NBArank 2021: These stars just missed a spot in the league’s upper tier

Sports

Our NBArank countdown is back for its 11th season.

Which players are beginning their ascent up the league’s hierarchy? Who is on the verge of breaking into the superstar tier?

To get the final NBArank prediction, we asked our expert panel to vote on pairs of players: Kevin Durant vs. James Harden, Luka Doncic vs. Zion Williamson, Stephen Curry vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo … and the list goes on.

We asked, “Which player will be better in 2021-22?” Voters had to predict what they expected from each player during the season.

Here’s who made the cut as we continue to break down the league’s top 100. After we revealed the first 50 players on Tuesday, these are the next 25, from No. 50 down to No. 26:

Note: Due to knee injuries that will sideline both for most of the 2021-22 season, the L.A. ClippersKawhi Leonard and the Denver NuggetsJamal Murray were excluded from this season’s rankings.

Why superstar movement has grinded to a halt


Dallas Mavericks | PF/C
2020 NBArank:
No. 41

Cause for concern: Much of the discussion about Porzingis focuses on his offensive role, which he hopes to expand, but the biggest problem last season was his drastic step backward defensively. Porzingis, in large part due to his limited mobility after offseason knee surgery, was a target, reflected by a defensive rating (115.3) that was by far the worst of the Mavs’ regulars. He was a plus on that end the previous season, which the Mavs will need again. — Tim MacMahon


Boston Celtics | PG/SG
2020 NBArank:
No. 37

One thing to watch for: The heart and soul of the Celtics, Smart is now locked up for another five seasons after agreeing to a four-year contract extension this offseason. And with Kemba Walker gone, Smart should find himself starting at point guard in Boston, where he will help lead the team into a new era with Ime Udoka as head coach. — Tim Bontemps

Why he fell 12 spots: Given that Smart submitted virtually a statistical carbon copy of 2019-20, his drop seems to reflect worse health (he missed 24 games, primarily due to a February calf strain) and the Celtics’ step back as a team. Smart didn’t have another long playoff run to showcase his defensive impact. — Kevin Pelton


Utah Jazz | PG
2020 NBArank:
No. 71

Cause for concern: Hamstring issues have plagued Conley since he arrived in Utah, causing him to miss several extended stretches over the past two seasons. That includes the first five games of the Western Conference semifinals, and he was severely hampered when he gutted it out during the Jazz’s Game 6 elimination loss to the Clippers. Conley, who turns 34 before the season begins, has gotten comfortable as a complementary star next to Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. He just needs to stay on the court. — MacMahon

Why he rose 23 spots: Last season, Conley earned the first All-Star appearance in his 14th year. He bounced back from an injury-plagued first season with the Jazz to finish 11th in the NBA in Real Plus Minus (RPM), proving to be one of the biggest impact players in the league while helping lead the Jazz to the best record. — André Snellings


Charlotte Hornets | PG
2020 NBArank:
NR

One thing to watch for: Ball dazzled with his magical passing ability and all-around basketball instincts during his Rookie of the Year campaign. It will be interesting to see how his body has evolved, whether he can sustain his 35.2% 3-point shooting clip and how he progresses as a finisher — he ranked in the 27th percentile on shots at the rim last season. How Ball fits alongside 11th overall pick James Bouknight, a gifted scorer who has been most effective with the ball in his hands, is also an early storyline worth monitoring. If Ball can help turn the Hornets into a true playoff contender, he’ll surely live up to the hype as one of the top under-21 players in the NBA. — Mike Schmitz

Why he rose from unranked: Having Ball outside of last year’s top 100 made sense, given the 19-year-old rookie had played just 13 games against Australian NBL competition the previous season. Ball’s outside shooting and defense were ahead of schedule, and his creative playmaking was as advertised, raising hopes for Year 2. — Pelton


Philadelphia 76ers | PF
2020 NBArank:
No. 57

One big question: Can he finally become an All-Star? Harris was on the outside looking in last season — and not for the first time in his career. But with Ben Simmons‘ status in Philadelphia very much uncertain, Harris will have every chance to prove he’s an All-Star this season alongside Joel Embiid. — Bontemps

Why he rose 11 spots: Although his per-game averages aside from assists were almost identical to 2019-20, Harris had the best season of his career thanks to hitting 39.4% of his 3s and a career-high 54.6% of his shots inside the arc. Harris emerged as a key late-game playmaker for the 76ers as they posted the East’s best record. — Pelton


Chicago Bulls | SG/SF
2020 NBArank:
No. 82

One big question: What will DeRozan’s role be? The Bulls have a plethora of dominant ball handlers with Lonzo Ball, Zach LaVine and Coby White, but DeRozan figures to take some of those touches away. DeRozan also shined brightest last season with the Spurs as a point power forward of sorts, averaging a career high in assists per game while playing 69% of his minutes at the 4, according to Basketball Reference. — Andrew Lopez

Why he rose 37 spots: DeRozan has been a metronome scorer for the past few seasons, but last season he improved dramatically as a playmaker, with career-best marks of 6.9 APG and a 3.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. DeRozan’s ability to facilitate will be big on his new team, as Chicago sports three volume scorers in its starting five. — Snellings


Indiana Pacers | PF/C
2020 NBArank:
No. 74

One thing to watch for: Will it be long before Turner is on the move if the Pacers decide to split their Domantas Sabonis-Turner frontcourt? Trade speculation has swirled around Turner, who led the league with a career-best 3.4 blocks per game last season (while playing a career-low 47 games because a toe injury sidelined him in April). — Baxter Holmes

Why he rose 30 spots: After a mildly disappointing 2019-20 campaign, Turner bounced back in a big way by making 60.6% of his 2-point attempts — easily a career high — and leading the NBA in blocks per game for a second time. — Pelton


Miami Heat | PG
2020 NBArank:
No. 30

One big question: Can the veteran point guard help lift Miami back to the top of the East? The general consensus around the league is that Lowry will fit nicely into what Jimmy Butler & Co. have built in Miami, but at age 35 and having played just 46 games last season, it is key for the tough-minded guard to hit the ground running for a Heat squad that believes it can get back to the pinnacle quickly. — Nick Friedell

Why he fell 13 spots: Lowry is one of the best point guards of his generation, and his per-game impact remained high last season, as he finished 13th in the NBA in RPM. But age and injury have taken a toll, as he’s missed 57 games over the past three seasons. Lowry is entering his 16th season and has the opportunity to do great things on his new Heat squad, provided he can stay on the court. — Snellings


New York Knicks | PF
2020 NBArank:
NR

One big question: Last season, Randle was as big of a surprise individually as his Knicks were as a team, making him an easy choice for the league’s Most Improved Player award and earning him a well-deserved contract extension. The question is whether he can replicate that success. If he even comes close, the Knicks will be quite pleased. — Bontemps

Why he rose from unranked: Randle had quietly hovered as one of the more productive big men in the league before putting it all together for a magical All-NBA campaign with the Knicks last season. Randle improved across the board, but his playmaking (career best 6.0 APG) and long-range shooting (career best 2.3 3s per game on 41.1% shooting) changed the magnitude of his impact and turned him into a legitimate franchise player on offense. — Snellings


Denver Nuggets | SF/PF
2020 NBArank:
No. 51

One thing to watch for: The 2018 lottery pick showed his superstar potential last season, averaging 19 points on 44.5% 3-point shooting and 7.3 rebounds per game on a title-contending Nuggets squad — only Kevin Durant hit all those levels last year. In his third campaign, and with veteran big man Paul Millsap gone via free agency, more leadership will be asked of Porter, especially if the loaded Nuggets aim to play into June. — Holmes

Why he rose 10 spots: Porter proved his strong play in the bubble was no fluke, emerging as Denver’s primary perimeter scorer after Jamal Murray‘s ACL tear. He averaged 22.3 PPG after the All-Star break while shooting 56% from the field and 46% on 3s and also got more up to speed on defense. Porter could be in line for another jump this season. — Pelton


Indiana Pacers | PF/C
2020 NBArank:
No. 50

One big question: It was a lost season for many reasons in Indiana. But as the Pacers adjust to life under new head coach Rick Carlisle, the perennial question surrounding the franchise — whether Sabonis and Turner can co-exist together successfully — remains. Sabonis, however, has turned himself into an excellent player, particularly with his well-rounded offensive game. — Bontemps

Why he rose 10 spots: A first-time All-Star in 2020, Sabonis backed up his breakthrough season last season. He cracked the 20 PPG mark (20.3) and also averaged a career-high 6.7 APG, good for 13th in the league. Sabonis’ defensive limitations still have him ranked low for a two-time All-Star, but there are fewer questions than last season. — Pelton


Chicago Bulls | C
2020 NBArank:
No. 42

One big question: Can Vucevic help lead Chicago back to the playoffs? The Bulls swung big when they landed Vucevic from Orlando before last year’s deadline but the deal didn’t pay the playoff dividends the organization was seeking. With LaVine, DeRozan and Lonzo Ball all in the fold alongside him, Vucevic should have plenty of space to continue racking up numbers, but he must show a little more development on the defensive end to help this group the most. — Friedell


Toronto Raptors | SF/PF
2020 NBArank:
No. 24

Cause for concern: Before the league shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic 18 months ago, Siakam looked set to break through and become a borderline superstar. A combination of injuries and inconsistent play since have seen his reputation take a hit. He’s going to miss the start of the season recovering from shoulder surgery, but when he returns the Raptors will be hoping he can pick up where he left off when Toronto was last able to play games at Scotiabank Arena in February 2020. — Bontemps

Why he fell 14 spots: It was a season to forget for Siakam, who took a step back after earning All-NBA honors in 2019-20. Siakam slumped to 29.7% from 3-point range and clashed with head coach Nick Nurse, earning a de facto one-game suspension. The Raptors are hoping everyone is happier with their return to Toronto. — Pelton


Golden State Warriors | PF/C
2020 NBArank:
No. 44

Swing skill: Will his offense reappear? Green showed that he can still play at an extremely high level on the defensive end and is a playmaker for the Warriors offensively in helping set up the best ways for Curry to go off. The question is whether he will be able to consistently hit the open looks he’s being given by opposing defenses. — Friedell


Oklahoma City Thunder | SG
2020 NBArank:
No. 38

One big question: He’s now a max player and the franchise cornerstone for the Thunder as they work on a long rebuild. Last season he blossomed in a bigger role, becoming more efficient and a stronger floor presence in 35 games. But he’s no longer a player of potential — he’s now a player of expectation. While the Thunder have none in the short term, he assuredly will. Time to back it up. — Brian Windhorst


Phoenix Suns | C
2020 NBArank:
No. 52

Swing skill: With Chris Paul assisting, Ayton established himself as one of the best centers in the game while helping the Suns reach the Finals last season — with both players proving potent in the pick-and-roll. At just 23, Ayton is ultra-efficient (shooting a career-best 62.6% from the field last season) and a force on both ends (with a career-high 39 double-doubles last season). Ayton could land a max rookie extension, but he may need to shoulder a higher load and establish himself more if the 36-year-old Paul starts to play fewer minutes. — Holmes

Why he rose 17 spots: Ayton has been an almost nightly double-double for his whole career, but he made major strides as a defender in his third season. Ayton finished 11th in the NBA in DRPM as one of the highest impact defenders and anchor for the Suns’ top-10 defense. — Snellings


Sacramento Kings | PG
2020 NBArank:
No. 34

Swing skill: Fox, arguably the fastest point guard in the league, made more strides in his fourth season, increasing his scoring average from 21.1 to a career-high 25.2 points while averaging 7.2 assists per game last season. Even though the Kings added another talented point guard in rookie Davion Mitchell, Fox shouldn’t be affected by the crowded backcourt. — Ohm Youngmisuk


Chicago Bulls | SG
2020 NBArank:
No. 56

One big question: Is LaVine on a superstar trajectory? As a first-time All-Star who continues to improve, all signs point to him landing a max deal next summer. The question for LaVine isn’t whether the money will be there, but whether he can be the type of player who can lead his team to a postseason berth. The Bulls made moves to improve the core around the 26-year-old in acquiring DeRozan and Lonzo Ball, but now LaVine must show he can take his own game to a winning level. — Friedell

Why he rose 23 spots: Few players improved their perception in the past nine months more than LaVine. Previously derided as an empty-stats player, LaVine dramatically improved his efficiency by shooting 57.1% on 2s and 41.9% on 3s, both easily career highs. After becoming an All-Star, LaVine backed that up with strong play for the gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic team. — Pelton


Golden State Warriors | SG
2020 NBArank:
NR

One big question: Arguably the single biggest question mark in the league is whether Thompson will return to form after missing two years because of ACL and Achilles injuries. If he does, the Warriors believe they can vault themselves back toward the top of the Western Conference. If he doesn’t, any hope the Warriors have of being title contenders in the near future is gone. — Friedell

Why he rose from unranked: Because of his Achilles rupture, Thompson wasn’t eligible for 2020 NBArank. He returns 14 spots lower than 2018, before the ACL tear he suffered in that season’s NBA Finals. Given the combination of injuries, that seems optimistic, though former teammate Durant showed it’s possible to come back from an Achilles injury as good as ever. — Pelton


Memphis Grizzlies | PG
2020 NBArank:
No. 31

One big question: Can Morant make defenders respect his 3-point shot, particularly off the dribble? If he does, it’s hard to imagine how to guard Morant, who might be the quickest player in the league with the ball in his hands. But Morant shot only 30.3% from beyond the arc last season, allowing opponents to routinely go under screens in pick-and-rolls, negating his advantage in explosiveness. That was a big factor in Morant averaging only 0.81 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball handler. — MacMahon


Portland Trail Blazers | SG
2020 NBArank:
No. 27

One big question: Will McCollum be traded? Portland’s dynamic backcourt might split this season, but for now, a new head coach — Chauncey Billups — is in town and anticipation is high. McCollum averaged a career-high 23.1 points after fracturing his foot earlier in the season, and when he’s on, such as when he scored 50 points in 29 minutes (including a franchise-record 29 in the first quarter) in 2018, few flamethrowers are better … except maybe Damian Lillard. — Holmes


Los Angeles Lakers | PG
2020 NBArank:
No. 36

One big question: Westbrook joins his third new team in as many seasons but this is the place the Los Angeles native wants to be. Westbrook made history last season by passing Oscar Robertson for most triple-doubles in history while helping will the Wizards to the playoffs. But now he comes to L.A. having to prove that his style of play can fit in with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Which of the Lakers’ Big Three will take a step back without the ball in his hands? Will the Lakers have enough shooters on the floor? And will they have enough defense? Of course, Westbrook and the Lakers are eager to answer these questions and prove doubters wrong. — Youngmisuk


Philadelphia 76ers | PG
2020 NBArank:
No. 16

One thing to watch for: Simmons would like a fresh start on a new team after a disastrous playoff performance last spring that highlighted his weaknesses as a shooter. Philadelphia has looked for a trade that returns even a modicum of value for the former No. 1 overall pick, who finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting last season. But so far, the Sixers haven’t found any offer they feel good about. If Simmons really doesn’t show up to training camp, as he has threatened, this could get even uglier. — Ramona Shelburne

Why he fell 12 spots: Simmons made major strides as a defender last season and turned in a two-way impact that measured 17th in the NBA, according to RPM. However, his limitations as a shooter and the resulting apparent lack of confidence came back to haunt him and the 76ers in the playoffs. — Snellings


Boston Celtics | SG
2020 NBArank:
No. 32

Swing skill: Brown broke through in a big way last season, becoming an All-Star and giving Boston — alongside Jayson Tatum — arguably the best pair of young wings in the NBA. His 3-point shooting percentage evolving to the high 30s has been a huge part of that growth, and his game could take yet another leap if his deep-range accuracy takes one more jump into the low 40s this season. — Bontemps


New Orleans Pelicans | SF
2020 NBArank:
No. 28

Swing skill: After his breakout season in 2019-20 when he won the league’s Most Improved Player award, Ingram matched his scoring average in 2020-21 with 23.8 points per game. He also scored more last season with Williamson on the court than he did the previous season, showing growth with both players. Ingram has also shot 38.6% from deep on 6.2 attempts per game during his time with New Orleans, cementing his status as one of the better scorers in the league. — Lopez

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