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Athlete Heat Index: Taking Stock Of The NBA’s Hottest Names Before The Start Of The Season

Welcome back to UPROXX’s Athlete Heat Index, where sports marketing executive and self-described “brand geek” Michael Ehrlich ranks athletes by the strength of their personal brands.

The latest ranking is inspired by the NBA’s 75th season tipping off on October 19th, the league’s first full 82 game regular season since the 2018-19 campaign.

With such a historic season ahead, full of “75 top players of all-time” lists and the league’s massive new “NBA Lane 75” marketing campaign featuring basketball legends of past and present, it’d be easy (and boring) to list the biggest names in the game – LeBron, Giannis, Durant, etc. – and rattle off how strong their personal brands are.

Instead, we analyze the players who took the biggest leaps this offseason and are poised for legendary status of their own.

Here is my starting five of the strongest NBA athlete brands heading into the new season:

5. Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors

The last time Thompson was on the court, it was Game 6 of the 2019 Finals and the Warriors’ historic championship run was coming to an end at the hands of the Raptors. After Achilles and ACL tears shelved Thompson for the past two seasons, most personal brands would take a major hit not being in the spotlight. But this Splash Bro isn’t your typical personality.

While some athlete injury recovery processes have led to inspirational and intense workout content, brand commercials or marketing campaigns, Thompson’s authentic quirkiness shined during his rehab – further distinguishing him amongst a league full of strong personal brands – while not even performing on the court for two years.

His Instagram Live sessions while boating in the San Francisco Bay to workouts at the Warriors facility took on iconic status, even getting recreated by pop culture/hip hop royalty. Starting out swimming, kayaking and ultimately upgrading to his own boat, Thompson’s aquatic adventures was among the most engaging social media content of the NBA offseason. His stream of consciousness commentary – about life, basketball and the future – while traversing the waters led to a lip-sync recreation from Drake, further crossing over the Thompson brand into the pop culture landscape.

Once Thompson was back on land though, his unique personality continued to take shape via his Jackie Moon from “Semi-Pro”-inspired workouts, complete with headband, short shorts and trick shots – committing to a bit he began on Halloween in 2018.

In such a challenging time for him physically and professionally, Thompson has made rehab and recovery look fun. His timetable for a return to the court will be one of the top headlines as the season tips and as the Warriors get back to their winning ways, the narrative around Thompson putting them over the top will continue to build.

A Comeback Player of the Year campaign will no doubt be in order, but regardless of how he performs on the court, Thompson’s personal brand has continued to rise even without stepping foot on the hardwood.

4. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets

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The reigning NBA Rookie of the Year came into the league already one of the most intriguing up and coming personal brands, due to his massive social media footprint – with a follower count and engagement rate that outpaced All-Star players and team accounts – his highlight reel style of play and his famous family.

His unique basketball journey – which took him from a high school junior to playing professionally in Lithuania and Australia to the NBA Draft – only added to the uniqueness of the youngest Ball brother’s personal narrative.

Every move the entire Ball family makes garners headlines, opinions and haters so there were certainly critics that didn’t think LaMelo’s game or body would hold up against top competition in the NBA. But once he hit the floor for the Hornets, his flashy skillset was on full display and he made an immediate impact.

His style of play parallels his off-court look – the bright color wardrobe, massive chains that mirror his tattoo designs, his grills, sunglasses and neon Lamborghini – but that alone doesn’t build a unique brand.

Ball’s partnership with Puma further tapped into his motto of being “1 of 1” and throughout his rookie season, the brand teased an upcoming signature sneaker to come, a rarity for such a younger player. Their Shorty Awards-winning social media campaign showcasing the on and off court talents that make Ball “not from here” continued to set him apart amongst his NBA peers.

Prior to the new season, Puma unveiled Ball’s debut shoe the bright red MB. 01, the brand’s first signature model since Vince Carter in 1999.

An offseason GQ feature on Ball accurately summed up his instant impact on and off the court for the league, calling him “the avatar of its future.”

League brass has certainly taken notice as they included Ball in the “NBA Lane 75” commercial, a sign that even after just one injury-shorted season, he’s already considered a future pillar of the NBA.

Ball and the Hornets are definitely on the rise and an increase in national televised games this season will only help bring more attention his way, further connecting his legitimate skillset with his polarizing personal brand.

3. Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks

At just 22, twice an All-Star starter and first team All-NBA member (the youngest to do so), Dončić is a triple-double threat every night, a top fantasy pick and an MVP candidate heading into the new season.

His on-court accolades speak for themselves, but he’s been one of the most improved personal brands off the court and poised for further mainstream breakout this season.

Hailing from Slovenia, his own brand has a built-in global audience and scale that continues to expand his narrative and makes him that much more attractive for corporate partnerships. Transitioning from an “international man of mystery” of sorts when he entered the league to now a bonafide superstar, Dončić’s marketing portfolio has begun to take shape– from Jordan Brand to Panini to BioSteel.

After his incredible third season with the Mavericks, Dončić carried the Slovenia National Team in its first-ever Olympic appearance in men’s basketball to within one point of the gold medal game putting up ridiculous stats the entire tournament, further cementing himself on the international stage.

When 2K Sports announced Dončić as the featured cover athlete on their new NBA 2K22 game – an honor every season, but especially ahead of the league’s 75th – they explained his selection as wanting to “inspire more international basketball players to pursue their goals.” Dončić’s cover even featured a design and color scheme honoring the Slovenian flag and as part of his 2K22 relationship, Dončić refurbished courts in his hometown, including where he practiced as a kid.

Dončić’s brand narrative has begun to infuse a bit of fun as seen when announcing his partnership with BioSteel as his first equity investment. The Mavs star created a tongue-in-cheek LinkedIn profile listing himself as their Global Chief Hydration Officer and featuring “Basketball” under the Skills and Endorsement section. A unique way to build association between talent and brand, that garnered a groundswell of positive conversation across social media and editorial.

To further build his brand portfolio, Dončić signed with Hollywood talent agency WME for representation across brand partnerships, talent ventures, content, digital and social strategy, a clear sign that he is serious about continuing to build his footprint across new avenues.

Heading into the new season, Dončić’s on and off court brand is front and center across the sports landscape. Sports Illustrated’s NBA preview issue featured him – and our number 1 ranked athlete brand – stating “the future is now” as the two players are at the forefront of a wave of young stars who will shape the league’s future.

It’s yet to be determined if an MVP season and deep playoff run are in the cards for Dončić, but he will certainly continue to elevate his off-court portfolio and has taken steps to further establish his unique brand narrative in and out of basketball.

2. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

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Booker’s on-court performance over the last two seasons – All-Star appearances, an undefeated stay in the NBA Bubble in 2020, a dramatic run to the NBA Finals in 2021 and his first Olympics – certainly elevated him to the upper echelon of players, but this offseason his personal brand followed suit.

With all eyes on the Suns in the playoffs and Finals – a team that hadn’t earned much media coverage so far in Booker’s career – the All-Star guard’s unique brand elements were on full display.

While some/most NBA players use the pre-game tunnel walk as a fashion show to highlight their personal styles, Booker created a whole new trend by pulling up to the arena with a variety of vintage cars, earning broadcast and social media coverage each time.

His fashion and sneaker game is also elite – earning consistent coverage in GQ and a recent SLAM Magazine “Kicks” cover – but owning a unique differentiator in a crowded space made him truly stand out. Media and fans began to anticipate his arena arrival to see what car he was driving, as this became Booker’s “thing.”

This trend continued in the league’s “NBA Lane 75” campaign where Booker was not only featured in a vintage car, but had the most coveted spot in the commercial, paying tribute to his idol, the late Kobe Bryant with a salute to a large mural of the legend.

Booker’s connection to Bryant runs deeps – he writes “Be Legendary” on his Kobe shoes before every game (that was Kobe’s note to him after his last game vs. the Suns) and now has the phrase tattooed on his arm. Prior to shooting his Kobe salute in the league’s campaign, Booker asked Bryant’s wife Vanessa for her blessing. His relationship to the Bryant family is an authentic, organic and genuine way for him to continue to honor his idol.

But beyond everything basketball-related, it’s Booker’s romantic relationship that has put his brand over the top outside of the game. Over the years, there has been much talk about the “Kardashian/Jenner effect” on athletes who are romantically connected to the famous family – but Booker’s relationship to Kendall Jenner seems like it’s working. Yes, they are consistently photographed by paparazzi and garner a ton of coverage in the tabloids and on social media, but it all is positive – zero drama, zero fuss. They appear genuinely happy and Booker’s brand audience and following has now extended well beyond the sports landscape.

Heading into the new season – and for the first time in his career – the expectations are high for the Suns and Booker. He can continue to shape his own narrative while staying authentic to himself, his game, his style and his relationships.

1. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

No player in the league had a stronger breakout season, playoffs and offseason than Trae Young. The combination of his on-court success, dramatic playoff moments on the biggest stages, launching his own signature sneaker and making a heel turn to “villain,” is a case study in personal brand development.

Even before his epic year, Young’s below-the-rim style of play – at a slender 6’1” – made him more approachable from a fan and brand level, similar to when Steph Curry came on the scene. The old adage that “big men don’t sell shoes” in regards to marketing, still rings true, because the general consumer – especially youth players – can’t relate to 7-footers but my 6-year-old nephew for example, loves Young and asked for a jersey for his birthday, but has zero connection to Atlanta or the Hawks. He just appreciates that Young is small, confident and dominates against much bigger opponents. This perspective extends amongst fans and potential corporate partners alike.

Young’s major coming out party was against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden in the playoffs, where he took on the role of Reggie Miller from the 90’s as enemy number one knocking the home team out. His dominating play, fan taunting and unique “ice cold Trae” celebration – another amazing brand differentiator – on one of sports’ biggest stages was huge for his narrative evolution.

After the season, Young returned to MSG for WWE SmackDown where he was met with boos from fans and after teaming up with the “bad guys” was ultimately thrown out of the wrestling action, further cementing his new “New York villain” narrative.

The offseason brand momentum expanded with the debut of the adidas Trae Young 1, which he revealed on-court during his dramatic playoff run. In GQ’s coverage of the sneaker launch, they stated that Young has “reached wrestling villain status,” the perfect continuation of his narrative.

Heading into the new campaign, Young shared Sports Illustrated’s NBA preview issue with Dončić further connecting the two stars who were traded for each other on draft night in 2018 and setting up a potential similar career-long rivalry narrative a la Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The Hawks and Mavs stars’ brands will continue to grow as a result of this association with each other, both playing off of each other’s successes.

Now as one of the faces of the future of the league, a signature sneaker athlete and in some basketball circles a “villain,” Young’s personal brand momentum is stronger than anyone in the NBA and will continue to grow with his on and off-court evolution this season and beyond.

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