NBA Players Who Could Become Stars by Next Season | Bleacher Report

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    With so many stars already knocked out of the playoffs (LeBron James, Luka Doncic, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Jimmy Butler, Jayson Tatum) or missing them entirely (Stephen Curry, Zion Williamson, Karl-Anthony Towns, etc.), the NBA is getting a look at the next generation of talent.

    Players like Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, Michael Porter Jr., Deandre Ayton and Trae Young are bursting onto the scene, quickly becoming household names.

    But what about the next group of stars?

    There are players who have shown flashes of breaking out or soon could with increased roles, developing games or changes in scenery.

    For the following six players, expect a jump to stardom as early as next season.    

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    Derick Hingle/Associated Press

    While Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball make most of the headlines for New Orleans, Nickeil Alexander-Walker has proved how valuable he is to the Pelicans’ future.

    After struggling with his shot and playing sparingly as a rookie, Alexander-Walker became a regular part of the rotation in Year 2, starting 13 of his 46 games while improving his overall skill set.

    Over his last 13 games (before and after suffering an ankle injury), the 22-year-old wing averaged 17.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.8 blocks and shot 37.9 percent from three.

    A full-time starting job would help Alexander-Walker turn into a star, something that may only happen if Ball leaves in free agency (restricted) or Eric Bledsoe is traded. The Pelicans would be wise to try to find a taker for Bledsoe while keeping a starting backcourt of Ball and Alexander-Walker, a combo that would feature two 6’6″ guards.

    If he receives the playing time, Alexander-Walker needs to make some improvements to his game as well.

    At 205 pounds, his frame could stand to add a little muscle. Alexander-Walker often had to settle for creative finishes around the rim instead of drawing contact and going into guys. He made just 46.6 percent of his layups this season, including a lowly 48.1 percent shooting mark from within three feet.

    While nearly half of his shot attempts were threes this season, Alexander-Walker showed the ability to break down his defender and drive when he wanted to. He just needs to become a better finisher around the rim.

    The Pelicans have one of the best young cores in the NBA, and the 17th overall pick in 2019 is becoming a big reason why.      

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Perhaps no player has improved as much offensively over the last two years, which is a testament to Mikal Bridges’ work ethic and incredible durability.

    The 24-year-old hasn’t missed a basketball game in six years, including three with the Phoenix Suns and three at Villanova.

    The 10th overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft has become a crucial part of the Suns’ success this season, even if he’s often the fourth option on offense. He’s always had the body to become an elite defender (6’6″, 7’1″ wingspan) but often looked hesitant to shoot during his rookie season.

    After knocking down just 33.5 percent of his threes with a hitchy-looking jumper during the 2018-19 campaign, Bridges jumped all the way to 15th in the NBA with a 42.5 percent mark this year (better than Stephen Curry’s 42.1 percent mark). 

    He’s not just a three-ball specialist either.

    Bridges finished in the 80th percentile or higher in transition, isolation, off screen and as pick-and-roll ball-handler this season, per NBA.com’s Synergy data tracking, showcasing his ever-evolving all-around offensive game. His incredibly high release on jumpers makes them difficult to contest, with just eight of his 440 jump-shot attempts getting blocked this season.

    Of course, Bridges has always had Defensive Player of the Year potential with his length and work ethic.

    While he may never be a 20-point-per game scorer while playing next to Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton, Bridges can still grow into a star by continuing to develop his offense and turning into one of the game’s best wing defenders.

    Don’t be surprised if he ends up with a Khris Middleton-type career as a multiple-time All-Star who can be a team’s No. 2 option.     

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    A trade to the Washington Wizards was the best thing for Daniel Gafford’s career, and he could reach star status with continued improvement and playing time.

    In just 17.7 minutes per game off the bench for Washington, Gafford put up 10.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks and shot 68.1 percent from the field. Stretch those numbers to per-36 minutes, and Gafford averaged 20.6 points, 11.3 boards and 3.6 blocks.

    At 6’10” with nearly a 7’3″ wingspan, Gafford lives around the rim with his dunking and shot-blocking ability. His 8.1 block percentage was the fourth-highest rate in the NBA, besting even Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert (7.0 percent).

    Gafford’s average shot distance this season was just 3.2 feet, as he rarely attempts a field goal outside of the paint. While this kind of role can still produce a star, at 22, he has plenty of room to grow.

    He discussed his mindset with Spencer Davies of BasketballNews.com:

    “When I finally decided to lock in and stuff, that’s when I realized, ‘Yeah, I can have a real long career in this league if I can just work out of my comfort zone. Instead of just being a real athletic guy, jumping and catching lobs or things like that, I can expand my game way more if I put my mind to it. I always work on things that take me out of my comfort zone in the offseason — stuff like ball-handling, shooting threes and things like that. But it’s just up to me to have that level of confidence [and] with my level of competence and being better and better as the days go by.”

    Even though Gafford was on a team with Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook, no player made the Wizards better when he was on the floor this season (plus-10.1 on/off rating).

    Should Washington hand him the starting job and 30-plus minutes a night from the start next season, Gafford could quickly become one of the best young centers in the NBA.    

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    Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

    Much of Talen Horton-Tucker’s star potential depends on where he plays next season.

    Although the restricted free agent-to-be won’t turn 21 until November 25, the Lakers wing has already played two professional seasons, showing off an encouraging skill set in Year 2.

    Per 36 minutes of play, Horton-Tucker recorded 16.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.7 steals and shot 52.2 percent on his two-pointers.

    He’s a huge shooting guard at 6’4″ and 234 pounds, using his frame to drive and let defenders bounce off him before finishing around the rim or dumping the ball off to a cutting teammate.

    In four starts, he averaged 12.8 points and 7.5 assists, showing off his ability to create for others from the wing. He’s also had the best mentor in the world for this type of job in LeBron James (someone who may not be his teammate next season, however).

    While the Lakers will have the opportunity to match any offer Horton-Tucker receives, they have a number of free agents to bring back—Dennis Schroder, Andre Drummond, Alex Caruso, Markieff Morris, Ben McLemore—so a hefty offer sheet may prove difficult to match.

    If a team flush with cap space looking for young talent (hello, Oklahoma City Thunder) comes in offering Horton-Tucker $15 million a year or more, the Lakers may have to let him walk. This could actually be beneficial for his growth toward stardom, as minutes and shots would be far more available on a rebuilding team.

    While he needs to improve his outside shot (career 28.5 percent from three), Horton-Tucker has already shown enough at his age to soon become a star.            

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    After looking like one of the worst defenders in the NBA with a ho-hum offensive rookie season (12.3 points, 3.9 assists, 40.1 percent shooting), Garland took a massive jump in Year 2.

    He looked like the player the Cleveland Cavaliers envisioned when they took him with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2019 draft even though he played just five college games at Vanderbilt because of injury.

    Garland, 21, averaged 17.4 points, 2.4 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.2 steals and shot 45.1 percent overall and 39.5 percent from three this past season, finishing 13th among all NBA point guards in assist percentage (30.9 percent).

    Unlike Garland’s rookie season, the Cavs were actually better with him in the game.

    Per Cleaning the Glass, Garland jumped from a minus-0.4 swing rating during his rookie season to plus-5.3 in 2020-21. The Cavaliers’ effective field-goal percentage improved by 3.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, a mark that ranked in the 89th percentile in the league.

    While Collin Sexton averaged 24.3 points per game for the Cavs this season, it’s actually Garland who has the highest upside. 

    He already has an excellent dribble package and hesitation move. He’s a willing passer who’s only getting better and will see his scoring numbers rise when he starts shooting more threes (just 4.4 attempts per game this season).

    Improving his man-to-man defense will be important, as well as being more aggressive with his own shot. Garland averaged 20.3 points, 7.4 assists and 1.6 steals per 36 minutes when playing without Sexton this season, and the Cavaliers should try to stagger the two as much as possible to let each shine.

    On a team that lacks a true star in their rebuild, Garland could eventually become that guy in Cleveland. 

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    Troy Taormina/Associated Press

    Kevin Porter Jr. may have the most raw talent of anyone on this list, and the 6’4″ combo guard is already a skilled scorer and distributor at age 21.

    Following a trade to Houston in January, Porter put up 16.6 points, 6.3 assists and 3.8 rebounds in his 26 games, including a 50-point, 11-assist performance in a win over the Milwaukee Bucks. Even with Jrue Holiday defending him for much of the game, Porter was simply unstoppable.

    Shot selection and defense are probably the only aspects Porter needs to work on to reach a star level. His confidence is sky-high, which is both a blessing and a curse for young guards who have the green light.

    It’s easy to see shades of James Harden in his game, one of Porter’s favorite players to watch.

    While he only hit 31.6 percent of his step-back three-pointers, Porter already has a great foundation for the move and should continue to improve. He’s a crafty dribbler who, like Harden, can break down a defender on the perimeter before getting into the paint and kicking out to a teammate if the defense collapses.

    With no Harden in Houston anymore, Porter is a mini version who should be a thrill to watch for years to come.       

    Advanced stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.



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