A lot happens in the NBA world in the space of a year. You’ve got the second half of one season, an entire postseason, the draft, free agency, summer leagues, international competitions like EuroBasket and the FIBA World Cup, and then the ramp-up to and tip-off of a whole new season. There’s so much going on, so many players involved in the rising and falling action of the league … but there are always a few whose names seem to ring out a little bit louder than the rest, piquing our interest whenever we hear them.
With a new year just hours away, I decided to take a quick stab at identifying which players are most likely to cut through the din and draw our attention over the next 12 months. Let’s set the table for the year ahead by picking out the five* most interesting players of 2019—the players who will most influence NBA conversation, analysis, and actual on-court matters between New Year’s Day and New Year’s Eve.
(One caveat: No LeBron James. As has been the case for more than a decade, virtually every NBA move or muttering of consequence is in some way tethered to LeBron, whether made in direct connection to his team, with the express purpose of combating him, or by traveling in his wake. His name continues to ring loudest; we can take this as a given.)
The Lakers-Pelicans game on December 21 was slated to be broadcast on ESPN, which provided the Worldwide Leader a tidy news peg to say what we’ve all been thinking since late September: Davis might not be long for New Orleans, and might have his sights set on L.A. after hiring Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, LeBron’s agent and longtime friend. It wasn’t a particularly novel idea, but it became the biggest story of the week anyway, thanks to the King, who responded to a question from ESPN three days prior to the broadcast about the prospects of playing with Davis in L.A.
No matter what your feelings are about the way this story has come to dominate the NBA’s news cycle, it’s inarguable that folks around the league are pret-tay interested in what’s up next for Davis. He is one of the five or so best basketball players in the world; he is either smack in the middle of his prime or, even scarier, not quite there yet; and he sits six months away from choosing whether or not he’d like to make $239.5 million to continue playing for the Pelicans through 2025. The interest does not figure to wane as the new year starts to get older.
If Davis decides to sign the supermax extension that New Orleans will surely offer him as soon as free agency opens on July 1, we’ll spend the rest of 2019 wondering how exactly the Pelicans will go about building the franchise’s first title contender since Chris Paul made The Leap a decade ago. (That is, when we’re not wondering whatever happened to all that “legacy over money” talk.) If he decides not to take the supermax, though—if he decides he’s sick of starring for teams that careen between bad and good but never good enough to matter—well, then we’ve got a bit of a situation on our hands, one likely to end in a bidding war for the services of a 25-year-old All-NBA first team superstar who checks absolutely every box you could ask for in a modern big man.
Davis is on pace to become the first player to average 28 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, and two blocks in more than 40 years, and only the third ever, joining Bob McAdoo and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who, as luck would have it, did it the season before he politely pushed his way from Milwaukee to Los Angeles. That move helped put the Lakers on the path to 10 Western Conference finals berths, eight NBA Finals appearances, and five NBA championships over the next 14 seasons.
The arrival of some dude named Magic helped, too. Say, anybody know where AD could find a Hall of Fame–bound, power-forward-sized point guard with generational playmaking vision to play with?
Davis’s decision has taken center stage of late. But the one Durant faces—whether to pick up his $31.5 million player option for 2019-20 to stay with the Warriors, to opt out and re-up in Golden State, or to opt out and instantly become the league’s most attractive unrestricted free agent—could wind up being the biggest tidal shift to rock the league in 2019.
It seems absurd that Durant would choose to leave the Warriors after having won two titles and Finals MVP trophies, and yet nobody seems convinced he’ll stick around come the summer. If what matters most to players in the rarefied air KD occupies is legacy, then why willingly skip out on a core as luminous as the one he’s already got in the Bay? Maybe it’s because that core looks a bit less shiny when Draymond Green is shooting 23.6 percent from 3 and not being very nice, and when you’re slogging just to keep pace in a crowded conference rather than lapping the field. Or maybe it’s that, after a few years of chasing his basketball bliss in the Warriors’ fast-moving, egalitarian Shangri-La, Durant’s just ready for a new pursuit—one that might allow him to continue expanding his already remarkable game, to stake a credible claim to being the best basketball player in the world, and to be the unquestioned no. 1 star on his own team for the first time in his career.
He’s certainly capable of doing it. Durant proved when Stephen Curry was sidelined that he remains an offense unto himself, averaging nearly 34 points per game to keep Golden State afloat amid Curry’s absence and the ongoing offensive struggles of Green and Klay Thompson. In his age-30 season, he’s on pace to become just the ninth player ever to average at least 28 points, seven rebounds, and six assists per game. He’s the kind of player everybody wants. So what sort of play is he looking to make?
Durant leaving Golden State would signal an end to the sport’s reigning dynasty, or at least this iteration of it, and require the Warriors to chart a new path forward in a reopened West. Him staying, especially on a full-freight, long-term, “stack my money” deal, would also likely necessitate some roster reshuffling in Golden State, similar to the changes in Houston after James Harden and Chris Paul signed their new monster maxes (although we already know Joe Lacob and Peter Guber are much more comfortable with the luxury tax than Houston’s Tilman Fertitta appears to be). If he partners with another superstar (perhaps in L.A. with the Clippers), he could build a new colossus to tower over the league; if he strikes out on his own (perhaps in the Big Apple), he could add an unforeseen challenger to the championship conversation. Whichever way Durant goes, his choice will change the state of play in the league, and perhaps the place he occupies in it; it might also, at long last, shine some light on what he actually wants.
The seemingly impossible Duke freshman is the apple of every bad team’s eye, and the avatar that every downtrodden fan base is busily editing into their hometown team’s colors. Listed at 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, Williamson marries the size of Yankees slugger Aaron Judge and Hall of Fame defensive end Julius Peppers with the explosive athleticism of … I don’t know, young Vince Carter? Young Shawn Kemp? Young God?
While a dumbfounded nation ponders the distance between thicc and fat, Williamson just keeps translating his mixtape mysticism into on-court production in college. He’s averaging 19.8 points on 65.2 percent shooting to go with 9.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.1 steals, and 1.9 blocks in 26.2 minutes per game for the 11-1 Blue Devils, all the while proving he’s more than just a highlight-reel dunker. Williamson has shown flashes of being a rim protector and glass-eating rebounder who can run the fast break, a playmaker capable of threading the needle with bounce passes in transition and traffic, and a hard-driving hustler who plays with an infectious energy but still largely manages to stay within himself.
Player efficiency rating has its fair share of issues as a metric intended to capture individual player value. That said: It seems about right that, on a scale where 15 denotes a league-average player, Zion’s PER sits at 40.7—which is to say, it is completely freaking off the scale, making this one of those cases where the stats and the eye test shake hands. Even playing on a loaded Duke team featuring fellow top prospects R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, Williamson has separated himself as the premier attraction on college basketball’s premier team. He’s in line to be the no. 1 overall pick in June’s 2019 NBA draft … and, depending on which team lands that pick, perhaps a pivotal swing piece in any Davis deal.
That means, of course, that the hoops cognoscenti will spend chunks of next spring and summer picking him apart. Draftniks will debate whether his shot (16.7 percent from 3-point range, 70.8 percent from the free throw line) is broken or just iffy, and whether his physicality and athleticism will look quite so otherworldly in the pros. We’ll talk about what position he’ll be able to guard at the NBA level, whether he’ll look a bit more conventional once he’s dropped a few pounds to get into NBA shape, and whether he’ll ultimately wind up being more curiosity than championship contributor.
We’ll talk about Zion ad infinitum between his last game as a collegian and his first game as a pro. Once he actually steps between the lines in an NBA game, my guess is we’ll have an even harder time keeping his name out of our mouths.
There is a non-zero chance that, in five months, Leonard will be the best player on an NBA champion ... and that, a couple of weeks later, he’ll also decline his player option for 2019-20 and enter unrestricted free agency.
Six months after he officially decided he wanted out of San Antonio, and five months after the Spurs shipped him to Toronto rather than to his reported preferred destinations in Southern California, I don’t think anyone who isn’t Leonard (or perhaps Uncle Dennis) has any idea what the hell will influence his decision-making come July. The only thing that seems solid about Kawhi, at this point, is that he’s nearly as much of a game-breaker as he was before his lost final season in San Antonio. Leonard has leapt from a year scuttled by quadriceps tendinopathy right back into the MVP race, averaging a career-best 26.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.7 steals per game on 49/37/86 shooting splits for a Raptors squad that has, since the season’s opening tip, looked like one of the best teams in the NBA.
Leonard’s still not quite what he once was physically—no back-to-backs yet, though they reportedly could be on the way—and he doesn’t always resemble the defensive nightmare he was during his San Antonio heyday. But he’s been close enough, capable of using skill, craft, and sheer size to make up for what’s still lacking in burst, and to give the Raptors their best chance at making a serious run at the championship since … well, ever. And if they don’t win it, and if the charms of being the signature star of Canada’s lone NBA team don’t warm him enough to counteract the bristling chill of a Toronto winter, Leonard has the opportunity to pull up stakes and seek greener/warmer pastures.
What do you think the going rate is for a 28-year-old who’s one of the half-dozen or so best players in the league? I’d wager it’s As Much As The League’s Rules Allow, Forked Over Immediately And Gratefully. We already know there’s one team salivating at the chance to bring in Leonard as part of a championship-oriented overhaul; there will be others, especially after he has spent a full season showing he’s still capable of superstardom after his injury. If he stays in Toronto, he could set the Raptors up as a perennial conference-topping powerhouse for a half-decade. If he leaves, he could shuffle both conferences and leave the entire landscape of the league more open than it’s been in several years. If he laughs while doing so, he will set the internet on fire. It’s rare that a man who says so little has the chance to speak so loudly.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons
OK, I cheated: Philly’s pair makes six. But I don’t think you can, or should, separate them when it comes to their roles in what could be a fascinating year for the 76ers.
It feels like we’re going to be talking about these two for one of two reasons: Either they’ll find enough of a rhythm with third star Jimmy Butler to consistently get over the hump against good opposition—plus-4.8 points per 100 possessions just won’t cut it for that trio, given the 76ers’ seriously shaky depth—or they won’t.
Embiid’s grumbles about his role since Butler’s arrival—about feeling at times like a misappropriated resource when used as a stretch 5 rather than being allowed to kaiju his way around on the low block like the MVP-caliber mauler he is—grew louder after the 76ers once again came up short against Boston, with his touches dissipating down the stretch of the fourth quarter and overtime on Christmas Day. He has wound up popping to the perimeter more because the Sixers have to try to spread defenses out somehow, and while it’s not Simmons’s fault that the team as a whole lacks an optimal number of perimeter threats, his reluctance to engage outside the paint has required a workaround, and so far that’s been Embiid more frequently parking outside. (Embiid and Butler have played only 52 minutes together without Simmons on the court, according to NBA.com/Stats; Philly is plus-14 in that limited sample. If only the Sixers had another guard capable of both handling the ball and consistently knocking down long-range jumpers; they’d give anything for The Markelle Fultz They Thought They Were Getting.)
I think it’s way, way, way too early to consider flipping Simmons for shooting, as my colleague Jonathan Tjarks recently suggested. Simmons is a preternatural playmaker who can guard five positions—a savant who, at just 22 years old, already contributes so much in so many ways as to be a major positive, even without the jumper. (And it’s not like the sky is falling amid the cramped spacing: since Butler’s arrival, Philly has the NBA’s fifth-best offense.) But Embiid has cemented himself as the franchise’s centerpiece, and the Sixers reportedly made the blockbuster trade for Butler fully intending to re-sign him to a lucrative long-term contract this summer. If head coach Brett Brown can’t figure out how to unclog things in tight games against good teams without making his best player feel like an afterthought, then something will have to give.
If things don’t change in a significant way by the spring, and the team can’t build on last year’s second-round playoff appearance, the Sixers might wind up looking a hell of a lot different heading into the 2019-20 season. If Brown can navigate these choppy waters, and if general manager Elton Brand can find the wing-defending, 3-point-shooting help this team so desperately needs, Philly could have a puncher’s chance of making the Finals, making all this midstream hemming and hawing look preposterous in hindsight. Everything hinges on how Philly’s two young stars make it work with one another. Recent franchise history suggests that, whichever way things break, it’ll be worth talking about.
And since no team in today’s NBA is complete without a dynamic second unit, here are a couple of other players whose 2019 prospects interest me, even if they might not necessarily dominate the whole league conversation:
Kristaps Porzingis: The Knicks’ somewhat calculated disinterest in winning basketball games this season would suggest that they’d be well served to keep their 7-foot-3 Latvian cornerstone on ice until 2019-20 training camp as he works his way back from tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. But if they really have their sights set on trying to land a top-flight free agent this summer, you’d imagine said blue-chipper would want to know whether Porzingis is going to look like the 3-point-bombing, shot-blocking anomaly he was before he went down.
When Porzingis comes back, and what he looks like when he does, could have a major impact on whether the Knicks’ rebuild kicks into overdrive … and, if the early returns aren’t positive, could make for some tense moments in restricted free agency.
Luka Doncic: The phenomenon continues: Doncic is now one of just seven players averaging at least 19 points, six rebounds, and five assists per game this season, joining six All-Stars; he is on pace to become the first teenager ever to do it in the NBA; and he has officially started drawing LeBron comparisons thanks in no small part to an advanced ability to spray the ball all over the place ahead of scrambling defenses:
Luka Doncic with a passing clinic in the first half tonight.— Ben Taylor (@ElGee35) December 17, 2018
-a laser to the corner when the defense plays the lob
-a masterful bouncer to DJ
-an asynchronous laydown that freezes the D
-a 40 foot dime
-a laser to the corner when the defense plays the lob pic.twitter.com/0TdmZTcqC4
The more cool shit he does, the more he’ll drive conversation on a nightly basis. The more he impacts winning, the more we’re likely to start hearing about him as the kind of player with whom more established stars might want to play. All those clutch buckets are both making people take notice and getting Dallas far closer to playoff contention than the Mavericks have any right being. After years of striking out on top talent on the unrestricted market, might Doncic’s emergence—plus as much as $54 million in potential cap space—finally make Dallas a real player in free agency?