Up next in our series examining the best young players the NBA has to offer — NBA 25 Under 25 — are a handful of guys who could be paid a billion dollars as a group to get buckets over the next decade.
5. Rodney Hood
Role: Silent assassin
Perform a news search for Rodney Hood, and you won’t find much. He’s just been quietly doing solid work in relative NBA obscurity. Even as praise was being heaped on the Jazz during a 51-win campaign that ended in the Western Conference semifinals this past season, little recognition went Hood’s way.
Instead, Rudy Gobert’s defense, Gordon Hayward’s impending free agency, George Hill’s health and Joe Johnson’s heroics stole the headlines. Even Boris Diaw’s espresso machine got more play in the media. And if there was time for a story about Utah’s role players, attention turned to Joe Ingles.
Dennis Lindsey: "We believe Rodney Hood can be a primary scorer. It's time for us to pivot, it's time for us to move on."
— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) July 6, 2017
Hood was Utah’s most commonly used spot-up shooter last year, and he performed the job well, shooting better than league average from midrange and everywhere along the 3-point arc. The 6-foot-7 wing finished 2016-17 with a respectable 12.7 points per game on 37.1 percent 3-point shooting.
But he was the Jazz’s third option to start their pick-and-roll action, behind Hayward and Hill, both of whom are now gone. Many of those touches will now go to Hood, whose 0.89 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler over the past two seasons are almost identical to Hayward’s 0.90.
It would be easy to say more touches will lead to more points, but Hood also has to be more aggressive. Hayward was an elite finisher at the rim, piling up points around the basket and at the free-throw line. Hood, on the other hand, rarely attacks the paint, and when he has, he hasn’t been nearly as efficient. How much the knee and hamstring injuries he’s dealt with over the years have played into that, we don’t know.
Incoming point guard Ricky Rubio will continue to feed him for spot-up shooting duty, but Hood will be tasked with significant scoring responsibility in Hayward’s absence. He should be motivated, considering he will be a restricted free agent in 2018 and looking for his first big NBA payday. Hood has all the tools to be a 20-point scorer in his age-25 season; he just needs to stay on the court, and make himself heard.
4. Jabari Parker
Role: Bionic man
Parker has been here before.
Two years ago, after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee just 25 games into his NBA career, the former No. 2 pick approached rehabilitation as an opportunity to improve his body. He took a “Jedi trip” to the Andes mountains, where he tested the knee for a return that wouldn’t come for some 11 months. His sophomore season was really an extension of that abbreviated rookie campaign, but once he got his footing, Parker emerged better for it.
In 2016-17, he demonstrated the breadth of talent that led many to project him as a future franchise cornerstone, averaging 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game, while showing off an improved 3-point shot. Giannis Antetokounmpo had his complementary star, and once Khris Middleton returned from a torn hamstring, the Bucks were positioned to become challengers in the Eastern Conference.
Then, on Feb. 8, 2017 — the same night Middleton debuted — Parker tore his left ACL again.
The Bucks still made a run, going 16-7 over their final 23 games and challenging the third-seeded Toronto Raptors in their first-round series, despite starting rookies Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker. You know who could have helped pull off the upset? A smooth 6-foot-8 scorer capable of playing either forward position, unlocking the Antetokounmpo-Parker-Middleton triumvirate and myriad lineup possibilities for Bucks coach Jason Kidd. Instead, those three played all of zero minutes together last season.
Now, Parker faces another yearlong recovery, which will likely leave him out of the lineup until at least the All-Star break. And while he’s approaching this rehab with the same verve he did the first, even saying, “I don’t want to be the same player. … I know I can be better,” Parker likely won’t emerge improved until 2018-19. By then, he will be a restricted free agent, potentially commanding massive offer sheets.
So, Milwaukee will have a half-season to see if Parker’s game, with all of its offensive opportunities and defensive deficiencies, can fit seamlessly into a lineup that also features Antetokounmpo’s future MVP-caliber talent, Middleton’s two-way game, Maker’s burgeoning rim protection and Brogdon’s steady hand.
Maybe Parker is the missing piece, and that’s a core capable of contending for years. Unfortunately, the Bucks know all too well just how difficult it can be for a player to return from two ACL tears in the same knee. Michael Redd was 30 years old, though, when he injured his left knee for the second time. Parker only turned 22 on March 15. So, really, nobody has been here before.
3. Andrew Wiggins
Role: Franchise definer
The 2014 NBA draft, with Wiggins and Parker at the top, was billed as a bonanza. Second-round pick Nikola Jokic, just two years into his career, is easily its most accomplished member, and third overall selection Joel Embiid shone brightest in a 31-game flash of brilliance this past season. But three years down the line, with rookie contract extension time drawing near, the class has yet to produce an All-Star.
Don’t sleep on Wiggins, though. FiveThirtyEight.com may have billed him as the league’s “worst defender,” and it’s fair to say that he’s got plenty of room for improvement on that end. But as our own Dan Devine has pointed out, only a dozen other players have ever averaged 23 points per game before age 22 — a list that includes six Hall of Famers, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Anthony Davis and Timberwolves teammate Karl-Anthony Towns. Wiggins joined them in 2016-17 with a career-high 23.6 points per game in his age-21 season.
That was apparently enough for Wolves owner Glen Taylor to exclude Wiggins from trade discussions in the Kyrie Irving sweepstakes and meet his demands for a max contract extension, so long as the Canadian-born former top pick promised to improve. Then, Wiggins reportedly fired super-agent Bill Duffy, with a five-year, $148 million deal on the table, complicating an already complicated decision.
Wiggins could be the sort of slashing scorer and rising swingman who can elevate a team with Towns and the recently acquired Jimmy Butler to championship contention over the course of his next deal. He might also completely saddle a franchise that’s never reached the Finals with a cap-killing contract that pays him $33.7 million in 2022-23.
There are, of course, several layers between. Somewhere within lies Wiggins’ most likely destiny.
Wiggins, like Parker, dramatically improved his 3-point shooting, connecting at a league-average 35.6 percent after two seasons closer to 30 percent. He has the athleticism to get better on defense, with a coach in Tom Thibodeau and teammate in Butler who will push him. He has the offensive arsenal to drop the most efficient 47-point game by a 21-year-old in league history, needing only 21 shots to get there.
Oh, and he has the explosiveness to do this to the league’s best shot-blocker … twice:
There’s reason to believe enough in Wiggins’ potential to invest in him now … so long as Taylor is comfortable tying his team’s long-term success to the former No. 1 pick’s ability to fulfill that promise.
2. Devin Booker
Role: Keeper of the #MambaMentality flame
Booker scored 70 points in a game before his 21st birthday. That should be the end of this discussion.
Granted, it came in a double-digit loss in which his team spent the final minutes prolonging the outcome and actively trying to get him milestone buckets. But still: the kid became the youngest player ever to drop 70 points in a game, and the first to do it since Kobe Bryant scored 81 in 2006.
“I saw an interview with Kobe. He said what separated him from a lot of people was everyone thought 30 points was a lot,” Booker told reporters in Boston after the game. “He said he never set himself a limit, and that always sticks in my head. He said he’d score 100 if he could. So, he never had a limit. I don’t put a limit on anything. I want to be the best in life — in all parts in life, not just basketball.”
The effort came a year to the day after Bryant gave him a pair of shoes with the words “Be Legendary” written on them, before telling reporters about Booker: “I think he’s fantastic. I think he has the right attitude.”
— Craig Grialou (@CraigAZSports) March 24, 2016
The shooting stroke that’s made Booker a 22-points-per-game scorer on a team that trotted out the youngest starting lineup in history and entered full-blown tanking mode a month before season’s end is certainly impressive. But it’s that attitude that has folks around the league excited by the possibility of what he could become.
“I love Devin Booker, man,” Durant said on “The Bill Simmons Podcast” last week. “He loves the game, and he’s like a dog. He’ll talk s***. He’ll rough you up. He’ll get up into you. You better watch out for that boy, because he is nice. He’s next — I’m telling you.”
That’s high praise backed up by the fact that Booker once said of journeyman guard Troy Daniels, “He’s been on five teams in three years, and he has the nerve to talk trash to me?” A few weeks later, he baited Daniels’ Memphis Grizzlies teammate Vince Carter into elbowing him and earning an ejection. Two weeks after that, he calmly added to his league-leading total for game-winning shots:
Another fortnight later, he dropped 70 in Boston. Did we mention he can’t legally drink until Oct. 30?
1. Bradley Beal
Role: The gun to John Wall’s run
While Booker did his work on a team that’s won fewer than 25 games each of the past two seasons, Beal has done his for a squad that’s won a playoff series in three of the past four seasons, and nearly knocked off the top-seeded Celtics to get to the Eastern Conference Finals in May.
Teammate John Wall gets credit for steering the Wizards against Boston, and he deserves plenty of it. But when the All-Star point guard ran out of gas against All-Defensive guard Avery Bradley in Game 7 of the conference semifinals, it was Beal whose 38 points gave their team a puncher’s chance in the deciding road game.
Beal is a career 40 percent 3-point shooter whose smooth stroke earned him comparisons to Ray Allen as early as high school. With each annual increase in attempts, his efficiency has also risen, culminating last season in a career-high 23.1 points per game and a 60.4 True Shooting percentage, a stat that considers accuracy on 2-pointers, 3-pointers and free throws. Among high-volume scoring guards, only MVP candidates and All-Stars (James Harden, Stephen Curry, Isaiah Thomas and Kyle Lowry) were more efficient.
It was that season-long effort, aided by improved production in the pick-and-roll and coupled with a career-best 3.5 assists per game, that had Beal wondering why Carmelo Anthony was named Kevin Love’s replacement on the East’s All-Star roster in February instead of him.
And it was that brashness that had Beal thinking the three-time reigning conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers really feared the Wizards in the playoffs. Seemingly meant for each other, Wall and Beal finally figured out the run-and-gun symbiosis that even they concede has been chaotic over the years, so it’s no coincidence that both enjoyed the best years of their careers and the Wizards nearly won 50 games for the first time since Wes Unseld’s 1970s heyday on the Washington Bullets.
And it sure feels like there’s more room to grow. Given his proficiency from distance, Beal could bump his scoring average into the 27-points-per-game range — a space occupied only by DeMar DeRozan among two-guards last season — with improved ball-handling in traffic and the resourcefulness to get to the free-throw line more than four times a night. Considering the strides Beal has made in five NBA seasons, there’s no reason to believe he can’t continue to improve that element of his game.
From there: All-Star berths, conference finals, you name it. It’s all set up for Beal to knock ’em down. That’s what he does best.
More from our NBA 25 Under 25 series:
• Giannis Antetokounmpo and the players who will redefine the league
• Ben Simmons and the top five playmakers under age 25
• Otto Porter and the unsung heroes who make good teams great
• Jusuf Nurkic and the young players on the verge of breaking out
• NBA 25 Under 25: Giannis, Brow, KAT and the next generation
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