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Whether you support a title contender or a bottom-dweller, the NBA is a star-driven league. Guys like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and now Giannis Antetokounmpo are the faces of the league, the current superstars still in their primes who can push any average team into the contender category on their own.
But perhaps just as exciting is trying to identify who’s “got next.” Some guys like Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic usually come up, but the conversation often skews even younger than that, fixating on the stars of tomorrow and trying to project where current non-contenders might be in a few years’ time.
The NBA is cyclical when it comes to teams rising and falling from championship-caliber to rebuilding. Today’s dominant faces and title-contending teams eventually give way to fresh faces and future champions, but none of it is possible without that first leap to prominence.
With the NBA restart just weeks away, which young players looking to prove themselves are ready to light up the Orlando bubble? It’s an admittedly odd playoff scenario given the state of the world and having no fans in the bleachers, but as we prepare for the return of basketball, let’s identify five rising stars who can be expected to shine once the action resumes.
Honorable Mentions: Caris LeVert, Bam Adebayo
Probably the most obvious choice, Jayson Tatum was already in the midst of making his leap to superstardom when the league shut down. From the start of February until the NBA season was suspended, the young Boston Celtics star put up an eye-popping 29.2 points and 7.6 rebounds per game on 47.6 percent shooting from the field and 46.8 percent shooting from 3.
Four-and-a-half months off would be enough to cool anyone’s hot streak, but small as that sample size was, it looked like the next natural progression of his game. His confidence and shot-making ability was more than a prolonged heat check. On a Celtics team that needs him to stick the landing on his star leap in order to contend in the top-heavy East, look for Tatum to rise to meet those expectations.
Zion Williamson/Ja Morant
We’re kind of cheating here, but it feels wrong to exclude either phenom rookie when they’re both going to be appointment TV in Orlando. The Zion Williamson hype has exceeded that of even LeBron James in his first year, and aside from injuries holding Zion out of all but 19 games, he’s lived up to it. Anybody that could come off an injury and put up 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds a night in his first handful of NBA games is worth watching.
Overlooking Ja Morant would be just as big a mistake though, given that he and the Memphis Grizzlies fanbase are on a mission to remind the world who the rightful Rookie of the Year is. Throw in the fact that the Grizz and New Orleans Pelicans seem to be on a collision course for that play-in scenario for the 8-seed and both these rookie prodigies should be ready to electrify as soon as the league restarts.
Devin Booker‘s heard the incessant chatter about how he’s a “good stats, bad team” player. It’s unfortunate that’s still a narrative with the way he’s drastically improved his efficiency, scoring and playmaking (all jokes aside, he’s actually pretty damn good at passing out of double-teams!). That kind of individual growth is fairly rare, considering the Phoenix Suns have given him five different head coaches, two different GMs and over 70 different teammates through his first five seasons.
Kelly Oubre’s status for Orlando is still up in the air, but for the most part, the Suns should have a mostly healthy roster. They’re a long shot to actually make the playoffs, but they were at least competitive this season. That means that for eight games, Devin Booker will finally get to play in games with real consequences. After watching him carry this sorry team on his back for years, it’ll be nice to see Phoenix in a competitive environment as Booker looks to make a statement.
Kind of a no-brainer, and maybe a bit unfair to call him a “rising star” since he was a top-five MVP candidate and All-Star starter this year, but Luka Doncic feels like the forgotten man in all this talk about the Western Conference playoff picture. That’s probably because the Dallas Mavericks’ position is all but assured; few consider them a threat to pull within the 1.5 games separating them from the 6-seeded Houston Rockets or 5-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder, and the heavily populated battle for the 8-seed is seven games back, so the Mavs are in no danger of dropping out either.
Even so, to forget Doncic’s fun-loving play style and penchant for making gorgeous, jaw-dropping plays would be to ignore what makes basketball so great and why so many people are excited to watch it again soon. He doesn’t have a championship roster around him just yet, but even in these bizarre playoff circumstances, Doncic’s first postseason should be delightful to witness. If a guy who nearly averaged a triple-double in his second NBA season has another gear … look out.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are Chris Paul’s team, but that’s only until he’s gone and the reins are fully handed over to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Even with CP3 being the driving force behind OKC’s pleasantly surprising success this year, SGA has already taken a leap to national prominence, putting up a team-best 19.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game for a Thunder squad that’s only one game out of fourth place in the West and 2.5 games behind third.
Even if the Thunder ultimately fall to sixth or even seventh after these eight tune-up games, Gilgeous-Alexander is the kind of young scorer who’s primed to thrive in this type of setting. What Oklahoma City accomplished this year should not be diminished no matter how the season ends, and these 2020 NBA Playoffs could be SGA’s leaping off point.
Snitches, Tim Duncan’s new campaign, people who like cartoons — it’s all in this week’s NBA Power Rankings.
(FIRST AND ONLY) SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT: I just started a new podcast with Shane Young, Sean Deveney and Nick Crain, and the first episode of The Put Back Pod is now live! Please feel free to listen/subscribe on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.
Jrue Holiday pledging his remaining salary to a charity fund is the type of energy we need more of in 2020.