5 NBA Youngsters with 'Franchise Player' Potential
On the list of necessities for NBA success, a star cornerstone falls near the top—probably somewhere between having uniforms and making sure the lights are on in the arena.
In other words, they're important.
We know who the current ones are: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Stephen Curry and the like. Though they haven't quite cracked the MVP barrier, Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo belong in that class as well.
Pegging the next wave is trickier.
A max contract does not a franchise player make. Anyone who thinks otherwise should first consider Andrew Wiggins. For our purposes, we need guys who project to lead their teams on a whole bunch of deep playoff runs, push for MVP awards and generally develop into organizational pillars.
Here, we'll isolate five young talents (we'll just throw out "25 or younger" as the bright-line rule, even if we don't need to get that specific) who fit the bill. None of them are all the way there just yet; you won't find any MVPs, Finals participants or even All-NBA First-Teamers. But every one of these guys could reach that level as soon as 2018-19 if things break right.
Missing the Cut
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Jokic is a conventional defensive center whose struggles to switch and generally substandard mobility mean he's going to be a target in games and series that matter. So while his status as a slick-passing, easy-scoring bona fide offensive savant invite comparisons to prime Marc Gasol, Jokic is just never going to match Gasol's two-way impact.
Even if Jokic somehow replicated prime Gasol's court sense, anticipation and rim protection, the league has changed so much in five years that Jokic will never have the luxury of playing standard 2012-13 drop pick-and-roll coverage all game long. He'll be forced to switch, attacked and put into uncomfortable spots.
Jokic is probably the best passing big in decades, and he's efficient from just about everywhere (39.6 percent from deep in 2017-18 and terrific on in-between floaters and flips). He's just not quite good enough on the other end.
Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Another suspect defender, Booker's step forward last year resulted in averages of 24.9 points and 4.7 assists—plus a fat new $158.1 million contract. Still, Booker's effective field-goal percentage ranked just 28th among the 36 players who took at least 1,000 shots last season.
In addition to better scoring efficiency, he'll need steadier effort on D and a demonstrated ability to impact winning before he joins the future franchise player club. Only 21 years old, he has plenty of time to improve.
Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
Let's see how Porzingis comes back from his torn ACL before we usher him into this group. Even before last year's devastating injury, KP had a hard time staying on the floor. He missed 10 games as a rookie, another 16 in his second year and seven before wrenching his knee and ending 2017-18 for good on Feb. 6.
What's more, Porzingis has tended to fade as the season progresses, perhaps because his body can't hold up over the course of a full year. His post-All-Star-break scoring average, shooting efficiency, offensive and defensive ratings all trend downward.
A franchise player has to be reliable.
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Joel Embiid is our oldest entrant at 24, but he didn't start playing basketball until 2011, so he's much younger in basketball development years...if there is such a thing.
Last year, Embiid anchored the league's No. 3 defense, improving the Philadelphia 76ers points allowed per 100 possessions by 4.3 points whenever he was on the floor. As a result, he finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting. If we stopped there, we might still have a franchise player, but there's more.
He's the only guy in league history to average 22.9 points, 11.0 rebounds and 3.2 assists in under 31 minutes per game. Foul trouble and conditioning have plenty to do with Embiid's somewhat sparse playing time, but it's still remarkable he made such an impact in so few minutes. If he gets into better shape and the Sixers relax the constraints they've placed on their once-fragile center, Embiid's statistics could explode.
Health has always been a question, as Embiid missed two full years to start his career and logged just 31 contests in the third. Last season, though, he shook the injury bug. A freak collision with Markelle Fultz on March 28 resulted in eight missed games to close the regular season. Give those back, and Embiid would have played 71 contests in 2017-18. In the era of planned rest and reduced workloads, that's pretty good.
If Embiid sustains his defensive impact, cuts his turnovers and becomes more decisive on offense (the shot fakes and overly intricate post-up sequences have to go), there's no limit to the impact he can make.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
We already know Jayson Tatum can lead an offense on the biggest stage. He proved it by averaging a team-high 18.5 points per game during a 2017-18 playoff run that concluded in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Perhaps even more impressively, he held his own on defense.
Seemingly adding layers to his game on the fly, Tatum's deep reservoir of one-on-one moves, spot-up shooting and poise suggested that he, only recently having turned 20 years old, was prepared to run the show.
"A lot of other rookies or other players probably took, like, more than a month off," Tatum's father, Justin, told Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe. "He maybe took a couple weeks, and right now he’s trying to learn from the top-notch people. I think it’s just going to really enhance his game with a bigger leap to next year."
Tatum hit 52 percent of his corner threes last year, which almost has to mean an outside shooting regression is coming. But the 6'8" wing only finished 59 percent of his shots at the rim, which was in the 34th percentile for his position, according to Cleaning the Glass. Tatum has enough variety and craft in his game to bump that figure up considerably, especially if he adds strength to his frame. So even if he shoots, say, 38 percent from deep instead of 43.4 percent overall, there may not be much net loss in scoring efficiency.
Jaylen Brown is right there with Tatum as a potential cornerstone, but he doesn't quite have Tatum's polish or skill level yet. He's probably better than Tatum on D right now, but his advantage there isn't quite as big as Tatum's on offense. Kyrie Irving's return to health could make it difficult for a second-year player—even one as talented as Tatum—to assume clear No. 1 option status. But the Duke product is a half-decade younger than Irving and more cleanly fits the mold of the superstar wing that so often winds up on title-winning teams.
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
Mitchell averaged 20.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists with a 50.5 effective field-goal percentage as a rookie.
It feels reasonable to say those four guys qualify as franchise players. Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant both fall short of the group because of lower scoring efficiency. That's not an argument for Mitchell being objectively better than all but four guards in league history, but the company he's in after just one season is compelling.
Like Tatum, Mitchell took on prime scoring responsibilities as a rookie. The difference is, Mitchell handled those duties for most of the regular season in addition to the playoffs. Forced to expand his game at a rapid pace, Mitchell's ability to self-critique and adapt augurs well for his future. He doesn't profile as a player defenders will ever "figure out," because once opponents catch on to a particular preference, Mitchell has shown a knack for changing things up.
"One thing about him is he's not afraid to try things and really apply it," Jazz assistant coach Johnnie Bryant told ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon in April. "That's something that's rare. A lot of guys want to stay in their comfort zone. He has the ability to go out there and apply it."
The result of Mitchell's study-and-apply process: a strange amalgamation that draws from vastly disparate sources. A guy with these springs and this pull-up form shouldn't also have a wrong-footed Steve Nash scoop. But Mitchell does.
Mitchell has drawn comparisons to Wade, which feels unfair until you realize Mitchell, at 21, produced a better statistical season than Wade managed until 2004-05...when he was 23.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Ben Simmons is our first candidate with a critical flaw. He will not become a true franchise player unless he develops a shot defenders have to worry about. Nobody is asking Simmons to fire away with a chucker's frequency, but he can't continue to simply not shoot threes.
All 11 of his long-range attempts last year were end-of-clock flings. Most came from beyond 30 feet.
If Simmons merely attempts two or three legitimate triples a game, he becomes exponentially harder to defend. Consider this a bet he'll figure it out.
Simmons' defensive potential is almost unlimited. A 6'10" guard, Simmons has enough room on his frame to comfortably carry 250 pounds without losing mobility. This makes him the switching scheme's prototype. If Simmons commits to playing D, he'll be too fast for guards to blow by and too strong for centers to bully on the block. Instinctive, quick and intelligent, Simmons has the tools to be a DPOY candidate for the next decade.
We're doing some speculating here, but if Simmons reaches his ceiling, he'll be a true five-position defender who'll average a casual 20 points per game while maintaining a pass-first mentality. Unstoppable with the ball in his hands and arguably the league's most dangerous transition threat, it's difficult to overstate his potential to dominate a game.
Something to keep in mind alongside the concession Simmons' shot must improve: In his first year of action, he finished right between Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis in Basketball Reference's Value Over Replacement Player metric. So he's doing pretty well without a jumper so far.
And yes, this means the Sixers have two potential franchise players.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
After the Jokic exclusion, you might be wondering why Karl-Anthony Towns, currently an offense-only center, makes the cut.
There are two distinctions.
First, Towns is an offensive force without weakness. While Jokic makes up for a lack of quickness with slick passing, he can still be stopped in one-on-one situations. Towns is a threat to score from anywhere. He shot 42.1 percent from deep in 2017-18, finished around the rim at a 70 percent clip (Jokic was at 65 percent) and routinely roasted overmatched centers who had no choice but to run him off the three-point line.
He's a technician on the block, a blur on the move and a sniper from deep. There's no stopping the guy unless Tom Thibodeau hides him in the corner for an entire playoff series against the Houston Rockets. Hypothetically...
Second, Towns also possesses defensive tools Jokic lacks. He's quicker, a better rim-protector (albeit marginally) and much more capable of surviving when switched onto guards. Towns' lack of overall defensive value so far makes it easy to forget the early-career highlight that hinted at so much potential.
Remember when he hung with Stephen Curry?
Defense is still a major issue with Towns, but he's the best pure-scoring big in the NBA, and his skill level makes growth in several areas seem likely.