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NBA rankings debate - Snubs, surprises and future stars

UniqueThis 2 Sep 23

The 2019 version of NBArank debuted Monday with players Nos. 100 to 51, including hyped rookies (the Memphis Grizzlies' Ja Morant), established veterans (the Denver Nuggets' Paul Millsap) and intriguing players on new squads (the New Orleans Pelicans' Lonzo Ball).

Who didn't make the cut but should have? Which players are the most underrated and overrated? And which future stars are set to rise the most over the next year?

Our NBA experts answer the biggest questions about this year's rankings and what they mean for the upcoming season.

More: Ranking the best players in the NBA this season

1. What is your biggest takeaway from the rankings?

Tim MacMahon, ESPN: We aren't buying the theory that big men aren't that valuable in today's NBA. I see 15 players who will see all or a significant chunk of their minutes at center (including New Orleans Pelicans center Derrick Favors, Indiana Pacers power forward Domantas Sabonis and Memphis Grizzlies power forward Jaren Jackson Jr.) among the 50 players in this pool. And there are a bunch more to come in the top 50.

Nick Friedell, ESPN: This section is chock-full of guys whom teams are banking on to take significant leaps in their play this season. A lot of these young players have the ability to play much better over time. Whether they do -- or don't -- will be key to their teams' seasons.

Eric Woodyard, ESPN: Detroit Pistons star center Andre Drummond being listed outside of the top 50. Sure, he isn't the greatest offensive threat. But we can't just glance over the fact that Drummond led the league in boards the past two seasons and is one of eight players in league history to post at least 1,000 points and 1,000 boards in six or more consecutive seasons. I don't see him slowing down, either -- he's only 26. Maybe they forgot about Dre.

Malika Andrews, ESPN: This group from 100 to 51 is Eastern Conference heavy. It makes sense: The East's best teams don't always flaunt the biggest superstar duos or trios, but they're often deep with rotation players. Both of the East's top 2019 playoff teams, the Bucks and Raptors, had several players make this list.

Andre Snellings, ESPN: The NBA is getting younger, with the new generation taking over and carrying the wave moving forward. A whopping 31 of the players ranked 51-100 have been in the NBA five seasons or fewer, which in the era of one-and-done means most of these guys are under 25 years old. With this shaping up as one of the most exciting NBA seasons in recent memory, it would appear that the future is in good hands.

2. Which player didn't make the top 100 but should have?

Andrews: One of the first things I did when I received a copy of the rankings was scan for Danny Green. How could he not be a top-100 player? When Kawhi Leonard was traded from San Antonio to Toronto, Green was also a key part of that blockbuster deal. Green is one of the best 3-and-D players in the league and has proved to be a key rotation piece. It doesn't compute that he didn't make the cut.

MacMahon: Sacramento Kings small forward Harrison Barnes has his limitations, particularly as a playmaker. But anyone capable of scoring 19 points per game with decent efficiency deserves to be considered among the top 100 players in the NBA. My unsolicited advice to the Kings: Utilize Barnes primarily as a stretch-4 in pace-pushing lineups.

Woodyard: Many people forget that when coming out of high school, Minnesota Timberwolves small forward Andrew Wiggins was heralded as the best player in the nation. After one year at Kansas, he has by no means enjoyed a legendary NBA career, with no All-Star appearances, but the kid can straight-up ball. Could he go harder at times? Sure. But he put up 18.1 points with 4.8 assists last season, with a career average of 19.4 points per game. I think the trade rumors could spark a career season for Wiggins. He is a top-100 player in this league.

Snellings: I almost picked Terry Rozier by default because someone is going to have to produce for the Hornets this season, but Jonas Valanciunas was too strong not to pick. He has been a per-minute monster who wasn't getting the minutes for years, averaging 19.4 points per 36 minutes on 56.2% shooting with 13.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per 36 minutes, primarily for the Raptors the past four seasons. The Grizzlies traded for him and gave him minutes to end last season, and his production scaled with more playing time. He's a legit 20-10 threat this season who has had a positive defensive RPM for four straight seasons -- a clear top-100 player.

Friedell: There are few players on the list I would want on the floor more than Andre Iguodala. He might not put up big numbers anymore on a night-to-night basis, but he is very smart, and his teammates and coaches respect him.

3. Who is most likely to outperform his ranking?

Woodyard: I was shocked when I didn't see LA Clippers point guard Patrick Beverley's name listed on the NBA All-Defensive Team last year. You can't tell me he wasn't at least worthy of second-team. I'm not buying that. With the additions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the good thing for Beverley is he will be in the spotlight more. More media attention and more wins typically bring more opportunities to achieve individual accolades and possibly a title. I totally expect Beverley to outperform his No. 79 ranking. He's as tough as nails, and playing with better talent will only help him.

Friedell: If Kyle Kuzma (No. 77) is as good as so many people in Los Angeles believe, he will shoot up this list this season playing alongside Anthony Davis and LeBron James. The Lakers' platform has the ability to create stars, and Kuzma will become one this year if he lives up to his potential.

Snellings: I like a lot of the young players on this list, such as Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Marvin Bagley, to potentially make star leaps this season. But the player most likely to outperform his ranking is Robert Covington, who, if healthy, is cartoonishly underrated at No. 97. Covington quietly plays Defensive Player of the Year-caliber defense, with Rudy Gobert the only player in the NBA to rank higher than Covington in defensive RPM in each of the past three seasons. Covington had injury issues last season, but in 2017-18, he measured eighth in the NBA in overall impact as determined by RPM, and all seven of the players in front of him that season are consensus top-25 guys when healthy.

MacMahon: Small forward Gordon Hayward (No. 65) arrived in Boston as a top-30 player. It's probably a stretch to expect him to get back to that level with the Celtics, who have too many mouths to feed to build an entire offense around him like the Utah Jazz did. But Hayward should benefit from a better atmosphere in Boston, and a full year of chipping away at rust and doubt could merit All-Star consideration in the Eastern Conference.

Andrews: Brandon Ingram. Ingram missed the final five weeks of the 2018-19 season after being diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis, but now he's back in the gym. A source told ESPN's Andrew Lopez that Ingram has been a full participant in optional practices this summer. So long as he stays healthy, Ingram has the upside to outplay his ranking.

4. Who is least likely to live up to his ranking?

Friedell: Hayward should be better after another year of work following that gruesome leg injury, but the problem for the Celtics is that he just might never be the player he once was. Some nights last season, he showed flashes of who he was before the injury, and other times he had little impact on the floor. Hayward might get passed this season by a group of young, hungry players coming up behind him.

MacMahon: Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic, simply because he will miss so much of the season while recovering from his gruesome leg injury and then surely will need significant time to work his way back into form as a skilled, physical force. Let's be real: The Blazers wouldn't have taken on the potential headaches and humongous salary that come with center Hassan Whiteside if they anticipated Nurkic to rank as the 83rd-most impactful player in the NBA this season.

Snellings: Brandon Ingram (No. 56). Ingram's game doesn't scale well on a team such as the Pelicans. He prefers to create with the ball in his hands, but Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday and even rookie Nickeil Alexander-Walker are better creators for both themselves and the team. And of course, the primary frontcourt iso threat will be Zion Williamson, not Ingram. Ingram doesn't shoot well enough to be maximized as an off-ball threat, and he doesn't create well enough to justify the types of touches he'd require to thrive.

Andrews: Gordon Hayward (No. 65). Although Enes Kanter recently said that Hayward should be eyeing the All-Star Game, there are plenty of questions surrounding the Celtics forward. Hayward seemed to grow more comfortable during the 2018-19 season, but he never appeared to be back in pre-injury form. If he cannot inch back toward 100 percent, his ranking will likely slip. Boston is counting on Hayward to replace some of the production the team lost during summer free agency.

Woodyard: I get it, the New York Knicks are a big-market team, but it disturbs me that they haven't reached the playoffs since 2012-13 and are somehow receiving all of this attention. With no disrespect, center Mitchell Robinson (No. 98) is going to have to prove to me that he's top-100 worthy because I don't see the Knicks putting him in position to really take off. Hopefully, I'm wrong. He was solid as a rookie in the 66 games he played. I'll be tuned in to see the improvement.

5. Which player ranked 100-51 will finish the highest heading into the 2020-21 season?

MacMahon: Jaren Jackson Jr.'s rookie season with the Grizzlies got overshadowed by frequent flashes of brilliance from Luka Doncic and Trae Young, but Jackson also showed signs of being special. Anthony Davis is the only other teen to average at least 13 points and one block per game. Jackson's blend of perimeter shooting and rim protection makes him a perfect big man to build around in the modern NBA.

Andrews: Jaylen Brown. With Kyrie Irving gone, the young guard has more room to grow. The Celtics had a turbulent 2018-19 season. Now, it seems the air has been cleared. For Boston to make a push in the 2020 playoffs, Brown and Jayson Tatum need to take the next step in their development.

Woodyard: One thing I know about Michigan State University players is that they are tough! That said, I'm looking forward to watching Jackson make big strides in his second season in Memphis. He's no longer surrounded by veteran guys such as Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, but I think that'll open doors for him to take off in this league. Although he made the All-Rookie First Team, I think we were robbed of seeing his true talent due to injuries.

Friedell: Jackson is primed for a big season. Playing alongside Ja Morant should only clear up more space for him on the floor. Jackson is one of the best young big men in the league and will take another step in his progression this season.

Snellings: Lonzo Ball is out of the pressure cooker of being the "next big thing" for the storied Lakers franchise and is also in position to increase his playmaking role for the Pelicans after deferring to LeBron James last season. Ball averaged 10.2 points (36% shooting, 31% from deep), 7.2 assists, 6.9 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game as a 20-year-old rookie, numbers eerily similar to then-co-Rookie of the Year Jason Kidd. If Ball is healthy this season, he should finally start to fulfill some of that Kidd-like upside.