Coming into the 2014-15 season, Klay Thompson was one of the players on the verge of being traded for superstar Kevin Love. While many fans stood by Thompson opposing the trade, others thought that the Warriors were crazy for declaring Thompson “untouchable”. However, besides rebounding, Thompson has been statistically better than Love in every category this season — points, blocks, steals, assists, free throw percentage and field goal percentage — all while playing less minutes than Love proving Thompson’s superior efficiency. But it’s not just the stats that prove Thompson’s proficiency. The Splash Brother is arguably the second best player on the best team in the NBA, the Golden State Warriors. On Jan. 23, he scored 37 points in a single quarter — an NBA record. Thompson has developed from a three-point specialist to a player who can create scoring opportunities for himself and has become an even greater lockdown defender than he was prior to this season. He is no longer merely “Stephen Curry’s sidekick” — he is a force to be reckoned with.
Damian Lillard is explosive. Lillard is clutch. In just his third year in the NBA, Lillard is scoring 21.6 points per game while also dishing out an average 6.2 assists per game. Undoubtedly, it is helpful to have Lamarcus Aldridge by his side, but Lillard is the team member controlling the Trailblazers’ offense and running the plays. With Aldridge’s help, Lillard has created an intimidating team that is currently placed third in a stacked Western Conference, even though nobody expected them to be high in the standings. After barely making the All-Star team for two years in a row, Lillard now has the potential to be a perennial All-Star. Signs of this development are already evident — Lillard has made a massive improvement on defense. While he only had an average of 0.8 steals a game last season, he’s boosted that number to a very solid 1.4 steals per game this season. If Lillard can develop a more consistent three-point game to his explosive play-style, he could be unstoppable.
Hard-nosed Jimmy Butler has become much more than the tough defender he was last year — he has emerged as an aggressive two-way player. Butler currently leads the Bulls in scoring with an average of 20.2 points per game, which is a vast improvement from last season, when he averaged a mere 13 points a game. Butler carries his team’s defense at 1.8 steals per game and is a major reason why the Bulls are a playoff threat. However, what is truly amazing is his rags-to-riches journey. Butler came out of high school as the 73rd ranked prospect in Texas, which was not particularly impressive for a player aspiring to be in the NBA. His only offer to play college ball was at Marquette University, which he gladly accepted. Since then, Butler has worked hard to improve his game every day. He ended up getting drafted to the NBA 30th overall, which marked significant improvement, but didn’t scream “NBA superstar.” With hard work and dedication, Butler has proven himself to be among the NBA’s best two-way players. It’s the impressive development that makes him a true rising star.
At 24-years-old, Reggie Jackson has plenty of time left to shine. In his past three years with the Thunder, it has been difficult for him to leave his mark with superstar Russell Westbrook playing ahead of him in the rotation. Jackson has not taken being second-best well and statistically has performed better as a starter. This season, he averaged 20.2 points and 7.8 assists per game for the 13 games that he started in. For the other 37 games, he averaged a comparatively worse 10.2 points and 3.0 assists a game. Jackson has expressed his frustration through a trade request, and has finally been traded to the Detroit Pistons.
Jackson should receive the ample playing time that he has been hoping for with the Pistons since Brandon Jennings, the Pistons’ usual starting point guard, is injured and out for the rest of the season. With the help of Detroit’s Twin Towers in Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, Jackson’s transition should not be too difficult.
When listing off the top point guards in the league, most think of Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, and a list of about five other players. Jeff Teague rarely enters the conversation, which is rather strange considering his incredible productivity in recent years. He doesn’t get a lot of praise and is likely the most underrated point guard in the league. Teague averages 16.7 points, 7.3 assists and 1.7 steals per game, which may sound modest, but is impressive on a team that features multiple other smart scoring options. Ultimately, what makes Teague a rising star is not his statline, but his efficiency and his ability to lead a team. His Player Efficiency Rating is at 21.71 — the fourth highest among NBA point guards. Additionally, he’s been the floor general for the NBA’s second best team at the moment. The Hawks are 44-12, and are on pace for 65 wins — more wins than any team ended up with by the end of last year’s regular season. If leading a potential NBA championship team is not enough to be an elite player, then it is hard to imagine what is.
Every basketball fan saw this one coming, but no one saw it coming so fast. “The Brow” is only 21-years-old and is already averaging similar — if not better — numbers this season to what LeBron James, named by some as the “Greatest Of All Time,” is averaging. Although slightly behind LeBron’s 25.8 points per game at 23.9, Davis is leading the NBA in blocks per game by miles with a whopping 2.7. He’s also getting 107 rebounds compared to LeBron’s mere 5.6 rebounds a game. In terms of efficiency, Davis is also leading the league and holds a Player Efficiency Rating of 31.82. What makes Davis unique is his versatility. “The Brow” is six foot ten and 220 pounds, an intimidating player, but also has the skillset of a guard. He can score from the perimeter and midrange while also being an inside threat. He can defend the rim better than anybody else can and has phenomenal footwork. This is particularly impressive considering that guards are currently dominating the NBA and it takes quickness and three-point shooting to win games. Anthony Davis is the whole package.
The characteristic that sets Draymond Green apart from most other players is his grit. “He’s in a lot of ways our heart and soul and just plays with such passion. I think it’s contagious,” Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr said. While he isn’t an offensive stud and only averages 11.3points per game, Green has evolved as one of the league’s most elite defenders. He currently has the best Defensive Rating in the NBA, which may surprise many. However, his defense is a major reason for the Golden State Warriors’ success this season, even if he hasn’t been credited much for it. As a team, the Warriors have the best defense in the league thanks to Green’s fantastic help defense. Even at six foot seven, which is significantly smaller than the average NBA power forward, Green’s aggressiveness gets him 8.2 rebounds a game — among the top ten power forwards in the league. His scoring efficiency is also continuing to develop. Compared to last year’s measly 6.2 points per game, Green has been scoring 11.0 points per contest this season. He’s also taken a step up in field goal and three-point percentages. According to Kerr’s KNBR interview, “Draymond’s going to be a part of this franchise for the next eight, ten years.” Having another decade or so to build confidence and team chemistry will be a major factor in Green’s development into an NBA superstar.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is known as the “Greek Freak” among NBA fans, and it’s no surprise that his crazy athleticism and length makes him a scary figure to deal with in games. He’s the tallest small forward in the league at six foot 11, and has a wingspan of seven foot four. Besides his recent eurostep dunk from the three point line, he also led a fast break and got down the entire court in only two dribbles earlier this season. At only 20-years-old, Antetokounmpo’s 11.9 points and 50 percent field goal shooting is more than impressive. His statline is stronger than Indiana Pacers superstar Paul George’s statline was at that same age, so Antetokounmpo is on track to becoming a real NBA threat. Together with Brandon Knight, Antetokounmpo has led the Bucks to a surprising sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, and that success will only continue to grow with Antetokounmpo’s improvement. With the athleticism that he has, Antetokounmpo’s ceiling looks to be higher than the sky.
Andrew Wiggins is the clear frontrunner for this season’s Rookie Of The Year award, and it’s no surprise. He’s dominating the rookie reports statistically and is the most exciting player to watch out of all of them. Wiggins is the second leading scorer for the Timberwolves, behind specialty scorer Kevin Martin. Although Wiggins is not as statistically dominant as the rest of the players on this list, it’s important to keep in mind that he is a rookie, is 20 years-old and is playing for the worst team in the Western Conference. However, with future Hall-of-Famer Kevin Garnett returning to the Wolves, Wiggins will have a role model to learn from. Additionally, with Minnesota tanking this season and likely the next few, they are likely to gain more prospects from the NBA drafts, which will give Wiggins even more support to polish his skill set.
Kawhi Leonard may not have eye-popping statistics, but he is a phenomenal player. Under the Spurs’ extremely balanced offense, Leonard leads them in scoring with 15.0 points per game. His injuries this season have prevented from improving at the rate fans all hoped to see him at, but if he can work past the injuries, he will no doubt be an elite player in the near future.
Leonard’s defense is his forte. “He’s our best perimeter defender, obviously,” Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich said. “He guards a variety of different kinds of players — point guards, 2 men, 3 men — so he gives us some good versatility defensively.” Statistically, he tops the Spurs’ roster in steals with 2.1 steals per game, which is no easy feat. When the Spurs’ Big Three in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili retire, Leonard will be the cornerstone of San Antonio’s franchise. The timing is rather perfect, as Leonard is currently learning from the veterans to become a better leader on the court and will be well prepared to carry the Spurs once the Big Three are gone. It’s no doubt that Leonard will become an NBA superstar in the coming years.
Ever since getting drafted to the Sacramento Kings in 2010 as the 33rd pick, Hassan Whiteside has played for 11 different teams, including the NBA, the D-League and overseas. Moving around has not been easy for Whiteside and has stunted his ability to establish himself as a dependable player. Prior to the 2014-15 season, Whiteside averaged just 5.9 minutes a game while playing with the Kings. However, his gradual improvement has just now become evident in his games with the Miami Heat. His first outburst was on the Heat’s victory against the Clippers on Jan. 11, when he scored 23 points and grabbed 16 rebounds. Shortly after, on Jan. 25, Whiteside had a statline of 14 points, 13 rebounds and 12 blocks. From there on, Whiteside has developed into an intimidating seven-foot center. Per 36 minutes, he’s averaging 18.2 points, 16.0 rebounds and 4.4 blocks — a ridiculous statline. He’s also making 63 percent of his shots. Whiteside is only getting 20 minutes per contest at the moment, but it would not be be surprising to see him receive significantly more playing time in the near future.
Nikola Vucevic isn’t a household name quite yet. As a player from Montenegro who has only played for the Philadelphia 76ers and the Orlando Magic, both of which are bottom-tier teams, it’s hard for Vucevic to become a noticeable player. He has a frame very typical of centers at seven feet tall and 260 pounds, so he often gets mixed in the crowd of other mediocre centers. What fans often fail to realize is his incredible production. He’s only 24-years-old, and is averaging 19.8 points on 54 percent shooting while also grabbing 11.3 rebounds a game. Vucevic ranks fifth in the NBA in total rebounds this season, and his Player Efficiency Rating is 22.3, making him the second most efficient center in the NBA behind DeMarcus Cousins. He has continued to improve and has career highs in every single major statistical category. His contract with the Magic lasts another three seasons, so hopefully the Magic will be able draft some solid backup players for Vucevic and finally develop into a playoff team.