The 2016-17 NBA All-Up-and-Coming Team
To paraphrase 18th-century American activist Paul Revere: The NBA youth are coming! The NBA youth are coming!
When we last buttered bread together, we rapped about next season's breakout candidates—players about to "transition from budding prospect or project to household name." This exercise is similar to that one but on a longer-term scale.
Instead of singling out those on the cusp of relative domination, we're on the hunt for burgeoning stocks that need a little more time to marinate. These players have star potential, but they won't necessarily actualize it next season. It could take another year or two before they are standing as finished products.
Reasoning for their more gradual rise varies. They could be working back from an injury, assuming a completely different role, playing alongside a bunch of new teammates, working off an overstated initial rise or simply following an organic line of development.
Incoming rookies are the only players off limits—they're too fresh to be included. Everyone else is fair game.
Emmanuel Mudiay, Denver Nuggets
You've heard the knocks on Emmanuel Mudiay, and many of them are deserved. His jump shot is iffy. He turns the ball over a ton. He ranked dead last in the league in Total Points Added last season, according to NBAMath.com.
But Mudiay started working out some of his greatest kinks by last year's end. He shot 36.4 percent from downtown after the All-Star break, and his turnover rate improved substantially over the final two months of 2015-16. He has the tools to be a defensive plus, his vision is there and the Denver Nuggets offense tends to be more efficient overall when he's on the floor.
It shouldn't be long before we're mentioning him as a full-fledged breakout candidate.
Cameron Payne, Oklahoma City Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder have not smoothly paved Cameron Payne's path to prominence. He is in many ways redundant with Victor Oladipo and Russell Westbrook, two other ball-dominant guards, already on the roster.
Additional minutes should nevertheless be available for Payne in 2016-17 and beyond. The Thunder parted ways with Dion Waiters and can use a fire-starting ball-handler and scorer off the pine. Some of his spin will even come at shooting guard—Oklahoma City often used him off the rock as a rookie to encouraging gains.
Almost one-quarter of Payne's field-goal attempts came as spot-up three-pointers, on which he shot a respectable 34.8 percent. That efficiency will climb with time, allowing him to see extensive burn as a primary point guard and complementary weapon, which will eventually land him a big-time role, even if it's not in Oklahoma City.
Jonathon Simmons, San Antonio Spurs
Jonathon Simmons was a revelation for the San Antonio Spurs as a rookie. The 26-year-old newbie put down 38.3 percent of his three-point attempts (18-of-47), showcased decent ball control and, as Pounding the Rock's Michael Erler wrote, displayed the kind of overall offensive smarts necessary to become relevant in Spurs Land:
He's not a chucker by any means, but he was in the middle of the pack among the Spurs in shot attempts-per-36 minutes and scored more per-36 than David West, Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw or Danny Green. ... he very much has a "Morey-ball" shot chart, like a more extreme version of Manu Ginobili ... 48 percent of his attempts were layups or dunks, and he converted them at 66.4 percent, which is solid.
A second NBA Summer League stint didn't reinforce confidence in Simmons' outside shooting, and he still commits entirely too many fouls on the defensive end. But the Spurs need more athletic bodies on the perimeter as they usher in their next era. Simmons has a chance to be among the most integral—especially after Manu Ginobili calls it quits.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brooklyn Nets
Ankle surgery limited Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to 29 games during his debut season. Fortunately for him, not to mention the Brooklyn Nets, that's all he needed to flash staunch defensive chops. He blocks more shots than your prototypical 6'7" forward and relentlessly gums up passing lanes without forfeiting valuable space elsewhere.
Opponents actually shot at above-average clips when being defended by Hollis-Jefferson, but that's hardly unsettling. The Nets relied on outside bodies to cheat toward the paint as a way of covering up shoddy rim protection, wholeheartedly inviting offenses to launch wide-open threes.
Hollis-Jefferson's offense is the bigger concern. He is a good enough finisher around the rim but must develop a semi-dependable three-point stroke in order to branch out his game. Without it, his future value is chained to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist territory—which, let's be honest, is still a pretty damn good place to be.
Trey Lyles, Utah Jazz
Let's see a show of hands from everyone outside the Utah Jazz's inner circle who thought Trey Lyles would morph into a rookie-year stud. Congratulations to those of you with your mitts in the air; You're all truth treasonists.
Lyles is way ahead of schedule. Utah can use him to space the floor at the power forward and center spots, and he's a good enough passer on the move to let Gordon Hayward, George Hill and Rodney Hood all see time off the ball.
More experienced talent is all that stands between Lyles and a glitzier role. Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson will factor into the power forward rotation, and the Jazz didn't fare well defensively when playing Lyles without Rudy Gobert, according to NBAWowy. But these personnel hurdles will, at worst, only succeed in allaying his rise. They won't indefinitely halter his progress.
Bobby Portis, Chicago Bulls
If working your ass off on both ends of the floor is a drug, then Bobby Portis is an addict.
He drastically exceeded expectations as a rookie, flashing three-point range, crushing the glass and typically out-hustling every other player on the floor. Portis carried that momentum into summer-league play: gobbling up boards, remaining an enthusiastic jump shooter and suffering from fewer general defensive miscues.
In other words, he was too good for summer-league competition. If he incorporates some post moves into his offensive arsenal while tightening up his defense at the rim, it's only a matter of time before we parrot the same about his regular-season status.
Sixth Man: Dante Exum, Utah Jazz
Any self-respecting hoops head should want to see Dante Exum as a starter for this theoretical squad. But he missed all of last season with an ACL injury, so we hedge ever so slightly.
Exum's offensive game is sushi-raw, but he creates enough space as a ball-handler to function as a primary playmaker. Few people on the planet also make watching defense so fun. Exum is long—like, really long. He has a greater wingspan than Klay Thompson, according to DraftExpress, and can guard three of the league's five positions.
That versatility will be key to carving out a high-profile role in Utah.
The Jazz are not the developmental free-for-all they were when they drafted Exum. Unproven performers, such as Gobert and Hood, are now known commodities, and the backcourt is no longer in shambles. Alec Burks, Shelvin Mack, Raul Neto, Exum and Hill create something of a logjam, which can be problematic for a work-in-progress prospect.
It's unclear how much time the Jazz will invest in player maturation after taking on veterans Diaw and Johnson, ostensibly for win-now projections. Exum will have to exhibit more polish as a scorer and stick with some of the toughest defensive assignments to warrant playing time associated with household names—and that's in addition to bouncing back from his injury.
Still, even as the Jazz chase a top-four playoff berth at full bore, Exum profiles as one of their two most valuable perimeter defenders (Hood) and remains a team cornerstone. Any glamour he pieces together on the offensive end over the next few years will allow his star to shine that much brighter.
Backcourt Starter: Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
LeBron James thinks Devin Booker is going to be an All-Star someday, as he said on the Open Run podcast (h/t Bright Side of the Sun), so by unspoken law, we have to include him. It helps, of course, that James' stance isn't difficult to defend.
Booker is now the fourth first-year player to average at least 17.5 points and three assists per 36 minutes while draining more than 95 three-pointers. The company he keeps is headlined by—you guessed it—All-Stars: Steve Francis, Allen Iverson and Damian Lillard.
Bits and pieces of his inaugural campaign tend to be mythologized as a result. He was, statistically, a below-average shooter from behind the arc and struggled to make positive noise on defense. Opposing shooters torched him on their three-point attempts, and it remains to be seen whether he can be slotted against taller wings or survive when switching onto point guards.
Sustaining his rookie production as a sophomore will even be a challenge. The returns of Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight take the ball out of Booker's hands and put a share of his backcourt playing time in jeopardy. The Phoenix Suns will need to make a trade or use him at small forward full-time to open up starter-level minutes.
Not one of these changes is particularly damning, however. Booker's offensive contributions aren't tethered to volume, he shot better than 40 percent on spot-up treys and averaged more points per possession off cuts than any of his teammates. Very few neophytes are defensive stalwarts right away, and Booker has the speed and gait to keep his screen runners and dribble drives under control.
Phoenix clearly has a gem on its hands, but Booker's unexpected NBA introduction hasn't eliminated all the learning curves. He needs another year before we can say he's officially arrived.
Backcourt Starter: Josh Richardson, Miami Heat
Though the Miami Heat offense may end up better off without an aging Dwyane Wade, his exit creates a gaping backcourt hole that Josh Richardson is best suited to fill. Wandering eyes gravitate toward the 22-year-old's 46.1 percent shooting from three-point land. But Richardson is so much more than a low-usage sniper, as Andrew Ford wrote for Today's Fastbreak:
Richardson became delightfully more assertive with the ball in his hands, demonstrating his ability to annihilate defenders at the rim on multiple occasions. He also became more comfortable navigating the pick-and-roll, forming a nice two-man attack with Hassan Whiteside or Justise Winslow.
Knowing when to turn the corner and when to sit back and pick apart defenses with deft passes is essential to excelling as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, and Richardson quickly learned how to make these snap decisions on the fly as his time on the ball increased. He began to get to the line with regularity on drives, and he distributed his fair share of assists after collapsing the defense.
Miami needs even more from Richardson as a secondary playmaker. Goran Dragic and Tyler Johnson are the only other realistic pick-and-roll initiators on the docket, and the team's projected starting five is short on self-sufficient scorers (Chris Bosh, Whiteside, Winslow). As of now, Richardson is kind of, sort of among them.
The Heat will experiment with Richardson as a combo guard anyway—they have no choice. Momentary lapses aside, Richardson has "Future Defensive Dynamo" tattooed across his forehead in invisible ink. Couple that with his shooting, and he's already a two-way asset.
Anything he adds from here is gravy.
Frontcourt Starter: Stanley Johnson, Detroit Pistons
Stanley Johnson has one of the highest ceilings among notable up-and-comers. It's just going to take a while for him to reach his peak.
Getting his head above water on offense is Johnson's biggest challenge right now. He took more shots (600) than he scored points (593) as a rookie, failing to emerge as even a sporadic outside threat. He splashed in six of his 10 three-point looks during the Detroit Pistons' first-round playoff series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, suggesting he turned a corner, but went right back to bricking triples in the Orlando Summer League.
This absence of range is compounded nascent playmaking. While Johnson posted a reasonable assist rate (10.8), he coughed the ball up on a higher percentage of his drives than any Pistons wing not named Reggie Bullock. His 78.4 percent clip from the charity stripe and 35.6 percent success rate on wide-open threes offer hope for the future, but he'll need to become a more well-rounded threat, as a shooter and finisher, before he's a finished product.
For now, Johnson will prop up his trajectory via a feisty defensive stance.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope matches up with the most lethal scorers, and that's not about to change. But Johnson isn't far behind. He is the team's most versatile pest, defending power forwards, unlike Caldwell-Pope, and has the lateral tread to ice shooting guards, unlike Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris.
Neither Harris nor Morris should get too comfortable in the starting five. The Pistons were statistically better off when subbing out either one and plugging Johnson next to the remaining four. Even with his shooting warts, he is the functionally adaptable presence around which Detroit will construct a small-ball defensive terror.
Frontcourt Starter: Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
Shout-out to the bandwagoners who see this as an insult.
Kristaps Porzingis finished second in Rookie of the Year voting! That means he was almost as good as Karl-Anthony Towns! And he's a unicorn! Dirk Nowitzki plus shot-blocking and a moon-boots vertical! Up-and-coming? How about All-Star breakout candidate?
Look, there is no reason to be down on the Latvian Lord's future—that is, other than the New York Knicks' penchant for getting in their own way.
Porzingis is the first rookie in league history to tally 1,000 points, 100 blocks and 50 three-pointers. He posted the best net rating of any Knicks starter. He held his own when switching onto guards. He is an exceptional rim protector and finished as an above-average defensive contributor, according to NBAMath.com—something that's difficult to do when you're a rookie or playing on a cruddy basketball squad, let alone when you're a rookie and playing on a crappy team.
Everything you've heard is true. It's also exaggerated. Porzingis remains a project.
The Knicks need him to win efficiency battles on the offensive end. His game only looks so mesmerizing now because he's 7'3" and not tripping over himself. He shot at a below-average clip from deep, has minimal experience as a pick-and-roll finisher and must translate his comfort level with putting the ball on the floor into better passes.
Absurdly promising talent tends to figure things out, and this situation is no different. If Porzingis is the player we believe him to be, he'll make strides in every area as a sophomore. But the Knicks roster is no longer conducive to default growth after the additions of Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose, so it's going to take time.
Frontcourt Starter: Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
Myles Turner has everything you look for in an up-and-coming frontcourt stud.
Guaranteed starting spot? Check. Range outside 16 feet? Check. Elite shot-blocking volume and rim-protection potential? Check and check.
The respect of his team's best player (Paul George) and just about everyone else at Team USA's training camp? Check again.
"Myles looked really good," George said, per Nate Taylor of the Indianapolis Star. "I think the whole talk around that camp was, 'Man, you got a good one.' That's coming from all the guys on the Olympic team. Everybody was just raving of how good Myles is."
Turner remains a blank slate in many respects. His three-point touch is a theory, not a given. He launched just 14 deep balls during his rookie season, hitting only three. And his place in the Indiana Pacers offense is far from secure. He is surrounded by ball dominators—Monta Ellis, George, Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young—and must make leaps as a spot-up shooter and rim-runner before registering on the radar.
Overall, though, it's impossible to ignore the promise wrapped within Turner's per-minute production. He cleared 16 points, eight rebounds and two blocks per 36 minutes last season while shooting better than 49 percent from the floor. Just three other rookies have done the same over the last 20 years while logging at least 1,000 total minutes.
Their names? Yao Ming, Anthony Davis and Tim Duncan.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.