Who Are the League’s Next Superstars?
The NBA does a terrific job of marketing its superstars. Athletes like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul among others are household names and extremely marketable.
With no helmets, hats or visors blocking faces on the court, basketball players are easily recognizable. This can lead to players becoming huge celebrities and being extremely visible even when they’re not playing the game that made them famous. Even during the NBA offseason, you will still see these superstars constantly on your television screen – some examples include Griffin pitching GameFly, Paul endorsing State Farm, James selling McDonald’s and Durant repping Sprint.
Of course, before one gets to that point, they must experience success on the hardwood. The players mentioned above are all in their prime, with Durant and Griffin being the youngest at 25 years old, and they’ve solidified themselves as the league’s elite players.
Who are some of the players that will be part of the next wave of NBA superstars? Here’s a look at five players who seem poised for superstardom:
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans – The 21-year-old Davis has quickly become one of the league’s best two-way players. Despite being just a few years removed from high school, he is an All-Star and one of the most productive players in all of basketball.
Last season, Davis averaged 20.8 points, 10 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.3 steals. He ranked 14th in the NBA in points per game, 10th in rebounds per game and first in blocks per game. His efficiency rating (26.5) was fourth in the NBA behind only Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Kevin Love.
Yet, it still seems like Davis has room to improve. Perhaps it’s because we’ve seen that he’s capable of being even more dominant, like when he averaged 24.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.4 blocks in the month of March last season. It’s likely only a matter of time until Davis is in the Most Valuable Player discussion each season. Few players can make an impact on both ends of the floor like Davis, especially 21-year-old players who only have just two years of NBA experience under their belt.
With so many key players withdrawing from Team USA before the World Cup in Spain, Davis seems poised for a huge role with the national team. He was a member of the 2012 Olympic team in London as an injury replacement for Blake Griffin, but he was at the end of the bench and didn’t contribute. He had just been the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft and was just happy to be there.
Now, he may be Team USA’s most important piece. People know that Davis is good, but the World Cup is his chance to make a statement and show that he’s one of the best players on the planet. In Team USA’s first exhibition game against Brazil over the weekend, Davis was the squad’s leading scorer and he finished with 20 points, seven rebounds and four blocks. The World Cup could be his coming out party.
The Pelicans don’t play on national TV much, so Davis hasn’t gotten the exposure and recognition that he deserves for his impressive first two seasons in the NBA. That will likely change very soon, and all eyes will be on Davis as he emerges as one of the league’s marquee players. He should continue to make huge strides in his third professional season and, if the Pelicans can remain healthy, he might also make his postseason debut in the 2014-15 campaign.
Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons – In case there was any lingering doubt, Drummond proved that he’s a beast during the final month of the 2013-14 season when he averaged 18.4 points, 17.4 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.1 blocks while shooting 64.2 percent from the field. He was unstoppable, and he’ll likely pick up right where he left off when the 2014-15 campaign gets underway.
The Pistons realize just how good Drummond is going to be, which is why they’re building around him and clearly making him the face of the franchise. Drummond just turned 21 years old last week, which is a terrifying thought for the rest of the league. Averaging 13.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks for a season is impressive for any player, but it’s remarkable when that individual wasn’t even old enough to legally order alcohol.
Now, the Pistons have hired Stan Van Gundy as their new head coach and president of basketball operations. This should be excellent for Drummond’s development, as Van Gundy is one of the best coaches in the league and understands how to use a dominant interior presence. Keep in mind that he coached Shaquille O’Neal in Miami and Dwight Howard in Orlando, and experienced success with both.
Based on Detroit’s offseason moves, it seems that Van Gundy wants to use Drummond like he used Howard in Orlando – surrounding him with shooters, running the offense through him and forcing teams to pick their poison. If you double-team Drummond, you’re leaving a shooter open. If you stay on the shooters, you’re leaving a poor defender alone in the paint with Drummond. The Magic used this strategy – coupled with great defense – to win many games throughout Van Gundy’s tenure in Orlando and went all the way to the 2009 Finals even though they weren’t the most talented team on paper.
With Van Gundy, an increased role and the continued development expected from a 21-year-old, Drummond certainly seems poised for a monster season. It’s amazing that Drummond slipped to No. 9 in the 2012 NBA draft. The Pistons clearly got a steal, because their young big man has the physical tools and freakish athleticism to eventually be a superstar.
There aren’t many dominant centers in the NBA these days so when Drummond realizes his full potential and reaches his prime in a few years, he’ll be a headache for opposing coaches and big men.
Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers – It’s easy to forget that Irving is just 22 years old. After all, he has already made the All-Star team twice (winning the MVP award in last year’s game) and he’s widely regarded as one of the league’s best point guards. He’s also one of the more exciting players in the NBA, as he can humiliate opposing defenders with his crossover, speed and ability to get buckets from anywhere on the court.
Entering the 2014-15 season, expect Irving to be even better. With LeBron James and Kevin Love joining the Cavaliers, Irving’s job just became much easier and he may take his game to another level. In his first three seasons in the NBA, he was asked to do an awful lot in Cleveland without much help.
Now, he goes from never having played with an All-Star to teaming up with James and Love, who were ranked second and third among all NBA players in efficiency rating for last season. For a point guard, it doesn’t get much better than running down the court with James on one side and Love on the other. Any floor general would love to play with those two stars, and James and Love are excited to play with Irving as well since he’s the best point guard either has played with in the NBA.
Irving should thrive alongside James and Love, improving as a distributor and putting up points with ease now that defenses can’t focus their attention solely on him. Cleveland is going to get out and run much more under new head coach David Blatt and their fastbreaks are going to be a thing of beauty.
Irving’s points per game may go down a bit since he’ll be sharing the ball with his new teammates, but he should be more productive overall and (barring an epic collapse) he’ll make the playoffs for the first time in his career.
Irving is a special talent, and now he has the weapons around him to really show what he can do. Cleveland will play on national television 29 times during the regular season, which should help Irving build his brand and win over casual fans who may not have been as familiar with his game.
In recent years, there was a lot of speculation about Irving’s future and whether he was happy in Cleveland. Now that he has signed a five-year, max extension with the Cavaliers over the summer, that talk will go away and it’s one less distraction that Irving has to worry about. This was an excellent offseason for Cleveland, and Irving should benefit greatly from the sudden influx of talent. He’ll finally have help and he’ll get to perform on basketball’s biggest stage since all eyes will be on the Cavaliers.
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers – Lillard has exceeded all expectations in his first two seasons in the NBA. A few years ago, Lillard was playing for little Weber State, toiling in obscurity in Ogden, UT since he didn’t receive any scholarship offers from major programs when he was in high school. Now, he has taken the league by storm and become a household name quicker than even the most optimistic Blazers fans expected.
Last season, Lillard made his first All-Star appearance and averaged 20.7 points, 5.6 assists and 3.5 rebounds in 82 games, which earned him a spot on the All-NBA Third Team. Lillard helped Portland win 54 games and make the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference.
Lillard further elevated his game in the postseason. In the Blazers’ upset victory over the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, he filled the stat sheet, averaging a remarkable 25.5 points, 6.7 assists, 6.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals. Not to mention, he hit the incredible series-ending shot in Game 6, which helped make him an even bigger star.
The 24-year-old has been outstanding in his first two professional seasons and his best basketball is likely still ahead of him. Lillard works extremely hard and he’s one of the most humble players in the NBA thanks to his upbringing and the fact that he flew under the radar for so long. He has always had a huge chip on his shoulder, and he is determined to become one of the most productive players in the league.
Prior to last season, he told Basketball Insiders that his goals for the 2013-14 campaign were to lead Portland to the playoffs, make the All-Star squad and make an All-NBA team. Some critics felt this was unrealistic and mocked him, but he silenced his doubters when he achieved all three goals.
Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge form an excellent one-two punch for Portland, which should keep the team in the postseason for years to come as long as they remain in town and stay healthy. If his first two seasons in the NBA are any indication, Lillard’s future is extremely bright and it’s safe to say he’ll be a superstar in no time.
John Wall, Washington Wizards – Wall made huge strides last season, averaging 19.3 points, 8.8 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.8 steals while leading Washington to the postseason for the first time in five seasons.
He was one of the best point guards in the league statistically, finishing the season ranked first in the league in total assists (721), sixth in total steals (149) and 13th in field goals made (579).
Wall made his first All-Star appearance last season and started to receive recognition as an elite-level floor general. He showed that he could take over games with his scoring ability, make his teammates better with his playmaking skills and lock down the opposition with his perimeter defense.
The Wizards were able to upset the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs and steal two games from the Indiana Pacers in the Conference Semifinals, and Wall was a big reason for the team’s success.
Wall still has room to improve, but that’s expected since he’s only 23 years old. He needs to do a better job protecting the ball, as he averaged 3.6 turnovers per game last year. That number must go down, and it should as Wall has said that the game is slowing down for him and he’s more in control as a floor general these days. Wall is one of the fastest and most athletic guards in the NBA, and he’s still learning how to use that to his advantage without being reckless and out of control.
Also, he must continue to work on his three-point shot. He made significant progress from beyond the arc last season, hitting a career-high 35.1 percent of his three-point attempts after shooting 29.6 percent in his first NBA season, 7.1 percent in his second season and 26.7 percent in his third season. Wall needs to keep that number up, because the long-range threat certainly helped him elevate his game in 2013-14 since it made him much harder to guard.
Last season was huge for Wall and he made the leap from good player to All-Star, which the Wizards were banking on when they gave him a max contract extension last summer. He proved that he’s worth every penny and he should keep improving as he continues to develop.
Last year, Wall put up numbers very similar to Chris Paul (who averaged 19.1 points, 10.7 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 2.5 steals for the Los Angeles Clippers). This shows how far Wall has come as a floor general and he’s not even in his prime yet, which is a scary thought for the rest of the league.
Honorable Mention – Players like Bradley Beal, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Andrew Wiggins could eventually develop into superstars, but they’re currently a notch or two below the players listed above and are bigger question marks. These players have a ton of potential and have shown glimpses of brilliance, but it remains to be seen how good they’ll become.
Beal is one of the best young shooting guards in the NBA and the position is relatively weak compared to the past, so it’s possible that he could become one of the league’s elite two-guards at some point in the future.
He’s only 21 years old, so the sky is the limit for Beal and he and John Wall should give Washington one of the league’s best backcourts for years to come. However, whether he’ll emerge as a franchise player or superstar is still up in the air.
Beal did play very well during the Wizards’ postseason run last year, elevating his game and averaging 19.2 points, five rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.6 steals. However, it’s still too early to put him on the same level as the above players and label him a superstar-to-be.
Antetokounmpo is obviously still very raw and his stats don’t jump off of the page. He averaged just 6.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, .8 blocks and .8 steals as a rookie, partially because he was adjusting to the NBA competition and partially because he only played 24.6 minutes a night. It seems that head coach Jason Kidd plans to use Antetokounmpo much more and increase his role during the 2014-15 season, so Milwaukee’s main one-two punch will be Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker this year (and for many years to come, if all goes as planned).
During the Las Vegas Summer League, Antetokounmpo was a monster. He has grown to 6’11, but that didn’t stop him from playing point guard for the Bucks – something that Kidd is experimenting with and plans to continue. Antetokounmpo averaged 17 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, one steal and one block in Vegas, and he made his presence felt all over the court. He’s a matchup nightmare since he’s ridiculously tall, long and skilled.
Giannis has an incredible work ethic and he has the potential to be one of the best two-way players in the game. Keep in mind that just two years ago Antetokounmpo was in Greece playing against very weak competition and receiving little guidance. Earlier this year, an NBA executive told Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports that in Greece Antetokounmpo was essentially playing at the “YMCA level, playing against 35- and 40-year-old guys a lot of days.” It’s why he slipped to No. 15 in the 2013 NBA Draft, and it makes the fact that he held his own against the best players in the world at 19 years old even more impressive. Antetokounmpo has all of the physical tools to be great. The question is, will he realize his full potential and be able to make the leap to stardom?
Wiggins has been labeled a potential superstar since he was in high school. He was the most hyped up prep player since LeBron James, and he wowed talent evaluators with his amazing athleticism and ability to make an impact on both ends of the floor.
In his lone collegiate season at Kansas, he showed flashes of greatness and averaged 17.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.2 steals and one block in 35 games. However, he was inconsistent and didn’t always dominate the competition as expected. He could have 41 points, eight rebounds, five steals and four blocks against West Virginia one night and then four games later have just four points and four rebounds in Kansas’ opening round NCAA Tournament loss to Stanford.
With that said, there’s no doubt that Wiggins has a ton of upside and he played well enough to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. It looks like Wiggins will be dealt from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Minnesota Timberwolves later this month, but that actually may help him become a star. In Minnesota, he’ll have the chance to emerge as the face of the franchise, whereas he would’ve been a role player in Cleveland as he deferred to James, Irving and Love. Wiggins will have every opportunity to succeed and put up huge numbers with the Timberwolves.
However, it’s far too early to consider him a future superstar just yet, as he hasn’t played a single minute of NBA basketball. The potential is there, but he has a lot of developing to do before he is on the same level as the five players mentioned on this list.
Catching Up With Kyle Lowry
Basketball Insiders’ Steve Kyler chatted with Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry recently at the 2014 adidas Nations. Lowry talked about his offseason, how the Raptors can build on last year’s success and much more in this exclusive video interview: