Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving are today's NBA point guards of tomorrow.
The NBA has become a league infatuated with stars, and thanks to an annual infusion of youthful talent, we can say without a doubt that the future looks bright.
However, being the best player on a team doesn't automatically mean you have the most to gain down the road. You can't look past a player's current level of production, but you also can't ignore how high his ceiling is compared to where he is today.
For the purpose of this assignment, we're going to ignore all hypothetical transactions. Trade rumors and free agency will be pushed aside, and we'll focus on current rosters and player potential.
Every team has someone it can build around, and every team has someone with a promising career ahead.
The Atlanta Hawks have gone through a serious transformation.
Josh Smith is gone, and Paul Millsap is in. Joe Johnson is long gone, and Jeff Teague is commanding the backcourt.
But of all the changes made to this roster, the player with the biggest upside is one who has been around for the past six years.
Al Horford doesn't get the credit he deserves, and that's largely because he's incredibly unselfish. His PER is fourth among centers (third if you remove injured Brook Lopez), and he's having one of his best seasons to date at 27 years old.
Not all players with high upside have to be rookies or sophomores. Some can be well-established players, and Horford epitomizes that at this juncture.
The big man is slated to dominate the league this season, but don't think it stops there. This is his team, and Atlanta remains a competitor out East because of it.
A torn ACL has made Rajon Rondo an afterthought in the minds of casual fans, but you can't forget just how productive he's been up to this point in his career.
At age 27, the floor general has averaged 8.3 assists per game. Those are solid numbers for any point guard, but they don't tell the story of his improvements as an elite playmaker.
Since the 2010-11 campaign, Rondo has averaged 11.3 assists per contest. He's also boosted his scoring every year since that season, and his rebounding numbers have climbed as well.
Through the first quarter of 2013-14, the Celtics are fourth out East. That's surprising to most who expected them to tank, but it's promising for a group of young talent.
This is a team that is building toward the future, and while Rondo may or may not be a piece of the puzzle, he remains the player with the brightest future so long as he's on the roster.
Putting Brook Lopez in this spot is not a knock on Deron Williams. The guard is not washed up the way Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce appear to be, and he's not done being an elite point guard at the NBA level.
This is not an indictment on how Williams has performed this season; it's recognition of how good Lopez can be if he stays healthy and improves as a center.
I really don't get tired of saying "Brook Lopez is possibly the best post player in the NBA & is getting better." http://t.co/BiSBKkWvj5— devin kharpertian (@uuords) December 12, 2013
Staying healthy is the most important part. The big man is out once again with a long-term injury, and he needs to prove he can stay healthy before he becomes one of the best bigs in the game.
That said, when he's on the court, he's a dominant scorer who can spread the floor and is improving from the inside.
If Lopez can improve his rebounding, he'll be a force on the block for years to come.
The Charlotte Bobcats are a hodgepodge of borderline next-level talent.
Al Jefferson is clearly the best big on the roster, while Cody Zeller and Josh McRoberts have shown potential. Gerald Henderson has been productive on the wing this season, but Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is the one fans hope turn into an All-Star.
This team is much better than it was a year ago, and the aforementioned players are a big reason why. But while the roster as a whole can be good, it's Walker who can entertain night in and night out.
Walker is an example of the team's best player also having the highest ceiling. You have to believe Jefferson has hit his cap, and it's a stretch to believe Kidd-Gilchrist will become a superstar.
Walker is averaging 18.5 points, 4.4 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game, and he's only in his third season. The 23-year-old is the most exciting player in the rotation, and he gives the team the most hope looking forward.
If you believe the hype that Derrick Rose will never be the same, go ahead and place Jimmy Butler in this spot.
That said, if you're looking at the talent that Rose has as a 25-year-old, it's clear to see that a successful comeback is more than probability.
If you're looking for a fellow star to back your opinion, look no further than MVP candidate Kevin Durant. The superstar was quoted by Nick Friedell of ESPNChicago.com as saying:
He's 25 years old, and with the trainers and the rehab and all the people that you have now as far as injuries that's helping, you only can get better. Especially mixed with his work ethic and his drive -- that's somebody that's going to come back at full strength.
Those are strong words coming from Durant, and they speak true to what we saw early in Rose's first comeback.
The point guard isn't finished, and he's the reason Chicago must hold onto its hope for a championship in 2015.
Point guards have taken over the NBA, and Kyrie Irving is already one of the best at just 21 years old.
When he started his NBA career, everybody knew the kid had talent. Some questioned how effective he could be after playing just 11 games in college, but he quickly put those questions to rest en route to winning the Rookie of the Year award.
In his second season, the youngster hardly slowed down. He dominated the Rising Stars challenge with 32 points, scored 15 in his first All-Star appearance and, to top it all off, won the three-point shootout.
Oh yeah, he also became the youngest player to ever score 40 points in Madison Square Garden, according to the Associated Press (via ESPN).
Now in his third year, watching Irving play feels like watching a crafty veteran who's still got it. His crossover is as quick as it comes, but his ability to put the ball in the basket is what counts.
Barring a miracle return of The King to Cleveland, this franchise is all Irving's, and there's no debating that at this point in the process.
The Dallas Mavericks are old. There's little denying that fact, and while Dirk Nowitzki may be the face of the franchise, it's Monta Ellis who will be taking over sooner rather than later.
The Ellis experiment was just that when he first arrived—an experiment. We saw O.J. Mayo come in for the 2012-13 campaign and struggle with team success, and the same thing can be said about Ellis during his run with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Nobody was sure what to think about a Nowitzki-Ellis pairing, but the guard has proven everybody, even a prominent figure from his past, wrong.
According to Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver, former Golden State Warriors coach Don Nelson wishes he had today's Ellis back when he was on the sidelines. "To his credit, he’s a pretty good player right now," Nelson said. "When I had him, all he wanted to do, little selfish bastard, was to shoot every time. And never pass."
Those are harsh words from the NBA's all-time winningest regular-season coach, but it rings true to what we've known all along. But don't focus on the negative; focus on the fact that "he's a pretty good player now."
That's what counts, and that's what the Mavs have going for them as they approach the end of the Nowitzki era.
Ever since the trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks, the biggest knock on the Denver Nuggets has been the lack of a true No. 1 option. This team is one of the deepest in the NBA, but without a go-to star, postseason success hasn't been what some thought it would be.
It's true that this team lacks an All-Star presence, but Kenneth Faried epitomizes hard work and untapped potential. He's only playing 24.5 points per contest, but as a tweener, his 19.6 PER is second on the roster behind Ty Lawson.
Lawson is a good choice for this category as well, as he's the clear No. 1 option on offense. But being great isn't just about offense; it's about putting together a complete game, and making the plays that go unrecognized.
The MANIMAL!! @KennethFaried35 grabs his 10th rebound and now has his 50th career double-double. 10pts & 10rbs on the night.— Denver Nuggets (@denvernuggets) November 26, 2013
That's the kind of player Faried can be, and that's what gives him potential to thrive in a multitude of situations.
When Andre Drummond entered the league, he was one of the most polarizing figures from his draft class. He was considered someone who could be Dwight Howard or Kwame Brown depending on how he played, and despite his physical gifts, he was knocked by some for an apparent lack of a motor.
Through 89 total games (in two years), Drummond is looking more like the former than the latter. That's high praise for a sophomore, but it's not an exaggeration if you look at what he brings to the table night in and night out.
In 29 games this season, Drummond is averaging 13.2 points, 12.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. He has the third-best PER among centers (second if you exclude injured Brook Lopez) and is only trailing standout big man DeMarcus Cousins.
Drummond even passes the eye test, which isn't something you can say about a lot of today's centers. On offense, he flies through the air to finish at the rim, and on defense, the opposition had better watch out.
Drummond told me in an interview before his rookie season that he doesn't believe the game is transitioning to a point guard's league. This list may prove him otherwise, but if he reaches his ceiling, he'll have done his part to keep the center position alive.
Success for the Golden State Warriors starts with Stephen Curry.
Stephen Curry shines as the Warriors' go-to player. This is good preparation for the postseason | http://t.co/o4iJUHTeg2— Marcus Thompson (@ThompsonScribe) December 2, 2013
As talented as the Warriors are, Curry is both the present and the future. His pesky ankle will keep fans on edge as long as he's around, but that's why he's so important to this team—you simply can't picture it without him.
Whether it be early or late in the game, Curry can knock down shots from anywhere on the court. Furthermore, he's averaging an incredible 9.2 assists in 2013-14, showing he can do more than just put the ball in the basket.
Curry has become the full package, and he's yet to make an All-Star game. I think it goes without saying that will change this season, and that he'll throw his name into the ring every year forward as long as he's healthy.
The future looks bright for the Houston Rockets, and James Harden is the main reason why.
Despite the signing of Dwight Howard and the presence of Chandler Parsons, this is Harden's team. At 24 years old, he's proven he was worthy of max money, and while it's too early to discuss his next contract, it's safe to say there's more where that came from when his current deal ends.
At this point in the process, consider Harden the best 2-guard in the game. Dwyane Wade enthusiasts will disagree, and anyone who believes Kobe Bryant can return to form will laugh; but Harden is the most productive player at his position today.
Breaking down whether James Harden or Dwyane Wade is the better 2-guard: http://t.co/fdOB4h1bMc— Bleacher Report NBA (@BR_NBA) September 25, 2013
That trend won't end any time soon, as Harden has seemingly cemented himself atop the shooting guard spot for years to come.
The Indiana Pacers have become Paul George's team, and he's only 23 years old.
Don't get me wrong; the Pacers have a lot of talent on this roster. Lance Stephenson is a capable scorer, David West does a little bit of everything, and Roy Hibbert is arguably the best defensive big man in basketball.
But while balance across the roster is a necessary quality for a championship team, so is having a superstar leader, and that's exactly what George is.
Not only is George a legitimate MVP candidate, but there's also no reason to believe it's a fluke. His success came quickly, but he's great on both sides of the ball, and he's posting the league's 10th-best PER through as a result.
George's success isn't a flash in the pan, and most reasonable basketball minds know this. This kid has tremendous potential, which is scary considering how good he already is.
The nice part about projecting a player's upside is that we don't need to know if he'll reach it. Blake Griffin falls under that category, as we just don't know how good he'll actually be.
The truth is this: Chris Paul is the best player on the Los Angeles Clippers, and he will be for a long time. But while Paul will continue being his ever-efficient self, Griffin has a chance to elevate his game to a whole new level if he can complement his athleticism with fundamentals.
We hear about Griffin's jumper, low-post moves and defense ad nauseum. He must improve in those areas to be elite, and he's yet to progress the way we'd like.
But while we hear about them every season, there's a reason they're still relevant. He's not improved the way fans hoped, and he's still criticized for being a one-trick pony.
Griffin deserves more credit than he gets from his critics, but he also needs to understand where he must improve. If he makes those improvements, there's no reason he can't be the best power forward in The Association.
Through 27 games, the Los Angeles Lakers are 13-14, which is only good enough for a 10th-place tie out West with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The team is old, and Kobe Bryant is out again with the injury bug; but tanking isn't an option, as the organization is too used to winning to pull off that kind of move.
Simply put, the Lakers don't have a lot going for them. They're struggling to stay relevant (kind of a strange thought for this storied franchise), but the offseason acquisition of Nick Young is giving them life when they need it most.
Bleacher Report's own Kevin Ding has talked about Nick Young's role on the current roster, and how the guard is proving to be a bright spot on an otherwise dim season. His inconsistent play might lead you to believe that there's higher potential on the roster (Jordan Hill or Xavier Henry, for instance), but having potential isn't about guarantees.
The question here isn't whether he reaches his ceiling, but how good he can be. Swaggy P has been productive this season—albeit inconsistently—and if he can continue to produce, he'll bring energy and big numbers to L.A. down the road.
Mike Conley is one of the best two-way point guards in the NBA, and after the 2012-13 season, that should no longer be considered hyperbole.
Through all the changes the Memphis Grizzlies have made, Conley has remained consistent. He's not going to be a 20-points, 10-assists type of player, but that's not what the organization needs him to be.
Memphis needs its point guard to play defense, find open shooters and take pressure off of the bigs with open jumpers. Conley fits that need today, and there's no one on the roster who will take his spot in the near future.
LeBron James just keeps getting better.
In his 11th season, there's no sign of James slowing down. He's averaging 24.9 points, 6.6 assists and 6.8 rebounds per game, and he has a PER of 29.98—the top number in the league.
Barring any sort of significant injury, James is going to be the best player on this team...no, scratch that—in the NBA for the foreseeable future. He continues to become more efficient as a scorer, and he's arguably the best two-way player in The Association.
Looking down the Heat's roster for someone with more potential would prove futile. How long he can last has yet to be determined, but the likes of Michael Beasley, Mario Chalmers and Greg Oden won't overtake him any time soon.
James is the best player in the game today, and he's not ready to give up that title for quite some time.
John Henson doesn't get enough credit for what he does for the Milwaukee Bucks.
According to 82games.com, the 22-year-old leads his team in net production, and it's not even close. His plus-8.5 is first ahead of Gary Neal (plus-0.5), and everybody else on the roster falls into the negatives.
Through the 2013-14 season, the power forward has racked up a PER of 20.65. At 6'11", 220 pounds, he's averaging 12.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game.
All of that production has come in fewer than 29 minutes per contest, and it's a result of his efficiency on both ends of the floor.
At this point, no one on the Bucks has the potential of this sophomore. He has a bright future ahead of him, and the hope is that players like Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo and Larry Sanders create the perfect collection of talent to establish the rotation.
Kevin Love is another example of a long-term star who has already made it big.
After recovering from injuries last season, the big man has shown once again that he can put up video-game-like numbers on a nightly basis. He's having one of his best seasons to date, and he's only 25 years old.
If the Minnesota Timberwolves can convince Love to stick around Minnesota, they'll be in good shape with talent around him. Kevin Martin has proven himself as a scorer, Nikola Pekovic is a beast on the block, and Ricky Rubio is a dynamic playmaker on both sides of the court.
Keeping him is the catch, as they'll be losing a perennial All-Star if they let him go when his contact is up.
This one is a no-brainer.
Anthony Davis has one of the brightest futures in the NBA. Injuries have been a problem early in his career, but if his body holds up through the grind of an 82-game season, there are few players who have the same kind of ceiling.
To no one's surprise, Davis is dominating the defensive side of the floor. Through the first quarter of the year, he's averaging about 3.5 blocks per contest, and according to 82games.com, he's holding his opponents at the power forward spot to a PER of 8.4 per 48 minutes.
What's just as encouraging is his production on offense. The hope is that he refines his game in the post as his career progresses, but he's already scoring to the tune of nearly 20 points per game.
Davis is going to be dominant for a long time, and the league just might have its next great superstar.
Say what you want about this selection: Carmelo Anthony is a superstar, and nobody on the New York Knicks will reach his level in the next few years.
If you're looking for an alternative, look Iman Shumpert's way. He's shown the potential to be a great player two ways, but the fact is that he hasn't shown it this season, and his career averages just don't scream "Paul George progression."
Look further down the rotation. Andrea Bargnani? Cole Aldrich? Tyson Chandler?
Nobody on this roster has superstar potential, and regardless of where he's playing, Melo will be a dominant player deep into the future.
Kevin Durant just turned 25, but we've considered him one of the best players in the entire NBA for years now.
MVP is LeBron James with Kevin Durant a close, and I mean close, second. Third has to go to Kobe Bryant by default, I guess.— Alan Hahn (@alanhahn) April 1, 2010
At 6'9", Durant is one of the most unstoppable pure scorers in the game. He's a three-time scoring champ, he can shoot beyond the arc, and he doesn't get enough credit for his mid-range game.
Through six seasons, Durant has established himself as a bona fide superstar. He has a heck of a partner in Russell Westbrook, but when it comes down to it, the Oklahoma City Thunder are his team and will be for his entire career with OKC.
If the 2013 NBA draft were re-done today, Victor Oladipo would likely be the No. 1 selection.
Although Oladipo doesn't put up the best numbers on the Orlando Magic, he's a classic example of a kid shrinking his learning curve every day. His transition to point guard had some worried, but he's turned into a solid distributor in the half court.
Being able to run a pick-and-roll is essential for today's floor generals, but you can't take away from Oladipo's ability to attack. He loves to play above the rim, and he thrives in that area when given the chance.
Defensively, this 21-year-old is a never-ending source of tenacity. He's going to be a nuisance for everyone he defends, and he's going to take pride in getting it done on both ends.
That's the kind of player the Magic need, and quite frankly, that's what the league needs as a whole from its youthful talent.
When Michael Carter-Williams entered the NBA, he had two courses he could follow.
Option A is that he would become a tired point guard in the midst of an unwarranted role. Option B is that he becomes one of the best players on a rebuilding roster.
Fortunately for the Philadelphia 76ers, the latter has taken place, and they have a point guard of the future for the next generation of basketball in Philly.
Luckily for the Sixers, they're still in good shape when it comes to the 2014 draft. They're second from the bottom out East, and the likelihood of Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins joining the team is looking promising.
The rotation in Philly will shift drastically over the next few seasons, but Carter-Williams looks like he'll be around to see all of it take place.
Eric Bledsoe has been one of the most improved players through the 2013-14 season, as he's finally shown he deserves the praise he's been given throughout the years.
Nobody got to see what this youngster could do when he was backing up Chris Paul. We heard all about his potential and his playmaking skills, but little production made it difficult for some to believe he could be a star.
Now with the Phoenix Suns, the 24-year-old is averaging career bests across the board, and he's neck and neck with Goran Dragic as the team's best player.
Even more impressive is how successful the Suns have been this season. This is a team that was supposed to be tanking from the start of the year, yet they're in prime position to compete for a playoff spot.
You can't give all the credit to one player, but Bledose is a huge reason for the 16-10 record. He's finally escaped Paul's shadow, and he's showing what he can do in a starting role.
In 2013, Damian Lillard was unanimously chosen as the Rookie of the Year, and in just his second season, he's showing why he's one of the best point guards in the game.
As good as Lillard has been, LaMarcus Aldridge is the leader of the Portland Trail Blazers. He's arguably the best power forward in the game, and he's a three-time Western Conference Player of the Week throughout the season's first quarter.
All that said, Lillard has the potential to surpass the big man's production, and he can do it with a few small improvements.
We all know that Lillard must get better on defense. We've seen him make strides this season, as he's doing a much better job staying in front of his man, but an elite defensive point guard is becoming a necessity in today's game.
You'd also like to see his assists rise. He's a great playmaker both in transition and the half court, but he's a score-first point guard who takes a lot of quick shots.
Improve these things, and you have yourself a top-tier floor general.
DeMarcus Cousins has the potential to be the game's next great center.
In a game dominated by perimeter players, Cousins stands out as a force down low. He's averaging 22.8 points, 10.7 rebounds and one block per contest, and his PER of 27.46 is fifth in the entire NBA.
Looking at those numbers, Cousins deserves All-Star consideration not just down the road, but right away. He's one of the best centers out West, and he's a player the Sacramento Kings hope to build around for years to come.
DeMarcus Cousins is the only player in the league in the top 10 in points, rebounds and steals per game. #NBABallot
— Nog Ziller (@teamziller) December 18, 2013
The organization just needs him to keep his head on straight. If he can do that, you're looking at a player with a bright future ahead.
The Big Three for the San Antonio Spurs has had a good run. In fact, that run isn't over, as the team is clearly going to contend atop the Western Conference through the course of the 2013-14 NBA season.
Unfortunately for fans in San Antonio, anything beyond this season is non-guaranteed, as everything good must eventually come to an end.
When the era of the Big Three officially closes, Kawhi Leonard will be there to keep things rolling. The 22-year-old is averaging the third-most points on the roster behind Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, and his PER is fourth behind the Big Three and Boris Diaw.
Leonard is the kind of player who would fit on any roster. Luckily for him, he's learning under one of the best coaches around, giving him the training he needs to officially take over the organization.
If you buy into the hype, Jonas Valanciunas deserves recognition in this spot. He's the center of the future for the Toronto Raptors, and his ceiling is high compared to many of today's young bigs.
But while Valanciunas gives fans hope for down the road, DeMar DeRozan is giving us a taste of the future right now.
At just 24 years old, the guard is coming into his own. He's averaging 21.5 points per game—the team leader by a relative long shot—and he's posting career highs in rebounds, assists, steals and three-point percentage.
On defense, DeRozan is allowing his opponents to record a PER of just 13.6 per 48 minutes at 2-guard, according to 82games.com. He's also recording 1.1 steals, showing he's a better two-way player than he gets credit for.
DeRozan is stuck watching his team rebuild, but he's going to be the centerpiece moving forward. The kid has confidence, and if he can remain strong through times of adversity, he'll shine as a star in the coming years.
The Utah Jazz are not a good team. Nobody expected them to be at this point in their rebuild, but an 8-22 record at this juncture has solidified the fact that they are all in when it comes to the 2014 lottery.
Despite being dreadful in the wins column, this group has a lot of potential on the roster. The upside can be found at a number of positions, but the player with the most has to be 22-year-old Derrick Favors.
We've been hearing about Favors' ceiling since he entered the league. He's finally been given a chance to start, and he's taking full advantage.
Derrick Favors 8-16 foot shots - in '11-12 = 26% '12-13= 31.5% this season 41.5%— David Locke (@Lockedonsports) December 22, 2013
What's nice to see for Jazz fans is that the big man has improved upon being named a starter. The loss of Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson shook up this roster, and Favors jumped in and has shown that he's not all hype.
The power forward has incredible physical attributes that help him succeed, and he's showing what he do with them. Talk about Gordon Hayward, Trey Burke and Enes Kanter all you want—this guy is a star in the making.
John Wall is the prototypical point guard of today, as he's a dominant scorer with a passer's mentality.
Despite scoring 19.6 points per game, he's also third in the league in assists. He's no stranger to picking up dimes with a career average of 8.2, but this season he's entering elite territory, averaging 9.1 per contest.
Along with a career high in assists, Wall is shooting a career high in three-point percentage. He has a long way to go before he's a threat from downtown, but improvements are all you can ask for when his career average is 26.7 percent.
John Wall Showing More Confidence, Better Results With Jumper -- http://t.co/QEtZAInErp— RealGM (@RealGM) October 5, 2013
The Washington Wizards are lucky to have talent around Wall, but the floor general is the leader of this team. He's going to be an All-Star before you know it, which is something this organization has lacked for quite some time.