Head-to-Head: NBA’s Next Superstar

Joel Brigham, Jessica Camerato and Moke Hamilton debate over who will be the NBA’s next superstar.

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The NBA is full of bright young stars with aspirations of joining LeBron James and Kevin Durant as the faces of the league. We asked three of our experts – Joel Brigham, Jessica Camerato and Moke Hamilton – to tell us who they expect to enter the upper echelon next:

It’s always exciting when promising young players come into their own, but occasionally young guys come around who hardly require any adjustment at all, and New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis is one of them. Whomever the other writers in this roundtable may choose as their “best young player,” none of them will be legitimate MVP candidates this season.

Davis absolutely, 100 percent will be.

Through his first four games this year, Davis is averaging 23.8 PPG, 13.3 RPG, four BPG and 1.8 SPG for a ridiculous PER of 34.1.

That last number is a league high, by the way, as are the rebounds. He’s also second in the league in blocks, 9th in scoring and 15th in steals.

Those are all numbers, however, and there’s so much more to what makes Davis exciting than just statistics. With Omer Asik manning the center position this year, Davis has been able to seek and destroy on defense this year. It’s like watching an artist being given his first clean canvas. He runs the floor as gracefully as any big man in the league, and he’s only 21 years old.

In other words, the best young player in the NBA is very likely still going to get even better.

He might even get taller. And longer. Davis, who grew eight inches in 18 months during high school, has seen his wingspan expand over two inches since the pre-draft combine in 2012. He’s five years removed from having been a 6’2” high school guard, and now he’s 6’11” and still growing.

With the potential for added size and the near-certainty that he will improve as a player the older he gets, it’s underselling it to say that the sky’s limit. Even the clouds couldn’t hold this kid right now.

With his unique skill set and towering frame, the league hasn’t seen a player this well-rounded in years. He’s a video game—Tecmo Bo Jackson—and outside of injury, there’s nothing stopping him from being the best player of his generation.

– Joel Brigham

When it comes to professional athletes, the highest level of success is measured in championships. Was a player able to attain the ultimate victory? If so, how many times? The more rings and trophies, the more they are revered.

The NBA, like all other pro sports leagues, is filled with talented players who exhibit star power throughout a season. They may rack up 50 points in a single game, nail a buzzer beater under pressure, or individually take over a game and carry their team. That doesn’t always translate, however, into a championship winner.

I gauge star power in the NBA on a player’s ability to make major contributions and help his organization win it all. There is no other young player (under 25) in the league that has done so more convincingly in recent years than the San Antonio Spurs Kawhi Leonard.

In only his third season, Leonard earned the 2014 NBA Finals MVP honors as the Spurs defeated the Miami HEAT for the championship. Just 22 years old at the time (he turned 23 days later, Leonard outshined a group of veteran future Hall of Famers when it mattered the most.

The Spurs are still led by the ring-adorned trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The next chapter of the organization will feature Leonard. It took him only three years to accomplish what many players fight for their entire careers and never achieve.

His stats aren’t as impressive as others and he doesn’t dominate a box score every game. He’s never even been voted to an All-Star Team. But all those accolades don’t measure up to the true star power of a player who can help his team capture a championship.

– Jessica Camerato

With all due respect to both Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard, let’s slow down just a bit.

Davis is, for sure, perhaps the most awe-inspiring and intriguing young star to enter the league since Kevin Durant. MVP candidate, though? I’d have to see that to believe it. More importantly, it is far too early to be mesmerized by numbers, so while Davis’ early numbers are eye-popping, they must be taken with a grain of salt.

Leonard, yes, is the reigning NBA Finals MVP and he may be a max superstar in the making, but to quote the great Mike D’Antoni, “I’d like to see him on the Minnesota Timberwolves, then let’s see how good he is.” It is very fair to question whether Leonard benefits greatly from sharing the court with three Hall-of-Famers. If he found himself on another team and was the clear subject of an opposing coaches scouting report, would he be as successful?

Maybe he would be, but of that, we cannot be certain as it relates to Leonard.

Damian Lillard, though? That’s another story, all together.

Now, in just his third season, Lillard has already proven to be a stalwart. From the very beginning, the poise and grace with which he has played the point guard position in the NBA—perhaps the most difficult position to learn—has been nothing short of amazing.

Last season’s 20.7 points and five assists were sustained over the course of an 82-game season in which Lillard was both the primary ball handler and playmaker for the Blazers. That he has excelled so greatly and so quickly—that is something I cannot recall seeing of any point guard over the course of the past 10 years.

Traditionally, it takes a floor general two years of on-the-job training before he truly masters his craft. Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose—none of them were this good, this quickly.

And for sure, none of them made a series-clinching, buzzer-beating shot to single-handedly sink the championship hopes of a team many people chose to win their first round playoff series.

Already at this point, Lillard has shown the ability to be a leader and, at least, the second-best player on one of the league’s top teams. That is something that neither Davis nor Leonard can boast.

Before Lillard entered the league, the Blazers were a team that was underachieving and one that LaMarcus Aldridge was openly considering fleeing over the frustration that resulted from the team’s bad fortune with both Brandon Roy and Greg Oden.

Now, mostly due to Lillard’s arrival, Aldridge is on the record as saying he plans on re-signing in Portland, long-term, once he eventually hits the free agency market.

On the continuum that begins at neophyte and ends at Hall-of-Famer, Lillard is near the very beginning. Yet still, already, he has seemingly accomplished so much. That definitely deserves my respect and if there is one other thing it deserves, it’s consideration as being dubbed the “next” superstar that this league will see.

– Moke Hamilton

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