Ranking the NBA's 10 Most Promising Stars in the Making
The majority of the NBA's established stars suited up during All-Star Weekend's main event Sunday in Los Angeles, but they won't be the big names forever. Plenty of youngsters are coming for the throne, challenging for future appearances in the midseason festivities while working their way up the Association's hierarchy.
But who are the most promising rising stars?
We're not worried about contract status or off-court factors. Only production matters, along with the realistic possibility of growth. The men who seamlessly blend present-day success and long-term upside will fare best, so long as they meet all the criteria.
To qualify for this countdown, players can't yet have celebrated their 25th birthdays (sorry, Rudy Gobert) or made even one All-Star appearance. They must truly be on the rise, waiting to break through and achieve that celestial recognition.
Essentially, think about this question: Among the players who tick all the aforementioned boxes, who would you draft first through 10th when starting a franchise?
10. Lonzo Ball, PG, Los Angeles Lakers
Per-Game Stats: 10.2 points, 7.1 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.9 blocks
In the interest of full disclosure, we're removing a certain parental figure from the equation. The distraction LaVar Ball creates may be enough to push Lonzo Ball to a lower tier in real life, but we're only concerned with on-court potential and production in this hypothetical world.
Fortunately for Lonzo, he's still brimming with upside.
Even without a consistent shooting stroke (he's slashing just 35.6/30.3/48.0 through the All-Star break), Ball has proved to be an impact player who can change games with his laser-focused passing vision, rebounding habits and defensive ability. We've heard plenty about the first attribute, but the last one still hasn't received enough attention.
According to ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus, Ball's score of 2.13 leaves him lagging behind only Ben Simmons (2.29), Tyus Jones (2.79) and Dejounte Murray (2.88) among players at the same position. In the metric's five-year history, only Chris Paul (2.76 in 2016-17; 2.44 in 2015-16), Ricky Rubio (2.33 in 2014-15; 2.47 in 2013-14) and Eric Bledsoe (3.97 in 2013-14) have finished with superior marks during a season qualified as a point guard.
Ball has defensive warts. He's susceptible to being blown by in isolation, and his pick-and-roll decisions are sometimes questionable. But his anticipation in passing lanes and quick hands pick up the slack and make him a distinct asset on a team figuring out how to play high-quality ball on the preventing end.
Even if his shooting stroke never comes around (and that's far from a safe bet), he'll retain plenty of value.
Honorable Mentions: Steven Adams, Jaylen Brown, Clint Capela, Aaron Gordon, Zach LaVine, Dario Saric, Dennis Smith Jr., Andrew Wiggins
9. Gary Harris, SG, Denver Nuggets
Per-Game Stats: 17.5 points, 2.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.2 blocks
During his age-23 season, which is somehow already his fourth, Gary Harris has retained the one element of his game that makes him most noticeable. He boasts a seemingly telepathic connection with Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, allowing for highlight-reel feeds as he slips past screens and bursts toward the hoop on backdoor routes.
Of course, he's also become so much more than a secondary scorer who relies on setup passes.
Harris has added 10.2 percentage points to his created two-point makes in 2017-18, and he's required an assist on fewer of his converted triples (8.1 percentage points lower). That's a massive difference for a man scoring 17.5 points per game, and it makes it all the more impressive that he's still posting a 59.8 true shooting percentage. Throughout the NBA, only 10 other players (all of whom are All-Stars) are matching or exceeding both those figures this year.
This newfound penchant for shot creation hasn't affected Harris' efficiency levels. Nor has it prevented him from continuing to serve as one of Denver's better defenders, constantly taking on tougher matchups and attempting to corral the extreme levels of dribble penetration that plagued the Mile High City last season.
Harris is a three-and-D stud who's also so much more.
8. Jamal Murray, PG/SG, Denver Nuggets
Per-Game Stats: 16.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.3 blocks
Jamal Murray keeps improving. He's always shot with unrelenting confidence, but that self-assurance is translating into results—most recently with a 26-point shot-making clinic in a victory over the Milwaukee Bucks to wrap up the season's pre-All-Star-break portion.
Since he sat out against the Los Angeles Clippers on January 17, the 20-year-old guard has been on quite a tear. He's suited up in 13 outings and averaged 20.0 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists while shooting 54.1 percent from the field, 48.6 percent from downtown and 90.5 percent from the charity stripe.
Are those shooting splits bound to cool? Absolutely. Is Murray a lock to average 20-plus points for the remainder of this season? Definitely not.
But you still get the feeling he's arrived as a Denver Nuggets centerpiece. That shooting confidence isn't going anywhere, and he's displaying a synergistic connection with Jokic, much as Harris began to do before him. Plus, head coach Michael Malone keeps trusting him with late-game touches now that he's established himself as the team's most dangerous scoring threat.
Murray will never be much of a defender, but he still has a chance to develop stronger distributing skills. He's filled a lead-guard role in the past and has the necessary passing chops, after all. And yet, even if he remains "just" a scorer, he has the potential to become one of the league's deadliest point-producers while challenging for 50/40/90 entry.
7. Otto Porter Jr., SF, Washington Wizards
Per-Game Stats: 14.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.5 blocks
Otto Porter Jr. is older than most of the players in this countdown. Only Lonzo Ball (10.2) and our No. 5 finisher, Jayson Tatum (13.5), produce fewer points per game, and the Georgetown product has the lowest volume-scoring ceiling of anyone featured. The Washington Wizards have never tried to make him a go-to option, though, and they shouldn't.
But the 24-year-old's value is through the roof, and he'll only improve. Lest we forget, the Wizards have demonstrated enough faith in his current level/future growth that they invested a four-year, $106.5 million max deal in his services this past offseason, and he's only rewarded their belief since.
Porter's per-game line looks pedestrian, but then you see his advanced statistics. They're the product of his extreme efficiency levels (slashing 49.1/40.4/84.2 with only 0.9 turnovers per game). His spot-up effectiveness and defensive habits also bolster his case to have a star impact without the type of production typically qualified as such.
In a competition like this, getting blown away by untapped upside is an easy—and almost unavoidable—possibility. But we can't overlook established success, and Porter has quietly had an All-Star impact each of the last two seasons without receiving notable accolades.
6. Devin Booker, SG, Phoenix Suns
Per-Game Stats: 24.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.3 blocks
Devin Booker was born to score, but his defense is still holding back his overall value. His RPM is a net negative because of his putrid score on the preventing end, and that's not the worst part. How many of you realized the Phoenix Suns' net rating has improved 0.9 points per 100 possessions when the team's best player is riding the pine?
Fortunately, circumstance helps explain those concerns.
Booker isn't an all-around stud, and he needs to be surrounded by the right pieces to excel—pieces the Suns haven't yet added. Development from Josh Jackson will help. Ditto for the presence of Elfrid Payton, who was brought aboard in a deadline deal. The same will be true of a future addition, since Phoenix desperately needs a secondary scorer who can draw attention away from the overextended 2-guard.
Scoring 24.2 points per game with a 56.5 true shooting percentage, Booker has already showcased marvelous strides during his third go-around in the desert. He's become one of the NBA's most potent scoring threats and is capable of burying jumpers from all over the half-court set.
Context helps explain why his advanced metrics lag behind those of some of his high-upside counterparts. But the defensive concerns aren't going away, and they prevent him from rising higher than No. 6, which may already be an aggressive placement.
5. Jayson Tatum, SF/PF, Boston Celtics
Per-Game Stats: 13.5 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.8 blocks
Jayson Tatum isn't the same player we pegged him to be prior to the 2017 NBA draft.
Coming out of Duke, he had noticeable flaws. He was too reliant on mid-range shooting and tended to commandeer possessions before taking long twos. He was a defensive liability and didn't have the steal or block numbers you want to see from a top-tier prospect. A world existed in which he'd become a low-level scoring specialist unable to affect other areas.
But hard work paid off, and his predraft workouts changed everything. Let's allow the Boston Herald's Mark Murphy to elaborate:
"Tatum, for instance, had been labeled as a mid-range shooter. Then he shot 81-for-100 from the corners during his pre-draft Celtics workout in Los Angeles. [Danny] Ainge went over to the person logging the numbers following Tatum’s display. In previous workouts for the Sixers and Suns, the stat-keeper said Tatum had shot 83 and 84 percent.
"'We were the worst of the three,' said Ainge. 'Sixty-eight or 78 percent would have impressed me.'"
Before a dislocated pinky put him in a shooting slump, Tatum had emerged as a complete scorer for the Boston Celtics. Not only was he threatening for the league lead in three-point accuracy, but he was also proficient at attacking the basket and creating his own looks.
But even more importantly, he'd emerged as a do-everything threat. His defense has impressed on a nightly basis, allowing for his ceiling to elevate far higher than anyone but the Celtics thought possible.
4. Brandon Ingram, SF, Los Angeles Lakers
Per-Game Stats: 16.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.7 blocks
Brandon Ingram is learning.
Perhaps his development has been slower than many would have liked after he left Duke, but he's showing off new elements of his game as a Los Angeles Lakers sophomore. He's become a consistent defensive positive, and that hasn't prevented him from figuring out how to create more of his own looks and how to come into his own as a go-to scorer. Perhaps most impressively, he's even starting to fill a point forward role.
As a rookie, the lanky 6'9", 190-pound prospect averaged just 2.1 assists per game and topped five only twice. But over his last dozen appearances, the 20-year-old is posting an even five dimes per contest and set a new career high with 10 against the Brooklyn Nets on Feb. 2. He's making the right decisions, and his teammates are benefiting.
Ingram's numbers should trend up as he continues piecing together his dizzying array of tools. You can tune into any Lakers broadcast and see him dominating somewhere, whether you're witnessing a takeover stretch in which he gets bucket after bucket or a portion of the proceedings that sees him lock down a tough foe.
Plus, pairing him with more established talents will only help, since the Purple and Gold are occasionally asking him to do too much as a scorer.
Ingram may lag behind some other future stars for now, but his upside remains nearly unsurpassed.
3. Donovan Mitchell, SG, Utah Jazz
Per-Game Stats: 19.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.4 blocks
Before the 1976 NBA-ABA merger, Alex Groza, Oscar Robertson, Walt Bellamy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar joined the club. Adrian Dantley, Walter Davis, Bill Cartwright, Kelly Tripucka, Terry Cummings, Ralph Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan gained admission before the end of the '80s. Then the '90s saw David Robinson, Shaquille O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning and Tim Duncan join, while Blake Griffin is the lone entrant since Y2K.
For those of you keeping score, 10 of the 17 listed players have entered the Hall of Fame, and Duncan will join them as soon as he's eligible in 2021. The remaining six have all made at least one All-Star team. Not a single bust exists among this group.
And Mitchell isn't just a scorer.
He's already showing signs of growth as a facilitator, and his combination of size (6'3", 215 lbs), length and quickness made him an intriguing defensive prospect before he'd debuted for the Utah Jazz. He's the future of the shooting guard position, and he's already an All-Star-caliber option.
Seriously. Just read that list of names again.
I rest my case.
2. Nikola Jokic, C, Denver Nuggets
Per-Game Stats: 16.9 points, 10.6 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.8 blocks
"In [Jamal] Murray, [Nikola] Jokic and [Gary] Harris, Denver has one of the league's most enviable collections of 23-and-under talent," Zach Lowe recently wrote for ESPN.com. "A few executives have posed this question in recent months: If you could pick one nucleus to build around, would you choose Portland's, Denver's or Minnesota's?"
The Denver Nuggets' heavy representation in this article shouldn't come as a surprise, considering their possession of one of the league's most impressive, All-Star-free nuclei. But though Murray and Harris are deserving of kudos, Jokic remains the unquestioned centerpiece and is already capable of performing like one of the league's 10 best talents.
In fact, he sits No. 13 in ESPN.com's RPM (and No. 19 in RPM Wins with 7.57) while trailing only eight contributors in NBA Math's total points added. He's shored up some of his bad defensive habits to become an effective team player, and he remains an offensive force capable of creating opportunities for others and finding twine himself from all over the floor.
So much of the Jokic justification tends to revolve around his out-of-this-world statistics. And it should, especially on the heels of the quickest triple-double in NBA history, during which he completed the feat in the first half of a contest against the Milwaukee Bucks before finishing with 30 points (on 11-of-14 shooting), 15 rebounds and 17 assists.
But you need only watch him to realize he has a superstar's impact. He rarely has off shooting nights, makes some of the best passes you'll witness throughout the Association and changes the game's complexion whenever he leaves Denver's bench.
1. Ben Simmons, PG, Philadelphia 76ers
Per-Game Stats: 16.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.9 blocks
Putting anyone ahead of Jokic is a risky endeavor. Even Ben Simmons may never reach the level at which the Denver Nuggets center operates. But that's true of anyone still trying to realize potential, and the chances Simmons will become a transcendent force are so much higher than the possibility he'll stagnate or—gasp—backslide.
The 21-year-old point guard is already a game-breaking talent capable of leveraging his unique combination of size (6'10", 230 lbs) and skill on both ends of the floor. He can get to the rim seemingly at will and finish with ease, all the while keeping his head on a swivel and hitting teammates right in the shooting pocket with his pinpoint, high-velocity passes.
Meanwhile, he has plenty of defensive impact, using his hands and long arms to shut down passing lanes while switching on just about every screen.
He's doing all this as a rookie who's still learning the nuances of NBA play. He's also finding such success without even the tiniest hint of a reliable jumper. Simmons is 0-of-10 on his three-point attempts this year, and all 10 have been heaves within the last second of a quarter (only one of which has come inside 30 feet).
Should his jumper never come around, the LSU product will still be a yearly All-Star capable of tipping the scales in the Philadelphia 76ers' favor. But if he develops an outside stroke, he'll be in the MVP conversation for a long time.
That dizzying upside and the extra two years in the battle against Father Time gives him the slight edge over the fellow 6'10" up-and-coming star checking in at No. 2 in our countdown.