BY DAVID THORPE
As of this moment, 2025-2026’s highest paid NBA players will be Stephen Curry ($60 million), Kevin Durant ($53 million), and Jimmy Butler ($52 million). By then, they’ll all be among the oldest players in the league, and much older than any player who has ever led a team to an NBA title.
At almost every moment of every season, Vegas’s NBA favors teams led by proven mega-stars: LeBron’s team, Durant’s team, Curry’s team, and—after a title—Giannis’s team. (Even right now, the Western-champions, the Suns, are distant contenders to those stars because great and young though they may be, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton aren’t in that top tier.) But five years from now, the top tier will have new leaders, who won’t be 40-year-olds. As Henry Abbott noted the other day, it’s incredibly rare for a top-20 NBA player to be even 33 or older. We’re going to have to allow some more names into the pantheon.
Today’s question: Which current NBA players have a great chance to make big waves in the NBA playoffs in five years?
The great news: There are dozens of candidates. As I said recently to Henry Abbott and Jarod Hector on BRING IT IN, “the NBA is loaded with talent.” The NBA just drafted a class with the chance to be the best in decades. I already adore players like Jaren Jackson Jr. (21 years old), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (22), Bam Adebayo, Brandon Ingram, and Jayson Tatum (all 23). This is far from the whole list.
Once we get past the incredible Luka Doncic and Trae Young (need I explain?), here are five players I guess will be difference makers, with great odds to compete for titles in 2025-2026:
Seventy-seven players ended the 2020-21 season at age 21 or younger. It’s a fascinating and promising list. These are the players who will be peaking in five years. No surprise, Zion is the most likely MVP candidate from the bunch. We have said it before, but it’s truer than ever: Zion is as unique a player as anyone we have seen enter the NBA. Magic. Bird. Jordan. LeBron. Giannis. Each represented a type of player heretofore unseen. Likewise, Zion’s overwhelming athleticism and power, his zeal to utilize both weapons every chance he gets, and his imposing frame combine to ensure he will have a starring role in the league through the next decade plus. When considering Zion’s future, though, we need to project his blossoming skills in the evolving NBA game. Zion is built to be a power forward but he has the ball handling skills, quickness, craft, and feel of a diminutive guard. There’s a reason “Point Zion” is a phrase we hear often now. It’s fair to assume that new coach Willie Green will explore every possible way to fully unlock Zion’s offensive game to include some point duties. It’ll be a thrill ride.
Giannis just did some important work that informs Zion’s path. Even in the era of the 3-pointer, Giannis destroyed the Finals without reliable long-range shooting. He pulverized the Suns in the paint, after doing similar things to the Hawks. Interesting. Zion isn’t as tall or long as the reigning Finals MVP, but he is every bit as effective. Teams know he has little interest in taking 3s, having attempted just 48 in his two abbreviated (injuries and Covid) seasons. But they can’t stop him from getting to the rim, or keep him from scoring when he gets there.
Seventy percent of Zion’s shots last season came from within three feet of the rim, the most prized real estate on a basketball court. And he made seventy percent of those shots. Some basic math applications indicate that means a full 49 percent of the times Zion shoots in an NBA game he is making a layup. This is mind-blowing. Joel Embiid is the world’s best interior big man right now, and he gets just 21 percent of his shots inside of three feet. It’s Zion’s handle and quickness that allow him to score like water. And only Embiid and Giannis shoot more free throws a game. He is an astounding offensive force.
Milwaukee’s adjusted-on-the-fly playoff offense became a paint-focused wrecking ball and a blueprint for Zion. If he ends up able to shoot 3s, great. If not, let’s go.
He hasn’t yet been an overwhelming and consistent defensive force. The good news for whatever team he is on is that it’s likely. All those athletic gifts that fuel his offense work on defense too. He has a “feel” for what opponents might try to do against him in space. He finished in the 77th percentile on dunksandthrees.com for his defense this past season, and contested as many 3s as anyone.
Zion is built to be a two-way superstar and has a Shaq-like mindset to dominate. Most NBA players need to be in the right system with the right strategy and a good roster to reach their potential. Not Zion. He will be an All-Star every year with the Pelicans now, should he one day decide he wants to be somewhere else, he will be a star there too. By 2025-2026, Zion will be fighting for titles.
Russell Westbrook has long been the most athletic point guard in basketball history. Morant isn’t at his level, but he’s not far off. He isn’t quite as powerfully built as Westbrook either, but he likely has the edge in quickness and overall feel as a point guard at the same age. Even without a ton of skill, Morant would be a force. But at 21, he is already supremely skilled.
Thirty points, eight assists, and five rebounds a game against Utah Jazz playoff defense is eye-opening.
Morant “walked the path” towards stardom with a five-game series loss that included a 47-point outburst that drew the above tweet from LeBron James. That he could do it without a reliable 3-point shot speaks volumes about his talent on offense.
Morant has a Damian Lillard-like coolness, an organic authenticity that entices teammates and earns respect. He could have played at any big-time school but chose Murray State. Cool. Nobody can stay in front of him, yet he took only 15 shots a game last season. Luka took 20 in his second year. Did you notice Ja Morant in rapt attention watching Grizzlies’ summer league games these past two weeks? Just a few of those players will see court time with him, but he’s there. Very cool.
Oh, and he’s fearless. More than a few times against the Jazz, he went right at Rudy Gobert and scored, sometimes hanging in the air for a few beats longer than normal, other times just powering up over him, or using his excellent “craft” tools to finish with floaters or quick scoops from the second box.
Morant can get so much better and likely will. His handle is sick, but not “best in class.” He made 30 percent of his 3s last season, and was a poor defender. His lack of size and relatively slight build will make it tough for him to be anything beyond average on defense. His offensive game, though, can propel him into the short list of the game’s best. Morant also benefits from how the Grizzlies are operating these days, amassing high-potential young talent and peppering in some veterans. There’s a ton to like about Jaren Jackson Jr. and Kyle Anderson. 2021 d10th overall pick Zaire Williams has a chance to become a perfect partner to Morant by the middle of the decade.
Before he was ever in the NBA, I had a phone call with Tyrese Maxey and his father. They were looking for thoughts on the NBA draft process, and an evaluation of his game.
I told him that I thought he played like Kyle Lowry. I did not get the impression he liked hearing that. Lowry is a “six-foot nothing” below-the-rim guard who was a late first-round pick. Maxey was a prized recruit coming out of high school after he led the NIKE 17U EYBL League in scoring, outpacing numerous players now in the NBA. Forced to play off the ball in his one season at Kentucky, Maxey still hoped to be a high lottery pick. (I’m sure he’d have preferred a comparison to Dame Lillard or a young Derrick Rose.)
But there’s magical relentless winning energy in Lowry. I told him Lowry would retire having earned more than $200 million. That seemed to strike a nerve.
Maxey fell to the 21st pick, just three slots higher than Lowry a decade and a half earlier. If that pissed Maxey off we could never tell, because he always “plays angry” to my eyes, with a confidence and a swagger that perhaps he shouldn’t have just yet. I love it.
Recently, Randy Foye was asked about Lowry after Miami had just signed Kyle to a $90 million contract over three years. Foye, a former lottery pick who played with Lowry at Villanova, remembered what he thought of him when the team there first met up. He was surprised at just how confident this small and relatively heavy freshman was. No description better fits Lowry—he’s made a fortune off that confidence and what it comes with. Wins.
We will always have to wonder what Lowry might have done with NBA size and athleticism. And that’s where Maxey comes in. No one could say he had a great, or even good, rookie season for the Sixers, coming off the bench for 15 minutes a game for the East’s top seed. His metrics are poor and his shooting numbers don’t give off a confident vibe either—hitting just 30 percent from 3.
Dig deeper, though: Maxey scored 18.8 points per 36 minutes, fourth among all rookie guards behind Anthony Edwards (21.7), Immanuel Quickley (21.2), and LaMelo Ball (19.7). Maxey (46.5 percent) had a better field goal percentage than they did and was the only one playing with the pressure of contending.
Then, in the playoffs, we all saw a glimpse of what he will be. Facing elimination in Game 6 in Atlanta, Ben Simmons picked up three early fouls. It didn’t look good for the 76ers. Then Maxey breathed life into his teammates the way Lowry has done so often in his long career. In 29 minutes, he scored 16 points, grabbed seven rebounds, and didn’t have a turnover, helping his team survive to Game 7 at home. Surprisingly, perhaps, he went back to his more mundane role in that game, took just two shots in 14 minutes, and watched his Sixers lose. Importantly, though, his 16 points in that first elimination game was more than what Simmons scored in Games 6 and 7 combined—part of why most insiders believe Simmons won’t be on the Sixers team for long.
Maxey may not be either. A Simmons trade could easily include Maxey, there isn’t a team who wouldn’t want him. He is a high-level scorer who one day should be a good defender, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be a good 3-point shooter either, in part because of his 87 percent shooting from the free throw line. Lowry was a terrible 3-point shooter for four years. He’s been an excellent, if not elite, 3-point shooter in most of the next 11 seasons. Lowry didn’t make his first All-Star game until he was 28. It’s going to take a while, but just as Lowry and Jrue Holiday (drafted 16th) helped turn their teams into champions, Maxey has the right mentality.
Coach Popovich praises rookies about as often as rains drench the desert. There’s a lot of talk about “learning how to play” or “when the game slows down for him he will be better off.”
“Just a wonderful guy?” That’s a WOW statement from one of the NBA’s most respected voices.
Back before the pandemic, I got to see Vassell practice twice. Not much to go on, but what was obvious was that he loves to play so much he can’t stop smiling. Or hugging. Coaches and teammates were the targets of his love. Only later did I see he was a likely top 14 selection, which made his bubbly energy more meaningful.
On the court he reminded me of Reggie Miller in size, build, and the ability to get clean looks over good defenders. Vassell shoots his jumpers slightly behind his head, with his arms extended. He has narrow shoulders, which could help him in an interesting way. His wingspan is listed at 6-10. But I’d guess his arms are longer than most players with a wingspan that size. Sleeve length, as it were, is more valuable in getting your hands where they need to be. He also has a great sense for when to shoot his shot in traffic, a gift that is limited to special scorers.
There is one big problem though when projecting Vassell to be a huge difference maker in 2025—he is actually not a great scorer. And hasn’t been. Lightly recruited until Florida State saw more in him than any other school had previously, Vassell excelled in a system that more closely resembles what Dean Smith had at North Carolina than anything else. That is, TEAM first basketball where players can excel but rarely put up monster stat sheets. The joke in the early 80’s was “the only person who can hold down Michael Jordan was Dean Smith.” Vassell averaged just 13 points per game in college. As a Spur, playing behind five veteran guards, he never managed 20 points in a game.
Vassell played two games in the Salt Lake City Summer League and led the league in scoring. He shot poorly, but what I loved about it was his shot attempts—47 in two games (only making 17). Then he went 6-16 for 23 points in his only full appearance in Vegas.
Guys like Kevin Durant and LaMelo Ball have been slinging shots up their entire playing career—this is new for Vassell. He’s going to have to learn how to be a dominant scorer, or learn that he can’t be one and be more of a shooting specialist. The Spurs—who once turned defender Kawhi Leonard into a top-shelf NBA scorer—were wise to let him “ball out” and see what happens. I’d try it all season. As presently constructed, the Spurs won’t be a playoff team. Barring a trade for Ben Simmons or similar, let’s see just what Vassell can do. I think he’s going to be a high-level scorer in a few years, and a 38+ percent 3-point shooter in a season or two. At least.
And he can be one of the top wing defenders in the league. So, All-Star potential in a high character, coachable, fun-to-play-with young man. If the Sixers did a Simmons deal with the Spurs you can be sure they’d fight to get Vassell included, just as the Spurs would try to keep him. Either way, in 2025-2026 and beyond, my bet is Vassell will be part of conversations about which teams are poised to win.
Shooting skill is the NBA’s ultimate challenge. I teach it and I respect it. I know how much better young players can get at it—but I also know the enormous hours of work it takes. It is tempting and common for a successful player not to put in that work. Why fix something that’s not broken?
The dream player, though, can honestly assess his situation and work to improve even while other things are working. (Imagine if young Dwyane Wade had mastered the 3!) It’s in that context that I have grown incredibly excited about RJ Barrett’s prospects. He has the humility to improve even while he’s doing well. That unlocks a hell of a future.
Barrett has been “best in class” for years. He was ranked first in the 2019 class before reclassifying to 2018 and retaining that ranking. That’s a ranking above Zion Williamson, who was drafted ahead of him (as was Ja Morant). The NBA issue for Barrett: not a mind-blowing athlete or shooter. At 31 percent from 3 and 67 percent from the line in his only college season, and without crazy highlight reel dunks there, he was lucky not to be drafted lower.
As a rookie he played to lower expectations, a non-shooting wing who was rather ordinary at everything. At 32 percent from 3 and 61 percent from the line, Barrett was tough to project as an NBA force. At dunksandthrees.com he ranked in the bottom ninth percentile in Estimated Plus Minus, bottom seven on defense. A year prior, Duke’s Marvin Bagley III went second overall in the draft (ahead of Trae Young and Luka Doncic) and as of today has very little value to NBA executives. This is a long way from being ranked top overall in the class.
But WOW. We profiled the answer back in April. Barrett turned into one of the league's best shooters. In fact, among all of the “volume” deep shooters for the final third of the season, players who averaged at least four 3s per game, Barrett was a top-ten shooter, making 45.3 percent. For the season he was at 40 percent, the number where “elite” begins. His free-throw shooting jumped too, to 75 percent, as his scoring average improved from 14.3 to 17.6 points per game. The Knicks were one of the league's best defenses, and Barrett was a big part of their story, ranking in the top 28th percentile by season’s end in defensive EPM. He is younger than multiple lottery picks from the 2021 draft, and 18 months older than the youngest player drafted. In other words, he still has enormous upside, and now can do so knowing he’s a two-way performer with a knack for using hard work to add skills that matter.
Now it’s a cinch to picture him as the leading scorer on a contender. Three things that are well within his wheelhouse would make him a 20 point-per-game scorer:
Improve his ball handling.
Master the art of beasting smaller wings and guards.
Get to the free throw line more.
I’m excited for his future for a different reason. He isn’t the typical lottery pick who gets better at what he was already good at. He added a whole new level of skill before his 21st birthday. When a top-three pick does that, it does things to a team’s culture. Barrett will become a core piece not just on the court in New York but off of it too. The Knicks and their fans have waited breathlessly for a star free agent to save them. Barrett may just be their best magnet, a guy who wanted to be there in the first place and who exhibits what winning is all about.
OTHER PLAYERS TO LOVE IN 2025-2026
LaMelo Ball made 35 percent of his 3s last season, solid though not spectacular, but given his passing and rebounding gifts it’s a big deal. Dialing that in changes his prospects significantly.
Patrick Williams is the closest thing to Kawhi Leonard in the league. He’d be on the list above if the Bulls had not offered a big deal to DeMar DeRozan. With Zach LaVine there too, it’s hard to project just what will happen there.
James Wiseman is one of my favorite prospects. But there are too many questions right now to bet on his future. How injured will he be, will the Warriors build around him “down the road” alongside lottery picks Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody? Or is he going to be traded for more immediate help?
Anthony Edwards is an elite scorer—and that’s it for now. All the potential in the world, but does his franchise have what it takes to bring out the best in him?
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, we messed up where Ja Morant went to college. Argh! We hate to make mistakes like that! He went to Murray State. Go Racers.
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