Every decade in the NBA is defined by a few legendary players. The ones you see on posters everywhere, figures who seem larger than life. Figures who were legends both on and off the court. In the 80s it was Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. In the 90s it was undoubtedly Michael Jordan (and maybe Hakeem Olajuwon on the side). In the 2000s it was Kobe, Shaq, and Tim Duncan. LeBron also helped define the decade of the 2000s but he really shone in the decade after alongside Steph Curry (and maybe Kevin Durant), but really that’s just a testament to how long King James has been ruling. All of this raises the question: Who will be the defining players of the 2020s? Well, based on the past 2 years, here are some predictions on who could be the biggest superstars in the NBA for years to come.
- Giannis Antetokounmpo
While this list is in no particular order, if anyone deserves to be at the top, it’s the so-called “Greek Freak”. That nickname owes to his Greek heritage but also to his insane ball-handling abilities, massive size, and shocking speed. The only category where he occasionally falls short is his free-throw shooting, but hey, it’s better than Shaq’s. In terms of statistics and accolades, he’s also dominant. Here’s a quick timeline of the biggest awards he’s won so far:
- 2017, NBA Most Improved Player Award
- 2019, Best NBA Player ESPY Award
- 2019, 2020, NBA Most Valuable Player Award
- 2020, NBA Defensive Player of the Year
- 2021, All-Star Game MVP Award
- 2021, NBA Championship and Finals MVP
And that’s not even mentioning the 4 All-NBA Defensive First Teams, the 4 All-NBA First Teams, and the 6 NBA All-Star teams he’s been a part of. And he only got drafted back in 2013 (as the 15th pick). He was even selected as part of the NBA 75th Anniversary Team in 2021 and was honored as one of the 75 all-time best players in NBA history among the likes of the other greats that defined decades. Statistically, he’s a beast too. Since 2017 he’s averaged over 25 points (and closer to 30 some years), over 10 rebounds since 2017, and over 50% from the field since 2015. His dominance on the basketball court is only matched by the kindness and humor that can be found in his personality. His never-ending saga of exploring American cuisine and goofy dad jokes have melted the hearts of millions. Both on and off the court, he seems to be a star whose time in the light has just begun.
- Luka Dončić
If you watched game 7 of the playoffs series between the Phoenix Suns and the Dallas Mavericks (or read my article about the Golden State Warriors on this site (Yes, I am shamelessly self-promoting), you’d know that Luka Dončić is an absolute beast. This man alone matched the entire point total of the Suns team at halftime (while his team led by 30). Luka Dončić is arguably the greatest player the Dallas Mavericks have ever seen and at the least the greatest player since Dirk Nowitzki. He’s definitely surpassed (or at the least is very close to surpassing) current Mavericks head coach and former Mavericks superstar Jason Kidd. While he doesn’t have as many accolades as Giannis (yet) his career average of points is closer to 5 more than Giannis’s (26.4 to 21.8). His 3-point shooting is legendary. And all of this while being one of the youngest players in the league at 23 and only having been drafted in 2018. Here’s a quick timeline of his accolades:
- 2019, All-NBA Rookie First Team
- 2019, Rookie of the Year
- 2020, 2021, 2022 All-NBA First Team
And Dončić’s numbers have only been going up. In the 2021-22 season, he boasts a whopping average of 28.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 8.7 assists, all above his career average and an improvement from the previous year (27.7 points, 8.6 assists, and 8.0 rebounds). He’s already a superstar, and if he keeps improving like this, he’s bound to be the best player in the league soon enough.
- Joel Embiid
If you don’t already know Joel Embiid, this clip summarizes what he does pretty well. While the ‘celebration’ is questionable, to say the least, Embiid’s scoring talent is incredible. Standing at 7’0, Embiid is a monster on the court. While Embiid has never been a part of an All NBA First Team, that’s due to the position he plays (Center) and the existence of 2 time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic (mentioned below). But Embiid finished second in MVP voting behind Jokic during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons. And that’s not the only accolade he has.
- 2017, All-NBA Rookie First Team
- 2018, 2020, 2021, 2022, All-NBA Second Team
- 2018, 2019, 2021, All-NBA Defensive Second Team
- 2022 NBA Scoring Title Champion
While it seems that Embiid has just been second in a lot of different places, that’s most likely not going to be the case for long. With 26.0 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 3.3 assists as averages for his career so far, he’s already a stellar player. And during the 2021-22 season, he averaged over 30 points becoming the first center and seven-footer since Shaq to average 30 points a game. His stats have been improving throughout his career, yet some don’t believe he’ll ever get the limelight he deserves. But Embiid has nicknamed himself “The Process” for a reason and if we trust the process, he’s bound to be one of the star players of the next decade.
- Nikola Jokić
Nicknamed “The Joker”, Jokić is anything but. Known for his quiet demeanor, massive frame, and incredible skill, Nikola Jokić is a force to be reckoned with. He’s far from the flashiest player in the league. He doesn’t use social media, looks like an average man, races horses in his free time, and is as humble as it gets. Heck, his brother looks more like a professional athlete than he does. But Jokić is an absurdly good player. As mentioned before, he’s a 2 time consecutive NBA MVP and that’s not all.
- 2016, All NBA Rookie First Team
- 2019, 2021, 2022, All-NBA First Team
- 2021, 2022 NBA Most Valuable Player
Being an MVP in the NBA once is difficult. Twice is even harder. But Jokić has performed ridiculously well as of late. While his career averages are 19.7 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 6.2 assists, in the last season he averaged 27.1 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 7.9 assists, which is especially impressive for a center. And to think he was only picked in the second round of the 2014 NBA Draft. On the outside, he looks like a long, lanky, gangly man (and not like a particularly skilled player) but Jokić ranks among the top 10 on the all-time list of the NBA players with the most triple-doubles. He is the leading European player on the list, and he holds the record for the fastest triple-double (which he achieved in 14 minutes and 33 seconds). Don’t judge a book by its cover. Especially when that book is Nikola Jokić. All in all, Jokić is an incredible player and likely to be one of the greatest basketball players of the next decade.
Honorable Mention: Jayson Tatum
Tatum has performed really well in the last few seasons (especially last season and the playoffs minus the finals) in addition to becoming a new star for the Celtics. After being drafted by the Celtics in 2017, he was on the 2017 All-Rookie First Team, the 2019 All-NBA Third Team, and 3 All-Star Teams so far. He was also the 2021-22 Eastern Conference Finals MVP. Even LeBron said, “I just know he’s built for stardom. He’s built for success”, and there’s a very good chance that he is. But the thing is, it’s hard to put him in the same level of stardom as Giannis after that 2021-22 NBA Finals performance. When his team needed him the most, he fell behind a little, with the Celtics losing in 6. While he’s definitely an incredible player and one who’s capable of taking his team to the finals and beyond, the jury’s still out on whether he could go on to become a decade definer.
Honorable-Honorable Mention(s): LaMelo Ball and Ja Morant
Both of these players started playing very recently. Ball was drafted in 2020 by the Charlotte Hornets and Morant was drafted in 2019 by the Timberwolves. Ball has only been playing for 2 seasons and has already won Rookie of the Year, been on the All-NBA Rookie First Team, and went to the 2022 NBA All-Star Game, in addition to solid stats. Morant was the 2020 Rookie of the Year and made the All-Rookie First Team that same year. He seemed like he was going to be a solid player but nothing ridiculously above average. Then last season, Morant went off, averaging higher points than MVP Nikola Jokić, earning himself a spot on the All-NBA Second Team and Most Improved Player Award. The reason these 2 are in the honorable-honorable category (which I totally didn’t make up) is that there just hasn’t been enough data to judge them. Ball has been improving, but after only having been in the NBA for just 2 years, nothing even vaguely definitive can be said. However, during those 2 seasons, he’s set himself up really well, with a path for further greatness. Morant on the other has been in the NBA for 3 seasons, so there’s more of a metric to judge him, but the thing is, Morant only brought himself to star player stats last season. If he keeps that up, he’s definitely a contender in the same way that Giannis, Dončić, Embiid, or Jokić is, but until then, who can say?
So there you have it. 4, (maybe 7) players who I think are the most likely to become huge stars on par with legends of old. It’s unrealistic to think that all of them, or that even more than one of them could achieve that level of stardom, but I think these players have the best chance due to their respective talents. But I guess we’ll have to see in 2030. For now, I’ll settle for watching the likes of Lebron, Steph, Kawhi, and KD school these newbies.