2018 Rising Stars Challenge: Ranking Star Potential of Every Player
Simply ascertaining the untapped levels of star power in every Rising Stars Challenge participant isn't enough. It's a difficult process steeped in hypotheticals, since so many of these players boast comparable levels of upside, and each one has impressed enough to gain entry into Saturday's event at Staples Center (some in place of the injured Lonzo Ball and Malcolm Brogdon).
So we're doing more.
Not only are we covering that potential down-the-road growth and sorting each of the 20 contestants into a best-to-worst hierarchy, but we're also placing them within tiers. That way you'll get a better sense of the competition's close nature. As an example, only a narrow margin separates No. 8 from No. 4; they're in the same tier despite falling four spots apart.
The tiers, which don't have a maximum or minimum number of players, are structured as follows:
- Tier 1: Best-player-in-the-world candidates
- Tier 2: MVP candidates
- Tier 3: Potential All-NBA inclusions
- Tier 4: Good All-Star bets
- Tier 5: All-Star upside
- Tier 6: Solid starters
- Tier 7: Low-end starters
- Tier 8: Good role players
Assuming events develop in reasonable fashion, where will your favorite rising star fall when he reaches his peak?
20. Dillon Brooks, SG/SF, Memphis Grizzlies (Tier 8)
Per-Game Stats: 9.0 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.3 blocks
Though Dillon Brooks checks in at No. 20, sitting a tier below everyone else in this All-Star Weekend competition, the fact he's listed at all makes his rookie season a massive success. The 22-year-old wasn't supposed to be in this position after leaving Oregon and falling to No. 45 in the 2017 NBA draft, where the Houston Rockets took him and traded his rights to the Memphis Grizzlies for a 2018 second-rounder.
Without a lanky wingspan (6'6") or quick first step, Brooks has limited upside. He'll never be a scoring stud, even if he began his professional career with a 19-spot against the New Orleans Pelicans (a total he's topped only once). Nor will he be much of a defensive asset, though he's exceeded expectations with smart positioning on the less glamorous end.
Brooks should settle in as a high-quality role player, either complementing big-name starters or spelling them off the pine. If he can improve his three-point percentage (37.4 percent, which falls shy of his 40.1 percent as a junior for the Ducks), he'll be too well-rounded of a scorer to keep on the pine for long.
19. Buddy Hield, SG, Sacramento Kings (Tier 7)
Per-Game Stats: 12.5 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.2 blocks
Buddy Hield has already developed into a sharpshooter for the Sacramento Kings, capable of heating up from beyond the arc so quickly he'll break any thermometrographs that somehow happen to populate the Golden 1 Center. After taking 4.6 triples per game as a rookie and connecting at a 39.1 percent clip, he's upped those numbers to 4.9 and 42.5, respectively.
Now, for some perspective.
Throughout the Association, only nine qualified shooters are lofting up at least four treys per contest and connecting on no fewer than 42 percent of their attempts: Kevin Durant, Paul George, Hield, Joe Ingles, Kyle Korver, CJ McCollum, Darius Miller, Dirk Nowitzki and Klay Thompson. Hield, though, is two years younger than every other eligible sniper.
That shot isn't going anywhere. But what tool will join it and make him a complete asset? He's a glaring defensive liability without passing instincts, and it's not like he filled either role during his time with the Oklahoma Sooners.
18. Taurean Prince, SF, Atlanta Hawks (Tier 6)
Per-Game Stats: 12.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.5 blocks
For Taurean Prince to develop into a foundational piece for the Atlanta Hawks—as opposed to a high-upside player who could be had for the right price—he has to find a way to contribute on offense without relying solely on spot-up three-pointers.
The 23-year-old is already an aggressive, athletic defender who can match up against tough shooting guards and small forwards, though he often cedes the more difficult matchups to Kent Bazemore. He's also grown into a proficient shooter who goes through hot and cold stretches that tend to even out and leave him around the league average from beyond the arc.
But what else is he going to do?
Lofty expectations should be curtailed because his growth from beyond the arc (36.8 percent) has paired with regression in other areas, and the results leave him with negative results in the advanced metrics. That's not the trend the Hawks are seeking as they try to make him more than another three-and-D contributor.
17. Bogdan Bogdanovic, SG, Sacramento Kings (Tier 6)
Per-Game Stats: 11.5 points, 2.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.2 blocks
Bogdan Bogdanovic was too advanced a scorer throughout his EuroLeague career to flop when he came across the pond. His versatile point-producing habits were sure to carry over (at least to some extent), and they have as he's scored 15.1 points per 36 minutes while shooting 46.4 percent from the field, 40.0 percent from downtown and 84.0 percent at the stripe.
But the 6'6", 205-pound Serbian swingman's physical tools cap his ceiling. He doesn't have the size, strength, length or elite leaping ability to become a featured option on a contending team, and he's never been known for his defensive acumen.
But the skill level he's displayed as a rookie pushes him ahead of a few other youngsters. The growth he's already shown as a passer is significant, and he's averaged 4.1 assists with just 1.6 turnovers per game since calendars flipped to 2018—a clear-cut indication he has the requisite ability to fill a wider range of roles as he continues to develop.
16. Domantas Sabonis, PF/C, Indiana Pacers (Tier 6)
Per-Game Stats: 12.1 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.5 blocks
The version of Domantas Sabonis who suited up for the Oklahoma City Thunder didn't look anything like the iteration who's becoming a core piece with the Indiana Pacers. His stock had declined significantly by the time he was included in the blockbuster deal for Paul George, but he's validated Indiana general manager Kevin Pritchard's faith in his long-term growth.
The 21-year-old has traded in three-point proclivities for a greater emphasis on interior finishes, and the results have included a more efficient second season. Sabonis' true shooting percentage has jumped by 10.6 percentage points while he scores 6.6 additional points per 36 minutes. His foul-drawing abilities have risen astronomically. He's figured out how to play physical defense around the basket. He's shown major growth as a distributor.
Every part of his game looks better.
Sabonis still doesn't have an All-Star ceiling like so many of his Rising Stars counterparts, but the skill level with which he's playing guarantees him a lofty floor and makes his rookie struggles seem like a distant memory.
15. Kris Dunn, PG, Chicago Bulls (Tier 6)
Per-Game Stats: 13.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.4 blocks
Kris Dunn's sophomore narrative has centered upon his drastically improved offensive game, which has prevented him from looking like the shooting liability he featured as during his brief Minnesota Timberwolves tenure. He's knocking down enough shots that the Chicago Bulls should feel comfortable viewing him as their future point guard.
Dunn's field-goal efficiency has climbed by 5.4 percentage points. His three-point and free-throw accuracies have risen by 2.9 and 10.1, respectively. Sounds great, right?
Problem is, Dunn is still slashing 43.1/31.7/71.1. For all the good he does as an efficient distributor and pestilent defender, his continued shooting woes can't help but curtail his upside. Foes can too easily back up off him and gum up Chicago's half-court sets.
He'll rise higher in these rankings if he continues to grow as an individual scorer. But he sits No. 129 among the NBA's 132 qualified players in true shooting percentage, and that will always be problematic.
14. Kyle Kuzma, PF, Los Angeles Lakers (Tier 5)
Per-Game Stats: 15.8 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.4 blocks
For all the hype Kyle Kuzma has received as a draft-day gem for the Los Angeles Lakers, the No. 27 pick of 2017's prospect pageant hasn't displayed enough to be viewed as a guaranteed star. To show why, let's begin with what he hasn't shown.
Kuzma is a bad rebounder for his position (Cleaning the Glass places him in the 16th and 21st percentiles, respectively, for offensive and defensive boards at his spot in the lineup). He's not much of a passer, barely recording more assists than turnovers for the Purple and Gold. His defense is putrid, and ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus gives him a mark worse than the scores of all but four of the 96 listed power forwards.
At this point in his young NBA career, the Utah product's value and appeal hinges almost solely on his scoring acumen. And while it's impressive that he trails only Brandon Ingram in points per game for the Lakers, he's doing so while slashing 45.3/46.2/69.9. His true shooting percentage (54.6) falls below the league-wide average (55.6).
Kuzma could still become a No. 1 scorer in time. He could show growth on the preventing side. But let's avoid making him out to be something he's not and building hype he can't yet justify.
13. Dario Saric, PF, Philadelphia 76ers (Tier 5)
Per-Game Stats: 14.7 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.3 blocks
Though he'll rarely earn headlines on a team with so many big draws, Dario Saric has arrived as a legitimate contributor. Joel Embiid, in particular, has begun to rave about his teammate, as he did for Philly.com's Marc Narducci in mid-February:
"Nobody talks about him; he has been playing really well the past couple of games, the whole season, but the past couple of games he has been excellent. I think he has been our best player the past couple of games, and I don't feel anybody is talking about it.
"He has been amazing, shot-making, [in the] post, doing his thing, playing and his defense has been excellent. Every night he shows up and does his job and stays quiet."
Since Christmas, Saric has averaged 17.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.3 blocks while shooting 48.9 percent from the field, 46.2 percent from downtown and 94.9 percent from the stripe. The confidence with which he's always shot is finally starting to pay off. He's made the right passes. He's been engaged defensively and shown the ability to switch onto multiple positions.
The 23-year-old may always be best as a complementary figure (all that prevents him from moving up into the next tier), but there's no shame in that.
12. Frank Ntilikina, PG, New York Knicks (Tier 5)
Per-Game Stats: 5.2 points, 2.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.2 blocks
Though Frank Ntilikina hasn't yet done much of note for the New York Knicks, that shouldn't force you to sour on a 19-year-old prospect trying to learn on the fly at his sport's highest level.
Yes, he's slashing just 35.3/33.7/69.4. Yes, he hasn't showcased the ability to rack up assists without committing corresponding turnovers. Yes, the Knicks have been 4.2 points per 100 possessions better offensively when he's on the bench and watching his older teammates ply their trades.
And yet, he still has a positive overall on/off split. Thanks to his defensive instincts (and getting to play alongside better compatriots for the majority of his minutes), New York's net rating climbs from minus-3.3 to minus-2.4 when he's playing.
That defense, which largely stems from his remarkable size (6'5" with a 7'1" wingspan) and ability to leverage his lightning-fast hands to swipe the ball away 1.7 times per 36 minutes, will only improve as he continues to piece together the nuances of playing defense against NBA guards. He's an offensive breakthrough away from becoming a two-way asset, and he's still brimming over with All-Star upside.
Don't be fooled by a teenager's iffy numbers during his inaugural go-round.
11. De'Aaron Fox, PG, Sacramento Kings (Tier 4)
Per-Game Stats: 11.3 points, 2.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.2 blocks
As we jump into the fourth tier, we arrive at the players who you'd be foolish not to consider as All-Star possibilities down the road. They're not there yet—not even close, really—but they have the ability to harness their untapped upside and start representing their conferences year in and year out.
For De'Aaron Fox, everything revolves around his speed.
Coming out of Kentucky, he was always going to be a raw prospect. Unless he was bursting by defenders and finishing plays around the basket (something inherently tougher to pull off against NBA athletes), the 20-year-old was a limited scorer without the necessary shooting chops to keep professional adversaries honest. Sure enough, he's averaging 11.3 points per game while slashing 41.0/32.6/73.4, and he's doing so as he gives up too many easy buckets on the less glamorous end.
But again, Fox was a long-term play. He's shown off his wheels and explosiveness on a regular basis, and his combination of size and quick hands should eventually make him a more competent defensive presence.
Patience is key here. After all, the former Wildcat might be biding his time and waiting for that breakthrough performance. If it comes now, he wouldn't be able to legally consume alcoholic beverages and celebrate his accomplishments.
10. Dennis Smith Jr., PG, Dallas Mavericks (Tier 4)
Per-Game Stats: 14.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.2 blocks
"I feel like I got better with understanding my teammates, where they want the ball at, who's who and who can do what pretty well," Dennis Smith Jr. revealed right before the All-Star break, per Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News. "I think I'm becoming a more sound basketball player as the year goes on."
He's not wrong.
Though his season-long numbers are still ugly, Smith has averaged 16.4 points, 3.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game for the Dallas Mavericks since the start of January. He's been more involved and more prone to making positive plays. However, he's done so while knocking down just 39.2 percent of his field-goal attempts, connecting on his triples at a 29.4 percent clip and hitting only 68.1 percent of his shots from the charity stripe.
That last number (also his overall mark as a rookie 1-guard) is the most concerning of the bunch, given the natural correlation that exists between free-throw shooting and overall marksmanship. And it's not like the uber-athletic floor general was much better in college; he shot 71.5 percent from the line during his lone season with NC State.
Smith's athleticism and all-around ability still make him a future All-Star candidate, but his rookie-year struggles force us to temper the expectations.
9. John Collins, PF/C, Atlanta Hawks (Tier 4)
Per-Game Stats: 10.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.2 blocks
Advanced metrics don't just like John Collins; they love the efficiency with which he plays and the well-rounded nature of his game. In fact, here's the list of rookies who have posted player efficiency ratings of at least 19, scored positively in offensive box plus/minus and finished with defensive box plus/minuses no worse than 1.0.
Rich Kelley and Alvan Adams did so in the 1970s. During the '80s, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Ralph Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan joined the club. David Robinson, Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Webber, Arvydas Sabonis, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Tim Duncan gained entry during the subsequent decade; then Pau Gasol, Yao Ming and Chris Paul in the 2000s. Throughout the current decade, just Mason Plumlee, Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic have qualified.
Are those arbitrary cut-offs? Of course. So too are rounded figures, and these still cull down the number of eligible players into a list that includes plenty of legendary figures.
In fact, Kelley, Plumlee, Sabonis and Jokic are the only four in the group who never earned an All-Star appearance. Sabonis was a European legend who made a delayed NBA debut, and Jokic is already a top-20 player getting left out due to the strength of the current Western Conference.
Collins hasn't maintained his numbers long enough to truly stack up against the laundry list of Hall of Famers. Nor has he filled a large enough role for the Atlanta Hawks, who have limited the minutes in which he can put his high-flying habits on display.
He's still been too good to discount.
8. Lauri Markkanen, PF, Chicago Bulls (Tier 3)
Per-Game Stats: 15.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.6 blocks
Thus begins Tier 3, featuring five young players separated by razor-thin margins.
Truthfully, you could throw this handful of names into a hat, pull out the names in any order and convince the world your hierarchy was correct. This is my best guess for the time being, but the placements frequently flip-flop as we gain more information. What matters most is the belief that each member of this quintet is a safe bet to make at least one All-Star Game during his prime years while operating with enough upside to push into All-NBA conversations.
For Lauri Markkanen, that belief stems from his stretchiness.
Long-term concerns about his defense still exist, preventing him from rising into a different tier (or any higher in this one). But his work on the glass and ability to handle the physicality of the NBA have at least alleviated some of that worry on the less glamorous end.
They'll be negated further if he gets so damn good at offense that his defense is rendered almost irrelevant.
We don't need to rely on arguments like "he was the quickest to 100 threes in NBA history," because they ignore how much more common the three-ball has become. Just watching Markkanen go to work for the Chicago Bulls is enough evidence, since he looks the part of a featured scorer who demands plenty of defensive attention. Once the Windy City places more offensive talent around him and gains him more space for his quick-release treys, his numbers will start trending in the right direction.
7. Jaylen Brown, SG/SF, Boston Celtics (Tier 3)
Per-Game Stats: 14.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.4 blocks
At various times, Jaylen Brown looks like he can do everything (except serve as a primary distributor, considering he's dished out five dimes only once as a sophomore).
Some nights, he seems like a No. 1 scorer, taking defenders off the bounce for athletic finishes at the tin before peppering them with triples on subsequent possessions. Other times, he patiently waits for catch-and-shoot opportunities, and his 1.05 points per spot-up possession on the season leave him in the 65.3 percentile. He can frequently function as a terrific rebounder for his position, and his physical, fearless brand of defense consistently makes him a preventing asset.
But consistency has eluded Brown. He's gone through too many cold spells and has had trouble piecing together all of his many tools in simultaneous fashion. That's why he still sits down at No. 12 among shooting guards in ESPN.com's RPM, even though the Celtics are so obviously superior when he's on the floor.
At this stage of his career, we can now say with some level of surety that he'll be a valuable player for plenty of contending teams over the years. But can he be the Batman or Robin, or is he doomed to filling a more complementary role?
That's the enduring conundrum that keeps him from displacing any of the top six.
6. Jamal Murray, PG/SG, Denver Nuggets (Tier 3)
Per-Game Stats: 16.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.3 blocks
This admittedly requires some level of faith. Especially after a disappointing rookie season, Jamal Murray hasn't done enough for a long enough period of time to objectively justify placement over guys such as Jaylen Brown and Lauri Markkanen.
Call it a gut feeling. Think of it as belief in the eye test and the Kentucky product's endless reserves of confidence. Or refer to it as exactly what it is: seeing enough in a recent stretch to buy in on the growth being legitimate development and not a fluke of small sample.
Since returning from a brief, one-game absence Jan. 17 against the Los Angeles Lakers, Murray has suited up in 12 contests. During that stretch, he's averaged 19.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists for the Denver Nuggets while shooting 52.5 percent from the field, 46.3 percent from downtown and 94.6 percent from the stripe.
These numbers aren't wholly sustainable, and shooting regression is inevitable. But Murray has become the Nuggets' go-to option, and head coach Mike Malone hasn't hesitated to trust him with important touches down the stretch of a tight game. He's even emerged victoriously from a head-to-head battle of exemplary late-game shot-making with Russell Westbrook.
The 20-year-old guard has arrived, and he's not going anywhere.
5. Jayson Tatum, SF/PF, Boston Celtics (Tier 3)
Per-Game Stats: 13.5 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.8 blocks
Before Jayson Tatum suffered a badly dislocated pinky against the Miami Heat on Dec. 20, he was averaging 13.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.8 blocks while shooting 50.8 percent from the field, 51.5 percent from deep and 83.6 percent at the stripe. Since then, he's posted 13.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.4 dimes, 1.0 steals and 0.7 blocks with a slash line of 44.0/32.5/80.6.
Call me a sucker, but I'm of the belief that the downward spiral stems almost solely from the injury and the mental decline that's accompanied the poor shooting efforts. Especially because Tatum seems like a mentally strong player, has displayed a tireless work ethic and doesn't fill an overwhelmingly large role for the Boston Celtics, this doesn't have the makings of a running-into-the-rookie-wall experience.
When Tatum fully recovers and regains confidence (both his own and that of head coach Brad Stevens), he should resume functioning like a legitimate challenger to Ben Simmons for Rookie of the Year. It'll be too late for him to win the award, but he still has the makings of a player who can thrive as one of the NBA's best spot-up threats while dominating on defense and contributing in so many other areas.
Plus, he has shown off-the-bounce tools, blowing by opponents for tough finishes at the hoop but rarely overextending himself and unnecessarily attempting to force the issue. He's a complete player, and he's still only a teenager.
4. Brandon Ingram, SF, Los Angeles Lakers (Tier 3)
Per-Game Stats: 16.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.7 blocks
Knocking Brandon Ingram for his shoddy advanced metrics is easy—and overly simplistic.
We can't deny that his PER sits below the league-average mark of 15, and the same is true of his negative scores in ESPN.com's RPM and NBA Math's TPA. Inefficient shooting is a culprit behind all three examples, and it's worth noting he fares far better in the defensive portions of both latter metrics.
But watch tape of rookie Ingram; then watch a current Los Angeles Lakers game. The difference is night and day, with this second-year prospect developing into a confident player who can briefly take over games with his scoring acumen.
His percentages—and, accordingly, his overall scores in all-encompassing statistics—suffer from the Purple and Gold's inability to produce more confident bucket-getters, which allows foes to focus too much attention on stopping a certain 20-year-old.
Plus, Ingram has begun functioning as more of a point-forward in recent outings, and the results have been sterling. During his last 10 apperances, the former Blue Devil is averaging 17.9 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists while slashing 48.6/52.4/70.8.
Take that as a sign of what's to come in both the near and distant future.
3. Donovan Mitchell, SG, Utah Jazz (Tier 2)
Per-Game Stats: 19.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.4 blocks
"Donovan Mitchell gives Detroit an additional perimeter scorer. And with explosive athleticism, quickness and a giant 6'10" wingspan, he has the potential to become a pesky on-ball defender," Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman wrote in his final mock draft before the 2017 selection process, pegging Donovan Mitchell as an ideal choice for the Detroit Pistons at No. 12.
Those defensive tools have manifested sporadically in Salt Lake City after the Utah Jazz traded for his rights at No. 13, and they still offer hope he could become a two-way star down the road. But that possibility pales in comparison to what we've already seen, as Mitchell has grown into one of the best young scorers the NBA has witnessed in quite some time.
How do you stop a player capable of thriving in spot-up situations, attacking the rim with aplomb and getting buckets from everywhere between? Mitchell can fill every scoring role imaginable, often looking the part of some strange Dwyane Wade-Damian Lillard hybrid while establishing himself as Utah's featured option.
He's tracking toward becoming the 22nd qualified rookie to average at least 19 points per game with a true shooting percentage north of 54 percent, joining Lillard, Blake Griffin, Tim Duncan, Grant Hill, Shaquille O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Larry Johnson and David Robinson since the start of the 1990s. And dating back to the beginning of January, he's been even better, upping those numbers to 22.0 points per game with a 54.3 true shooting percentage.
If All-Stars were selected after the season had ended and allowed for his in-progress development, he might be representing the Western Conference in year one. He's also the first Rising Star who seems to boast legitimate MVP aspirations if he continues on his current trajectory.
2. Ben Simmons, PG, Philadelphia 76ers (Tier 2)
- Ben Simmons
- 2013-14 Joakim Noah, 431
- 2017-18 Ben Simmons, 396
- 1999-00 Anthony Mason, 367
- 2009-10 Josh Smith, 342
- 2006-07 Eric Snow, 330
Per-Game Stats: 16.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.9 blocks
First, the list of players in NBA history who have matched this future Rookie of the Year's per-game line:
There is no No. 2, though Michael Jordan fell 0.1 blocks per contest shy during the 1988-89 season.
Simmons is the only one, and we're not just talking about rookies. This oversized 21-year-old point guard is already throwing up a unique line, impacting the game immensely with his rebounding instincts, nose for the basket and understanding of passing angles.
Oh, and that doesn't even take into account his defensive prowess, since his switchability and willingness to jump passing lanes has allowed the Philadelphia 76ers to play an amorphous, pericentral scheme in which everyone surrounding Joel Embiid freely switches without worrying about bad matchups.
Perhaps most impressively, this is all happening while Simmons works without a competent jumper. He's taken 10 shots this season from beyond the three-point arc (many of which were end-of-quarter heaves) and hasn't drained a single one. Of course, that leads us to another interesting stat.
During the current millennium, many players have gone an entire season without knocking down even one trey, as Simmons is on pace to do. Here are the single-campaign assist leaders among that group:
Simmons still gets to play another 27 games.
1. Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers (Tier 1)
Per-Game Stats: 23.7 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.8 blocks
Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons might emerge as MVP candidates, assuming they continue to progress as expected after their dominant rookie campaigns draw to conclusions. Joel Embiid, however, has a serious chance to force his way into the "best player in the world" conversation. Even among a group as young and talented as this one, he's in a class of his own.
Injuries and turnovers have proved the two biggest weaknesses for this 23-year-old, and he's answered the former worry quite nicely throughout 2017-18. We've now reached a point at which he's permitted to perform in back-to-backs, and he's averaging 31.4 minutes per game.
Sure, Embiid is struggling to connect from beyond the arc. But his performance at the stripe and his shooting success as a rookie both point toward further growth. If that happens (particularly in a scenario that sees him cut back on those pesky cough-ups), it'll be borderline impossible for anyone to keep him in check. Not when he can torment foes with face-up moves, post skills, perimeter jumpers and a fearsome interior presence on the defensive end.
When Simmons enters the fray for the Philadelphia 76ers, the team's net rating improves by 7.1 points per 100 possessions. But when Embiid plays, it jumps from minus-5.2 to 10.5—a 15.7-point swing that rivals the on/off impact of any star throughout the Association.
Of course, that makes sense. Embiid is the cornerstone of the surging Sixers and frequently performs like a top-10 candidate. He's already an All-Star starter, and he's only going to keep getting better. Even if he doesn't, he might still have the brightest future among this potential-laden collection.