Top 100 of 2017, 41-50: The Damian Lillard holy war

USA TODAY Sports

In this edition of the Top 100 countdown, the panel disagrees on how to value the 2013 NBA Rookie of the Year.

We've reached the part of the Top 100 NBA Players of 2017 countdown where everyone starts gambling on potential. Only one of the next 10 players has been in the league for five years, and several have either just started to emerge or haven't even established themselves at all. Most prominently, the 2013 NBA Rookie of the Year makes an appearance and inspires a heated debate about whether he even belongs this high.

To get to know the panelists and read about what this whole list is about, see the Top 100 of 2017 index page.


50.  Jeremy Lamb

After their first two seasons of college, no one would have put Victor Oladipo on the same level as Lamb. And while Oladipo had a good junior year at Indiana, Lamb was pretty dominant in the D-League: 21.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists a game on 49-percent shooting. He didn't play much in Oklahoma City, but no rookie would have. The talent is there. He's a good athlete with phenomenal length (6'11 wingspan) for his position. Lamb is a good shooter who can create his own shot off the dribble, so I think he'll be able to score in the NBA at a pretty high level. -TJARKS

FLANNERY: Who?

ZILLER: God bless you and your belief in Jeremy Lamb, Mr. Tjarks. I'm surprised Perry Jones hasn't made an appearance yet, in fact ...

PRADA: This pick went in like a lion and out like a ... eh, you know.


49.  Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

The selection of MKG is partially based on him developing a jump shot. In 2013, his jump shot is terribly broken and looks like it will never be good. But in four years with constant mentoring from Mark Price? It could become passable. And even if he never has a really good jump shot, he can be extremely valuable as a guy that scores off cuts, in transition and on offensive rebounds. His athleticism is ridiculous and he projects to be a tremendous defender. Oh and he doesn't turn 20 until late September. -KACZMAREK

PRADA: Great guy, you want him to be a star ... but I'm still not convinced he's actually more than a rotation player. As time goes by, I think the Bobcats' decision to take him over Andre Drummond, Bradley Beal and Harrison Barnes will look more foolish.

ZILLER: The idea that Harrison Barnes (foreshadowing!) is a better bet than Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at this point, in my opinion, wholly overrated Barnes' postseason performance. I think if you swap them last season, the Warriors get better.

PRADA: Kidd-Gilchrist can't hit the broad side of a barn. How was that going to work with last year's Warriors?

O'DONNELL: I saw Kidd-Gilchrist play in Summer League and I swear he was jumping while taking free throws. That, uh, isn't a good sign. I still ultimately believe he'll have a successful career, but it might only come as a killer role player. This seems waaaay too high to me, but I respect it.

KACZMAREK: He was the No. 2 pick in the draft and he's SO young. I can't give up on the guy yet.


48.  Tyreke Evans

I'm telling you, Tyreke as New Manu is a genius move by the Pelicans. It depends on Monty Williams letting Evans run the team when in the game, it depends on Evans staying at least above 33 percent from long-range and it depends on Eric Gordon staying healthy. So, three dicey propositions. But if it works out, Tyreke is going to do brilliantly for that young team. -ZILLER

PRADA: So Tyreke's breakout depends on a controlling coach loosening the reigns, his broken jump shot improving and the starter in front of him magically gaining new knees? Sounds likely!

FLANNERY: I'm a Reke fan, so I approve this selection. The fit is important and we'll have to see how this works out, but it's rare that a young player gets cast into what should be an ideal situation while he's still young and already has four years under his belt.

KACZMAREK: I, too, like this selection. It seems that NOLA is betting that Tyreke will improve now that he's escaped Sacramento. That's not a terrible bet. (Sorry, Ziller)


47.  Eric Gordon

There are questions about Gordon's size, defense, makeup and (especially) his durability. But if Gordon can stay on the court, there aren't many other shooting guards who possess his combination of explosion going to the hole and ability to drain threes. Perhaps 2011 seems like long ago now, but that was the year Gordon averaged 22.3 points as a 22-year-old. He was an elite recruit, an elite college player and, briefly, a damn good NBA player. I think he can regain that form with a great young support cast in New Orleans, provided he's buying in and staying healthy. -O'DONNELL

ZILLER: Durability is an issue until it isn't. So long as the injury isn't chronic, I think Gordon will bounce back. His biggest challenge is defense, which could be a problem individually on account of Monty Williams being his coach and Tyreke Evans being available behind him. Jrue Holiday's a fine defender, but not big enough to cover Gordon on most twos. So I'm anticipating -- barring defensive improvement from Gordon -- a lot of nights where he's on the pine in crunch time because his backup is a much better defender.

FLANNERY: He's missed almost a 100 games the last two years and he wasn't exactly A.C. Green before that either. Going to go with a huge red caution flag on this one.

TJARKS: I'm a big Gordon fan, but he's 1-5 when it comes to healthy NBA seasons. That's probably why he signed with Phoenix two years ago.

46.  Eric Bledsoe

I'd like to have seen a full season of Bledsoe unleashed before slotting him in the top 50, but the fact that so many well-regarded personnel men tried to grab him the last few years gives me confidence. I get that he "struggled to run a team," in his short starting audition, but how about he gets more than a handful of games to make his mark? I can't remember a player that went from Future Star in the Making to Just Another Talented Guy Without a Position so quickly. -FLANNERY

KACZMAREK: I love Eric Bledsoe in the sparkplug-off-the-bench role that he had with the Clippers. As my starting point guard? Not unless he develops his point guard skills a whole lot and learns how to shoot jumpers consistently. He can be a really nice asset for a team, but 46 feels too high.

PRADA: Rodrigue Beaubois would like a word, Paul.

TJARKS: Don't make me take Roddy B in the 40s. Because I'll do it.

ZILLER: In 2011, I picked Beaubois at No. 93 overall and still feel like a chump. No. 93. He's currently a free agent. In August.

FLANNERY: Roddy was a garbage-time monster. But hey, let's keep projecting dudes with absolutely no track record.


45.  John Henson

Henson is an upper-middle-class man's Anthony Davis. He's a good athlete with phenomenal length (6'11 and 220 pounds with a 7'4 wingspan) and a nose for the ball. Given how dominant he was in college, especially on the defensive end, the fact that two UNC players were drafted ahead of him still amazes me. Whenever he got on the floor as a rookie, he was tremendously productive. If he could ever figure out a way to consistently knock down outside shots, this ranking could be low. -TJARKS

PRADA: I'm the biggest Henson fan you'll ever find, and even I can't support putting him this close to Larry Sanders ... unless he gets traded to a team that will freely play him 30 minutes a game. Which I guess could happen.

TJARKS: I guess not the biggest! Whether he's in Milwaukee or not, Henson has too much talent not to be playing 30 minutes a night at this stage in his career. Four years is a long time. These type of roster logjams tend to sort themselves out, one way or the other.

ZILLER: I'm sympathetic to any argument that reminds us Scott Skiles and Jim Boylan having been running the Bucks' rotation, but "Henson has too much talent not to be playing 30 minutes a night" is something you could say about 50 other guys collecting DNPs. I'm not exactly skeptical; I'm more noncommittal about his ability to break out.


44.  Victor Oladipo

It'll be interesting to see exactly what kind of NBA player Oladipo becomes. Is he a point guard like he was in the Summer League, an off guard that does more ball-handling than usual or a better Tony Allen? Regardless, I believe in the improvement in his jump shot, and therefore, I believe in him as a player, whatever he ends up being. He's probably the surest best to succeed from the draft class of 2013. -PRADA

ZILLER: I can see Oladipo being a really good NBA player. I can also see him being O.J. Mayo without scoring instincts.

O'DONNELL: Oladipo is the ultimate "hindsight is 20/20" player from this year's class. If he turns out to be really good, it will feel like it was always inevitable. Great athleticism! High character! Elite defender! But if he hasn't made his mark on the league by 2017, you'll wonder how a 6'4 shooting guard with limited ball-handling and shooting ability ever went No. 2 overall. Being an NBA GM is tougher than we give it credit for.

FLANNERY: My 86-year-old grandmother has had season tickets to Indiana basketball for longer than I've been alive and she loves Oladipo. One thing I know: Nancy Martin knows her hoops.


43.  Larry Sanders

I know we've only seen one season of LARRY SANDERS!, but if he can continue to develop, he has the potential to be the best defensive center in the league Consider his ability to block shots and slide to cut off the pick-and-roll. The only reason the Bucks were even remotely competent defensively last year was because of Sanders' ability to cover for Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis and Ersan Ilyasova. Imagine him with better teammates and more time to develop his offensive game. -PRADA

ZILLER: My biggest concern with LARRY SANDERS! is that he's extraordinarily popular with Basketball Twitter and the basketblogosphere, and that never turns out well. Ask Gilbert's sharks.

PRADA: **Checks to make sure he didn't put Gilbert's Sharks on the Top 100 players of 2011 list.**

FLANNERY: I'd like to see some semblance of an offensive game before granting him all-caps and exclamation point status, but he's got a chance to be really, really good.


42.  Damian Lillard

There are two major things to remember about young players and, specifically, rookies. One is that players tend to be better at age 27 than age 22. The curve is a bell in most cases. Players peak in their late 20s. In theory, having an awesome 21-year-old is better than having an equally awesome 23-year-old, because history says that when the 21-year-old is 23, he'll be more awesome than the 23-year-old had been.

But the other thing is that the rookie season is just about every player's most difficult. There's a huge learning curve between college or international ball and the freaking NBA. It's even bigger for players coming from lower conferences or leagues: You go from playing against future insurance agents to future Hall of Famers.

That Damian Lillard had such a spectacular season facing that learning curve -- despite being further along the age curve (22) than other elite young point guards -- says something. In conclusion, Dame! -ZILLER

TJARKS: Serious question: Is he that much better than Jeff Teague? He's already 23, so he's much closer to his ceiling than your average rookie. He took six 3-pointers a game last season, which seems like a lot if you aren't Steph Curry. I think he'll be a good point guard in the NBA for a long time, but there are a lot of good point guards these days.

ZILLER: Uh, Jeff Teague is two years older than Lillard and had lower numbers across the board last season. (Lillard was even more efficient as a rookie than Teague was as a fourth-year.) So yes, Damian Lillard is that much better than Jeff Teague. Furthermore, the fact that Lillard can take that many threes at age 22 and shoot them so well (37 percent, or the equivalent of shooting 55 percent on two-pointers, which is difficult if not impossible for most guards) is a boon for the Blazers, not a burden.

FLANNERY: We're all guilty of playing the age game on this list, but guys like Teague didn't have the kind of season Lillard had at his age. The dude can play, and while I agree that others project higher, I think the pendulum has swung too far on Lillard.


41.  Tobias Harris

The Bucks gave up on Tobias Harris in the middle of his age-20 season, and it was a decision they immediately regretted. Harris thrived as one of Orlando's primary offensive options in the second half of last season, and it was only a small peak at what he could eventually become. At 6'9 and 226 pounds, and with a developing stroke from all over the court, Harris offers the kind of versatility that's invaluable in today's NBA. There's reason to believe he could be a killer small ball four or an inside-outside force at the three. Harris is still an open book, but he's got all the tools to one day become this type of player. -O'DONNELL

PRADA: 2010 Andray Blatche is jealous of Harris' late-season shot-jacking last year. I need to see sustained success before I feel comfortable saying Harris is the 41st-best player in the NBA.

ZILLER: I am intrigued by Tobias Harris, and I would like to subscribe to his newsletter.

FLANNERY: So would the Bucks. Whoops.

INTRO | TOP 99 OF 2015 REVIEW | 91-100 | 81-90 | 71-80 | 61-70 | 51-60 | 31-40 | 21-30 | 11-20 | 1-10

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