NBA's Young Role Players Who Can Still Become Stars
The next generation of NBA All-Stars will likely include De'Aaron Fox, Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell, based on their productive starts and youth. But who among the slower career starters will eventually break through?
It takes some players longer. Khris Middleton just made his first All-Star team during his seventh NBA season at 27 years old. Some need their skills or bodies to improve. Others can benefit from a change of scenery.
During their first few seasons, the following players—all 26 years old or under—weren't All-Stars. Still, they each have the potential to become one during the primes.
We defined "role player" as anyone who didn't receive at least 10 All-Star votes from fellow players, except with a few of the "Obvious All-Stars" mentioned.
Note: Only players drafted in 2017 and earlier were considered.
The Obvious All-Stars
Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
After averaging 18.2 points and 4.8 assists per game for the 54-win Nuggets last season, Murray still has plenty of room to improve his 47.6 two-point percentage and 36.7 percent three-point mark. The 22-year-old will have three more full seasons before he potentially enters his prime.
He will also earn valuable playoff experience in those seasons, assuming Denver's roster and health remain intact. With Murray, it seems like more of a question of when he'll crack an All-Star team than if he'll get there.
Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
Siakam, 25, had a case for All-Star consideration last season before he helped the Raptors win a title. He averaged 19.8 points on 50.5 percent shooting in the Finals, and that was despite missing 16 of 21 threes. His shooting numbers have improved in each of his three seasons in Toronto, and yet it still seems like he has room to go from one made three per game to two.
With Kawhi Leonard gone, Siakam's usage could skyrocket from last year's 20.8 percent. He's a great bet to make his first All-Star team in 2019-20.
John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
Collins' production will become more appreciated when the Hawks inevitably win more games. His new floor looks like the 19.5 points and 9.8 rebounds per game he put up last season.
As Trae Young continues to develop and shooters Cam Reddish, Kevin Huerter and De'Andre Hunter build confidence, Collins could have an elite setup passer, space to operate and plenty of touches.
He also took a notable step forward around the perimeter, having made 0.9 threes per game at a 34.8 percent clip. Those numbers seem bound to rise for the 21-year-old budding star.
Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls
Markkanen hasn't received the same recognition as fellow 2017 lottery standouts Fox, Tatum and Mitchell. He could be on a similar path, however, after he averaged 18.7 points during a sophomore year cut short by health issues.
His shooting has carried over from Arizona, resulting in at least 2.1 made threes per game in each season in Chicago. For a 7-footer, his success using the dribble and converting inside the arc has hinted at All-Star scoring potential. Markkanen, 22, has also been a good enough rebounder and defender to avoid questions about his overall two-way value.
Malcolm Brogdon, Indiana Pacers
The only player since Stephen Curry in 2015-16 (minimum 50 games) to shoot at least 50 percent, 40 percent from three and 90 percent from the free-throw line, Brogdon reached elite role-player status last year in Milwaukee. He's now in Indiana without a league MVP in the lineup and Victor Oladipo coming off a ruptured quad.
One of the NBA's most efficient starters, the 26-year-old Brogdon should have the chance to raise his production in a higher-usage role. Helping the Pacers and Oladipo return to a top seed in the East could elevate Brogdon's image to that of a star.
Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings
After he raised his scoring average in each of his four seasons at Oklahoma, Buddy Hield has gone from averaging 10.6 points per game as a rookie and 13.5 points as a sophomore to 20.7 points in 2018-19.
That track record highlights his knack for returning from offseason workouts a sharper player.
Compared to other recent draftees, Hield appears to have a smaller window for success since he's already 26 years old. But he wouldn't be the first to take his game to an All-Star level this late. Nikola Vucevic, 28, just made his first All-Star team in his eighth season.
By ages 28 to 30, it seems possible 2016's No. 6 pick could have a scoring average in the mid-20s with a near 60.0 percent true shooting percentage. The numbers will be more meaningful if the Sacramento Kings can make a playoff run—something a core of Hield, Fox, Marvin Bagley III, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Trevor Ariza, Harrison Barnes and Dewayne Dedmon seem capable of pulling off, more likely in 2021.
Three seasons into his NBA career, Hield is already one of the league's most dynamic three-point shooters, coming off a year in which he shot 52.6 percent from the left corner, 50.0 percent from the right corner and 40.5 percent from above the break. Among players to make at least 200 threes last year, only Curry (43.7 percent) shot better than Hield's 42.7 percent.
The next step for Hield is further improving his off-the-dribble offense after he registered career highs in two-point field goals (4.2), two-point percentage (48.7) and assists per contest (2.5).
I compared his game and ceiling to Bradley Beal's before the 2016 draft, a projection that could still happen.
Jonathan Isaac, Orlando Magic
Injuries and a general lack of polish kept Jonathan Isaac quiet through his first two seasons. A late breakout could be coming.
Reportedly up to 234 pounds—a potentially key development for a once-lanky frame—Isaac also received valuable experience this summer with USA Basketball. Playing for the Select Team in the Blue-White scrimmage, he finished with 11 points, five rebounds, four steals and two assists.
Since the Orlando Magic drafted him No. 6 in 2017, Isaac's perceived value has been tied to his defensive versatility. That will continue for the short term, particularly now that he's added the weight to guard centers. He has the chance to become a unique defensive weapon, capable of playmaking (1.8 blocks, 1.1 steals per 36 minutes) or switching on to guards and wings.
But dating back to high school, the 6'10" Isaac has sporadically delivered flash plays that highlight ball-handling and perimeter shot-making skills. We've seen glimpses of slashes, midrange shot-creation and fluid jump-shooting out to the three-point arc (86 made threes last year).
After appearing in 75 games, playoff action and USA Basketball's camp, the 21-year-old should have a high level of confidence entering his third season.
Isaac's offensive execution figures to be sharper in 2019-20. Enough gradual improvement to his one-on-one game, touch and body from ages 21 to 26 could help elevate him to two-way-star status.
Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets
Caris LeVert was trending toward star role-player status, averaging 19.0 points and 3.7 assists on 47.9 percent shooting before the ankle-injury game November 12.
He still managed to bounce back and score at least 23 points in three of five playoff contests against the Philadelphia 76ers. After that confidence-boosting series and an offseason to strengthen his body, LeVert could return as the Brooklyn Nets' No. 2 option, this time next to Kyrie Irving while Kevin Durant sits for 2019-20 after his Achilles injury.
A 6'7" ball-handler, the 24-year-old wing packs the size for advantageous mismatches, and the scoring and playmaking potential to set him apart. LeVert's weaknesses also appear correctable and are likely to improve—as long as he can stay healthy enough to build rhythm.
His shooting potential is far greater than 1.2 made threes per game on 31.2 percent shooting from beyond the arc. A career 40.3 percent three-point shooter through 103 games at Michigan, LeVert, who made 12 of 26 threes in the postseason, seems poised to become a more dangerous perimeter scorer. His 26.5 percent mark on catch-and-shoot chances is bound to rise as he ages into his mid- to late 20s.
Meanwhile, he should convert enough touches into more than 4.0 assists per game, having averaged 4.2 in 2017-18 and 3.9 last season. Since his college days, LeVert has always had facilitating instincts and the ability to set up teammates off the dribble. He's deserving of the point wing label and will add value to Brooklyn's lineup with secondary playmaking and creation next to Irving.
Durant's eventual return should lift the Nets' ceiling, putting the Eastern Conference Finals or even NBA Finals within reach. It creates an opportunity for LeVert. Thriving as a third option for a contender could reflect favorably on his image and inflate his value around the league.
LeVert may never be a perennial All-Star, but gradual improvement and wins could help him earn an invitation at some point during his prime.
Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers
Montrezl Harrell's on-court identity isn't traditionally synonymous with All-Star potential. But what if he's the main enforcer and energizer for the league's best team?
With the additions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Los Angeles Clippers are suddenly title contenders. And Harrell has the chance to play a key role that may have become easier to master after the team reloaded its roster in July.
Stats won't drive the 25-year-old Harrell's potential All-Star case, though improving on his 22.7 points per 36 minutes on 61.5 percent shooting would still reflect massive production and efficiency. Harrell has a better chance at swaying voters and raising his perceived value with impact over numbers.
A physical presence inside at both ends, Harrell finished fourth in the NBA in dunks (per CBSSports.com) in just 26.3 minutes per game, while his contagious intensity and competitiveness can translate to forceful defense, even if his feet and awareness aren't the quickest or the most acute.
Harrell's odds of reaching a star level would be minimal if he played for a lottery team. But he has the chance to be L.A.'s Draymond Green—albeit using a different skill set—by making a significant impact on winning without creating or scoring in volume.
One or two more made baskets or free throws per game could be enough to improve Harrell's statistical profile and push his image transformation from reserve to star role player.
Derrick White, San Antonio Spurs
From junior college to Colorado to the draft's first round to scoring 36 points in the playoffs with the San Antonio Spurs, Derrick White keeps rising. The question is when the 25-year-old will top out.
It doesn't feel like his story is finished. Earlier in August, he was invited to USA Basketball camp, where he and John Collins led their side in scoring (12 points) during the scrimmage before White was promoted to the national team's roster.
This summer's experience alone should serve as a confidence booster heading into 2019-20, though so should last year's postseason series against the Denver Nuggets (15.1 ppg, 54.7 percent FG).
He's already become an effective NBA shot-creator and efficient scorer off the dribble, having just converted 44.6 percent of his pull-ups and 53.0 percent of his drives. Those numbers would rank with some of the league's top guards if he were able to sustain them on more attempts.
White's 33.8 percent three-point mark from last season also figures to improve with more reps and shots.
LaMarcus Aldridge turned 34 in July after seeing his usage drop from 29.1 percent to 26.9 percent. The Spurs will need to ask more from their young players over the next few seasons. White could be first in line ahead of Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, Luka Samanic and Keldon Johnson.
He's skilled and adaptable enough for his trajectory to reach star levels during his late 20s.