Five years may not seem like a long time (considering LeBron is in his 11th season already), but little known rookies can turn into household superstars in that small time frame. Just consider that five years ago players like Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Roy Hibbert and Eric Gordon were young rookies looking for their place in the NBA. Five years ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder were in their inaugural season under the direction of ROY, Kevin Durant. Look how much has changed in five years.
Five years from now, players that are making names for themselves in the collegiate ranks will have multiple years of NBA experience under their belt. Every player mentioned has become a major force in the NBA, making me wonder: Who will be the kings of the NBA in the next five years? Well, let me get out my crystal ball and tell you what I see…
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15. RUSSELL WESTBROOK
Coming off knee surgery, Westbrook has never looked more human. That’s saying something, considering he’s still averaging 20.6 points and 1.9 steals. Without him in the playoffs last year, OKC needed superhuman efforts from Kevin Durant just to stay competitive. Remember all that past talk about how Russ West hurt the team down the stretch when he’d put his blinders on and forget about his teammates? No one is saying that anymore after watching the Thunder struggle to score without their point guard.
As athletic as he is, Westbrook’s best trait, the one that separates him from everyone else, is his competitiveness. Nasty. Aggressive. Loud. If Jeff Green had this cat’s fuel, he’d be an All-Star. In five years, Westbrook will be turning 30 years old, and more than likely just fading from his athletic prime. But compare that to some of the other names we thought about putting here. DeMarcus Cousins? You can’t trust him, let alone expect him to develop into one of the best players in the world. John Wall? He relies on his athleticism even more than Westbrook and still can’t shoot at all. Derrick Rose? I’d rather not mention his name right now. It hurts too much. An up-and-comer? No names jump out. Perhaps the best competition here is Stephen Curry, although his ankle issues are a major red flag for someone so young. If Curry can stay healthy, I’d expect him to be better than Westbrook in 2018. But if I’m banking on either Curry’s health or Westbrook’s competitiveness, I’ll take the latter. No matter what happens before then, that certainly won’t deteriorate.
14. DAMIAN LILLARD
Coming out of mid-major Weber State (I still don’t know where this school is located), little was known about Damian Lillard. He was one of those names that you don’t hear about until the week before the draft and find them going in the lottery. Lillard was selected No. 6 by the Portland Trail Blazers and the rest is history. The Blazers may have missed out on Kevin Durant back in ‘08, but Damian Lillard has the Blazers looking like a team with intentions of taking down Kevin Durant and the rest of the Western Conference this season.
Five years from now, Lillard could be poised to be one of the best players in the NBA. His rookie season last year saw Lillard average 19.0 PPG and 6.5 APG as he ran away with Rookie of the Year honors. Lillard was the first unanimous selection as Rookie of the Year (receiving all 121 first-place votes) since Blake Griffin in 2010-2011. Everyone likes to talk about Steph Curry when it comes to sweet shooting, but let me remind you that Lillard actually broke Curry’s record of three-point field goals made in a rookie season with 185 (outpacing Curry’s 166 in ’09-10).
This season has been anything but a sophomore slump for Lillard. He’s averaging 20.6 PPG and 5.7 APG, but more importantly, the Blazers have only lost three games this season. The Blazers are in first place in the Western Conference and are ahead of teams like the Thunder, Clippers, Spurs and the Houston Rockets.
The future is bright for Damian Lillard and with the way things are going, he might even have a ring in five years. I know it’s crazy to think about that, but Chris Paul will be on a decline in five years and Lillard will be one of the best players in the NBA, perhaps the best point guard. It might even take less than five years.
13. MARCUS SMART
What a smart decision Marcus made by coming back for another year at Oklahoma State (Eds. note: if you’re not concerned with money). Undoubtedly he would have been a top pick in last summer’s draft, but his production so far at Oklahoma State has jaws dropping across the country. Smart is averaging 20.5 points, 3.6 assists, 5.0 boards and 3.0 steals this season for the Cowboys. The 2012 McDonald’s All-American’s 3.0 steals are ranked seventh nationally and third in his conference. He’s had two 30-point performances already this season, including 39 points on 11-for-21 shooting in a 101-80 defeat of Memphis. Marcus Smart gets buckets.
But, where will Marcus Smart be in five years, in a league dominated by backcourt players? He figures to be one of the best players in the NBA for a couple reasons. One thing that I love about him is his ambition and desire to be great, which can’t be taught. Before this season, Smart was heavily criticized on his poor shooting. This season, he responded to the critics in a big way. Smart is taking about six three-pointers per game and has four games this season where he’s shot 40 percent or better from deep. It’s almost like Smart heard the criticism and said “Oh, I can’t shoot? Watch this.”
Intangible aspects like this one are a huge reason why I figure Marcus Smart needs to be on this list. He already can get to the basket willingly, but as his jump shot develops and becomes a threat, it’s going to become a terror for opponents. Think of Smart like Russell Westbrook right now. Before Westbrook developed his jumper, he was still a threat, but not as much. Teams would back off of Westbrook and dare him to shoot, something we are seeing with Smart early on this season. But when Westbrook developed his jumper, things got a lot more dangerous. I expect the same thing to happen with Smart and for his jump shot to be lethal in five years, which is why he will be one of the best players in the NBA.