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.
3. KEVIN LOVE – turns 25 on September 7, 2013
There’s a bit of a misconception about Kevin Love. In the annual survey of the NBA’s general managers, they’re asked who gets the most out of “limited natural ability?” Love got over 34 percent of the the votes. He also won over 50 percent of the votes for the league’s best offensive rebounder, after winning over 60 percent the year before. While we agree with the offensive rebounding portion we’re not so sure he’s “limited” in regards to his natural ability. His max vertical coming out of UCLA was 35 inches. Regardless of whether Kevin Love overachieves with “limited natural ability” or if he’s a lot more athletic than the league’s general managers give him credit for, he’s been a beast during his four-plus years in the league.
In Love’s first two years, before Minnnesota realized what they’d stumbled upon, he still managed to average a double-double each season. Then, in his third year in the league, he made the leap, added a deadly outside shot and became a 20 and 10 guy on a nightly basis, picked up the 2010-11 NBA’s Most Improved Player award while grabbing a ridiculous 15.2 rebounds per game. With the addition of Ricky Rubio last season, he had his Timberwolves in position to make their first playoffs since the departure of Kevin Garnett and averaged 26.0 points per game, which was fifth in the league. We all know what happened next: Rubio tore up his knee, and Love and the ‘Wolves went 5-20 down the stretch last season, missing out on the playoffs for the seventh season in a row.
Although David Kahn signed Love to a four-year, $60 million contract, with a fourth year option, he’s been making some noise about a future with the ‘Wolves if they don’t improve soon. He’s made the All-Star Game the last two years, was a Second-Team All-NBA player last season and finished sixth in MVP voting. He broke his hand before this season started (while doing knuckle push-ups), but since coming back into the lineup, he’s still averaging 19.9 points per game and 14.2 rebounds per game. You can be sure his points and field goal percentage will pick-up once his right shooting hand heals more fully and he can take the brace off, but he’s one of the the best young players in the league and many – including TNT’s jocular Charles Barkley – believe he’s the best power forward in the league. We agree, and that’s why we think he has a chance at Springfield. The question now is which uniform he’d be rocking if he’s ever inducted. You’re on notice, Kahn.
2. DERRICK ROSE – turns 25 on October 4, 2013
What more is there to say about the 2011 NBA MVP? Rose burst onto the scene in Memphis where he had his team one Mario Chalmers three away from an NCAA title, then was drafted first overall in the 2008 Draft before winning the 2008-09 NBA’s Rookie of the Year award. He’s averaged over 21 points and seven assists per game the last two seasons, including 25 points per game and 7.7 assists per game in his MVP 2011 campaign. His Chicago Bulls ended the last Rose-led two regular seasons with the league’s best record, even though injuries limited his effectiveness in last season’s lockout-shortened regular season. Then, in the first game of the playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers last spring, tragedy struck in the form of a torn ACL in the waning seconds of Chicago’s victory.
Obviously we’re all eagerly anticipating Rose’s return to action sometime in the new year, but even with the difficult rehab and return from his knee surgery on the horizon, Rose has done enough to warrant inclusion so high on this list. He already has MVP and ROY awards, and he just turned 24 this past October. That’s ridiculous. His game is just as ridiculous, and everything about his performance so far in the NBA makes you want to string complimentary adjectives together.
Opposing point guards are glad for a little rest from his insane crossover; his ability to get up and dunk it – even at just 6-3 – is otherworldly; his game belongs in a video game, and his playoff debut is already the stuff of legends. When healthy, he’s one of the most unstoppable 1-on-1 players in the league, and even injured, he still deserved a Dime cover. In a word, he’s the “realness” and we can’t wait to watch him come all the way back from the knee injury and wow us for the next decade.
1. KEVIN DURANT – turns 25 on September 29, 2013
If you neglect LeBron, Kevin Durant is the best player in the world right now (sorry ‘Melo, but you’re gonna have to do it for longer than a quarter season before you get to be mentioned with Durant and LeBron). Through just five seasons, Durant has three scoring titles, three All-Star nods, two second place finishes in MVP balloting, a ROY award, an All-Star Game MVP, three straight First-Team All-NBA nods, and enough hardware in his home to make most 10-year All-Stars jealous. He’s the Durantula, and if we have to go through all his accomplishments before he’s even turned 25 (he turned 24 in October), we’d need another post. And Durant isn’t just a regular season dynamo, either.
Last season, Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder (after advancing to a new round each of the past three seasons), finally made the difficult jump and came out of a tough Western Conference, defeating the San Antonio Spurs by winning four-straight games in the Western Conference Finals. The Spurs, as it’s now been forgotten, had only reeled off 20 straight wins up until that point. Did you see the fourth quarter of Game 4, when Durant took over down the stretch and evened the series at 2-2 in Oklahoma City? With 6:33 left, and San Antonio cutting the Thunder lead to 6, Durant took over like superstars are supposed to. He dropped 18 points in those final six and a half minutes, and the Thunder never looked back as they went on to their first – but probably not their last – NBA Finals appearance. If that’s not a future Hall of Fame inductee, than we don’t know what is.
Listen, if all of these players keep it up, they’ll have solid chances of being enshrined in Springfield, but Durant is only one I’d wager might have the merits even if his career ended in the next few years. That’s absurd. He’s only 24 and he’s still getting better, developing an all-around game to go with his other-worldly scoring. He’s passing better, and taking over some of the ballhandling duties with Harden’s departure. He’s getting stronger and working his butt off on the defensive end. Kevin Durant is a superstar and a future Hall of Fame member. He’s also almost a year away from his 25th birthday. We can’t wait to see what comes next.
Which young players have the highest odds of making the Hall of Fame?
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