Welcome back to another edition of the Top 99 Players of 2015. This time, we begin with a player everyone agrees is properly ranked and end with one who nobody thinks is. Along the way, we fight over two young big men, one of whom's only claim to fame is dominating a bunch of random 19-year-old FIBA players, roll the dice with a couple guys who are difficult to trust and engage in some old-fashioned beard-fearing. Enjoy!
Here are links to the previous editions of the countdown.
45. Marc Gasol
Gasol might be the top free agent on the market this summer, though it's likely he remains with Memphis. He's not much of a scorer, unlike his older brother. But he's a superior rebounder, individual defender and while he lacks the shooting touch of Pau, he's actually a good passer. Playing next to the vaccuum that is Zach Randolph -- we're talking shots and rebounds -- deflates his production a bit, but it's a great fit. If they stick together, or Gasol finds a similar partner (like DeMarcus Cousins in Sacramento, Luis Scola in Houston or Kevin Love in Minneapolis), Gasol will earn his spot on this list. -- Ziller
SHARP: Excellent choice, and frankly, I'm embarrassed he fell this far.
PRADA: Man, I want to zing Ziller, but not here.
44. Michael Gilchrist
In keeping with our theme of needing high-school players on this list, we have to put in the No. 3-ranked player in the Class of 2011, according to Rivals. The Kentucky frontcourt is really crowded next year, with Gilchrist, Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones all on the same team, but if anyone can get the most out of all of them, it's John Calipari, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. -- Prada
ZILLER: That frontcourt is why every other college coach hates Calipari. Completely unfair. I'm painfully undereducated on the current preps, but everything I've seen from Gilchrist indicates that he could challenge Harrison Barnes as the next drool-worthy wing prospect.
SHARP: Did you know Michael Gilchrist was born in 1993? God that's depressing.
43. Serge Ibaka
Ibaka Blocka Flame! Depending on whether you believe he's really only 21 years old, he's either a total lock to be a member of the NBA's Top 50 when he's 25 years old in 2015, or merely a good bet. If he's really that young, then he should get a lot better over the next few years. But even if he's older and the curve's more gradual, he's a freak athlete at the power forward position, he'll get more minutes in OKC over the next few years, and as he develops, there's no reason he can't be A) a great rebounder up front and B) one of the most versatile defenders in the league by 2015. -- Sharp
PRADA: I'll be very curious to see what happens if/once he starts asking for more touches. Of all the young players in Oklahoma City's core, he's the whipping boy. Scott Brooks started Jeff Green over him for forever, and Kevin Durant was caught yelling at Ibaka on the court a couple times this season. Sometimes, it's hard to ask guys as talented as Ibaka to just play defense and block shots. Eventually, they often want more. Will this happen with Serge? Ah, to have the problems of too much talent.
ZILLER: My fear for Ibaka is a bit different: what happens when everyone (Brooks included) decides the Thunder needs to diversify and get some post scoring in. It'll happen. Post presence is a holy unicorn in the NBA: rarely seen, underappreciated when it's there, overwrought when it's missing. Ibaka's running mate up front is Kendrick Perkins. So they'll need some post touches out of Serge at some point, and he hasn't shown that level of offensive skill to this point. Hopefully, Brooks and Sam Presti can ignore the inevitable demands for a traditional pivot and Ibaka can thrive as a new Nene.
42. Jonas Valanciunas
Again, a reminder: we made our picks before EuroBasket began. Of course, Valanciunas also starred for Lithuania's youth team this summer, earning me a catcall from one of my partners in crime here. But I'm sticking by Jonas: his agile, athletic and he cares. He just really needs to fill out his upper body and work on handling the ball cleanly, lest he become a rich man's Mikki Moore. -- Ziller
SHARP: I hate that it looks like Bryan Colangelo might have finally gotten a pick right.
PRADA: Sure, let's go ahead and crown him a top-42 player based on one under-19 tournament. You know who the second-leading scorer of that tournament was? Boris Barac. Some competition he was facing right there.
41. Zach Randolph
I make this pick with some trepidation, because the last two years are the first consecutive trouble-free years Randolph has put together, and even those weren't totally trouble-free. He'll also be 33 in four years, and there aren't a ton of good 33-year-old post players in the league (or post players at all, really). Then again, Randolph relies on strength and positioning more than athleticism, and I doubt those skills erode much over time. We'll just have to see about all the off-court distractions, especially now that he has a $66 million contract. -- Prada
ZILLER: I believe that people are inherently good, but I'm not sure Zach Randolph is people. Were I Chris Wallace, I would lay awake every night during the offseason, unable to sleep for fear of Zach Randolph being Zach Randolph.
SHARP: The Church of Z-Bo will deliver Memphis to Salvation! Either that, or it'll fleece the city and team of its money, dignity, and sanity. I've got a head full of skeptcism, but a heart full of faith. Going with the heart on this one, because whatever happens in the next four years, I sure hope it involves significant doses of Z-Bo.
40. Andre Drummond
Pffft. You think I know anything about Andre Drummond? He's going to UConn next year, he's 6'10 and 275, he's the best big man prospect most high school scouts have seen in the past two years, and assuming he goes pro after one year at UConn, he'll have been in the NBA for three full seasons by the time 2015 rolls around. So yeah: I know nothing about him, but now that I think of it, he should probably be higher on this list. -- Sharp
PRADA: Nobody's more of an advocate for high school guys on this list than me, but big men take a while to develop. Unless he's Dwight Howard-good, I don't think Drummond will be quite this high in four years. Maybe eight years.
ZILLER: Drummond is the truth, BUT ... everyone sort-of accepts that the age minimum will rise to 20, which means Drummond will be in the league for two seasons if he leaves UConn ASAP. The best big man from the 2009 Draft is ... Blake Griffin, who has only played one year.
OK, sold. You win.
SHARP: Really, really proud of our analysis here.
39. Josh Smith
Smoove actually finished No. 34 in Zach Lowe's excellent 2011 Top 100 rankings; he turns 26 in December, which means his expected peak will fall right around 2013 or 2014, if he's normal, which he certainly is not. A year ago, I'd have taken Smith higher, but when Larry Drew replaced Mike Woodson, some of Smith's bad habits returned. Like "daring take three-pointers." Woodson convinced him to take only seven in 2010; under Drew, Smith was back up to two per game. His conversion rate was at an all-time high ... but remained one of the lower-percentage shots the Hawks can come up with any given possession.
The other stuff is where Smith's value lies: he's a plus rebounder at power forward and a super-plus at small forward, a sometimes jaw-dropping defender and an able scorer and passer. Maybe he'll never get that All-Star bid, but what a valuable player. -- Ziller
SHARP: God I hope he gets traded between now and 2015. It's not that he's bad for Atlanta, but Atlanta seems bad for him. He needs to be somewhere where he's got a defined role, with a coach that'll force him to stay disciplined, on a team with an elite scorer to keep him from going off the rails. Basically, the paradox with Smith is that his chaotic skill set shines best when he's surrounded by order. It'd be a shame if he spent his whole career with Team Tweener in ATL.
38. James Harden
What you saw in the 2011 Playoffs? Yeah, you're going to see a whole lot of that and more from Harden in the next four years. Harden's resemblance to Manu Ginobili is uncanny, and not just because they're left-handed. Both are unbelievably crafty running the pick-and-roll and getting to the basket, especially when going left. Both are also excellent three-point shooters and above-average passers for their position. Both allow their team's point guard to focus more on being a scorer than a passer.
Now, granted, we've only seen Harden really kick butt for half a season. Prior to the Jeff Green trade, he was in a shooting slump and hadn't improved at all from his rookie year. But with Green gone and Harden now more confident, I suspect we're getting the May Harden instead of the December Harden going forward. That's especially true if Scott Brooks does the right thing and start him.
Oh, and did I mention he'll only be 25 in 2015? --Prada
ZILLER: I love Harden and refuse to concern-troll about shots coming out of the pockets of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
SHARP: FEAR THE BEARD, Y'ALL.
37. Brandon Jennings
Jennings seems like he'll be just below an All-Star level for most of his career. He's not efficient enough to be considered an heir to the elite guards of today, but he's so relentless that you get the feeling he'll find a way to be successful and keep the Bucks relevant over the next five, 10 years in the NBA. Especially with NBA offenses revolving more and more around the point guard position, Jennings' limitations may keep him from making it to All-Star Weekend, but he'll be among the better guards in the league, and an underrated entry into the point guard Game of Thrones that's emerging in the NBA right now. -- Sharp
PRADA: Jennings may have been the 37th-best player in the NBA in November of 2009, and that's mostly because of what happened on November 14 of that month. Otherwise? There have been months where he wasn't even the 137th-best player in the league. He's young, but what exactly has he done as an NBA player to justify a ranking anywhere close to this high?
No, summer-league domination doesn't count.
ZILLER: Here's my issue with Jennings: he can't score at the rim, at all. He improved his at-rim shooting percentage massively in 2011 ... and still finished above only Luke Ridnour among starting point guards. Is he going to see another boost? That doesn't seem to be a skill young players improve much with time, not compared to jump shot efficiency. If he can't find a way to do something good at the rim, teams will play him tight and make his jumpers tougher. It's hard to see him become a really good, efficient offensive player.
SHARP: But he's fearless against even the best players in the league, and his athleticism makes him a weapon against any defender in the league. He's got plenty of limitations (shooting, finishing, consistency) that keep him out of the top 25, but his intangibles will put in the top 50 at least for the next few years.
PRADA: What intangibles? You don't get two points or an assist for calling out LeBron James' hairline. You only get a bunch of bloggers to laugh.
We'll be back on Wednesday for nine more players. Who will be the first contestant to be summarily executed? Stay tuned to find out!