2019 Top NBA Players 23 & Under: Part 3
- De’Aaron Fox, Point Guard, Sacramento Kings
Few players made a bigger jump in value last season than the Kings’ second-year point guard. Fox’s emergence made himself a fantastic fantasy asset and, even more astoundingly, made the Kings a potential playoff threat. A year after all the talk focused on Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum, Fox made his case as the best player from the 2017 NBA draft class.
One of the first things you notice about De’Aaron Fox are his athleticism and his blazing speed. Fox is even on record staking his claim as the fastest player in the NBA, and he might not be wrong. He has transcendent speed that makes him a nightmare on the fast break. While we don’t have 40-yard dash times to compare, NBA.com’s advanced stats feature does list average speed per game on the offensive end of the floor. And of players to player 30+ minutes a night Fox places 7th. It’s not a perfect way to quantify his speed but it does give you an idea. A highlight or two might also help.
Have his natural gifts translated into stats? The answer is yes. Fox made big jumps across the board this season. He upped his scoring average from 11.6 PPG to 17.3 PPG thanks in large part to improved shooting. His 3-point percentage made a huge jump from 30.7% as a rookie to 37.1% this season. Because of his improved 3-point stroke defenders are going to have to start guarding him further from the basket, which is going to open even wider driving lanes where he can utilize that aforementioned speed. Another great sign of his offensive growth is his free throws attempts per game. He nearly doubled his attempts this season which gives him way more opportunities to add easy points to his stat line.
Fox also made strides in his playmaking, taking his assists per game from an “ehh” 4.4 as a rookie to an elite 7.3 this season. The Kings point guard found himself among some great company on assists per game leaderboard this season, just behind James Harden and tied with Nikola Jokic. And his assist numbers should continue to rise going forward. The Kings have a core group of guys who know how to score the basketball. Fox’s backcourt mate Buddy Hield made huge strides this season and rookie Marvin Bagley III looked like a future All-Star before injuries slowed him down. And let’s not forget Fox played half of last season at just 20 years old. As he gets a better feel for the game he could easily surpass 10 assists per game for many years to come.
ESPN’s Player Rater ranked De’Aaron Fox 36th which is a pretty great return for a guy only in his second season. His stat line is definitely repeatable so at worst you’re looking at a top-40 player going into next season. However, if he’s able to up his scoring and assist numbers (which I think he will) and can improve on his 3.8 rebounds per game to something like 5 per game, we could be looking at a top-20 player next season. He’s incredibly young and took a huge leap last year which makes him one of the best universal dynasty assets in the league. Travis Pastore (Follow him here at @TheRealTRAVIOLI)
9. D’angelo Russell, Guard, Golden State Warriors
We all have types. Some guys consider it offensive to approach them if you’re lacking in the booty, leg, and hips department. It took years of reflection and self assessment for me to realize, I too have a type! That happens to be slow footed guards with a sub elite first step, that show advanced feel for the game and can shoot the lights out. I’ll always bet on the high feel and IQ prospects for better and for worse, which leads me into my everlasting affinity for D’angelo Russell.
If we made a list over the past 4 years of players who have sparked the most polarizing discourse, Dlo has surprisingly has been one of the biggest lightning rods on NBA Twitter if you haven’t noticed.
Coming out of tOSU, Russell never projected as your run of the mill high-flying one and done athlete, with a skillset dependent much more on feel, and a read and react based game on the looks opposing defenses would send his way in pick and roll coverages. Fans usually tend to underestimate just how difficult the adjustment period tends to be for point guards coming into the league, doubly if you aren’t a quick twitch athlete.
D-Lo excels using his craftiness and elite handle to find even the smallest slither necessary to get his tear-drop rainbow floaters off. Lulls defenders to sleep with his hypnotizing in and out yo-yo dribble. Dloading might be one of the most apropos nicknames in the sports universe. At times it’s felt, Dbuffering was a more fitting nickname to describe his game downloading at what felt like AOL 4.0 free trial disc speeds. But in the words of Urban pastor Young Jeezy, Slow grinds better than no grind.
Dlo held a steady yet unspectacular growth through 4 years in the NBA. Upping his scoring averages from 13ppg as a rookie to 21 this past year, and notably his percent of assisted field goals for his team while on the court from 21% as a rookie to 39.2% in year 4, which placed him 3rd among players who played 30 or more minutes per game only trailing Westbrook & Harden. (For additional context per NBA.com, James Harden had a 39.4% assist percentage). Detractors will account this to his top 5 usage rate, but Russell spent a large majority of his minutes anchoring lineups with teammates who couldn’t consistently create shots for themselves. Highlighted by Dlo leading one of the most improbable comebacks in NBA history against the Kings, where he dropped 27 points in the quarter, down 28 in the 4th quarter, flanked by a lineup of Jared Dudley, Rodions Kurucs, Treveon Graham, and Rondae Hollis Jefferson beside him to somehow pull out a miraculous victory.
Year 4 for D’angelo also saw him return a career low turnover percentage (13.6%) while being burdened with the onus of heavy self creation (31.9 usage rate), which speaks lengths to how he’s grown as a floor general.
His snail like pace when operating in the pick & roll is unique and requires a keen understanding of timing, patience, and control to pull off. Ranked 9th in the league this season in total three pointers made with 234. You might’ve heard of the other shooters who drained more than him: Curry, Harden, Redick, Hield, Thompson, Lillard, Kemba, Hield. That’s it. That’s the list.
The proverbial light switch seems to have gone off once the calendar flipped to January 1st for Dlo, and it was sort of a redemption tour for his prospect status heading into his restricted free agency. In the 44 games after January 1st, he flirted with averages of 23-4-7 on 44-37-78 splits. No one would have batted an eye if the Nets ended up in the Zion sweepstakes last season, considering the traumatic roster after effects one Billy King trade had on this organization, let’s be real, or when it looked like Caris LeVert was emerging as the foundational piece for this team before missing half the season in a chunk 41 games.
Russell has been the most talented offensive player on every roster he’s been apart of thus far, his weaknesses such as his reliance for the mid range due to his inability to effectively finish at a high clip around the basket (55% at the rim, 33rd percentile among guards), lower his upside at hitting the ridiculous heights of some of the superstars in the league currently as a one man offensive fulcrum.
Russell’s ability to operate on and off the ball alleviate many of my concerns regarding his long term fit, the scalability of his skill set features several different ways of taking advantage of his shooting utility, that should translate effectively for the Warriors, playing besides Steph Curry. He shot 39% on catch and shoot three point attempts last season a figure that should improve with the higher quality of shot’s he’ll be getting in Steve Kerr‘s system.
The jury is still out on how fair of a shake Dlo will truly get to fit in within the team dynamic in Golden State, the Warriors had no cap space this summer, meaning there wasn’t anything they could’ve done to even attempt to replace KD in one transaction, it would be intellectually dishonest to believe reloading (no pun intended) the next core in the midst could’ve happened with one move this offseason.
- Donovan Mitchell, Shooting Guard, Utah Jazz
Newfound expectations for Donovan skyrocketed during his electric rookie season as his rise to NBA stardom happened in a blink of an eye, it didn’t take him long to establish himself as a human highlight reel and nightly fixture on League Pass for basketball junkies.
Mitchell’s hype train began to gain momentum close to the 2017 NBA draft as he went though team workouts and interviews, to the point where Jazz GM Dennis Lindsay threatened to fire any staff member who leaked the information about how impressive his team workout was. Even as someone who was a fan of his raw mold of skills during the pre draft cycle, it’d be a bold face lie to say this was anything close to a reasonable expectation for the production level he’s provided the Jazz through two seasons given the intel we had of him coming into the league, thus making it hard for me to take the “overrated or over hyped” narratives that have been floating around Spida serious. Considering where he was drafted it’s impossible to categorize the start to his career as anything other than a massive success and building blocks for a great career ahead of him.
Murmurs about the dreaded sophomore slump started to gain traction after Mitchell’s sophomore season got off to a slow start. Through the first 34 games of the 2019 campaign his performance gave credence to many of his biggest detractors criticisms of him being an inefficient shot chucker with his stats sitting at a underwhelming 40/28/79% on 20-3-3 shooting splits. After January 1st in the 58 remaining games he played he put up averages of 25-4-4 on a shooting triple line 44/39/80.
Mitchell has proven to be a sharpshooter when left open on catch and shoot opportunities, shooting 42% according to NBA.com last season on those respective attempts. His long range shot making ability has improved several grades each season since his freshman campaign at Louisville where he shot 25% from the college 3-point line. His shot mechanics are sound and he does a great job of staying balanced and hopping into his shot from distance which enables him to keep a good rhythm and base on his jumper.
One major area of improvement Mitchell needs to work on is his consistency on offense, as he’s been prone to suffer from prolonged shooting slumps from quarter to quarter, game to game, at a time. The offensive ecosystem in Utah after the departure of Gordon Hayward was in a massive state of flux and as they lacked other options capable of handling the heavy self creation burden that Mitchell bludgeoned himself into, but even at less than ideal volume efficiency the kind of player who’s good enough to come straight into the league out of college and become the main perimeter offensive threat on a team that won 48 and 50 wins in consecutive seasons in the loaded Western Conference are few and far between.
Mitchell possesses a strong handle with a multitude of nifty penetration dribble moves that keep defenders off balance and allow him to to gnaw into the teeth of opposing defenses to create scoring opportunities for himself.
His best offensive attribute happens to be his ability to slither past defenders and create separation as his quick twitch athleticism shines brightest while he’s going downhill and can explode east or west with either hand using his full bag of euro steps and misdirection moves. Mitchell finished in the 61st percentile among combo guards last season and improving on this number could go a long way towards becoming an elite volume scorer.
Donovan’s game is reminiscent of an NBA version of the notable low center of gravity yet agile and powerful NFL running back prototypes (i.e Maurice Jones Drew) as he’s very much a ticking time bomb of kinetic energy just waiting to explode in tight spaces on the court.
Although he’s actually a tick undersized compared to other NBA shooting guards, his 6’10” wingspan mixed with his athletic profile is a major reason why he plays bigger than his listed measurables, doubly on defense as he’s able to really smother opposing guards with his length and instincts in a team defensive setting.
Optimization of a players skills takes place when you match talent with the proper role in the proper team dynamic. The offseason acquisition of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic should eliminate some of the hero ball shot attempts that bogged down his personal efficiency throughout his first two years in the league, which everything considered comfortably puts Mitchell on the precipice of producing at an All Star level, and comfortably one of the most dynamic young guards in the NBA.
7. Devin Booker, Shooting Guard, Phoenix Suns
Booker is part of the new generation of ball-dominant guards who are a threat to shoot the second they cross half court. He’s also one of only five players ever to score 70 points in a game, so that’s cool.
Already through four full seasons, Booker has upped his points per game every year – from 13.8 as a rookie to 26.6 this past season. For context, that 26.6 PPG was the 6th-highest in the NBA this season ahead of Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving. His offensive game this season came along with 7.1 free throw attempts per game (top 5 in the NBA BTW) and he knocked them down at a near elite 86.6% clip.
I could go on and on about how Booker can score but we all know that. The scary thing is he still has room to improve. Booker carries a reputation as a dead-eye 3-point shooter but that’s not entirely warranted. He put up a career-high 38.3% 3-point percentage last year but fell back to Earth with a 32.6% this season. Booker can definitely shoot it with the best of them but without a great supporting cast this season defense could key on him and make life difficult for him. Opposing defenses aren’t going to leave Booker any space and he also gets asked to bail the team out in end of shot clock situations which leads to some very tough 3’s. If Booker gets that percentage back up to nearly 40% we could be looking at a 30-point per game scorer as soon as next season.
One of the biggest improvements Booker has made is in his playmaking. The Suns handed him the reigns this season and he delivered, increasing his assists per game from 4.7 to 6.8. And as the team around him gets better these assist numbers will only go up, taking him from a scoring guard to one of the best lead guards in the league. And with the Suns making a concerted effort to mold him into their point guard, he’ll have the ball in his hands consistently over the next few years.
One of the few knocks on Booker’s resume over the past two years has been health. He played in only 54 games in 2017-18 and 64 games this season after averaging 77 games per season in his first two years in the league. But all the tools are there to see Booker become a top-10 fantasy player next year. – Travis Pastore (Follow him here at @TheRealTRAVIOLI)
- Kristaps Porzingis, Power Forward/Center, Dallas Mavericks
Three Six Latvia hasn’t stepped foot onto an NBA court for a regular season game since he suffered a torn ACL at Madison Square Garden against the Milwaukee Bucks on February 6th 2018. In other words, what literally feels like an eternity ago in the NBA world. It would also turn out to be the final game he played as a Knickerbocker, as news shocked almost everyone on January 31st 2019 as he was traded along with Tim Hardaway Jr, Courtney Lee, and Trey Burke to the Dallas Mavericks for Dennis Smith Jr, Deandre Jordan, Wesley Matthews, Dallas’ unprotected first round pick in 2021 and another 2023 top 10 protected first rounder.
In light of what we’ve seen happen recently to other big guys like Boogie Cousins or Kevin Durant, it’s been illuminated how quickly the trajectory of a promising career can be shifted with one wrong step that leads to a catastrophic injury. Another injury or setback it and KP signing the 1 year 4.5 million dollar qualifying offer to reach unrestricted free agency would’ve been the worst possible advice for his future earning potential.
We’ll never know how serious he was about signing the qualifying offer or if it was all posturing to get away from the Knicks franchise, but the Knicks are on the clock as they try and replace the guy they once thought could be the savior of the franchise, and their best draft pick in two decades. Every step on the court Porzingis takes is a glaring reminder of the sobering reality that has plagued big men throughout NBA history.
In an environment where the value of floor spacing around the league is at an apex, Porzingis’s capacity to protect the rim, score inside and stretch the floor puts him on the short list of players who check all three of those boxes at the same time. The 7’3 big man flirted with 40% percent from deep in his last season over 228 attempts during the 48 games before his ACL Tear, he’s not shy to let it fly from long range and even pulls it from a few feet behind the NBA 3 point line when he’s feeling it.
According to CleaningTheGlass, Porzingis’ 3.8 block percentage ranked in the 97th percentile among all NBA big men. When last healthy, KP racked up 2 blocks a game and was among the most elite rim protectors in the league when it comes to altering shots in the restricted area. Opposing defenders only shot 50.7% at the rim against him showing that he was already in the process of leveraging his incredible 7”6 wingspan and becoming a constant nuisance on the back line.
Mavericks director of Athlete performance Jeremy Holsopple, stated over the summer Porzingis has added 17 pounds of muscle to his frame that has transformed him into a different athletic specimen. His knee injury allowing him to address his lack of core strength could stealthily be a blessing in disguise if he’s able to stay healthy moving forward.
Smaller and less diminutive players would be able to toss Porzingis around like a rag doll both as a rebounder and offensively. He would constantly get pushed off his spots as he struggled to establish deep position in the post and find himself often starting his moves from the high post. Porzingis only collected 14.9% of available defensive rebounds on the floor before his injury which ranked in the 25th percentile among bigs.
Rick Carlisle, is known around NBA circles as one of the most innovative offensive minds in the league. Health caveats aside, it’ll be interesting to see how creative he gets in offensive sets using Luka and Porzingis as the offensive centerpieces as the possibilities are endless.
For the purposes of this exercise, Kristaps was the most difficult player to rank due to his ACL tear, the unpleasant nature of chronic lower extremity injuries for big men, or how awkward at times he looked running up and down the court or landing after rising up vertically. Attempting to properly gauge his fantasy value and the reality that he had already begun to establish himself as an All Star before being sidelined for the past 18 months makes his upcoming season one of the biggest variables for the 2020 NBA season.
- Jaren Jackson Jr, Power Foward/Center, Memphis Grizzlies
Jaren Jr is the latest addition to the growing class of second generation NBA stars, his father Jaren Sr was a 12 year NBA veteran who’s climax includes playing alongside David Robinson & a baby faced Tim Duncan while being coached by Greg Popovich during the Spurs first title run in 1999.
His acumen on defense for a young player who doesn’t even turn 21 until September of 2021 (sheesh) makes him a possible candidate to blow by the original expectations for his potential upside draft enthusiasts had for him coming into his rookie season. Rate of improvement is something that’s difficult to objectively quantify, and moreless falls under the branch of “eye test” scouting, but whenever i would keep tabs on the growth from JJJ, both during his freshman campaign playing for Tom Izzo, and his rookie year in the NBA he’d constantly show off a new facet of his game something you weren’t aware he had in his bag of tricks. Jackson’s jumpshot is far from a picturesque snapshot of beauty, but he has shown the ability to repeat his jumpshot motion in tight spaces and get his shot off without issue over defenders who are closing out, albeit having a low release point. The transition to the NBA three point line also wasn’t drastic for JJJ as the first returns on his stroke gave us 36% on a volume of 142 attempts, as well as 76% from the charity stripe. Oddly enough, JJJ struggled mightily on his corner 3 point attempts before his quad injury sapped the final 2 months of his year.
The former Michigan State Spartan regularly shows off winning instincts on the defensive end of the court as a young player. A common mistake young centers make trying to learn how to read and react to the ridiculously high skill level of offensive players in the NBA is getting lost in no man’s land. It happens regularly on the court, and to a blind eye it could be difficult to synthesize where exactly it went wrong, since NBA players only need a slither of space to get a clean shot off.
The importance of back-line support, as the league trends towards being played more on the perimeter has grown exponentially. JJJ has already shown the penchant to deter multiple opposing offensive players attempts at scoring from different quadrants on the court at once: A: being able to tag the roll man and stop his roll gravity B: having the requisite agility to use his length to disrupt and contest mid range shots in his vicinity C: Guard his own defender while being able to help out in weak-side rim protection.
This isn’t meant to paint JJJ as the perfect player, he’s still actively plagued with issues *every* young center deals with during the process of learning how to play guard effectively without committing ticky tack fouls on the defensive end. On top of the fact that he doesn’t possess the strength to be an elite on ball defender as stronger big men can still throw him around in the paint.
Nonetheless, his already growing defensive prowess makes him one of the most versatile switch defenders from an on-court perspective, with his combination of outside shooting, we’re looking at a chance to put up ridiculous stock numbers that make him a floor threat for a top 50 fantasy player starting next year.
Lastly, when we assess the entire package what we may be looking at here is a monster chaos creator on defense, who easily has a future as a DPOY contender as his frame fills out, while also being able to do all the things you need from your center on offense as a floor spacer. The 2018 NBA Draft provided an influx of young talent into the league that paid immediate dividends for several teams drafting in the lottery, I wouldn’t be surprised if we looked up soon and the consensus has grown that Jaren Jackson Jr is the best player from his draft class.
4. Ben Simmons, Point Guard/Power Forward
As someone who’s grown up with access to black hole that is also known as Twitter throughout basically the greater part of my life, one of the first thing’s I can tell you about that app is, everyone’s day in the fire comes eventually, it’s literally unavoidable. Fresh off his extraordinary rookie** of the year campaign, Ben Simmons quickly established himself as one of the most dominant forces in the NBA, joining only Oscar Robertson & Magic Johnson as the only players to ever accumulate 1000 points, 500 rebounds, and 500 assists during his first season.
One of my biggest qualms about the way a large majority of fans and media alike analyze young players is, we spend way more time obsessing and scrutinizing flaws than appreciating the overall package the most talented basketball players in the world bring to the table.
Every time I see the narratives surrounding Ben and the lack of his jumpshot, it makes me feel like my hairline is receding a couple inches at a time. Not to say that this flaw can’t be the reason the Sixers upside in the playoffs could be lowered, but let’s just put the totality of his package in the proper context and weigh out the positive and negatives.
Nominally, it’s true, yes Ben Simmons is a point guard, but I have a difficult time comparing him to other lead ball handlers in a vacuum, Simmons is truthfully his own distinct barbaric lab miscreation. In transition, Simmons is one of the most difficult players in the entire league to slow down once he gets a full head of steam, led the league in points generated off assists due in part to the havoc created whenever he puts his head down and drives to the cup, and his keen understanding of where his teammates are on the court and possessing dexterity to fire passes to whoever’s running the break with him.
In the half court a problem we’ve seen with other ball handlers who lack the threat of a respectable outside shot is, teams sag off and force them into awkward looking jumpshots and floaters, Simmons counters this by being one of the most effective cutters in the league with his perfectly timed dashes to the basket and his 6″10 frame which allows him to punish guards and small forwards in the paint, while also being a dangerous pick and roll diver that allow him counters to stay effective even without the threat of a perimeter game.
The ideology behind Sam Hinkie trading up in the ’16 Draft to select Markelle Fultz, sound logic at the time, was in order to give the Sixers an additional ball handler, who could offset Simmons’ lack of creation in the pick and roll as a ball handler, provide additional floor spacing due to the threat of an outside shot, and also find someone who could take the burden off Ben in those late game/end of shot clock scenarios.
We’re still rooting for you Markelle. The questions surrounding Ben’s weaknesses don’t diminish the fact his production already puts him comfortably inside the upper quartile of players in the league, due to his playmaking and defensive versatility.
So how exactly do the Sixers optimize the rarity of his skill set? Unleashing Simmons as a point center surrounded by shooters and players who can get up and down the court in transition, and competent wing defenders, in a Warriors-esque depth lineup is something I’m yearning to witness, but due to the presence of Joel Embiid and the recently acquired Al Horford, we probably won’t be seeing much of those lineups any time soon.
Simmons and Embiid are each special players in their own right, but are they the most natural fit together in the frontcourt? The jury is still out, speeding up the pace of the offense would have a huge impact on making the game easier for Simmons, while the slower pace caters to the back to the basket skills of Embiid.
Sixers GM Elton Brand’s main imprint on this roster this summer has been to double down in the opposite direction of league trends and to build around the monstrous trio of multifaceted big men. This speaks in large part to the portability of Ben Simmons skillset, the flexibility he allows from a team building perspective is something that has to be accounted for. Despite his prude nature to avoiding shots from outside the painted area, his ability to operate as a functional lead ball handler while also providing value on the boards and defensively during his first two complete years has returned back to back 50 win seasons for a franchise that hadn’t eclipsed that win total since 2000.
So yeah it’s true, Ben Simmons can’t shoot. But we’re still talking about a rare skill set, damn near a walking triple double and a player who raises the floor of your team from a roster construction point of view while making his teammates around him better.
3. Karl Anthony Towns, Center, Minnesota Timberwolves
Towns became the second player in NBA history since the merger to average 20 points and 10 rebounds per game while shooting 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from the 3-point line
Towns currently inhibits a strange reality around the league, he’s coming off his second consecutive all star appearance as a 23 year old center whose shot a ridiculous 41% on volume from the three point line the past two seasons,
With the burden of heavy expectations in the instant gratification society we live in, the pendulum of appreciation for the rarity of his actual skill set feels like it’s being hastily dismissed swept under rug for the latest flavor of the month.
In each of the past three seasons according to the ESPN player rater KAT has finished inside the top 5 overall due to his well rounded fantasy profile.
Towns’ outside-in floor game as a center is what makes him such an enticing prototype busting prospect, as he proved to be a menace on the boards, and a big man who not only can handle the ball with enough agility and ball handling dexterity for a seven footer to attack closeouts from the perimeter, but also knock down jumpers from mid-range and deeper beyond the NBA three point line.
The Dominican center’s feathery touch offensively is a remarkable sight to watch and a major part of why he’s turned into one of the elite offensive centers in the NBA. His bag of traditional post up moves are silky smooth as he can pivot right or left into his soft and accurate hook shots, or create the necessary space for his fadeaway jumper.
Core strength is one of the most difficult facets young players have to analyze from an outsider’s perspective to when going up against the other grown behemoths that clog the paint around the league, which is why the viral clips of Towns struggling to establish deep position in the post have made its rounds, but despite all of that he’ll continue to add muscle mass to his frame as he gets closer to his prime to make these concerns minute.
For someone who has extremely nimble feet offensively, Towns can look strangely led footed on defense. Gets caught in an upright defensive stance more than you’d like to see which leads to half hearted lunges to protect the rim and oft a step too slow to cut off lanes and angles that are his defensive responsibility
The New Jersey native possesses all of the tools necessary to be a plus defender in the NBA, he hasn’t proven to be as useless of a defensive deterrent all around as his 2015 draft compadre Jahlill Okafor, but still, he’s left basketball observers puzzled about his value on defense and how that affects building around your franchise centerpiece.
It’s easy to catch amnesia and it to slip your mind that a few short seasons ago following the departure of Kevin Love in Minnesota, it was almost unanimously seen around NBA executives and gasbags alike that the Timberwolves had the most enticing conglomeration of young talent in the league between KAT, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine & company.
High pedigree draft prospects get sent to teams without any semblance of direction, structure or leadership, and I’m not calling the Timberwolves organization a beacon if stability by any means, however the presence of fiery and dedicated characters such as Kevin Garnett, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Tom Thibodeau being around him during his NBA adolescence thus far means to me this is less about him needing additional guidance but more of a mental issue of less lapses on defense where it seems he’s eagerly anticipating the game to finish so he can stream Fortnite on Twitch for his followers.
If the Dominican 7 footer is being devalued over any of the concerns of his soft streak and falls too far in the first round of redrafts or dynasty leagues feel free taking the discount on the sticker price for one of the most productive young players in the NBA history.
2. Luka Doncic, Point Guard/Forward, Dallas Mavericks
The 2018 rookie of the year race between Donovan Mitchell & Ben Simmons became one of the most exciting award races to follow during the course of the regular season. Ben Simmons hit the ground running during his red shirt freshman season and it abundantly became clear why he was unanimously seen as the number one pick the year prior. Mitchell’s rise from late lottery pick to one of the biggest nightly stories around the league turned into his truthers questioning the validity of Ben Simmons award candidacy since they didn’t deem him to be a true rookie by the categorical definition of the term. Ignoring the reality that Simmons and Mitchell’s birth certificate are only separated in age by 2 months apart, the comical part about the nonsensical argument is that it would’ve actually made much more sense to use that logic on the Slovenian prodigal child.
The child of a former Slovenian professional basketball player, Sasa Doncic. Luka, has routinely polished his craft and tool box playing against older and a lot more established professional basketball players than him since he was an eight year old. He signed the dotted line on his first professional contract at the tender 13 years old, and since then, he has played with the European powerhouse Real Madrid in the Spanish ACB association and in EuroLeague – world renown as two of the most highly skilled and physical basketball leagues outside of the NBA.
Luka brings a flair of expressiveness and fiery competitive nature on the court with him that you love to see, the type of mentality where he’s fully aware of how much of a bad ass he is on the court, and is going to do everything humanly possible to embarrass you, this is probably my favorite thing about the prospects of the duo between him and Kristaps Porzingis as neither fall under the soft and bound to get stepped all over when it matters most European export umbrella.
Players with the high level passing gene that Doncic possess, generally don’t fail in the league because of the numerous paths towards providing surplus offensive value if you can manipulate defenses this well out of the pick and roll.
It becomes abundantly clear after watching the #3 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft for even a short moment that he’s a wizard with the rock. His 6”8 frame combined with his passing capacity enables him to regularly see over the top of the defense and make passes from tight and unorthodox angles that many ball handlers wouldn’t even think about making. The ability to manipulate both help defenders as well as the on ball defender in front of him is advanced stuff for a 20 year old. His feel for pick and roll dynamics is already bordering on a level of mastery, consistently hits open teammates in their shooting pocket so they can rise up for their jump shot in the most efficient biomechanical manner.
Coaches always tell their young ball handlers to be wary of leaving their feet before they intend to make a pass, an easy way to make careless turnovers and find yourself in the doghouse, but this happens to be a specialty for Luka since he’s endowed with great poise and control in these actions, allowing him to survey the court before he fires accurate cross court passes. Doncic’s passing traits shines from everywhere on the court: with the ability to feed his diving big men with perfectly timed pocket passes seen by his phenomenal chemistry with Dwight Powell last season, touch lobs, drive and kicks, as well as when he pushes the break in transition as the ball handler.
There’s the notion floating around in the NBA universe that if you fall anything short of an elite athlete that means you’re easy to guard on the court, and in the case of Doncic, it couldn’t be further from reality. When we talk about about the most skilled players on the court, it really means offensively they possess counters to every possible defensive coverage that could be thrown at them by defenses.
Perhaps my favorite attribute of Doncic’s game is his ability to punish defenses for the attention he brings to the court. Although, he doesn’t create separation with his first step off the dribble, he has an uncanny instinct of when to use timely head fakes on his drives to the rim to give himself additional space necessary to finish among the trees or create lanes to the rim for his bigs, which must drive opposing defenders crazy. Also, constantly exploits over eager off ball defenders looking to cut off driving lanes to the rim by throwing accurate skip passes to his shooters stationed in the corner. Combine all of that with the fact that Luka is actually a swift athlete in tight corners due to his aptitude to quickly decelerate and change gears while reading defenses and we have a special package of offensive skills.
The Slovenian point forward has the tendency to settle for his outside jumper more than you would like, uses threat of him driving all the way to the basket to create for his teammates as much as he does it to score himself. Uses a herky jerk live dribble as a ball handler, which makes it difficult to anticipate whether he’s sizing you up to try and get past you or create space for his patented step back.
A cursory glance at the numbers show, his rookie season 3-point shooting statistics have actually been a tick below league average this season. As he only shot 32 percent on his 514 attempts from deep. A lot of that can be credited to shot selection, as his green light can border upon highly audacious at times, and his first year playing with the NBA three point line. Luka’s current shooting utility profile doesn’t leave me concerned moving forward with his shot as he’s consistently shown enough as a tough shot maker to believe in it going forward, but keep an eye out for how the progression of his pull up jumpshot, as it may be a deciding swing factor of how dangerous of a shooter he can be down the line.
The everlasting dilemma right now surrounding Doncic’s upside is whether his limited athleticism base prevent him having from NBA superstar upside. Pessimists wonder whether he is already near his upside since he has such a developed skill set. Considering the amount of times we’ve seen players bordering on elite athleticism flame out of the league for having low basketball intelligence or an internal drive to be great, this alone makes Luka one of the most stable projections as anyone on this list going forward due to the floor he’s already established between his mix of outside shooting and shot creation.
I love Luka Doncic as much as anyone but I feel like people would be shocked to realize:
For the 2019 season, Deandre Ayton finished on ESPN’s 9category player rater as the 32nd overall best player. Luka finished 64th. The Player Rater isn’t an exact science as players with substandard efficiency or high turnover rates can be severely penalized within the calculus. This is way more about people downplaying Deandre Ayton’s offensive gifts than the hype behind Luka. I didn’t agree with Doncic falling to #3 during his draft but after he hit the ground running his success became a proxy to downplay the talents of Ayton, Marvin Bagley, and Trae Young, we don’t have to turn these other guys into a piñata to show the Euro some love
1. Nikola Jokic, Center/Point Guard, Denver Nuggets
40 players were selected before Nikola Jokic in the 2014 Draft, and as he enters the next phase of his career he’s already surpassed all reasonable expectations the world could’ve had for him.
The amount of work needed to reach this plateau of stardom is extensive, concerns about the Joker on defense weren’t enough to stop the Nuggets having the #1 seed in the loaded west for a large majority of the season or from being one game away from the conference finals.
The Serbian superstar has been the engine of one of the leagues most high powered unit’s since the Nuggets realized they were sitting on a offensive goldmine. The 7″0 big man wears the crown of perhaps the least athletic All Star in the league with a great sense of pride,
In a league full of ball handlers with extra ordinary passing skills, Nikola’s flair for creativity puts him in a category of his own. From a passing hierarchy standpoint, Jokic has a mastery of angles and geometry on the basketball court. The difference between the Joker and other players capable of making advanced reads is that he can at the same time manipulate defenses and create out of thin air opportunities for his teammates to to effectively finish around the basket or soon feed his shooters open looks due to the attention that has to be sent his way.
The 41st pick in the 2015 NBA draft possesses the same trait Aaron Rodgers has where he can fling a pigskin with perfect touch to the precise location he wants and drop it in the bread basket of only his intended receivers catch radius before the defense can even properly adjust or react while the ball is in mid air. The guards and forwards on the Nuggets, have one of the best job in the NBA getting to play besides him, and are probably the hardest cutting team in the league simply due to Jokic’s cerebral sense of anticipation as an offensive maestro making it a necessity to have instincts that allow you to flourish without the ball.
From a team building perspective, Jokic’s extraordinary ability to operate as the offensive fulcrum from his one of a kind pseudo “fat point guard” position raises the floor of all of role players surrounding him. Lowering the self creation burden for his teammates around him and as a result raising team wide efficiency off the self creation looks he generates, and quite frankly an attribute that’ll make this iteration of himself a perennial MVP contender, and a fantasy monster going forward, a characteristic that makes him one of the best half court players in the league despite his physical limitations.
Trying to find a base for Jokic as a player comp is an elephantine esque task because he’s truly a one of a kind talent with a skillset and body type that has rarely provided this level of impact plus production. With full season averages a season ago of 20points-11rebounds-7assists it’s scary to think about what crazy numbers prime Jokic could put up.
All ages for the purposes of this exercise are as of 1/1/19**
Recently graduated OR Excluded due to age: Pascal Siakam, Buddy Hield, Julius Randle, Caris LeVert, Montrezl Harrell, Malcolm Brogdon, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Derrick White, Jusef Nurkic, Gary Harris, Andrew Wiggins, Kris Dunn