Top 100 NBA Players of 2018: Nos. 50-31
- Some big names come off the board as we hit 50-31 in our countdown of the NBA's top 100 players. Where do Carmelo Anthony, DeMar DeRozan, Isaiah Thomas and Joel Embiid rank? Find out below.
The Crossover is proud to offer our list of the Top 100 NBA players of 2018, an exhaustive exercise that seeks to define who will be the league's best players in the 2017-18 season.
Given the wide variety of candidates involved and the deep analytical resources available, no single, definitive criterion was used to form this list. Instead, rankings were assigned based on a fluid combination of subjective assessment and objective data. This list is an attempt to evaluate each player in a vacuum, independent of their current team context as much as possible. A player's prospects beyond the 2017-18 season did not play a part in the ranking process.
Injuries and injury risks are an inevitable component of this judgment. Past performance (postseason included) weighed heavily in our assessment, with a skew toward the recent. First-year players were not included. A predictive element also came into play with the anticipated improvement of certain younger players, as well as the possible decline of aging veterans. Salary was not taken into consideration. Otherwise, players were ordered based on their complete games. You can read more here on the limitations of this kind of ranking. To see our 25 biggest snubs from this year, click here.
Please feel free to take a look back to SI.com’s Top 100 Players of 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014. A special thanks, as always, to those resources that make researching a list like this possible: Basketball-Reference, NBA.com, ESPN.com, Nylon Calculus, and Synergy Sports.
50. Andrew Wiggins, Timberwolves
There is no shortage of reasons to be excited about the new-look Timberwolves, but getting the chance to see Wiggins (23.6 PPG, 5 RPG, 2.3 APG) address the knocks that have accumulated during his three seasons is near the top of the list. An athletic and occasionally mesmerizing volume scorer who couples an attacking style with improved three-point range, the 22-year-old Wiggins confidently campaigned for a max rookie extension this summer despite mediocre rebounding numbers and inconsistent defense. Critics might argue that his even assist-to-turnover ratio, poor block rate and unimpressive Real Plus-Minus are further evidence that the former No. 1 pick is still more sizzle than steak.
Wiggins’s defenders counter with two convincing arguments: 1) He led the league in minutes played last year and his shaky advanced stats are evidence that he was simply stretched too thin, and 2) He’s yet to have enough veteran talent and structure around him to accurately judge his individual progress. The rubber should meet the road in 2017-18 thanks to the Timberwolves’ offseason talent infusion; Wiggins will either languish as a single-minded scorer who no longer eats whenever he pleases, or he will adapt into a complementary wing who benefits from less defensive attention and commits to doing more of the little things to help the team cause. — Ben Golliver
49. Harrison Barnes, Mavericks
We whiffed on Barnes when we made last year’s list. Barnes was a role player then, fresh off a dispiriting appearance in the 2016 Finals. Whenever the Warriors had called on Barnes to step beyond his streamlined role as a spot-up shooter, he had stumbled. Then, in the three straight losses that ultimately ended Golden State’s season, Barnes shot 5-of-32 (15.6%) from the field. A player with a mixed track record played his way into an indictment on the biggest stage possible.
Everything since has gone about as well as possible. Dallas turned Barnes (19.2 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 1.5 APG) loose as a scorer, almost doubling his usage in the process. Set plays that were once used to set up Dirk Nowitzki at the elbow or on the block were repurposed for Barnes—organizational trust in the form of structure. Barnes delivered. He proved not only that his offense was scalable, but that his game could accommodate a different degree of shot creation than he had seemed comfortable with previously. It’s helpful to think of Barnes as a defender first: a strong, smart forward who can hang with wings and stonewall bigs with designs on backing him down. On top of that, he’s become the sort of low-risk isolation option who can actually help to carry an offense. — Rob Mahoney
48. Nicolas Batum, Hornets
Batum (15.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 5.9 APG) has tended to baffle observers in recent years because he’s too good of a passer to be categorized as a 3-and-D wing and yet not nearly good enough of a scorer to be viewed as an all-around perimeter monster. There just aren’t that many players who exist in this gray area. In fact, Batum was the only one of six players to average 15/5/5 and not make one of the three All-NBA teams, and he didn’t receive a single vote. The versatile 28-year-old is simultaneously talented enough to command a five-year, $120 million contract and streaky enough to immediately be derided as overpaid after signing it last summer.
Adding to the disappointment: Batum’s 2016-17 season looks like a minor post-payday hangover, as his three-point shooting percentage dipped near career-low levels and the Hornets’ defensive rating was 4.1 points worse with him on the floor compared to 2015-16. Nevertheless, Batum is an integral piece of Charlotte’s plan to return to the playoffs. His secondary ball-handling and vision ease Kemba Walker’s load and set up the All-Star point guard for clean off-ball looks, his passable scoring ability and playmaking compensate for fellow wing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s limited offensive profile, and his experience in the two-man game helps involve mobile center Cody Zeller. When he’s fully engaged, Batum’s multi-positional defending and length can be assets too, as they allow Charlotte to field interchangeable lineups and switch on the perimeter with ease. — BG
47. Steven Adams, Thunder
Expectations were so high for Adams coming out of the 2016 playoffs that what turned out to be a career year (11.3 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 1.0 BPG) the following season was still regarded by some as a disappointment. Consider, instead, the reality. Adams raised the ceiling on what was a strange exercise in Oklahoma City last season. While Russell Westbrook drew attention from opponents and observers alike, it was Adams who was helping anchor the defense that actually got the Thunder into the playoffs. While the Thunder posted one of the lowest Effective Field Goal Percentages in the league, Adams was battling to secure extra, compensatory possessions. Only six players in the league grabbed a higher percentage of available offensive rebounds.
There will always be a cap on the box score contributions of players like Adams, in part because their games are tailored to complement. What he doesn’t do is the point; Adams knows what he does well and dedicates his game to aiding those who wind up filling the box score. It’s because of him and players like him that the high-scoring guard has become the standard bearer of modern basketball. When your center defends well, screens hard, aids in team rebounding, and finishes the opportunities presented him, the rest of the lineup can be maximized accordingly. — RM
46. Andre Iguodala, Warriors
Iguodala could mean so many things to so many teams, most paling in comparison to what he gives the Warriors. His is a perfect fit. It’s worth remembering, then, that ranking him based on his broader value will necessarily underrate his reality. Golden State might prefer Iguodala to many of the players who rank above him here, but other sorts of teams might not be able to account for Iguodala’s sparse scoring (7.6 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 3.4 APG) as easily as the Warriors do.
The very fact that they can opens up Golden State to enormous benefits. Iguodala is an all-world defender, the kind who can have such a bead on a critical play as to strip LeBron James before he even attempts a shot. Few wings, too, are so gifted as cohesive playmakers. Iguodala has a knack for uniting seemingly disparate parts. It’s through him that a drive on one side of the floor can set up a cutter on the other. What might at first seem like an impossible passing angle can be revisited by first making a kick out to Iguodala, whose difference in positioning and impeccable sense of preemption make so many things possible. So many of the best playmakers in the league need to feel the ball in their hands to really gauge the progress of a possession. Iguodala is constantly monitoring—so aware of what’s going on around him that he’s often ready to make the next pass before he ever receives one in the first place. Many seamless possessions are so because Iguodala keeps them moving. — RM
45. Brook Lopez, Lakers
Lesser men than Lopez (20.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 2.3 APG) would have responded to Brooklyn’s dense, multi-year despair by lashing out in frustration or shutting down in resignation. That the 29-year-old center finally left the Nets this summer after nine years without demanding a trade and with his spirit intact is a borderline miracle. While Lopez never ascended in Brooklyn to the level of an alpha dog who could carry a winning team on his back, he did prove that he could move past his early-career injury issues to become one of the league’s most reliable scoring centers. Then, he spent 2016-17 transforming himself into a stretch-five, attempting more than five threes per game after making just three total three-pointers in his first eight seasons combined. Remarkably, when the Nets shipped him to the Lakers for point guard D’Angelo Russell this summer, the two players’ three-point shooting numbers were nearly identical (Lopez went 134-387; Russell went 135-384).
Lopez’s sudden discovery and bear-hugging embrace of the three-point shot worked out well: He cut down sharply on his diet of mid-ranger jumpers and long twos, he improved his True Shooting Percentage, and he maintained his status as Brooklyn’s leading scorer and go-to guy. Adding a credible deep ball to an arsenal that already included post-ups and pick-and-pop looks made Lopez that much more dangerous, and it ensured that he can pair effectively with a wider range of power forwards. Lopez isn’t a true stopper and he rebounds more like a 6-footer rather than a 7-footer, but his individual offensive skills and his new-found spacing capability make him an intriguing fit and a big upgrade in L.A. — BG
44. Jae Crowder, Cavaliers
The fiery and hardnosed Crowder (13.9 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 2.2 APG) stands above all of his 3-and-D brethren when it comes to the major advanced stats, ranking No. 20 in Real Plus Minus, No. 45 in Win Shares and No. 58 in WARP. It’s plain to see why the 6’6” forward is an analytics darling: he’s a dependable spot-up option and shot nearly 40% from deep last season, he rebounds well for his position, he guards multiple spots, he moves well and is an opportunistic off-ball scoring threat, and he competes with great energy. This is not a typo: Boston’s net rating sunk from +7.8 with the 27-year-old Crowder on the court to -3.9 when he went to the bench. That’s a star-level swing.
Skeptics will be quick to counter that Crowder’s flaws and limitations rose to the surface during the playoffs. He’s not really equipped as a playmaker to pick up additional scoring load if his team’s lead options aren’t working. His heavy reliance on the three makes him prone to streakiness. He’s not quite big enough or long enough to neutralize the league’s A-list wings in a series. He might even be a touch overrated as an individual defender after spending two years in the Boston hype machine. Regardless, Crowder is an ideal fifth starter or lead reserve on a team with championship aspirations, and he should find a clean fit with the Cavaliers, who could have desperately used his services in the 2017 Finals. — BG
43. Goran Dragic, Heat
While it might get lost to history because the Heat fell just short of completing their crazy second-half playoff chase, Dragic (20.3 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 5.8 APG) had one heck of an all-around season amid some very trying circumstances. Dwyane Wade bounced. Chris Bosh was ruled out for the season. Justise Winslow didn’t suit up after New Year’s Day. Dion Waiters missed 36 games. And yet the 31-year-old Slovenian point guard proved that his career year for the 2013-14 Suns was no anomaly, dragging the Heat to a .500 record and guiding a ragtag group of overachievers to a No. 16 offensive ranking.
When given the car keys, Dragic is a methodical, merciless floor general who can beat defenses at the rim, from the free-throw line, behind the arc, and as a passer. He ranked third in the league with 11.9 drives per game, setting up both center Hassan Whiteside’s interior offense and Miami’s three-point attack with his inside-out approach. With nine years of accumulated evidence, it’s safe to say that Dragic will top out as a very good point guard, rather than a great one. Even so, he was indispensable for the Heat, who looked utterly lost and went 1-8 without him. — BG
42. Danilo Gallinari, Clippers
Let’s start here: Gallinari was one of the three most efficient scorers last season out of both pick-and-roll and post-up situations, according to Synergy Sports. He scored more points per isolation possession than Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Gordon Hayward. His spot-up shooting efficiency was on-par with Ryan Anderson and Dirk Nowitzki. Gallo is an anomaly—balanced through and through and potent well beyond what you would expect. Free throws are a big reason why. Put Gallinari in any kind of dynamic situation and his body will gravitate toward contact. Any recovery a defender makes in his direction will be used against them. Any downward swipe is sure to find his arm. The slightest bumps have a way of sending Gallinari to the floor, and more importantly, to the line for free, efficient points.
Injury remains an ongoing concern, but Gallinari is good for such steady production (18.2 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 2.1 APG) when he does play as to assuage it somewhat. Ultimately, Gallo can defend far better than many stretch fours, play capably at either forward position, and bring enough variety to the table to help teams of all kinds. That he isn’t a household name shouldn’t get in the way of appreciating just how much his game has to offer—when some nagging injury isn’t getting in the way. — RM
41. Joel Embiid, 76ers
This ranking—a futile attempt to bridge two extremes—will likely be wrong. It’s possible that Embiid plays out his 2017-18 season as something close to a top-10 player. The talent and the impact are there. It’s somewhat more likely, however, that the 23-year-old who has played just 31 games in three years again sees his season undercut by injury. For Embiid to play 50 or 60 games could feel like an incredible victory. That’s a tough sell for a top-40 player, no matter his evident qualifications.
In some ways, Embiid’s questionable availability hurts him more than it would some lesser player. Injury cannot help but become part of his team’s identity; Embiid (20.2 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 2.5 BPG) is so central to everything Philadelphia does that to lose him is destabilizing. Building around Embiid’s game makes perfect sense given all he can do, and yet committing to him on a structural level leaves Philly vulnerable in his inevitable absence. When he’s able to play, Embiid is highly skilled and physically overwhelming. The evidence to date suggests he’s one of the league’s most influential defenders at the rim, where his combination of size and mobility can flummox even the most sophisticated scorers. To get all this from a player still feeling out the game in real time underlines Embiid’s legendary potential. It just couldn’t move him any higher up our list—not when the scope of our ranking is the 2017-18 season alone. Embiid is awesome. He also has never played 30 or more minutes in an NBA game, played in a back-to-back, or made it through a full season intact. — RM
40. Isaiah Thomas, Cavaliers
Even with a dream team of Hollywood writers and an unlimited production budget, it would be nearly impossible to put together a more compelling sports movie than Thomas’s 2016-17 season, which featured tragedy, triumph, tears, trash talk, rivalries, record-setting performances and injury adversity. As if a trip to the East finals, a fifth-placed MVP finish and an All-NBA selection weren’t enough, the offseason brought the most shocking plot twists of all: a blockbuster trade to Boston’s chief rival, Cleveland, and word that a lingering hip injury could sideline him for a substantial portion of the 2017-18 season.
If fully healthy, the 28-year-old Thomas (28.9 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 5.9 APG) would have placed in the top 30 of this list thanks to a potent offensive game that checks all the boxes. He’s a teacher’s pet when it comes to Synergy’s offensive scouting breakdowns, as he ranked “excellent” or “very good” in isolation, pick-and-rolls, transition, spot-ups, screens, and dribble hand-offs. In other words, put him on the court, give him the ball, and he will score it efficiently. Defense is a completely different story, of course, as Thomas’s diminutive stature made him the weakest link to play major minutes for a contender or pseudo-contender last year. He needs extra help, he needs to be hidden and he might get repeatedly picked on by the Warriors in a theoretical Finals match-up, but Thomas’s ability to generate quality team offense and his sheer entertainment value more than justify the trade-off. — BG
39. CJ McCollum, Blazers
After establishing himself as a lethal all-around scorer during his 2016 Most Improved Player season, McCollum (23 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 3.6 APG) took his offensive game to new heights in numerous ways last season. The 25-year-old shooting guard shot a career-best 42.1% from deep, he flirted with a 50/40/90 shooting season and led the league in free-throw percentage, he ranked among the league’s most efficient mid-range shooters, and he improved dramatically as a finisher in the basket area. Simply put, McCollum is a nightmare one-on-one cover for opponents thanks to his high comfort level pulling up off the dribble, his slick handle to create space, his polished pick-and-roll game, and his ability to be score from 30 feet and in. That last part isn’t hyperbole, either, as McCollum knocked down a Stephen Curry-like 44.6% of his ultra-deep threes (from outside 25 feet).
This charmed story takes a darker turn on the other end of the court, where McCollum’s lack of size and length continues to limit his defensive effectiveness. His Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranks 78th among two guards, in the same range as sieves like Lou Williams and Marco Belinelli, and Synergy’s tracking system rates him in the 25th percentile as an overall defender. When McCollum shares the court with fellow backcourt starter Damian Lillard, the Blazers’ elite 111.8 offensive rating is largely offset by a rocky 108.1 defensive rating, which is equivalent to a bottom-six mark league-wide. With the right cast of frontcourt help, it’s possible to envision McCollum as the No. 1 or No. 2 option on a contender. Without that cover, though, life on the playoff bubble and early postseason exits are likely to be the norm. — BG
38. Eric Bledsoe, Suns
When evaluating Bledsoe’s résumé, it’s important to remember that his time with the Suns has done him no favors. Phoenix has yet to put the right kinds of complementary talent around their lead guard. Many of his most notable teammates of late have been far too young, merely of age to figure out the league while Bledsoe is trying to win. Others have been useful, albeit past their prime. The best have played the same position, forcing Bledsoe and other point guards to split roles and responsibilities—sometimes awkwardly. Bledsoe took those inopportune circumstances and churned out regularly terrific numbers (21.1 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 6.3 APG) in spite of them, bringing one to wonder what he might be capable of in a more functional environment.
What we know is that Bledsoe is forceful enough to produce but limited enough to need help. One can understand some of what the Suns were going for when they attempted to pair Bledsoe with another point guard, given that Bledsoe isn’t quite equipped to be a ball-dominant playmaker. Supplementary creators—like, for example, Devin Booker—would only help. Pare down some of Bledsoe’s responsibilities and the rest of his game turns razor sharp. His drives are even tougher to stop against a tilted defense. His pull-up game works that much more effectively when there are other threats on the floor. And the less that Bledsoe has to do offensively, the more he can hurl himself headlong into challenging defensive matchups, the kind which a nimble guard with a power forward build is uniquely equipped to handle. — RM
37. Carmelo Anthony, Knicks
The longer Anthony (22.4 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 2.9 APG) has rotted away in New York’s black hole, the trickier it has gotten to gauge his value in a vacuum. His ideal situation would look almost exactly like the opposite of the 2016-17 Knicks: He would have a pass-first point guard who knew how to set him up; a proven and healthy center to cover for him defensively; a veteran roster that was ready to compete now; a coach who could manage his ego and personality, get him to his sweet spots, and wasn’t beholden to an anachronistic offense; a GM who didn’t take shot after shot at him in the media while trying and failing to trade him; and an owner who treated his fellow human beings with decency and respect. Under those conditions, it’s possible to picture a happy and engaged Anthony, even at age 33, pumping in 24 points a night and leading a halfway-decent team to the East playoffs. While he’s gradually slipped from his prime efficiency year of 2012-13, Anthony has still managed to score in volume with respectable percentages despite very little in the way of help on or off the court.
Even if that Anthony-centric dream scenario didn’t materialize, there are other plausible fits that would make better use of his innate scoring skill and his ability to create and exploit mismatches. He could be an ultra-efficient third wheel for a high-powered attack like Houston. He could be the Sixth Man of the Year coming off the bench for Cleveland. He could be a 2015 Paul Pierce-like closer in Washington. To be clear, Anthony is far from blameless here: His 111.1 defensive rating last year was inexcusable, he never internalized how much more successful his teams would be if he was a more willing passer, and his night-to-night consistency has started to fade due to his advancing age. Ultimately, though, the biggest shame is that he chose to make his bed in New York because he’s been stuck laying in it, as quality years of production keep going to waste. — BG
36. DeMar DeRozan, Raptors
Every year we relitigate the case of DeMar DeRozan, perhaps the league’s most polarizing player. Our verdict comes down to this: DeRozan is a refined, impressive scorer whose limitations create real problems. His best skill—and his only one that is above average—is one we’ve seen repeatedly stifled in a postseason setting, leaving us with lasting concerns about the ceiling DeRozan imposes on his own team.
Considering that DeRozan can’t spot up from the three-point line (as of yet) and almost never cuts, his only real value to an offense comes with the ball in his hands. What follows can be extraordinary. DeRozan has mastered every technical advantage he can find in the mid-range, producing the league’s most extensive collection of moves and counters. His capacity to hit difficult, contested shots is remarkable, and every year DeRozan finds new ways to exploit his defenders by drawing fouls. This is the best DeRozan has to offer, and come playoff time it tends to be unsettled. When it’s not some patient, long-armed defender giving DeRozan trouble, it’s the double team—that mechanism which most tests DeRozan’s iffy awareness and playmaking sensibilities. DeRozan knows what he does well, and as such he can sometimes be reluctant to give the ball up early.
This, combined with an unwillingness to even attempt three-pointers, can lead to the kind of over-dribbling that is counterproductive. Yes, DeRozan is often scoring plenty (a career-best 27.3 PPG last season) in spite of these factors. It’s telling however, that the lineups featuring Kyle Lowry and Raptors bench players – some of Toronto’s best – couldn’t find solvency when DeRozan took Lowry’s place. If a volume scorer isn’t able to carry lesser lineups, how much is he actually doing to build winning margins? This is an even bigger issue because of how little DeRozan contributes off the ball. You can’t surround him with lesser supporting talent because DeRozan does so little to elevate the play of his teammates and his own efficiency is so subject to playoff-level scheming. But pairing him with other creators compromises some of what DeRozan does best and shackles his teammates to his unreliable spacing.
Were DeRozan even an average three-point shooter, some of these problems would disappear. If he were any kind of helpful defender, a portion of the negatives might come out in the wash. Were he more active off the ball or aware with it, things might work out more often in his favor. But to all of the above, he isn’t. For five straight years, the Raptors have performed better with DeRozan off the floor. The truth of his value is more complicated than that, though the wealth of mixed signals to this point are beyond coincidence. We know DeRozan can score. But to what end? — RM
35. Khris Middleton, Bucks
The midseason return of a one-legged Khris Middleton—ambling back from hamstring surgery—made the case for the healthy, complete player. Some of the impact that Middleton has on the Bucks is circumstantial; no other Milwaukee player can do what Middleton does, creating a void whenever he’s forced to sit. Even those circumstances, however, reflect a wider truth about the league. Some of the reason Middleton’s absence was felt so acutely in Milwaukee is because of how rare (and how valuable) players of his type have become.
Two-way wings are a precious resource. Middleton falls into an even more prized subset. At minimum, he is an exemplary 3-and-D player: fifth in the league last season in three-point percentage and a strong choice in defending the best wings in the league. This is the baseline. More creative teams could deploy Middleton across three positions to control matchups, while perhaps guarding as many as four. On offense, Middleton can venture beyond some designated spot on the perimeter to run pick-and-rolls and curl around screens. These are the areas where Middleton’s game dragged most during his injury, but for which we can expect a return to form. A health Middleton is a smooth, collected player who works with his head up. Better yet: the plays he makes for others redeem close to a maximum return. Nearly 80% of Middleton’s assists last season went toward layups, dunks, and three-pointers—even for an offense as questionably spaced as Milwaukee’s.
Flexibility matters. It means something that Middleton can post up smaller guards who try to check him or that he could switch several times throughout a possesion without giving up ground. Middleton simply fits. No matter the roster and no matter the style, there’s room for a sweet-shooting 6’8’’ wing with ball skills and defensive chops. His game is so flexible, too, that no team should ever really need to trade him. There is always some other position he could play or some other role he could fill. It’s players like Middleton – versatile, multipositional wings – who allow teams to be their best selves. Some would ask Middleton to do more and some less, but in his own way, he makes sense for them all. — RM
34. Hassan Whiteside, Heat
What makes Whiteside so much of a problem now is the very thing that kept him hovering around the NBA in spite of all his blunders: He’s just an enormous human being. It’s not until you see Whiteside fighting for a rebound against some other, appropriately sized center that his advantage is thrown into stark relief. There are seven-footers, and then there are bouncy seven-footers with a 7’7’’ wingspan. Bigs who otherwise have the size to dominate games in their own right can be seen draped over Whiteside as he goes to his hook shot, hopeless to reach it.
This remains the primary mechanism for Whiteside’s success—and it is considerable. His post moves aren’t especially varied or creative, but they work to a point. His dominance of the defensive glass comes through committed work, though it’s anchored by the fact that Whiteside will always be able to pull in misses that no one else can. Even his defense hinges on his reach. There is both something special about Whiteside’s capacity to alter shots and something limiting in the way he completely relies on it. Something will always be lost when a player like Whiteside turns the ball over as often as he does or hamstrings his team by only wanting to defend in his block-happy way. It’s a testament to his standing, however, that those qualities have become mere caveats. — RM
33. Kristaps Porzingis, Knicks
Any list of likely first-time All-Stars in 2018 should include Porzingis (18.1 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 2 BPG) near the top. While the 7’3” Latvian big man’s on-court performance in year two was largely overshadowed by his decision to skip his exit interview, he made clear progress towards Unicorn status on both ends. Most impressively, the 22-year-old Porzingis allowed opponents to shoot just 50.7% from within six feet, a comparable to the marks posted by All-Defensive team selections and elite rim-protectors like Rudy Gobert and Draymond Green. Offensively, he honed his overall scoring game and vastly improved as a finisher around the basket despite being stuck in an offense with ill-fitting parts. He also upped his three-point percentage close to league average while launching more threes than all but two seven-footers (Brook Lopez and Frank Kaminsky).
The next boxes to check on Porzingis’s developmental progress report are straightforward and attainable in 2017-18: He must do a much better job defending without fouling, he must continue to scale his usage and scoring towards alpha status (especially if Carmelo Anthony is traded), and he must get through a full season without being sidelined for significant time with nagging health issues. After missing 10 games his rookie season and 16 last year, Porzingis currently trails other premier young bigs like Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic from a dependability standpoint. Knocks aside, a maturing and tantalizing Porzingis is clearly ready for his shot at being The Man. — BG
32. Bradley Beal, Wizards
There’s an especially pure satisfaction to be found when a promising but injury-plagued player finally gets a chance to show what he can do. That was the 2016-17 story for Beal (23.1 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 3.5 APG), who translated the best health of his five-year career into a breakout campaign that should propel him into the All-Star conversation for the first time in 2018. The 24-year-old Beal posted career-highs in virtually every category that matters for a scoring guard—points, PER, True Shooting Percentage, Win Shares, Usage—and struck a brilliant balance with John Wall to help carry Washington to within one game of the East finals.
While Beal’s smooth shot and big-game confidence will always be his calling cards, he’s rounded out his game nicely: He’s cut some of the fat from his shooting diet, he’s improved as an initiator when Wall is off the court, he’s gotten to the line with greater regularity, and he’s proven capable of guarding both guard positions in the playoffs. It took a bit longer than some had hoped given his No. 3 draft position in 2012, but Beal has solidified his standing as a franchise building block. Whereas Wizards fans used to worry about his injuries because they might stunt his development, now they worry about Beal’s health because he’s become an irreplaceable star. — BG
31. LaMarcus Aldridge, Spurs
Even his staunchest defenders must admit that Aldridge (17.3 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 1.2 BPG) didn’t hold up his end of the bargain with the Spurs last season. When Aldridge signed with San Antonio in 2015, he got it all: Max money, a chance to compete for titles, the opportunity to learn from Tim Duncan and play alongside Kawhi Leonard, and a lighter minutes and usage load. In exchange, Aldridge would be expected to be a star-level difference-maker on both ends and a go-to scoring option in the playoffs. Unfortunately, that’s not how 2016-17 played out for the 32-year-old power forward, whose PER hit its lowest level since 2010, whose rebounding rate hit its lowest level since 2009, and whose bread-and-butter mid-range shooting fell off by 5 percentage points from the previous season. Then, under the bright lights of his first career trip to the West finals, Aldridge struggled badly to reassert himself as a lead scoring option once Leonard was lost to injury.
One could argue that Aldridge caught a little too much flak during the playoffs. After all, he’s an easy target given his contract number, aloof personality, and passive tendencies, he was facing a nightmare individual match-up with Draymond Green, and the Spurs were badly outmatched as a team against the Warriors. It’s also worth mentioning that Aldridge generally doesn’t receive enough credit for playing a major role on the NBA’s best defense. He allowed opponents to shoot just 49.3% shooting from within six feet last season, a rim-protection rate that compares favorably to the likes of Green and Rudy Gobert. Still, the Spurs need more – and have every reason to expect more – from their five-time All-Star and No. 2 option next season. — BG