Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Five future MVP types to keep an eye on ...

Quintet of youngsters draw lofty praise from NBA executives, scouts

The future.

It’s not something most in the NBA ponder during the intense heat of a late-season playoff push.

Everything is compartmentalized. You’re trying to win the next possession, the next quarter, the next game. Anything beyond what’s right in front of you cannot claim your focus.

The Draft lottery, the playoffs, awards season, the 2019 Draft, free agency … everything has its time and place on the NBA calendar.

But what if we looked into the future, and not to just the summer of 2019, but three, four or five years from now?

What does the landscape look like? Who takes over for the current generation of superstars? Are they even on our radar right now?

I posed those questions to two NBA executives, one from each conference, two advance scouts and one college scout in search of a picture of what the future of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder might look like five years from now.

Surely, we’ll have some familiar faces, current stars entering the primes of their careers who will no doubt remain relevant in the MVP conversation. Guys like Giannis Antentokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis and Ben Simmons – all leaders of the new school of superstars.

But who are the budding superstars with the right combination of star power and status – i.e., guys on teams whose team success could accelerate things – and quickly rise the Kia MVP ranks?

Here are the five players who garnered the most mention from our future MVP panel:

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz: An undersized but powerful dynamo, Mitchell’s uniquely positioned to make the move into the MVP ranks in the future. That’s based as much on his own individual brilliance and offensive skill as it is his headlining a team that could be a contender soon.

“He’s got a skill-set that will allow him to be a high-level dictator of outcomes for his team on a regular basis,” said an Eastern Conference executive. “Go back and look at the way he played against [Houston] in the playoffs last season. That’s what MVP candidates in our league do when the lights are brightest. He went toe-to-toe with James [Harden] in that series as a rookie. The better shooter he becomes, the more difficult he’ll be to stop. Because he’s already a nightmare matchup because he plays so much bigger than his actual size. His competitive drive is off the charts and the framework they’ve provided in Utah is rock-solid. He’s a great fit there.”

Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks: He knows a little something about this MVP business, having already earned some serious hardware before his breakout rookie season with the Mavericks. But how will he and Kristaps Porzingis fit in the coming years? And will he continue to thrive with another elite young talent requiring the ball to be effective?

“The thing about his game that sets him apart is that he’s got the skills to be just as good on or off the ball,” a Western Conference advance scout said. “If he was just a scorer and had to survive on that alone, I don’t know that he’d be nearly as dangerous. He’s going to be a triple-double threat with his size, playmaking ability and feel for the game. He came in with a polish that takes years for some guys to put on their game, if they ever do. But it all depends on the chemistry he and KP develop. If it works, he’ll be a monster for years to come.”

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics: The talent logjam in Boston could be alleviated this summer, via trades and/or free agency, giving Tatum a clear path to assume the superstar role some think he’s destined for with the Celtics. That is, of course, if he’s not a part of the offseason player movement.

“I’ve pounded the table about this for years, since I first scouted him at Duke. He has the most translatable offensive skill-set for the league of any prospect I’ve scouted the past five years,” said a college scout for an Eastern Conference team. “You either have the physical tools or you don’t. The size, the basketball IQ and the understanding of how to attack his defender … he’s got advanced level stuff in that regard. KD [Kevin Durant] was the same way at roughly this same stage of his career and drove himself to greatness with a work ethic that’s second to none. If Tatum has that same kind of drive in him — and I don’t know if he does, but I’ve heard great things about the kid — he’s your guy.”

De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings: Fox is the pilot for a Sacramento team that could be ready for takeoff in the next season or two and the best two-way player on this list. He’s also one of the fastest players in the league and an underrated athlete who has already shown signs of 20-10 potential.

“I love him. Absolutely love his game and how hard he goes,” said a Western Conference executive. “End to end, he’s got the kind of acceleration that only a couple of guys in the league can match, like Russ [Westbrook] and John [Wall] showed early on. That’s sort of speed, and the ability to control games with tempo, is a game changer when utilized properly. He’s a much better shooter now than I thought possible after seeing him as a rookie. But he’s worked at it. He’s got so much room to grow, physically and just his game overall. And he’s already a guy you have to account for when you prepare for the Kings. Like I said, I love the kid. He just plays with the right spirit.”

Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks: Those lofty Stephen Curry comparisons that accompanied Young into the league seemed so far-fetched early on this season, when the rookie point guard struggled with his shot and his niche. His late-season surge of high-scoring, high-assist performances has added some credence to the idea that Young could be the leader of a Warriors-inspired revival in Atlanta.

“It was easy to take advantage of him early on because he wasn’t strong enough to do much of anything against guys at his position,” an Eastern Conference advance scout said. “To his credit, he figured out how to create situations he could take advantage of to get it done. I still cringe at some of the shots he takes. But, and hear me out on this, his best skill isn’t his shooting. The thing that will make him is his ability to drill you in the pick and roll with his passing. He masters that and his shooting, his ability to generate offense for himself and his team goes off the charts. I think he’s a next-level passer more than anything. To me, that’s what sets his game apart.”

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The top five this week in the 2018-19 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

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1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week: No. 2

Season stats: 27.1 points, 12.6 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.4 blocks

In Thursday night’s rout of the Indiana Pacers, Antetokounmpo reminded anyone that hasn’t paid close attention just how difficult it will be to deal with his Bucks at home in the playoffs. His supporting cast is filled with shooters who possess the length and athleticism to accentuate all that he brings in coach Mike Budenholzer’s attack. Any lingering doubts about the Bucks’ validity as the league’s best team this (regular) season should have been silenced weeks ago. Antetokounmpo’s been good enough on his own to inspire Bucks fans to dream big in regards to what this season can bring. The in-season additions of both Nikola Mirotic and now Pau Gasol have fortified the roster with even more length, shooting and championship-level seasoning. “The Greek Freak,” fellow All-Star Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon and Eric Bledsoe are providing the frontline star power needed to power any team harboring championship ambitions. It’s clear that the Bucks fancy themselves a championship-ready outfit, given their willingness to go all-in for 2018-19.

2. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week: No. 1

Season stats: 36.7 points, 7.5 assists, 6.5 rebounds, 2.2 steals

Harden shows no signs of letting up, which works for both his MVP candidacy as well as the Rockets’ goal of climbing as high as they can in the West. Harden’s special season continues with a Friday night visit from the Philadelphia 76ers (8 ET, ESPN), yet another showcase opportunity for the reigning Kia MVP against an elite East opponent. Harden dials up some of his best for the biggest games. And the Rockets are measuring themselves against all of the other contenders down the stretch. The Sixers’ size and length will provide some intriguing challenges for Harden, who is scoring at a slightly higher clip (37.2 ppg) since the All-Star break than he was before it (36.6 ppg). The Miami Heat (58 points), Boston Celtics (42) and Toronto Raptors (35) have all found out just how difficult it is to deal with Harden recently. The Rockets’ enter the weekend with the league’s longest current win streak (six games), but more importantly with the momentum that has propelled them just outside the top three in the West.

3. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

Last week: No. 3

Season stats: 28.6 points 8.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 2.3 steals

George is still trying to work his way back into a groove after missing three straight games with that sore right shoulder. He’s struggled with his shot (15-for-48 from the floor, 5-for-24 from deep) in his two games back but has rescued himself with a sparkling effort from the foul line (23-for-27). His all-around work in the Thunder’s overtime win in Portland on Thursday, however, is the true measure of what George consistently brings to OKC. His 32 points, 14 rebounds, six assists and three steals in 43 minutes were critical as he and Russell Westbrook (37 points, seven rebounds and three assists) offset a monstrous 51-point night from Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard. George and the Thunder will keep Lillard and the Blazers (along with Harden and the Rockets as well) in their sights as they continue to jockey for the No. 3 spot. As long as George keeps up his elite-level work on both ends of the floor, the Thunder should be considered a true to threat in the West.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 5

Season stats: 28.3 points, 5.2 assists, 5.2 rebounds, 1.3 steals

Curry and the Warriors are in a strange place for a two-time defending champion that sits atop the West heading into tonight’s matchup against Denver (10:30 ET, ESPN). They actually appear to be vulnerable, having lost three of their last four games. In fact, the Warriors have suffered the worst home loss of the Steve Kerr era against Boston Tuesday night. That’s why you should expect to see Curry and Co. at their best against a Nuggets team that presents a direct challenge to their hold on the No. 1 spot out West. Whatever issues the Warriors have now, there is plenty of time to fix them between now and the playoffs. Curry’s own assessment — that the Warriors are “struggling” only in the context of the extremely lofty expectations they have for themselves — makes perfect sense. The Warriors have had to play against themselves in theory the past few seasons. The Rockets provided external pressure last season, both in taking the No. 1 spot out West and in hosting the West finals. If the memory of facing a 3-2 deficit and having to win Game 7 on the road isn’t motivation enough, perhaps a late-season race with the Nuggets will do the trick this time for Curry’s crew.

5. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Last week: No. 4

Season stats: 20.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 1.4 steals

It’s showdown time for Jokic and the Nuggets, who face the Warriors at Oracle Arena tonight. If the Nuggets are serious about owning the West’s No. 1 spot, then there’s no better time to make that statement. The Nuggets lost three straight before Wednesday’s win against the Los Angeles Lakers. A head-to-head win over the Warriors not only bolsters the case for the No. 1 spot, it also provides some confidence for any potential playoff matchup. Jokic, of course, is plenty confident in himself during what is truly a breakout season. The fourth-year big man is not only in the thick of the MVP chase, but is also on course to post career highs in several categories. He’s also a lock for All-NBA honors, and could be a first-team selection. The timing couldn’t have been better for Nuggets coach Mike Malone. He needed someone to serve as the backbone for what he was building in Denver … and he found it in Jokic.

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The Next Five

6. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

7. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

8. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

9. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

10. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

And five more: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers; LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers; D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets; Karl-Anthony Towns; Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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