempts, per Synergy.
Given the Warriors' current financial structure, there's a chance Barnes won't be along for their ride long-term, meaning another organization might give him the space and circumstance to find the superstar existing inside.
3. James Harden
Thanks to his relentlessly straightforward, attack-the-basket-forever playing style, James Harden is one of the 10 best players in the world, and if the four players on this list were all unrestricted free agents next year Harden would most likely command the most money.
But from the spectrum of defining a superstar narrative, what's holding Harden back from the top spot is his play on defense. Last season he effectively dominated on the offensive side of the floor, but played lackluster (generously used here) on and away from the ball in part due to the amount of energy his team needed him to exert elsewhere.
He attacked in transition, he initiated pick-and-rolls (with arguably the finest pocket pass in the world), he shot three-pointers with accuracy at a high volume and attempted more free-throws than anyone else in the league.
This season, with Dwight Howard on board to lend Harden a much needed hand on both ends of the floor, the 24-year-old guard should develop even further toward becoming a complete player. He makes those around him better on offense, but for Harden to truly elevate himself to another level (an attainable feat for someone with his skill) he'll need to offer more effort on defense.
2. Kawhi Leonard
An argument can be made that Kawhi Leonard was one of the 15 best players to participate in last year's postseason, and more assuredly one of the five best to play in the Finals.
He did it all as a 21-year-old, boosting his expectations exponentially for the future. Leonard's more than talented enough to live up to them. He's an incredible rebounder, and strong enough defensively to take over games on that side of the floor.
So far his role on the San Antonio Spurs has been that of a spot-up shooter from the weak side, which he's more than capable of doing. But moving forward the team will ask him to assume greater responsibility, running pick-and-rolls and scoring off the dribble far more often.
If he can learn how to make life for his teammates easier, Leonard will be one of the league's brightest stars for the foreseeable future.
1. Paul George
Paul George is understandably compared to Hall of Fame wing Scottie Pippen quite a bit, and that's far from an insult.
Far from perfect, but hopeful at becoming elite in almost every area of the game that matters, the 23-year-old George is already a brilliant defender on the ball, able to guard the world's best scorers and hold his own as an integral member of the NBA's most feared team-defense.
Last season we saw him assume more responsibility on offense than perhaps he was prepared for, and the results, overall, were fantastic, to say the least. He was named the NBA's Most Improved Player, made his first All-Star team and was honored as an All-NBA Third-Team member.
As George's play ascended, so did his expectations, and he ran into a few growing pains along the way. Nobody turned the ball over more in last year's playoffs, and he shot just 41.9 percent from the floor during the regular season.
But it's more a question of "when" as opposed to "if" George can boost his efficiency and become a smarter decision-maker. He already rebounds and passes the ball well, in addition to that All-World defense. In a few years George might be a poor man's LeBron James, which is a ceiling any player in the world should be more than happy to have.