As I’m wallowing in the pathetic, bracket-slaying defeats of the first round of the NCAA tournament (are you reading, Georgetown?), I thought I’d move my mind to brighter things. So despite the alarming number of franchise players that might be changing uniforms (if not just their numbers), let me highlight some of the NBA’s less acclaimed heroes — at least for today. To follow will be my ranking of the top five collections of young talent, by team, in the league.
Number Five — Golden State Warriors
The ballers from the Bay would certainly be higher on this list if they were fortunate enough to have a mentally stable coach who knew anything about cultivating the young’ns or running a decent defense. After all, they have the greatest plethora of players with lofty limits: Andris Biedrins, Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis, Anthony Morrow, Anthony Randolph, C.J. Watson, and Brendan Wright could all be lighting the league up in a few years in the right scenario. Hell, a few of them even are already irrespective of Don Nelson’s treachery. In that list, there are two elite shooters (Curry and Morrow), a nearly unstoppable scorer (Monta Ellis) if you can keep him of the moped, a tenacious rebounder in Biedrins, who must’ve attended the Josh Boone free-throw training camp this summer, two superbly athletic 4s (Randolph and Wright), and a solid distributor-scorer hybrid in Watson. It’s a shame their rare talents can’t be put to effective use. Otherwise, I’d be scared to face this roster in a few years.
Number Four — Memphis Grizzlies
At the beginning of the season, everyone was worried about the egotistical bombshell the Zach Randolph-Allen Iverson duo would set off. Fortunately, AI is long gone, and Randolph is playing like an all-star. But behind him is an abundance of young talent that is the primary responsibility for the Grizzlies’ being in the playoff hunt in the West with about a month to go. That squad — featuring Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay, and O.J. Mayo (I won’t include Hasheem Thabeet for now) — brings some serious talent for years to come in Tennessee. We all know what Mayo can do: score consistently and shoot the lights out. Gasol is the third best young center in the league behind Dwight Howard and Brook Lopez. Rudy Gay has the range of a 2 and the inside scoring ability of a 3, and Mike Conley’s line against the Nets a week ago shows you what he’s capable of when he plays with confidence. The only problem for the Grizz here is hoping that Gay isn’t snatched away this offseason. He’s a restricted free agent, so Memphis will have the opportunity to match any offer submitted, but he may command too high a price to hold on to.
Number Three — Sacramento Kings
I really liked the three-way trade that the New York Knicks, Houston Rockets, and Kings put together at the trade deadline. And I liked it for all three teams (especially for the Knicks, but that’s another story). The Kings were able to ship off the highly talented Kevin Martin, who clearly wasn’t meshing with rookie phenom Tyreke Evans in the back court. As a result, they brought in Carl Landry, sixth man of the year contender, who’s a force on the block. The breakdown of the Kings’ young talent is as follows: rookie Omri Casspi, Evans, Landry, Jason Thompson, and Spencer Hawes. Evans is an absolute beast, and he proved all his critics wrong who didn’t believe he could play the point-guard role at the highest level. Don’t get me wrong. He still has a lot to learn about balancing his immense scoring ability with the distributing necessary to make the team better, but the talent is absolutely all there. Give him a couple years, and he’ll be on a short list with Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo, and Derrick Rose for the league’s best 1. Casspi has exceeded all expectations this season, shooting the ball very well (especially from three-point territory). He figures to be a contributor on this team for the next several years. Landry, as I mentioned, is a fundamental standout in the low post, and Jason Thompson brings much-needed athleticism to the front court. Hawes has the shooting touch of a 2 from the 5 position but lacks a true back-to-the-basket game and can’t bang down low. Expect the Kings to make an effort to trade him anyway to make space on the roster for Landry and Thompson, and if the Kings see fit, DeMarcus Cousins.
Number Two — Portland Trailblazers
The Blazers stick out already from the group of teams above because they are already a legitimate playoff threat. Unfortunate injures have cost them some hope this season, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be a serious factor in May and June in seasons to come. The success of the Blazers obviously focuses around Brandon Roy — the 2-guard who has established himself as one of the NBA’s stars. As a complement to Roy, though, the Blazers also feature LaMarcus Aldridge, Jerryd Bayless, Nicolas Batum, Rudy Fernandez, and Greg Oden. Now some of you may think I’m a fool for labeling Oden as a true young talent in the league, as he has been injured so often in his first three seasons after being drafted #1 overall. But his per-minute numbers on the court are simply astounding. Give him a couple more seasons to get his health issues on track before making a final judgment. Aldridge, whom the Blazers acquired in a draft-day deal from the Bulls for Tyrus Thomas a few years ago, has the ability to be a quality power forward in the NBA. Coupling a nice shooting touch with moderate post-up skills, he needs to work on bulking up and getting stronger to reach his maximum potential. While the Blazers settled for a lower ceiling in trading Thomas for Aldridge, I think the latter’s fate will end up better than the former’s. Fernandez will be a contributor in the league as a nice shooter with surprising athleticism, but he won’t be much of a star. Stuck behind Roy on the depth chart, he won’t be given much of a chance in Portland anyway. Bayless and Batum are two potential-based players. Bayless, at times, has demonstrated his distributing ability, but needs to get on the scoreboard more. Batum is a factor on defense, and can shoot some, but he, too, needs to muscle up and work on getting to the rim more often.
Number One — Oklahoma City Thunder
Were you honestly expecting anything else? The Thunder clearly have the greatest assembly of young talent in the NBA. And it shows with their 41-25 record and current 5th-place standing in the stacked Western Conference. My friends, it all begins with Kevin Durant. The man is ridiculous: a lanky 6’9″ with the rebounding skills of a seven footer, the speed of a point guard, the sweet shooting stroke of best best 2-guards in the league, and an uncanny ability to get the ball through the twine from any spot or any angle. Durantula is truly a terror to opponents. Assume he’ll win multiple scoring titles during his tenure in the league. The one thing he does need to work on is his vision. Even the best scorers need to give the ball up sometimes, which is what separates LeBron from the rest of us: mere humans. As if the roster needs anything else, the Thunder have so much more talent than that. Russell Westbrook has the athleticism of Derrick Rose with the vision and passing ability of Rajon Rondo. If he were to complete the cycle with the shooting of Steve Nash, he’s be unstoppable (and he’s very, very far from achieving that kind of shooting touch, which is his biggest weakness). James Harden still needs some time to cultivate, but he has shown he can score in bunches and has dispelled many of the rumors that his shooting ability would be a hindrance. Jeff Green, also 6’9″, plays with the force of someone 6’11″. Unfortunately, he shoots like he’s Ray Allen. He needs to tone down the three-point shooting and work the ball inside where he can out-muscle other players his size. What’s the one weakness for the Thunder? They lack a center who can make a true impact, and B.J. Mullens, as I expected, was a waste of a draft pick in attempting to alleviate that hole. Nevertheless, this is one team that certainly has no need to make any drastic changes as the years come and go. Combine this talent with the players’ miraculous ability to stay healthy and on the court, and they’ll be a factor in the West race for the next five or more years.