Let’s make one thing clear: Stephen Curry is a once in a lifetime player.
The league’s first unanimous MVP has a grace-under-pressure elegance that’s been likened to a ballet dancer in flight, while his combination of slippery moves and absurd shots has even got video game makers struggling to keep up.
Curry, it happens, is also a stylish, smooth-talking media darling blessed with a super photogenic family. In short, he’s got the whole package.
No other athlete in America commands that kind of broad-based appeal, according to the Celebrity DBI, a popularity index which ranks Curry in its top five alongside Taylor Swift, Oprah Winfrey, Jimmy Fallon and Kate Middleton. Included in his marketing deals (of which there are at least eight) is an equity stake with Under Armour.
Fellow point guards Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard — all bona fide stars who will one day challenge for MVP honors (Westbrook finished fourth this season) — can’t truly match Steph’s global marketability.
There are, however, a few upstarts aged 22 and younger who may have a Curry-esque star quality about them. (Remember, Curry himself didn’t blossom until his fourth season.)
These five diamond-in-the-roughs can one day aspire to be the NBA’s next big thing:
Dennis Schröder, Atlanta Hawks, age 22
Watching Schröder handle the ball is like trying keeping pace with a red-uniformed blur. With his broad shoulders, disproportionately long arms, and natural court awareness, the German youngster resembles Kings’ point guard Rajon Rondo — with a reliable jump shot.
And just like the mercurial Rondo, “Dennis the Menace” is making waves. Schröder, a three-year understudy to franchise point-guard Jeff Teague, played key minutes in the Hawks second-round series against Cleveland — including the entire fourth quarter of the deciding game. It’s no wonder he declared his intention to be a starter as of next season — whether in Atlanta or elsewhere.
Upside: The sky’s the limit for Schröder — a classic drive and dish point guard. With his speed, he can blow by most NBA defenders, while keeping them honest with an effective — and improving — jump shot.
Marketability: Huge. Complimenting his little-man’s swagger — he’s often confronting players twice his size — the golden streak in Schröder’s hair may as well be a symbol for a marketing jackpot. He’s also half Gambian from his mother’s side, opening up another continent for endorsement potential.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks, age 21
The “Greek Freak” is no fluke: Antetokounmpo is flat-out one of the most explosive players in the game. But for all his size and speed, the 6-foot 11-inch small forward is underutilized offensively.
That said, Antetokounmpo’s scoring average has jumped in each of his three seasons, to just under 17 points per game, and is set to rocket onto the scoring leaders list soon.
Upside: The Freak’s first step is a blur, and his finishing ability is uncanny — but developing a solid outside shot (he averaged just above 25% from three-point range) will keep defenses honest, earning him another few inches of space to blow by defenders.
Marketability: Athens-born to Nigerian parents, Antetokounmpo is a case study for how to succeed through effort and determination. As a stateless youth, Giannis and older brother Thanasis peddled knock-off watches and bags on the streets to fill the family’s fridge, before playing club basketball and eventually securing Greek citizenship.
Justise Winslow, Miami Heat, age 20
After winning a championship in his one season at Duke, Winslow had a solid NBA rookie campaign. Taken under the wing of Dwyane Wade in Miami, 6-foot 7-inch Winslow posted modest numbers under limited minutes (6.4 points, 5.2 rebounds), but showed enough promise to one day supplant Wade as Miami’s go-to weapon.
Upside: So far, Winslow’s real talent lies on the defensive end. One of the youngest players in the league, the 220-pounder has repeatedly been tasked to put a body on the likes of LeBron James, Paul George, Kevin Durant and James Harden, and has done so effectively.
Marketability: Starting with this spiky dreadlocks, Winslow has the chiseled appearance of a Picasso cubist masterpiece, and is not afraid of taking fashion risks. His more than half a million Instagram followers track his exploits on South Beach, including a running man dance-off with sister Bianca.
Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic, age 20
Gordon— who was robbed of the 2016 Slam Dunk title, in a thrilling battle with Zach LaVine — is a slim choice over teammate Victor Oladipo, another budding star.
Gordon is still more raw talent than finesse at this early stage of his career — his highlight reel is composed almost entirely of spectacular dunks — but is fast blooming into a solid shot blocker and a passer with good court vision. An outside game, however, still appears to be a long way off.
Upside: Gordon began the season on the bench playing sparingly, but took over starting power forward duties just before the All-Star break. Going into next season, he’ll assume a big load of Orlando’s offense, which will further boost his confidence.
Marketability: Gordon can and should return for another attempt at the Slam Dunk title — especially considering one of his dunks would have qualified him for an Olympic high jump medal. If he successfully unleashes some new tricks, he’ll be reaping advertising deals in the same way his predecessor Blake Griffin did a few years back. (So perhaps Gordon is really a future Griffin — no small feat either.)
Ben Simmons, likely first pick in NBA draft, age 19
It’s hard to call the most touted player in college basketball a potential sleeper in the NBA, but Simmons was a little underwhelming in his only season at LSU. Although he averaged 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game, the 6-foot 10-inch Melbourne-native had trigger-shy tendencies and made just one three-pointer all season. LSU even missed out on March Madness, erasing Simmons from the national spotlight when it mattered most.
Upside: Well-spoken Simmons has a positive attitude, huge athleticism and mounds of energy — qualities that are hard to pick up at a later stage. Shooting, however, is a process that can be honed.
“He’s got a great feel for the game, no question,” former NBA pro Wally Szczerbiak told Sports Illustrated, noting that Simmons could emulate the Warriors’ Draymond Green as a threat on both ends of the floor…once he secures a jump shot. He will have all summer to do just that, having opting out of joining Australia in the Olympics to work on his pro game.
Marketability: Simmons has 323,000 Instagram followers while barely flexing a bicep, a testament to his popularity Down Under. But Simmons, a duel citizen thanks to his American dad, played high school ball in Florida and has cross-continental appeal. While his fashion sense could certainly do with some flair, the teenager has also managed to avoid looking ridiculous. His NBA Draft ensemble, however, is yet to be unveiled.
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