As another NBA season has passed, we ought to reflect on what’s changed throughout the year. We should consider if what we once thought about certain things still holds. After all, this season showed us a slew of developments we couldn’t have possibly seen coming. With this change of perspective comes a new outlook on the top players in the league. Given what’s transpired, there’s something to be said about the kind of players teams should have to lead their franchise in the NBA today.
That will be the focus of this article. Looking across the landscape, I’ll list ten of the top NBA players to build around. I’d caution you not to mistake this for a top ten overall list. The criteria here shape much differently than that. Aside from mere talent, this list considers age, health, and potential, among other factors.
For example, Chris Paul has reasserted his value and merit as an all-world talent this season. However, considering his age and the prospect of his decline, you’d probably have some players you’d take over him long-term. Though Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis remain premier two-way players, their injury problems make them less attractive as franchise faces. Keep ideas like that in mind as you read through. These are the top ten NBA players to build around today.
10. Ben Simmons
Before you ask, yes, I watched the 76ers playoff run. I saw Ben Simmons miss multiple free throws down the stretch of crucial games. I also saw him pass up a wide-open dunk in the clutch in game seven against Atlanta. It’s no secret that Ben Simmons has disappointed his team and those who believed in his potential. That said, at 25 years of age, he still has a lot of time left to improve.
Many of the things that made him the first overall pick in 2016 translated well into the league. He has discovered his potential as an elite defender, becoming a finalist for the defensive player of the year in 2021. Simmons has also established himself as an elite passer and dominant playmaker in transition.
As the 76ers point guard, his inability to shoot jumpers has loomed largely. However, he has grown other aspects of his game, which shouldn’t get lost in what transpired in the playoffs. The averages of 14.3 points, 6.9 assists, and 7.2 rebounds this season only show a part of what he can do because of the reduced role forced upon him.
If put in the right position, Simmons should have what it takes to ascend further into superstardom. But there’s a caveat. As of now, he remains with the 76ers. To take that next step, he has to become his team’s focus, which cannot happen in Philadelphia. Given space to maneuver around the post and along the baseline, he’d score at a higher rate. But playing with Joel Embiid, that can only come in a limited frame. If he gets that fresh start on a team better suited to his strengths, Simmons should eventually assert himself as a true superstar.
9. Jayson Tatum
Jayson Tatum is what most teams want their franchise player to look like. A leading scorer, an effective playmaker, and an influential defender. The all-star forward quickly made his name known when entering the league and has only ascended every year since. This season marked his career-best in points, assists, rebounds, free throw percentage, and effective field goal percentage. Though they have yet to reach the NBA Finals with him on board, the fact that Tatum and company have gotten so close a few times already speaks to his value and overall impact.
The Celtics finished as the seventh seed in the East in 2021. A significant step back considering what they accomplished in the prior years. However, with a new head coach and recent changes to the roster, they look to return to form and get back in the fight for the Eastern Conference crown.
With Kemba Walker now gone and Jaylen Brown likely out for the start of next season, much of the scoring load will rest with Tatum. While it’ll be a challenge, the 23-year-old has shown an ability to take over that facet of the game with relative ease. At this rate, Jayson Tatum could soon become one of the leading faces of the league in the coming years.
8. Devin Booker
A lot of us have always known the kind of talent Devin Booker possesses. The Suns have had a hard time putting the right pieces around him to supplement his impact on the floor. The 13th overall pick in 2015, Booker joined Phoenix in the middle of their decade-long playoff drought. Despite their poor management and roster construction, Booker shined throughout. People really became aware of who he could become the night he scored 70 points against Boston.
Since then, we’ve only yearned for him to be on a team that would do his talent justice. Though only 24 years old, the lack of team success grew more apparent as the years passed. Then came 2021. Everything seemed to click at once for Booker and the Suns.
The acquisition of Chris Paul and Jae Crowder; the continued development of Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, and Cameron Johnson; the emergence of Cameron Payne as a legitimate backup point guard; and Monty Williams’ leadership put it all together. With Booker as the biggest cog in the machine, the Suns stormed their way to the NBA Finals.
An effective scorer in every facet of the game, Devin Booker proved that he belongs on the same stage with the biggest stars. For the fourth straight season, he averaged 25 points a game on high efficiency. Moving forward, Phoenix will have a stake in the fight competing for the NBA title so long as they can keep a viable roster around their surging superstar.
7. James Harden
One of the greatest offensive players of this generation, James Harden ascended to superstardom in the early 2010s seemingly overnight. Once traded from Oklahoma City to Houston, Harden took full control of the Rockets offense. In doing so, he leaped from an elite role player to a legitimate NBA all-star.
Though many have criticized him for foul hunting and a lackluster defensive effort, you cannot ignore his impact on the game. He stands as one of the best scorers in the league today, having led the NBA in scoring for three straight years at one point (2018-20). Capable of playing either guard position at the highest level, Harden has shown an ability to carry an offense in multiple ways.
He has quietly grown into one of the best passers in the game. His progression showed most prominently during the 2016-17 season, where Harden first assumed the point guard role in Houston. More recently, with the Nets, the 31-year-old re-assumed that role and shined once again, putting up a near triple-double average last season. Add in his elite ball-handling and proficient scoring methods, James Harden, like few others, withholds the tools to be a true franchise player.
6. Nikola Jokic
If you’ve watched the Denver Nuggets over the course of the past few seasons, this entry should come as no surprise. Nikola Jokic, off of winning his first league MVP, has legitimized himself as an NBA superstar. Unorthodox a talent as he is, it has served his growth well and benefitted his team greatly throughout his career. A big man who spreads the floor and sets up his teammates like a point guard, Jokic impacts the game like no other.
Though not the greatest defender, the complete package he brings more than makes up for it on the offensive end. Nikola Jokic may not ever become the best player in the game. However, the Nuggets have proven that they can compose a contending roster around him. Should they return healthy next season, Denver should slot as one of the favorites to win the NBA title.
At the age of 25, Jokic stands to have a successful remainder of his career at this rate. He finished with career highs in scoring, rebounding, and assists in 2021.
5. Stephen Curry
There isn’t really anything I can say that you haven’t already heard about this guy. Stephen Curry will go down as the single greatest shooter in the history of the NBA. Moreover, he has already established himself as one of the greatest point guards in league history. The leading face behind the NBA’s last dynasty, Curry, has completely reshaped the outlook of what’s most essential in this sport.
Once upon a time, three-point shooting was a mere novelty aspect of the game. If you could shoot, great; if not, whatever. Now, barring incredible performance in several other parts of the game, an inability to spread the floor will sink one’s value in a hurry. You can credit a lot of that changed perspective to Curry.
It doesn’t do him any justice to only call him a shooter. How he implements it during play is what highlights his greatness most. He tires defenders with his off-ball movement. He gives himself open shots using his elite ball-handling skills. Most notably, the threat of him pulling up stymies the opposing defense, either leaving a teammate wide open or freeing up the paint for an easy finish. These skills played into Curry becoming the scoring champion this season at 32 points per game.
At 33 years of age, he clearly has little time left at peak performance. But all things considered, including the three championships already in hand, I’d say you can build an excellent team around Stephen Curry.
4. Kevin Durant
When we discuss the great scorers in league history, obviously, we have a lot to choose from. The first players that come to mind include Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, etc. While Kevin Durant does make his way into the conversation, I don’t think we give him his due credit as a scorer. In my opinion, Kevin Durant might be the most unguardable player ever to play the game. There is no one way of putting the ball in the basket that he struggles with. In fact, he excels at all of them.
While you could potentially gameplan to force other great scores into a zone less comforting for them, no one can do that with Durant. He can score at the highest level in any capacity while impacting the other end of the floor. He has not averaged under 25 points a game since his rookie season. Even this year, coming off a devastating Achilles tear, he still put up a 27 point per game average.
While other important factors of the game should garner consideration, the ultimate goal for any team is to score more points than their opponent. With someone like Kevin Durant, you have as good a chance as you’ll ever get on most nights. Like other players on the list, his age plays a factor in his ranking. At 32 years old, you can see the end of his prime coming soon. Moreover, his long-term health has often derailed his career in the later seasons. However, the talent and dominance that persists when he plays take reign over everything else.
3. LeBron James
If you’ve kept in touch with the NBA during any part of the last two decades, you’d see this entry coming from a mile away. The only reason LeBron James won’t slot in at number one is his age. Even so, the 18-year vet has remained his dominant self despite a slow physical decline over the past few seasons. Leading the way as the core piece of his team’s offense, James often controls the pace of play anytime he’s on the floor.
With brute strength, daft speed, and great vision, he opens up the floor for his teammates. Though not known to have a deep scoring skillset, James’ longevity and style of play have allowed him to hang with some of the top scorers in league history. The top all-around player in the league, James put up a typical stat line of 25 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 7.8 assists per game in 2021. It serves in close correlation to his career numbers. To play alongside him is to present yourself with an opportunity to compete at the highest level.
LeBron James has won four NBA titles, league MVP, and Finals MVP awards. Given the multiple successes throughout his career to now, It’s a safe bet to think that James still stands today as a top player to build around.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo
The picture tells you all you need to know. We’ve had our questions about Giannis Antetokounmpo and his ability to lead a team to championship glory in the past. However, the title run by his Milwaukee Bucks this postseason put all the uncertainty to bed.
In a league dominated by three-point shooting, arguably his biggest weakness, Giannis found his own way to deliver and ascend to new heights. He scores almost all of his points inside the paint but does so at such a torrent rate that it makes up for his poor shooting from the perimeter. One of the top defensive players in the NBA, Antetokounmpo, uses his length, size, and speed to overwhelm the opposition. On the other end, these same attributes make him nearly impossible to stop.
With seasonal averages of around 28 points and 12 rebounds on 56 percent shooting in the last three seasons, Antetokounmpo is one of the best players today. Young as he is (26), the Bucks are well-positioned to compete for another championship or two for the foreseeable future. I don’t think any of us would take a second or third title victory as a surprise.
1. Luka Doncic
Though he hasn’t yet reached the heights of other players on this list, Luka Doncic still easily slots at number one. Already a two-time NBA all-star, the Slovenian native has quickly established himself as one of the top NBA players. Doncic can carry an offense by himself. Standing at 6’7, he has the size to back down smaller defenders in the post. Moreover, he is a proficient jump-shooter who can create open shots for himself and his teammates.
Having developed such skills at a young age, Doncic has an opportunity to soon take over as the face of the league. To look as great as he has at 22 years of age, he could become even better down the line. His only real deficiencies come at the defensive end. Should he improve on that front, nothing will stop Doncic from eclipsing the rest of the league. To have career averages of 25.7 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 7.7 assists in just three seasons speak volumes. With such potential in hand, he ranks at the top of our list.