Luka Doncic could become the best-ever NBA player from Europe. Trae Young has already become one of the NBA’s most dynamic offensive players. Zion Williamson is the most electrifying rookie since LeBron James. Ja Morant has turned the Memphis Grizzlies into must-see TV.
But which rising star would NBA decision-makers most like to build a team around?
ESPN asked 20 members of the NBA world — including coaches, scouts and executives — to rank these four young talents based on their potential to lead a franchise.
It wasn’t particularly close.
Doncic earned 17 of 20 first-place votes and finished second on the remaining three ballots to come away as the overwhelming favorite.
Before the NBA postponed its season, the reigning Rookie of the Year had the Dallas Mavericks on pace for a 50-win season and had firmly established himself in the MVP conversation. He served as the hub of an offense that was more than two points per 100 possessions better than any other in the NBA.
“Luka is a known quantity as a total stud,” one Eastern Conference scout said, “so you have to take the sure thing.”
Doncic earned his first All-Star bid this year and finished fourth in ESPN’s most recent MVP straw poll.
“Luka has size and elite playmaking and shooting right this second,” a Western Conference executive said. “He impacts winning. I believe his game is not only sustainable, but has the ability to continue to get better.”
For a couple of observers, the upside of Morant was enough to give him the top spot. Based on ESPN’s most recent Rookie of the Year straw poll, he is a heavy favorite to follow Doncic as the winner of the award. The combination of athleticism and intangibles Morant has flashed was too good for two voters to pass up.
“I see his upside,” one scout said. “He’s going to get stronger. [The Grizzlies] think he’s a killer.
“His upside is his athleticism. Doncic may be as good as he ever is because he’s limited athletically. For today, I’d say Luka, but moving forward, I say Ja because his athleticism is off the charts, his makeup is great and his shooting will get better.”
Morant is shooting 36.7% from 3-point range, which ranks 10th among rookies attempting at least two per game.
“I don’t know if Luka can be any better than he is,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “He’s really good. But I think this might be who he is — which is very good.
“But Ja can get better in terms of his shooting, his team will get better around him and he makes players better around him. I think he can affect the game at both ends.”
An Eastern Conference coach, meanwhile, gave the lone remaining first-place vote to Williamson. In the 19 games and 565 minutes Williamson has played, the New Orleans Pelicans rookie showed why the basketball world was so eager for him to debut after a knee injury forced him to miss the first three months of the season.
“His talent is off the charts,” the coach said. “He has potential to impact the game with or without the ball, and on both ends. As he understands the game, he will be able to be a playmaker that is incredibly high level, and shooting improvement will come over time.
“Right now, he is trying to fit in, and may have to do that for another year. But by Year 3, if he progresses the way he should and is taught correctly, he will be pretty spectacular.”
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The debate between Williamson and Morant went back and forth with the question about Zion remaining: Will his body be able to hold up long term?
“I’m only taking Luka because of health concerns about Zion,” said one Western Conference coach who had Doncic and Williamson first and second, respectively. “If [Zion’s] healthy, I think he’ll win an MVP. That’s how good I think he is.”
In his limited sample of work this season, Williamson averaged 23.6 points per game while shooting 58.9% from the field, the highest field goal percentage of the 36 players who were averaging at least 20 PPG when the NBA season was suspended.
“Health,” said a Western Conference scout when asked why he had Williamson third. “He’d be [No. 1] otherwise.
“Those other guys are going to be great for 10-plus years. There’s just too much [injury] risk [with Williamson]. Now, if I want to just be great now? Take him. He’s just unique and great for today’s NBA.”
Young placed third on four ballots and last on the other 16. And while those polled were quick to praise his prodigious offensive exploits — particularly on such a young Atlanta Hawks team — concerns about the other end of the floor prevented him from gaining traction in our survey.
“Trae clearly is fourth because of the defense,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “I just don’t think you can win big when his defense is that bad.”
Those who had him third thought his offense is so productive that it outweighs the concerns about him at the opposite end.
“Being an elite deep shooter has so much value,” another Eastern Conference exec said. “The thing with Trae is: Does he become James Harden, where you say, ‘F— it, and we’ll build around him because he’s so good you win 55 games,’ or does he not work with other better players, like a Russell Westbrook, so you have to minimize his role?”
While Doncic is the current favorite to build around, it’s clear this quartet represents the future of the NBA — with a long way to go.
“All four are really unique for the position [they play],” said one general manager, before adding with a laugh, “Frankly, who the f— knows?”
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