There’s more going on in basketball than the Warriors’ slow march to another title. This week—and probably another week sometime in the future—we take a look around the league to spotlight what we’re calling “League Pass Legends.” These are exciting players—ranging from stars to role players—who don’t play for the league’s TV darlings (Lakers, OKC, Houston) or high-profile title contenders (Golden State, Cleveland, Boston, San Antonio). All ten of these guys are worth watching, and we’d hate for you to miss out on their hardwood heroics just because they don’t play with KD or Lebron.
To be fair, the Sixers are stacked with guys who could just as easily have made this list (Dario Saric, Robert Covington, national treasure Joel Embiid), but limiting Philly to just one rep, it’s got to be Ben Simmons. Imagine if rookie Magic Johnson was an inch taller, had longer arms, ran faster, jumped higher, and played better defense… that’s Ben Simmons. Yes, yes, I know, blasphemy. But… are you SURE it’s blasphemy? Rookie Simmons is putting up better rebounds and assists than rookie Magic did, and just about the same scoring… and he’s doing it without passing to Kareem, even.
We all made a big deal of it last season when Westbrook averaged a triple double, and rightly so, but Simmons has a puncher’s chance of doing it as a rookie. Putting aside improbable statistical milestones and comparisons to All-NBA level PGs, Simmons is just a blast to watch; inventive, explosive, and unpredictable. He’s got passing instincts most All-Stars would kill for, nevermind rookies, and the hops and length for some truly highlight-worthy dunking.
His game still has a long way to grow—for one thing, he can’t really shoot. So far he’s getting by on the fact that he’s bigger and/or faster than anyone who tries to guard him, but if he ever adds a jumper—and sharpens his defense—the kid’s probably an MVP contender. In the meantime, he’s merely one of the most watchable stars in a league full of them, and the most astonishing rookie since Lebron James.
Boogie’s sneakily been one of the two best centers in basketball (along with Marc Gasol) for the better part of a decade, but nobody really noticed because 1) he was playing for a really bad Kings team, and 2) he was a bit of a headcase. That’s a shame, because the Sacramento version of Cousins was an impossibly talented big man who could pass, shoot, rebound, and generally do whatever he wanted on the court.
The New Orleans version would kick that guy’s ass. Cousins has cleaned up his defense, kept his head on his shoulders, added a respectable three point shot, and upped his scoring, passing, and rebounding numbers all to career high levels. You’d think playing alongside an elite rebounder like Anthony Davis would dent his numbers, but so far they’re coexisting beautifully on the boards, with Demarcus ranking third in the league and Davis fifth. If Cousins keeps up his current averages of 28.2 points, 13.8 boards, and 5.8 assists (never mind 1.7 steals and 1.8 blocks) for the rest of the season—or even anything particularly close—he’ll be the first player in NBA history to do it. That’s how good he’s been.
But his record-setting numbers aren’t why you should watch him. Not only is he the most physically dominating center we’ve had since Shaq—he’s not as big as Shaq but he’s still bigger than everybody else, and he shares Shaq’s underrated touch around the rim—he’s also one of the best passing bigs in league history. On top of that, he’s a 6’11 ballplayer who drives like a 6’6 forward, with an explosive first step and fancy dribble moves. Watching Cousins when he’s feeling it is like watching Danny Granger’s brain in Dwight Howard’s body.
Speaking of improved brains in impossible bodies, the one guy in the league more physically imposing than Cousins is Pistons center Andre Drummond, who seems to similarly have fixed just about everything that ailed him. Drummond’s currently leading the league in rebounds—not a first for him—but what’s really impressive is the way he’s fine-tuned every other part of his game.
He’s more than tripled his career assist average, for starters. The addition of Avery Bradley—a strong spot-up shooter and elite cutter—may have something to do with that, but it doesn’t matter how open you get if the passer doesn’t hit you, and Drummond’s been hitting them. He’s also seemingly fixed his free throw shooting (up about 25% from last season) and abandoned his inefficient post-up game in favor of setting immovable object screens for his guards and rolling to the rim like a freight train that dunks.
Drummond’s unique combo of height (6’11), length (a pterodactyl-esque 8’0 wingspan), and hops (33.5’’ vertical leap) makes him a triple-threat terror above the rim. We’ve covered the rebounding, but he’s also a killer lob finisher. His shot blocking numbers aren’t mind-blowing, but that’s mostly because he’s such an imposing rim deterrent that guys aren’t willing to try him all that often.
Watching Drummond Godzilla his way through the paint has been one of the most fun parts of Detroit’s surprising early season surge, and it doesn’t look like he’s liable to stop breathing atomic fire anytime soon.
Defensive superstars tend to get overlooked, especially when they play in the backcourt, but man is Patrick Beverley fun. He’s been easily the league’s best defensive point guard for a few seasons now—he guards his man so close I’m pretty sure he can taste what they had for breakfast—but he’s only recently started getting his due.
Part of that is a burgeoning offensive game—he showed off his passing skills last year in Houston, and he’s upped his scoring this season in Los Angeles. He’s also a surprisingly explosive dunker and a microwave scorer who can suddenly go off for three triples in a row at any moment. But mostly he’s finally getting attention because he lives to start some…stuff.
Beverley has memorably gotten under the skin of a dozen NBA point guards (most recently ruining Lonzo Ball’s NBA debut in a noble but ultimately ill-fated attempted to shut Lavar up). He’s especially reviled by OKC fans for taking out Westbrook’s knee in the 2013 playoffs, and taking out Westbrook’s efficiency—such as it is—in the 2017 playoffs. It’s easier to list the star guards who haven’t been frustrated by Beverley’s climb-inside-you approach to defense: they all play in Europe.
For his part, Beverley seems to revel in the heel role, and walks into every arena with as much confidence as anybody. Currently delighting in an increased offensive role in LAC, Beverley continues to play the league’s most aggressive and effective defense, and he’s an absolute must-watch for hardcore fans who appreciate great screen-slipping, hedging, and ball denial.
Not much is going right lately for the Chicago Bulls; they lost their best player (Jimmy Butler), their big star acquisition of 2016 (Dwyane Wade), and their best point guard (Rajon Rondo) within a few weeks of each other, and their second-best returning power forward punched their best returning power forward in the face, leaving one injured and the other suspended.
There is one bit of good news, though: neither is the current best power forward. That title belongs to sweet-shooting Finnish rookie Lauri Markkanen , currently knocking down 38% of his three in an offense that can’t create any space for him to do it. With great size (7’0) and high, quick release it almost doesn’t matter if he’s covered or not. Add in a way-ahead-of-the-rookie-curve stepback jumper, and Lauri can get his shot off pretty much whenever he wants.
Beyond his shooting, Markkanen’s also proven to be a better rebounder, defender, and finisher than anyone expected. He can even put the ball on the floor a bit, which naturally only adds to his Dirk Nowitzki Jr. reputation. How good he ultimately gets remains to be seen, but for now he’s an insanely entertaining flamethrower on an otherwise bummer of a Bulls team.
Plus, his nickname is “The Finnisher,” which is just fantastic.
Giannis almost didn’t make the list, because he’s playing so well his Bucks might just be an actual title contender after all… but a recent skid keeps him technically eligible for this column for now. That said, Giannis is the presumptive MVP of the league at this early stage in the season, and if you don’t already know you should be watching him, this article probably can’t convince you.
But, just in case: he’s a 6’11 physical anomaly who moves like he’s 6’0, somehow developed the real-world version of Inspector Gadget’s extendo arms, and has hands roughly the size of snow shovels. He can get from half-court to layup distance in about two strides, he can dunk from three feet farther from the hoop than ought to be possible, and he occasionally blocks shots with his elbow just because he can. If that’s not enough, he’s also a high-IQ and extremely unselfish player who often lines up as his team’s defacto point guard.
Oh, and he’s leading the league in scoring (31.9 ppg) while shooting 60% and putting up about 10 boards, 5 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.7 blocks.
If you don’t like watching Giannis play basketball, you don’t like watching basketball.
And speaking of MVPs… Miami point guard Goran Dragic was the MVP of this year’s Eurobasket, leading his home country and massive underdog Slovenia to the gold medal over NBA-stacked teams from Russia, Spain, and Serbia (more on them later).
Back in Miami now, he’s leading a snake-bitten team in their quest to prove that their 30-11 finish last season was no fluke. Whether or not he succeeds, he remains one of the craftiest finishers in basketball and an electrifying open-court spectacle. Consistently near the top of the league in FG% near the rim for guards, so far this season he’s shooting about 61% in that range.
He’s also draining 38% of his threes and leading his team in scoring, but what makes The Dragon such an exciting watch isn’t what he gets, but how he gets it. Lightspeed transition finishes in traffic, nutmeg assists through defenders’ legs, flame-throwing twenty-three point quarters*… Dragic isn’t merely the Heat’s best player, he’s also their most entertaining (apologies to Dion Waiters, who just barely missed this list himself).
*Note: Yes, that link is seven years old, but the writer of this column is a diehard Suns fan and needs something to feel good about. Just go with it.
Sticking with our European theme for another entry, Kings rookie Bogdan Bogdanovic has been considered one of—if not the—best players outside of the NBA for years. Now, finally, he’s in it.
His numbers so far are solid if unspectacular, but it’s Bogdan’s incredible basketball IQ that makes him so much fun to watch. Already one of the smartest passing 2s in the league as a rookie, Bogdan seems to make the right play every time he gets the ball. He’s a deadly jump shooter (though still adjusting to the NBA three point line), but he never forces it, and a surprisingly efficient finisher by dint of being patient and crafty enough to weasel even much more athletic defenders out of his way.
He’s also a ruthless opportunist on defense, making excellent use of his 6’11 wingspan and almost clairvoyant anticipation to put himself in the right place at the right time to blow up whatever the offense is up to. Bogdan’s ceiling is hard to guess—it’s always hard to tell with European rooks—but his ceiling looks something like Drazen Petrovic crossed with a more honorable Manu Ginobili (he doesn’t share Manu’s passion for floppery and cheap shots).
Alongside rookie point guard—and human equivalent of an exploding fireworks factory—De’Aaron Fox (himself a worthy candidate for this list), Bogdan gives Sacramento fans a tantalizing young backcourt that not only suggests a bright future, but guarantees an entertaining present.
Boy, has anybody ever needed a change of scenery worse than Victor Oladipo last season? Finally freed of being Russell Westbrook’s sidekick/scapegoat, Oladipo’s been allowed to handle the ball in Indiana and it’s gone pretty well for him so far; he’s added seven points to his scoring average and he’s making about ten percent more of his threes. Oh, and Indiana—the team that allegedly lost the trade—is a half-game ahead of OKC and their three headed star-beast in the standings.
Oladipo finally looks like the mini Dwyane Wade he was projected as, slashing to the rim at will, getting to the line, and making a nuisance of himself defensively. Clearly reinvigorated by getting to be, you know, part of the offense, Oladipo has Indiana playing way above expectations.
Along with fellow OKC ex-pat Domantas Sabonis and sophomore stud Myles Turner, Oladipo looks like one of the cornerstones of a way ahead of schedule Pacer rebuild; it’s easy to see this team, plus a point guard and a bench, only a few years from contending in a potentially Lebron-less Eastern Conference.
In the meantime, they’re winning games they’re supposed to be losing, and Oladipo looks like the star he was always meant to be.
Last but not least, Denver’s Serbian superstar, Nikola Jokic. Like Giannis, his team has the potential to be a little too good for him to make later versions of this list, but it’s early enough in the season—and Jokic is enough fun—that we’re ignoring that for the nonce.
Offensively, there’s nothing else quite like Jokic in the NBA. A deadly post scorer with three point range who also leads the league in no-look passes and non-Euclidean assist angles? He plays offense like somebody stapled Mehmet Okur onto Bill Walton’s back.
Defensively, well… look, Denver’s never been known for their defense, and Jokic isn’t gonna be the guy to change that. They brought in Paul Millsap to do that job—early returns are mixed but encouraging—while building a largely point guard agnostic offense around Jokic’s phantasmagorical passing game and multiple choice scoring arsenal. So far, it mostly seems to be working.
With young guards Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Emmanuel Mudiay still learning how to maximize the benefits of playing around Jokic, and Paul Millsap quickly integrating alongside his fleet-fingered big man, Denver’s heading in the right direction.
They’re already one of the most entertaining teams in the league thanks to their up-tempo style and Jokic’s Barnum & Bailey ball movement, but if they keep improving they’ll soon also be one of the most dangerous.