The Rule: Qualified candidates are all 25 years old or younger.
PG: John Wall, Washington Wizards
Next Man Up: Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns
I’d love to see these two actually share the same backcourt and call each other teammates, and there should be little confusion as to why either is placed here. Both have displayed a notable ability to improve as they’ve embraced more responsibilities and larger roles, and these aren’t point guards who simply do it at one end of the floor. Despite expending an astounding amount of energy on the offensive end, it’s the defense from both Wall and Bledsoe that provides an extra edge. Although neither is an elite shooter, Wall and Bledsoe each have the ability to penetrate through the lane and fearlessly attack the rim. That is a more than acceptable substitution for what is lacking from the outside.
SG: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
Next Man Up: Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
Wiggins didn’t get enough credit for the job he did defensively during his rookie season as a 19-year-old kid, but his evolving offensive approach is going to ensure he gets the attention he deserves. Now starting to find his comfort zone and learning how to balance his effort between both ends, Wiggins is on track to celebrate his graduation to stardom with his first (legal) glass of champagne in hand.
Thompson isn’t a box score superstar because he doesn’t stuff the stat sheet like teammate Stephen Curry, but don’t let that detract from his proper slotting here. Brought into the league as a lights-out shooter capable of hitting it from anywhere, Thompson’s reputation is dimmed by the fact that plays in Golden State’s galaxy of stars. Put him on almost any other team and the perception of Thomas immediately becomes digested through a different lens. After facing questions about his defense earlier in his career, Klay has been able to mold himself into impressive respectability at that end, as well.
SF: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Next Man Up: Paul George, Indiana Pacers
It’s difficult not to find space for Giannis Antetokounmpo here, but there was no turning away either Leonard or George. Nobody wants to take a vacation to the Kawhian Islands these days given the threat he’s become on both sides of the ball, Spurs’ new franchise player is very much living up to his new title. Already with an NBA Finals MVP and a Defensive Player of the Year Award, Leonard is a transcendent player being groomed in a system that has continued to breed success. That’s not going to change with Leonard.
Prior to his freak injury, George was a player being mentioned in the same breath as LeBron James and Kevin Durant. That type of talent doesn’t just suddenly evaporate overnight when a player is entering the prime of his career, and George is more motivated to prove himself than ever. The self-proclaimed PG-13 title has returned as an R-rated version, and what we’re seeing is a superstar who has learned how to see the game from both the on-court and sideline perspective. That’s a dangerous combination.
PF: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Next Man Up: Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz
Davis’ game has no ceiling, and it’s frightening to think that he’s still growing as a player despite already dominating the league. An absolutely incredible athlete capable of doing literally whatever he wants on the court, AD is a matchup nightmare no matter how the opposition tries to defend him. A generational superstar who could legitimately contend for MVP and Defensive Player of the Year every season, Davis is everything a franchise could ever want with its No. 1 pick.
Although Gordon Hayward is popularly billed as the Utah Jazz’s foundational building block and many others want to prematurely give Rudy Gobert the nod, that title really belongs to Favors. An absolute beast of a defensive player with a rapidly growing offensive game, Nerlens Noel’s ascension through the NBA isn’t quite moving fast enough to prevent this party from including Mr. Favors. Able to do the dirty work on defense and score 20 points without having a play called for him, Favors’ four-year, $49 million pact (signed in 2013) is in the same store where Stephen Curry’s four-year, $44 million agreement can be found in the bargain bin.
C: Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
Next Man Up: DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings\
Karl-Anthony Towns is going to force his way into this discussion sooner rather than later as the rookie who offers the most upside since Anthony Davis’ arrival, but there is no way he’s blowing by either Cousins or Drummond just yet.
Drummond’s breakout started long before this season, and we would have been talking about him considerably more had he not had to share the spotlight with Greg Monroe during The Moose’s Detroit crossing. An unstoppable force around the basket with a growing offensive attack, I haven’t watched someone rebound with this ferocity and effectiveness since Dennis Rodman. The amount of progress he’s made since the 2012-13 season is downright remarkable, and it’s frightening to think what kind of player he could be two years from now.
Although the Kings have been run like an absolute circus around their franchise player for almost the entirety of his career, Cousins been able to produce statistics that most only see in a video game, keeping his team dogpaddling in the water when everyone else already left them for dead. He’ll really need to improve his efficiency, shot selection and defensive effort if he wants to keep pushing forward, but it’s fair to wonder if that’s realistically possible in his current situation. The individual talent is unlike most we’ve ever seen.