Only a handful of NBA players end up earning max contracts when they're either up for an extension or when they hit the open market as restricted or unrestricted free agents.
It takes a special player to earn that much money. But fortunately, the Association doesn't exactly have a shortage of those.
To be eligible for this article, a player must still be on his rookie deal. We aren't talking about guys like Stephen Curry or LeBron James who have already signed extensions (max for LeBron, sub-max for Curry) and will likely ink max deals when next eligible to do so.
There's also no hard-and-fast rule about a player's current or projected level, as this is a naturally subjective process.
For me, Chandler Parsons serves as the cutoff point. He's one of those guys who might develop into a star—especially if the 2013-14 season is any indication—but he's not going to be capable of carrying a team without the help of other superstar players.
Additionally, a player must have already flashed enough potential.
For example, Trey Burke, Victor Oladipo, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bradley Beal and Jonas Valanciunas are the leaders of the "We need to see more from you, but you've got us thinking" club. They don't quite earn featured spots, but they're getting close.
That leaves us with only eight players.
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference and are current as of Dec. 20.
Team: Phoenix Suns
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 19.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.3 blocks, 21.5 PER
Want to know the reason why the Phoenix Suns are still hanging tough in the Western Conference and holding down the No. 6 seed with a 15-10 record?
Well, there's not just one.
Jeff Hornacek's fantastic coaching, the ridiculous team chemistry, the emergence of a ton of young players and the play of Goran Dragic all contribute, but Eric Bledsoe's performance is the biggest cause. The first-year starter has been that good during his first season in the desert.
After playing in Chris Paul's shadow, Bledsoe was traded to the Suns during the offseason, and he hasn't looked back since. Between his jaw-dropping, highlight-creating, YouTube-famous athleticism and his surprising amount of pure basketball skill, he's been an unstoppable entity, regardless of which guard position he plays.
But most impressive is his ice-cold performance during the fourth quarter of close games.
Bledsoe displays the rare ability to forget about his previous shortcomings and live in the moment, and it's paid off in a big way for the Suns.
Remember this game-winner against the Utah Jazz? It came after he had thrown aside his putrid play from the first half and bounced back to go shot-for-shot with Gordon Hayward, eventually emerging with the victory.
That says it all, especially since Bledsoe will only get better as he gains experience in the lead role.
Team: Philadelphia 76ers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 17.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 3.1 steals, 0.7 blocks, 18.8 PER
I'll go ahead and spoil everything for you.
Michael Carter-Williams is the lone representative of the notoriously weak 2013 rookie class to show up in this article. You probably could've guessed that if you read that Trey Burke, Victor Oladipo and Giannis Antetokounmpo were all in the "We need to see more from you, but you've got us thinking" category, as there aren't any other reasonable selections.
The lanky point guard from Syracuse has been absolutely sensational during his first year at the professional level.
Although he's come back to Earth after thoroughly dominating the Miami Heat with a near quadruple-double in his first game for the Philadelphia 76ers, he's continuing to post exceptional numbers. While shattering scoring expectations, MCW has emerged as a great rebounder, tremendous passer and defensive menace who remains atop the league leaderboard in steals per game.
Most importantly, he makes everything go for the Sixers.
That was perfectly clear in the Dec. 20 overtime victory against the Brooklyn Nets, as his mere presence on the court inspired Evan Turner to greatness. The ball flows around the key when he's on the floor, and his penetrate-and-kick ability opens up all sorts of intriguing possibilities for the Eastern Conference bottom-feeders.
Carter-Williams was viewed as a raw, developmental point guard when he entered the league. All it took was 16 games, and he's completely flip-flopped that reputation.
Team: New Orleans Pelicans
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 19.1 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.7 steals, 3.4 blocks, 28.2 PER
This Anthony Davis kid is pretty good.
And yes, the word "kid" is still appropriate. Despite his ability to grow a bushy unibrow and some stubble on his cheeks and chin, Davis is only 20 years old. He won't legally be able to consume alcohol until March 11.
Fortunately for the New Orleans Pelicans, age is only a number, and Davis is pretty darn good at consuming opponents' shots when they make the mistake of entering an area he's patrolling. The young big man is leading the NBA in blocked shots, and he's not too shabby at racking up the steals either.
Davis had an interesting rookie season, as he missed a lot of time due to injury and struggled to make much of a defensive impact. Terrible against spot-up shooters and prone to being bullied by physical post players, the Kentucky product failed to hang with Damian Lillard in the Rookie of the Year race, and his impact was largely limited to alley-oop and put-back finishes.
Nothing could be further from the truth during his second go-round.
Developments abound, as Davis is now putting the ball on the floor and hitting jumpers on offense. He's also become a defensive phenom, much as draft pundits expected during his time with the Wildcats.
In fact, you could make a serious argument that Davis belongs in the discussion for fringe MVP contenders.
Team: Detroit Pistons
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 13.3 points, 12.7 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.4 blocks, 22.5 PER
There are four areas of importance for a big man's coverage when he's playing defense: spot-up shooters, isolation players (usually after getting caught switching on a pick), post-up scorers and roll men in pick-and-roll sets.
Drummond has become elite or pretty darn close in three of them, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required):
|Play||Points per Possession||NBA Rank|
|Isolation||0.83||Not qualified (only 23 plays faced)|
That's pretty special for any player, much less a 20-year-old big man who was supposed to be rawer than sushi when he entered the league. Most thought that Drummond would take years to become serviceable, but he's already on the verge of becoming an unquestioned star during only his second season with the Detroit Pistons.
Not only is he an elite defender, one who jumps passing lanes and deploys quick hands as well as any center, but he's a truly dominant rebounder who knows his limitations on offense.
Though he has a limited arsenal of post moves (aka none at all), Drummond can make significant contributions because he athletically finishes alley-oop lobs, crashes the offensive boards and never tries to do too much.
There's something to be said for self-awareness, especially when it comes in such an athletic package and he can contribute in a variety of ways.
Team: Cleveland Cavaliers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 21.1 points, 3.1 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.2 blocks, 18.5 PER
Don't look now, but Kyrie Irving is on quite the tear as he attempts to prove that he still belongs in the conversation about the league's next great point guard. He isn't ready to cede that title to Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard or any other young gun quite yet.
During the nine games prior to the Cleveland Cavaliers' overtime victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, Irving had averaged 21.2 points and 5.8 assists per contest while shooting 42.2 percent from the field. Then, beset by illness that threatened to keep him out of the game, he exploded for 39 points and six dimes, including 10 and three in the overtime period.
After the game, Jarrett Jack said, via NBA.com, "I wish he was sick more often."
Regardless of what the thermometer reads, Irving is quite clearly an offensive stud. The defense is still a work in progress, but the Duke product's handles and versatile scoring touch are incredible.
With the ball seemingly on a string, he can navigate even the tightest defensive schemes and finish with creativity around the basket, or he can just drain shots from the outside.
Irving still isn't as far along in his development as the Cavs would like, thanks to a slow start to his third professional season, but he's rounding into tip-top form as the campaign progresses.
Look out, NBA defenses.
Team: San Antonio Spurs
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 12.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.4 blocks, 18.3 PER
Kawhi Leonard is the future of the San Antonio Spurs, and that's not a title that can be taken lightly. Even if the franchise doesn't have as many championships as the Boston Celtics or Los Angeles Lakers, it's still emerged as the most respected organization of the modern era.
Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili won't be around forever, and the 22-year-old small forward is ready to step into the superstar role as soon as opportunity allows him to do so.
Right now, he's content to settle in as a defensive genius and contribute across the board with his developing skill set and monstrous hands. But let's not just skate past the defense here.
Synergy shows that he's allowing only 0.74 points per possession, good for the No. 33 mark in the Association. That's impressive for anyone, but especially for a player who is consistently asked to take on the toughest defensive assignment that the opposing team has to offer.
He's been particularly dominant against pick-and-roll ball-handlers (0.57 ppp, which is No. 13 in the NBA) and while holding isolation players to only 0.58 points per possession. Once he becomes better at closing out on spot-up shooters, there literally won't be a single hole in his defensive game. And even that one is pretty minimal right now.
Leonard is also averaging 12.3 points per game while making over half of his attempts from the field, so he's no slouch on offense either. Whether he's attacking the basket or shooting triples, he can pull a Pusha T and put numbers on the board.
There's just one question remaining.
Will Leonard actually change his stoic expression and crack a smile when he signs the inevitable max deal?
Team: Portland Trail Blazers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 21.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.4 blocks, 20.4 PER
I hereby submit three pieces of evidence in the case of Damian Lillard v. Max Contract (2013):
- Video footage of him killing the Detroit Pistons with a spinning game-winner in overtime, made in spite of Rodney Stuckey's best attempts at self-defense.
- Firsthand video of the point guard putting an end to the Cleveland Cavaliers three days later with another game-winner.
- Evidence of him attempting to do away with the Dallas Mavericks, an attempt that was thwarted by Monta Ellis seconds later.
And thus, I rest my case and await the jury's verdict.
Team: Golden State Warriors
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 19.8 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.5 blocks, 15.0 PER
Is Klay Thompson the future of the shooting guard position?
Kobe Bryant has spent the 2013-14 season struggling with injuries (recovering from an Achilles injury and then experiencing a knee fracture), Dwyane Wade isn't going to be around forever and James Harden still displays a striking inability to play defense.
It's not unreasonable to think that Thompson could eventually join his bearded counterpart as the class of the position, especially now that he's showing he's more than a three-point marksman. The 23-year-old 2-guard is quite clearly an elite shooter from the perimeter, but he's also making major strides inside the arc:
|Year||Two-point attempts per game||Two-point FG%|
On top of that, Thompson keeps getting better as a perimeter defender.
So far this season, the Washington State product has held opponents to 0.75 points per possession, a mark that leaves him trailing only 36 players throughout the league. He ranks in the top 40 when guarding isolation players (No. 32), ball-handlers in pick-and-roll sets (No. 37), spot-up shooters (No. 31) and guys coming off screens (No. 18).
Earlier in the year, Carl Steward of the Bay Area News Group wrote, "Quite simply, when Thompson has been asked to do heavy duty defensive work on a constantly moving veteran point guard, his offensive numbers have taken a noticeable dip."
Now that the sample size isn't ridiculously small, it's clear that such claims are no longer true. The year-to-year improvement is palpable, and it doesn't appear as though Thompson is finished rounding out his skill set.