You can find the first part, where we picked 30 through 21, here
20. Roy Hibbert (27-years-old)
Hibbert is essentially the Bizarro version of Dirk Nowitzki. He is arguably the best defensive player in the NBA right now, leading the league in defensive rating, and placing in the top-five in blocks per game, block percentage, and defensive win shares. And, perhaps most importantly, Hibbert is the anchor of the best defensive team in the league – a team that basis its defense on funneling players into the paint, where the former Hoya plies his trade by swatting and altering shots, and drawing charges at an outstanding rate.
There is not much else to say about Hibbert’s defense. While the Pacers have surrounded him with several above-average defenders (including Paul George, Lance Stephenson, and David West), executing Frank Vogel’s schemes beautifully, the fact remains that Hibbert is a game-changing defender – and it is not difficult to imagine him anchoring most any defense, regardless of the talent around him. He may lack the athletic specimen that Dwight Howard was at his best in Orlando, but he is every bit as effective as the three-time defensive player of the year.
So why the hell is Hibbert relegated near the bottom of the list? Simply put, he is an inefficient scorer, despite taking the vast majority of his shots in either the restricted area or the paint (he’s roughly average from both spots). He is currently shooting 46.4% from the field … good for 21st among the 26 centers that play 20+ minutes per game. And despite being a solid free throw shooter for a big man (75.3% FT this year), his 52.3 TS% remains subpar at best.
The argument then becomes how much offense matters when Hibbert is a force of nature on defense, and the answer is probably fairly not all that much. And, insofar as silver linings are concerned, the fact that Hibbert’s free throw shooting is strong enough to keep him on the court in crunch time should not be understated.
- Domenic L.
19. Damian Lillard (23-years-old)
After bursting onto the scene last season and earning Rookie of the Year honors, Lillard is continuing to progress, putting up even better numbers than the very impressive ones we saw from him in his rookie campaign. Though he’s far from a good defender, Lillard more than makes up for it offensively. In a system that’s more reliant on team-work and ball-movement than on dominant point guard play, he still scores in volumes, and does so very well. Even though there are 11 point guards with a higher TS% than Lillard’s 57.3, the the gap is narrowed down when you take into account how many more PPG he scores than most of the players who are ahead of him on that list. He does need to improve his finishing around the rim, as he shoots only 47.6% at the rim and a disappointing 24.7% in the paint (but outside the restricted area). The encouraging part is that Lillard isn’t letting that stop him from taking the ball to the basket (tied for 13th in the league in drives per game), making sure that defenders have to stay honest when guarding him.
Lillard’s most impressive offensive contributions, however, may be his pick-and-roll abilities. He and LaMarcus Aldridge are widely regarded as one of—if not the—best pick-and-roll combinations in the league. Considering how many big men these days are comfortable shooting from mid-range, Lillard can basically be teamed-up with any competent power forward and still kill defenses with a simple pick-and-roll offense. Being a great point guard in an offense like that requires you to be good at slashing to the rim after splitting the defenders who come up to guard the pick, something that Lillard is willing to do, as was highlighted earlier by how often he drives to the basket. If the defensive team decides to instead go under the screen, and give Lillard space, he’s also more than capable of shooting off-the-dribble; he ranks 9th amongst point guards in FG% on pull-up mid-range jumpers and 6th in 3-pt% on pull-ups. Of course, when neither option is a viable one, he’ll gladly make the pass to Aldridge, who will most likely have an uncontested look for himself.
A point guard with great dribbling skills, outstanding efficiency, great 3-point shooting (40.4%), a fine understanding of the pick-and-roll and overall willingness to not force his team into a ball-dominant style is far from ordinary, and it’s not crazy to suggest that Lillard can still show more improvement (if he finds a way to better his finishing at the rim [and it was good last season, suggesting it’s plausible], we can be looking at an efficient 25 PPG scorer).
18. Lance Stephenson (23-years-old)
Attempting to rate a player that has improved as dramatically in as short a period as Stephenson has is surely a fool’s errand. In four short years, Stephenson has went from bench mascot to role player to borderline All-Star, with jaw-dropping leaps in play every step of the way. Growth of this nature is not entirely unprecedented, of course, and yet those who have made similar strides in their careers were generally more highly touted than Stephenson. Should we care?
I don’t think so.
A strong argument can be made that Stephenson has been one of the three best shooting guards in the NBA this season. He is currently first in rebounds per game (7.3), first in defensive rating, first in defensive win shares, first in defensive rebound percentage, second in offensive rebound percentage, third in field goal percentage (50.2%), third in assists per game (5.1), and eighth in TS% (56.7) at his position. His scoring may leave a bit to be desired, as he is only chipping in 14.1 PPG, but much of that is a product of the Pacers’ style of play. Stephenson scores at above-average rates at the rim and in the paint, and the majority of his shots come from those areas. He is quick and strong going to the basket, and it seems incredibly likely that he could handle a larger scoring load without losing much efficiency.
What we are looking at, then, is an elite wing defender that can score efficiently, and rebound and pass better than most players at his position. So what is holding him back? The simple fact that his track record at this level is limited to fifty games, and few expected this level of production. However, if he can keep this up for the remainder of the season, this may well be looked upon as a fairly pessimistic ranking.
- Domenic L.
17. DeMarcus Cousins (23-years-old)
Other than his at times out of control temper, there have been two criticisms always mentioned whenever Cousins’ name is brought up during basketball discussions: efficiency (or, lack thereof) and defense. So far, Cousins is well on his way to fixing one of them, with his efficiency increasing every year, and this year, it’s already at a respectable level. He currently ranks 12th amongst centers with a 54.8 TS%, and when you consider how often he has to create his own shots compared to the players ahead of him on that list, that number becomes more impressive than it initially seems.
The defense, however, isn’t there yet, or at least not where you’d ideally want it to be from the player who is supposed to anchor your defense. When looking at centers who have played in at least 20 games this season and who are challenged with at least 5 attempts per game at the rim, only four allow a higher FG% in those situations than Cousins. This is of course not the only relevant defensive stat when evaluating centers, but it does give you a pretty good understand of at least how good (or bad) each center is at not allowing a high FG% at the rim, and in Cousins’ case, he simply has to improve. Luckily, he has both the size and talent to eventually become not only a good defense center but a potentially great one. Within a good system and under the right coaching, it’s more than conceivable.
But, of course, right now Cousins is mostly famous for his offensive abilities, of which he has many. He can shoot from mid-range at a league-average rate, meaning he doesn’t have to sit under the hoop to score points. This also means that he can operate near the free-throw line if needed, taking on more of a passer’s role, setting up teammates and generally feeling comfortable having most of the offense run through him (like both Pau and Marc Gasol do, for example). This is reflected in his assist stats, with only Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol having a higher assist percentage than Cousins has this season.
Whether you like Cousins or not (as a player) mostly comes down to your willingness to believe in his potential defensively under the right circumstances. Currently, he’s an effective player overall because a lot of his offensive abilities make up for his defensive shortcomings. But, if he ever does become the two-way player that his physical tools suggest he should be, you’ll then be looking at the best all-around center in the league.
16. Serge Ibaka (24-years-old)
As bland as Tony Parker and Roy Hibbert may be, they are positively riveting when compared to Ibaka. The most exciting thing about the Thunder’s power forward may be his birth name – Sergeballu LaMu Sayonga Loom Walahas Jonas Hugo Ibaka. He doesn’t have a particularly flashy game on either side of the ball and, despite ranking among the very best shot blockers in the game (if not the best), his highlights are few and far between. This is largely irrelevant to his actual skill, of course, and it is likely a product of being on the same court as Kevin Durant – which leads to him being somewhat underrated.
It all starts with his defense. The back-to-back first team All-NBA defender is leading the league in blocks for the fourth season in a row, while placing ninth in defensive win shares and sixteenth in defensive rating (tied with Dwight Howard and Taj Gibson). He has put on size and strength over the last few years, allowing him to body up more effectively against centers when Kendrick Perkins is riding the pine, and, while he may not be able to do so for thirty-plus minutes per game, it is an important development in a still young career. Ibaka is a solid defender against the pick and roll, and being able to stand strong against larger players in the post will allow him to become even better.
On the offensive side of things, Ibaka has improved steadily from a competent scorer to a legitimate third option – his 54.2 FG% places him tenth in the NBA, and his 57.6 TS% is good for sixth among power forwards. His evolution can be seen in his shot charts, as well, as he has become an average to above-average shooter from every area within the three-point arc – and, small sample size issues notwithstanding, he has shown a decent three-point stroke thus far in his career (35.9% from beyond the arc).
Nothing about Ibaka screams star, at least with a cursory glance – but his all-around game and general lack of weaknesses makes him an incredibly attractive option. And at 24, he could get even better.
- Domenic L.
15. Kyrie Irving (21-years-old)
The 2011-12 Rookie of the Year isn’t showing the sort of progression that we expected to see from him after his first two seasons in the league, though those were admittedly tough acts to follow. Both Irving’s scoring and efficiency numbers are down so far, and while not all the blame can go to a 21-year-old, at least some has to be taken by him for the fact that the Cavaliers are almost always in the news for the wrong reasons. However, since all the details aren’t out there in the open for the public to analyze, let’s focus on what we do know, and that’s Irving’s production on the court.
As previously mentioned, both his scoring and efficiency are down this season, but they haven’t declined enough to suggest that Irving can’t get have better results in the future. By looking at his shot-chart, it’s evident that the biggest difference from last season to this season is his efficiency from mid-range. In 2012-13, Irving shot 44.2% from there, while this season he’s down to 39.1% (which is still around league-average, but is the biggest contributing factor to his overall decline in efficiency). Thankfully, Irving is absurdly talented, so there are of course positives, too. He ranks 14th amongst point guards in total drives to the basket and 15th in points per game scored on drives, showing that while he’s not the driving threat that a Ty Lawson or a Tony Parker is, he’s not afraid to take the ball to the hoop, either. Irving is also showing more effort than he usually gets credit for, as only seven point guards run more miles per game than does the Australian.
While his numbers aren’t as impressive as perhaps they should be, that can and will be fixed once he gets better teammates around him. It’s important to remember that he’s still only 21-years-old, and is without a doubt one of the most talented point guards to enter the league in quite some time. On a better team, with better coaching and management, Irving should elevate his game to the next level. It’s easy to criticize players and pick them apart, but context is important, and in this case, Irving has some legitimate excuses as to why he’s not on the elite level—yet.
14. Andre Drummond (20-years-old)
Drummond is far and away the most unrefined player on this list, getting by on athleticism, explosiveness, and length, rather than polish. He shows immense potential at both end of the floor, particularly on the defensive end, where he has already shown an ability to maneuver around picks, wreaking havoc on and off the ball.
None of this is to suggest that Drummond is merely potential, though. Despite playing nearly a dozen more minutes per game, and in lineups that oftentimes make little to no sense, Drummond has flourished for the Pistons this season, and improving in doing so. He is currently leading the NBA in total rebound percentage and offensive rebounding percentage, and he is in the top ten in rebounds per game (13.0), blocks per game (1.9), block percentage, field goal percentage (61.1%), and effective field goal percentage. Drummond is also second among centers in steals per game (with 1.3), and sixth in TS%.
This leads to a very simple question – what is Drummond’s ceiling?
Defensively, he may well have the ability to be the best in the game. He is already among the premier defenders in the league, and he still struggles with footwork, fouls, and biting on pump fakes. With a bit more experience (and perhaps some continuity with the coaching staff), these issues seem eminently fixable – and the strides that he has made thus far suggest that Drummond’s learning curve is far more impressive than some felt prior to the 2012 draft. Some of this is conjecture, to be fair, but the fact remains that Drummond is a 20-year-old second-year player that has already surpassed the expectations of most.
The biggest issue with Drummond is his somewhat limited offensive game. All but twelve of his field goal attempts this season have come in or around the restricted area (within eight feet of the basket), and he does not yet have a reliable post move. That may not matter in the grand scheme of things, as he is very efficient regardless, but it could hinder him against stronger defensive centers. And then there’s his free throw shooting, which currently sits at 41.3% (good for 226th among the 228 players averaging 20+ MPG). He currently cannot be relied upon towards the end of games, and there are precious few examples of players that improved their free throw shooting from the abyss to competent levels.
That is not enough to dissuade me, though, as I cannot look past how much better Drummond has performed as he has garnered more and more playing time. He may never be able to hit free throws at anything more than an only slightly embarrassing rate, but he may also be the all-around force that Dwight Howard was at his very best. And that’s a franchise player.
- Domenic L.
13. John Wall (23-years-old)
Wall is probably a bit harder to evaluate at this point in his career than most thought he’d be. A lot of fans probably expected Wall to already be approaching best point guard in the league status by now, but it’s easy to forget that he only played one season of college ball and entered the league as a 20-year-old point guard with a tremendous amount of hype.
One thing that’s certain is that Wall passes the ball very willingly, showing that he understands that his main responsibility is to set up his teammates as best he can. It’s not often that we see players that are as young as him come into the league with this much physical talent and be more than happy to play a team-oriented style of basketball. Though he has led the Wizards in field goals attempted in every season since they drafted him, it’s not because of selfishness. Wall is always one of the league leaders in assists per game, ranking 4th so far this season, and 6th, 7th and 7th the previous three seasons, respectively. Those are very respectable totals for a player who is only in his 4th season in the league, especially when also taking into account the teammates he’s been surrounded with. This season, Wall only trails Kemba Walker in passes per game, and is in general near the top of the lists of most other advanced passing statistics.
While there are no questions about Wall as a passer, he does leave a bit to be desired as a scorer. It’s at least somewhat concerning that he hasn’t improved his efficiency as of yet, with this being, again, his 4th season in the league. Wall ranks as low as 28th in TS% amongst point guards who have played at least 20 minutes per game this season, a mark that he definitely has to improve on, and pretty quickly. The most concerning sign this season has been Wall’s significant decline in his FG% in the paint (21.62% this season, well below league-average, compared to last season’s 44.86%, which was 6th best amongst all point guards who attempted at least 100 shots in the paint).
However, it’s entirely possible that this season has just been an anomaly, because Wall showed everyone last season that he can be at least a league-average mid-range shooter (a slight decline in his percentage from mid-range this season has also been a contributing factor to his overall declined efficiency) and a great finisher. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, and will hope that eventually the talent will win out and Wall will become the scorer that he should be with his physical gifts. He has also shown improvement in his 3-point shooting this season, which is up to 32.1%, compared to 26.7%, 0.71% (no, this is not a typo; that season Wall went 3-42 from 3-point range) and 29.6% the past three seasons, respectively.
Overall, Wall is close to being the total package as a player. The play-making ability is already there, as are the good rebounding and blocks numbers for his position, and he has always able to create turnovers with steals. Once the scoring efficiency catches up, we will be looking at possibly the best point guard in the league, and one that should have no issues to at least be in the discussion for the majority of his mid-to-late 20s.
12. Carmelo Anthony (29-years-old)
I’m not sure that there is a player in the NBA that solicits as many greatly varied opinions as Carmelo Anthony. He is, for better or worse, intrinsically linked to LeBron James – which is unfair at best, and borderline idiotic at worst. Their pre-NBA friendship, draft positions, and status as the face of famous (if not infamous) franchises ensures that this farcical debate is not going to go away anytime soon, and it will always leave Anthony looking subpar by comparison. However, one does not need to be LeBron James to be a damn good talent, and one of very best players in the game.
Despite having the reputation of a chucker, Anthony has been quite efficient these past two seasons, placing fourth and seventh in the league in PER, and ranking among the top twenty forwards (small and power forwards inclusive) in TS% along the way. He has found consistency with his three-point shot, as well, and his 41.6% mark from deep places him fifth among forwards (just ahead of Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant), and fourteenth in the NBA (just ahead of Stephen Curry, among others).
To be fair, Anthony is among the top handful of players in most every statistic that would qualify one as a chucker – he’s third in usage percentage, third in field goal attempts, and ninth in free throw attempts, all the while leading the league in minutes per game. However, many of these numbers compare favorably to players like the aforementioned James and Durant, as well as LaMarcus Aldridge, James Harden, and Stephen Curry … and few would call those players selfish.
On the defensive side of things, Anthony does not stand out – he’s in the middle of the pack at his position in defensive rating and defensive win shares, and he isn’t going to block many shots. However, he is not the abysmal defender that some make him out to be, and he is currently among the best at his position in picking up steals (eighth in SPG) and cleaning the defensive glass (thirteenth in defensive rebounding percentage). His defense certainly isn’t game changing, but he isn’t necessarily going to hurt the team.
The biggest weakness in Anthony’s game is likely his facilitating, or a general lack thereof – he is currently average 2.8 APG, despite handling the ball as much as any player in the NBA. However, given the system that the Knicks play under Mike Woodson (most politely referred to as ISO-ball and more ISO-ball), it seems difficult to blame Anthony all that much for his lack of assists. He has never shown a true skill for setting up others, but he is not generally a horrible or unwilling passer, and his assist percentage compares favorably to skilled passing big men like Boris Diaw and Dirk Nowitzki.
In other words, Anthony may not be the well-rounded player that many demand from a superstar, but he is nevertheless an excellent player – an elite offensive talent, with more than passable defense.
- Domenic L.
11. Marc Gasol (29-years-old)
The reigning Defensive Player of the Year isn’t enjoying the 2013-14 season so far. He got off to a pretty slow start offensively for the first 13 games of the season, and then things worsened as he sprained his MCL on game number 14 and was forced to miss almost two months. After returning, Gasol’s efficiency dipped even further, as his TS% dipped below 50.0 in January and February.
Luckily for Memphis, the big Spaniard brings much more to the table than scoring, as is evident by Memphis’ 12-4 record since his return to the lineup. During that span, they’ve allowed an absurdly low amount of opponent PPG—87.5—which is even better than what the Pacers’ defense is allowing this season (90.3), the same Pacers defense that is one of the best the league has seen in quite some time. In comparison, during the time that Gasol missed, the Grizzlies allowed 98.3 PPG, which is still pretty great, but is a ridiculous 10.8 PPG differential.
When your impact on a team’s defense is that significant, it allows you and your team to get away with some offensive struggles because the opponent is simply not scoring a lot of points. This isn’t to suggest that it’s okay for Gasol to be performing as poorly as he has offensively in terms of efficiency, that’ll obviously have to improve, and it most likely will. Thankfully, he contributes in more ways than just scoring on the offensive end, ranking 2nd only behind Joakim Noah amongst all centers in assist percentage and 5th amongst centers in total passes per game. The Grizzlies know that even when he isn’t scoring—or isn’t doing it efficiently—his abilities as a passer are incredibly valuable, especially considering that he is more than comfortable operating in areas other than under the rim, meaning he pulls opposing centers away from the basket, opening up the paint.
Gasol is already 29-years-old, so it’s unlikely that he hasn’t reached his peak already, but even with that in mind, his defensive impact is still phenomenal and offensively he’s more than comfortable to sacrifice his own scoring and efficiency numbers for the benefit of the team as a whole. He also doesn’t exactly rely on his athleticism too much, as he’s much more reliant on his basketball IQ, patience and overall understanding of the game, so he should be more than capable to contribute at pretty high levels even as he reaches his mid-30s. Gasol is an incredibly unselfish player, and one that any coach should feel comfortable with as the centerpiece of his team.
The top 10 picks will be revealed this Sunday, February 23rd.