These Guys Got Next

NBA: Preseason-Milwaukee Bucks at Minnesota Timberwolves

One of the most exciting things about the NBA has always been picking out the ‘next big thing’. Ever since Jordan retired, every other athletic guard who dunks fancy has been labeled at some time or another as the ‘next Jordan’. Some failed to live up to the mantle: Harold Minor a.k.a Baby Jordan; some showed promise but ultimately faded: Vince Carter; only one came close but would forever still live under the giant shadow of No.23: Kobe.

At some point, people finally seemed to realize that it was a lost cause to search for the next Jordan.  As the league evolved, athletic two-guards were no longer the only place to look. We casted the net wider, be it flashy point guards who could shoot from anywhere or athletic bigs who could run and jump like a two-guard. And every year we feel the urge to anoint someone as the ‘future’ of the league. Only very recently Anthony Davis was given that prestigious title, and from his breakout performances last season, it seemed deservingly so. Yet here we are, only three-quarters of a season later, whispers of the next person to supplant Davis have surfaced – another big man, just as athletic, maybe bigger and stronger, with better handles and shooting compared to AD’s rookie season. The man-child they call KAT (seriously, if he is to be the next big thing in the NBA, someone needs to come up with a better nickname) – Karl-Anthony Towns is now your new ‘future’ of the NBA.

From his eye-popping performances and stats, and the way he has dominated older and bigger opponents, all as a 19-year-old rookie, it’s become obvious that Towns will be a big thing in the league for years to come, hopefully at some point we’ll see some kind of rivalry between him and AD for the ‘best big man’ title, and get to witness some  great playoff matchups between the two (when they eventually carry their teams to better records). So to avoid banging on the obvious, here are 5 other guys who could surprisingly join KAT as the ‘next generation’ of top talents in the league for the next decade:

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Aaron Gordon

Since the above dunk happened, Aaron Gordon’s career was given an electric jolt from ‘development project’ to ‘budding future all-star’. While the spotlight and expectations of winning the Dunk Contest has been a death sentence to some careers (Harold Miner), fortunately for Gordon, he has been playing with a boosted confidence and an added swagger ever since. His coach, whether by fan or management pressure, also seems to have unhooked the leash on him, setting him loose for most games since. With the extra minutes and responsibility, Gordon proceeded to prove that he’s not just a high-flying dunk machine. So far, it’s clear Gordon has a good nose for crashing the boards, has superior handles and passing for a guy his size, and has a decent jumpshot which should easily be improved with the right shooting coach. A clear Magic and neutral fan favorite, he could be the Magic superstar they haven’t had since T-Mac, possibly as soon as next season.

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D’Angelo Russell & Julius Randle

During this season-long farewell tour for one Kobe Bryant, fans in both LA and the rest of the world shouldn’t be blamed if they haven’t noticed that behind the Kobe juggernaut, the Lakers may already have found the foundation for the post-Kobe era. Stopping short of calling them the new Shaq & Kobe, which they are not, but Russell & Randle are one of the most exciting young duos there is in the league. I’d put them up alongside KAT/Wiggins and Giannis/Parker. Russell suffered from some sick Byron Scott mind games in the early parts of the season, but finally given his fair share of opportunities, it’s clear the kid is special. He has that Magic Johnson-like ability to thread passes from angles no one else on the floor can see, and seems to have found a new Steph Curry-like confidence in his shot. Randle on the other hand, with his unfortunately cut short rookie year behind him, is a modern-day Charles Barkley. At a height disadvantage most of the time, Randle throws his bulky body around for positioning and rebounds, and uses his quickness and ability on the ball to beat clumsier forwards to the basket. If things pan out well in Lakerland, these two could be in for a long Stockton/Malone type partnership as the cornerstones of a new Lakers era. And to think that, with a few lucky bounces of some ping pong balls, they might be joined by a Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram. Maybe the Lakers rebuild isn’t going as bad as it’s made out to be.

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Giannis Antetokounmpo

Just look closely at those arms for a moment and you’ll know exactly why they call this guy the “Greek Freak”. Though many other tall lanky athletic guys have come and gone, Giannis has truly made the most of the physical gifts bestowed upon him. Flying up and down the court seemingly in just a couple of steps from one end to the other, effortlessly reaching above seven footers for rebounds, just with his freakish wingspan and height alone he would have been a borderline star in the league. But this season, with Jason Kidd finally realizing that Michael Carter Williams isn’t the answer, Giannis was trusted with the ball more and it’s becoming evident with each game that the point guard position might be in for a revolution. Taller point guards like Magic & Penny have successfully exploited their shorter counterparts, but never before have we seen someone like Giannis with such playmaking ability. The Bucks should be in for many triple-doubles and amazing highlight plays from the Freak, and along with an improving Jabari Parker, should find themselves back in playoffs contention after this year’s transitioning period.

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Devin Booker

During the draft, it was unlikely that anyone would have Booker as a legitimate threat for Rookie Of The Year. Though he’s still not going to beat out KAT for the award, he’s forced himself into the argument to be as high as second in line, even surpassing Kristaps Porzingis. While Porzingis had a sizzling start, he’s hit the rookie wall hard in 2016, while Booker has just shot right on after being thrust into the top dog role in a decimated Phoenix Suns team. With Bledsoe and Knight out for most the season, Booker – THE youngest player in the NBA, was given the keys to the team. First he took over as the primary scoring threat, showcasing his sweet (though I hate to say it, Klay Thompson-like) shooting stroke and range. Then it became apparent that he was also the best playmaker the team had, running sweet pick and rolls and creating great open looks for his teammates. Sometimes injuries to key players could come with blessings in disguise, though this does create some sort of a dilemma for the Suns when all of Bledsoe, Knight and Booker are healthy next season. I’m willing to bet the house Booker isn’t the one who is asked to give way.

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Zach Lavine

This one may be a little bit of a surprise on this list. Normal NBA fans might argue that it’s KAT’s other young teammate Andrew Wiggins who belongs on this list. But based on post-All Star performances this season, it’s Lavine who has shown he may yet have a ‘next level’ he hasn’t quite shown us yet. Wiggins, on the other hand, seems only a slightly improved version of himself from his rookie year. Lavine seems to have enjoyed a similar boost in playing time and confidence as Aaron Gordon after the Dunk Contest, shooting (50% vs 43%) and scoring (18 vs 13) at a rate of improvement even Wiggins hasn’t shown compared to his rookie year. With KAT, Lavine and Wiggins (as the third-best player!) on the team, the T-Wolves rebuild is progressing the way Sixers fans can only dream of.

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