Three players poised for Western Conference stardom in 2017-18

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith

With 50 or so days to go until the 2017-18 NBA season begins, it’s time to continue dreaming of what might be in the NBA in the months to come. With that in mind, we’ve got three players in the Western Conference who could make the turn to superstardom.

Three players poised for Eastern Conference stardom in 2017-18

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Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

If NBA front office types could get a do-over on the 2015 Draft, Booker would be a top-three pick based on what he’s accomplished so far in a Suns uniform. Few understood how well his skills would translate to the next level after he spent one season as the sixth-man on a star-studded Kentucky team. But in a league where shooting and scoring is at a premium, Booker is the closest thing to a Splash Brother not named Curry or Thompson. And his third season in Phoenix should prove to be a true opportunity for the sweet-shooting swingman to assert himself as not only a marquee attraction on a team on the rise but also as a leader.

Booker already has a 70-point scoring game on his resume and he’s already shown a far more polished overall game than anyone saw coming. Sure, his shot selection has to continue to improve and he’ll need to stay in the lab on his defensive principles. But there isn’t a more explosive perimeter scoring threat his age (20) in the league. And if he makes the same sort of improvement that he made from his rookie season to his second year, we’re talking about a player who could easily get into the mix for a scoring title this season. If there is any wonder what his value is around the league right now, know that there was a reason he was deemed off limits in any trade talks for Kyrie Irving.

Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

A healthy heaping of supersized expectations will greet Towns and the rest of the new-look Timberwolves next month when training camps kick off around the league. But the external expectations for Towns this season can’t come close to what the league’s best young big man has for himself. (Joel Embiid might have the most promise but Towns is currently the best, by far.)

Towns has never been shy about his ambition and after two excellent seasons in Minnesota, he’s poised to take the next step in his evolution by helping the Timberwolves get back into the playoff mix. With veterans Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford and Taj Gibson all in the fold, the second year in Tom Thibodeau’s system should be much smoother for Towns and the rest of the team’s youngsters. Towns is a walking double-double (25.1 points, 12.3 rebounds) capable of stretching the floor (37 percent from beyond the 3-point line) on one end of the floor and rim protecting (1.3 blocks) on the other.

Any tug of war for touches between Towns, Butler and Andrew Wiggins will have to be sorted out by Thibodeau. Just know that the number of 7-footers capable of dominating the way Towns can when he’s locked in remains an extremely small group. Muscling his way into the frontcourt All-Star mix in a loaded Western Conference will be tough. Towns, though, seems up to the task.

Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

The signs were there from the start, when Jokic made first-team All-Rookie in 2016 (he was a 2014 Draft pick). Last season, however, was the big reveal. Jokic, already a superb passer and rebounder, showed himself to be a conduit for the rest of the Nuggets. The organization decided to trade another promising young big (Jusuf Nurkic to Portland) to free up minutes to speed up Jokic’s development and it worked wonders. Jokic became the orchestrator Mike Malone could run his offense through when needed.

And it translated into triple-doubles and Jokic averaging 19.8 points, 11.2 rebounds and 5.8 assists from Christmas through the end of the Nuggets’ season; Russell Westbrook eliminated them from playoff contention with a buzzer beater on the final Sunday of the regular season. With the free agent addition of veteran All-Star Paul MIllsap to watch his back, Jokic and the Nuggets could have their playoff position locked up before the final week this time around. They are by no means a postseason lock in a revamped Western Conference that should go 11-deep this season. With a frontcourt tandem like Millsap and Jokic, the Nuggets have a nucleus that serves as the perfect foundation for what Malone is molding in the Mile High City.

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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