Column: Who will be the next face of the NBA?


Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Lebron James has been the face of the NBA, but is nearing the twilight of his career.

Adam Goldsboro, Multimedia Editor

LeBron James is 35 years old and is still the best player in the league. But how much longer can he really last?

In recent years James has been taking entire quarters off on defense, and he takes numerous “load management” days where he will not play. Much to James’ credit, he has missed very few games due to injuries over his 17 seasons. 

He spends over a million dollars a year to keep his body in premier shape for the playoffs, but Father Time comes for every athlete eventually. 

The league has several options to replace James as the face of the NBA. But first, here are some players who are superstars but who will not be the face of the league.

The most popular option is the Milwaukee Bucks’ “Greek Freak,” Giannis Antetokounmpo. His game is exciting to watch, with his monster dunks, demoralizing blocks, and dominant statistics. 

Also, Antetokounmpo won the league’s MVP Award last season over James and other superstars, and he was the favorite to win the award again this season before COVID-19 stopped all games. 

Antetokounmpo is a one of the league’s best players and will be a Hall of Famer, but he plays in small-market Milwaukee and has said he has no plans to leave. In addition, his name is too hard to pronounce, which may seem unimportant, but marketing is a huge aspect of determining the next face of the NBA.   

Average Americans know who James is even if they have never watched a single NBA game, but almost nobody outside of Wisconsin knows who Antetokounmpo is unless they are basketball fans. The “Greek Freak” nickname can only go so far. 

Next comes the Los Angeles Clippers’ franchise player, Kawhi Leonard. Leonard is an enigma among NBA superstars as he is almost silent — to the point that a video of him laughing became a viral meme because he sounded like a robot.  

Many speculate that his quietness dates back to when his father was murdered when he was 16. 

Leonard is also one of the five best players in the league, helping the Toronto Raptors win their first-ever championship against the Warriors last season. Leonard also proved himself by helping the legendary San Antonio Spurs and Gregg Popovich defeat James and Dwayne Wade when he was only in his first couple seasons. 

Overall, Leonard has nothing left to prove as a player. But he is already at the peak of his career and is more of a rival to James than the next face of the NBA. Plus, he plays in Los Angeles but not on the Lakers, and he is too reserved to carry the league. 

Zion Williamson, Luka Doncic and Ja Morant, however, are all in their freshman or sophomore seasons.

Most of America has heard of Williamson by now with his viral dunks and blocks at Duke and his selection as the first draft pick by the New Orleans Pelicans. Williamson is another freak of nature, standing 6’5 and weighing 284 pounds. For perspective, that makes him the third-heaviest player in the league. 

Complementing Williamson’s athletic dominance is his feel for the game and ability to make plays for other people. Williamson uses his strength to make fast passes and set great picks for his guards. The kid also has a decent jump shot, as shown when he made 24 threes in 33 games in college.

That shooting skill will take some time to master in the NBA, but he has the confidence to take two or three open threes a game, which will help him master his shooting. 

Lastly, Williamson has wow factor similar to James and a catchy first name. 

However, many players and experts agree that it is not healthy for Williamson to play at 284 pounds. He already had an injury in his first season and a scare at Duke. If Williamson is not careful, he could turn out like Derrick Rose. 

The Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic is the reigning rookie of the year and has taken the league by storm over his first two seasons. As opposed to Williamson, Doncic is not athletic, but he is a tall guard who played professional basketball in Europe when he was 16.

When Doncic started his first season, many players and commentators were shocked at how advanced his skill and technique were. He was hitting players with moves some that 10-year veterans did not know how to pull off. 

Doncic’s wow factor is based on his skill and knowledge of the game. Doncic will throw a no-look pass and the crowd has to take a second to even recognize what happened. 

Also in Donic’s favor is his shooting ability. His skill for breaking opponents down with clever but simple movements ensures he gets a lot of space to perform his almost signature half-step back threes. 

Mark Cuban, his team’s owner, also is a big name in sports, so he will draw attention to and help market Doncic. And just like all faces of the league through the years, Doncic has a simple, recognizable name — Luka.

Perhaps the most unpopular name on this list is the Memphis Grizzlies’ Ja Morant.

Morant is similar to both Williamson and Doncic because he has very good athleticism for a guard, and he has a large amount of skill and grace, similar to Doncic.

Morant’s shortcoming is that he is not as athletic as Williamson, nor is he as skilled as Doncic. What plays into Morant’s favor is his insatiable hunger to get better and his relatability. 

Morant played on the same AAU team as Williiamson in high school but was not that good. He was always in the shadows of Williamson and his teammates. 

So Morant left the team and worked hard to get a scholarship to Murray State. There, Morant became the best player in Murray State history and set records.  And unlike many rookies, Morant played in college for two years instead of one. 

Morant has constantly been getting better since college and has the work ethic to catch up to his competition and maybe even surpass them.

Morant’s relatability comes from his backstory and the fact that he was not some prodigy, like Williamson and Doncic were. He was not born with the genetics to have muscles like a running back or the ability to jump like an Olympic high-jumper.

He was not lucky enough to play professional basketball at 16 or blessed with being 6’7.

The best comparison for Morant is Steph Curry, who has a very similar appeal. They both look like the average person.

Morant is not the most talented out of the young players, but he may end up being the face of the league one day.