35. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Bradley Beal has all the makings of a star player, building a solid foundation just a few tweaks and adjustments away from realizing that potential. His propensity for long two-pointers is well documented—he took an astounding 27.7 percent of his shots between 16 feet out and the three-point line. By comparison, James Harden attempted 13 percent of his shots from that area while Klay Thompson took only 17 percent.
Not only did he shoot an inordinately high percentage of these inefficient shots, he wasn’t very successful in converting them, shooting only 33.1 percent from that range. Whether due to his own shot selection or poor design from Washington Wizards’ coach Randy Wittman is debatable, but redistributing some of those attempts to the three-point line, where he’s fantastic at 40 percent, could produce a steep rise from his current production.
John Wall and Beal form the best backcourt under the age of 25 and should be a formidable duo in Washington for years to come. While the star power has tilted heavily in Wall’s direction so far, recalibrating Beal’s game to better feature his strengths should go a long way towards bringing them closer to equal footing—much in the same way that Klay Thompson developed when the Golden State Warriors hired Steve Kerr as their head coach.
Solid defense, a gorgeous shooting stroke, and enough diversity in his secondary attributes portend to great things from Beal. In last year’s playoffs, Beal took on heavier responsibilities when Wall went down with injury despite a badly sprained ankle. A shift to better spacing lineups opened up lanes and opportunities for Beal, who in turn could open up another level of play for the Wizards after consecutive Eastern Conference Semi-Finals losses.
34. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
What began as a promising season for the Toronto Raptors ended in a complete collapse, forcing a reshuffling of pieces around a core of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and the recently extended Jonas Valancuinas; signing Cory Joseph, DeMarre Carroll, and Luis Scola.
So much of the Raptors’ success stemmed from Lowry, who averaged 22.3 points and 8.9 assists at their peak in December. Perhaps too much, considering the nosedive he and the Raptors took as the season wore on; dragging his averages down to a more pedestrian 15.1 points and 5.4 assists per game after the All-Star break.
Lowry was asked to shoulder a large offensive load in an offense that relied predominantly on isolations and the creative exploits of its backcourt contingent—consisting of Lowry, DeRozan, Lou Williams, and Greivis Vasquez. Lowry took on a 25.4 percent usage rate, by far the highest of his career and one of just 12 players to carry such a burden while playing 30 minutes a night.
A full season of health from DeRozan will help lessen the load, and finding easier avenues of scoring team-wide should help prevent overtaxing Lowry, who appears to have taken his collapse personal and responded by working hard this offseason to improve his conditioning and prepare himself for a sustained run at the level of play the Raptors need from him.
Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns
After acquiring Isaiah Thomas, many wondered how the three point guard lineups of Thomas, Goran Dragic, and Eric Bledsoe would function. The answer was clear pretty quickly after a disgruntled Dragic was shipped to the Miami Heat and Thomas to the Boston Celtics—handing the keys to the franchise over to Bledsoe, along with a willing backcourt partner in Brandon Knight.
Bledsoe is a bulldog when he gets moving downhill towards the rim, and few defenders are capable of knocking him off his path. Though he isn’t the fanciest ball handler his combination of speed and strength are enough to force his way into the paint. And while it’s hard to find a specific offensive skill he’s elite at, the total of summation of his game channeled through his elite athleticism is enough to average 17 points on an efficient 55 true shooting percentage.
Where his true value comes is on the defensive end. Bledsoe is capable of locking down a variety of scorers, using his foot speed and agility to mirror the NBA’s quicker point guards, and strength and long arms to prevent bigger guards from gaining good position while still contesting their shots. Given these attributes and his non-stop motor, it’s little wonder that the Suns were three pointers per possession better defensively with Bledsoe on the court according to NBA.com.
The crowded field of elite guards makes it hard for Bledsoe to get the formal recognition he deserves, but he’s arguably one of the best two-way guards in the Western Conference. Bledsoe is a high-impact defender with elite athleticism and a burgeoning, adaptable offensive game. Those types of players are hard to come by, and it’s easy to see why the Suns chose to keep him to build around.
Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
In an increasingly perimeter oriented game, Andre Drummond is one of the few remaining dominant two-way big men. Frighteningly, at only 22-years old, Drummond is the same age or younger than 17 of the 60 players taken in the last NBA draft, so there’s plenty of years to build on an already solid base.
Drummond is the classic center, not venturing far from the paint, where he takes 97.4 percent of his shots within 10 feet of the rim. He’s not quite an elite finisher yet, converting 52.6 percent of his shots within 10 feet, a mark that pales in comparison to players like DeAndre Jordan (71.3 percent) or Derrick Favors (61.7 percent). Much of this stems from his poor percentage on offensive rebound put-backs, a category where big men are supposed to feast. For players that had at least 20% of their offensive possessions used in put-backs, Drummond had one of the lowest points per possession at just 0.96.
While this looks bad on the surface, diving deeper into the causation doesn’t lead to any cause for concern. Drummond’s reach and second jump are so great that even without great rebounding position he’s able to simply leap over an opponent and tip the ball back to the rim (registering a field goal attempt) before exploding on his second jump for a more authoritative put back—padding his rebounding stats at the expense of his field goal percentage.
Still, it’s hard to see Drummond ever evolving into a go-to option. He lacks the same body control and footwork of a player like Shaquille O’Neal, who was physically superior. Drummond also lacks touch, offensive diversity, and converted on just 38 percent of his free throws last season.
But 15 points and 15 rebounds while working as an intimidating presence is a strong ceiling for Drummond as he approaches his prime. With Greg Monroe gone, Reggie Jackson re-signed, and more shooting around coach Stan Van Gundy’s preferred spread pick and roll offense, there should be plenty more space for dump-off passes and offensive rebounds—which Drummond utilizes better than almost anyone in the NBA.
Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
Father Time has caught up to Dwyane Wade. Years of launching his body into the fray have worn on him, and the 33-year old guard hasn’t played in 70 regular season games since the 2010-11 season—though he’s played deep into the NBA playoffs in four of the last five seasons, so the mileage is still accruing.
When healthy, he can still be the Wade of old, creating off pick and rolls, cutting into open space, and posting up on the left block. His production level is still high at 24.3 points and 5.5 assists per 36 minutes on a 53.4 true shooting percentage.
Wade’s athleticism has been diminishing for years, but his footwork is as good as ever. Like many players his age, Wade finds himself relying a little more on jumpers, taking over 20 percent of his shots between 10 and 16 feet—a little higher than his career average. But this is more a matter of self-preservation than decline in ability, as Wade is still an excellent finisher around the rim, hitting 68.1 percent.
While Wade is still a top offensive weapon, his defense is deteriorating to dangerous levels. The Heat are much better defensively with Wade off the floor, with their defensive rating climbing from 98.8 to 105.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the court. He can barely be bothered to put in any sort of effort in transition while his dwindling foot speed makes it harder effect the game defensively when he is keyed in.
Wade’s place in the NBA now depends on the context of his team. His lack of durability makes carrying a team to the playoffs on his back a dubious task. But for a team built to take the pressure of Wade during the regular seasons, 40-50 games of Wade good-to-elite levels of play is more valuable than steadier-but-lesser contributions from a few players higher in these rankings. This spot appears to split the difference, measuring Wade as an impactful but inconsistent star.