Giannis Antetokounmpo brings mixed reviews. According to the Internet, he’ll usher us into the next generation of the NBA, but some prominent writers feel as though he’s severely overrated. If I had to choose, I’d probably lean more toward the former while admitting he has a long way to go. The number of players who’ve put up similar numbers at age 20 is an interesting list, with Giannis being the divider between great players and apparent anomalies. There’s concern about the shooting, but his ability to finish at the rim and convert at the free throw line help with his team’s efficiency until his three-point shooting catches up (if it does).
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist received an extension this summer, and unless you haven’t been paying attention the past three seasons, this seems like a good deal by every measure. There are questions about Kidd-Gilchrist’s offense, but he seems to have an understanding of what he can and cannot do. He’s taken only 18 three-point attempts at this point in his career, and didn’t attempt a single one last season. He can cause spacing issues on offense for the Hornets who are already starved for spacing, but his slashing ability, offensive rebounding and free throw shooting are a great start on that end. Defensively, Kidd-Gilchrist is also arguably the most underrated defender in the league. He has the ability to guard everything from a point guard to a small-ball 4 at an elite level, and his performance last year was just more evidence. With Kidd-Gilchrist on the floor last year, the Hornets were 27-28 for the 55 games, but when he didn’t play, the team went only 6-21.
Tobias Harris is another player who received an extension coming off his rookie deal this summer, and he seems to be heavily involved in what the Orlando Magic are planning to do in the future. Harris wouldn’t have been anywhere near this high a season ago, but in the depths of the Eastern Conference, he put up an impressive season that nobody seemed to pay attention to, scoring 17 points per game while carrying a true shooting percentage over 55 percent. The next level for Harris is adding something else to his game. He isn’t a particularly impressive passer, and his offensive rebounding percentage is almost embarrassing for a player with Harris’s size. Defensively, he’s stuck between not being a good enough rebounder or rim protector to guard bigger players, and not enough foot speed to stay with quicker wings.
Speaking of players who had a better season than people realized, Gordon Hayward deserved more award recognition than he received last season. Hayward maintained one of the highest usage percentages in the league with great efficiency, and he excelled in most other aspects on the offensive end of the court. Dante Exum‘s injury put a damper on Jazz’s fans hope of the playoffs, but in reality, Utah may have had the worst point-guard play last season and were still one of the most impressive teams of the second half. Hayward is excellent at setting up teammates while keeping his turnovers to a minimum. Defensively, Hayward isn’t the greatest on-ball defender, but with Rudy Gobert behind him, he doesn’t have to be.
For the first time in Andre Iguodala‘s career, he wasn’t a full-time starter for his team. The result was his first NBA championship and the Most Valuable Player award for the Finals. His offensive numbers dropped off slightly from previous seasons, but his defense was as dominant as ever. Iguodala is one of a few players who can change a game defensively with his ability to lock down almost anybody in the league.
Kyle Korver made 49 percent of his three-point attempts last season on six attempts per game. The highest three-point percentage on at least six attempts per game outside of Korver’s year was Stephen Curry at just above 45 percent. While Curry’s percentage is phenomenal, it should shed some light on how impressive Korver’s feat was last season. Korver doesn’t do much else at a high level. He lacks the ability to break defenses down off the dribble, he doesn’t rebound at more than an average level and his defense is above average at best. However, his shooting is more than enough to warrant his place in the tier.
DeMarre Carroll might be the player with the highest expectancy of regression this year. Carroll has been a plus defender for a few years now, and his size and strength are a perfect fit for a wing or a small-ball 4. However, after shooting a career high 36 percent from three on 3.7 attempts per game in 2014, he improved to almost 40 percent on 4.3 attempts per game last season. While it’s possible that Carroll became an elite shooter in one season, NBA.com’s player tracking shows that over 3.5 attempts per game that Carroll attempted from three were either classified as “open” or “wide open”, 3.8 attempts were shot after zero dribbles and 3.9 attempts were shot after holding the ball for less than two seconds. Carroll benefited from the Hawks’ style of play that encouraged players to make the extra pass for an open shot, but Toronto doesn’t encourage the same style of play with its isolation-heavy scheme.
Kevin Love produced impressive stats last season, but because they weren’t as impressive as his previous season, it was seen as a disappointment. Love averaged 16 points, nearly 10 rebounds and two assists despite playing less than 34 minutes per game. He had a 56 true shooting percentage and shot almost 37 percent from three. He’s still one of the better rebounders in the league and deserving of the massive contract he signed with the Cavaliers this summer. His defensive woes are concerning, but his rebounding helps to offset his deficiencies.
Klay Thompson showed serious improvement in the fourth year of his career. He averaged almost 22 points on 59 percent true shooting, got to the free throw line more, increased his assist percentage and did all of this while playing in fewer minutes per game. Curry and Thompson are the most lethal backcourt in the league with their ability to make any shot given to them. Although his defense is slightly overrated – he’s probably the third-best wing defender on his own team, and the fourth-best defender overall – the Warriors wouldn’t have been able to have the level of success they did last season without him.
A healthy Carmelo Anthony is a lethal weapon on the offensive end, as he’s one of the few players able to carry the majority of the offense with high efficiency. The two seasons prior to this one, he had a true shooting percentage of 56 percent, a usage percentage of almost 34 percent and a turnover percentage just over nine percent. The issue with Anthony’s game has always been on the defensive end. Much like Tobias Harris, Anthony doesn’t have the foot speed to stay with quicker wings, and gets worn down when guarding big men for an extended period of time.
Jimmy Butler made one of the biggest leaps last season coming from a workhorse on the defensive end to a player who was highly effective on both sides of the floor. Butler had a true shooting percentage of 57 percent two seasons ago while playing only 26 minutes per game, and after a disappointing 2013-2014 season (partly due to injury), he returned to form last season, shooting 38 percent from three-point range while playing almost 39 minutes per game. Butler thrived under Tom Thibodeau’s defensive scheme, but with a new coach who brings hope for offensive innovation and an understanding of minute restrictions, Butler may be able to become a better player on both ends of the floor.
From a second-round pick to one of the most important players on a championship team only three years later, Draymond Green has had a meteoric rise so far in his NBA career. His defense has been outstanding in his three seasons in the league, but it’s his offense that makes him a unique threat. After two seasons of under 50 percent true shooting, he raised that percentage to 54 percent, while seeing his usage increase last season. He’s become a fantastic passer in Steve Kerr‘s system, and his rebounding allows him to play small-ball center despite being (a very generous) 6-foot-7.
It seems crazy to call Anthony Davis a “wing”, but calling him a big man doesn’t do him justice either. Davis was the rare instance of a player not being terrible his rookie season. Two seasons ago, Davis averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds while leading the league in blocks and had a true shooting percentage over 58 percent. Last season – at only 21 years old – Davis increased his points, rebounds, blocks and assists, didn’t foul as much, and did all of this while increasing his efficiency. The combination of Davis’s age and ability might make him the most valuable player in the league, and if the Pelicans can get their salary structure figured out, they’ll have enough money for a max player to join him next summer.
Blake Griffin has transformed from just a dunker to a player whose best skill might be passing. Chris Paul is still one of the elite point guards in the league, but nothing is scarier for a Clippers opponent than when Griffin is leading a fast break. Griffin has the size and strength to finish over smaller players in transition, and almost no big man in the league has the foot speed to prevent Griffin from doing what he wants. Griffin has expanded his game away from the rim as his average field goal attempt was over 10 feet compared to just over seve feet as a rookie, according to Basketball-Reference.com. The issue with Griffin’s shooting last season was his ability to finish around the rim. While he still finishes at a very high level, he converted on only 71.5 percent of shots under three feet, a number that was around 78 percent two seasons ago.
Kevin Durant and LeBron James have enough of a track record to warrant their spots on this list, and most everything that can be said about the two has been said. Durant had one of the best seasons ever in his MVP season, but there’s a real possibility that was Durant’s best season, not because of the injury – although that could play a part – but because a season like he had is nearly impossible to duplicate much less improve on. As a Thunder fan, here’s to hoping he can return at full strength.
James was criticized for a drop in efficiency last year, but he still had a true shooting percentage of almost 58 percent while carrying one of the highest usage percentages in the league. He’s the best passer in the league, limits his turnovers and rebounds at a high level. He immediately makes any team a legitimate contender, which was proven last year.
Kawhi Leonard might be the most surprising name on the list, but the 24-year old is more than deserving of his ranking. He’s possibly the best defender in the league, he forces turnovers that lead to quick transition points for his team and he produces above-average offense at the very least. While offense and defense shouldn’t be weighted equally when determining the value of a player, a player who’s thought of as the best offensive player while being above average on defense (think Kevin Durant) is thought of as an elite player, and so too should a player like Leonard. He’s an effective shooter from almost every area of the floor, and has almost no holes in his offensive game. Like it or not, Leonard deserves to be on this list.