There’s a treat in Memphis on Wednesday and it has nothing to do with barbecue or the blues. The Hornets are in town to meet the Grizzlies (8 ET, NBA League Pass), which means those lucky enough to attend will get served a double-scoop of hoop pleasure: Ja Morant and LaMelo Ball on the same floor.
They haven’t even reached 23 years old and yet both are already household names and highlight fixtures. NBA League Pass wasn’t invented for them but it explains them. Morant is amazingly fluid on the fast break, especially if he’s finishing at the rim. Ball is much the same when he’s throwing the pass that finishes the play.
They both happen to be point guards, which means this, on paper, is a matchup that will find its way often on social media and video snippets.
The good news for the NBA? The league’s best young point guards aren’t confined to one arena. There are a handful of players in this group who are poised for a takeover, if not today, then soon enough. The future beyond Chris Paul — who curiously comes to Memphis on Friday — looks pretty good.
Here are 10 next-generation point guards, in no specific order, who are dropping hints right now that this could be a season of growth, if not a breakout season, for them:
LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets: All signs are mainly positive as the reigning Kia Rookie of the Year tries to top himself. He’s more of an assertive scorer (20.4 points per game) while still finding the time to entertain with passes in the open floor. From an offensive standpoint, Ball is putting himself in position to eventually become a dangerous player who completely wrecks the other team’s gameplan. His decision-making needs to sharpen and his defense could use more polishing even though he’s averaging almost two steals a game. Overall, he’s right where the Hornets need him to be at this stage.
Lonzo Ball, Chicago Bulls: He has only topped 15 points in a game once this season, and that won’t increase by much on a team with DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nicola Vucevic. That’s fine with the Bulls … they only want him to hit the long shot when left open (he’s now at a career-high 40.9%), find his teammates with precise passes and play good defense. Since the Bulls are winning with the addition of Ball and definitely improved over last season, that’s all that matters, right? It’s possible he’ll raise his numbers across the board as he becomes more familiar with the system and his teammates.
Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies: Is anyone else in the league making a star-turn as big as Morant? Everything is enhanced here in his third season, where he’s quickly becoming a true franchise player — meaning, he has box-office appeal plus the ability to elevate a team in the standings. Players like him are special in that regard and so hard to find. He has the chance to be among the league leaders in scoring and assists, and the wow-factor is off the charts. Nobody has yet to explain how Morant, despite weighing 175 pounds, can constantly challenge bigger players and dunk with authority.
Darius Garland, Cleveland Cavaliers: The less-heralded young point guard on the Cavs was having a splendid start and praised for his leadership even before Collin Sexton went down a few days ago with a knee injury. But now? The Cavs will lean on Garland even more as he takes the next step in his development. He’s shooting more than 40% from deep, averaging 7.6 assists per game and quickly learning the tendencies of his teammates. First among them is likely center Jarrett Allen, who’s getting lobs from Garland and becoming a far better offensive option than anyone believed.
Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks: He’s wrestling with struggles from the 3-point line (33.3%) — which should rectify itself — and also reduced trips to the free-throw line while adjusting to the new rules that don’t favor his style of drawing fouls. That said, Young is too good a talent to stay stagnant for long. Remember, he started slowly in each of his previous regular seasons and those turned out well. Perhaps the biggest sign of respect is how defenses are being devised to stop his flow.
Cole Anthony, Orlando Magic: There’s no bigger surprise on this list, and yet he belongs. Consider that the Magic have two other quality young point guards who arrived as higher Draft picks — No. 1 overall Markelle Fultz and No. 5 Jalen Suggs — yet the ball belongs to Anthony. His playmaking and production is high and when he’s off the floor, the Magic suffer offensively. In victories this month, Anthony has gone for 33 points against the Jazz, along with 31 points, nine rebounds and eight assists against the Timberwolves. He should keep his minutes if not his starting job whenever Fultz returns from knee surgery.
Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks: That was a massive fallaway, buzzer-beating, game-winning bucket he dropped last Saturday on the Celtics. Although, it wasn’t much of a surprise coming from Doncic, whose late-game composure is becoming reputation-building. Now that he has secured the rookie max extension and made All-NBA, the next obvious stage for Doncic is to enter Kia MVP talk. That seems like a sure thing this season, especially if he keeps the Mavericks near the top in the West, a heady assignment for a player who doesn’t have a strong No. 2 star in the rotation.
De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings: Sacramento is a patient basketball town, which is a necessary trait when your team hasn’t made the playoffs since the George W. Bush administration. So the fans will refrain from howling at Fox for now. His shooting, especially from deep (20.4%), is cause for some alarm and his presence in games is a bit less visible than last season. That said, it’s early, and Fox has the necessary tools to recover. Here’s what’s interesting: If Fox finds his next gear pretty soon and elevates his play, he might convince the Sixers to pull the trigger on a possible Ben Simmons deal.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder: The shot he made from the Lakers’ logo at Staples Center, which sealed L.A.’s loss to OKC last week, was just a snippet of what SGA is doing after signing a max contract extension in the offseason. The Thunder handed him the loot for this very reason. For a developing OKC team that will lose plenty this season, he’s the best part of the club by far. He’ll just be touching his prime when OKC adds more help in the future.
Dejounte Murray, San Antonio Spurs: With DeMar DeRozan gone and the Spurs needing a No. 1 option and a closer, Murray has been nominated and so far, so good. His uptick on the offensive end is a solid development for the Spurs, who lack a superstar in the rotation, and it has made Murray a more complete player. Until this season, his best contributions came on the defense. He’s still a pest in that regard with quick hands and superb one-on-one tactics. It’s just that Murray, now averaging seven points higher (17.6 ppg) than his career average (10.4 ppg), can be counted on at the other end, too.
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