- Which players are best positioned to dominate the decade to come? In the interest of looking forward, SI selected five stars best positioned to parlay their talent into extended success as the 2020s begin.
In selecting this team, we aimed to select the stars we felt had the best chances to define the next 10 years of NBA basketball. There was a strong emphasis on players who best blended youth, established production, long-term projection and winning circumstances. You can make arguments many ways for many players, but given all the unknown factors and splitting of hairs, we felt it best to settle on just one team of five.
By far the hardest player to cut from this list was Nikola Jokic, who at 24 has as strong a case as anyone—we split hairs over his defensive shortcomings and heavier body type as they pertain to longevity. Donovan Mitchell was a narrow omission, entering his age-23 season in Utah having set himself apart as one of the league’s most promising young guards, with more statistical growth likely to come. Kyrie Irving, 27, offered proven crunch-time shot creation as a critical selling point, but disinterested defense and a spotty stint in Boston at this stage of his career counted against him. Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker have yet to prove they can turn their production into winning basketball. And we may look foolish in due time for leaving off Zion Williamson, but rational thought suggests it’s better to let the Pelicans’ rookie sensation announce his own arrival before leaping to big conclusions.
Antetokounmpo’s ascendance from little-known Greek prospect into a generational, MVP winning talent (and the autocorrect dictionaries of cell phones across the globe) now stands as one of the more remarkable player development stories in league history. As he approaches his 25th birthday and seventh NBA season, the Giannis narrative has shifted from ahead of schedule to right on time, with estimable untapped upside lying in the growth of his jump shot supplementing his prolific across-the-board production.
His mythical length and physical qualities, still-improving ball skills and noted work ethic and team-first mentality have made him not just an MVP, but perhaps the league’s most valuable trade asset. It’s safe to say at this point that he’ll contend for awards with ease for the duration of his physical prime, but the next step for Antetokounmpo is learning to win big in the postseason.
If the Bucks’ environment isn’t enough, in 2021, Giannis’s first big free-agent summer could bring a seismic shift to the NBA landscape. One way or another, he should be positioned to contend for the better part of the decade. All factors considered, Antetokounmpo is the easiest player to list projecting forward. There’s quite a bit of real success in his ledger, and potentially, bigger things lying in wait.
Over the years, Leonard has cemented himself as the league’s premier playoff closer, most feared defender, and has made an exceedingly strong case as the NBA’s best all-around player. At 28, he’s the oldest player on this list, but you’d be remiss to not consider the possibility his dominance might come with a longer tail than your average star.
Leonard comes with an injury history, but he’s well-positioned to win big with the Clippers, who will take every opportunity to help extend his prime and keep his body working when it really matters. He is deathly efficient, keeps things enviably simple, and can swing a game on either side of the ball in a dangerously short amount of time. These things are all factual, and as the Raptors have proven, a strong supporting cast anchored by a healthy Leonard can contend.
With the Clippers now situated near the top of a wide-open Western Conference, there’s no better opportunity for Leonard to prolong his individual dominance and compete for more championships. A motivated Paul George will help Leonard shoulder the load, abetted by a deep cast of role players for the time being, in a situation that should be wildly attractive to free agents for the foreseeable future. You might find people willing to bet against Leonard leaving his mark across not one, but two decades—you just won’t find them here.
After a rather hectic saga that culminated in the Pelicans fulfilling Davis’s wishes and sending him to the Lakers, it’s easy to forget that LeBron James’s new running mate is still just 26 years old. Entering his eighth NBA season, he remains the prototype for what a modern big should look like as he joins up for what might be LeBron’s last, best shot at winning more championships.
Although James will command the spotlight as always, it’s Davis who could be the true beneficiary of their partnership, with easier baskets and reduced defensive attention potentially on the way. Still very much a nightly double-double threat, versatile scoring threat and an All-Defense caliber force around the basket, Davis is poised to reclaim his place as the NBA’s best big man, provided the Lakers can get things moving in the right direction. He’s well-positioned to dictate his surroundings going forward, as well: should the experiment in Los Angeles break poorly, Davis can enter free agency next summer and choose the team best positioned to help him win championships.
There will be pressure no matter what, and he still has plenty to prove, but as long as Davis’s injury woes can remain a thing of the past, he’ll have a strong chance to marry his production and potential in pursuit of titles, as his career unfolds.
In just three NBA seasons, the 25-year-old Embiid set himself apart as one of the league’s truly unique talents. The rare, true gargantuan center who can score from all over the floor, offers game-altering impact on defense and also translates that value into production, his ascent ushered the Sixers toward contention well ahead of schedule.
Gifted with nimble feet, natural timing and a competitive streak, the total package has made him into perhaps the league’s most dominant interior player at a relatively early stage of his career. In Embiid’s case, it often feels like his health is the only thing that can intervene, and if his history of lower body injuries treats him kindly, that may well prove to be the case.
It’s exceedingly difficult for modern centers to act as true fulcrums on either side of the ball, and Embiid continues to pass that test with flying colors, adjusting his game as necessary to account for the personnel around them. Philadelphia has more work to do in solidifying the right team around him, but for as long as Embiid maintains top form, his teams will remain part of the big conversations.
A prodigy in every sense, it was little surprise to see Doncic hit the ground running as he entered the NBA at age 19, after carving out a decorated career at Europe’s highest levels. Just how good he was out of the gate was no less impressive, already marrying his preternatural basketball IQ with strong production while offering plenty of upside with room to grow in the efficiency department.
While it requires real faith to justify his inclusion over more established stars, the fact that Doncic will enter 2020 as a 20-year-old on a rookie contract and as part of a Dallas organization committed to building—and spending—around him helps bolster an already-strong case for him as a talent that might define the years to come.
There’s little question Doncic can help anchor a winning team and put up high-end numbers. How soon those things hit their confluence feels like more a matter of time and good fortune than anything else. He’s this young, he’s this good, and the future is bright.