Every NBA Team's Most Promising Prospect
Feel like peering into the future of your favorite NBA team?
It's understandable if you don't. Not every squad is adequately stocked for tomorrow. Others are so committed to the present now that's it's tough to think about anything else.
Still, in the spirit of March Madness, when we deign to take stock of top NBA prospects, let's indulge the future.
To ensure we're not spitting out patented superstars who are just really young at every turn, the field of eligibility will be limited to those who are under the age of 25 and no more than three seasons into their career, including this one. Players who have already been eligible to sign an extension, such as Nerlens Noel, will also be precluded from consideration. There will still be some anomalies who look out of place, because Karl-Anthony Towns is a monster but if a sophomore or junior is that good so soon, more power to him.
Prospects will be chosen weighing both present-day impact and future potential. We're ultimately identifying the talent with the highest ceiling, but in the case of teams that employ multiple basketball cubs without a clear outlook, this season's performance will determine who gets the nod.
Atlanta Hawks: Taurean Prince
The Atlanta Hawks' plan for Taurean Prince appears pretty straightforward. They want him to become that tough-nosed switchy wing on defense who scores off threes and drives at the other end—a Thabo Sefolosha 2.0.
As Glen Willis wrote over at Peachtree Hoops:
I think the most critical aspect of the Hawks development plan for him at this point of the season is that typically Prince’s initial assignment from the bench is to replace veteran forward Thabo Sefolosha, who almost always draws the toughest defensive assignment on the perimeter in each game. But most interesting to me is that Coach Mike Budenholzer seems to be very intentionally making that substitution prior to the opponents’ primary scoring threat exiting the game for the first time. It seems to me that the coaching staff wants Prince to get a 3-4 minute run with that primary assignment.
Prince already makes his presence felt on the defensive side. He does normal rookie stuff—biting on off-the-dribble head fakes, losing track of off-ball shooters, committing a few too many fouls, etc. But he is good at keeping track of the ball even when he's not guarding it and makes life difficult on bully-ballers close to the basket.
There's more of a learning curve for Prince to cover on the offensive side. He's making the quick reads Atlanta values; he takes just a tick to decide whether he's firing a three or putting the ball on the floor. But he is shooting under 35 percent on drives and is basically a coin toss when going up around the basket.
A 38.6 percent hit rate on catch-and-shoot treys, coupled with the 37.8 percent he shot from deep during his final two years at Baylor, suggests Prince's general three-point efficiency will climb above the league average. Even if his on-the-move offense remains too dependent on drawing fouls, the Hawks have a nice three-and-D prospect on their hands.
Boston Celtics: Jaylen Brown
Jaylen Brown is a worker bee—smart and athletic, with endless drive. Injuries opened the door for him to play immediately, and he's remained a rotation staple for the second-best team in the Eastern Conference.
Color head coach Brad Stevens impressed, per ESPN.com's Chris Forsberg:
I’m not sure I would have thought that [Brown] would be where he is right now, just because I thought that he had a lot of things that he really would have to improve on to be able to add value to winning at this level. And he’s proven that he can pick things up on the fly and that he can play at a high level. I know there’s going to be ups and downs with anybody -- and certainly with a 20-year-old -- but he’s got a chance to be pretty darn good.
Brown has come on even more since the All-Star break. Boston's defensive rating improves with him on the hardwood, and he's averaging 10.0 points and 4.2 rebounds per game on 52.3 percent shooting—including a 44.1 percent clip from downtown.
Questions about his jumper are ebbing. He's shooting a manageable 35 percent from beyond the arc for the season and putting down more than 48 percent of his corner triples.
With the energy Brown expends on defense, it's only a matter of time before he's a more potent asset. He excels switching on pick-and-rolls, and the Celtics haven't hesitated to throw him on explosive wings. His future seems brighter than almost anyone who came out of the 2016 draft class.
Brooklyn Nets: Caris LeVert
After missing the Brooklyn Nets' first 20 games, Caris LeVert is proving to be worth the wait.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson remains the team's most dangerous defender, but the rookie isn't far behind. He shimmies between 2s and 3s with ease and has flashed the ability to cover point guards.
Brooklyn has to be giddy about LeVert's offensive polish, which is what distances him from Hollis-Jefferson. He's shooting better than 69 percent at the rim and already initiating pick-and-rolls. His three-point touch is a work in progress, but he keeps defenses honest with a lightning-quick first step.
In many ways, LeVert is an emblem for the Nets' rebuild. They gave up a known commodity, Thaddeus Young, to get him, and he's exactly the kind of player they need to invest in until their draft-pick commitments expire—a high-floor, higher-ceiling wing who serves a variety of functions on both ends.
Charlotte Hornets: Frank Kaminsky
Frank Kaminsky gets some love here by default. The Charlotte Hornets are shockingly thin on worthwhile developmental projects.
To Kaminsky's credit, he's starting to play like one. He set the tone just before the All-Star break by dropping 27 points on 11-of-18 shooting against the Toronto Raptors. With the exception of a 10-day stay on the sidelines while nursing a shoulder injury, he has yet to take his foot off the gas.
Since Feb. 15, a stretch spanning eight appearances, he's averaging 18.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists on 46.6 percent shooting, with a 35.2 percent success rate on three-balls. Even his rotations around the basket have improved.
Eight games is nothing in the grand scheme, and there are holes in Kaminsky's defense that won't go away. Opponents are shooting close to 60 percent against him at the rim, and it would be nice if, as a 7-footer, he grabbed a larger share of defensive rebounds than Tobias Harris. Or Rajon Rondo.
Playing fewer minutes at power forward would help Kaminsky a great deal, but he's looking at more of a 4-5 timeshare once Miles Plumlee is healthy. If he's going to make a leap, his recent offensive upswing has to be the advent of a new normal.
Chicago Bulls: Jerian Grant
Between Feb. 1 and March 8, Jerian Grant was the Chicago Bulls' best point guard. Through those 15 outings, he averaged 13.8 points and 3.9 assists per 36 minutes while banging in 50.9 percent of his threes, and no everyday player posted a better offensive rating.
So, naturally, Chicago ditched him at the first sign of trouble.
Grant played less than 12 minutes during a March 10 loss to the Houston Rockets. After that, in a March 12 loss to the Celtics, he saw under 10 minutes. He has since logged two DNPs, against the Hornets and Memphis Grizzlies, respectively.
"It's super tough," Grant said, per the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson. "You're labeled as a starter, but when you're only playing 10 to 12 minutes a game, that's not really how it is. The Orlando game [on March 8], I had a pretty good game. The very next game, you come out within 2 minutes and it's definitely tough to get into a rhythm and give yourself confidence when you're getting pulled like that."
Fellow point guard Cameron Payne could go here, since he's a lottery prospect. Bobby Portis is sometimes bouncy. Paul Zipser is a cult hero. We don't know what Chicago is planning for Denzel Valentine.
Grant, by the Bulls' standards, has been more consistent than any of them. He deserves to be a priority—particularly if the alternative really is to roll with Rajon Rondo as the starting floor general.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Kay Felder
Kay Felder is in a weird spot. He's the Cleveland Cavaliers' lone prospect, but he's not remotely part of their present. He's at least three years younger than anyone else on the roster, and they couldn't find consistent spin for him when, by LeBron James' own admission, they needed a playmaker.
"It’s hard to develop quickly, especially at the point guard position, with scarce playing time," King James Gospel's Quenton Albertie wrote. "For a player whose biggest strengths are his offensive capabilities, the limited shot opportunities don’t help a player develop as quickly as they could either."
Thankfully, there's the D-League.
Felder is averaging 30.3 points and 5.7 assists on 48.2 percent shooting through 10 appearances with the Canton Charge. Shot volume has not been an issue. He's attempting more than 22 per game and learning how to get looks up in the paint over and around players much taller than his 5'9" self.
Cleveland figures to be on the hunt for reserve playmakers every year. These D-League showcases are a necessary steppingstone if Felder is to enter the mix of options during the LeBron era.
Dallas Mavericks: Dorian Finney-Smith
It doesn't matter that Justin Anderson was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, or that Yogi Ferrell's default setting is no longer supernova. Dorian Finney-Smith would be the Dallas Mavericks' best prospect anyway.
Rookies don't normally have a huge impact on the defensive end—not when they're tweeners. Smith, at 6'8", is dancing between small forward and power forward. He's even soaked up spot time at center in pocket-sized lineups.
Switching onto so many different assignments is hard for seasoned vets, but Finney-Smith looks increasingly comfortable. Wesley Matthews is Dallas' only wing to face more pick-and-roll ball-handlers, and Smith has saved more points on defense than any of the team's non-bigs, according to NBA Math.
If his last 10 games are any indication, the newbie's jumper is coming along, too. He's shooting 35 percent from distance on two attempts a night.
Combine this streak with an ability to finish at the rim, and Smith has the opportunity to be a special player on both ends of the floor.
Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic
Looking at Nikola Jokic as a prospect feels bizarre. He's established himself as one of the most valuable players in the game. It's easy to forget he's a sophomore—one who just so happens to be playing like a superstar.
Jokic is averaging 19.2 points, 10.7 rebounds and 5.7 assists while shooting 60.3 percent overall and 39.5 percent from three since re-entering the starting five on Dec. 15. The Denver Nuggets run everything through him now, and for a good season: They have the NBA's best offense with him as their No. 1 option.
Basketball-Reference's Box Plus-Minus and ESPN's Real Plus-Minus rate Jokic as one of this season's seven most impactful players. Catch-all metrics aren't everything, but they're telling—especially when LeBron James and Russell Westbrook are the only players who join the Serbian high-rise in the top seven of both.
From Jamal Murray and Gary Harris to Juan Hernangomez and Emmanuel Mudiay, Denver is teeming with noteworthy youngsters. Even as he struggles to be the defensive anchor in the middle, Jokic is on a different level.
Future MVP candidates always are.
Detroit Pistons: Stanley Johnson
Stanley Johnson's role within the Detroit Pistons' rotation isn't what it was last season. His minutes are down, and he's enduring more game-to-game swings. He'll log under 12 minutes in a loss...then 28 in a win...before dipping back down below 20...only to—well, you get that point.
Certain aspects of this inconsistency are owed to the Pistons' makeup. They have too many ball-dominant scorers and not enough shooting. Johnson's sub-30 percent three-point clip doesn't do them any favors.
At the same time, you can tell head coach and president Stan Van Gundy is looking for reasons to keep the 6'7" combo wing on the floor. He initiates pick-and-rolls with the second unit to help mask his shooting warts, and Van Gundy often gives him the toughest defensive cover, even when he's playing beside Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Johnson's rabid spunk on the less glamorous end guarantees him a future in this league, and there's hope for him on offense. He owns Detroit's second-best offensive rating since Feb. 1 and shoots nearly 67 percent at the rim.
What becomes of Johnson's jumper will determine whether he's more Jimmy Butler or Andre Roberson.
Golden State Warriors: Patrick McCaw
Patrick McCaw would be little more than a human victory cigar if not for Kevin Durant's sprained MCL. Out of necessity, he's become the Golden State Warriors' stand-in starter, averaging more than 25 minutes over the last nine games.
The returns on this experiment are less than good. McCaw is shooting under 30 percent from three and turned in an 0-of-12 performance during a March 11 loss to the San Antonio Spurs' B-Squad.
But it's not just the rookie who's out of sorts. The Warriors as a whole have fallen off a cliff. They're pumping in 104.4 points per 100 possessions since Feb. 27, when they lost Durant and fell to the Washington Wizards, compared to 114.1 beforehand. McCaw's own job would be much easier if Stephen Curry was shooting better than 18.9 percent (7-of-37) on wide-open threes.
Bright spots aren't hard to find, though. McCaw has shown he can get to the rim when his jumper isn't falling, and he boasts Shaun Livingston-like hands and versatility on defense.
He's a worthy project for a Golden State squad that needs all the capable cost-controlled role players it can get.
Houston Rockets: Clint Capela
Experience: 3 Years
Clint Capela is perfect for what Houston is doing—a screen-setting slasher and rim protector comfortable in his own skin.
That last part is most important. The Rockets aren't trying to disguise their blueprint. Their offense is built around having at least four shooters and drivers on the court. They don't need an aggressively involved big, just a rim-runner who works his behind off on defense.
Capela fits that bill to perfection. He is second on the team in screen assists and racking up 1.2 points per possession as the roll man on 60-plus percent shooting. Opponents shoot just under 50 percent at the rim when he's in the vicinity—the best mark among Houston's rotation players and a true feat given the personnel head coach Mike D'Antoni sticks in front of him.
This works for Capela, who will be extension-eligible over the offseason. He doesn't need to be rewarded for his niche role like others. Houston isn't drawing up plays for him to try scoring outside 10 feet of the hoop, and he's churning through fewer post-ups per game than Kyrie Irving.
Once he shores up his back-to-the-basket defense, Capela will be everything the Rockets need. And so long as he doesn't aspire to journey beyond his predetermined sweet spot, this is one of those mutually beneficial partnerships that should persist for a long time.
Indiana Pacers: Myles Turner
Everything Myles did well as a rookie, he does better now. Everything he flashed, he does more of. His minutes have skyrocketed, but his efficiency hasn't plummeted. He's challenged more looks at the rim than anyone except Rudy Gobert and Robin Lopez, but he's holding rival shooters to sub-50-percent conversion rates.
No one else has contributed more overall value to the Indiana Pacers' 2016-17 march, according to NBA Math's Total Points Added—not Paul George, not Jeff Teague. And that's with a majority of Turner's contributions coming on defense. He's still learning the ropes on offense—and it shouldn't be long before that changes.
Indiana scores more points per 100 possessions when Turner is in the lineup. He's shooting better than 50 percent out of the pick-and-roll, up from 41.4 last season, and draining 40-plus percent of his long twos. He's improved his three-point percentage by more than 10 points while letting them fire more frequently.
Turner does endure protracted dry spells. He goes games without attempting more than one three-pointer, and the Pacers' bevy of ball-handlers often relegate him to decoy status.
Which, whatever. This, too, will change over time, and it hasn't stopped Turner from taking a quantum-sized sophomore leap.
Los Angeles Clippers: Brice Johnson
Brice Johnson isn't just the Los Angeles Clippers' most promising prospect. He's about their only prospect, period.
Diamond Stone, 20, deserves some honorable-mention love as the youngest player on the team, and because, until recently, he was healthier than Johnson, who spent most of this season recovering from a back injury. But the North Carolina product has more bounce.
Think back to Blake Griffin jumping over a Kia Optima in the 2011 Slam Dunk Contest. Now picture Johnson jumping over Blake Griffin jumping over a Kia Optima.
Yeah, that kind of bounce.
Teams will always take fliers on bigs with show-stopping athleticism. Johnson won't ever be the guy who creates his own shot, but he's springy enough to match the above-rim explosiveness championed by the fallen Lob City dynasty.
Los Angeles Lakers: Brandon Ingram
Brandon Ingram or Ivica Zubac D'Angelo Russell?
Epic bar-stool wars will be waged in search of this answer for years to come. Lonzo Ball or Markelle Fultz might meander into the discussion by the end June.
For now, this early into their careers, there is no wrong answer, only a preference. Russell will win over more armchair general managers in the interim because of his offense. But he should be further along. He has an extra year of experience and the ball is in his hands more.
Ingram, on the other hand, is a mystery. And the Los Angeles Lakers are bent on solving him. He averages more minutes per game than anyone on the team, and head coach Luke Walton entrusts him with extra playmaking responsibilities.
All the knocks against him share a common denominator—inexperience, not inability. He's shooting under 30 percent from three but is at 37-plus percent from the corners. He grades out as one of the worst defenders at his position, but he's improving, as detailed by Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal:
The spindly small forward was immediately thrown into the fire and asked to fill a major role for the Los Angeles Lakers, guarding a set of wings that have become more versatile than ever in the modern Association. He didn't possess the physicality to handle many assignments, much less to do so while adjusting to the professional game.
Ingram will be a good defender one day, so long as he bulks up and proves he can hold his own in the weight room. So take this ranking with a major grain of salt, because the numbers—while accurate—aren't reflective of his career trajectory, especially while he adapts to the learning curve and simultaneously suits up next to other sieves.
Rangy wings who make quick decisions on the catch, create off the dribble and cover a ton of defensive ground are the NBA's future. That Ingram has shown flashes, however brief, of doing all these things is paramount to the Lakers' future—arguably more so than Russell.
Memphis Grizzlies: Andrew Harrison
Andrew Harrison doesn't beat out Wade Baldwin IV or Deyonta Davis by a huge margin. But he doesn't play Mike Conley's or Marc Gasol's best position, so he wins.
Besides, with Chandler Parsons' debut season in Memphis ending in yet another knee injury, the Grizzlies' search for a wingy playmaker must plow on. Vince Carter will have to release a bound-and-gagged Father Time from his windowless basement at some point, and James Ennis, 26, won't get much better than he is now.
Harrison is a human roller coaster on both ends of the floor, with tantalizing offensive potential. He's not noticeably athletic, but he maneuvers his way into the lane at will.
Conley is the only player on the team using more drives, and Harrison's free-throw rate ranks second among all guards, trailing only James Harden. He's hitting more than 40 percent of his threes since the Feb. 23 trade deadline, while his vision on the move is point guard-esque. He averages almost seven potential assists per game—third-most on the Grizzlies.
No wonder head coach David Fizdale has developed a soft spot for Harrison as he tries diversifying Memphis' mode of attack.
Miami Heat: Justise Winslow
Rodney McGruder is for real. Okaro White is fun. Josh Richardson...needs to regain his outside stroke. But Justise Winslow remains the Miami Heat's best prospect.
Maybe you've forgotten about him. The Heat are an NBA-best 23-5 since Jan. 17, with a top-six offensive rating and top-three defensive rating. They're in the thick of the back end of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Winslow hasn't played since Dec. 30 after undergoing right shoulder surgery. And he didn't show discernible improvement when on the court. He was a defensive pest and proved yet again he could orchestrate the offense on-ball. But his jumper stayed broken, and his efficiency around the rim plummeted.
Is he maybe expendable? Not so fast. As the Palm Beach Post's Anthony Chiang wrote:
He's still just 20 years old, and he was dealing with an injured shooting wrist in a lot of the games he did play in this season. There's still hope for Justise and he already has a lot of skills that make him a valuable asset. At 6-foot-7, 225 pounds, Justise has a solid frame for an NBA small forward and he's an above average defender who has proven to have a pretty high basketball IQ. Justise still has plenty of room for improvement, and he also has plenty of time to grow at just 20 years old. Plus, the Heat still have Justise on an affordable rookie contract. Unless an incredible trade deal comes Miami's way, Justise is not expendable right now. He'll fit in when he returns next season as Miami's starting small forward, allowing Rodney McGruder to move back to his normal bench role.
Neither McGruder nor White has an All-Defense ceiling, and Winslow will be a better setup man than Richardson in the long run. A half-reliable outside stroke, in addition to the latest injury, is holding him back, but that's not enough to ignore everything else he can already do.
Milwaukee Bucks: Thon Maker
Rookie Malcolm Brogdon could easily be put here. He's playing better than teammate/fellow point man Matthew Dellavedova and in the conversation for the "Joel Embiid is injured so we might need to find another rookie of the year" award.
At 24, though, Brogdon is four years Thon Maker's senior. We have to roll with the 20-year-old wannabe unicorn who has, let's say, fairly grand ambitions.
"I'm going to be an All-Star," Maker told Bleacher Report's Howard Beck. "I'm going to be a champion. Not just one, multiple times. I'm going to be an MVP. I'm going to be Defensive Player of the Year. Not just once, multiple times."
Maker was in line for more burn after the Miles Plumlee trade, but Jabari Parker's torn ACL necessitated an unanticipated window of opportunity. He is now a starter, at center, offering nightly glimpses into the hybrid 5 the Bucks hope he can be.
Head coach Jason Kidd has been quick to pull the 7'1" high-rise in recent games as he bears undeniable symptoms of inexperience. He's shooting 33.8 percent since entering the starting five and can't yet be the last line of defense at the rim. But he almost never leaves without delivering a parting gift: a dunk, a corner three, a drive, a block, end-to-end hustle—something, anything, that suggests his development cannot be capped.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Karl-Anthony Towns
Karl-Anthony Towns is an unfinished defensive product. But what sophomore isn't? He's being tasked with making split-second reads, and his role is more complex when playing next to Gorgui Dieng, who isn't expected to switch as much.
Pretty much everything else Towns does contradicts his age, and instead screams "tenured superstar." This has even included his defense more recently, as Bleacher Report's Michael Pina wrote:
The Timberwolves have been a bad defensive team with Towns on the floor this season. While he leads all centers in offensive real plus-minus, he also ranks 66th out of 68 players in defensive real plus-minus. But since the All-Star break, they've allowed just 99.9 points per 100 possessions when he plays, good for second-best in the league.
Just three other players have ever cleared 24 points, 12 rebounds, 2.5 assists and one block per game while shooting 53 percent or better from the field: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal and David Robinson—all-time greats. None of them were younger than 25, and Robinson was the only one to hit those benchmarks before his fifth season in the league.
If the Timberwolves played the entire year like they have since the trade deadline, Towns' exploits would be getting more attention. His All-Star case was overlooked, and he's ceded status to the rises of Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic. But the crux of his outlook hasn't changed.
While others might be gaining ground, Towns remains the NBA's best big-man prospect.
New Orleans Pelicans: Cheick Diallo
It makes sense that Cheick Diallo, a 6'9" power forward who can play center, is the New Orleans Pelicans' best prospect. After all, it's not like they have both DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis playing up front or anything.
New Orleans was rail-thin on intriguing kiddies before getting Cousins. Giving up Buddy Hield left Diallo as the chief unknown.
And, as far as the Pelicans are concerned, he'll remain that way.
Diallo won't get a chance to spread his wings with Cousins and Davis in tow. Alexis Ajinca and Omer Asik are on the payroll (for now), and anytime one of the team's All-Star towers takes a breather, the emphasis should lie with four-out lineups heavy on wings.
If the Pelicans stretch or trade Ajinca and Asik without bringing back Donatas Motiejunas, Diallo will have a chance to play more emergency minutes next season. He has the athleticism teams look for in rim-runners, shot-blockers and defensive rebounders. He should eventually get a crack at semi-regular backup minutes, even if it's not in New Orleans.
New York Knicks: Kristaps Porzingis
Team president Phil Jackson trashed the promising dynamic between Carmelo Anthony and Porzingis by inserting a score-first Derrick Rose into the equation. Willy Hernangomez has been a nice surprise, but he and the injured Joakim Noah tether Porzingis to the 4 long term.
Playing power forward is doable if Porzingis is surrounded by the right personnel. He isn't because, again, these are the Knicks. He defends in space more than any 7'3" string bean reasonably should, and his per-36-minute foul rate has climbed from last season (from 3.6 to 4.1).
But Porzingis won't devolve down to the Knicks' level without a fight.
Stick him in the middle, and he'll blockade the rim. Among 29 players who have faced 350 or more looks at the iron, only Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert holds opponents to a lower shooting percentage. Porzingis is also the first player in league history to average at least 17 points, two blocks and one made three per game.
Getting a viable franchise cornerstone is the toughest part of any rebuild. For all the Knicks have done and will continue to do wrong, Porzingis gives them a foundation—and, by extension, hope.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Domantas Sabonis
Domantas Sabonis has found the happy medium of debut seasons.
You can tell he's a rookie. His offensive efficiency and his decision-making are dead giveaways. But he's shown enough promise and progress on both ends to be considered another draft-day win, this time via trade, for Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti.
Sabonis' defense has been a revelation since Day 1. He's almost never caught out of position. He's Mr. Right Place, Right Time. Oklahoma City can depend on him to seal off dribble penetration and even rotate onto wings. Opponents are shooting 46.6 percent against him at the rim, the best mark among the team's everyday performers, and he's giving up a 32 percent clip in isolation sets.
It's going to take some time before Sabonis is an authentic three-point sniper. He's shooting under 32 percent from deep for the season and under 20 percent since Feb. 1.
What he lacks in proven range, he makes up for in craftiness. He's not afraid to put the ball on the floor, and defenses respect him enough to collapse when he sprints downhill. Sabonis makes them pay with nicely timed passes when a shot isn't there; he has the Thunder's third-highest assist rate on drives (11.2), behind Norris Cole and Russell Westbrook.
Taj Gibson's arrival, as expected, has displaced Sabonis from the starting five. This is hardly an indictment of his play. He's 20, and Oklahoma City is battling for playoff positioning. Regardless of what happens now, he's become a pivotal part of the future, something head coach Billy Donovan has been quick to confirm.
Orlando Magic: Aaron Gordon
Experience: 3 Years
Back in February, Mario Hezonja would have been listed here to prove a point. He needed more playing time, for starters, but Aaron Gordon, the Orlando Magic's actual best prospect, was playing out of position, at the 3.
With mopey Serge Ibaka gone, Gordon is back in the right place, looking like the bouncy playmaker who finished last season strong. Spot him up around a Nikola Vucevic pick-and-roll, and Gordon can catch the ball, toast plodders closing out on him, and rampage to paydirt...
He's lurking along the baseline for putback crams instead of hanging aimlessly around the perimeter. Gordon outsprints opposing bigs for transition rim-runs, and when the offense bogs down, he can juke guys off the bounce -- something that was harder against wings, who can generally hang with him. He has even run a few nifty pick-and-rolls with Vucevic.
Gordon is averaging 14.6, 5.6 rebounds and 1.6 assists on 47.7 percent shooting since the Ibaka trade. His three-point percentage is in the toilet, but he's reliable enough on wide-open missiles (35.5 percent) to project improvement.
In the meantime, Gordon battles against the Magic's cramped spacing by getting to the foul line on a more frequent basis. If they ever surround him with knockdown shooters who can survive on defense, he'll give them what they haven't had in the post-Dwight Howard era: direction.
Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid
Ben Simmons deserves some residual consideration. He hasn't played, but the 20-year-old Aussie is a pass-first highlight reel who, one day, should be able to defend every position.
But Joel Embiid exists, so here we are.
Thirty-one outings is all Embiid needed to show he was, and remains, worth the wait. His durability is subject to doubt. His transcendence is a matter of fact.
Six other rookies have, like Embiid, averaged at least 20 points, seven rebounds and two blocks per game. All of them are or will be Hall of Famers: Tim Duncan, Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Ralph Sampson. And if that doesn't do it for you, the Philadelphia 76ers being a plus-67 with him in the game should—because that's better than the Grizzlies are with Marc Gasol (plus-50).
Embiid could win Rookie of the Year, and the number of gripes, relative to his 31-game sample, will be minimal. If that's not the mark of a megastar prospect, then there's no such thing.
Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker
Devin Booker is doing things.
Here's the list of every player to average at least 20 points and three assists while shooting 37 percent or better from deep before his 21st birthday:
- Devin Booker (2016-17)
- Kyrie Irving (2012-13)
Booker's offensive value was a given, even if his rookie-year exploits were a tad overrated by its end—the byproduct of outperforming expectations in the first place. But improving your efficiency is hard when you're taking more shots and drawing more defensive attention. Booker has only advanced within a more expansive role.
Playing without Eric Bledsoe, who has been shut down for the rest of the season with a knee injury, poses another test. Booker's shooting percentages have dipped a great deal without him, and he'll need to pick up the slack on defense beside the flurry of net negatives head coach Earl Watson must use in Bledsoe's stead.
These reps as the Phoenix Suns' unquestioned alpha should be good for Booker. There is value in trial by fire. It's how Booker came to prove himself as a rookie, and he's done nothing if not show he's up for more challenges since.
Portland Trail Blazers: Jusuf Nurkic
Experience: 3 Years
Jusuf Nurkic Fever is an actual thing—and deservedly so. The Bosnian behemoth has gone from moping and registering the more-than-occasional DNP in Denver to helping the Portland Trail Blazers establish themselves as the foremost threat to the Nuggets' playoff bid.
"It won't be like this forever," SI.com's Andrew Sharp wrote. "We're in the middle of a very small sample size. At some point Nurkic will look human, Portland fans will realize there are other changes needed across the roster, and nightly celebrations of the great Blazers-Nuggets trade of February 2017 will begin to fade."
Indeed, Nurkic has turned in some less-than-indelible performances since Nurkic Fever reached its peak. He went 2-of-8 from the field with five turnovers in a March 11 letdown against the Washington Wizards and 1-of-8 with four turnovers during a blowout loss to the Pelicans on March 14. (His cough-up rate has been an issue all season.)
By and large, though, Nurkic isn't playing over his head. He's morphed into a pinpoint passer since joining the Blazers, but his per-minute output is otherwise eerily similar to what it was with the Nuggets:
|Nurkic Per 36:||PTS||FG%||REB||AST||STL||BLK|
Portland isn't getting a brand-new version of Nurkic. He's visibly happier and more engaged, but he was an attractive prospect long before now—which, really, is just a roundabout way of saying Nurkic Fever may be here to stay.
Sacramento Kings: Willie Cauley-Stein
Willie Cauley-Stein isn't getting the nod over Skal Labissiere just because it still takes me three tries to correctly spell the latter's last name. Promise. Nor is Buddy Hield getting the shaft for fear of Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive falling deeper in love.
Cauley-Stein is the BPKBB—Best Prospect in Kings Baby Blue—because he's been an absolute terror since DeMarcus Cousins was shown the door.
In the 11 games following the trade, the seven-foot Gumby is averaging 13.8 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks on nearly 50 percent shooting. No one is playing more minutes than him, and he is having a field day darting down the middle off high screens.
Though he doesn't space the floor in the traditional sense, Cauley-Stein can play with Labissiere. He has no issue chasing around mobile 4s—or even some wings and guards, for that matter—and he moves around enough on offense to lure his defender out of the paint. Sacramento is outscoring opponents by 6.1 points per 100 possessions with him and Labissiere on the court in the post-Boogie era—the equivalent of a top-four net rating.
Hield will be peddled as the face of the Kings' rebuild because he came over in the Cousins trade, and there should be two more first-round prospects to evaluate after this season. But Cauley-Stein, as of now, has shown more lasting upside than any youngster in Sacramento.
San Antonio Spurs: Davis Bertans
Welcome to this latest edition of "Legendary Per-36-Minute Output from a Spurs Rookie Who's Older Than Most Other New Kids on the Block." (It's a working title.)
Boban Marjanovic, now of the Pistons, stole the show last season. This year, it's all about Davis Bertans.
Only one other rookie has averaged 13 points, two assists and one block per 36 minutes while shooting 39 percent from three (minimum 50 attempts): Paul Pierce. Bertans isn't as good as Pierce. His effective field-goal percentage is higher than 21-year-old Pierce, so he's clearly better. But the Spurs, in typical Spurs fashion, have found another small-sample superhero who seems capable of taking on a larger role.
“He plays an all-around game; blocks shots, works hard defensively,” head coach Gregg Popovich said of Bertans, per the San Antonio Express-News' Nick Moyle. “But his skill as a shooter is pretty unique.”
Sub out Pau Gasol from the starting five for Bertans, and that lineup drops a brain-bending 130 points per 100 possessions. Bertans also places as this season's second-most valuable rookie, behind only Joel Embiid and miles in front of San Antonio teammate Dejounte Murray, according to NBA Math's TPA.
Best of all, San Antonio doesn't have to worry about losing the Latvian after just one go-round, as it did Boban. Bertans isn't due for restricted free agency until 2018, giving the Spurs ample time to see if his first-year magic is for real.
Toronto Raptors: Norman Powell
Are the Raptors able to swing a trade for Serge Ibaka if Norman Powell doesn't play his way to his very own hype train? It's a fair question.
Powell's performance to this point made Terrence Ross expendable. General manager Masai Ujiri might have cobbled together a different package that compelled Orlando to bite, but the Ross-and-a-first-round-pick route was cleaner and beyond easy to justify.
Of course, what's happened since the Ibaka acquisition is hardly a ringing endorsement for Powell or the move itself. Toronto is getting slammed defensively whenever its sophomore plays. He's shooting under 30 percent from three, and his net rating during this stretch is third-worst on the team.
All of this must be taken with a grain of salt. Kyle Lowry hasn't played since before the All-Star break, and neither DeMar DeRozan nor Cory Joseph is as deft at breaking down defenses to the benefit of those around them.
The Raptors have not asked Powell to do too much to soon. They're just waiting for the fruits of their midseason tinkering to come together.
Utah Jazz: Dante Exum
Experience: 3 Years
Dante Exum has been almost unrecognizable since Feb. 1—in a good way. He's averaging 16.0 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists per 36 minutes on 49.1 percent shooting. He's even splashed home a respectable (by his standards) 33.3 percent of his triples.
Most importantly: Exum is quarterbacking a fully functioning offense when he's on the floor. The Jazz are tallying 107.1 points per 100 possessions with him as their pilot over the last 20 games—less than their overall mark (108.1) but still a top-12ish rate, and worlds better than the 100.0 they were at with him until Jan. 31.
Exum does have tunnel vision on drives, as Joe Johnson is passing on a greater percentage of attacks since Feb. 1. But Utah will live with this when Exum is shooting 53.1 percent in these situations. Zach Lowe explained further for ESPN.com:
This kind of feel is step one in building Exum into a rotation-level player on offense. (He's already there on defense). He's still way more comfortable as a straight-line, north-south scorer than in any other role. He struggles when defenses corral him on the pick-and-roll, and force him to slow down and make reads with a live dribble. His passes come too late, or too early, and they are often inaccurate.
Third-year wing Rodney Hood deserves an honorable mention, but he's plateaued amid injuries and the Jazz's deep pecking order. Exum's playmaking is more vital to the team's future with George Hill and Gordon Hayward (player option) gearing up for free agency. And should he develop a serviceable jump shot, he'll revisit star prospect territory.
Washington Wizards: Kelly Oubre Jr.
Bojan Bogdanovic has pushed Kelly Oubre Jr. out of the Wizards' rotation. The sophomore was averaging 10.5 minutes per game since the end of February and then recorded a DNP for Washington's March 15 loss to Dallas.
Chalk some of this up to Washington's chase for second place in the East. Fringe contenders aren't ones to extensively rely on youngsters, and the Wizards starting lineup is playing more than any other group in the league since Christmas.
But Oubre wasn't putting up much of a fight, either. In the 20 games leading up to his 39-second outing on March 13, he was shooting 35.4 percent overall and burying just 23.1 percent of his treys.
"I have all the talent. I have all the skills," Oubre said, per CSN Mid-Atlantic's Chase Hughes. "I work on it every day. I just gotta continue to remain disciplined and try to follow the right reps and do things the right way every time. Just continue to get better. I've been watching a lot of film, staying in the gym and trying to work on my craft."
Oubre will get another crack at being an everyday player, even if it's not this season. Bogdanovic is a restricted free agent the Wizards probably won't want to pay, and coaches usually find minutes for wings who have shown they can glue themselves to point guards in a pinch.
Plus, at 21, with John Wall as his point god, Oubre is more likely than not going to establish himself as a spot-up threat before along. That on its own will be enough for Washington to keep him on the floor.