Last weekend, the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame (HOF) inducted its 2021 class, highlighted by Ben Wallace, the first undrafted player to enter the HOF, Chris Webber, and Paul Pierce. It was the second HOF class to be inducted in the last four months, as the 2020 class led by the late great Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett was inducted last May 15.
Judgement always seems to be passed as to whether a player’s career is deemed HOF-worthy yet the standards for doing so are changing faster than even the pace of today’s game. Despite the moving goal posts, it’s not too difficult to get a picture of which players are on track to see themselves one day in Springfield, Massachusetts in the company of their peers.
Instead of making a straight list, players were selected based on criteria that would help solidify their respective cases. Active players who are virtual HOF locks (i.e., LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Kawhi Leonard) were not included as they’ve likely done enough to secure their slots once they meet the requirements. Some of the players that will be mentioned could be locks based on certain standards, but what constitutes a HOF-worthy player is usually “to each his own”.
It’s never too early to project who in the NBA has what it takes to have a HOF-worthy career. The sporting world thrives on what-ifs and fantasy scenarios, to the point that speculation has become commonplace in games and even in barbershop talk. The players below are still in the relatively infant stages of their careers, but they’ve got lots of achievements and potential that the sky’s the limit for these guys.
Technically, Luka Doncic will be a lock because he can get the HOF nod through the international committee, but that likely won’t be necessary for a player of his caliber. Doncic has been the man for the Dallas Mavericks since day one, and the 2018-2019 Rookie of the Year has led the Mavericks to consecutive postseason appearances.
The two-time First Team All-NBA selection, however, has yet to lead his team past the first round, but this does not discount the 21-year old’s ability to do a little bit of everything to lead his team to wins. In fact, he led his team in win shares (WS) the past two seasons, with his 8.8 WS in 2019-2020 the highest since Tyson Chandler’s 10.3 in 2014-2015.
Look for him to get even better as he ages, and his performance in the Tokyo Olympics should serve as a preview of what’s to come.
Only a few players have the penchant for taking over when the situation calls for it. Jayson Tatum is one of them. Since being drafted third overall by the Boston Celtics back in the 2017 NBA Draft, Tatum has elevated his game and matured into the man for the Celtics both in the regular season and postseason.
The blueprint for Tatum is not only through his idol, Bryant, but also through another Celtic in Pierce. Both Pierce and Tatum are dangerous scorers who can perform in the clutch. They also possess athleticism (although Pierce’s is more underrated) that can help them score inside and get to the free throw line. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery and following the game’s best scorers should only bode well for Tatum.
Defense usually takes a backseat to flashier offense, but Bam Adebayo somehow makes it something to watch on loop. Take for example, his game-saving block on Jayson Tatum during Game 1 of the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals.
The Miami Heat have asked Adebayo to do a little bit of everything thanks to his abilities and the former Kentucky Wildcat has raised his game with each passing season. The call-up to Team USA was a testament to his work, but it’s the two All-Defensive selections that validate his ability to cover that side of the floor. It’s likely he’ll pick up a few more before he hangs it up.
The Ben Wallace Path
There are more than 10 players in the Naismith Memorial HOF who have career averages lower than 10 points per game. Ben Wallace (5.7 PPG), was just the latest inductee to join that distinct group and he likely won’t be the last.
Players who fall under this category usually have (cue Liam Neeson’s voice) a certain set of non-scoring skills, which they do so well that they’ve become household names just for it.
To say Draymond Green is everything but scoring would be a fair assessment. A statline of one point, 10 rebounds, eight assists, a steal, and a block would be just another regular day in the office for the former Michigan State Spartan, who knows his role in the grand scheme that is the Golden State Warriors.
While the likes of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant take up a lion’s share of the scoring, it’s Green that serves as the engine of the offense. His passes and screens open things up and make the offense more dynamic. Green’s absence is usually felt by the squad and there was no better example than in Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals, which he missed due to a suspension he was handed after “unnecessary” and “retaliatory” contact on LeBron James. The three-time All-Star may have missed just one game, but we all know how that series ended.
Despite standing at 6-foot-6, Green’s defense is another one of his strengths as he won the 2017 Defensive Player of the Year and was named to the All-Defensive team six times. His defense has also been effective on the international stage, where he followed up a quiet 2016 Olympic run with a solid defensive campaign in the 2020 Olympics that provided stability to that iteration of Team USA.
When playing against the Utah Jazz, the path to the basket more often than not runs through Rudy Gobert. He may not have been a league leader in rebounds or blocks last season, but he has consistently altered shots and offensive schemes, and that alone speaks of his influence. He may also be the only player whose defensive highlights take as much space as that of his offense.
His three Defensive Player of the Year awards and five All-Defensive selections point to why he is the standard on defense. His offensive repertoire, however, leaves a lot to be desired, as he does not have the post game of a Joel Embiid. However, it hasn’t stopped him from being a useful lob target, roll man on the pick-and-roll, and a threat on the offensive boards.
This is different from players filed under “trajectory-wise” considering that the players on this list have been in the NBA for more than five years. Among all the groups mentioned, this one contains sure-fire HOFs in the eyes of some, but questions still remain. Perhaps they’ll be answered by the time these players retire, but in the meantime, they remain on the outside looking in.
Damian Lillard has had no troubles finding regular season success, especially in the competitive Western Conference. He has consistently led his team to the postseason, missing out only once, which was during his rookie year. Deep postseason runs, however, seem to have eluded him.
Numerous factors usually outside of his control have played a part in his playoff exits and Lillard can only do so much. While critics can point to various factors, they can’t deny the value of the six-time All-Star. He has led his team in WS since 2013-2014 to the point that he is now second all-time in Portland Trail Blazers history behind the great Clyde Drexler. It’s safe to say that Lillard could finish at the top (and as the greatest Blazer of all time) once he calls it a career.
As last season’s MVP, Nikola Jokic has officially barged into the HOF conversation. His ability to do anything and at times even everything for his team has been huge, with his contributions nearly offsetting the loss of Jamal Murray earlier last season.
For Jokic, it’s all about proving that he can build on his MVP-season and the rest will follow. He plays with the flow of the game and it’s not uncommon to see him rack up triple-doubles with ease. The three-time All-Star has some well-known defensive liabilities with foul trouble spelling doom for him and his team. He has, however, made efforts to improve on that, as his 2.7 fouls per game in the regular season were his lowest since his rookie year (2.6).
Embiid is right there with Jokic when it comes to discussions on the best big men in the league. He can move like Hakeem Olajuwon and defend like the best big men of years past (of course this is when he puts mind into it). In fact, the NBA’s Player Impact Estimate, which tries to measure a player’s overall contribution, has him at the top of its list for 2020-2021, higher even than Jokic.
With Embiid, the caveat is obvious; he needs to stay healthy. Yes, he has earned some significant All-NBA and All-Defensive recognitions, but you’d want more longevity and games out of him. Doing so would not only provide the consistency that would make the Philadelphia 76ers super scary good, but it would also present him with more chances to add to his resume.
Thompson’s shooting has largely been overshadowed by Curry and that’s not a bad thing since Curry will own nearly every NBA 3-point shooting record when it’s all said and done. It does, however, make it harder to see how Thompson’s shooting is game-changing in itself.
A look at some of the league’s shooting records sees Thompson not far behind from his longtime backcourt partner and depending on how things play out, he could potentially eclipse Curry in some records.
Currently, Thompson holds the record from 3-pointers in a single game (14) and is tied with Curry for the single postseason record (98). Let’s not forget he also outscored the Sacramento Kings 37-22 back on January 23, 2015, earning the record for the most points in a single quarter.
Shooting aside, his defensive chops deserve more than the one All-Defensive nod he earned in 2018-2019, as he has taken on the opposing team’s best player. His two-way ability has earned the three-time NBA champion spots on the USA Men’s Basketball Team with whom he won gold medals in the 2014 FIBA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
There are certainly more than a handful of players who currently have HOF cases, each at varying degrees and perhaps with their pros and cons. In fact, the 2021-2022 season could see some players bolster or undermine their HOF cases. Such is the uncertainty that comes with sports.
Inductions to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame mean more to the players (and their families) themselves. It’s one of those crowning achievements that serves as one of the fruits of their blood, sweat, and tears. At this point, a lot of players have a shot at making it to Springfield, but only time will tell if this potential is realized.