Sometimes, one name can say it all.
Michael, Shaq, Kobe, LeBron — larger-than-life stars who need no further introduction and can carry the weight of the entire sport on their shoulders.
The NBA is still under LeBron James‘ rule, but his spot on the throne won’t last forever.
So who’s next? Which 25-and-under star has the game, the star power and the marketability to become the new face of the league in five or six years?
With LeBron in Michael Jordan’s house this weekend for the 2019 NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte, North Carolina, we’re taking a look at five candidates who could do just that — take the torch from James when another No. 23 calls it a career.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, the evolving Freak
You might have heard some variation of this story before: Giannis Antetokounmpo is fuming after a Milwaukee Bucks loss. He just had an off night. His shot wasn’t falling. He was getting double-teamed.
After the game, Antetokounmpo plunks his feet into an ice bucket and says nothing — the missed free throws and clanks off the rim looping in a mental playback. Forty minutes later, he retreats back to the gym to complete every step-back that he missed and every 3-pointer that he air-balled.
The late-night gym sessions have diminished this season, but that relentless work ethic combined with freakish length is part of what drove Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant to say Antetokounmpo has the potential to be the best player ever.
“The Greek Freak, I think, is a force,” Durant said in 2017. “His ceiling is probably — he could end up being the best player to ever play if he really wanted to. That’s pretty scary to think about.”
What’s even scarier? Since Durant made those comments a year and a half ago, Antetokounmpo has added more than 20 pounds of muscle. The Bucks have catapulted to the top of the NBA this season, with coach Mike Budenholzer’s five-out system spacing the floor for Antetokounmpo to attack the rim with ease.
It’s easy to forget Antetokounmpo is only 24 and he is still getting better — even though he already is in the MVP conversation. This season, he has improved as a passer, which has made him only more difficult for other teams to handle. The shooters positioned around Antetokounmpo have aided him in achieving Shaquille O’Neal-like productivity around the basket. He leads the league in baskets made within 5 feet with 422 made field goals in the restricted area — 110 more than any other player.
Antetokounmpo’s basketball accolades are mounting. He won the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award in 2017, and he has been named the league’s player of the month three times. He has made the All-NBA Second Team twice, and he was voted into his third All-Star game this season, this time a captain. Perhaps a less formal decoration — the title of best player in the league — is not far off.
— Malika Andrews
Luka Doncic, the boy wonder
Luka Doncic, at 19 years old, already has earned his way into LeBron James’ exclusive company, in terms of all-around production as NBA teens. Nobody else compares.
James was the lone teen to average 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists before Luka — also already known internationally on a first-name basis — came along and comfortably joined the club by averaging 20.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.5 assists as the All-Star break nears.
Expand the search to include all rookies and the club adds only three members: all-time greats Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson … and, uh, Tyreke Evans, who hasn’t averaged 20 points since his rookie season.
Sure, stuffing box scores this season doesn’t guarantee greatness for Doncic, but the odds are certainly in his favor. All signs point to Doncic developing into a superstar.
He arrived in the NBA as the most hyped European prospect ever, and he has exceeded expectations so far with the Dallas Mavericks, who expedited their rebuilding process in part because Doncic is already a dominant force.
“I love the fact that he loves carrying the load,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said Sunday after Doncic scored 13 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Mavs to a comeback win over the visiting Portland Trail Blazers. “He has great belief in himself, and he’s one of these dynamic young players that has the charisma to give his teammates confidence.”
Doncic was a proven winner before he played a minute in the NBA, having led Slovenia to a EuroBasket championship and Real Madrid to Spanish league and Euroleague titles. He possesses the intangible quality required to have a chance to take over the title as the NBA’s best player: the ability to thrive under pressure.
This kid has built a case for being the NBA’s best clutch player this season. According to NBA.com stats, he is 11-of-17 on shots that would tie or take the lead in the final two minutes of games. Nobody else has more than nine buckets in those situations this season.
So much for questions about whether Doncic was athletic enough to create his own shot in the NBA.
Doncic definitely isn’t in James’ class when it comes to athleticism. He’s not a high flyer or especially explosive. In that regard, he compares more to reigning MVP James Harden — a big guard with a savvy understanding of how to use his strength and the rare ability to be in complete control as he slams on the brakes and changes direction.
Doncic’s level of commitment to diet and conditioning over the years could determine which pantheon of NBA legends he ultimately joins. He is expected to be among the league’s elite for years to come. The question is whether he’ll earn the seat at the head of the table.
— Tim MacMahon
Joel Embiid, the modern-day Shaq
In looking for the player who is going to fill some of the biggest shoes in NBA history — replacing LeBron James as the face of the sport — why not choose literally the biggest star in the sport today?
When running through a list of the things that would allow a player to become the face of the NBA today, Joel Embiid checks every one of them.
For starters, he is a tremendous player. Despite missing two full seasons and most of a third with injuries, the 24-year-old is one of the NBA’s most gifted stars. He is an efficient hub of the Philadelphia 76ers‘ offense and a massive anchor of the team’s defense, making him one of the league’s most valuable players. His ascent has been the biggest reason the 76ers have risen from the rubble of The Process to one of the league’s elite teams.
On top of that, Embiid also has a personality specifically built for today’s media environment. His social media game — whether it be Instagram posts or tweets — is entertaining, and he plays to the camera in virtually every setting. He is, in every way, the modern embodiment of Shaquille O’Neal — another guy who, for a time, was arguably the face of the league.
So why not Embiid? Well, the most obvious reason is his lengthy injury history. Even now, every time he falls to the ground, everyone watching holds their breath until he gets up again. The combination of his previous injuries and his truly massive frame understandably has skeptics questioning whether he can remain on the court.
For the past year and a half, though, he has been largely available. All basketball fans will be hoping that stays the same for years to come.
The other factor working against Embiid: the way the game is trending. With the emphasis on spacing and shooting, the strain on big men, particularly defensively, is as great as it has ever been. Bigger, slower centers such as Embiid and Rudy Gobert have struggled in the playoffs to combat teams dragging them away from the basket. Quite simply, it is difficult for big men to get the ball, because they generally need to have someone get it to them. Perimeter players will, by definition, have an easier time in the game’s biggest moments of standing out because they can always have the ball in their hands.
Still, the NBA is a league that has been built on size. From George Mikan to Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Hakeem Olajuwon to O’Neal to Tim Duncan, the NBA’s history can largely be told through the play of its star centers. Embiid is the logical heir to that rich tradition.
And as the sport transitions away from the LeBron James era, Embiid is as good a bet as anyone to take over The King’s throne and make it his own.
— Tim Bontemps
Anthony Davis, the league’s next power broker
Anthony Davis already has the hard part out of the way: the nickname. He’s The Brow. And with one of the most complete, dominating skill sets in the league, he has the other big thing: He’s a league power broker, able to shift the balance depending on what he does.
Big market, small market, it doesn’t especially matter. But should Davis complete a move to a different franchise, what elevates stardom isn’t necessarily your new zip code. It’s visibility when it matters: Davis has played in the postseason twice and made it to the second round once, but to make a case for being the face of the league, he has to dominate on the biggest stage. That’s the critical element behind whatever decision he makes.
Davis is a little older than some of the other candidates on this list — he’ll be 26 in March — but that also means he might have more star equity in place. He is good enough to be in the MVP conversation by default every season (assuming his team is good enough), he is a lock for every All-Star Game and he is going to be on an All-NBA team. The superstar résumé is going to be stacked.
The door is going to open for some player to walk through, but what will separate any candidate in replacing LeBron James is the ability to alter the NBA power structure. James redefined the idea of player control, and while Davis’ first try at it didn’t go so well, he’s going to be playing somewhere next season, and wherever it is will have a pile of attention on it.
Davis is maybe the best player to hit the open trade market in more than 20 years, and should he land somewhere pairing with another star, the attention bump will be significant. It’s not that Davis has played in obscurity by any means in New Orleans — he has his fans, and he has the backing of Kentucky’s Big Blue Nation — but he isn’t the most marketable star by any means. That’s not a prerequisite to be the face of the league, but high-level winning is, which is what Davis has his eye on with his next move.
— Royce Young
In just six collegiate games, Duke’s Zion Williamson has become one of the best shows in sports.
Zion Williamson, the marketer’s dream
He flies around for blocks, dives on the floor for loose balls, skies for rebounds, makes others better and is as good of a teammate as you’ll find in college basketball. While not every aspiring athlete can relate to his unique physical profile, he promotes the importance of competing and playing the right way — exactly what the league should want in a future superstar. Having attended several games and practices this season, it’s clear to me that Williamson is “just one of the guys” in his mind, which you rarely see from a top prospect. His trajectory is a huge reason for that refreshing mentality.
Despite his massive social media following and internet stardom at 18 years old, Williamson is a small-town South Carolina kid at his core. He is confident yet grounded. You can see he genuinely has fun playing the game and wears a level of joy that marketing departments dream about, especially when coupled with his otherworldly athleticism.
As far as his game goes, it is the perfect fit in the modern NBA. With the strength, competitiveness and rim protection to slide all the way up to the 5 on defense, and the handle/feel to function as a primary creator on offense, Williamson holds point center potential — something only a few NBA stars possess.
On top of that, Williamson is producing at this rate with little or no high-level experience prior to Duke. He didn’t play for a major high school program. He never competed in a FIBA-sanctioned tournament for Team USA. Williamson is operating strictly on natural talent, which makes his upside scary. The fact that he has turned into a threat from the 3 line would have been unthinkable a year ago. He is just scratching the surface of what he can become.
While big-name prospects are generally fixated on landing in a major city, Williamson doesn’t need to be in a big market to draw eyeballs, and he is accustomed to the small-town life if he doesn’t end up in a place like New York. His highlights are spectacular enough to draw interest anywhere, especially in today’s social media-driven climate. If his dunks could go viral out of Spartanburg, South Carolina, he’ll have no trouble in spots like Phoenix or Cleveland. He’s clearly must-see TV with his gravity-defying slams, but it’s his mental makeup along with his remaining untapped potential that makes Zion Williamson a clear candidate to potentially one day become the face of the NBA.
— Mike Schmitz