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Sometimes the difference between a sidekick and a star comes down to opportunity.
NBA spotlights only shine so bright, and there are a finite amount of touches to go around. From a team level, that makes it critical for every player to buy into his role. From a personal standpoint, though, players can sometimes see their growth capped by a job description too narrow to take full advantage of their abilities.
James Harden never sniffs an MVP award without leaving behind his then-higher profile teammates on the Oklahoma City Thunder. Victor Oladipo doesn’t make his All-Star turn without becoming the focal point on the post-Paul George Indiana Pacers.
The following five players are still waiting on their big breaks to earn star accolades or even guide their own clubs.
We’re excluding new pairings of established stars (like LeBron James-Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard-Paul George and Kevin Durant–Kyrie Irving) even if one must eventually embrace a sidekick role. We’ll also avoid partnerships with unclear hierarchies, like the Luka Doncic-Kristaps Porzingis tandem down in Dallas.
Otherwise, everyone else is fair game, and this quintet has the best chance to blossom should any land in a true leading role.
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In past iterations of the Association, Deandre Ayton might already be regarded as a franchise centerpiece.
Never mind that he’s just 21 years old and only 71 games into his NBA career. He’s a 7-footer who can score and rebound with incredible consistency for his age and experience level. Teams of yesteryear would be tripping over themselves to hand him the keys to their clubs.
He’s a harder sell as a budding star in today’s game since he doesn’t do everything in what’s increasingly becoming an everyone-does-everything league. That said, he already looks so elite—or on his way to becoming that—in his areas of strength that it tantalizes the mind to think what he could do in an offense catered to him, as opposed to the one the Phoenix Suns have constructed around Devin Booker.
This past season, 2018’s top pick became just the fourth freshman in the past 20 years to average at least 16 points and 10 rebounds. Ayton slotted in the 75th percentile on post-ups and ranked among the top 15 in field-goal percentage (58.5, 10th) and rebounds per game (10.3, 13th).
Making a star leap would require expanding his game. On defense, he can be a liability (51st among centers in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus) at a position where teams need an anchor. He also needs to grow as a spacer (40.5 percent on jump shots) and playmaker (1.8 assists per game).
But considering where he’s at in his career and his trajectory going forward, he looks capable of carrying a team if he ever gets the opportunity.
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Internally, the Chicago Bulls likely already consider Lauri Markkanen their brightest star. But from a statistical standpoint, he still fills a supporting role to Zach LaVine, the Windy City leader in shots, minutes and usage rate.
That pendulum should eventually swing Markkanen’s direction, though, perhaps as early as the upcoming season. As the all-time leader in threes per game by a 7-footer, a smooth scorer with his back to the basket and a capable enough ball-handler to run the offense off a defensive rebound, his offensive skill set has special potential from almost every angle.
Injuries and inconsistent point guard play have both worked against the big fella, and he’s still emerged as one of the league’s most intriguing young talents. He is the first player to average 16 points, eight rebounds and two triples over his first two NBA seasons, and even that distinction fails to capture the towering height of his ultimate ceiling.
When given the workload of a star, he has typically performed as such. He turned the entire month of February into his coming-out party, posting the jaw-dropping stat line of 26.0 points, 12.2 rebounds, 2.4 threes and 2.4 assists per game across 10 contests.
“Markkanen is different,” The Athletic’s Darnell Mayberry wrote at the time. “He isn’t hesitating whatsoever. When he gets the ball, he’s letting shots fly. If he’s covered, he’s putting it on the deck and barreling his 7-foot body to the basket.”
The unguardable, tier-one-star level of Markkanen has already been seen. Elevating him to offensive focal point might ensure that version of the Finnisher makes nightly appearances.
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Life isn’t bad for CJ McCollum.
Last season, he was the second-leading scorer for a conference finalist. This summer, he secured his future by inking a three-year, $100 million extension with the Portland Trail Blazers. As he told The Athletic’s Jason Quick, “It’s a special time.”
And he has a special thing going with Damian Lillard:
“(He and Lillard) talked about being in Portland, making a staple here and winning a championship here, and all those things. We’ve crossed off a lot of goals individually and collectively, but I think that both of us being here for the long haul, and both of us being able to grow together and win together is something that people will remember for a long time.”
That said, the 6’3″ shooting guard lives in the shadows of his 6’3″ backcourt mate.
Lillard has always had more shots, more points and more assists over their six seasons together. His accolades include four All-Star trips, four All-NBA selections and three top-10 MVP finishes. McCollum’s feature just a Most Improved Player award (2015-16) and a single Player of the Week nod (Nov. 12, 2018).
But McCollum’s ability exceeds his stature. Over the past four seasons, he ranks 13th in points and 28th in offensive box plus/minus. He has focal-point potential as a 71st percentile finisher on isolations and an 83rd percentile producer as a pick-and-roll ball-handler.
He could star if he ever had the spotlight to himself, but he’s clearly enjoying his time as Lillard’s sidekick.
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Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
The leaderboard for pull-up three-point shooting is basically a who’s who of NBA All-Stars.
James Harden topped last season’s group, followed by Kemba Walker, Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard. Thirteen players averaged 1.2 pull-up triples. Nine went to the All-Star Game. The other four included a future Hall of Famer (Chris Paul) and three near-locks for future All-Star selections (Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Donovan Mitchell).
Jamal Murray averaged 1.2 pull-up threes over his final 43 games. He also converted them at a 38.1 percent clip. The only players to clear both marks last season were Curry and Khris Middleton. Golden State Warriors skipper Steve Kerr, the all-time leader in career three-point percentage, included Murray in his discussion of the game’s top snipers.
“Jamal Murray is on his way to becoming one of those guys,” Kerr told Sopan Deb of the New York Times. “He shoots is, catch-and-shoot, or off the dribble, like Steph.”
Murray’s on- and off-ball comfort levels have helped him thrive as Nikola Jokic’s sidekick on the Denver Nuggets. The Joker is a brilliant passer and a sometimes reluctant scorer, meaning Murray usually has the chance to display all his offensive tricks.
Still, it’s fascinating to think what the three-level scorer—and new $170 million man—could do with complete control of his own offense. He took 20 or more shots 13 times last season. In those contests, he averaged 27.8 points, 6.1 assists and 3.3 triples while slashing 47.0/42.2/78.4 for a Nuggets team that went 9-4. Curry and Harden are the only players to ever post a 27/6/3 line for a season.
Murray has no reason to want out of his situation. In fact, he has 170 million reasons to stay put. But if he ever landed in a driver’s seat, he might race up to the elite ranks.
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Why isn’t Ben Simmons mentioned more in NBA unicorn discussions? Given the rarity of his size-skill blend, one could argue he might deserve to lead those conversations.
He’s a 6’10” point guard. When do we ever see those? Moreover, he’s an elite passer, a switch-everything defender, a lethal transition attacker and, statistically speaking, the best rebounding guard to ever pass through the NBA ranks.
Oh, and as all his critics will quickly point out, he’s also a non-shooter. But that also speaks to his rarity. How many other modern guards are securing All-Star spots while scoring almost exclusively at the rim?
The top pick in 2016, Simmons’ career is already off to a historic pace. He has averaged at least 15 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in each of his first two seasons. The only other players to do that during either of their first two campaigns are Oscar Robertson (both) and Magic Johnson (his second).
Incredibly, Simmons is doing this while playing second fiddle on the Philadelphia 76ers to Joel Embiid, who might be as poor an on-court fit as Simmons could find among the All-Star ranks. Each player works best with the ball in his hands and does most of his damage near the basket. Even though Simmons would work best in a turbo-charged attack, Philly only played at the eighth-fastest pace to accommodate its 7-foot centerpiece.
If Simmons had a club that catered to his strengths and covered his weaknesses, it might look dramatically different from his current digs.
“Unless his shooting improves drastically, it’s always going to be really hard to build a team around him,” one front-office evaluator told Bleacher Report’s Yaron Weitzman. “… The only way is to do so bottom-up, with the idea that he’s your star and everything brought in must boost him.”
That isn’t happening anytime soon, as Philly just maxed out Simmons, but the scenario still boggles the mind. If he can be this dominant as the co-star of a picture scripted for someone else, imagine what he’d do in a lead role.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.