Nothing inspires NBA intrigue quite like potential. The NBA has by far the most interesting draft; basketball is the one major sport where the fan can actually watch enough of the prospects to have an opinion beforehand. And there are few enough draftees and players in the league that one can actually keep track of them all. In this most star-driven of leagues, the search for the next luminary is one of the most fascinating endeavors.
This list, inspired by a question in my weekly chat and similar lists from Baseball Prospectus, Basketball Prospectus and Football Outsiders, is a stab at assessing the league’s future stars. The question: Which players 23 or under (as of February 1, 2015) would you most want to have for the rest of their career? Age 23 was chosen because it encompasses up to a year after what would be the typical player’s senior year in college. It is also probably the last year in which one can say “he’s only ____ years old!” and have it credibly imply his ceiling ought to be much higher than his current performance.
Important things to remember in these rankings:
1. Age. This is perhaps the most important variable in predicting future performance. A certain level of performance means much more if it occurs at 19 than at 22, because players generally continue to improve until reaching their peak between (roughly) 25 and 29.
2. Certainty. A older player’s established level of performance can act as somewhat of a brake on simply picking the youngest players. An older player is closer to his peak and thus there is more certainty as to what he will eventually become. There is a temptation to overvalue the “limitless potential” of a younger player, when that youth also means more can go wrong in the fulfillment of that potential. Injuries, roster fit, poor coaching or simply an inability to improve as much as hoped can all derail a young player. You would much rather have a 22-year-old Kawhi Leonard, who has already established a very high level of performance, than a 19-year-old who might be slightly better one day but could also fall well short of Leonard’s production.
3. Position. No player exists in a vacuum. NBA teams are trying to build a full roster that can compete for a championship, and that impacts player value. The wing and center positions are the most difficult to fill, whereas more teams have quality starters at point guard or power forward. This is extremely important to consider when building a team—with a great wing or center it is much easier since good players at other positions are more readily available. Another key variable is whether the player projects to defend his position adequately in time. Most players this young, especially bigs, are not going to be great defenders. But if a player, especially a big, is below average defensively that makes for some unique team-building challenges.
The list will also adopt a similar bent as my list of the NBA’s top 10 players from last March.
1. Anthony Davis. Age 21
He has probably been the best player in the league to this point, with a five point advantage in PER over anyone else. What’s more, his team’s performance with him on the court has finally caught up with his box score contributions. Davis might be among the top-five 21-year-old prospects ever. He should really be about five tiers above the rest of this list.
2. Kyrie Irving. Age 22
The Cleveland point guard took the league by storm as a 19-year-old rookie with one of the best seasons ever by a teenager. Since then he had largely stagnated, derailed by nagging injuries and a general ineptitude in Cleveland to which he certainly contributed, especially on defense. But a summer with USA basketball and the arrival of LeBron James and Kevin Love has Irving back on track so far this year. His defensive effort has improved (though he still has a ways to go), and overall he has seen a massive increase in efficiency. Irving’s True Shooting Percentage is now above 60, as he makes a ridiculous 71 percent within three feet and has also upped both his three-point volume and percentage to career highs. What’s more, the Cavs are finally playing better basketball with him on the court. A season ago, they were 1.6 points per 100 possessions worse when he played despite the overall lack of talent on the roster. It may prove difficult for Irving to ascend to greater statistical heights as long as James and Love are also soaking up possessions, but that should not obscure how good Irving has been this year.
3. Jabari Parker. Age 19
Like the rest of the 2014 draftees, Parker’s ranking is based much more on his potential skillset and even pre-draft evaluations than what he has actually done on the court from a statistical standpoint in only 20 or so games. I rated Parker number one on my 2014 draft board, and what we have seen so far only bolsters that position. As I wrote a few weeks ago, Parker has popped off the screen with his combination of athleticism and skills. He has not been asked to create a great amount, but for a rookie even his average usage rate (he leads rookies in that department) and above-average PER is a great sign. In isolation against power forwards he often manages to get a good shot, he has been great finishing at the basket (72.4 percent from less than three feet including 39 dunks already), and his passing eye has been excellent for such a young power forward. He could probably handle a greater creation burden than he’s being given so far. The only really disappointing aspect has been his adaptation to the NBA three-point line, where he is clearly uncomfortable and is only 4-16.
The Chicago product’s best long-term position is probably power forward because he will usually have an offensive advantage there, but he possesses the skills of a wing player. With quick enough feet and enough heft to guard the post, he could eventually evolve into a plus defender at the power forward position, able to switch off onto smaller players with some modicum of competence. Even now, he has not been a total disaster defensively, which is something in itself for a young power player.
While Irving gets the nod over Parker on this list due to the fact he has successfully navigated three more years of development, Parker’s rarer skillset probably gives him the higher ceiling.
4. Kawhi Leonard. Age 22
The youngest NBA Finals MVP would not appear to have nearly the offensive ceiling of the players above him on this list. This is the first season of his career with an above-average usage rate, as Gregg Popovich has made a concerted effort to get the ball to Leonard as a creator as he prepares him for a role as the proclaimed future of the franchise. As Kevin Pelton wrote, Leonard has moved his game outside a bit as a result and is taking more jumpers, especially off the dribble. His efficiency has fallen as a result, but Popovich will live with those growing pains in pursuit of the long-term goal of making Leonard more of a primary option.
But even if Leonard does not prove capable of becoming a top-two offensive option on a good team, he still deserves his place on this list with his outstanding defense, shooting and rebounding on the wing. He even has the ability to slide up to the four in small lineups. That combination of skills is essential for team-building. Even if you accept that he lacks the ceiling of an offensive superstar, Leonard provides the greatest certainty of any player on this list.
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo. Age 20
The Greek Freak has earned that nickname and then some. He is probably in the top 10 players of the last 10 years in terms of pure athletic potential on a basketball court with his incredible length and growing strength and athleticism. He also, despite the “new” age limit, was essentially the same age as LeBron James was when he came into the league due to his December birthday. Now at 6’11 with an enormous wingspan, the physical potential is limitless.
That said, we have not quite seen the evidence to indicate Antetokounmpo will be a premium offensive player. He can score in transition and off advantage situations in the halfcourt, but he has not yet shown the quick change of direction, acceleration or moves to really shake his man one on one like the best wing scorers. Of greater concern is the fact that his shot has completely abandoned him this year. He is 2-13 on threes and 19/68 on twos away from the rim. Fortunately, he has gotten to the restricted area for 122 shots on which he shoots a healthy 64 percent. But the bigger issue is his complete and puzzling unwillingness to take open threes after a totally respectable performance from downtown last year.
Defensively, he needs to increase his hip flexibility so he can really get into a stance and guard, although he has shown potential as a stopper (like against Joe Johnson down the stretch in a double OT thriller against the Brooklyn Nets). Another small issue is that Giannis has not had particularly noteworthy efforts on the boards or creating turnovers.
None of this is meant to disparage him as an overall prospect – he’s on this list for a reason. But he has not quite shown enough in actual performance to put him any higher on this list.
6. Andre Drummond. Age 21
Drummond was another player who came into the league at somewhat of a younger age, so he remains only 21 in his third season. He is one of the league’s best rebounders, especially on the offensive end. In a functional offense with some modicum of shooting around him, Drummond would be a great threat rolling to the rim for alley-oops. He also has great potential as a shot-blocker, although he struggles with his positioning on help defense and curiously is not as much of a deterrent at the rim as his size would suggest even when he’s there in time.
But after feasting on inside shots his first two years, Drummond has really struggled this season
Much of that is due to how he has been used. Stan Van Gundy tried Drummond extensively as a postup option early in the season, but he was not nearly ready for that kind of burden. The result is a career low .477 True Shooting Percentage for Drummond on the season, which is of course exacerbated by his execrable free throw shooting. But that is in large part a function of the postups and the overall lack of shooting and playmaking for the Pistons’ miserable offense. Nevertheless, it is debateable whether he will ever be anything approaching a primary option on offense, especially considering the free throws.
Drummond’s quick feet and hops should allow him to evolve into an elite defensive player in time, although trying to block a shot with his right hand on occasion would help. At the very least then, Drummond projects as a rebounding and defensive monster who finishes at an elite level on the pick and roll, with the potential for more scoring with his quick feet and massive frame. While others below him have more superstar potential, Drummond has already produced at an elite level in the box score for two years. That certainty means a lot.
7. Bradley Beal. Age 21
Beal is a player whose burgeoning reputation has exceeded his actual production to date. He started for a second-round playoff team and had some nice games during Washington’s run last year, but overall he is not a star yet. Last year he had a 14.3 PER, while he is at 11.7 this year in 11 games as he returns from his wrist injury.
Fortunately, a lot of Beal’s offensive problems could be cured by better shot distribution. He takes a ton of long twos and rarely gets to the foul line, but he’s solid at the rim and great from beyond the arc at 40 percent last year and 49 percent this year. There is no excuse for someone with that kind of three-point stroke to have a below-average True Shooting Percentage. Hopefully Beal will improve the versatility of his release from downtown and pick up some veteran tricks to get to the line, both of which could really improve his efficiency.
Stardom could absolutely be in his future, but he is further away than commonly believed just yet. We also must ding Beal a bit for his injury history, as he has missed significant time in all three of his seasons so far.
8. Dante Exum. Age 19
The Australian has as much potential as some of the players much higher on this list, but so far his season has been quite the mixed bag (which was expected given he is coming from Australian high school basketball). He has outperformed expectations defensively given his background, showcasing his length and elite lateral quickness to contain opposing point guards.* He also has shown the elite vision necessary to be a full-time point guard, although his ball-handling needs a lot of work. Finally, Exum has shown the ability to heat up from outside on occasion, although overall his jumper has been pretty bad.
The main disappointments have been his low usage rate (although typical for a rookie) and relative inability to beat his man off the dribble and finish at the rim. He now sports a 6.9 PER, which is obviously not good. Nevertheless, he has not been asked to do too much offensively yet in the pick and roll, which will ultimately be his bread and butter. Although it would be nice to see more explosive rim attacks, overall he looks right on schedule for a player I ranked number two on my 2014 board.
9. Rudy Gobert. Age 22
Most fans will think this seems very high for Gobert, who was picked No. 27 in the weak 2013 draft with a pick the Jazz bought from Denver. But the Frenchman with the 7’9 wingspan and 9’7 standing reach is already nearing the point at which he constitutes an above-average defense on his own, as Spain found out during a monumental upset at the World Cup. Not only is Gobert already an elite rim-protector, allowing opponents to shoot just 39.3 percent at the basket on 5.3 attempts per game, but he has elite quickness and straightline speed for the center position as well.
Gobert still needs work on the offensive end, where the Jazz have often struggled to score with him on the floor. Part of that is a function of playing a lot of minutes with their young bench, but he also doesn’t quite understand where to be to avoid gumming up the spacing. And if he has a body on him inside, he really struggles to finish. However, he hits the offensive glass at an elite rate, runs the floor hard and has good hands to catch passes inside. There is no reason he cannot be an offensive asset as a pick and roll partner in time, and he seems to have improved his free throw shooting to passable levels. The overall result is a 20.3 PER this year and the potential to have a Defensive Player of the Year type impact if he gets stronger and keeps working on his game. While he doesn’t have superstar offensive potential, his near certain defensive impact earns him a spot on this list.
10. Joel Embiid. Age 20
Embiid’s place on this list could be premature given his injury history and the fact he may not play an NBA game until next year due to a navicular fracture in his foot. But if he were healthy, he would be a lot higher, possessing more potential than anyone on it aside from Davis. For those who have forgotten, Embiid was dominant on a per minute basis at Kansas, showing facility in all the big man skills. He even has a nice touch from outside for a center.
Red flags like the potential for reinjury, lost development time and even the fact he was a year older than a typical freshman are all there. But NBA teams love upside, and Embiid has it.
Honorable Mentions In No Particular Order
These players belong in Tier 5 as well, as there was little to separate them from Gobert and Embiid.
Derrick Favors. Age 23
Favors has fallen off the radar as a prospect since the Jazz have floundered. Their defense in particular has suffered, as Favors simply is not good enough at protecting the rim to be a center. But he is lighting it up from midrange this season and hopes to develop a three-point shot over this summer. This may presage a potential move to the four. More to the point, he’s 23 and has a 22.8 PER. At power forward, his postup game would be even more effective while his defense could move from a minus to average or above. If he and Gobert can ultimately play together, Utah could improve very quickly on defense.
Jonas Valanciunas. Age 22
The big Lithuanian is starting to get there offensively, now sporting a .627 True Shooting Percentage. He gets to the line at a massive rate, where he drains 80 percent. But Toronto has struggled with him on the floor defensively, to the point where he still does not close games for Dwane Casey. Despite his length, he has struggled to protect the rim and execute the system. If that changes, he may shoot up this list.
Nikola Mirotic. Age 23
Many said Mirotic would be a top-10 or even top-five pick in this most recent draft, and he has shown flashes of that offensive skill with his deadly three-point shot, high free throw rate and ability to drive-and-kick. He also has shown more aptitude than anticipated as a help defender and has great hands. Unfortunately, he is perhaps the league’s worst one-on-one defender out on the floor. Kemba Walker proved that in embarrassing fashion the other night, but he gets blown by nearly every time. That’s going to need improvement, but in time he could be a massive weapon in pick and pops.
Players to Watch In No Particular Order
Even at this level, and with the limited NBA data available on some of these prospects so far, a number of names could easily ascend this list. But for now, they remain a tier below.
Andrew Wiggins. Age 19
Wiggins is likely the most controversial omission from the top 10. I already explained why I believe his ceiling is much lower than many believe during the draft process, and I have not seen much statistically or with the eyes to change my mind. His game still looks very mechanical. The biggest reason for optimism is his three-point jumper, on which he is a solid 12-29 so far. Nevertheless, that is too small a sample to really get excited yet.
Tobias Harris. Age 22
A cynic might say Harris already is what Jabari Parker might become, but Parker is much more explosive, stronger and skilled than Harris at this age. Nonetheless, Harris is having a breakout year. Granted a lot of that is built on a potentially unsustainable improvement from downtown (he is at 43 percent after 25 percent last year), but he’s maturing into a nice scorer. Unfortunately it is hard to imagine him ever stopping anyone at the four, which is by far his best offensive position.
Marcus Smart. Age 20
Smart was young for a player entering the draft after his sophomore year, and I had him third on my board due to his pick and roll proficiency and ability to get to the basket and finish. While he has been as advertised defensively and as a competitor, that lofty ranking is looking optimistic. Granted, he has had little opportunity in high pick and roll so far, but he has taken a ridiculous 36 of his 55 shots from beyond the arc while playing mostly off the ball. That’s a distribution for a Kyle Korver type, not for someone who has struggled with his jumper throughout his career. He’s shooting 28 percent on threes this year. Until Smart starts getting to the basket and creating efficient shots for himself and others, he has no chance of moving up this list.
Nerlens Noel. Age 20
Last year was largely lost for Noel as he rehabbed from his ACL injury. The Sixers ostensibly were fixing his jump shot, but it still looks like it will never be a weapon for Noel. While Noel is a great shot-blocker and should be a great overall defender in time, he’s probably always going to be a center on offense. It remains to be seen if he can get strong enough to play there defensively as well. Meanwhile, the Sixers need to put an actual NBA team around him so he can focus on finishing at the basket instead of trying to create. The return of Michael Carter-Williams has helped.
Michael Carter-Williams. Age 22
Last season’s Rookie of the Year has a lot of skills, but he’s shooting 38 percent from the field and 24 percent on threes after a miserable shooting year a season ago. Until that improves, he’s not moving up this list.
Shabazz Muhammad. Age 22
After the age scandal and a season with limited playing time in Minnesota, Muhammad was totally off the radar. But he now has a 20.7 PER in 347 minutes so far this year, and looks much more explosive with a knack for scoring inside.. He’s worth monitoring.
Victor Oladipo. Age 22
Despite missing much of the first month of the season with a facial fracture, Oladipo has picked up where he left off last year. He provides very good defense at either guard spot, and he is up to 38 percent on threes in his young season. Oladipo probably doesn’t project as a high enough ceiling offensive player to really become a star though. If he were doing this a couple of years younger, maybe you could see it.
Steven Adams. Age 21
While it is impressive Adams is starting for the Thunder, it has been a disappointing season for him offensively. He’s shooting only 49 percent, which is too low when he isn’t shooting much outside the basket area. Also, his offensive rebound rate has cratered from elite to pretty average for a center. He is a solid deterrent at the rim, but his upside looks like solid starter at best right now.
Dennis Schröder. Age 21.
Schröder was an accidental omission from this list, as he absolutely deserves to be on here. After being completely unplayable as a rookie, he is now closing some games for Atlanta and sports a 20.4 PER. He is almost certain to regress from his hot start, as he shoots an unsustainable 20/38 on twos outside the restricted area. But any player his age with his per minute numbers deserves watching.
Which prospects are the most intriguing to you? Leave your thoughts in a comment below!
NBA Daily: Free Agent Watch – Power Forwards
Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent Watch by examining the power forwards that could potentially be hitting the market this summer.
Welcome back to Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent Watch series! We’re now making our way to the frontcourt players that could see a new team when the new NBA season starts in December.
On paper, the power forwards have the deepest pool of free agents talent-wise. Although, a few of these players on this list are mentioned because they potentially could hit the market. Common sense would say otherwise. Case in point — take a look at the first guy mentioned here.
Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers – Player Option – $28,751,775
Yeah, we *technically* had to include Davis in here because he could *technically* hit the open market, and he *technically* is listed as a power forward since he plays the majority of his minutes at that spot — 62 percent this season alone, which was his highest since 2014-15. His free agency (if he becomes one) should be pretty straightforward.
Whether he opts in or not, expect Davis back with the Lakers. LeBron James and the Lakers gave up a lot to get him to Hollywood. The Lakers will be damned if they’re going to let him go after they’ve had their best season since 2011, and LeBron will be damned if he’s going to let him go because as much as he’s defied father time; he’s only got so many years left at the top. The two of them have made up the NBA’s best pairing this season. If that breaks up, it’ll be pretty much impossible to find an adequate replacement.
Considering all the drama that led up to the Lakers acquiring Davis, it would take a 99-yard hail mary pitch against the Legion of Boom to get him off the Lakers. This is the best team that Davis has been on his entire career by far, and when you have LeBron taking a lot of responsibility off your shoulders on a team vying for a championship, there’s not a whole lot of incentive to leave. Unless you’re Kyrie Irving.
That’s where the real question lies. Davis will definitely stay on the Lakers for as long as LeBron is right there with him, but how long will that be? LeBron will be on the books for two more years after this season, and everyone knows of his plans to play with his son Bronny in the near future. Should LeBron go leave to take part in the family business, Davis’ future with the Lakers goes up in the air. LA doesn’t have to worry about that for another two years — and those two years should be prosperous — but it’s something they should keep in the back of their minds. Especially if there’s fire to these “return-to-hometown-Chicago” rumblings.
Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers – Unrestricted – $6,000,000
When you have a championship window, you have to do everything you can to keep it open, even if it means paying more than what a guy is worth. People give Dan Gilbert so much grief for what he paid LeBron’s supporting cast in Cleveland, but give the guy credit. He knew he had an opportunity that he could not afford to let slip through his fingers. Now, Steve Ballmer has a similar predicament with Harell’s free agency coming up.
Harrell has easily been one of the league’s best bargain contract players over the past couple of years. Not many teams have bigs averaging 18/7 off the bench. The Clippers are the only team to have such a player while paying him chump change. They may no longer have that luxury when he hits the open market.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George create a championship window that needs to have as few holes as possible. Letting Harrell walk will create one that cannot easily be filled. His energy on both sides of the floor makes him an absolute terror to deal with any opponent they go up against. He’s also going to be their best bet against Anthony Davis in what feels like an inevitable conference finals date with their crosstown rival.
Having both his bird rights and a limited market will help the Clippers in the negotiating room, but we’ve seen guys leave good teams for less money because they felt insulted by the deal they were offered. This is the chance for the Clippers to show that they truly are committed both to Harrell and the window they have.
Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets – Unrestricted – $30,000,000
Millsap is the last of a dying breed in the NBA — a pure power forward. Because of the league’s versatility, we see more and more small forwards playing a fair amount of time at the four because they are multi-faceted enough to do so. Millsap impressively has been able to stay productive at the four even as the league has embraced this change. Even more so, the teams he’s been on have pretty much always been good.
At 35 years old, it’s clear Millsap is on his last legs. Although his per-36 stats look just about as good as they were during the height of his prime both in Utah and Atlanta, Denver’s decreased his minutes for a reason. At the same time, there’s a reason why Denver opted to pick up his $30 million team option last summer.
Millsap is definitely not going to see anywhere near the kind of contract he got from the Nuggets back in 2017, but there is going to be a lot of interested parties in his services once the season ends. He’s among those players that aren’t very flashy on the court nor anything spectacular in one area, but just a good fundamental basketball player all-around. He’s a good veteran presence in the locker room, and maybe he won’t put up the All-Star numbers he once could; but as it stands, if all you’re asking him is to be a rotation big on a playoff contender, he’ll do that for you.
Denver has the advantage both because of both its competitors’ lack of available funds and the team having Millsap’s bird rights. Returning to the Nuggets seems like the most obvious path, but Millsap does have to ask himself if he can win with them with what amount of prime he has left.
Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors – Unrestricted – $23,271,605
It’s tough to describe where Ibaka is in his career right now. He’s no longer the shot-blocking terror that he was during his time in Oklahoma City — from 3.7 blocks a game in 2011-12 to 0.8 this season — so when you hear stuff like that, you think he’s past his prime. Then you look at his numbers on the offensive end — 16/8 on 52/40/75 splits, some of his best numbers ever — and you would think he hasn’t lost a step.
The contract Toronto gave Ibaka back in 2017 may have been a bit of an overpay — who wasn’t overpaying in 2017? — but he has done what the Raptors have asked of him. He brought veteran experience, still blocks a shot or two, and spaces the floor for them most of the time. He doesn’t have the highest basketball IQ, but he knows what he can do well and sticks to it.
As far as where he goes after this season is quite the mystery. Toronto has been as awesome as a reigning champ who lost its best player could be, but even they have to wonder if it’s worth it to keep the whole band together for another run when Ibaka, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol are all starting to get up there age-wise. The Raptors could really go either way, and there wouldn’t be a wrong answer. Masaji Ujiri has proven time after time that he knows what he’s doing.
Whoever gets Ibaka knows what they are getting. Besides the skills that have already been listed above, they are getting a champion. That can count for a lot in a playoff run.
Marcus Morris, Los Angeles Clippers – Unrestricted – $15,000,000
Not every player gets to go through what Morris did this season. He got paid a ton of money to play for a team that was bad enough to trade him to a contender willing to pay a high price for him, and now he gets a golden opportunity to showcase his talents for a payday. His odds of getting one took a hit for reasons that were out of his control, but still. This could not have worked out any better for Morris.
Now he’s on the Clippers, where he is the overqualified third wing to spell Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, as well as be a body to throw at LeBron. His three-point percentage took a bad spill once arriving in LA, but before that he was shooting a blistering near-44 percent from three in New York. Morris is a career 36.7 percent three-point shooter, so asking him to shoot that hot from three is placing unfair expectation, but if he can be a reliable shooter from that department, the Clippers will have no regrets for what they spent on him.
Considering the other Clippers who will be hitting free agency this summer, the odds of Morris coming back to LA seem slim on paper, but who knows how the low salary figures will impact free agency. Morris has proven that he is a valuable two-way wing that can play gritty defense as well as score the ball.
Buyer beware, though — Marcus Morris is in the Russell Westbrook mold of players that will not adapt to the system. The system adapts to guys like him. It doesn’t matter if he’s got the likes of Kawhi or PG-13 on his side. If the basketball is in his hands, his first instinct is to score. If you’re bringing him in, you have to know what you’re paying for. There’s much more good than bad to Mook, but the bad is still something that can’t be overlooked.
Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento Kings – Team Option – $8,963,640
“Uh…. what” you may ask? It’s true. Even as the second overall pick in the draft, Bagley’s rookie deal is structured to have a team option for his third year with the team for… some reason. To be honest, this is really brought up more for being a fun fact than anything else.
Because, even if Bagley has paled in comparison to some of his fellow 2018 draftees thus far — Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Jaren Jackson Jr., Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — Sacramento would be absolutely insane to let him go knowing the kind of potential he has… right?
NBA Daily: Raymond Felton’s Career Will End On His Own Terms
Spencer Davies speaks with longtime basketball veteran Raymond Felton about the ups and downs of his career, why he’s not done playing, the NBA bubble and more.
For all of his life, Raymond Felton’s never been a tattoo guy.
Jermichael Wright, his best friend, makes a living in the world of ink design as an artist with his own shop.
Together at Latta High School in South Carolina, the two won back-to-back state championships in 2001 and 2002. With career averages of 39 points, 9.1 rebounds 8.9 assists and 5.6 steals per game, Felton led the Vikings to a 104-9 record over four seasons and earned the Naismith Prep award his senior year among future household names, including upstart junior LeBron James, before making a memorable run at the University of North Carolina.
But it wasn’t the accolades and personal accomplishments that stuck with Felton; it was the message he and Wright lived by that made it possible — GBMS, the very phrase the longtime NBA veteran had tattooed on his right arm this past year.
“It means God Bless My Success,” Felton told Basketball Insiders in an exclusive phone interview. “It’s an everyday thing for me. Every dang day.”
One week ago today marked a full year since Felton became a free agent. Following a two-season stint with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he didn’t end up signing with a team. It’s the first time that the recently-turned 36-year-old hasn’t played professionally since entering the Association in 2005.
That’s quite an adjustment for somebody who’s been around hoops his entire life; however, his everyday regimen hasn’t really changed. Felton is not done with the game yet. Still residing in Oklahoma City, he’s been training, staying in shape and, most importantly, maintaining a healthy diet as he gets older.
“It was tough, mentally, not being able to do something that you love to do and have a passion for,” Felton said of missing the action. “I love basketball. I’d do it even if I wasn’t getting paid to do it. But me, understanding that I’m 36 and getting towards the end of my career, I just didn’t want it to end like that. So that’s why I’m not retiring.
“I feel like I can still play. If I get to the point where I feel like I can’t move the way I used to, then that’s letting me know that it’s time for me to let it go. Even if I’ve got to go across the world, I’m going to play basketball for another two years to satisfy myself and how I want to end it.”
This past spring, erroneous reports surfaced that Felton was signing with Czech Republic Second Division club GBA Jindrichuv Hradec to continue his playing career. So what happened?
Felton spoke with a trainer for the team, who happens to be a friend of his from North Carolina. The trainer tried to persuade him to come overseas and join them for a tournament, so Felton did some research out of curiosity. It didn’t go far. He was offered money and had a conversation with the general manager of the club, but terms were never agreed upon, nor close to agreed upon. In fact, his agent didn’t even speak with the team’s management.
“I started getting all kinds of phone calls from people saying, ‘Hey man, you signed with the Czech Republic and you can’t even go to the Czech Republic,’” Felton said. “I’m like, ‘No, I’m at home. I’m not going anywhere.’ I don’t know. It was just a big mix-up with that.”
The closest Felton came to playing was last summer. He was working out with the Houston Rockets frequently and felt the organization would offer him a contract. They didn’t even invite him to training camp in the fall. Ideally, Felton would love to pick up where he left off in the NBA with a team that values his presence.
“I still feel like I’ve got a lot that I can offer, but you know how that goes sometimes in the league now. They want to go young. They want to do different things. It can be unfortunate sometimes.”
It’s not the first time that Felton’s been on the wrong side of lady luck. After four losing seasons with the then-named Charlotte Bobcats, the team made the playoffs and appeared to be set on a franchise turnaround; it didn’t work out the way he thought it would.
Felton went on to sign with the New York Knicks in the summer of 2010, a move that turned out to be outstanding for both the team and himself. Through 54 games, Felton was averaging career-bests in points (17.1), assists (9) and free throw percentage (86.7), all in over 38 minutes per contest.
Led by All-Star big man Amar’e Stoudemire, young talents like Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and promising rookies — Landry Fields and Timofey Mozgov — the Knicks were in the middle of the playoff pack with a 28-26 record and things were looking up in The Big Apple.
On the other hand, the organization had an opportunity to strike gold with a hometown superstar, Carmelo Anthony, aching to play for New York. The Knicks went with the latter option and made a blockbuster three-way trade to acquire ‘Melo from the Denver Nuggets. Felton, along with several key contributors and young talents, was made expendable. It’s a scenario that begs the question: “What if?”
“I’ve got the same question you got,” Felton chuckled. “’What if? What if y’all just waited?’ ‘Melo was gonna come anyway. He was gonna come anyway in free agency that summer. Just like…I don’t know man. To me, that team was special and I thought it could’ve been really special. I would like to have seen what we could’ve done, but that’s how the league goes sometimes.”
After finishing the year out with the Nuggets, Felton was dealt yet again to the Portland Trail Blazers, where he spent one short season thanks to a lockout. He returned to New York in the 2012 offseason via another trade and ultimately played with the man he was moved for. Under new head Mike Woodson and alongside new teammates, Felton was a part of the best Knicks team since the late ‘90s. Felton thought that group had a “big chance” at a title, and despite a series loss to the Indiana Pacers in the second round of the postseason, it was a great year.
Following his second go-round with New York, Felton bounced around with three teams over five years. When the Knicks sent him to the Dallas Mavericks in June 2014, an injury forced him out of the rotation his first season there. In spite of receiving DNPs for the first time in his career, he credits Rick Carlisle for being upfront with him about his initial role. Felton worked his tail off to earn a spot the next season and did so; he gave key performances for the team in the playoffs. Again, he assumed he’d sign back with the Mavericks when his contract expired, but it fell through the cracks.
So his next decision was signing with the Los Angeles Clippers to back up Chris Paul. It wasn’t a bad call, as Felton received over 20 minutes of playing time per night over 80 games (plus the playoffs). Even in his first season with the Oklahoma City Thunder the following year, Felton had a consistent role and appeared in every game. He re-signed with them two summers ago thinking he’d have the same duty. That didn’t happen.
“I had already signed back as a free agent,” Felton explained. “Then [OKC] made that trade later in the summer when they got rid of ‘Melo to go to Atlanta and then they got Dennis Schroder over there. Then they kinda just basically told me that they were gonna play him as the backup point guard. And it was just like, well, okay, kinda wish I would’ve known that going into free agency before I signed back.”
No hard feelings from Felton, though. He made great friends in his Thunder days and still keeps in touch with Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Jerami Grant, Steven Adams and Schroder, the young guard that overtook his former role.
He’s learned the way the league works and the unlucky breaks that come with being a part of it, firmly believing that the ability to adapt is the only path to longevity.
It was as recent as the 2019 NBA Playoffs where Felton showed his abilities in spurts, most notably a quick stint in Game 4 between the Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers. He scored eight points in rapid fashion and ignited a run that spurred the Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd into a frenzy, a moment he felt showed teams, and the world, that he hasn’t lost a step.
Felton isn’t lost of confidence, and he won’t ever be. He knows he can impact winning — shooting, defense, being a floor general — in whatever amount of minutes are given to him, as well as in a mentorship role.
“You get put in a situation where a lot of teams who are winning teams or are veteran teams that kinda already have their team set, and me going to a young team would basically be another coach, a player-coach. So you go into a situation like that and you already know you’re not gonna be playing ’cause they’re rebuilding. They’re trying to handle their young guys.
“And I’m to the point now where I just want to be around the game. I’m willing to do that. I’m willing to be a player-coach to help young guys and help them develop their skills and help them learn the game, mentally. Because pretty much everybody has the physical attributes, but a lot of them miss the mental part of it that’s really important about being an NBA player. So I’m willing to be able to help in that aspect and still just be ready if my number is called.”
If you’re expecting to see Felton in an NBA uniform anytime soon, it probably won’t be during the league’s restart this month. Like many, he has concerns with the bubble environment at the World of Disney in Orlando. From who he’s spoken to, there have been “iffy” feelings toward the plan itself. Between the surge of coronavirus cases in Florida and the fight against racial injustice and police brutality, Felton isn’t sure if the players will be there from a mental standpoint.
“I kinda wish they would’ve just like canceled the season, just really cancel it and just focus on the draft and focus on that upcoming season and just let this one go,” Felton said. “And I know it’s never been done; it’s been a long time since that ever happened, but it’s been a long time since the world’s been dealing with what we’ve been dealing with right now, too.
“Even the guys who feel the way I feel, we miss the game too. I miss it like crazy. I ain’t played in a whole year, so I would love to go play. I would love that, but not to risk getting sick or risk my life or risk something happening to my kids or my family. Nah, it’s just…not to finish a season. (If) we talkin’ about starting up a whole new season, then okay, that’s a different story. But to like finish and do this format that they’re trying out right now, nah. Not in my opinion. That’s my opinion, but not everybody feels that way, so.”
Despite his feelings on the comeback itself, Felton does feel his friends and players across the league will use their platform in a positive manner to affect change. He shared poignant thoughts on the issues happening in our country and our world.
“Anything can help at this point,” Felton said. “What we’re dealing with right now is just something that just needs to stop. It ain’t no racial thing. It ain’t no blacks against whites. It ain’t that. It’s just that these cops, these bad cops — ’cause not all cops are bad, I will say that; I have cop friends — but the ones who are doing something that other cops need to step up and make a stand and say, ‘Look, this is not how we’re supposed to do things.’ You know, you’re not supposed to put your knee down on that man’s neck for that long and they end up passing out and dying. You’re not supposed to shoot a man because they’re running away from you and you shoot ’em in their back. It’s just too many instances where these things are happening, and it’s just like, it’s got to stop.
“And I’m glad that everybody’s protesting and doing the things they’re doing because it’s like…these things are happening, but nobody’s doing nothing about it. It’s getting brushed up under the rug, and it’s like, no. Enough is enough. We tired. We done. We done with this. I shouldn’t have to answer a question to my son asking me like, ‘Daddy I’m scared. Daddy, I’m scared to be black.’ And it’s like, what? When I hear my kid say something like that, now I’m angry, now I’m mad. It’s just things that gotta stop man. We’re dealing with a lot in the world right now with the (coronavirus) and then all this stuff that’s going on with Black Lives Matter, too.
“It’s just tough times right now,” Felton continued. And I still feel like we’re all gonna get past this, we’re gonna get through this. Change is gonna happen because we’re gonna demand change. We’re gonna demand change. And then with the (coronavirus), it’s just something that we just gotta stay strong as a country and just wait this thing out, man. Just be safe and everybody keep practicing the things we need to practice — social distancing, hand sanitizer, keep your mask on, do the things you gotta do during these rough moments. It’s tough, man. These times like this, you just wanna be close to your family, close to your kids and just try to keep ’em safe. You know, it’s kinda hard to concentrate on basketball when there’s so much going on in the world that you can’t ignore.”
While Felton and Wright carry GBMS on in their respective lives, the two have envisioned starting up a clothing line together. Felton’s already got the shirts and sweatsuits, and people have always asked him about the apparel he wears. It’s a love that motivates him to go through with it down the line.
When asked about his future in basketball once his playing days are over, Felton seems unsure. He does know he wants to be around the game. Still, it’s not the time to talk about that right now. There’s unfinished business left to take care of in his eyes.
Felton’s path to this point has been filled with peaks and valleys. He’s had his fair share of moments at the top and at the bottom.
“I feel like you’ve got to make mistakes and do things in life in order to be a better person and learn how to be a better person and a better man in your life,” Felton said. “Whether it’s (as) a father, a husband or a teammate or a friend or a son or a whatever it is. You have to do some wrong in order to learn.
“So I don’t really know if I have too many regrets because I really can’t complain with my life. Yes, I’ve been through some things — I’ve been through some tough things off the court — but I’ve stayed focused, I’ve always kept God first and believed in God and believed that he’s gonna help me get through this. Mentally, physically, whatever. It’s always been that way. I’ve always gotten through everything that I’ve went through.”
Through it all, Felton wouldn’t change a thing about how he got here.
NBA Daily: Free Agent Watch – Small Forwards
Ben Nadeau continues Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent Watch by checking in on a thin small forward class.
With professional basketball on the horizon, all eyes have turned toward Orlando – but here, we’re trying to peer into the future too.
Frankly, the news of pending basketball seems small in comparison to some long-overdue changes. The planet-wide pandemic and sweeping protests have turned everybody’s day-to-day routines on their head – but, obviously, for one group, it has done so in awful and disproportionate ways.
If you can donate, consider doing so. If you can’t donate, educate yourself. Even if you donate, continue to read, learn and listen.
Or try this: If you finish this article and come away having learned something, donate something of your own: Time, supplies, a tough conversation — whatever. Consider it a trade, do whatever it takes. Make a difference, even if it’s a small one.
We’re approaching the halfway point in our examination of potential upcoming free agents – today, the ball keeps on rolling with the small forwards.
Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – Restricted – $7,265,485
Across all positions, Brandon Ingram will be a top option for any franchise with oodles of cap space and a need for consistent scoring. Even then, Ingram seems destined to stay in New Orleans, no matter the cost.
Since he arrived from Los Angeles a year ago, Ingram has quickly turned into the type of stone-cold No. 1 option that can transform a roster. The 6-foot-7 youngster averaged 24.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists in 2019-20, numbers that eventually netted Ingram his first-ever All-Star Game appearance. And now, the budding star will likely see any forthcoming offer matched.
Paired with Zion Williamson, the Pelicans have developed an ideally dynamic and flexible duo to carry them into the next half-decade and beyond. With more volume and efficiency from three-point land, Ingram is evolving at a ridiculous rate – all right at home in New Orleans’ high-tempo offense. Capped off by a 49-point stunner back in January, it’s clear that future All-Star berths are just his floor.
Although the salary cap is sure to suffer after the stoppage, the 22-year-old’s future paycheck certainly won’t – he’s that good.
Gordon Hayward, Boston Celtics — Player Option — $32,700,690
Before Hayward even potentially hits free agency, he’s made waves within the NBA’s restarted bubble. On a call last week with Boston media, Hayward announced that he’d leave Orlando should his wife go into labor – whether or not the Celtics are still in the postseason.
The news seems to have passed through the Northeast without major drawback – although, surely, let’s revisit if the franchise is in Eastern Conference Finals when he departs – but could that be the end of the road in Boston? It’s nobody’s fault, of course, but the arrival of Hayward hasn’t gone as planned – and now, both the franchise and player are likely stuck at a hard fork in the road.
Hayward, naturally, has the easier, initial decision: Does he want to opt-in for $30 million-plus? On the surface, that’s a no-brainer. Getting paid a small fortune and competing for a championship is achievable NBA paradise – currently, he’s got it. But after that season, Hayward would be unrestricted, 31 years old and playing fourth fiddle to Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
If Hayward is concerned with his overall fit with Boston – while the Celtics themselves must give careful consideration to how it’ll all work money-wise with Walker and Brown re-upped, alongside glue guy Marcus Smart – then opting out and securing a new multi-year deal might be on the table.
Given his injury history and any presumptive salary cap fluctuations, however, reaching the $30 million range seems far out of his reach. Either way, Hayward, finally, appears to be healthy and confident again, even averaging 17.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. The Celtics’ will surely miss the scorer should he leave the bubble, but this partnership is likely to last at least another year.
Danilo Gallinari, Oklahoma City Thunder – Unrestricted – $22,615,559
After entering the season as potential trade bait for a Thunder roster that had just lost Paul George and Russell Westbrook, Gallinari fulfilled his status as a go-to scorer and all-around menace. The Italian played so well that Oklahoma City kept the veteran at the trade deadline even though he’s about to hit unrestricted free agency.
At the time of the shutdown, the Thunder were 40-24 and owners of the No. 5 postseason seed. Much of the attention was given toward the rise of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but Gallinari has been a healthy revelation too. Ultimately, keeping the core together for this run was worth it, even if he doesn’t land back in the midwest this offseason.
Despite the incredible campaign, Gallinari’s injury history should be a red flag for any franchise ready to hand out a lucrative deal. Since 2008, Gallinari has played 70 or more games just twice (2009-10, 2012-13) and can struggle to return once he goes down. In any case, regardless of any past ailments, he’s handled back-to-back career seasons – first in Los Angeles with the Clippers and now, obviously, with the Thunder.
At 19.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.1 three-pointers on 41 percent from deep, he’s been an excellent fit with Chris Paul and the young roster – but at 32 years old, is there still room to grow over a new multi-year deal?
After Ingram and Hayward, both of whom may not even hit the open market, Gallinari is the crown jewel of available small forwards, so watch this space.
Dario Saric, Phoenix Suns – Restricted – $3,481,916
Understandably, Dario Saric has become a bit of an afterthought. And that’s unfortunate because the Croatian is still useful – he just needs to find his right team.
At 26, Saric is no longer a spring chicken, but his multi-positional playmaking on the cheap will surely elevate a playoff-ready roster down the line. The 6-foot-10 forward is mobile for his size but struggled to fit next to Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, two touch-gobbling scorers. Saric has a unique NBA skillset and he often does the little things right – but his below-average three-point percentage has hurt him.
For a brief moment, Saric had fallen out of the rotation in early February, but his all-out effort and flexibility made him tough to leave out for too long. While Kelly Oubre Jr. has not been entirely ruled out of the Orlando bubble, Saric is the ready-made replacement for the starting lineup. As the forward will likely become a restricted free agent in the offseason, these upcoming games are vastly important to prove he belongs in Phoenix.
Carmelo Anthony, Portland Trail Blazers – Unrestricted – $2,159,029
Last but not least, there’s Carmelo Anthony.
After being booted from the league for a year, the future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer has been a solid, reputable source of scoring for Portland. At 15.3 points per game, it’s not Anthony’s most high-tallying performance – duh – but it’ll be enough to secure him another gig in 2020-21. At 36, he’s still a decent option, even if efficiencies may often tell another story.
His stints with Oklahoma City and Houston withstanding, Anthony can still score. And in the NBA these days, that’s worth a stab. Anthony will no longer demand multi-year contracts or salary cap-sponging money, so he’s a low-risk, medium-reward type of player at this point. What team couldn’t use that? The legend has excelled in big moments and brings boatloads of experience – so whether he lands in a veteran-laden locker room or one that needs his guidance hardly matters now.
Bring back Carmelo Anthony in 2020… or else.
With the bubble close to resuming, we’re still unsure if two of the top players on this board are even available. Does Hayward’s eventual leave of absence impact his decision? Would the Celtics look to retain him if he opts out? And, more importantly, is there even more than two seconds of consideration before New Orleans matches whatever max offer sheet Ingram signs? Surely, if a franchise misses out on these two – if they’re out there at all – then the small forward market shrinks tinier than it already is.
Gallinari and beyond, we’ll just have to see how the season of one thousand plotlines and twists continues to unfold.
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