20:03 | 16/12/2020 Print
Here are ten among Sports Illustrated‘s Top 100 list returns, aiming to answer that question.
As always, this is a wide-ranging exercise with a host of qualified candidates. There’s an abundance of information and analytical resources available with which to assess players. The rankings were again determined holistically by a combination of data and subjective evaluation, aiming to take players out of their team contexts and look at their skills and performance in a vacuum. These rankings are specifically for the upcoming season, and they do not take into account players’ long-term prospects or career arcs beyond 2020–21.
It’s best to look at these rankings as short-term projections, based on performance history and the impact of a player's age—some growth can be expected from younger players, and a degree of potential decline from older veterans. This is not a representation of a player’s trade or market value, and it does not account for the impact of his salary relative to his production. The list attempts to account for the entirety of a player’s impact—on offense, on defense, structural and otherwise—and tends to favor those with the most malleable skill sets.
Below is the list of 10 out of 100 NBA’s best players in the 2020–21 season.
There are moments when Kemba Walker ascends to a plane of unstoppability that are absolutely thrilling to watch. Walker may not have the explosive or flashy quality to his game like some of his point guard contemporaries, and yet he still has periods of sublime scoring that leave defenders helpless. Those stretches when Walker gets going in the high pick-and-roll, pulling up on bigs who dare go under screens or driving by those who get a little too eager, are very satisfying to watch. Even with Jayson Tatum earning plaudits as Boston’s lead dog, there are moments when Walker looks like the best scorer on the team.
Kemba has found a good home in Boston, where he doesn’t have the burden of being the No. 1 but can command the offense when necessary. He’s a high-volume, high-efficiency three-point shooter, and the stepback, midrange J is still as pretty as it was at Connecticut nearly 10 years ago. Of course, there are concerns. Walker experienced knee issues last season that will also cause him to miss the start of this one. His size makes him a frequent target on defense, and calls into question how effective he can really be in an ultra high-stakes playoff game. Knee, size, and defense problems are usually not kind to 30-year-old point guards, especially ones on max contracts.
But those moments, people. When he does return to play, Walker is going to have one, two, three, however many of those nights when the ball can’t help to go in, like when he dropped 40 on the No. 1 Bucks last season, or 44 on the Pacers. Walker’s game isn’t as memeable as pull-ups from halfcourt. Don’t let that stop you from enjoying someone who is still a masterful bucket getter. — R.N
It’s still mind-blowing that Zion Williamson has managed to live up to just about every aspect of his considerable hype: In the 19 games he played before the bubble, he was averaging 35.6 points and 10.2 rebounds per 100 possessions while often being deployed in short spurts, and the Pelicans performed like a top-half, playoff-caliber team on both sides of the floor. Williamson did all this without ever being in peak athletic shape—there’s endless debate over his health and playing weight, but he was inarguably more explosive at Duke. That manifested in a similarly effective, but more ground-bound play style, as well some pronounced defensive struggles as he played conceptual catch-up. Still, speculate all you want about the longevity of his body type, but you cannot argue with the results. When he was active, he was New Orleans’s best player. Williamson is a remarkable finisher around the basket, somehow unfettered by any and all comers, with an astute left hand and a multiple-jump explosiveness under the rim previously unseen in a player his size. He’s a smart passer and decision-maker who’s always been able to maximize his impact without having his number called, allowing him to, in theory, pair comfortably with a second scorer within a winning construct. Provided Williamson can work his way toward a physical peak, the surprising diversity of his game should manifest, and the Pelicans will do everything to showcase it. Instead of worrying what he could become, it’s better to save the clichés and just appreciate what’s already happening. —J.W.
There is an ageless quality to the way Aldridge plays basketball. Despite teams’ knowing the core tenets of Aldridge’s game, he is still effective night in and night out. Aldridge has been a stabilizing force in his five years with the Spurs, three of which earned him All-Star appearances. He averaged 18.9 points last year on 49.3% shooting, grabbing 7.4 rebounds per game. And he remains a force in the post, recording the second most post-up touches in the league and shooting 47.3% on his field goal attempts from that area. But despite being largely a known commodity, Aldridge showcased a new skill last year, shooting three three-pointers per game, the most of his career, and finishing the year with a 39.3% mark from behind the arc. Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich recently stressed the importance of Aldridge’s improved three-point shooting, saying that Aldridge has worked throughout the summer and into the fall on his perimeter shooting and “is committed to taking another huge step” in that category. It should help him age gracefully. In a contract year at age 35, Aldridge will look to continue meshing with San Antonio’s young guards and serving as a strong pick-and-roll partner with fellow veteran DeMar Derozan. In a Western Conference rich with talent, Aldridge’s ability to help shape San Antonio’s offense will be an important factor in determining if the Spurs can reach the postseason. —B.P.
While Damian Lillard provides most of the fireworks in the Blazers’ offense, McCollum remains an indispensable metronome. McCollum’s steady scoring punch is somewhat jarring from a statistical perspective: he’s averaged between 20 and 23 points per game in each of the last five seasons, shooting between 44% and 48% from the field. The statistical profile makes sense, as McCollum’s game isn’t dependent on his athleticism or lift on a given night. He sports a deep array of tricks off the dribble, leaning on shot fakes, spin moves and crossovers to create the necessary separation between himself and a defender. McCollum doesn’t sport the scoring punch of a true leading man, and his 6' 3" frame still creates defensive issues next to Lillard. But Portland’s second banana remains a quality one, having helped drive the Blazers to the playoffs in each of his seven seasons. —M.S.
Brandon Ingram came to New Orleans as the jewel of the Anthony Davis trade, but at the time he was anything but a sure bet. Ingram paired an impressive isolation arsenal with frustrating shot selection in Los Angeles, generating far fewer threes and free throws than are necessary for a player with his skill set. His final season with the Lakers represented a step in the right direction. Year 1 in New Orleans was a revelation. Ingram won Most Improved Player and turned in a relatively dominant offensive season. He scored 23.8 points per game on a markedly improved 39.1% from three, posting the same effective field goal percentage as Luka Dončić. Ingram’s free-throw rate continues to trend upward. His three-point rate has skyrocketed. He receives plenty of isolation opportunities in New Orleans, and while Zion Williamson should earn a greater share of volume in 2020–21, the two franchise cornerstones appear to be complementary cogs. Expect continued growth in Ingram’s second year with the Pelicans. —M.S.
There are few players in league history quite like Porzingis when he’s healthy. For now, he’s still rehabbing a knee injury that will delay his start to the season. The former Knicks cornerstone is a true unicorn at 7’3”, banging home triples at range. Porzingis tallied 403 three-point attempts in just 57 games last year, and he provided significantly more value from three than his 35.2 % mark would suggest. Porzingis’s ability to stretch well beyond 25 feet creates significant driving lanes for Luka Dončić, and allows the Dončić–Dwight Powell pick-and-roll to thrive. Porzingis is no slouch as a roll man himself. He generates a healthy 1.17 points per roll possession, using his mammoth frame to rise above defenders. It’s understandable that Dallas uses Porzingis as a spacer so consistently. But an added dose of screening action in Porzingis’s diet should help both the talented center and Dallas’s superstar guard. — M.S.
How many point guards, let alone 20-year-old rookies, could have led the collection of parts on Memphis’s roster to the cusp of playoff contention? Consider for a second the fact that the tenets of Morant’s explosive style translated directly from the Ohio Valley conference, in transition and the halfcourt, without a fully reliable jump shot. Morant’s Rookie of the Year case was a simple one. He stepped into the NBA and immediately became one of its best playmakers, capable of delivering accurate passes on the move and near-impossible to keep out of the paint. Functionally ambidextrous as a passer and finisher, whenever he gets there, his devastating dunks and craft around the rim threaten equally. Few rookie guards have ever shown up quite so ballsy and unafraid, and while he’s still learning to curb turnovers and defend with intent, it matters that Morant cares less about showmanship and more about making the right play, rarely shooting just to shoot or passing for the sake of it. His brilliance aside, the young Grizzlies were just the league’s 21st-ranked offense last season. As his game evolves, so will the expectations. Still, you shudder at the thought of what might happen if he continues to meet them. — J.W, according to si.com.
After tearing his quadriceps almost two full years ago, Victor Oladipo has yet to consistently display his old explosiveness. As an example, in 2017–18—his last full season—Oladipo attempted 10.8 drives per game, shooting on nearly half of them and converting his attempts at a 52% clip. Last season, despite just a 19-game sample size, he drove to the basket two times fewer per game, and saw his shooting percentage on drives drop to 39.7%. If Indiana is to maintain relevance in the Eastern Conference, he’ll need to re-acclimate himself. New Pacers head coach Nate Bjorkgren told reporters that Oladipo has looked like he has “a lot of bounce to him” this training camp, but it remains unclear whether Oladipo will appear in back-to-back games, something he didn’t do last year in an abridged return. The 28-year-old guard’s future with the franchise also appears to be in doubt, with trade rumors circulating. But a bounce-back would do plenty for his value, and the short-term health of the Pacers. — B.P.
Orlando has a serious logjam in the frontcourt, with shoddy guard play and less-than-ideal spacing often limiting its ceiling. Vučević doesn’t seem to mind. As the NBA continues to emphasize stretch and speed, Vučević remains a highly valuable throwback big. He tallied the sixth-most post-up opportunities in the league last season, and only one more player logged more roll attempts. These aren’t criticisms. Vučević is a quality mid-range shooter, and he can finish effectively with either hand. At times, it still feels as though there’s something missing despite Vučević’s impressive point totals. Vučević’s defensive impact is middling. His rebound percentage and free-throw rates fell last year compared to 2018–19. But he’s become more efficient thanks to an increase in three-point attempts, and with different pieces around him, you still wonder whether he might have more to offer. — M.S.
|Photo: Blazer's Edge.com|
|It took more than a year for Nurkić to make his return from a badly broken leg. His triumphant comeback proved one of the summer bubble’s most exciting developments. He showed up having shed weight and picked up where he left off and then some, backing the Blazers all the way to a surprise playoff berth. The best part was how sustainable it all feels. Nurkić’s sublime passing skills and crafty interior game was abetted by a little extra vertical oomph under the basket. His defensive positioning has typically been sound, but he appeared to be moving his feet better than ever. He looked legitimately athletic. With his playmaking and sheer size, Nurkić has fashioned himself into one of the NBA’s best screen-and roll threats, able to command an extra shred of attention while teammates create off him, punish switches, and elevate to the rim when given space. Opponents can ill afford to counter him with smaller bigs, and while he’ll never defend much on an island, he’s harder to play off the floor defensively due to his toughness and commitment. Nurkić was inching closer to his fully realized self even before reshaping his body. He may have unlocked something extra in the process. — J.W.|
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