The 1 Thing Holding Back Every Under-30 NBA Superstar
Superstars run the NBA.
It's been that way for years, and for all of the innovations and evolutions in the basketball world, that part of the formula may never change.
So, what defines a superstar? As broad as that question is, we'll use a simple answer for this exercise: players who cracked the top 20 of B/R's Top 50 for the 2021-22 season. That leaves a few tough cuts out of the process—Zion Williamson and Rudy Gobert chief among them—but when you think about the exclusivity of the superstar label, a 20-player pool might actually be generous.
There won't be 20 players listed here, though, since we're only focusing on players who enter this campaign under the age of 30. As we're identifying what's holding each player back, it makes sense to narrow it down to players with the time and trajectory to actually improve on their biggest weakness.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks: Free-Throw Shooting
Had the Bucks ended their 2020-21 season with anything other than a ring, the haunting image for Deer faithful would've been Giannis Antetokounmpo sweating out his trips to the free-throw line one 10-second chant at a time.
However, it wasn't the length of his free throws that tripped him up (well, not usually), but rather the result. After converting just 68.5 percent of his free throws during the regular season, his playoff percentage dipped to 58.7—and that was with his improbable punctuation of a 17-of-19 showing during Milwaukee's championship clincher.
His struggles at the charity stripe give opposing defenses an out. When he puts himself in prime scoring position—which, for someone who's never more than three dribbles from the rim, happens often—they can just wrap him up and take their chances with his foul shots.
While some might argue for the addition of a three-ball here, that's extreme wishful thinking for someone who can't consistently knock down shots from closer range and zero defenders in his face. Whether he's battling a case of the yips (he has twice shot better than 75 percent at the line) or a more mechanical issue, this is the biggest hurdle he needs to clear to enter truly unstoppable territory.
Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards: Defense
It's possible Bradley Beal is being punished here since defense was apparently outlawed in the District. Each of the past three seasons, the Wizards have fielded one of the 40 least efficient defenses in NBA history.
It's also possible—if not probable—that the 6'3" scoring guard is being overextended on offense and just doesn't have the legs to bring the necessary energy to the game's less glamorous end. Over the past two seasons, he ranks fifth in minutes per game and fourth in usage percentage.
Still, those are explanations—not excuses.
They don't erase all the issues he has encountered on defense. Both FiveThirtyEight's Defensive RAPTOR and ESPN's defensive real plus-minus put Beal outside of the top 200. NBA.com's defensive rating buried him all the way at No. 479, and while Washington's collective struggles contribute to that number, it's worth noting the team fared 8.9 points better per 100 possessions without him.
He doesn't offer enough resistance on the ball, gets stuck on screens and generally has issues keeping the ball out of the net. Last season, he was in the 33rd percentile of isolation defenders. The year before, he was in the 7th percentile.
Washington needs to see progress on this front quickly, as it's hoping the investments made to this roster will lighten Beal's offensive load and keep him better fueled for the opposite end.
"He has the ability to do it," new Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr. told reporters. "I think sometimes the burden for him offensively was so high in past seasons that it took a little bit out of him. But to have the depth and flexibility that we have, I think it gives him an opportunity to take possessions off on the offensive end."
Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns: Consistency from Three
Admittedly, this might seem like a strange place to criticize Devin Booker.
He was billed as a great shooter coming out of Kentucky, looks the part with textbook form and was a three-point contest champion in just his third NBA season. So, why spotlight his stroke and not, say, the issues he's had in the past with tunnel vision or defense?
Because his three-ball could be one of the most powerful weapons in his arsenal, but it just isn't. Not often enough, at least.
He's a career 35.2 percent three-point shooter. Last season, the NBA average from beyond the arc was 36.7. Booker was at 34.0, a mark that only bettered three teams in the league.
Part of the issue is his off-the-dribble shooting, as he only connected on 30.8 percent of his pull-up threes last season. However, when he decided to fire after seven-plus dribbles, he hit 41.9 percent of them. He also shot a better percentage when defenders were within two feet of him (33.3) than he did when he had four to six feet of open space (30.5).
He can, of course, get fiery hot from distance, and when he does, defenses are basically helpless. He hit at least seven threes two different times in Phoenix's playoff run. Then again, he had another four games without a make and another eight with only a single triple, so his success rate can fluctuate from one night to the next.
Given his butter-soft touch from mid-range and smooth stroke at the foul line, this feels like something he can correct. Until he does, though, this weapon will remain less sharp than it should be.
Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers: Injuries
For Lakers fans reading this, find the closest piece of wood and give it a good knocking before reading the next sentence. Anthony Davis has so far avoided catastrophic injury.
His issue, instead, has been the nagging injuries that always seem to find him. Studying his injury history alone might be enough to help medical students pass their exams. His medical maladies literally extend from head to toe, and it has kept him from ever putting a full season together.
In 2020-21, he was further from that mark than ever, as heel and calf issues sidelined him more than two full months, and he only suited up for half of L.A.'s 72 games. That was the most time he has ever missed, but something always seems to pop up.
With nine seasons under his belt, he could have played in as many as 717 games by this point. He's only at 564, though, meaning he has missed an average of 17 games per season.
That's usually not enough to torpedo an entire campaign, but since he's such a cheat code for the Lakers with size for the paint and skills for the perimeter, their championship chances effectively hinge on his availability. When he's healthy, he can play his way into the best-player-on-the-planet debate, but he needs more prolonged stretches of good health to really get there.
Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks: Shooting
Defense might be the most popular answer here, but Luka Doncic has made enough strides on that end to look elsewhere.
So the microscope instead falls upon his shooting, which is mostly solid but lands well short of the spectacular range his skill set seems like it could (or should) reach.
Last season, Doncic enjoyed his best shooting rates to date from the field (47.9) and from range (35.0). Still, the progress only yielded him the 11th-best true shooting percentage among the 17 players with a 30-plus usage percentage and 500-plus minutes.
Granted, that group is basically one elite after the next—plus whatever John Wall is at this stage—but that's kind of the point in a superstar discussion. With Doncic firmly in the MVP race, that's the competition he'll be measured against, and that's where his shooting doesn't quite measure up.
The eye test says he can be better. His ability to make impossibly difficult shots agrees with that assessment. Now it's about finding more consistency and more often looking like the player who buried 4.4 threes per night at a 40.8 percent clip during the postseason.
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers: Too Many Absences
A healthy Joel Embiid can make an argument for being the league's most unstoppable force. The problem is he has never been healthy enough to fully make that claim.
Last season, he came close enough to snag the silver medal in the MVP race, after a career shooting year—from nearly every level—pushed him to a personal-best 28.5 points per game on 51.3/37.7/85.9 shooting. But he lost the volume argument to MVP winner Nikola Jokic by a wide margin; while Jokic logged 2,488 minutes across 72 contests, Embiid was limited to only 1,585 in 51 games.
The four-time All-Star, who had his first two seasons entirely erased by injuries, has yet to play even 65 games in a single season. Throw out those first two years, and he has still only managed to appear in 260 of a possible 391 games.
He has topped 2,000 minutes just once and peaked at 2,154 minutes in 2018-19. For context, 47 players cleared 2,000 minutes last season and 26 played more than 2,154—and, remember, that season was 10 games shorter than the typical campaign.
For all of the high-level teammates Embiid has had and the high-profile matchups he has faced, the second-most important character in his NBA story is the injury bug. Easily. While the Sixers will likely always go the cautious route with Embiid, his many sideline stints will be the biggest obstacle facing both him and this franchise.
Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets: Lack of Availability
When Kyrie Irving plays, he might be the toughest one-on-one matchup in the business. His handles are generationally great (if not the best all-time), his scoring range reaches all areas of the offensive end and he's a good enough passer to punish defenses for giving him too much attention.
He has never ranked outside the 75th percentile on isolations. Last season, he landed in the 91st percentile, and that's while he was adjusting on the fly to sharing touches with Kevin Durant and James Harden.
Again, when Irving hits the hardwood, his superstar credentials are ironclad. He just doesn't make those appearances often enough.
Injuries have been a constant throughout his career, and he has started missing time for other reasons, too. He took multiple absences for personal reasons last season. This year, he is indefinitely away from the Brooklyn Nets after they announced he won't play or practice with them until he can be a full participant, which would mean complying with New York City's vaccination requirement.
Keeping this a basketball conversation, Irving can obviously only help his teammates if he's out there with them. He hasn't topped 70 games since 2016-17, made just 20 appearances in 2019-20 and had his 2020-21 playoff run prematurely ended by an ankle injury.
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets: Defense
It gets harder and harder to find faults with Nikola Jokic, as you'd expect for the reigning MVP.
His three-point shooting hasn't always been razor-sharp, but it'd be tough to point the finger there after he splashed 92 triples at a 38.8 percent clip. His vision and creativity used to hint at being able to take on bigger playmaking duties, but he has assumed them now and cemented himself as the best passing big this league has ever seen.
Even his defense is much improved from where it was a few years back. He used to be a walking liability on that end. He's not that anymore.
"I think I'm in the middle," Jokic told The Ringer's Zach Kram. "I think I'm not a great defender. I'm not the worst defender."
The numbers aren't clear on Jokic's improvement, but that might be mostly due to the fact defensive metrics aren't the greatest. Case in point: His lowest defensive rating (a good thing) and worst defensive box plus/minus (a bad thing) both came in his rookie season.
Still, the trusty eye test shows he's exploitable in space, and he isn't a major deterrent at the rim. Opponents have shot better against him than they do on average in four of his six seasons, by a 2.7-percentage-point difference in 2020-21.
With the offensive end seemingly mastered, Jokic should set his sights on continuing to climb defensively.
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz: In-Between Offense
Among the 43 players to average 20-plus points last season, only 11 had a worse effective field-goal percentage than Donovan Mitchell's 52.0.
If you shared that information with someone who knew Mitchell only by his reputation as an athletic finisher, they'd probably think shaky three-point shooting was to blame. It wasn't. In fact, he set career highs in three-point makes (3.4 per game) and percentage (38.6).
The real culprit here is a two-point field-goal percentage that has declined in two of the past three seasons (47.6 percent in 2020-21). Part of the issue is he's no longer getting to the basket as often (career-low 15.7 percent of his attempts came within three feet) and isn't finishing as consistently there when he does (career-worst 60.8 percent shooting in that range).
The bigger problem is too many of his attacks are ending in that tricky in-between zone from three feet to 10 feet away from the basket. That's where 21.9 percent of his shots originated last season, the biggest share of his non-three-point attempts. It's also where he posted the worst shooting rate of any level (41.8 percent).
Granted, these are almost always difficult shots—runners, floaters, touch shots in traffic—but if that's where nearly a quarter of his attempts will continue coming from, he needs to knock them down more regularly.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics: Not Enough Whistles
Silk wishes it was as smooth as Jayson Tatum is with a basketball in his hands. He is never rushed, almost always gets where he wants and makes good things happen when he rises and fires.
There's an absurdly impressive precision in his game, manifested most clearly in his 92nd percentile standing on isolations. But he could give himself a wider margin for error by earning more trips to the foul line.
While last season's 5.3 free-throw attempts per game marked a new personal best, they lagged beneath what you'd expect for a top-shelf No. 1 option. Among the 17 players who averaged 25-plus points, only Kyrie Irving and Zach LaVine earned fewer free-throw attempts.
Once Tatum turned up the aggression in the postseason, the Brooklyn Nets had no answer for him. Between Games 3 and 4, he totaled 32 free-throw attempts and 90 points. It's a trend Tatum's trainer, Drew Hanlen, wants to see continued.
"When Jayson shot a high volume of free throws, he put up huge numbers," Hanlen told Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald. "That's the big focus—being able to get downhill more, which allows him to get to the line more, which also allows him to add another dynamic to his game. That's the focus."
Tatum is hard enough to handle as it is. If he bullies his way to more freebies, he could make a serious push for a scoring title.
Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks: Efficiency
Shocked to see anything other than defense here? That's fair. Among 250 qualified players, only Bryn Forbes scored worse than Trae Young in Defensive RAPTOR last season.
Still, the notion of something holding a player back implies—at least to me—that it can be fixed. While I'd stop short of labeling Young completely hopeless on defense—his ceiling at that end is tiny as a 6'1", 180-pounder without great strength or explosion—he is physically outmatched on a nearly nightly basis.
Where he could actually improve, though, is maximizing the efficiency of his offensive opportunities.
What does that mean? For starters, it means someone with the reputation of being a lethal long-range shooter should probably have better than a career 34.3 three-point percentage. It means an elite offensive weapon shouldn't be shooting 43.1 percent from the field.
He's a brilliant offensive player, but since his value is exclusively tied to that end, he needs to uncover even more brilliance. And that's before factoring in any production he might lose to the rule changes regarding foul calls.
He has the talent to unleash a 30-point, 10-assist season, but he needs a final coat of polish to get there.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.