Predicting Top Player Rankings, Snubs and Surprises in NBA 2K19

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 19, 2018

Predicting Top Player Rankings, Snubs and Surprises in NBA 2K19

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    Many of us basketball fans love NBA players not just for what they do on the actual hardwood, but also for what their virtual representations can do on our gaming consoles. As such, the 2K series has become something of a cultural phenomenon, spawning professional gaming leagues and athletes in the Association caterwauling for higher ratings

    When a new rating comes out, the athlete earning the score inevitably reacts in public fashion, as Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum did upon learning he'd be an 87 in 2K19. 

    That score won't push him into the top 10, though it's still an impressive mark for a rising sophomore. So let's figure out who really is at the top of the class, then go over expected surprises (players sure to be rated too high) and snubs (the opposite). 

    But we do have a few things to keep in mind here before we move into the rankings themselves. 

    First and foremost, these rankings are not a reflection of my personal top 10. We're weighing different facets of the game to determine which players 2K19 is most likely to reward. Defense isn't quite as important in the video-game setting, while popular players and those who produce plenty of highlights are sure to be rewarded. 

    Second, these are intended to serve only as preseason ratings. Their scores will be updated throughout the year in the virtual world, but we're not accounting for that potential to rise in the future.

    These are geared toward the release date (Sep. 11) only. 

1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers: 98 Overall (Confirmed)

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Age: 33

    Final 2018 Rating: 98

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 27.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 9.1 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.9 blocks

    This is already confirmed.

    LeBron James remains the world's best player, somehow staving off Father Time so successfully that he played in all 82 games during the 2017-18 campaign without showing even the tiniest signs of slippage. Whether looking at the regular season or his inspired work throughout a playoff quest that ended in a Finals sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, he was the model of all-around play still operating at arguably the highest level of his lengthy and illustrious career. 

    Even if 2K19 hadn't revealed James' rating before anyone else's, we could've easily assumed the new member of the Los Angeles Lakers would be retaining his crown. Fortunately, the King himself is pleased, as he revealed on Instagram.

2. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors: 96

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    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

    Age: 29

    Final 2018 Rating: 96

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.8 blocks

    Kevin Durant stagnated at a 96 throughout every single week of the 2017-18 campaign, and we have no reason to expect any changes. Sure, he's getting closer to that ignominious 30th birthday, but he's also counterbalancing his advancing age with an evolving game that has him capable of excelling in even more areas. 

    The small forward remains one of the league's most potent offensive weapons, as he made clear while thriving throughout the sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers that earned him his second consecutive Finals MVP. He's also a gifted distributor with defensive versatility of which most payers could only dream. 

    He might not have won regular-season MVP like the next player in our rankings, but he still moves ahead on a tiebreaker by virtue of his playoff success and the ring added to his ever-growing jewelry collection. 

3. James Harden, Houston Rockets: 96

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    NBA Photos/Getty Images

    Age: 28

    Final 2018 Rating: 96

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 30.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.7 blocks

    This isn't meant as a snub to the reigning MVP.

    James Harden is still tied for the second-best rating in our predictions, though I suspect the well-rounded nature of Durant's attributes would push him slightly ahead in a hypothetical tiebreaker. A 96 remains a fantastic mark—nothing to sniff at for a player whose score vacillated from 90 to the current number throughout the previous season.  

    Expect his profile to be rather similar in the coming edition. Harden still won't be much use on the defensive end, but his game-breaking ability to draw fouls and hit pull-up jumpers will allow him to continue serving as an offensive menace. He's a living, breathing, Eurostepping, whistle-baiting source of points who understands how to work each and every one of the NBA's rules to his advantage. 

    Maybe that rubs some the wrong way, but it doesn't take away from Harden's success. Nor does it affect his prowess in the virtual world. 

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors: 95

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    Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images

    Age: 30

    Final 2018 Rating: 96

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.2 blocks

    Expect Stephen Curry's stock to fall slightly as he moves into his 30s and no longer serves as the unquestioned face of the Golden State Warriors. He's still arguably the most valuable piece of that historically dominant puzzle, but losing Finals MVP to Durant in consecutive seasons while fighting through the occasional set of shooting woes should have his rating drop slightly—even if only by a single point. 

    One thing, however, won't change. 

    Curry has created a conundrum for game designers in recent years; his shooting ability is so off-the-charts good that the scale would break if they treated it realistically. How can they properly give him credit for the real-life shots he makes without tanking the ratings of everyone else or pumping his up so high that he'd knock down everything he so much as looked at when squaring up and launching from an on-balance scenario? 

    "To be completely honest, we are still looking for ways to better translate his game into NBA 2K," gameplay director Mike Wang told Forbes.com's Ben Sin back in 2016. "He's a 'rule breaker' when it comes to jump shooting...he becomes a problem in the video game world where we've been trying to train our gamers [to know] that certain types of shots should be rewarded versus others."

    Two years later, the same problem should pop up yet again. After all, Curry's shooting stroke hasn't gone away. 

5. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans: 95

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Age: 25

    Final 2018 Rating: 94

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 28.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 2.6 blocks

    After an entire year stuck at 94, Anthony Davis should finally make the leap into the upper half of the 90s. 

    The unibrowed big man put together an inspired second half in 2017-18, consistently shouldering a remarkable load after DeMarcus Cousins was lost for the season with a ruptured Achilles. From the beginning of February through the end of the regular season, he averaged a jaw-dropping 30.6 points, 11.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 2.1 steals and 3.1 blocks while minimizing his turnovers and slashing 51.8/33.383.7. That should've already turned into a higher grade, but that's no longer here nor there. 

    Davis, somehow, is still only getting better. And considering he was already a do-everything stud who could wreck adversaries' shots around the basket, dunk with ferocity out of pick-and-roll sets or step out to the perimeter and knock down jumpers, that's a tantalizing proposition for gamers looking to build around the world's leading big man. 

    Would it be shocking if Davis' score rose even higher throughout 2018-19? Absolutely not. But already, New Orleans Pelicans fans, Kentucky supporters and those who root for the 25-year-old as an individual can take solace in his status as the clear-cut class of his position. 

6. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors: 94 (Confirmed)

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Age: 27

    Final 2018 Rating: 95

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.0 steals, 1.0 blocks

    Kawhi Leonard is a tricky one, especially now that he's changing locations to become a member of the Toronto Raptors for his 2K19 debut. As reported by ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski, the Canadian franchise and the San Antonio Spurs agreed to terms on a trade that will send Leonard packing and finally end the cycle of drama that left the NBA-watching world bubbling with omnipresent speculation. 

    Even looking beyond multiple reports that Leonard might not want to play for the Raptors (via SportingNews.com's Sean Deveney and ESPN.com's Chris Haynes), plenty of questions remain. 

    Is the 27-year-old ready to resume functioning as a two-way stud challenging LeBron James for overall supremacy? Will he succeed in a new location without Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich calling the shots? is he healthy? Is he motivated? 

    Truthfully, we have no idea. But 2K19 is officially erring on the side of optimism after dropping him as low as 91 in 2017-18, likely factoring in Leonard's well-deserved on-court reputation and enduring stay in his athletic prime.  

7. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks: 94

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    Chris Marion/Getty Images

    Age: 23

    Final 2018 Rating: 94

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.9 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.4 blocks

    Giannis Antetokounmpo is no longer a malleable ball of clay waiting to be shaped into an immaculate basketball player. He's still in possession of tantalizing amounts of untapped potential, but he's now an established superstar whose name carries cachet with even the league's casual fans. 

    Sure, Antetokounmpo still can't shoot threes. That remains anathema for wings in the modern NBA, but the aptly nicknamed Greek Freak has managed to overcome that sole weakness by exerting a different type of gravitational pull. Defenders can't keep him away from the rim because they're forced to backpedal against his lanky strides, often exposing the hip he'll inevitably attack for a long-armed finish that's only slightly contested. 

    He has the game of a true star. He enjoys the recognition of a true star. He's earned the individual and team-based success of a true star. And now he's going to begin the season with the 2K19 rating of a true star. 

    Antetokounmpo opened the previous campaign at a 91 before climbing as high as 95 and eventually finishing the season at 94. If he follows a similar progression in the coming year...

8. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics: 93

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Age: 26

    Final 2018 Rating: 93

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.3 blocks

    If you're the type of player who wants to mash down on that right thumbstick and pull out every ball-handling trick in the instruction manual, Kyrie Irving should be your virtual representative du jour. The Boston Celtics point guard remains a dribbling wizard who often operates like the basketball is connected to his hands on a yo-yo string, always traveling back into his possession no matter how fancy his moves become or how much traffic surrounds him. 

    But that's not the only reason Irving should be a lock for top-10 status in the 2K19 world, which typically prioritizes his strengths while deeming his weaknesses less relevant. He was a legitimately improved player under the tutelage of head coach Brad Stevens, looking to pass at opportune times and exerting himself on defense more than he ever did with the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

    Irving's rating grew from 90 to 93 during his first Beantown go-round, and we shouldn't expect any backsliding as the 26-year-old recovers from injuries to reassert himself as a dominant offensive force for the C's.

    He's still better in the virtual world than reality, but he's pretty damn good in both. 

9. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder: 92

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    Francois Durand/Getty Images

    Age: 29

    Final 2018 Rating: 93

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 25.4 points, 10.1 rebounds, 10.3 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.3 blocks

    Coming off his triple-double season for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Russell Westbrook was the league's reigning MVP and a strong choice for 2K18 gamers everywhere. His 94 rating was more than justified. But as the year progressed, the spotlight homed in on the uber-athletic point guard, morphing his flaws from molehills to mountains until his rating dipped to 92 and eventually rose back to 93, where it remained until the campaign's conclusion. 

    Another rise isn't coming at this stage. Not after the Thunder couldn't escape the first round of the playoffs while Westbrook shot 39.8 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from downtown. His shortcomings were fully exposed—a tendency to fire away recklessly and gambling habits on defense that weren't always overcome by his physical advantages. 

    Westbrook remains a star, and Oklahoma City is undoubtedly better with him on the roster. His knack for bursting past defenders in transition and the half-court set alike remains both valuable and awe-inspiring. He can take over a game in so many different areas, and triple-doubles remain coveted, albeit somewhat overhyped, statistical accomplishments. 

    Don't expect the 29-year-old to fall out of the 90s. However, he is going to move down, if only slightly. 

10. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers: 91

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    Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images

    Age: 24

    Final 2018 Rating: 90

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 22.9 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.8 blocks

    We have to squeeze one true center into the mix. And with DeMarcus Cousins (90 last year) coming off an Achilles injury, the likeliest candidates are Joel Embiid (90), Karl-Anthony Towns (90) and Nikola Jokic (89). But the young Philadelphia 76ers pivot should be the safest bet, given his oversized personality, immense popularity and ability to contribute in all facets of the game. 

    Embiid hasn't yet displayed a consistent three-point stroke and largely struggled in spot-up situations. He continued to have turnover troubles, proving particularly susceptible to off-ball defenders sneaking in and poking the ball away when he was attacking from the blocks. Health remains a concern, though only because his history forces the world to hold its collective breath whenever he hits the deck. 

    But the 24-year-old is only getting better as he enters his third season of play. He can already exert a gravitational pull merely by positioning himself on the perimeter, and he's getting better at functioning as a willing passer. Stopping him from mid-range territory is tough, and it grows even tougher still when he's right next to the basket. Defensively, he's just about as good as it gets. 

    That blend of skills is sure to yield a rating in the 90s, though he didn't dominate the postseason competition enough to earn another jump before the beginning of the 2018-19 campaign. 

                          

    Next up: Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, Karl-Anthony Towns

Surprises

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    1. Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers

    The Los Angeles Lakers small forward is undoubtedly a player on the rise, but his reputation currently outstrips his actual production. Despite making serious strides as a defender and learning how to shoulder more offensive responsibilities without sacrificing too much of his efficiency, his true production was shockingly minimal. 

    This could change at any time.

    But again, we're focused on what ratings should be heading into the season. Ingram is likely to build upon last year's finish (80 after beginning 2017-18 at 76), and that's already a bit lofty for a player who finished the year with below-average marks in player efficiency rating, box plus/minus and ESPN.com's real plus/minus (on both ends of the floor) while making the Lakers 3.1 points per 100 possessions worse when he played.

                                

    2. Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves

    Reputation and financial decisions—his max contract kicks in during the coming campaign—will likely boost Andrew Wiggins' 2K19 rating, just as they have during every other year of his professional career. He finished 2017-18 at an 80, and while that's already down six points from where he began the year, it's still far too high for one of the league's big-minute negatives.

    Nevertheless, the virtual world will struggle to drop this disappointing prospect into the 70s while he's still producing points in bulk. Volume scoring is the most glamorous of skills, even if its value is frequently oversold by large margins. 

                                

    3. Dennis Schroder, Atlanta Hawks

    Still putting up big per-game numbers? Dennis Schroder averaged 19.4 points, 3.1 rebounds and 6.2 assists during his age-24 season. 

    Still in possession of glamorous physical tools that make him fun to watch and entertaining to control in video games? He's still got that trademark speed, allowing him to blow by defenders even when starting from a standstill. 

    Still holding down a starting job? Despite the incoming presence of Trae Young, Schroder remains the likely Atlanta Hawks starter, though he could seemingly be traded at any moment. 

    This German floor general checks the boxes you'd expect when trying to earn a strong rating, and he was still an 81 at the end of the last go-round. But that dramatically oversells the value of a disgruntled player who hasn't made many strides while taking on more responsibilities. Until Schroder proves he can help a team win, improves his defense and learns to take the right shots rather than slashing 43.6/29.0/84.9, he'll remain deserving of little more than a mid-to-high-70s rating.

Snubs

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    1. Al Horford, Boston Celtics/Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

    We're grouping these two together because they'll be snubs for the exact same reason: Though they each deserve to be in the mix with Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic for the highest rating among centers, they don't play the types of games likely to get rewarded by the 2K19 system. 

    Horford, who ended the 2017-18 campaign at an 86, simply doesn't score enough to get his due credit. He plays a distinctly non-glamorous style, content to do the heavy lifting by contributing across the board. His defense-anchoring work, steady distributing and willingness to turn down good shots for great ones simply doesn't produce the box-score numbers or highlights necessary to creep into the 90s. 

    Gobert has the same scoring "problem," but everything else dragging him down is a bit different. The game can't quite recognize what an immense gravitational pull he exhibits through mere rolling prowess, and his interior defense is so good that we almost run into the same problem with Stephen Curry and shooting. He finished last year at 86, ranked 10th among players listed at center while tied with Horford, Clint Capela, DeAndre Jordan and Hassan Whiteside, and he'll be similarly—and unfortunately—low down the positional totem pole yet again. 

                                 

    2. Gary Harris, Denver Nuggets

    By the end of 2017-18, Gary Harris' 82 rating placed him at No. 13 among shooting guards, trailing—deep breath—James Harden (96), DeMar DeRozan (89), Jimmy Butler (89), Klay Thompson (89), Victor Oladipo (88), Bradley Beal (87), Donovan Mitchell (87), Devin Booker (86), CJ McCollum (85), Khris Middleton (84), Lou Williams (84) and Tyreke Evans (83). It's patently ridiculous that he was equidistant between McCollum and Tim Hardaway Jr. (79). 

    But should we expect anything else? 

    Harris doesn't garner much national attention for his role with the Denver Nuggets, which means the world fails to recognize the full extent of his cutting skills, spot-up ability and willingness to consistently assume the toughest defensive assignments. He's on the fringe of becoming a top-tier shooting guard (unless we give Harden his own tier, which 2K19 will likely do once again) after helping the Mile High City residents improve by 5.8 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor.

    Expect him to be overlooked once more, if only because he's so far from becoming a household name.

                        

    3. Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz

    Joe Ingles was one of only two players last year to shoot at least 44 percent from beyond the rainbow while taking no fewer than five attempts per game, which placed him in an exclusive club featuring only himself and Klay Thompson. He became one of the league's best passing wings, dishing out 4.8 dimes per contest despite barely registering more than 30 minutes per game. He thrived on defense, even frustrating Paul George immensely during a first-round playoff series between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder. 

    He was rewarded for his efforts with a rating that climbed from 78 to...79 by the end of the year.

    Wait. Seriously? That's it for a man who finished the season ranked No. 25 in ESPN.com's RPM and No. 24 in NBA Math's TPA? He couldn't break into the 80s when 88 other men did so?

    Ingles' stock is likely to continue rising this offseason, but it still won't come close to matching his actual on-court value. 

                            

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com. All 2K ratings from prior seasons courtesy of 2KRatings.com.