5 Stars Who Can Challenge LeBron James' Throne as the NBA's Best Player

Adam FromalNational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 30, 2014

5 Stars Who Can Challenge LeBron James' Throne as the NBA's Best Player

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    Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

    LeBron James is not going to be the best player in the NBA forever. 

    In fact, some might think he's already vacated the throne, surpassed by a certain forward in 2013-14, but we'll get to that later. Operating under the assumption that he's the No. 1 player in the Association, or at least quite close to it, there are still a number of players who should challenge him for that seat in the future. 

    Now, it's extremely important to note that these five players are not all making the challenge right now. In fact, three of them won't be particularly close to him in 2014-15, though they have the potential to get there within the next five years. 

    That's the key—the potential. 

    Even these five aren't guaranteed to put on the crown at any point in their careers, though there's evidence pointing toward their ability to do so. They could easily fail to get close or experience a Chris Paul-esque narrative, sitting pretty in the top five year after year without getting to the top of the heap. 

    So again, don't make the mistake of thinking these players will surpass James during the upcoming NBA season. In most every case, they won't. 

Andrew Wiggins

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    Expected Date of Challenge: 2017-18

     

    Andrew Wiggins is by no means guaranteed to be a transcendentally good player, even if his star is burning rather brightly heading into his rookie season with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

    "Wiggins, like so many others, could flame out, or simply never develop," writes Dane Carbaugh for Sporting News, claiming that the uncertainty prevents us from realistically declaring a winner in the trade between the Wolves and Cleveland Cavaliers. "He could be a late bloomer, following in the footsteps of DeMar DeRozan or Michael Conley."

    He could also be a superstar.

    We just don't know yet, though the opportunities that will now be afforded him in Minnesota certainly make it seem as though great things are coming. It's his upside that earns him entry here, though there are admittedly plenty of scenarios that see him experiencing less success than fellow rookies like Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid. 

    Should his offense fail to develop, Wiggins is still going to be an impact player, due solely to his skills as a shutdown defensive player. He's always seemed genuinely excited to go to work on the less glamorous end of the court, and the physical tools necessary to hold up the NBA's best wing scorers are all in place. 

    But it's the offense that gives him the upside necessary to eventually dethrone James, or whoever is sitting in the Association's pole position by the time the 2017-18 season rolls around. After all, that will be Wiggins' fourth season in the league, and, at that point, he should have developed more than a few go-to moves on the offensive end. 

    There's no denying the Kansas product's athleticism, and that should allow him to make an immediate impact as a slasher and transition threat, racking up plenty of points now that he'll have nonstop opportunities with the Wolves. Once his shooting form is flawless and he can do more than spin through traffic and tease viewers with an inconsistent step-back jumper, he'll have an unstoppable scoring arsenal. 

    Wiggins obviously needs plenty of work to touch the group of All-Stars in the NBA, much less challenge for the No. 1 spot in the league. But four years down the road? 

    That upside could look quite nice. 

John Wall

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Expected Date of Challenge: 2016-17

     

    Right now, John Wall isn't particularly close to being the best point guard in the NBA, much less the premier player regardless of position. 

    In my NBA 200 series, the Washington Wizards floor general did rank as the No. 8 player in the league during the 2013-14 campaign, but that put him well behind both Chris Paul and Stephen Curry. So, why him and not them? 

    Well, Paul has been firmly entrenched as the No. 3 player throughout the Association for a while now, but he's going to be turning 30 when he leads the Los Angeles Clippers on a playoff run in 2014-15. Though he's still the class of the position, Paul will soon start declining, and he doesn't exactly have the untapped potential necessary to make the jump from No. 3 to No. 1 at any point in the future. 

    As for Curry, it's all about defense. The baby-faced assassin's offensive game is immaculate, but he doesn't have the physical tools necessary to morph into a two-way player capable of challenging for the top spot in the Association. 

    Wall, on the other hand, is already on his way toward becoming a dominant player on both sides of the floor, and he's still going to be just 24 years old in the upcoming NBA season. Plus, he's finally playing with a quality supporting cast that can help add team success to his list of credentials. 

    Once he develops a working jumper—and Wall did shoot a career-best 35.1 percent from downtown this past season while taking a career-high 3.8 triples per game—his offensive arsenal will be an unstoppable one. The Kentucky product is already one of the best distributors in the game, and there are so few defenders in the league capable of staying in front of him that even Gerald Green could count them on his right hand. 

    It's his defense that is so key, though. 

    Wall has always had the athleticism necessary to chase down players in transition and terrorize the opposition with his help defense from the weak side, but he became a disciplined stopper this past season. He stayed in front of his opponent, stuck with his man off the ball and thrived in individual situations, even if he didn't get widespread recognition for his efforts. 

    On the surface level, Wall's 2013-14 season doesn't look much better than his 2012-13 campaign, due largely to traditional metrics' inability to properly capture defensive excellence. However, he was an improved player on an improved team, and another two years of development should allow him to move into the true realm of elites when he's 26. 

Russell Westbrook

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Expected Date of Challenge: 2015-16

     

    Russell Westbrook takes a lot of criticism for his poor shot selection and desire to take over as the Oklahoma City Thunder alpha dog even when Kevin Durant is spotting up on the wing and waiting to add to his sure-to-be-incredible point total. 

    However, there's negative aspects to the games of just about every player in basketball history. For some reason, the general public sometimes allows Westbrook's shortcomings to completely trump his immense strengths. 

    Prior to his injury-plagued 2013-14 season, the dynamic 1-guard had improved each and every season of his career. His passing was getting much better, now far removed from making the shooting guard-to-point guard transition after his brief UCLA career, and the turnovers weren't popping up with as much frequency. In fact, Basketball-Reference.com shows that, heading into 2013-14, Westbrook's turnover percentage had dipped each and every season of his career. 

    Well, the Thunder floor general is only 25 years old, and he's still moving toward his prime. He's already capable of nearly unmatched heroics, and there's no telling how much better he'll get. 

    Two season from now, it's perfectly valid to believe that he could figure out his shot-selection habits and play to his strengths more than ever before. Plus, he's maturing into a high-quality defender, which makes for quite the dangerous combination when paired with his offensive prowess. 

    During the 2014 postseason, Westbrook actually managed to average 26.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 8.1 assists and 2.2 steals per game while shooting 42 percent from the field and connecting on his 8.6 free-throw attempts per contest at an 88.4 percent clip. His player efficiency rating? A stellar 24.9, nearly 10 points above the league average. 

    There simply isn't another point guard who blends athleticism, shooting upside, rebounding, passing and defense as well as Westbrook can. And already does, for that matter, even if that's not a nightly inevitability. 

Anthony Davis

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    Expected Date of Challenge: 2015-16

     

    Let's allow John Calipari to take it away, via USA Today's Sam Amick:

    Right now, you look at (Davis) and say, 'Man, in five years, he could be the best player in the NBA.' And this USA Basketball stuff pushes that date sooner. Again, here's what it does for him: how to work, new things to add to his game, and confidence like, 'These are the best in the world, so I'm all right.' 

    Five years? Try two. 

    Davis already played like a top-five guy during the 2013-14 season, and he's quite clearly getting better. He's growing, adding plenty of muscle to his frame (I mean, just look at how muscular his shoulders are during the 2014 FIBA World Cup), gaining experience in important competition and expanding his offensive arsenal to include plenty of mid-range jumpers and even the occasional corner three. 

    There simply isn't another player like Davis.

    Not one who can affect the game this drastically on both ends of the court while still displaying so much unrealized upside. He averaged over 20 points and 10 rebounds per game while leading the league in rejections as a sophomore, and he did so in efficient fashion. 

    "I know how good [Davis] is going to be," Kevin Durant told NBA.com's Jim Eichenhofer in a quote that has become fairly popular in the weeks since it was delivered. "I know how good he is now, but I know how good he's going to be. He's an MVP-caliber player. So he's next. He's next in line—a guy that has grown so much in just a year."

    At this point in the offseason, you may feel as though Davis is a big overhyped. After all, you've been hearing his name quite a bit, and the entire world seems to be on board the unibrow-bearing bandwagon.

    He's not. 

    This is a dominant player we're looking at, one who's already become the best player on Team USA at the World Cup despite being barely legal on Bourbon Street.

    That said, expecting him to ascend past James and Durant during the 2014-15 season is asking for a little too much. Waiting for him to assert himself in the 2014-15 MVP race—a third-place finish feels quite realistic—and then claim the overall throne in 2015-16, however, is not too much. 

Kevin Durant

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    Expected Date of Challenge: The present

     

    You can make a solid case that Kevin Durant is already the best player in the world, especially now that he's coming off a season in which he won MVP for the first time in his impressive young career. If you're still in James' camp, like yours truly, Durant still at least has to be in the conversation, which is a big deal in and of itself. 

    By the end of this current season, there might not even be a debate. 

    Durant is in the same situation he's always been a part of with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but he's also getting even better. Still 25 years old, the reigning MVP is moving toward his prime, not away from it (cough, James, cough), and he's following up a year in which he was a historically great scorer, improved dramatically as a distributor and became more of a quality defender than ever before. 

    Meanwhile, James is entering an entirely new situation while getting awfully close to that 30-year-old mark. He's playing with a ball-dominant point guard for the first time in his career, and it might take a little while for the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers to figure out how they'll distribute the rock on a nightly basis. 

    James could very well hold on to his crown for at least another season, but that's not a guarantee. And remember, we're talking about when these players will challenge the four-time MVP for supremacy, not when they're sure to ascend to the pole position in the league-wide hierarchy. 

    Durant's inclusion here is just about as obvious as it gets. But even if he's here for the sake of completeness, even if his presence is expected, he still has to be featured. 

    After all, no player is in a better position to take over the league.