Who Are the NBA's 10 Most Versatile Stars?

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IJuly 3, 2020

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Now, more than ever, NBA teams are on the hunt for more versatile players, but those can be hard to find. Players who can handle many different roles both defensively and offensively are unicorns about whom NBA front offices dream. 

Yes, there will always be specialists—guys who are so good at shooting that it doesn't matter they can't create for another teammate, and so on. But teams will always need to have multifaceted guys, and the game is continuing to trend in that direction.

A five-tool player is a baseball term for how scouts see a player who ticks every box: speed, power, hitting for average, arm strength and fielding. Translating that to basketball, the five tools are shooting, scoring, playmaking, defending and rebounding. 

However, few basketball players can truly be labeled five-tool players, though several come close. 

Young contributors like Jayson Tatum, Pascal Siakam and De'Aaron Fox are beginning to flex their versatility as they continue to grow as players. They have not ticked enough boxes yet or have not shown their all-around abilities long enough, but they are getting there.

More often than not, five-tool players tend to be large wings, even if a few small guards and big men belong in this category.

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These are the 10 versatile players who are currently close to qualifying—if they don't already.


10. Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 3: Paul George #13 of the LA Clippers plays defense against Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers on December 3, 2019 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees t
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Paul George has been the ultimate second option throughout his career and has exhibited his five-tool skills. 

Injuries have limited him to just 42 games this season, but when healthy, he's immediately picked up right where he left off last season. In his first two games with the Clippers, he scored 33 and 37 points. His three-point shooting is one of his best offensive skills, and he is deadly from the corners. Cleaning the Glass has him in the 99th percentile on corner threes, hitting 55 percent of those looks. 

Defensively, George can lock down wings and small-ball power forwards, as well as play strong help defense. His ability to be moved around from difficult one-on-one defensive assignments while staying ready to rotate over at a moment's notice makes him a truly versatile defender. 

George would rank higher on this list, but he has not shown true playmaking skills for others. He does a great job finding rollers in the pick-and-roll game but does not have a lot of kick-outs for threes. Some of this is a product of always being a second option. Filling that role has not allowed him to develop as a passer.


9. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

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The greatest Toronto Raptor of all time, Kyle Lowry is one of the most versatile small guards in the league. 

He is the heart and soul of this team—maybe even of the organization as a whole. This season, his usage rate has gone up as he has become the lead playmaker for the Raptors. He paces the team with 7.7 assists per game and a 30.9 assist percentage. Besides setting the table for his teammates, he is their second-leading scorer, averaging 19.7 points per game. 

As Lowry has gotten older, he has become less solid as a one-on-one defender. But anyone driving to the rim has to be aware of where he is on the court. He has shown several times he is willing to give up his body for the team. He is tied with Montrezl Harrell in charges taken at 30, but he's accumulated them in 11 fewer games. Lowry has the timing down for rotating over from the weak side to disrupt drives.

Lowry adds a lot to the Raptors' efforts and is one of the key cogs who keep the Toronto engine going. 


8. Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder

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The NBA's Point God, Chris Paul has been back this season, averaging 6.8 assists while helping the Thunder overachieve despite playing only 31.8 minutes per game. 

After taking a hit during his time with the Houston Rockets, Paul has spent this season reminding everyone just how good he is. His 60.9 true shooting percentage is the second-highest of his career. Even this late in his NBA tenure, he can get off any shot he wants, especially in the mid-range. According to Cleaning the Glass, he's converting 53 percent of all his mid-range shots.

Paul is not as equipped as he used to be on the defensive end of the court, but he is still not a player other teams would choose to target. With his high basketball IQ, he often disrupts plays and wreaks havoc. 

The Thunder suffer a minus-12.2 net rating swing when Paul steps off the court, and the difference is more evident in clutch situations. In games with no more than a three-point difference and less than three minutes remaining, the Thunder have a net rating of 37.4 with him on the court. 

His toolbox is deep, and the Thunder have been able to take full advantage of it. 


7. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 6: Khris Middleton #22 of the Milwaukee Bucks handles the ball during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers on March 6, 2020 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
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Khris Middleton is quickly becoming one of the most underrated players in the NBA. 

It is easy for him to get lost in the shuffle with all the dominance the Milwaukee Bucks possess, but he is just shy of joining the 50/40/90 club with a 49.9 field-goal percentage, a 41.8 three-point percentage and a 90.8 free-throw percentage. He carries the second-highest usage rate on the Bucks and is fully capable of filling it up, averaging a career-high 21.1 points. He is a threat from anywhere on the court, and he's in the 99th percentile on mid-range shots and the 91st percentile on three-pointers.

Middleton is a serviceable playmaker, but on a team with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe and George Hill, that is not a major role for him. Despite that, he's averaging 4.1 assists, taking the pressure off their shoulders to create everything. 

Defensively this season, Middleton has had a relatively light load due to the Bucks' depth. Wesley Matthews usually gets the nod for guarding an opponent's primary wing player, while Bledsoe takes on the guards with Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez in the frontcourt as the last line of defense. That does not mean Middleton is incapable as a defender. With the current roster construction, it is just not as critical a need. 


6. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

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Shooting is the obvious glaring hole in Ben Simmons' game, but he brings so many valuable skills to the table that he has to be included on this list. 

His court vision and playmaking are at an elite level as he's dishing out 8.2 assists per night, good for fifth in the NBA. Even though defenses know there is no threat of him pulling up for a shot, it has been difficult to stop him from getting to the hoop. He's averaging 13.1 of his 16.7 points per game in the paint. He finishes at an impressive rate at the rim with a 68.0 field-goal percentage that places him in the 93rd percentile.

Defensively, Simmons is a true standout. 

With his size, strength, speed and quick reflexes, he can guard any position on the court. He leads the league in steals with 2.1 thefts per night and is third in deflections per game (4.0). He is the ultimate defensive weapon for Philadelphia. 

There is a strong chance Simmons will make his first appearance on an All-Defensive team this year, and it will not be his last. If he ever develops even an average jumper, he will shoot up the five-tool rankings. 


5. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 24: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers gestures after scoring a three-point basket for his career high 49th point during the second half of an NBA basketball game against of the Atlanta Hawks at Wells Fargo Center on Feb
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Given how the NBA views big men these days, not many could make these rankings. However, Joel Embiid's dominance in the post on offense and his overall defense put him in this category. 

On 461 post-ups, with passes included, the Sixers have scored 1.13 points per possession (PPP), which puts them in the 93rd percentile, per Synergy Sports. The big advantage they get from Embiid's post-ups is his ability to draw fouls. He averages 8.7 free-throw attempts and gets the Sixers in the bonus rather quickly. 

Embiid has also shot 34.8 percent from three on 3.7 attempts per game. That's a high enough percentage and number of attempts that he forces the defense to guard him on the perimeter, which opens the floor up for him. 

Defensively, Embiid's rim protection is an issue for opposing offenses. He leads the Sixers in blocks (1.3) and rebounds (11.8) per game with a 21.6 total rebound percentage. He serves as the last line of defense, especially in the Sixers' drop-coverage pick-and-roll scheme. He hangs back and does a good job contesting any shots at the rim. The Sixers have a 101.4 defensive rating when Embiid is on the court, and it skyrockets to 109.4 when he's off.

The biggest tool missing in Embiid's kit is his passing ability—or lack thereof. 

He averages only 3.1 assists and 3.1 turnovers. The one-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio is not good enough for a player who has the ball in his hands as much as he does. The next leap for Embiid needs to come when he's passing out of the post.


4. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

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Anthony Davis is another big man among the league's most versatile players. 

He is having a great first season in Los Angeles, and it starts on the defensive end. A case can be made for Davis to win Defensive Player of the Year. He's tied for second in the NBA in blocks per game (2.4) and does a great job defending the pick-and-roll. According to Synergy Sports, the Lakers give up 0.71 PPP on the pick-and-roll plays he defends. They have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA, and he is a big reason why. 

Offensively, Davis is reaping the benefits of having a player like LeBron James as a teammate. 

This season, he is posting his best true shooting percentage (61.4), and the team has an offensive rating of 112.3 when he is on the floor. He's increased his number of three-point attempts while maintaining a 33.5 three-point percentage, and he's also showing off his versatility by scoring off post-ups, rolls to the rim, off-ball movement and spot-up opportunities. 

Much like Embiid, playmaking for others is where he tends to fall short. He averages 3.1 assists with a lowly 14.6 assist percentage. The Lakers have struggled to create offense when James goes to the bench, and if Davis can improve in this area, it would be a big boost to their scoring unit and make him the total package. 


3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

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There are very few things James cannot do on a basketball court. He has proved so time and again during his 17 seasons in the NBA. 

Including passing, James has produced an absurd 1.4 points per possession this season, per Synergy Sports. More than ever, he has taken his offensive skills to the post, accruing 1.3 PPP in that situation when including his passes from the blocks. His court vision has always been legendary, but it becomes even more acute when teams try to double him in the post. James' 49.7 assist percentage and 10.6 assists per game both lead the league, the latter by 1.3 assists per contest.

In years past, James has saved his defensive intensity for the playoffs. But this season, he has brought it from day one and kept it up all year. In particular, he has been Johnny on the spot with his defensive rotations, which allows Davis to slide over to block shots because he knows James is making the next rotation. When he goes to the bench, the Lakers' defensive rating goes up 3.6 points per 100 possessions. 

The only thing keeping James from the top spot is that he does not often defend the opponent's best player. It has less to do with his ability and more to do with his need to conserve energy, but it's why the last All-Defensive team he made was in 2013-14. 


2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 6: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks fights for position during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers on March 6, 2020 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agr
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The rise of Giannis Antetokounmpo is a truly incredible story. He entered the NBA as a virtual unknown from the second division of the Greek leagues. Flash forward seven years and he's made four All-Star trips with one MVP and a second most likely on the way. 

Antetokounmpo is third in the league in both scoring and rebounding, and he's a contender for Defensive Player of the Year. He leads the Bucks in points, assists, rebounds and usage rate

The 25-year-old has improved as a scorer throughout his career, but he becomes unstoppable once he gets into the paint, averaging 17.5 points there this season. On the other end, few defensive matchups are difficult for Antetokounmpo, but his best skill is rotating over from the weak side to block or alter shots.

The one area holding Antetokounmpo back at this point is his shooting. It has come along but still has a long way to go. He's shooting 30.6 percent from three this year and 38.0 percent from the mid-range. Once he improves those numbers, he will become the best five-tool player in the league. But only once he does. 


1. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers

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Kawhi Leonard is the quintessential five-tool player in the NBA. 

That was not always the case. When he was drafted in 2011, he entered the league as a defensive stopper and had the potential to develop a three-point shot. However, he kept coming back from each offseason with a new skill. Not many could have predicted that he would turn into the player he has become. 

Leonard's defense was even better than advertised; with his giant hands, he's been able to rip the ball out of opponents' hands. Offensively, his game has also continued to grow.

Leonard went from scoring just 7.9 points per game as a rookie to averaging 26.9 points in 2019-20. And after he mastered the ability to score, his playmaking skills have hit the next level this season. According to Synergy Sports, the Clippers have scored 1.11 PPP on Leonard's passes off isolations, post-ups and pick-and-rolls. His favorite targets have been Montrezl Harrell and Ivica Zubac on the roll, and he's posting career highs in assists per game (5.0) and assist percentage (27.0).

That was the last evolution needed for Leonard to become a true five-tool player. 


Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass.

Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men's national team. Follow him on Twitter @MoDakhil_NBA.