By: Jalon Dixon, Columnist
As we transition into 2020, just as we turn to the next decade, the NBA turns to its next era of basketball greatness. With the rise of positionless basketball, the importance of the three ball and the constant influx of talent every year, the NBA ushers in its next era of great NBA superstars.
Looking back on the history of basketball, the NBA has always had a dominant player or team that headlined the league on a year to year basis. At one point it was center Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics. Then there was the rivalry between guard Magic Johnson and forward Larry Bird. Of course, everyone knows about guard Michael Jordan and his historic run, going 6 – 0 in the NBA Finals. Even in the last decade we had forward Lebron James who went to eight straight finals and the Golden State Warriors who at one point were regarded as the greatest collection of talent ever assembled led by guard Stephen Curry and forward Kevin Durant.
But as we look ahead to the next decade of basketball, new players are already emerging and look more than ready to take on the mantle of being the best player in the league. Here are four rising superstars capable of leading the NBA through another decade of dominance behind freakish ability and unbelievable talent.
You have to start with the reigning NBA Finals MVP in forward Kawhi Leonard. Despite the significant amount of criticism he has received recently for starting up a “load management” revolution, Leonard has been one of the most prolific players in the game whenever he is on the floor. As a two-way wing player with the ability to guard your best offensive player on one side of the floor and then give you 25+ points on a nightly basis, Leonard is already showing his potential to become one of the greatest forwards of all time. He’s averaged over 25 points per game in three of the last four seasons, and I don’t see it ending anytime soon.
Entering his physical prime, Leonard is 28 years old and may be able to already cement his legacy this season as a member of the LA Clippers by becoming the third player in NBA history to win a championship with three different franchises.
Next is the “Greek Freak,” forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is the reigning league MVP and may even be on pace to win the award in back-to-back years. At only 25 years old, Antetokounmpo is essentially “The Next Lebron James” from a measurables standpoint as a player with unreal athleticism and ball handling to go alongside height and speed. Every year since entering the league in 2014, the Greek Freak has gotten better and better with no signs of slowing down. He has improved his points and rebounds average in each season of his career along with his field goal percentage.
With the mentality of a winner and the physical gifts he has at his disposal, he has the chance to be the most dominant player in the league since maybe center Shaquille O’Neal. In a league where shooting beyond the three-point line is practically a requirement, Antetokounmpo is slowly becoming more of a threat from the outside. His career three point percentage is around 28%, but this season he’s improved to 32% shooting and is taking nearly twice as many threes as he did last season. Once he gets that down pact, it will come down to how many rings he will win not when will he win one.
Third on the list is the Slovenian phenom himself, guard Luka Doncic. As the NBA continues to find talented international prospects, Doncic may be the most polished pro of them all in only his second season in the league. Unlike some of the other “greatest player in the world” candidates we have had over the years, Doncic is not great because of some god-given athleticism like Lebron James or gifted shooting range like Stephen Curry.
For a 20-year-old, he already has the basketball IQ of an NBA veteran and has better skills than most players have in only one and a half seasons in the league. Building off of a sensational rookie campaign, Doncic, forward Kristaps Porzingis and the Dallas Mavericks are going to be a tough out in the Western Conference for years to come. In less than two seasons in the NBA he’s averaged over 21 points per game in each season and has improved his average in assists, rebounds, and steals.
And last but not least is, of course, New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson. I am well aware that we have not seen him play even a single minute of real NBA basketball. He hasn’t played in the regular season, but the preseason numbers should give Pelicans fans hope for the future. In four games Zion averaged 23 points, six rebounds, and shot 71% from the field. Most are also not certain about what his specific role on a championship level team can even be right now. But it is just too hard to overlook Williamson’s combination of size and athleticism.
Standing at 6-foot-6-inches, 285 pounds, Williamson’s ability to get above the rim, make rim-rattling dunks and fly across the court defensively are all qualities that are too promising to discount. Of course, his ability to reach his true potential is going to be based on his recovery and the system that he plays in, but he is just a once in a generation talent, nonetheless.
All four of these players have different skill sets and bring a new look to the direction that the NBA is heading. Whether it be a known commodity, some international flavor or even a boom-or-bust potential talent, these players have the talent, skill and drive to lead this next decade into a new era of NBA basketball.