Ranking the Top 10 NBA Stars to Build Around for the Next 10 Years

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 21, 2021

Ranking the Top 10 NBA Stars to Build Around for the Next 10 Years

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    The NBA is loaded with young talent. Whenever the wave of veterans led by LeBron James steps away from the game, the league will be left to very capable hands.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo just won a Finals MVP at the end of his age-26 season. Nikola Jokic secured the regular-season MVP for his age-25 season. Luka Doncic is 22 and already looks like a perennial MVP candidate, while 21-year-old Zion Williamson is already one of basketball's best scorers.

    If you had to choose one to build around for the next decade, there really isn't an easy answer. And if you expand the question to who the top 10 would be, you find out pretty quickly that there are plenty of contenders for that list.

    In an effort to alleviate some pressure from the exercise, FiveThirtyEight's five-year market value projections were consulted. If those are weighted evenly with a fan vote that pitted 100 players against each other in randomly generated either-or scenarios, this is the resulting top 10:

    1. Luka Doncic (1st in projections, 2nd in vote)
    2. Giannis Antetokounmpo (3rd in projections, 1st in vote)
    3. Nikola Jokic (2nd in projections, tied for 3rd in vote)
    4. Jayson Tatum (5th in projections, 5th in vote)
    5. Zion Williamson (10th in projections, tied for 3rd in vote)
    6. Joel Embiid (4th in projections, tied for 10th in vote)
    7. LaMelo Ball (7th in projections, tied for 10th in vote)
    8. Trae Young (18th in projections, tied for 6th in vote)
    9. Michael Porter Jr. (15th in projections, tied for 12th in vote)
    10. Donovan Mitchell (24th in projections, tied for 6th in vote)

    Relying entirely on those indicators presents at least one issue, though.

    The FiveThirtyEight projections only look five years into the future. For a 32-year old like James Harden, who ranked sixth in that forecast, expanding to a decade means going into his 40s. At some point, every star's production tails off, and Harden will likely experience that before the 10-year window closes. The same goes for probably every star already in his 30s.

    The results above may struggle to capture other important considerations as well (though the fan vote obviously introduces subjectivity). Other things to think about include the wave of positionless basketball currently sweeping over the league, injury concerns, size, athleticism, etc.

    While the projection system and fan vote served as solid guides, ultimately this top 10 also relied on plenty of good old-fashioned opinions.

Honorable Mentions

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    Before we jump into the list, here is a handful of honorable mentions (in alphabetical order by last name) who have solid arguments to make the top 10, along with a sentence or two on why they didn't.

    Bam Adebayo: He can be a dominant, versatile defender, but building an offense around him is more difficult.

    Deandre Ayton: In the 90s, a player like Ayton would almost certainly make the cut, but setting a center as the cornerstone simply isn't as common anymore. Versatility at all five positions is the current name of the game.

    LaMelo Ball: The FiveThirtyEight projections love Ball, but another season or two of evidence would go a long way.

    Lonzo Ball: Lonzo checks pretty much every box but "potential lead scorer," but that's an important one if you're looking for the foundation of your franchise.

    Bradley Beal: Beal is one of the most dynamic scorers in the NBA, but he's 28 and has looked like a liability on defense in recent years.

    Devin Booker: This is probably the closest call so far. Booker is like a younger, slightly bigger version of Beal. He's already made the Finals and can score in bunches. Defense is the concern here.

    Jaylen Brown: Like Lonzo, Brown checks plenty of boxes. The one he's currently missing is playmaking.

    Anthony Edwards: There may be more prognostication at play with Edwards than some of the other honorable mentions. Advanced numbers loathed his rookie season, but he was phenomenal after the All-Star break. As is the case with LaMelo, we just need a little more evidence.

    De'Aaron Fox: One of the most underrated finishers in the league, Fox can get to the rim in a hiccup, but his lack of size on defense can present some problems.

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: SGA is another close call. He possesses a tantalizing combination of size, playmaking and shooting, but his ceiling feels a tad lower than those in the top 10. There's also no sample in which he's the leading man on a good team.

    Rudy Gobert: Gobert is the most dominant defensive player in the NBA. If you have him, you're almost certainly going to be top-five on that end. He's 29, though. And he has to be surrounded by a pretty specific supporting cast to thrive on offense.

    Kyrie IrvingOn pure talent alone, there haven't been many better on the offensive end than Kyrie. His extensive injury history and age (29) keep him out of the top 10.

    Donovan Mitchell: Add Mitchell to the group with Booker and SGA. He's knocking on the door, and plenty could offer strong arguments to put him in the top 10. But based on what we've seen so far, if he's your 2, your perimeter defense could be in trouble.

    Ja Morant: Like some of the other smaller guards here, Morant figures to have some issues on defense going forward. And while he's a dynamic driver and passer, his shooting still needs work.

    Jamal Murray: Murray looks like he'll be a reliable offensive engine for years to come, but he's not much of a ceiling-raiser on the other end. The torn ACL might add a hint of concern too.

    Michael Porter Jr.: On offense, MPJ looked like a 6'10" Klay Thompson last season. He's still a few years away on defense, though. And the concerns over the health of his back are still present, even if he's done a lot to alleviate them over the past two seasons.

    All the stars in their 30s: With apologies to Harden, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or any other current star in his 30s, the premise of this list almost eliminates them by itself. If we were looking for the best cornerstones for half a decade, the top 10 would look different.

10. Ben Simmons

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    Let's welcome a little controversy right off the bat.

    With the number of people who've jumped off the Ben Simmons ship since the infamous pass in the playoffs, he might be among the ranks of the underrated.

    That play alone summed up a disastrous series against the Atlanta Hawks, and that series highlighted a massive flaw. It isn't that Simmons can't shoot. It's that he won't.

    All of the above has made it easy to give up on Simmons.

    In his case and others' on this list (or in the honorable mentions), it helps to try to imagine a different scenario. With the Philadelphia 76ers, Simmons' critical weakness is highlighted. On a roster with four dedicated floor spacers, his many strengths would shine brighter.

    With his size, vision and explosiveness, Simmons attacking a truly spread floor would put defenses in pick-your-poison scenarios possession after possession. Once he gets to the paint, he can force collapses that leave shooters open outside.

    He's a unique weapon in transition too. He can snag a defensive rebound, take it coast to coast about as fast as anyone in the league and find receivers inside or out, on time and on target.

    What seals his spot in the top 10, though, is what Simmons does on the other end of the floor. Even at 6'11", Simmons can shut down guards. He looks like a perennial All-Defense contender who can switch all over the floor.

    And while we typically think of defensive anchors being 5s like Gobert, stifling the point of attack can have a domino effect that helps the entire lineup.

    Simmons was 45th in the aforementioned fan vote, but that result feels emotional. He's 25 years old, top-50 in NBA history in career box plus/minus and averages 16.9 points, 8.5 rebounds, 8.2 assists and 1.8 steals per 75 possessions.

9. Karl-Anthony Towns

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    The case for Karl-Anthony Towns requires a suspension of disbelief similar to the one deployed for Simmons.

    After six years on one of the worst teams in the NBA (the Minnesota Timberwolves are 26th in winning percentage over the course of his career), he's almost become the forgotten star. And when he is spotlighted, it's often for his lack of defensive impact or the team's overall struggles.

    On talent alone, there aren't many players in the world who are more complete on offense. He's currently tied for 15th in NBA history in career offensive BPM, with averages of 24.6 points, 3.3 offensive rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.7 threes per 75 possessions.

    Getting all that from a 5 would be impressive enough, but Towns having a 39.4 three-point percentage that's well clear of the league average opens up a number of possibilities.

    Centers have to respect Towns' range, and pulling those big bodies away from the paint makes it much easier for others to manufacture and find driving lanes.

    The questions regarding his defense are fair, but surrounding him with the right supporting players could go a long way toward disguising that weakness. His potential to carry an offense outweighs the needs he might create on the other end.

8. Anthony Davis

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Based solely on numbers, Anthony Davis looks like one of the greatest players of all time.

    He's 14th in NBA history in career BPM and has averaged 25.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, 2.5 assists and 1.5 steals per 75 possessions.

    With the exception of a consistent three-point shot and high-end playmaking, there really isn't anything Davis can't do. 

    His stints with both the New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Lakers may suggest he's closer to a top-tier No. 2 than an alpha, though.

    Through little to no fault of his own, AD only made two playoff appearances over his seven seasons in New Orleans.

    Over his two seasons with L.A., the Lakers are minus-1.8 points per 100 possessions when Davis plays without LeBron (compared to plus-9.0 when LeBron plays without AD).

    The lack of leading-man bona fides, along with his age (28), are enough to limit AD's rise up this list, but not enough to keep him out of the top 10.

    There's still a chance we haven't seen him as an offensive No. 1 surrounded by his ideal supporting cast, and he has Defensive Player of the Year upside on the other end.

7. Trae Young

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    As was mentioned more than once on the honorable mentions slide, lack of size can really limit a player's defensive upside. And that certainly applies to Trae Young.

    He sometimes gets lost off the ball, is often overwhelmed by ball screens and doesn't grab many defensive rebounds. All that has contributed to the Atlanta Hawks allowing 7.0 more points per 100 possessions when Young plays.

    What sets him apart from many of those honorable mentions are what he's shown as a heliocentric offensive engine, his passing ability and the fact that he just turned 23.

    Over the course of his career, Young trails only Damian Lillard in makes from 30 feet and out. That range commands attention well outside the three-point line. Once the defense is that stretched out, Young has an ability to get into the paint and then either finish with a floater or layup, spray out to shooters outside or set up bigs like Clint Capela or John Collins sliding in from the dunker's spot.

    Over his past two seasons, he's shown a veteran-like knack for drawing fouls, too. During that stretch, his 9.0 free-throw attempts per game ranks fourth in the league.

    Put it all together and Young has career marks of 25.8 points, 9.5 assists, 2.6 threes per 75 possessions. No one in league history has averaged at least 25, nine and two per 75 through an age-22 season. Drop the qualifiers to 20, eight and one, and the only players you add are Doncic and Morant.

6. Joel Embiid

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Michael Jordan (30.3) is the only player in NBA history with a higher career average for points per 75 possessions than Joel Embiid's 29.3. And no one tops his 10.6 free-throw attempts per 75 possessions.

    In 2020-21 alone, his efficiency soared thanks to career-best marks from just about every range. He showed an ability to finish a dime from a guard, post up, shoot from the mid-range and stretch the floor to the three-point line.

    He's also a decent passer (though an historically bad turnover rate remains concerning), dominant rebounder and dependable defensive anchor.

    Embiid doesn't just use his size to intimidate on that end. That certainly helps, but quick feet on recoveries, good timing on block attempts and general awareness have made him a Defensive Player of the Year contender.

    Over the course of his career, the Sixers have allowed 5.0 fewer points per 100 possessions when Embiid plays.

    The obvious problem with picking him in this exercise, of course, is lack of availability.

    Embiid was drafted in 2014. Since then, he's played 7,943 minutes in 260 games, marks that rank 184th and 282nd, respectively, over that span.

    With those numbers, his size (7'0" and 280 pounds) and an extensive injury history, it's fair to wonder how many miles Embiid has left over the next 10 years.

5. Zion Williamson

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    There are similar health concerns with Zion Williamson. Injuries and minutes maintenance limited him to 24 games as a rookie, and we've really never seen a player his size (284 pounds) move the way he does.

    The kind of torque and explosion his joints experience throughout a game may always be a little nerve-racking. And a 33.3 three-point percentage and 68.3 free-throw percentage suggest it could take him a while to be a threat as a shooter (assuming it ever happens).

    What Zion has already shown he can do is enough to vault him into the top five, though.

    Williamson puts an incredible amount of pressure on the paint as a driver and cutter. He's years ahead of schedule in terms of seeing and exploiting driving lanes. His feel as a finisher makes life easier for playmakers. And though the highlight hammer dunks understandably get most of the attention, underrated touch on floaters and layups is a big part of his repertoire.

    Even without much of a jumper, he's averaged 28.9 points per 75 possessions during his career, a mark that trails only Jordan and Embiid.

    In 2020-21, he flashed playmaking ability that makes him even more intriguing. "Point Zion" got to five assists in 24 games. The Pelicans were 16-8 in those contests and 15-33 in all others.

    Because he's such a dynamic slasher and finisher, defenses have to pack the paint when he gets inside, which leaves options for kickouts and dropoffs. 

    If he continues to improve on that front, becomes even average as a shooter and finds a little defensive consistency, Zion has "best player in the league" potential.

4. Jayson Tatum

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Jayson Tatum answered what may have been the last question concerning his game in 2020-21.

    He'd already shown off the profile of a No. 1 scorer, with an ability to get buckets inside, in the mid-range or from three. He's long been a solid rebounder. And though he may not be Scottie Pippen on defense, he uses his size (6'8") and athleticism well and opens up possibilities for switch-heavy schemes.

    His 4.3 assists per game this season showed that Tatum can engineer more possessions from scratch. And getting playmaking from the wing can free up guards for scoring opportunities they might not otherwise have.

    Altogether, Tatum has averaged 25.9 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 3.0 threes, 1.3 steals and 0.7 blocks per 75 possessions over the past two seasons. And he's just 23. There's still time to develop.

3. Nikola Jokic

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    At this point of the list, you could probably go in any order with the remaining three players and have a reasonable argument for doing so.

    Jokic may be No. 3 here, but the margin between him and the top of the list is razor thin. And it wouldn't be hard to justify bumping him up to No. 1.

    In his age-25 campaign, Jokic had one of the greatest individual seasons of all time. His 11.68 BPM trails only three LeBron seasons, three Jordan seasons and one campaign apiece from Stephen Curry and David Robinson.

    His wide-ranging contributions almost don't look real when presented with traditional stats.

    He put up a seemingly impossible 28.3 points, 11.6 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 1.4 threes, 1.4 steals and 0.7 blocks per 75 possessions, with a 64.7 true shooting percentage and a 38.8 three-point percentage.

    And though this was clearly a new level for him, Jokic had been playing like an MVP long before he actually won the award in 2021.

    He's the best passing big man of all time, one of the game's last remaining post-up threats, a deadeye mid-range shooter and a solid three-point threat. At the moment, he's arguably (and it's a strong argument) the best offensive player in the game.

    His defense isn't as bad as advertised either. He's typically in the right spots, takes up a ton of space and can dominate the glass.

    He's not a game-changing anchor on that end, though. That's what keeps him ever-so-slightly behind No. 2. And his age by the end of the 10-year time period in question (36) is what keeps him behind the player in the top spot.

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo

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    Giannis isn't as skilled as Jokic. He'll likely never reach Jokic's current level as a shooter or passer. But he can be every bit as dominant on size and athleticism, as evidenced by one of the best championship runs ever.

    In the 2021 postseason, he averaged 30.2 points, 12.8 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.0 steals per game. And he closed out the Finals with a 50-point performance.

    Beyond being the ultimate exclamation point on Giannis' back-to-back regular-season MVPs in 2019 and 2020, that playoff run served to support the Shaquille O'Neal comparisons Antetokounmpo has been getting for years.

    He's reached a point when he can get to the rim seemingly whenever he wants. And once he's there, there's almost nothing anyone can do to stop him.

    On the rare occasions Giannis' drives are thwarted, he's shown an improved ability to hit open targets in the shooting pocket.

    But again, what really sets him apart from Jokic is the defensive ability.

    Giannis can be the cornerstone of both of his team's schemes. Not only is he one of the best scorers in the league and a legitimate point forward, he can be a high-level backline defender and is one of the best free-safety-style roamers.

    Giannis is only 26 years old, and he's one of three players with an MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and Finals MVP to his name (Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon are the other two).

1. Luka Doncic

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    His game isn't as similar to LeBron's as some seem to think, but there really aren't many other comps for Luka.

    The former is one of the three to five best players in NBA history and the only one who piled up more wins over replacement player than Luka through an age-21 season.

    And when the two point forwards had their career numbers at the same age pitted against each other in a blind poll, Luka's won in a landslide.

    For his career, he's put up 28.2 points, 9.2 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 2.9 threes and 1.1 steals per 75 possessions.

    He's yet to show himself to be a lockdown (or even average) defender, but those are unprecedented early career numbers. And based on his offense alone, which includes top-tier vision and passing, underrated finishing ability and ridiculous range on a step-back jumper, Luka's on pace for all-time great status.

    As the kicker, he'll be just 32 when the 10-year window used for this exercise is over. For context's sake, Stephen Curry is 33.

    With what he's shown already, it's easy to imagine MVPs and championships during the next decade.

    All advanced statistics via Stathead, PBP Stats and Basketball Reference unless otherwise stated.

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