Predicting the NBA's Top 10 Stars Over the Next 5 Seasons

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesFeatured Columnist IVJune 18, 2022

Predicting the NBA's Top 10 Stars Over the Next 5 Seasons

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    Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic look primed to dominate the NBA for the foreseeable future, but who'll be standing there with them in the league's upper echelon over the next half-decade?

    An important distinction up front: This isn't a hypothetical list of the NBA's top 10 players at the conclusion of the 2026-27 season. Think of it this way: We're pretending it's June of 2027, we're looking back at the last five years and asking who—based on stats, awards, team success and all the rest—ran the show during that period.

    The age range for the safest bets is narrower than you might think. Using the last five years and a quick and dirty metric as an example, the only under-23 players in the top 10 in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) from 2017 to '22 were Doncic, Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns. That's why we'll pump the brakes on guys in their very early 20s. It's rare for players that young to dominate so early, and it's even more unusual for older players. LeBron James is the only VORP top-10er from the last five years who started that stretch after the age of 29.

    The sweet spot is in the middle, with players who'll begin the next five seasons somewhere in their mid-to-late 20s. That squares with most of the research that suggests an NBA player's best work gets done in those age-25-to-29 seasons, with 26 or 27 usually representing the apex.

    We also have to consider injury risks, using style of play (aka general recklessness) and past health history as rough guides for how much time a player might miss and/or how much his performance might decline because of wear and tear.

    Full disclosure: All the variables and guesswork inherent in a five-year lookahead meant the initial list for this exercise featured almost 40 candidates. We'll start with the guys you might be surprised didn't make the cut before we get to the ones who did.

Honorable Mentions

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    Official Honorable Mentions: Evan Mobley, Scottie Barnes, Brandon Ingram, LaMelo Ball

    Mobley, Barnes and Ball were in contention for a top-10 spot, but their youth worked against them. All three will play their age-21 seasons in 2022-23, and nobody could reasonably argue that any of them are near their peaks yet.

    Ingram was actually the last cut. He'll be 29 at the end of the five-year period we're focused on, putting him smack in the middle of our preferred age range. And all he's done is improve every year of his career. Narrowly missing out on being designated the (prospective) best of the best isn't a slight.

    Aging Out: Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Paul George

    Leonard is the youngest of this group, but he'll be 35 at the end of our five-year period, and he's coming off a torn ACL. Already a load-management vet, he might not even play three seasons' worth of games over the next five years.

    Curry probably has the best shot if he ages as well as James has. But expecting anyone to match James' superhuman play during his mid-to-late 30s is a mistake.

    For reference, James will be 42 five years from now. Curry will be 39, Butler 37, Durant 38 and George 37.

    Because I'm a Coward: Jonathan Kuminga, Zion Williamson

    I think Kuminga has superstar upside...but he's 19. Check back for the 2027 edition of this article. He'll fit better then.

    Williamson has the potential to rank first on this list, but his already lengthy record of surgeries and missed games presents way too much risk. We're shooting for a high success rate here, and Zion has more variance than anyone.

    Also Considered (in no particular order): Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Donovan Mitchell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Darius Garland, Jaren Jackson Jr., Dejounte Murray, Jaylen Brown, Zach LaVine

10. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    We're going against the general prohibition on very young players right away here, but Anthony Edwards, who just completed his age-20 season, is worth straying from the safety of slightly older picks.

    He's roughly the same age as Mobley and Barnes, but the Minnesota Timberwolves guard already has an extra year of experience over those rookies. More importantly, the growth he showed in his second season put him in rare historical company. Only three 20-year-olds in NBA history have ever played over 2,400 minutes with a usage rate of at least 26.0 percent and a true shooting percentage north of 56.0: Edwards, Kevin Durant and Shaquille O'Neal.

    When you're splitting hairs to separate this spot from the honorable mentions, a stat showing Edwards shares something significant in common with all-time greats makes the difference.

    Two other factors land Edwards here after his second season, which featured per-game averages of 21.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists. The first is his role as a primary on-ball shot-creator. That's the highest-leverage type of star there is—the kind of player who, if you don't have one, means you can basically kiss any shot at contention goodbye.

    The final reason Edwards cracks the top 10 as its youngest entrant is his otherworldly athleticism.

    The speed-bounce combo he possesses is exceedingly rare, and it doesn't last forever. The bet here is on a relatively early prime; Edwards' best seasons could be the next five, as his understanding of the game improves while he's still a top-zillionth-percentile athlete.

    Assuming Edwards' decision-making and defense develop, he has a shot to be as great as any guard in the league. And he could arrive at that level as early as next season.

9. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Edwards' youth made him a dangerous pick, and Joel Embiid's injury history means he comes with even more downside risk. We haven't yet seen a year go by in which the Philadelphia 76ers' big man held up over the course of a full regular season and playoffs, and his next five campaigns (age 28 to 32) could easily be as injury-riddled as his last five.

    The thing is, even with those issues, Embiid was among the game's most imposing and productive forces from 2017-18 to 2021-22, his age 23-to-27 seasons. And in a league that continues to shrink, it seems reasonable to push chips in on one of the last overpowering interior forces left. There are almost no centers against whom Embiid (7'0", 280 lbs) doesn't have a massive size and strength advantage.

    The MVP runner-up in each of the last two years, Embiid now has four All-NBA nods and three All-Defensive honors. He did all this battling injuries. So in a way, we can analyze his next five years just like any of his individual seasons since 2017-18, which is to say: Even if he misses somewhere around a third of his team's games, Embiid will still wind up right in the thick of major award debates.

    Injuries can compound, so that calculus could change. But Embiid played 68 games this past year and at least 51 in five straight. A little load management (and a lot of optimism) could allow him to appear in 70 or 75 percent of his team's games going forward. Everyone has regarded Embiid as belonging among the league's absolute best when he has played less than that.

    As much as anything, it feels foolish to exclude someone who has as good of a chance as any player to win multiple MVPs over the next five years. Embiid has a wide range of possible outcomes, but he's an undeniable superstar in the middle of his prime. The injury risk is real, but so is Embiid's excellence.

8. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

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    Ja Morant was arguably a top-10 player this past season. His inclusion on the All-NBA second team and seventh-place finish in MVP voting are solid evidence to that effect.

    If it weren't for the injury concerns that accompany his devil-may-care approach to personal safety, he might have warranted consideration for a top-five spot on this list. But even slotting the 22-year-old at No. 8 feels a little scary in light of his 40 missed regular-season games in three seasons, not to mention the bone bruise in his right knee that knocked Morant out of the final three contests of the Memphis Grizzlies' second-round playoff series defeat against the Golden State Warriors.

    A slight frame (6'3", 174 lbs) and a penchant for launching himself into harm's way mean Morant may spend a great deal of his career playing through pain. At full strength, he's an absolute force. This year's Most Improved Player averaged 27.4 points per game and became the first guard to lead the league in points in the paint per game since 1996, the first year the NBA began tracking the stat.

    It's just that few players expose themselves to risk more frequently than Morant, and it's not like worrying about his durability is some hypothetical for the future. We've already seen him go down hard dozens of times. This is a fingers-crossed selection.

    Morant's shooting is the weakest part of his offensive game, but he's added three-point volume to his profile every year and hit an acceptable 34.4 percent from deep in 2021-22. That's good enough for a player with his burst. All he needs to gain an advantage going downhill is for a defender to close out honestly. Any more improvement as a perimeter shooter, and Morant will become a truly impossible cover.

    Finally, Morant's Grizzlies appear to be poised to play a lot of meaningful games over the next five years. You can't discount the developmental value in high-stress playoff situations, and he figures to be in plenty of them.

7. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat

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    A starter and key figure for a Miami Heat team that has made the conference finals twice in the last three years, Bam Adebayo has the best combination of established performance and youth we've covered so far. Ahead of his age-25 season, Adebayo has already made three All-Defensive teams and is joined by Nikola Jokic and Oscar Robertson as the only members of an exclusive club of players to average at least 15.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists at age 22 or younger.

    Now 24, Adebayo is on the way to becoming the most complete modern center in the game.

    Nitpickers could point out how Adebayo isn't the same kind of scoring threat the previous three players were. He has yet to average more than 19.1 points per game and doesn't have a reliable three-point shot. That said, he is progressively creating more of his own attempts and is among the best frontcourt facilitators in the league. Nikola Jokic is the only center with more than Adebayo's 904 total assists over the last three seasons.

    The shot is coming. Among bigs, Adebayo has been a better-than-average marksman from the mid-range area in three of the past four seasons. And his career 74.1 percent hit rate from the foul line provides further hope that his stroke will eventually extend beyond the arc.

    Ultimately, Adebayo's offense is a bonus. What he does on defense sets him apart, particularly in an NBA that increasingly values athleticism and versatility. Adebayo held opponents to the lowest points-per-possession rate among all players who defended at least 100 isolation possessions last year. He's the quintessential modern defensive center and should be a front-runner for DPOY in each of the next five seasons.

6. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

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    If you had to pick someone to contend with Doncic and Jokic for the title of best offensive player over the next five seasons, Trae Young would be your first thought. Well, actually, your first thought would probably be: Wait, there's a title for best offensive player over a five-year span? That's weird. But after that: Young.

    Young's long-range shooting off the dribble strains defenses to their breaking points, and he capitalizes on all the space he forces opponents to cover by utilizing some of the best passing vision in the league. When Young gets inside the arc, and particularly when he penetrates into the lane, he's among the NBA's most dangerous lob and drop-off passers.

    He put together what might as well have been an instructional video for alley-oop creativity and accuracy in the 2021 playoffs.

    Young led the NBA in total points and assists in his age-23 season last year, and Jokic was the only player to top him O-LEBRON and Offensive EPM. Among players who logged at least 2,400 minutes, only Jokic and Tatum had greater on-off impacts on their teams' offensive ratings.

    Young's not exactly an offensive safety net for the Atlanta Hawks because that term implies more of a high floor than a high ceiling. He's not out there making sure Atlanta can merely get by on offense. His presence, all by itself, assures the Hawks will perform at or near league-best levels on that end. Put a passable defense and a modicum of secondary creation around him, and the ingredients for a perennial contender are all present.

5. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

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    In some respects, Devin Booker is on the best trajectory of any young player on this list. He's sixth all-time in total points scored through his age-25 season, and the only guys ahead of him are basically the short list of the top offensive wings of the past 35 years: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.

    While Booker might have been fairly criticized as an empty scorer or "good stats, bad team" player in his earliest years, he's now shed that label completely. The three-time All-Star averaged over 25.0 points per game in all four series the Phoenix Suns played during their 2021 run to the Finals, and he put up 23.3 points per game on a 45.1/43.1/88.7 shooting splits in Phoenix's disappointingly short postseason stretch this year.

    Many of the players on this list have yet to peak, and a few on the other end of the spectrum may see some age-related decline toward the end of the upcoming five-year period. We're catching Booker, a deserving All-NBA first-teamer and fourth-place MVP finisher, at the perfect time in his developmental arc. He's got the elite scoring and playmaking down, and we've seen him utilize his size and strength (6'5", 206 lbs) on defense to an increasingly effective degree.

    He also deserves whatever bonus points are available for being ideally equipped to succeed in the ruthless, weakness-exploiting torture chamber of the playoffs. Capable of scoring at all three levels, playing on or off the ball and no longer someone offenses can attack on D, Booker is the league's most scalable and portable young star.

4. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    Two straight MVP awards say Nikola Jokic is a no-doubt top-10 player right now. If we need to debate that, please consult a physician to treat your severe case of galaxy brain because, friend, you're overthinking things.

    Though on the older side of the field, Jokic figures to age better than most because he relies so little on athleticism. His mind, size (6'11", 284 lbs) and touch will work as effectively as ever when he's 32 at the end of our five-year window. Maybe declines in speed and quickness will further compromise Jokic's defensive play, but it's not like he's been dependent on quick-twitch movements to this point.

    Even as a young prospect, Jokic knew what his strengths and weaknesses were. Adjusting to the athletic limitations of age will be easier for him than anyone else because, well...he won't have to adjust at all.

    Durability is another of Jokic's attributes, and it augurs well for his aging curve that he's logged at least 72 games in every season of his career. Unlike Morant and some other high-risk injury propositions we hit earlier, Jokic doesn't play the kind of gravity-defying, cut-on-a-dime game that will expose him to injury.

    With steady gains in true shooting percentage and upward ticks in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks per game over the last three seasons, Jokic is at the peak of his powers. Because of the way he plays, there's every reason to believe he can stay close to this level through his age-31 season in 2026-27.

3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

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    A starter in the All-Star Game and an All-NBA first-teamer in his age-23 season, Jayson Tatum officially arrived as a superstar in 2021-22.

    Wild as it sounds, he's still got plenty of room to improve.

    Tatum is underwhelming as a finisher, which, along with the generally difficult shot profile of a top option, contributes to effective field-goal percentages that tend to hover around the league average. At a lanky 6'8", Tatum has the frame to finish over and around most opponents. But he's still finding the balance between seeking contact and simply converting in the lane.

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    Errant passing is the other knock on Tatum, and he just set the record for most turnovers in a single postseason. That doesn't happen unless your team makes a deep run, so there are worse all-time distinctions to hold.

    His assist percentage is on a four-year climb, though, and is in elite territory for his position. And when you see Tatum read the floor like this, it's hard to be too critical of his decision-making.

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    Optimal size and skills for the wing-driven modern NBA and a glut of big-game experience set Tatum up for massive success. Even his struggles during Boston's Finals defeat come with a positive spin: Tatum was the best player on a team that advanced that far, and the lessons learned against the Warriors will serve him well as he enters his prime.

    Already a top-10 player and the best two-way wing we've covered to this point, Boston's centerpiece could plateau at his current level and still belong here. Unfortunately for the rest of the league, Tatum is still getting better.

2. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

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    It doesn't matter that Luka Doncic is too young to fit into that ideal 25-to-29 age range over the next five seasons. The 23-year-old has already finished among the top six in MVP voting across each of the last three years and is only a commitment to conditioning away from winning the award several times over the next half-decade.

    Truth be told, Doncic might not even need to get serious about staying in shape. Everyone with better finishes in MVP voting since 2019-20 has been older than the Dallas Mavericks' franchise pillar. As aging knocks those players down a peg, Luka might just quietly slide into the top position whether he sheds those extra pounds or not.

    The first in history to make three All-NBA first teams through his age-22 season, Doncic may already be the most productive young player we've ever seen. He and Oscar Robertson are the only guys to average at least 26.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists across the first four years of their careers. Doncic got his start at 19, three years earlier than Robertson, and isn't benefitting from the same pace-inflated statistical environment of the early 1960s.

    In light of all that, it was difficult to deny Doncic the No. 1 spot in these rankings. If he commits to getting in shape and embraces a more consistent commitment to defense, it may wind up being a mistake.

    In the end, those questions tied to health and conditioning matter—particularly in comparison to the man who takes the top spot ahead of Doncic.

    The player at No. 1 has comes with zero uncertainty.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Giannis Antetokounmpo has played at an MVP level for four straight seasons, officially winning the award twice in that span. There's no reason to expect anything different ahead of his age-28 campaign.

    While Doncic comes with questions about his defense and conditioning, Giannis is immune to inquiry. For my money, Antetokounmpo is the game's best player, and the work ethic that remade his body and broadens his skill set every year isn't going anywhere. It's absolutely fair to expect his next five seasons to be better than his last, even if the latter part of that run will take him to the other side of 30.

    A two-time MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and title-winner getting even better? If anyone were going to pull that off, why wouldn't it be the guy who has come this far after playing in a second-division Greek league team less than 10 years ago? As physically gifted as Giannis is, he wasn't born an all-time great. He made himself into one.

    That's the kind of mentality and commitment that makes you feel good about projecting higher highs ahead.

    What form his development will take is unclear. Maybe the three-point shot will finally become a reliable part of his repertoire. Maybe as he gets even stronger (few have added more bulk in their careers than Antetokounmpo), he'll transition to full-time center status and unlock devastatingly effective offensive units that give nothing back on the other end. Already among the most physically overpowering forces in the league, Giannis hasn't even tapped into his old-man strength yet.

    The bulldozing of helpless defenders may have only just begun.

    Stats courtesy of, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through 2021-22 season. Salary info via Spotrac.


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