NBA Players Who Could Become Stars by Next Season
One of the most exciting parts about the NBA is The Leap. You know, that season when the game slows down for a player, and he is finally able to combine his physical tools and basketball IQ in a consistently excellent fashion.
This occurs most often with young players, but every so often, somebody like Kyle Lowry has a mid-career renaissance and is an All-Star-caliber player for the remainder of his prime.
The candidates to make The Leap in the 2020-21 campaign are mostly known quantities, in part due to the bifurcated nature of this season. Because the bubble took place so long after the first 60-plus games, we got a chance to see some players show off improvements in their skill sets or just augmented versions of themselves.
These kinds of breakouts were a major part of what made the seeding games so thrilling, and hopefully, some will continue into the future.
Though there are many interpretations for what makes one a star, the six players listed have never made an All-Star team. Anyone who has was not considered.
Deandre Ayton, C
One might think this was a bit of a lost year for Ayton. The big man was suspended for 25 games after the Suns' season debut and was soon forgotten about when Phoenix got off to its best start in years without him.
However, when the 2018 top pick returned, he was quietly excellent. In a profile of Ayton, ESPN's Mike Schmitz wrote:
"According to Second Spectrum tracking data, on drives when Ayton is the help defender, the Suns allow 0.85 points per chance. That's a better figure than Rudy Gobert with the Utah Jazz. Ayton allowed 0.975 points per chance in such situations as a rookie. When he's the closest defender on shots, he ranks fifth in the NBA in effective field goal percentage allowed -- behind only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Gobert, Anthony Davis and DeAndre Jordan.
"He has upped his block rate from 2.6% as a rookie to 4.5% as a sophomore. And he's defending the seventh-most shots per game within 10 feet of the rim, ranking eighth in the NBA in FG% allowed in those situations (min. 250 shots defended), according to NBA.com/stats."
Combine that defensive improvement with a burgeoning offensive game—including a three-point shot that he showcased in the bubble—and the Suns have to feel a little bit better about investing in him over Luka Doncic (yes, "a little bit" is doing yeoman's work in that sentence).
Ayton's improvements thus far have been largely cerebral, which bodes well for his future development. Though not a unicorn, he's approaching the Boogie Cousins comparison that once seemed so apt, and he may soon become a legitimate partner for Devin Booker in Phoenix.
Lonzo Ball, G
Yes, we know. To say Lonzo Ball was bad in the bubble is an understatement. His jumper disappeared and he wasn't engaged on defense. But it's not like Lonzo was the Pelicans' only problem in Florida. The team's young players all underachieved, and though Ball's performance was definitely alarming, he was far from the only scapegoat.
Considering the unique circumstances surrounding the seeding games, it seems reasonable to disregard Ball's bubble stint in favor of the pre-hiatus portion of his 2019-20 season, especially for this exercise. Because when solely considering those first 56 games, non-traditional stardom seems reasonable for Lonzo in the near future.
The list of All-Stars who aren't known as scorers is short. Of late, it's basically just Draymond Green and Rudy Gobert. But Lonzo has always had the skills to join that exclusive club, and now he's found a perfect situation to showcase those talents.
The 22-year-old's transcendent passing has been well-known for years, but alongside an alley-oop threat as sensational as Zion Williamson, we'll get to see his distribution capabilities on full display. Add in his increasingly disruptive defensive capabilities and a reworked jumper that now forces defenses to take him seriously from range, and Lonzo is quietly becoming the player many dreamed he would become at the 2017 draft.
Given full health for Williamson at the start of next season, we'll hopefully see the beginning of what could be an All-Star Big Three with him, Brandon Ingram and Ball.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, G
If you think Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is already a star, you won't get much of an argument here. He was the second-best player on the Western Conference's fifth seed this year. But as the next few seasons progress, he's only going to get more opportunity.
The Thunder might look very different very soon. Danilo Gallinari is a free agent this offseason and should leave if he wants to compete for a championship. The Houston Rockets made Steven Adams into a backup center this postseason. Perhaps most crucially to Gilgeous-Alexander, Chris Paul is 35 years old and the subject of numerous trade rumors.
It's all setting up for the 22-year-old Canadian to lead Oklahoma City in the future, and considering how much he's grown in just two years, that makes sense. As a 6'5" point guard, Gilgeous-Alexander is fairly uncommon to begin with. But when you also consider his elite basketball IQ, herky-jerky play style, mastery of off-ball play and versatile defense, building a team around him feels right.
In playing next to Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams as a rookie and Paul and Dennis Schroder this season, Gilgeous-Alexander hasn't had much opportunity to be a lead playmaker. But if the limited sample size we have in that area is any indication, he'll excel at it.
It's bold to predict All-Stars in the perennially stacked Western Conference, but at the very least, expect Gilgeous-Alexander to make his first one next season and appear in several more throughout his prime years.
Caris LeVert, G
The Nets could be set on trading Caris LeVert for a third All-Star-caliber player this offseason. However, whether LeVert stays or goes, he's in prime position to make an All-Star team himself and join the league's star tier soon.
Toward the end of the past two seasons, LeVert has broken out in encouraging ways.
In the Nets' 2019 first-round series with the Sixers, he averaged 21.0 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game on 49.3/46.2/72.4 shooting splits. He showed similar improvement in the bubble, as the fourth-year player took advantage of a severely depleted roster to average 25.0 points, 6.7 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game in six seeding matchups. LeVert's scoring efficiency plummeted in the playoffs, but in true star fashion, he found other ways to contribute in that series, tallying 15 and 11 assists in its first two games.
Last week, Damian Lillard named two players he expected to make The Leap next year, and LeVert was one of them. Great players don't necessarily always have the best eye for talent, but Lillard was right on here.
If the Nets keep LeVert, he'll thrive as a secondary playmaker and scorer a la Khris Middleton. If the Michigan alum is indeed moved in pursuit of a bigger star, he'll adapt to his new responsibilities quickly and shine when the pressure is greatest.
Either way, expect to hear plenty from the swingman in the near future.
Fred VanVleet, G
Fred VanVleet will be a prized free agent this offseason, and for good reason. Whether he stays with the Raptors or departs for greener pastures, the 26-year-old may finally become a star next year.
Let's look at both outcomes, starting with his re-signing with Toronto. In that case, he'd become a co-face of the franchise, as Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are all free agents soon and 30 or older. All this is to say that VanVleet would likely become Toronto's full-time point guard soon, and considering his rapid rate of improvement thus far, such a designation seems reasonable.
On the other hand, you can't blame VanVleet for taking the most money. The Knicks and Pistons may both be in the running for his services, and each would be interesting. As both clubs generally lack roster talent, VanVleet would be given even more responsibility. In modern parlance, both Detroit and New York would be considered "his team."
Every point guard surely dreams about such a scenario, but VanVleet is better than most point guards. Though he may not be as effective without the Raptors' supporting cast and coaching staff, any player with VanVleet's basketball intelligence, motor and floor-spacing capabilities can probably lead a competitive club (if not necessarily one that achieves playoff success).
Though we don't yet know for sure what the point guard's future holds, he's only going to keep getting better and more productive as his prime years approach.
T.J. Warren, F
Perhaps the most out-of-nowhere star performer of the seeding games was T.J. Warren.
With Victor Oladipo still shaking off rust and Domantas Sabonis sidelined, Warren took it upon himself to lead the Pacers in the bubble, and lead he did.
If you follow the NBA, you probably know about the forward's trio of breakout games in the bubble, as he dropped 53, 34 and 32 points on the 76ers, Wizards and Magic, respectively. Of course, that's not top-tier competition, but Warren would maintain such form against the Lakers too, scoring 39 points on 15-of-22 shooting in a win over the Purple and Gold. He returned to earth against the Heat in the playoffs but still averaged 20.0 points per game on 47.1/36.8/100.0 shooting splits over the series' four games.
The reason Warren's bubble performance might be sustainable and not just a product of circumstance is the Pacers' future is fairly uncertain at the moment.
Oladipo may never return to his pre-injury self, and even if he does, he's a free agent in 2021 with a wandering eye. Sabonis and Myles Turner remain a tenuous frontcourt fit as well, so it also wouldn't be shocking to see one of them moved soon.
In any case, Indiana's hierarchy being in flux may result in Warren needing to co-lead the offense alongside Malcolm Brogdon. If his performances this summer are any indication, then he'll be up to the task.