The only constant in the modern NBA is change. Players get better. They get worse. They change teams. They retire. The Boston Celtics were below .500 more than halfway through last season and came two wins short of a championship. There is no such thing as a status quo in basketball.
It makes projects like player rankings especially difficult. They become outdated the moment they’re released. We here atearlier this week, but in a few weeks, the season is going to tip off and many of our picks are going to look foolish. It’s a given in the NBA. So rather than fight against it, let’s embrace it.
Below, we’ll list the five players likeliest to jump into the top 100 during the season as well as the five players likeliest to fall out of it. Those selections will be made on the following criteria:
- Age. Older players tend to get worse and younger players tend to get better.
- Injury history. The best ability is durability.
- Circumstances. The right team can change a player’s career; the wrong one can ruin it.
- League-wide trends. Which players fit best in the sport that basketball is becoming?
And so, without further ado, let’s dive right in.
No rookie made our top 100 list this season, but we had three sophomores in the top 50: Evan Mobley (40), Cade Cunningham (No. 47) and Scottie Barnes (No. 48). In 2021, sophomores LaMelo Ball (No. 52) and Anthony Edwards (No. 62) jumped onto the list after missing out before their debut seasons. You get the idea. Rookies enter the league needing to prove themselves, and almost every year a few of them do just that.
Who’s it going to be this season? Chet Holmgren was an obvious candidate, but he’s now going to miss the season with a foot injury. Jabari Smith will likely be a stellar player down the road, but his ball-handling needs years of development. Keegan Murray has a shot to enter the league as a viable two-way wing, but there’s no telling what kind of role he’ll earn on a surprisingly crowded Kings team.
Banchero is by far our best bet here. This year’s No. 1 overall draft pick dominated Summer League and joins a Magic team that’s spent the past decade looking for a proper offensive fulcrum. While his defense certainly needs work, Banchero should score and pass at an extremely high level from the moment he steps on an NBA floor. Those traits helped get Ball and Edwards into the top 100 as sophomores. Banchero should follow the same trajectory.
Oklahoma City found the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double. It’s possible that the Thunder also have the second. Josh Giddey averaged 14.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 7.3 assists per 36 minutes as a rookie a season ago. Give him the minutes and the possessions and he could one day flirt with the club currently occupied by just Robertson and Russell Westbrook.
Of course, that doesn’t mean he needs to do so to crack the top 100. He very nearly did so after his debut campaign. Had he not missed the last two months or so last season he likely would’ve made the cut. His lone weakness is shooting, and with legendary shooting coach Chip Engelland onboard, it likely won’t be for much longer.
The bottom of our list was populated with plenty of score-first guards. Bogdan Bogdanovic, Seth Curry and Tyler Herro all landed in the 80s. None of them have ever averaged 21 points per game. Green did that over his last 30 games a season ago — and at just 20 years old.
To some extent, those were empty calories. The Rockets had the NBA’s worst record for the second consecutive season, and the organization wanted to empower its future franchise player. But it’s not as if he was scoring inefficiently. Plenty of All-Stars fall short of the near-48/39/74 shooting splits he posted in that span. Rookies usually start slowly. It’s an expected hazard of youth. But Green started to figure it out over the last few months of last season. You can count his athletic peers at the guard position on one hand and his shooting range should be measured in miles, not feet. If he keeps growing as expected, it won’t even take him that long to prove he’s earned inclusion on next year’s list.
The 2020-21 San Antonio Spurs had eight players average at least 10 points per game. Seven of those players are gone. San Antonio currently has one point guard on its roster: Tre Jones, who has played roughly 1,400 NBA minutes. The youth movement is in full effect, and while the Spurs are clearly eyeing French sensation Victor Wembanyama, someone is going to have to shoot the ball while they wait for the 2023 lottery.
Enter Johnson, the surprising Olympian from the Tokyo Games who has grown steadily since reaching the NBA. His scoring jumped 4.7 points per game after his rookie season and another 4.2 last year. His (relatively meager) assist total doubled in his sophomore campaign and his rebounding isn’t far off, but more importantly, he made more than twice as many 3-pointers a season ago (159) as he did in first two years combined (73). Johnson entered the NBA as an athlete with upside. He’s growing into a complete basketball player, and while he’d surely prefer to win, San Antonio’s transparent tank will give him an 82-game showcase. We’re going to see everything Johnson can do this season, and if the last few years are any indication, he has quite a bit to show us.
Every season begins with a relatively balanced top 100. Sure, big men tend to be shuttled to the bottom of the league, but positionally speaking, almost every kind of player is represented. And then the playoffs arrive and we realize, yet again, that wings matter infinitely more than any other position. It’s not a coincidence that the Finals were played between two of the wing-heaviest rosters in basketball. Andrew Wiggins was just the second best Warrior in the NBA Finals.
So who are the up-and-comers at the league’s most important position? You could be forgiven for ignoring Bey, who has spent the past two seasons on a lottery team in Detroit. But you won’t be ignoring him much longer. His 51-point game against Orlando last March was his coming out party, but the totality of his game is what will make him a top 100 player a year from now. He can score from anywhere on the floor, but has taken nearly 60 percent of his NBA shots from behind the arc. He has all of the tools to defend multiple positions, but hasn’t quite figured out how to use them yet. Sophomores rarely do. Once Bey gets a handle on his considerable talent, his physical profile alone will vault him onto this list. Wings are worth their weight in gold.
Russell Westbrook (No. 98)
The end of Allen Iverson’s career was as swift as it was heartbreaking. A former MVP refused to extend his career by coming off of the bench, so he was discarded by the league he once dominated. The story is well-known. What’s often forgotten is that before his ill-fated three-game stint in Memphis, he’d just spent a year averaging 17.4 points per game for the Pistons. He even made the All-Star Game. He was 33-years-old.
That’s how old Westbrook is now, and he lacks Iverson’s diversity as a scorer while playing in a league that demands it. Westbrook squeaked into this season’s top 100 on numbers alone, but if Iverson can go from 17 points to out of the league in a year, who’s to say Westbrook isn’t at risk of the same fate despite averaging 18-7-7 a year ago?
The entire NBA just spent a whole summer showing Westbrook how toxic it considers him, and after a disastrous season with the Lakers that culminated with perhaps the least self-aware press conference in NBA history, the league’s remaining 29 teams can hardly be blamed. Westbrook probably could accumulate numbers for another few years, but who’s going to give him the opportunity? The NBA has made it clear that it is willing to discard MVPs that won’t acknowledge that they are no longer MVPs. At this rate, Westbrook is barreling towards the same fate as Iverson.
P.J. Tucker (No. 93)
This feels sacrilegious. I’m not entirely convinced that Tucker even ages. Do mountains age? Because they’re made of roughly the same material. Strength doesn’t erode in quite the same way mobility does. Nobody will ever move Tucker off of his spot defensively. But at a certain point, we need to acknowledge Father Time’s undefeated record.
At 37, Tucker is the second-oldest player on our top 100, and it’s fair to say that the same rules don’t apply to LeBron James. A single-digit scorer just has a much higher bar to clear everywhere else. If Tucker slips even a little bit defensively? He’s not a top-100 player. If his 3-point shot dips back to around league-average? He’s not a top-100 player. When you barely dribble and take most of your shots from a single spot, you have to be flawless in virtually every other respect to remain a top 100 player. It just doesn’t feel especially likely that Tucker can be flawless in those areas forever.
Nikola Vucevic (No. 90)
It is entirely possible that one year from today, the two best players in the Nikola Vucevic trade are guys not named Nikola Vucevic. Franz Wagner (No. 97) finished seven slots short of Vucevic’s spot in our top 100 rankings, and Wendell Carter Jr. (No. 21 on our top center’s list) was nearly a match for Vucevic in every major statistical category, averaging 1.8 fewer points, 0.2 fewer assists and 0.6 more rebounds per 36 minutes while shooting more than five percentage points higher from the floor.
To some extent, positive regression should help Vucevic recover from a messy 2021-22 season. He missed plenty of bunnies that his younger self routinely made, and after shooting above 37 percent from behind the arc in his three previous seasons, he fell below 32 percent a year ago. He should be better offensively this season through sheer shooting variance. But his defense was creaky at its best. With his age-32 season approaching, his limited mobility is only going to become a bigger issue. Vucevic might be a high-level regular-season starter, but there’s simply no way he’ll be able to survive defensively against what the playoffs have to offer. If that proves to be the case, his time as a top-100 player is likely over.
Gordon Hayward (No. 79)
The injuries speak for themselves with Hayward. He missed 33 games a year ago along with 28 and 20 in the years prior. Throw in his five-minute 2018 season and the durability concerns may never go away. But Hayward makes this list every year as a 50-game player. It speaks to how good he tends to be in those 50 games. But there were some signs of slippage last season that can go unnoticed.
He averaged just 17.9 points per 36 minutes. That’s his lowest figure in a season in which he was a full-time starter since 2014. His 4.1 assists per 36 minutes were his lowest total since leaving the Jazz. Though an intelligent defender, he’s lost enough athletically at this point that he struggles to stay in front of most ball-handlers with any degree of speed. And he just posted the second-lowest free-throw rate of his career.
The player Hayward is now is probably one of the 100 best in basketball on a night-to-night basis. If you had him 70 times per season, his placement likely isn’t in jeopardy. But the standard is higher when that figure is closer to 50. Eventually, Hayward is going to slip enough that he can no longer justify his lengthy absences as a top-100 player. That could easily come this season.
Julius Randle (No. 74)
Randle was a Second-Team All-NBA Player in 2021. He fell to No. 74 on these rankings despite dipping statistically by only around four points and a single assist per game. This is the Julius Randle paradox. The numbers are almost a given, and not in a good way. What matters is circumstance.
Randle’s playing style makes sense when he’s a team’s primary ball-handler. His strength as a driver and underrated playmaking turned him into one of the NBA’s most surprisingly effective point forwards when the Knicks built their entire roster around him. But take the ball out of his hands and you’ve suddenly taken everything that makes him special. Randle’s 3-point shooting plummeted by more than 10 percentage points last season, falling in line with his career numbers as opposed to the preposterous 41.1 percent he shot in 2021. His defensive effort comes and goes. He’s not much of a leaper, so while he can be an effective pick-and-roll partner, he’s not offering much in the way of vertical gravity. In many ways, all of this makes him the forward version of Westbrook. He can be quite good when everything orbits him, but he’s either unwilling or unable to orbit anybody else.
And as the Knicks saw in the 2021 playoffs, your ceiling is fairly low when Randle is your best offensive player. Their 2022 offseason made it perfectly clear how ready they are to move away from him. They signed Jalen Brunson and pursued Donovan Mitchell hoping that they would run their offense. With RJ Barrett still in place, there just weren’t going to be many shots left over for Randle. Even with Mitchell in Cleveland, the Knicks are moving away from Randle-ball, and that’s his only real path to a top-100 slot.