Counting down the NBA’s top 20 stars of 2019

A Bulls' loss would accomplish the same thing, but the easiest way for the Raptors to guarantee themselves third seed in the Eastern Conference is with a win tonight in New York (Photo: Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty)

Today the NBA will determine the rosters for its Rising Stars Challenge, which kicks off All-Star Weekend on Feb. 14 in New Orleans. Culled from a previously selected group of rookies and sophomores—second-year centre Jonas Valanciunas will be the Raptors’ lone representative (somehow Terrence Ross was not chosen)—the teams will be drafted live on TNT’s pre-game show ahead of tonight’s Spurs vs. Nets contest.

The Rising Stars game tends to live up to its billing as an orgy of highlights played out in front of a worldwide audience—even if the level of defence makes Sunday’s All-Star Game feel like Game 7 of the finals by comparison. But it also serves a bigger purpose, providing a window into the future of the NBA.

Not that the league always gets the selections right. Five years ago, for instance, the game featured the likes of Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Marc Gasol. But it also included Rudy Fernandez, Michael Beasley, Greg Oden, Al Thornton and Rodney Stuckey—who beat out Kevin Love, Mike Conley Jr., Roy Hibbert, Joakim Noah and other stars of today.

Okay, so the Rising Stars game, fun as it is, might not be the greatest indication of how the league’s hierarchy of stars might look down the road. Want to know what is (read: might be)? This list, of the NBA’s top stars five years from now. (Note: The list is based on an intricate and scientific algorithm, and is not open for debate. Sorry.)

1. Kevin Durant: In what way could you possibly see Durant slowing down within the next five years? He’s the best player in the NBA this season, and his offensive arsenal is so deep that he can continue to find ways to control games as his career progresses. And unlike other dominant forces like, say, LeBron James, Durant’s abilities on the perimeter mean he’ll be able to maintain this level of play far longer than most.

2. Anthony Davis: His second season already has him among historic company, and at just 20 years old Davis’s ceiling is higher than any other player in basketball. His career so far:

Year one: 13.5 pts/8.2 reb/1.8 block
Year two: 20.5 pts/10.5 reb/3.3 block

Year seven? You do the math.

3. LeBron James: At 33 years old, it’s safe to say the greatest player of his generation will still be effective. And a merely “effective” LeBron is still better than 99.5 percent of players out there.

4. Paul George: The template is simple: You come into the league with otherworldly athleticism; the next year you refine your jump shot and your defensive chops, and extend your range out to the three-point line to keep defences honest; then you establish yourself as the best player on a legit NBA title contender, and realize you’re one of the best around. At 23, Paul George is already there. By the time he reaches his prime in the next five years? Look out.

5. Blake Griffin: Like George, Griffin came to the NBA as a destructive force of nature—and little else. Now he’s on his way to becoming a complete basketball player, an already underrated passer with plenty more room to grow.

6. Steph Curry: The big question is his health, although people have been wondering whether Curry can handle the bigger, stronger bodies around him since he was a kid. But the biggest health concern is his ankle, a lingering issue, and the type that can hamper a player in the long-term.

7. Andre Drummond: Twenty years old and already second in the league in double-doubles (first among centres). Just wait until he becomes a focal point of a team’s offence.

8. Damian Lillard: In just his second season, Lillard has become one of the best scoring point guards around—third behind only Curry and Kyrie Irving this season. If he can clean things up on the defensive end, I really believe we’re looking at a future all-time great.

9. DeMarcus Cousins: Who doesn’t want to see Cousins put it together and establish himself as the league’s most dominant centre? He has the size and ability, but whether it happens or not will be determined largely by circumstance.

10. Andrew Wiggins: The unfathomable hype that has surrounded the Thornhill, Ont., native heading into his freshman season at Kansas has made him the most scrutinized pro prospect since LeBron. Yet in that process, as scouts and prognosticators look for holes in his game, it seems he’s somehow becoming underrated as March Madness approaches (his role on a loaded Kansas team doesn’t help from that perspective).

11 (tie). Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose: Both of these players are worthy of top-five placement in this list, but because of the physical demands their style of play puts on their bodies, we’ve already seen how injury problems can plague their careers. Here’s hoping the NBA’s two most exciting point guards are more than just a couple of Penny Hardaways when all is said and done.

12. Eric Bledsoe: In his first year as a full-time starter, Bledsoe has proven his worth as a bonafide Alpha Dog and physical force at his position. Like the two players above, you hope that doesn’t translate to sustained injury problems.

13. Joel Embiid: Before his first college season began, Embiid—without question the top centre prospect and a potential No. 1 pick in this June’s draft—had the makings of an overhyped big man, a guy whose size and athleticism allowed him to dominate at the college level before being exposed as a pro. But now? He looks like the real deal.

14. Chris Paul: With the way Paul controls so many aspects of the game and his Mensa-level basketball IQ, he is going to remain an elite point guard well into his thirties.

15. James Harden: A lefty who can get to the free-throw line at will, rebounds extremely well for a guard, and is dangerous from behind the arc will always be a threat any time he takes the floor.

16. John Wall: He’s not just a speedy über-athlete anymore. In becoming a true floor general and leading the Wizards to the post-season this year, Wall, a first-time all-star, is starting to put it together and justify being selected first overall.

17. Jabari Parker: Everything about his game screams “future NBA star.”

18. Giannis Antetokounmpo: Is there a more likeable guy in pro sports right now? No, there isn’t. Giannis has the perfect frame for basketball, like a stronger Kevin Durant, and his game is so versatile it’s scary to think where he’ll be with some experience under his belt.

19. Jonas Valanciunas: Not yet the go-to low-post scorer he may one day become, Valanciunas is another player whose ceiling strikes fear in opposing players and has GMs around the league lusting after him. After all, seven-footers with solid defensive principles, nice touch around the hoop, an unflappable work ethic and a mean streak on the court are hard to come by.

20. Seventh Woods: No argument needed. Let’s just go to the tape.

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