40. Gordon Hayward
What a remarkable journey Gordon Hayward has had. Coming off his first All-Star appearance in 2017, averaging 22 points and leading the Jazz to the second round of the playoffs, it seemed his best days were yet to come. That summer he signed with Brad Stevens, his former Butler coach and coach of the first-seeded Boston Celtics, a team fresh off a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. Then, on October 17, 2017, just five minutes into the season, Hayward suffered one of the most gruesome injuries in NBA history — a horrific leg injury that would become synonymous with his name. At the time, the question was not whether he would return to his All-Star form; the question was — will Gordon Hayward ever play basketball again? Almost three years later, he has defied all odds and has continued to prove his critics wrong. Hayward may be the most well-rounded, yet undervalued, player in the league. He is able to score from all three levels on the floor. Gordon is level-headed, plays unselfish basketball, and always makes the right pass, all traits that make him an experienced playmaker. He is also an underrated defender who rebounds very well for his position. This season, Hayward, as the fourth option, has quietly averaged 17, 7, and 4. Shooting over 50% from the field, 39% from three, and 85% from the charity stripe, Hayward was close to joining the exclusive 50, 40, 90 club. He had one of his best games ever November 5 against the Cavaliers, a career-high 39 points, seven rebounds, and eight assists, all while making an incredibly efficient 85% of his shots. It’s easy to look at Hayward as a shadow of the All-Star player he once was, but there is more to the story of his journey than stats. As the best player on the team, Gordon ran the Jazz offense, was their top scorer, and asserted himself as the team leader. In Boston, that is no longer his role. On a more talented Celtics team, he can apply his skills as needed to help secure a win. This year, Hayward has proven that his proficiency and level of play are on par with his earlier performance in Utah. Gordon Hayward is the X factor and could be the difference between the Celtics being a second-round exit or making a deep playoff run.
39. Blake Griffin
Blake Griffin came into the league as an athletic freak and, over the course of his career, has effectively rounded out his game to fit into today’s NBA. His evolution and adaptability have enabled him to expand his skill set to include an array of abilities. Griffin’s improved shooting and adroit passing led him to have a career year in 2018–19 with the Detroit Pistons, averaging 25 points, eight rebounds, and five assists. A nagging knee injury prevented Blake from having a strong finish to an exemplary season and also kept him from playing early in the next. The lack of consistent play has likely contributed to his post-injury numbers taking a dip in the 18 games he played in the 2019–20 season. Blake’s injury history is a reason for concern; he has played 70 or more games in only four of the ten seasons he’s been in the league. Griffin recently underwent another season-ending surgery on the same knee in early January of 2020. When he’s fully healthy and consistently on the floor, there is no denying his impact. Blake Griffin’s unmistakable talent and Hall of Fame worthy career outweigh his unfortunate string of injuries — without them, we can only imagine how much more success he would have had.
38. Ja Morant
Ja Morant has star potential written all over him. Seldom do you see a point guard transition so smoothly from college to the NBA. In 2019, the Grizzlies finished 12th in the Western Conference with a record of 33–49. Ja has propelled the Grizzlies to the eighth seed this season, and, since his arrival, has generated an exciting young culture in Memphis. With 17 games left, the Grizzlies would have surpassed their 2018–19 win total, having already achieved 32 wins before the league suspension. A 20-year-old rookie beating out experienced teams like the Trail Blazers and leading his team to the playoffs in the grueling Western Conference is quite a feat. This is a kid who leaves it all on the court. With the poise of a seasoned veteran, Morant plays at his own pace, controlling the tempo rather than allowing it to control him. He has the utmost confidence in his game, never shying away from the big moment. Ja is a floor general with a high basketball IQ and electric athleticism that allows him to slash to the basket and handle the ball with a deft touch. Morant’s outstanding season had him favored as Rookie of the Year over Zion Williamson. If Ja can continue to develop his skills and stay healthy, the sky’s the limit. On a team that is only going to get better, Ja Morant is well-positioned to win for years to come.
37. Zion Williamson
(New Orleans Pelicans)
There is no disputing that Zion Williamson aces the eye test. Even though he’s only played 19 games for the Pelicans, that’s enough to see just how special Zion is. No athlete since LeBron James has generated this level of excitement upon entering the league. Despite fans having to wait an extra three months to see him play, Williamson has not only lived up to the hype, he’s exceeded it. Before his debut on January 22, the Pelicans were 17–27, 12th in the West, seemingly out of playoff contention. The addition of Zion — the Zion effect — catapulted New Orleans to only a handful of games away from the 8th seed. As the cornerstone of the Pelicans moving forward, he has one of the highest, if not the highest, ceiling of any rising star in the league. Williamson brings a dynamic energy to the game and possesses an eye-catching magnetism that is impossible to ignore; ratings soar when Zion is on TV. He is able to move quickly for the 285-pound juggernaut that he is. Williamson’s unique combination of footwork and sheer power helps him bulldoze his way through defenders to the basket. Zion’s vertical is such a valuable asset to his game, not just for catching lobs and creating highlight reels, but also for blocking shots, grabbing offensive rebounds, and slamming down putbacks. Lonzo Ball complements Zion’s game perfectly, setting him up with precise lobs that Williamson capitalizes on by always being in the right position. Both of these young stars have impeccable timing, which has enabled Zion to make a whopping 59% of his shots. His durability is questionable; however, if Zion Williamson can stay relatively healthy throughout his career, he has the potential to be one of the most celebrated and accomplished players of his generation.
36. Victor Oladipo
Victor Oladipo was just starting to hit his stride before the NBA season was suspended indefinitely. After suffering a knee injury in early January of 2019, the former Most Improved Player of the year returned to basketball on January 29, 2020 — more than a year later. Before his injury, he had cemented himself as one of the best two-way players in the league with his excellent defensive timing. Originally part of the Thunder-Pacers trade that sent Paul George to Oklahoma City, Indiana fans were pleasantly surprised when Oladipo jumped from being a 16 to a 23 point per game scorer. That postseason, averaging 23, 8, and 6, he took LeBron James’ Cavaliers to seven games in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. In his 2020 season debut, Oladipo had an immediate impact, making a game-tying three-pointer to send the game to overtime, resulting in an eventual victory. Although his numbers have been down in the 13 games since the injury, in his most recent appearance, he had 27 points, seven rebounds, and four assists in a close loss to the Celtics. Victor recently turned down the Pacers’ contract extension, likely in the hope of receiving a max contract. Oladipo is a two-time NBA All-Star, with All-NBA Third Team and All-Defensive First Team honors; nevertheless, the Pacers and other franchises need to wait and see if he can return to his former All-Star self before offering him the max. The current break could provide Oladipo with the time to get back in shape and fully healthy for the start of the playoffs. If Victor Oladipo can muster a version similar to his 2017–18 self, The Pacers could finally make some noise in the playoffs and advance to the second round.