Who’s who of rising NBA stars mark list of future MVP candidates
New York Knicks' Kristaps Porzingis (6), of Latvia, drives past Brooklyn Nets' Justin Hamilton (41) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
When NBA training camps open up next month eight of the last nine winners of the Kia MVP Award will take the court with another MVP, an unprecedented concentration of star power.
There's Kevin Durant (2014) and Stephen Curry ('15 and '16) in Oakland and Derrick Rose ('11) and LeBron James ('09, '10, '12 and '13) in Cleveland.
Only the reigning Kia MVP, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, will have that stage to himself. And he has to share the spotlight this season with All-Star forward Paul George, acquired in a trade this summer with Indiana.
But if we exclude all of the active winners of the league’s highest individual honor, which current players around the league have the chance to join that esteemed group in the coming years? Who has the profile -- that rare combination of skill, talent, maturity, exquisite timing, supporting firepower and the the platform (team success) -- to suggest they are on the cusp of challenging for that No. 1 spot in the MVP race?
Here’s our short (or not so short) list of players capable of joining that MVP mix, some much sooner than others:
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
"The Greek Freak" has everything you need to jump into the MVP space except for a team that ranks among the best of the best. And that could be in the works in the revamped Eastern Conference, where the star power has been dramatically reduced this summer. He hasn’t come close to his ceiling yet and if the Bucks rise the way he has recently, his candidacy will be legitimized in short order.
Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers
We had to have one reach on the list, and the rookie Ball is it. (Just call it a projection for the 2021 or 2022 Kia MVP race.) In all seriousness, he could be the heir to Russell Westbrook’s triple-double throne one day. And if team president Magic Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka are right and Ball is going to drive the turnaround for the Lakers, he’ll be in the MVP mix in the coming years. I know some aren’t sold on yet on the Ball hype. But having watched him in person during the Las Vegas Summer League, I’m buying that he’ll be a game-changer for the Lakers during his career.
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
We’ve been drawn in by this tremendous talent before, only to see injuries derail his MVP campaign (not to mention the season for the Pelicans). He has to share the stage with DeMarcus Cousins, which might not allow for the sort of wicked numbers Davis puts up routinely. But if he has to sacrifice individual statistics for a rise in the standings, it’ll work in his favor come awards season. Now if he could just stay healthy.
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
We’ve trusted the process this long, so there’s absolutely no reasons to abandon the Embiid bandwagon now. Sure, it’s only been a flash of excellence, but any projection of the top players in the league in the coming years has to include this nimble giant. Embiid’s combination of inside-out game and personality plays perfectly in this social media age. And if, much like Anthony Davis, he can find a way to stay healthy, he’ll dominate.
James Harden, Houston Rockets
With all due respect to Rockets GM Daryl Morey, some of us love NBA awards season and the method to the madness. On this list, Harden ranks as the closest thing to a Kia MVP without actually having one. He’s been close in two of the last three seasons and at the rate he’s going, he’s destined for a breakthrough -- provided the roster changes in Houston produce immediate dividends.
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
The only thing missing from Leonard’s war chest is a Kia MVP. He’s already collected a championship, a Finals MVP and a couple of Kia Defensive Player of the Year awards. With his continued development and improvement on the offensive end, his standing as the best two-way player in basketball (not named James) will fortify itself. Along with James Harden, Leonard is probably closer than most to actually winning a Kia MVP.
Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
Not everyone on this list is ready to make the MVP jump right away. But "The Unicorn" projects as a good bet to be a part of the mix in two or three seasons, provided his current trajectory doesn't get interrupted by the rubble the Knicks are trying to clear during their franchise rebuild. The talent is undeniable. And there is something symbolic about the blessing of the original "Unicorn", Dirk Nowitzki (the 2007 Kia MVP), that Porzingis received during their shared NBA Africa Game experience this summer.
Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
The NBA’s best fourth-quarter assassin shot his way into the MVP conversation last season, pushing the Celtics to the No. 1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference ahead of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. He has plenty of incentive (contract year) to continue his assault on the league, not to mention some All-Star help in the form of Gordon Hayward and talented rookie Jayson Tatum. Thomas is poised for big things this season. If the Celtics live up to the hype, he’ll have the perfect narrative to ride into awards season.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
Even with the import of All-Star Jimmy Butler and veteran point guard Jeff Teague, Towns remains the sturdiest pillar of this franchise on the rise. He learned to share the load with Andrew Wiggins and (the now departed) Zach LaVine in his first two seasons. But make no mistake, he’s potentially the most dominant big man on the horizon. He’s got the polish to his game Kristaps Porzingis is still working on and has not had the health issues that have plagued Joel Embiid. Towns is already the total package and now he’s on a team that will launch him into the MVP mix.
John Wall, Washington Wizards
Wall signed up for the Russell Westbrook MVP plan this summer, making it clear that he’s going to grind for the Washington Wizards until they reach championship level or he exhausts himself trying to get there. Wall is overlooked far too often when the conversation turns to the best point guards and the best two-way players in the league. But he proved last season, coming off of knee surgery in the offseason, that he’s capable of elevating his game and team to the next level. If you’ve paid attention to him on social media this offseason, you know he’s been in the lab relentlessly honing his craft for what’s to come.
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