Top 100 of 2017, 21-30: The promise of a better tomorrow

Guy Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Two players who have yet to play a single minute of college ball make an appearance in the first 30 spots in our countdown of the Top 100 NBA players of 2017. Also: The panel debates Kawhi Leonard vs. Paul George.

It's time for the high schoolers. Two very prominent ones cracked the first 30 spots on our Top 100 NBA Players of 2017 countdown, so please bookmark this page so you can laugh at us four years later if they don't pan out.

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


30.  Ricky Rubio

If there's one guy I picked outside of the top 10 who I think is a sure-thing, All-NBA player at some point between today and 2017, it's Ricky. And that's mostly because everyone adores Ricky, but it's also because the kid can play. What I want desperately is for Rajon Rondo to get traded to a West team so he and Ricky can share an All-Star backcourt with some mix of dunkers and shooters. That's all I want. -ZILLER

PRADA: Ricky was very good in the second half of the year, and it didn't help that his team lacked shooters. He has everything he needs this year, so he better ball out.

FLANNERY: Just give us one year of Ricky and Love healthy and comfortable in Rick Adelman's system. That's all I want this year.

O'DONNELL: I love, love, love watching Rubio play basketball. He is a gift.


29. Jahlil Okafor

The elephant in the room here is that Okafor hasn't even started his senior year at Chicago's Whitney Young High School. He'll be going into his third NBA season in 2017, likely after becoming the No. 1 selection in the 2015 draft. While this may seem high for him, history shows that many future stars with this type of pedigree are top-30 players by that point. Moreover, while the top 10 or so are relatively objective, things get more subjective once you get to this section of the league's individual hierarchy.

Mock me for this being a homer pick (I've seen Okafor play more than Enes Kanter, admittedly), but I'm telling you, Jahlil Okafor is a freaking monster. At 6'11 and 270 pounds, he combines remarkable footwork with a nice outside shot that's already developed. Also, the dude has moves in the post, something that's been in his game since he was a high school sophomore. Nearly all of the prep reporters locally were more impressed with him than Jabari Parker, who already had a mystical aura by the time he was Okafor's age. Jahlil might not have the hype yet, but he's an absurdly talented post prospect. -O'DONNELL

PRADA: Scouts rave about him, but it's hard for me to see a big man being one of the 30 best players in the NBA after his second season. It takes bigs a while. I could see placing him this high if this was the Top 100 Players of 2020, but it's a reach in 2017.

TJARKS: All I've seen of him is the Under-19 World Championships, so I don't want to go too overboard. That said, holy shit, OMFG, he was incredible. I haven't watched as much of Andrew Wiggins, but he's going to have to be pretty amazing next year for me to believe he's a better prospect than Okafor.

ZILLER: For the record, there's currently one player going into his first, second or third year who would widely be considered a top-30 player right now: Kyrie Irving. It's not that common. Maybe Okafor is that good -- Derrick Rose is a nice Chicago blueprint.

FLANNERY: I'm convinced. Let's move him up.

PRADA: Move him up Jahlil bit, or Jahlot?

FLANNERY: *SIGH*

KACZMAREK: ......


28.  Greg Monroe

Here, we have a player who's three years into his career at age 22 with no injury problems, who averaged 16 and 10 in a down offensive year brought on in part because the Pistons moved him out of position to make room for Andre Drummond ... what's the issue? Yeah, his defense needs work (OK, a LOT of work) and he needs to add an 18-22-foot jumper, but why doesn't Monroe get more love?

My theory is that he came into the league ready to play both mentally and physically, and the lack of drama works against him in the great projection game we play not just here, but throughout the season. Playing for a bad, direction-less team doesn't help either. I think some of the guys ahead of him on the list can become really good basketball players, but I know Monroe already is one. Did I mention he'll be just 27 years old in 2017-18?  -FLANNERY

TJARKS: The question for Monroe is whether he'll stick in Detroit long term. There's obvious spacing concerns with a frontcourt of Monroe, Andre Drummond and Josh Smith, but I'm still curious to see if it works. With so many teams going small, having such a big team is an interesting contrarian strategy.

FLANNERY: I actually don't think he'll stick with Detroit long term, and when he does find a place where he can be the No. 1 low-post option, he'll be an All-Star fixture.

PRADA: Otto Porter and a 2015 protected No. 1 in a sign-and-trade for Monroe next summer. Let's do it, Wizards.

ZILLER: Let the record show that Mike is already giving up on Otto Porter.

KACZMAREK: I love Greg Monroe offensively. My only worry is that he turns into David Lee, where his offensive contributions are almost outweighed by his lack of defense. Of course, he's still young and can certainly improve on defense. Also, if he stays in Detroit and Andre Drummond turns into a defensive monster, he'll clean up lots of Monroe's mistakes. Overall, this is definitely the right area for Monroe.


27.  Derrick Favors

I think Favors is going to have a breakout year in 2013-14. He's been somewhat forgotten in Utah, but he was a top-3 pick in the draft for a reason. He's an athletic guy with great size (6'10, 250 pounds with a 7'4 wingspan), and he's a capable player around the rim. If he can translate his per-36 minute numbers from last year (15 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks) into a full season's work, he'll be one of the best two-way centers in the NBA. He's still only 22, younger than Mason Plumlee and Gorgui Dieng. Favors spent one season in college, but he learned basketball at the feet of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap for the last three years. He's not very flashy, but he's going to be your favorite center's favorite center. -TJARKS

ZILLER: Evan Turner was a top-3 pick for a reason, too. That reason being: it's hard to judge college prospects. I like Favors fine, but he'll need to maintain strong defense in a featured role or have an offensive breakout I just don't see coming.

FLANNERY: Waiting for the Favors Breakout: the Utah Jazz story.

KACZMAREK: It's going to be funny when we do this same list in 2017 and Derrick Favors is on there again because his potential is just so hard to resist and he'll put it all together someday.

TJARKS: To understand Favors plight last season, you have to look at the dynamics of the Utah locker room. Jefferson and Millsap were highly-respected veterans with a lot of skins on the wall. You think they would have been OK with losing significant minutes to an untested 21-year-old while they were playing for new contracts?

PRADA: That's a fair point, but if Favors really was this good, he'd find his way on the court anyway.


26. Jabari Parker

The first of the three early prizes of the Draft Class Everyone Is Tanking Rebuilding For lands here. I worry that other physical freaks in Parker's class will catch up to his advanced skills as they get more experience, but you couldn't ask for a more versatile, higher-character winner as an 18-year-old. Winning four state titles in Illinois is no joke. An incomplete list of players who never did that: Kevin Garnett, Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre, Dwyane Wade, Tim Hardaway, Derrick Rose, Mo Cheeks, Eddy Curry, Shaun Livingston and George Mikan. He's the kind of player that everyone takes for granted until his team wins. -PRADA

O'DONNELL: As someone who has followed his career since his freshman year of high school, this seems like the right spot for Jabari after his third NBA season. What's crazy is he could be a top-25 player at this point and still only be the fourth-best guy out of Chicago (Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis and Jahlil Okafor, y'all).

ZILLER: Michael Jordan never won ONE state title in Illinois. #Jabari4Ever.

But really, Jabari looks like an amazing prospect. Can't wait to see him in the league. Skeptical that we're going to have more than one or two very young players in the top 25 in 2017.

FLANNERY: One or two of these picks will look very smart. I'm not going to pretend I know which ones.


25.  Nerlens Noel

Rim protection, rim protection, rim protection. During his time at Kentucky, Noel was one of the most athletic and agile 7-footers I've ever seen. Yes, he's raw offensively, but if he works as hard as he claims he'll work, he'll have improved substantially by the time 2017 rolls around.

I think a lot of teams passed on Noel in the 2013 Draft due to his recovery from a torn ACL and the fact that he's a long-term project. Since you're letting me fast-forward four years into the future, Noel could be a beast by then. -KACZMAREK

FLANNERY: The dude is very, very young.

ZILLER: Is it weird that I'd be way more comfortable with Nerlens Noel's career projection if five GMs -- five! -- didn't pass on him, in three cases for other big men?

PRADA: That worries me, too. Then again, two of those teams are trying to win next year, one of those teams has a good young frontcourt already, one is the Bobcats and the other ... well, it's weird that a GM that drafts as well as Ryan McDonough took Alex Len over him. Still, it's possible we are overthinking Noel's drop.

KACZMAREK: I think GMs passed on him because they don't have time to wait four years for him to be good. In this exercise, we have that time, right? He might be a late-bloomer like Larry Sanders, but his potential is awesome.

FLANNERY: Right, I'm just not sure the potential is as high as some of the other kids on the list.


24.  Kawhi Leonard

He was not that far off from being a Finals MVP at age 21. He had a True Shooting percentage over 60 in the playoffs ... and offense is his weaker end! He's clearly a star in the making. I'd take him over Paul George, which is saying a lot, because ... Paul George. Leonard will be 26 in 2017, by the way, far closer to his prime than the guys still in high school while still holding a ton of potential for improvement. -ZILLER

FLANNERY: I love everything about Kawhi Leonard. It's a bit ironic that he may be underrated because of his role and the amazing cast in San Antonio. If you asked me to choose between him and George ... I honestly don't know who I would take. Probably Kawhi.

PRADA: I would not take him over Paul George. I think this is a fair ranking, but until Kawhi thrives specifically with the offensive load George carried last season, it's a little much to say he'll be a better player. He's not running high pick-and-rolls and being forced to make crucial passing reads like George is, and I doubt he'll get that chance in the next few years because Tony Parker is showing no signs of slowing down. If salaries were equal, I think the Spurs would swap Kawhi for George. I'm not sure the Pacers do the reverse.

KACZMAREK: I want to see Kawhi play more than just a complementary role, which may happen this year. I'm not as high on him as lots of people, mostly because I don't think he can create his own offense. If that's the case, how much different is he from Nicolas Batum, who ranks much lower on this list?


23.  Jrue Holiday

The NBA is overrun with terrific young point guards, but Holiday seems to have the tools to stay a step ahead of the second tier. He has ideal size (6'4), can shoot from 3-point range and plays quality defense, all qualities that allowed him to make the All-Star Game as a 22-year-old last season. His playmaking also took a crucial step forward, as he nearly doubled his assists per game. Throw in a young and promising supporting cast with the Pelicans, and there's good reason to believe Holiday's run of success is just getting started. -O'DONNELL

PRADA: I like, but don't love Holiday. I'd rather have Damian Lillard than him, even considering his defensive advantage.

O'DONNELL: I went back and forth on that. I chose Holiday for three reasons: A) even though Lillard was just Rookie of the Year, they're the same age. B) Holiday's defense is superior. C) Five seasons from now, I trust Anthony Davis will still be in New Orleans, whereas I wonder about Lillard's supporting cast.

FLANNERY: I'd take Lillard too, but I'd take some of the big men first.

TJARKS: Count me on the Holiday train. I think he's due for a breakout season in New Orleans. The fact that he's a four-year NBA veteran who just turned 23 is mind-boggling. Lillard doesn't have his size or his athletic ability.

PRADA: Didn't he just have a breakout season in Philly?

ZILLER: The only area he really improved in was playmaking, and a lot of that might have been the excision of Andre Iguodala from the roster. Evan Turner just didn't pick up those duties. He has much better frontcourt help in Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson in New Orleans, though I think he'll miss Thaddeus Young.


22.  DeMarcus Cousins

There's no way Boogie will be 22 in 2017-18. He'll either be much higher or drifting into Josh Smith territory by this point. That's not a terrible place to be considering Smoove just cashed in on a sweet second payday from the Pistons. But -- and it's the biggest hypothetical in the NBA -- there's no physical reason he can't be the league's best center in four years. -FLANNERY

ZILLER: I actually think there is a situation in which Cousins is No. 22 in 2017. Consider him now. Even with the well-known problems he brings upon himself and his team, he's really productive.

PRADA: Where would you rank Cousins right this second? To me, he's down in the 50s-60s because of his bad defense.

ZILLER: Without plotting it all out, maybe 40s. A lot of that defense is a teamwide epidemic, and he rebounds and takes charges so well that he's not a total loss at that end. He's bad, yes. But not without at least a little merit.


21.  LaMarcus Aldridge

I'm not going to lie: I was a little surprised to see that Aldridge was already 28 when we were making the list. He's only 14 months younger than Chris Bosh! Just like his fellow Dallas native, Aldridge's game might be more suited to being the No. 2 player on a good team. If he can get himself in a situation where he's the No. 3 player (*cough* Houston) on a great team, he'll have a chance to win multiple championships, too. He's not flashy and his rebounding stats have always been a little low, but a 6'11, 240-pound player with his size, athleticism and shooting touch will be an excellent player for a very long time. -TJARKS

FLANNERY: That's my issue with LMA ahead of some of the other guys on the list -- his age. But I like his game and I agree that finding the right spot will be the key to his career. Like Bosh, we'll be looking at him a lot differently if he's a key cog of a contender instead of the face of a mediocre franchise. But yeah, Bosh was already there by this point in his career.

ZILLER: Al Jefferson without the rebounding. Where do I sign up?

PRADA: He needs a new team.

O'DONNELL: Bulls, Bulls, Bulls.

INTRO | TOP 99 OF 2015 REVIEW | 91-100 | 81-90 | 71-80 | 61-70 | 51-60 | 41-50 | 31-40 | 11-20 | 1-10

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