Young guns to watch out for in the 2017-18 NBA season

Marco Benitez
Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid (21), Markelle Fultz, center, and Ben Simmons (25) pose for a photograph during media day at the NBA basketball team's practice facility, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, in Camden, N.J. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

As the 2017-2018 NBA season gets closer and closer, we find the stars of the past decade re-aligning to different teams and different conferences with the hopes of making at least one more championship run before they enter the twilight of their careers. We see guys like CP3, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Kyrie Irving, and other marquee names ditch teams they otherwise would have retired on, in order to have one last crack at beating the now gold standard in the NBA – the Golden State Warriors.

But as these big names look to make one last go around, there are new faces on the block: the NBA’s young guns. Some have just started making waves, while others are now ready to carry the mantle of the league and take it to the next decade. From the past four NBA drafts, here are some of the promising players I personally would like to see establish themselves as superstars of the league.

(In no particular order, grouped simply by draft year)

2014 NBA Draft

Andrew Wiggins (MIN), 1st pick

The former no. 1 overall pick and Rookie of the Year had career numbers with Minnesota last season, playing and starting all 82 games, while averaging career-highs in points (23.6ppg), assists (2.3apg), 3P% (35.6%) and three-pt field goals made per game (1.3). He has transformed his game from highlight reel to one of the most durable all-around scorers; having missed just one game the past 3 seasons. Wiggins is poised to sign a major contract extension with the T-Wolves, and with the arrival of Jimmy Butler and continued emergence of Karl Anthony Towns, the Wolves could be a major playoff contender in the West for years to come.

Joel Embiid (PHI), 3rd pick

Since being drafted 3rd in 2014, The Process has been saddled with several injuries that have forced him to miss two entire seasons, and play just 31 games due to a knee injury last year. Yet despite such a small sample size of games, his superstar potential was obvious. Possessing uncanny athleticism and ball-handling for a seven-foot center, Embiid also has a soft shooting touch, hitting close to 37% from three-point range. With his length and mobility to block shots (2.5bpg), he can almost single-handedly change the Sixers’ defensive complexion. Such was the impact he made that despite playing in just 31 games, he was already selected to the NBA’s All-Rookie team, and probably would have made the All-Defensive squad had he been able to play in a handful more contests. At the end of the day, a healthy Joel Embiid may determine Philadelphia’s playoff hopes this coming season.

Nikola Jokic (DEN), 41st pick

Probably one of the lesser known, yet highly skilled big men in the league, the Joker possesses a great mix of back-to-the-basket post moves, shooting touch from beyond the arc, and tremendous court vision and passing ability. Despite being drafted 41st overall and playing in one of the NBA’s small markets, Jokic blossomed last season and established himself as Denver’s premier big man, averaging 16.7ppg, 9.8rpg, 4.9apg, with an eFG% of 60.5% in just his sophomore year. To say that he had a tremendous second season would almost be an understatement, as he finished in the top 10 in the league in FG% (6th), Player Efficiency Rating (8th), True Shooting % (4th), eFG% (6th), Offensive Rating (7th), and Win Shares per 48 Mins (9th). The fact that this 6’10” Serbian point-center is only barely 23 years of age only means that with more experience and improvement, he’s well on his way to being among the NBA’s elite big men.

2015 NBA Draft

Karl-Anthony Towns (MIN), 1st pick

The 1st overall pick of the 2015 NBA draft and the 2016 Rookie of the Year is now the cornerstone of the Timberwolves franchise. And rightly so, because not since the 1995 draft – when they landed future Hall-of-Famer Kevin Garnett – has Minnesota seen a young big man with as much talent and versatility as Towns. Beginning with averaging an eye-popping 18pts, 10rebs per game while shooting 34% from three-point range in his debut season, Towns improved to 25pts, 12rebs, 2.7asts and nearly 35% from long-distance in his second year. More impressively, the seven-foot New Jersey native from the University of Kentucky started in all of Minnesota’s games the past two seasons, while averaging nearly 35 minutes per outing. Now that they’ve acquired a veteran All-NBA superstar in Jimmy Butler to form a triumvirate with Towns and Wiggins, not to mention the addition of Jeff Teague and perennial 6th Man of the Year candidate Jamal Crawford, experts have the Timberwolves as a legitimate playoff contender in the West.

Kristaps Porzingis (NYK), 4th pick

One of the NBA’s biggest market teams, where basketball is almost religion, has rolled the dice on this 22-year old, 7’3” Latvian power forward to be the savior of their beleaguered franchise. It’s a daunting task for an international player, let alone one who’s barely into his 20’s. Granted, Porzingis possesses tremendous mobility, ball-handling skills, and Nowitzki-like range uncanny for his 7’3” frame – hence the “unicorn” status – but it will hardly be enough to immediately turn the fate of a franchise around, where the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose, and even the great Phil Jackson have failed. With Porzingis, the Knicks hope to build a championship squad around an elite seven-foot sweet-shooting big man, much like Dallas did with Dirk. Porzingis’ 18pts, 7rebs, 2blks, and 36% 3pt shooting clip last season provide a great foundation, but the Knicks have a lot more rebuilding to do to build a playoff contender, even in a “weaker” Eastern Conference.

Devin Booker (PHO), 13th pick

For one of the ailing teams in the Western conference – the Phoenix Suns finished 15th in the West with a 24-58 W-L record – Devin Booker has made a name for himself as one of the deadliest gunslingers in the Association. At 6’6” and only 20 years of age, Booker led the Suns last season in scoring with 22ppg and shot nearly 37% from 3. While their offense was 22nd in the league in Off Rtg, Booker proved to be a one-man scoring machine. In a loss to Boston on March 24, 2017, Booker became only the 6th NBA player to score 70 points in a game, placing him in the company of Wilt Chamberlain, David Robinson, David Thompson, Elgin Baylor and Kobe Bryant, while at the same time, setting NBA history as the youngest to score over 60. Unfortunately, scoring alone won’t get you far in the ultra-competitive West. The Suns are hoping that the duo of Booker and Bledsoe, together with 6’8” rookie wingman and 4th overall pick Josh Jackson can jumpstart the Suns’ road to relevance in the West.

2016 NBA Draft

Ben Simmons (PHI), 1st pick

So much talk has been made about Ben Simmons, Philadelphia’s 2016 overall no. 1 pick, who missed the entire 2016-2017 season due to a fractured right foot. After just one year of college at LSU, where he averaged 19.2ppg, 11.8rpg and 4.8apg, the 6’10” Melbourne native who possesses the passing and playmaking ability of a guard, has been compared to legendary great “point forwards”, Magic and LeBron included. While we’ve yet to see if his body can adjust to the NBA game and be healthy for an entire season, his preseason debut against the Grizzlies (6pts, 9asts, 7rebs) has Sixers’ fans buzzing with excitement.

Dejounte Murray (SAS), 29th pick

Call me biased for the Spurs, but when a franchise renowned for finding diamonds – or future Hall of Famers – in the rough (Tony Parker, 28th overall pick, Manu Ginobili, 57th overall pick), then there must be something about this 21-year-old, Washington native that the NBA will eventually see. Murray averaged just 3.4pts, 1.1rebs, and 1.3asts in 8.5mins per game last season, but when given the opportunity, he showed flashes of his potential, becoming the youngest Spurs player to score at least 24 points, which he did in a regular season win against the Nuggets. When Tony Parker fell to injury in the playoff series against the Rockets, Murray started in his place. In the series-clinching Game 6 win, Murray finished with 11 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists, becoming just the fourth Spurs rookie to record a double-double in a playoff game. It’s only a matter of time before he assumes the starting point guard role, as Basketball Reference is already projecting him to average 15pts, 4.8asts and 5.5rebs per 36 minutes in the upcoming NBA season.

2017 NBA Draft

Jayson Tatum (BOS), 3rd pick

By giving up the no. 1 overall pick of this year’s draft in exchange for the 3rd pick and future draft picks from the Sixers, Danny Ainge managed to add even more assets, while securing the player they had originally wanted: Jayson Tatum, the 6’8” swingman out of Duke. Experts have said that although Tatum was not as highly-touted as Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball, he possessed the most complete offensive skillset among the rookies in the draft. During the Las Vegas Summer League, Tatum did not disappoint, leading the Celtics squad with 17.7pts, 8rebs, 1ast per game in 32 minutess of action. The former McDonald’s All-American will likely get many open looks with defenses keying in on Kyrie Irving, and together with Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward, they’ll give Boston a really good scoring punch and athleticism at the small forward position.

Lonzo Ball (LAL), 2nd pick

Time will tell whether Lonzo Ball will bring Showtime back to La La Land, or at least bring them back to the Playoffs, but from what NBA fans have seen so far, his court vision and passing ability is unmatched in this year’s draft. While the NBA Summer League is no gauge of how a player will perform during the actual season, his 16.3pts, 9.3asts, 7.7rebs, and 2.5 steals per game that won for him the NBA Summer League MVP, give Laker fans a lot to feel positive about. And while the hype machine that is his father LaVar would portray him as the Lakers’ savior - even giving him his own shoe line from their own Big Baller Brand – Lonzo’s place in Laker history will still ultimately boil down to his performance on the hard court.

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