20. John Wall – Washington Wizards
Wall is only now starting to scratch the surface of his potential. He just turned 27, and is endowed with some of the most marvelous physical gifts in the league. His pure speed makes him a blur dribbling the ball, and his physicality on drives is second only to Westbrook among guards. He’s nearly ambidextrous, allowing him to finish in creative ways around the hoop. He also brings a ton of value on the other end of the floor, as on-ball defense is more critical than ever with such an insane crop of point guards in the league. That crop of guards is probably Wall’s biggest hurdle – he just happens to be playing in the Golden Age of the Point Guard. It’s easy to forget how deep and good the group is. Wall might have been Isiah Thomas in another era. I believe, however, that Wall will continue to establish his position at the top of the current group of point guards. Last season was the start of that, as he managed to score 23.1 points on 18.4 shots per game, while dishing out 10.7 assists. All of those were career highs. Think about that for a second – Wall shot more while also assisting more. He even set a career high in field goal percentage. His arrow is trending up, but the big question is, will he ever get to the Finals?
19. Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
I couldn’t help myself. But when it comes to Giannis, why exercise restraint? Sure it’s early, but The Greek Freak is throwing up a 31-10-5 line, with 1.5 steals and 1.8 blocks. On 58% shooting. Insane. The only hole in his game is at the three-point line, but even without that tool in his bag, he looks like a top three player in the league. This obviously requires me projecting health, but I can’t imagine a player I would feel better about doing that for than Giannis. He runs easily and smoothly and jumps with ease. His size means defenders are less likely to body him on drives, and his slippery moves often avoid contact. As he develops his outside game, he’ll be less dependent on drives, which will help him age. He’s averaged 80 games per season his first four years, so there’s no red flags thus far. He’s leading the league in PER in 2017 and is on pace for 17 Win Shares. He’s clearly trending toward a player with a Hall-of-Fame peak, so the only thing standing in Giannis’s way is his longevity. He seems to be in a good spot in Milwaukee, a team that will be poised to ascend in the East as LeBron declines.
18. Kawhi Leonard – San Antonio Spurs
For my money Kawhi is the best defender in the league. He’s almost certainly the best wing defender, which is a harder role than defending the paint. He has averaged four Defensive Win Shares per season, and won a steals crown in ’14-’15. But everyone knows about his defense. After Tim Duncan’s retirement last year, Kawhi took on a bigger role in the offense. He scored a career high 25.5 points per game, asserting himself on a nightly basis. Part of that assertiveness came in the form of rim attacks, evidenced by his average of seven trips to the charity stripe per game. He also fired five threes per game, up from four and three in ’15-’16 and ’14-’15, respectively. It’s impressive enough that he scored more, but he also progressed as a playmaker, dishing out a career-high 3.5 assists per game. He’s already got a ring, and is primed for a lot more playoff series wins (if not titles) in the coming years. The big question mark right now is his health. He was knocked out of the playoffs with an ankle injury in May, and is currently rehabbing his way back from a quad issue. Luckily we’re not talking about a foot or back injury, both of which tend to linger. Still, it’s a little worrisome how long his rehab has taken. I’m choosing to assume that Pop and the Spurs are just being super careful with their top dog, aware that they’ll still be in position for a middle seed in the West even if he misses extended time.
Image Sources: Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports, Dave Richard/USA TODAY Sports, Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports