The Top 20 players to build a team around

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Since the NBA is loaded with exciting, young and productive talent, there are plenty of options to build a team around.

Should a team go with proven veterans or upside-heavy young players who have higher theoretical ceilings but (potentially) lower floors?

We recently asked two of our writers, Alex Kennedy and Frank Urbina, to try and answer that question in the form of a fantasy draft, where they were tasked with choosing players based on their five-year windows. They were not building teams, but rather choosing the player they’d like to build around, making each pick a fresh start of sorts.

Let’s see what they came up with.

1. Alex: GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO (25)

This is a no-brainer. Not only is Antetokounmpo the NBA’s reigning MVP, but he’s also only 25 years old, so he should continue to perform at an elite level over the next five years. In NBA.com’s annual GM survey, when the general managers were asked which player they’d select if they were starting a franchise, Antetokounmpo received a whopping 86 percent of the votes. No other player received more than 7 percent! Giannis is already a matchup nightmare (averaging 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists), yet it seems like his best basketball is still ahead of him somehow. That’s a scary thought for the 29 teams tasked with slowing him down. The Milwaukee Bucks have built a contender around Giannis, and numerous teams are already plotting ways to steal Antetokounmpo away when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2021.

2. Frank: LUKA DONCIC (21)

Currently posting one of the greatest age-20 seasons the NBA has ever seen, Doncic has absolutely hit the ground running since joining the Dallas Mavericks, becoming a borderline MVP candidate by just his sophomore campaign. On the year, Doncic is averaging 28.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 8.7 assists nightly, making the Slovenian maestro one of just two players, along with the timeless Oscar Robertson, to post a 28/9/8 stat line within the first five seasons of their respective careers. Tasked with choosing players based on their five-year upsides, Doncic was the logical choice here, as his upward trajectory early in his NBA career resembles that of a future Hall of Famer.

3. Alex: ANTHONY DAVIS (27)

Davis is currently one of the NBA’s best players and he consistently dominates on both ends of the court. Over the last six seasons, Davis has averaged 26.3 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and 1.4 steals on 51.6/32.3/80.7 shooting splits. Also, over that same span, his Win Shares (11.0), Box Plus/Minus (+7.1) and VORP (5.3) are super impressive. We’ve seen Davis put up monster numbers as a No. 1 option with the New Orleans Pelicans and now he’s shown that he can thrive alongside another superstar on the Los Angeles Lakers. Davis is a terrific franchise cornerstone and he just turned 27 years old, meaning he should still be in his prime for much of our five-year window. The fact that a disgruntled Davis still returned Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and three first-round picks (including the No. 4 pick in the 2019 draft) in a trade says a lot about his value.

4. Frank: NIKOLA JOKIC (25)

After the Top 3, things get foggier. With the three obvious top options off the board, do we choose based on youth and upside or do we go with the more proven veteran talent as the better bet over a five-season window? We ended up going with a player who sort of fits both of those criteria, as Jokic is still just 25 but has already proven to be one of the very best centers in the NBA. The Serbian big man is averaging 20.1 points, 10.5 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game over the past two seasons, playing the role of primary playmaker beautifully for the Denver Nuggets, turning them into one of the top teams the Western Conference has to offer in the process. Building around him will require patience and savviness, as it’s rare to see a playmaking center that struggles defensively thrive as Jokic has in the league, but if we can put the right players around him, we might be able to build a powerhouse.

5. Alex: KAWHI LEONARD (28)

If we were drafting players for the next decade, a younger player would have been my pick here. However, because we’re only looking at the next five years, Leonard seemed like a safe selection. Leonard is 28 years old (so not too old) and we’ve seen that he can single-handedly lift a team into contention. My team would continue his load-management approach,  limiting his regular-season minutes and then unleashing him every postseason in hopes of extending his prime. We should get at least three years of Leonard at his peak, which is hard to pass up since he is an elite two-way player. For those who feel this is too early to pick Leonard, just think back what he did during the 2019 postseason when he averaged 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 2.3 threes, 1.7 steals on 49.0/37.9/88.4 shooting splits.

6. Frank: LEBRON JAMES (35)

The fact that James was selected this high at 35 years old is a testament to his stellar production and durability. Father Time is undefeated, but James has done a terrific job of staving him off thus far. This season, James is still a legitimate MVP candidate (averaging 25.7 points, 10.6 assists, 7.9 rebounds, 2.2 threes and 1.2 steals) and he has the Los Angeles Lakers looking like a championship favorite. If he can continue to perform at this level for two or three more years, James is a solid pick at this point. Again, if we were evaluating players over the next decade, James wouldn’t go in the Top 10. But there are still plenty of teams around the NBA that would love to build around James for the next five years.

7. Alex: ZION WILLAMSON (19)

At 19 years old, Williamson is the fifth-youngest player in the NBA and he obviously has insane potential. Despite facing NBA competition for the first time and getting back into game shape after knee surgery, he somehow dominated in his first 19 games as a professional. During that span, he was incredibly productive and efficient, averaging 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds while shooting 58.9 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from three. If we were evaluating players over a 10-year window, he would’ve been selected much earlier (perhaps as high as No. 3). Regardless, any team would be lucky to build around Williamson going forward. If his small sample size in the NBA is any indication, he’s going to have a legendary career. 

8. Frank: JAYSON TATUM (22)

Basketball’s main goal has been and always will be to get buckets, making players who specialize in scoring efficiently supremely valuable. There aren’t many, if any, 22-year-olds in the world who can do that as well as Tatum. In the Duke product’s breakout 2019-20 season, he’s averaging 23.6 points on impressive 44.8/39.8/80.6 shooting splits while helping lead the Boston Celtics to a 43-21 record and the East’s No. 3 seed. Additionally, Tatum has already proven to be a big-time playoff performer since he played a large part in Boston coming within one win of reaching the 2018 Finals as a rookie. In a league where tidy scoring is at a premium, landing a top bucket-getter who still isn’t even close to reaching his ceiling is of the utmost importance.

9. Alex: DAMIAN LILLARD (29)

Lillard is an All-NBA-caliber guard who has been a borderline MVP candidate this season as he attempts to push the Portland Trail Blazers into the loaded Western Conference playoff picture. This season, Lillard ranks fifth league-wide in scoring (28.9 points nightly) and sixth in assists (7.8), which goes to show just how much of the load he carries for the Blazers. Without him this season, Portland would be fighting for the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft, not a playoff spot. Not even 30 years old yet, Lillard has years and years of game-changing play left in him, making him an ideal selection here. Lillard is also a terrific leader and would help create an outstanding culture, just as he’s done in Portland.

10. Frank: JAMES HARDEN (30)

A former league MVP and a current Top 3 candidate for the prestigious award this season, Harden is leading the league in scoring for the third-straight campaign, averaging 34.4 points per game on 43.5/35.2/86.1 shooting splits in 2019-20. The bearded 2-guard might already be 30 years old, but the fact that his game is predicated on using his strength to finish in the paint, cunning scoring prowess and an unstoppable step-back three-point jumper more so than on freakish athleticism indicate that he won’t slow down production-wise anytime soon. And that makes him a safe pick for our draft’s purposes, if not a steal at this point in the selection process.

11. Alex: BEN SIMMONS (23)

Yes, Simmons refuses to shoot three-pointers, to the point that it’s become a meme. No, he’s not a perfect player, particularly in the modern NBA, where such an emphasis is placed on outside shooting. But a lot of the time, the discourse surrounding the Australian ball-handler can be unfair. After all, at 6-foot-10 with freakish skill, athleticism and length, Simmons can legitimately play any position on the floor as well as guard any opponent, be it a big or small. He’s an absolute terror in transition, he sets up a ton of corner threes and he has the upside to be an eventual Defensive Player of the Year. And with 2020-21 being his age-24 season, he’s still not even close to reaching his prime, so for a draft that eyes the future, he’d be a great pick.

12. Frank: KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS (24)

Like Jokic, Towns does have questions surrounding his game – primarily on the defensive end – and the fact that the Minnesota Timberwolves have struggled for wins during every year of his career besides when Jimmy Butler was around to lead them is a bit troubling. However, when you factor in his insane production as a pro (23.9 points, 12.1 rebounds and 3.0 assists nightly on ridiculous 53.1/40.0/83.5 shooting splits over the last four seasons) as well as his age (he’s still just 24), he becomes too enticing of an option to pass up here. We’ll have to pair him with an athletic power forward who can defend multiple positions to cover for his biggest warts, but in theory, we’re confident we’ll be able to make it work better than Minnesota has so far. Towns could very well be a steal here.

13. Alex: TRAE YOUNG (21)

Young is in the midst of a monster sophomore campaign in which he became an All-Star and averaged 29.6 points, 9.3 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 3.4 threes and 1.1 steals on 43.7/36.1/86.0 shooting splits. He’s still just 21 years old and, with his exceptional shooting and facilitating, his game is a perfect fit for the modern NBA. If he’s posting these numbers in his age-21 season, imagine what he’ll be able to do once he reaches his full potential in a few years. After watching Stephen Curry light up the NBA in recent years (winning three championships and two MVP awards), it’s hard to pass on Young since he can follow that same blueprint. Atlanta Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk, who drafted Young in 2018, actually worked in the Golden State Warriors’ front office when Curry was selected in 2009. With the right weapons (and defensive help) surrounding him, Young should thrive.

14. Frank: BRADLEY BEAL (26)

An inexplicable All-Star snub this season, Beal is posting a 30.5/4.2/6.1 stat line in 2019-20, and although that hasn’t led to enough wins for the Washington Wizards to earn a Top 8 seed in the East at the time of the play stoppage, it’s impossible to fault the stud 2-guard for that. This campaign, Beal is one of just two players – and just one of 21 ever – to put up a 30/4/6 stat line, joining former league MVP James Harden on that list. And Beal did that as a 26-year-old, making him four years younger than Harden this season and a better selection at this point for a draft where we’re choosing a player for the next five years. Beal’s do-everything game in the backcourt and much-improved defense make him a very solid piece to build around.

15. Alex: PASCAL SIAKAM (26)

Siakam just turned 26 years old and he’s just started to come into his own as a player. Remember, he didn’t start playing organized basketball until he was 17 years old, so he’s a late-bloomer and likely still has room to grow. This season, Siakam became an All-Star by averaging 23.6 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.2 threes, 1.0 steal and 0.9 blocks on 45.9/35.9/80.0 shooting splits. After Kawhi Leonard’s departure last summer, many people expected the Toronto Raptors to become a lottery team this season. Instead, Toronto currently has the second-best record in the Eastern Conference in large part because Siakam stepped up and proved that he can carry a team as a No. 1 option. Last year’s Most Improved Player took another monster step forward this year; we’ll gladly build around him for the next five years and see if this terrific two-way player has even more untapped potential. 

16. Frank: JOEL EMBIID (26)

Embiid is extremely talented and there’s no question that he can be a terrific centerpiece for an NBA franchise. His production speaks for itself and he’s still just 26 years old (so he should be in his prime for much of our five-year window). However, the big concern with Embiid is his injury history and that’s why he wasn’t selected earlier. When he’s on the floor, he’s an All-NBA and All-Defensive-Team player who fills the stat sheet (to the tune of 23.4 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.3 threes on 47.4/34.8/81.4 shooting splits this season). But in addition to missing the first two seasons of his NBA career, he’s never played more than 64 games in a season. That has to be considered when building a team around him. The fact that his max contract includes provisions that allow the Philadelphia 76ers waive him in the event of a serious injury helps a bit from a team-building side, but his injury history still makes him a risky pick.

17. Alex: KEVIN DURANT (31)

Yes, Durant is 31 years old and coming off of a ruptured Achilles tendon. However, when healthy, he’s in the debate for best player in the NBA. There’s a reason why teams were fighting over the chance to give Durant a four-year, $164.3 million deal last offseason (just a month after the injury occurred). Remember, the last time we saw Durant, he was averaging 32.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.9 threes, 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks on incredible 51.4/43.8/90.3 shooting splits during the 2019 postseason. He’s an MVP-caliber player and his game should age well (even after the Achilles injury) since he’s an outstanding shooter. During a recent appearance on First Take, Spencer Dinwiddie summed up Durant’s post-injury impact by saying: “At 80 percent, he’s Dirk Nowitzki. At 100 percent, he’s the best scorer of all-time. And anywhere in between, he’s still a top-three small forward in the league.” Maybe Dinwiddie went too far, but it’s true that Durant at 80 percent is better than many players around the NBA. And if he’s anywhere close to 100 percent, he’s an absolute steal at No. 17.

18. Frank: JA MORANT (20)

In his first season, Morant has taken the Memphis Grizzlies from the top of the lottery to the No. 8 seed out West, in a loaded conference, no less. That’s absolutely insane, and something not many first-year players would be able to do, particularly point guards who sometimes have a steeper learning curve in the Association. Morant – an explosive athlete with great ball-handling and playmaking skills, a solid stepback three-point jumper and a fearless attitude – has given us more than enough evidence that he is absolutely a player you can build a team around, and we have decided to do just that with this pick.

19. Alex: DONOVAN MITCHELL (23)

Mitchell is still developing, but he made some big strides this season by becoming an All-Star and posting career-highs in points (24.2), rebounds (4.4), assists (4.2), three-pointers (2.5), field goal percentage (45.3), three-point percentage (36.4) and free throw percentage (85.9) among others. He’s still just 23 years old, so he should be in his prime for the next five years that we’re evaluating in this experiment. Not only is Mitchell a freak athlete, he has become a very good shooter (knocking down 2.5 threes per game on 36.4 percent from deep). In addition to showing flashes of greatness on the court, he seems to have a terrific work ethic, a chip on his shoulder and a desire to be great – which are all things you want to see from your franchise cornerstone.

20. Frank: BAM ADEBAYO (22)

You’d be hard-pressed to find a better-fitting big man for the modern game than Adebayo, who despite being a plus rim-protector and rebounder is still fleet of foot enough to switch onto guards on the perimeter defensively, making him difficult for opposing offenses to target in the pick-and-roll game that is currently so potent in the Association. Offensively, he doesn’t offer much as a shooter – though he can knock down an open shot from the midrange – but he is an able ball-handler who is often given the freedom by the Miami Heat to bring the ball down, initiate plays and even run some pick-and-roll as the lead ball-handler. Adebayo’s averages in his age-22 season – 16.2 points, 10.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game – were impressive enough to make him a first-time All-Star and even then, his best basketball very clearly remains ahead of him, which is a scary notion to consider.

HONORABLE MENTION: Paul George, Stephen Curry, Jimmy Butler, Devin Booker, John Collins, Rudy Gobert, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker, Brandon Ingram

You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.

You can follow Alex Kennedy on Twitter: @AlexKennedyNBA.