There are a lot of young stars in the NBA, but only a few that seem destined for greatness. We’re highlighting five who, barring injury, or a shocking decline in production, could be elected into the Hall of Fame some time around or after 2025. We’re only giving you five of them, and all are under the age of 25. It’s good to be young.
The Christmas edition of ESPN the Magazine is the Hall of Fame issue, and the editors decided to take a statistical hammer to the current busts in the Springfield, Massachusetts’s. They added some players, but cut more, and arrived at 80 total players in their new Hall. It got us thinking about the youngsters poised to lead the NBA into the second and third decades of the millennium who will receive their own busts in Springfield. Hopefully, we’re not jinxing anyone here, but we’re probably not alone in most of this prognostications, and one player in particular on this list is already well on his way.
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5. BLAKE GRIFFIN – turns 25 on March 16, 2014
Blake’s a long way from his disappointing rookie season. No, not his Rookie of the Year season, but the year he sat out before winning the award, when he broke his left kneecap in his final preseason game and missed the entirety of the 2009-10 season. This being the Clippers, most forgot about him. But after surgery and the lost season, he came back and hasn’t stopped wowing us since as the Clippers acquired Chris Paul and one of the deepest benches in the league.
During his (new) rookie season, Blake – without Paul as the team’s helmsman – averaged over 22 points per game and over 12 rebounds per game. Not only was he a double-double machine, but the dunks, oh good Lord the dunks! There were so many it would take us an entire separate post to go through them all, but we all remember the Timofey Mozgov incident, right? We know Mozgov still has nightmares. BG followed that up the next year as “Lob City” was born after their acquisition of Chris Paul from the Hornets. We’re pretty sure Griffin’s dunk on Kendrick Perkins last season might add an extra layer of anger to Perkins’ perpetual scowl (you can compare both dunks here).
Last season, Blake’s averages dropped just slightly, but he still averaged 20 and 10 on the season, and shot 55 percent from the field as his PER rose to 23.4. This year his averages are down a bit, but he’s doing more on the defensive end (1.4 steals a game) and he’s still shooting over 52 percent from the floor while improving his free throw shooting. Yes, he must get more consistent from the line (listen up Dwight), and he’s still in the process of polishing his footwork in the paint, but there aren’t many players who’ve had a better couple of seasons to start their career and we’re expecting to watch this kind of production from Blake (turning just 24 in March next year), for the next decade or more.
4. RUSSELL WESTBROOK – turns 25 on November 12, 2013
Russ is already one of the top five point guards in the league, and combined with another guy on this list, he’s one of the young leaders of an Oklahoma City Thunder team looking to return to their second NBA Finals in as many years. But Russ has experienced some growing pains in his now four-plus seasons in the league. After an exciting rookie season, he regressed a bit in his sophomore campaign. He shot just 22 percent from three-point land, and continued to turn the ball over. These same problems continue to plague one of the most confounding players to watch in the game.
But he plays so damn hard, Thunder fans have now accepted the bad with the incredible. Stats don’t really sum up the energy and excitement he brings to the Thunder, but let’s look at them anyway since they’d play a part if he were to make it to Springfield some day. We mentioned his turnovers, and even this year he’s still over three TOs per 36 minutes, which is high for a player of his caliber, but not incredibly so – especially now that that OKC is without one of its primary ballhandlers from years past, James Harden.
Even though Russell’s assist numbers took a dive last year from 8.2 per game to 5.5, he shot over 45 percent from the floor for the first time, and averaged 23.6 points per game. While some – ahem Skip Bayless – think Russell should cede more of those shots to his partner in Oklahoma City (don’t worry, we’ll get to him), Westbrook’s offense is a part of what makes the Thunder special. He’s a big game scorer that can sometimes single-handedly keep his team in contention when their other superstar is struggling. Witness last year’s performance in Game 4 of the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat. He dropped 43 points on the champs and had 20 buckets as the Heat were unable to keep him from getting to the rim and finishing. When you can light up a team as good as Miami on that stage, it’s a lot easier to stomach the turnovers and rushed three-pointers.
This season has seen a slight change from Russ. He’s still averaging 21.1 points per game. He’s back to being a facilitator, something the Thunder need more of since Harden was traded. He’s averaging a career-high 8.6 assists per game, and he’s cut his turnovers down to a career low 3.3 per 36 minutes. While that’s not ideal, it’s still the best of his still-short career, and in case you didn’t know, Kobe Bryant is leading the league in turnovers as of this writing. Westbrook only turned 24 this past November, and we’ve got goosebumps thinking about all the years we’re gonna get to watch him take guys off the dribble, and pull up for that jumper where he seems to jump four feet in the air before arcing it through the net.