10 Rising Stars of the NBA

Kelly ScalettaFeatured ColumnistJune 6, 2014

10 Rising Stars of the NBA

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    You could argue that this year’s Finals represent the past (the San Antonio Spurs) vs. the present (the Miami Heat). The future is knocking, though. The rising stars of the NBA will be watching and waiting.

    The Spurs are led by battle-tested but grizzled veterans like Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan. The Miami Heat have the champions of the arena—LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. In the NBA, more than any professional sport, the right two or three stars can carry a team to a title.

    That’s why the young, rising stars have so much appeal: They can mean a team is crashing the championship party in two or three years. So, let’s look at the kids who have the most promise.

    These are current NBA players who will be 22 or younger next season.

    I did not include this year’s rookie class because there is too much unknown about them (such as where they will play) to adequately judge where they will place. Also, Nerlens Noel of the Philadelphia 76ers is not on here for similar reasons. We know where he's playing but not how well he'll play after sitting for a year. 

    Also, you’ll notice last year’s Rookie of the Year, Michael Carter-Williams is not on here. That’s because he’s over 22. Before asking about a player, make sure he’s not over the age limit.

    In ranking the players, I considered various factors, such as traditional box score stats, advanced stats like player efficiency rating (PER), win shares and player impact estimate (PIE). I also took into account coaching, normal progression and how their roles changed last year.

    They are listed here, bottom to top, in order of how I think they will fare next season.

    All stats are from Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com/STATS unless otherwise stated. 

10. Anthony Bennett, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    No one is going to argue that Anthony Bennett wasn’t a disappointment for the Cleveland Cavaliers last year, but I’m not as ready as some are to give up entirely on the kid’s career. After all, his head coach was Mike Brown, who has shown a gift for developing young talent akin to a nut’s ability to defend itself from a squirrel.

    A lot of his struggles were due to not being prepared, by his own admission in an interview with USA Today:

    It's been a grind. Through injuries and getting hurt right now. The travel schedule, I'll say, is pretty long. The games, too. I never knew the season would be this long; 82 games is really tough. Traveling, West Coast to East Coast and then going back and forth to other cities.

    The shot clock is a lot shorter, you know, from college you go from 35 seconds to 24, so everything is a lot quicker.

    In addition, the entire team experience for him was one prolonged disaster with Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving competing for attention. Add on the expectations of being the No. 1 overall pick in 2013, and there was almost no chance for Bennett to succeed.

    In spite of that, he actually did start to show something the second half of the year, with per 36 minute averages of 15.4 points and 9.3 rebounds.

    If the Cavaliers get the right coach (more on that later), Bennett can still be a star-caliber player.

9. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Giannis Antetokounmpo, or Johnny Alphabet as I prefer to call him (because I can spell that), has tremendous promise.

    How good can this kid be? When Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated did his mock redraft for 2013, he took Alphabet with No. 1 overall pick, explaining it:

    By no means am I ready for initiation into the Cult of Giannis, but such a remarkable 19-year-old prospect at a position of weakness for the Cavs might be too good to pass up. Anteotkounmpo clearly benefits from substandard competition. There aren’t any immediate stars of this bunch, and thus it seems prudent for Cleveland to make a play for a young, versatile contributor who could well become the best talent of this class.

    In other words, there is so much upside there, it's not hard to imagine that he'll end up being the best player of last year's draft. Yes, it's a weak draft, but this kid is special. 

    Antetokounmpo is already making LeBron James’ chase-down blocks look ordinary. He shows flashes of what he can be, he just needs work. 

    His per-36 minute stats weren’t great last year—10.0 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists—but the man is dripping with potential. Look for those to go up dramatically. 

    He should explode next year, now that he has a year of NBA seasoning and living in America under his belt. He’s going to be a fun one to watch for years to come.

    If gazelles played basketball, they’d look like him.

8. Tim Hardaway Jr., New York Knicks

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    Tim Hardaway Jr. is going to have a big year next year, but it’s a bad news, good news and best news situation if you’re a New York Knicks fan.

    The bad news: The reason he’s going to be big is that the Knicks are going to lose their superstar, Carmelo Anthony. I just see no way that Anthony extends his career with the Knicks for a rebuilding project when he simply doesn’t have the years left to go through one. He’s gone.

    The good news: Without Anthony, the Knicks are going to look for a high-usage player to fill the bill of team star, and Hardaway is more than equipped to do so. Last season he averaged 15.8 points per 36 minutes with a true shooting percentage of .554 and an extremely moderate usage of 19.8 percent.

    By becoming the primary ball-handler, he could easily raise his scoring numbers.

    Assuming that Derek Fisher (or another Phil Jackson disciple) becomes the head coach, the Knicks will run the triangle offense next year. Accordingly, expect Hardaway’s assist numbers to go way up next year as well. Averages of 21 points and four dimes are not unrealistic.

    The best news: Between the emergence of Hardaway Jr., a lottery pick in 2015 and plenty of cap space, the Knicks will be an attractive landing spot for free agents next summer. All that together means a quick turnaround for the Knicks to get back into the postseason.

7. Trey Burke, Utah Jazz

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    Sometimes averages are a horrible way to view a player, and last year Trey Burke of the Utah Jazz was a perfect example of why.

    For those who don’t study statistics, one standard deviation means that about 80 percent of data points fall within a given range, plus or minus the average. It’s a way of measuring consistency.

    So, for example, if the Giants and Little People had a meeting right next to the Ordinary Dudes of America, the two conventions might have the same average height, but one would be much more inconsistent than the other. That would be demonstrated through the much higher standard deviation.

    In NBA stats talk, that means the bigger a standard deviation is compared to a player’s average, the less consistent he is.

    First, here are the numbers on two very consistent players to set the bar. Kevin Durant had an average game score (a sort of single-game version of PER) of 24.9 and a standard deviation of 7.7, or 30.9 percent. LeBron James had a 22.6 average with a standard deviation of 7.5, or 33.2 percent.

    Burke had an 8.7 average and a standard deviation of 6.6, or 75.8 percent. That’s Giants and Little People fluctuation at work there.

    The point being: Burke was either really good or really bad and the averages just make him look like he was really average. That his standard deviation is nearly as high as his average game score is a big indication of this.

    Burke broke his finger in the preseason and didn’t play in his first game until Nov 20. That’s a lot of important time missed, especially when the rest of the team is also quite young.

    The wild swings in his game are exactly what you would expect from a young player with star potential playing with a lot of other kids still developing their games.

    Burke should have a full offseason to prepare and a clean preseason to work with his mates this time around. This should bring more consistency to his game, and in his case, that should mean raising the floor, not lowering the ceiling.

    Expect him to average in the neighborhood of 15.0 points and 7.5 assists next season.

6. Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic

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    When the Orlando Magic traded Dwight Howard, many felt Orlando had lost the trade. In retrospect, it looks like they came up aces. There were four teams involved in the trade, the other three being the Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets.

    Of the four, the Magic are best situated to be the first to make the playoffs again. That has a lot to do with who they got in that Dwight Howard trade.

    While Victor Oladipo was not technically a part of the trade, he was an indirect result of the trade.

    The Magic got immediately worse by making the trade, and that enabled them to add Oladipo, who may end up being the best player out of the 2013 draft.

    He averaged 13.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists his rookie year, which is none too shabby. It was good enough for him to finish second in Rookie of the Year voting.

    But more importantly, his future as a point guard is tied to the talent around him, much of which is also the result of the aforementioned trade.

    Players already on the Magic include Arron Afflalo, Maurice Harkless and Nikola Vucevic.

    This summer, they will add two first-round picks, possibly Dante Exum and Adreian Payne. Furthermore, the Magic will get the Lakers' 2017 first-round pick, the Nuggets' first-round pick this year and a protected first-round pick from Philadelphia next summer.

    None of this even mentions Tobias Harris (who narrowly missed this list himself), whom the Magic added separately.

    And all of this helps Oladipo. Nothing helps a point guard like a vast array of talent around him. Look for his assist numbers to pop next year.

5. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

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    Bradley Beal had a real breakout season last year. He and teammate John Wall are emerging as a backcourt which can rival the Golden State Warriors’ tandem of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

    Beal averaged 17.1 points and 3.3 assists with an effective field-goal percentage of .479. He showed continued growth throughout the year, too.

    When Beal got to his first postseason, he stepped up his game even more, averaging 19.2 points, 4.5 assists and 4.9 rebounds. He did that in spite of playing against the league’s top two defenses: the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers.

    That kind of performance should bolster his confidence next season. Expect him to average 20 points and 3.5 assists or more per game next season, both of which will be career highs.

4. Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors

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    In a way, it’s hard to believe that the Toronto Raptors' Jonas Valanciunas is still young enough to make this list. He seems to have been around forever.

    He has been a professional player since the 2008-09 season in Lithuania, so it feels like he should be in his mid-20s.

    The Raptors took him with the fifth pick in the 2011 draft, but he chose to play in Lithuania one last season. He came over to Toronto in the 2012-13 season and had some ups and downs but showed promise.

    Last season, he was more stable and started becoming a productive player, averaging 14.5 points and 11.3 rebounds per 36 minutes.

    He does need to develop more on defense, though, as the Raptors were 2.8 points per 100 possessions better with Valanciunas on the bench last season.

    There were times last year when it felt like he was about to break through, and I expect it to happen next year. He won’t be an All-Star just yet, but he’ll get into the conversation.

3. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Kyrie Irving is becoming a polarizing player.

    He’s shown a tremendous talent, but his critics are concerned that he hasn’t turned the Cleveland Cavaliers into a winner yet and is becoming a volume scorer who puts personal success over team wins. That criticism is a tad premature.

    It always boggles my mind when people point to a 21-year-old player and say, “He still hasn’t done this or that.”

    Of course he hasn’t. He’s 21. Do you expect him to have a complete and polished game? It takes time to do that. Irving needs to improve his defense and grasp of the game.

    There are legitimate concerns about his shot selection, as his field-goal percentage has dropped in both his second and third years. That suggests there are bad habits being formed. But then, remember he’s been on a dysfunctional team with bad coaching.

    Both of these issues are easy to remedy with the right coach. Look how much Blake Griffin developed in one year under Doc Rivers. A proven skipper with an appreciation for defense like Lionel Hollins or Mark Jackson is all Irving needs to take the next step to stardom.  

    Point blank: The Cavs are a right coach away from being a postseason team.

2. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons

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    Andre Drummond’s placement here assumes that Greg Monroe gets moved this summer, which I’m fairly certain will happen. It’s hard to see the Detroit Pistons doubling down on a failure of an experiment with Josh Smith, Monroe and Drummond as a big three.

    The Pistons need a true small forward who can stretch the court, and given the history of new coach, Stan Van Gundy, that’s going to be a priority. Van Gundy made Dwight Howard into the elite center in the league while he was with the Orlando Magic, in part by surrounding him with three-point shooters. It’s not far-fetched to believe he can, and will, do the same thing in Detroit with Drummond.

    Now that he has the right coach, Drummond averaging 18 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks next year is a legitimate possibility. The only players who have done that in the last 30 years are Kevin Love, Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon.

1. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Anthony Davis is so good that he’s going to make the unibrow a fad. Men will be getting follicle implants on the bridge of their nose. 

    When all is said and done, he will be considered the best big man of his generation. 

    He’s already doing things that haven’t been done in decades. This year, he was the first 20-year-old to average 20 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks since Shaquille O’Neal did it 1992-93.

    The ceiling for this man simply does not exist. He’s 20 and the names in his company are exclusive enough to count on one hand.

    And he’s barely even touched a passing game, but he was a point guard in high school, so you know that ability exists—it’s just untapped.

    If I’m general manager of the Hornets, I can’t wait until Kevin Garnett announces his retirement, and I’m texting him before that press conference ends. With Garnett’s help and good health, this kid could end up being one of the top-20 players of all time. That’s how much potential he has.