ESPN is releasing their rankings for every player in the NBA, and the ranking of every player on the Hornets is officially up.
Frank Berndt and I decided to focus on the team's top three players according to the list. The players should come as a surprise to no one: Lance Stephenson, Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker. But did the experts get the players' rankings right? Are they under- or overrated at all?
Kemba Walker – Ranked 61 (up from 80 last year)
Frank Berndt: Last season was a mixed bag for Kemba Walker, with plenty of good and a fair amount of bad. Improving assists per game in every month from November to April, which is good. Shooting 39 percent from the floor while taking 15.7 shots per game, however, is bad. At 61 in ESPN.com’s NBA Rank, the ESPN Forecast Panel is predicting a pretty solid year for Walker. He’s ranked above fellow floor generals Jrue Holiday (ranked 68), Isaiah Thomas (67), and Jeff Teague (64). One could easily argue that Teague and Thomas had better seasons last year and that at least Teague stands to replicate or build upon that season, while Thomas might struggle to put up similar numbers off the bench in Phoenix.
Above Walker on the list are Deron Williams (55), Ty Lawson (45) and Eric Bledsoe (41). If injuries are removed from the equation, it’s hard to see Walker ranked above any of those point guards. However, Walker has missed nine total games since high school, so that sort of durability should be factored into the equation. Still, it is impossible to argue Walker over Lawson, who has put up the sort of stats Walker should be working to obtain (at least 16 points, 6.5 assists, on at least 55 percent True Shooting over the last three years).
Although ESPN.com does not provide rank by position, based upon who has been ranked and who remains to be ranked, it appears Walker is the 15th point guard on the list. In my opinion, that is a little too high. Until he proves he can consistently be efficient from the field while also being a consistent facilitator, it is hard to consider Walker that valuable. Hopefully this season he puts it all together.
Russell Varner: Personally, I think 15th-best point guard sounds about right for Kemba. I don’t see how you could rank Kemba above Deron Williams, Ty Lawson or Eric Bledsore below him, as you said. And yes, his shooting percentages from the floor also need to improve.
But this is the same Kemba Walker that, along with the aforementioned improving assist numbers throughout the season, finished ninth among point guards in points per game (17.7), fifth in rebounds per game among point guards (4.2) — tied for second with Stephen Curry for defensive rebounds per game (3.7) — and 12th in free throw percentage among point guards (83.7%). On top on that, he also had nine double-doubles last year, which is more than Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Mike Conley and Deron Williams.
Kemba seems to be able to do a little bit of everything. Once he gets those shooting percentages up, watch out.
Lance Stephenson – Ranked 50 (up from 121 last year)
RV: Talk about a breakout season. Lance Stephenson had one of the biggest jumps in the player rankings, rising 71 spots from his 2013 spot. By now, I’m sure everyone in and around the Charlotte area knows what Stephenson brings to the table, so we don’t really need to talk much about that. He is one of those players that you have to take the good (such as his league-high five triple-doubles last season and his passion for the game) with the bad (such as some of his antics during the Pacers-Heat playoff series last season and his passion for the game).
After a very good 2013-2014 campaign, ESPN seems to have ranked Stephenson as around the 10th-best shooting guard in the league, at least by my estimation. He ranks above the likes of Joe Johnson (59), Manu Ginobili (56) and Monta Ellis (53), but trails Bradley Beal (48), Gordon Hayward (47) and Kobe Bryant (40) at the position. That seems about right in my eyes, perhaps even a spot or two low. Stephenson is a solid, but inconsistent offensive and defensive threat. I think that his versatility and dual threat ability rightfully put him above Johnson and Ginobili, though I feel one could make an argument for the more consistent Ellis. I could also make an argument to put Stephenson ahead of Beal and Hayward based on Lance’s ceiling compared to those two players.
Players like Stephenson are hard to rank in something like this because they are such unknowns. They can be so good and can change an entire game by themselves because of their great play, or because they let their emotions get the better of them and do something dumb. He and Kemba Walker could form the best ballhandling backcourt in the league and his defensive numbers last year were outstanding — he was third in defensive rating and second in defensive win shares among shooting guards. Hopefully he matures this season and becomes the third star we all hope he will be for the team.
FB: Can’t disagree much about this. The one thing that sets Lance’s ranking in jeopardy is his usage. He only finished 19 percent of Indiana’s possessions last year and through four preseason games he’s only finished 20 percent of Charlotte’s. If his usage had to go up — say Walker was injured — could he maintain the efficiency that made him so valuable last year?
Al Jefferson – (Ranked 22, up from 52 last year)
FB: Coming in as the top ranked Charlotte Hornet, Big Al made a sizeable jump in the rankings this year. The rapid rise from 52 to 22 isn’t surprising considering not only his offensive production last year (21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game), but also his ability to help anchor a top defensive unit, something many thought impossible. Jefferson will likely credit coach Steve Clifford for his success on both sides of the floor, as the offense was designed around him and the defense schemed to limit his weaknesses.
The folks at ESPN provided two great stats in their ranking as well.
"Al Jefferson led the NBA with 11.0 post-up points per game last season and was second in the NBA with 13.5 paint points per game.
-- ESPN Stats & Information(@ESPNStatsInfo)"
There’s no real doubt that Jefferson is an elite scoring option down low, but if he really wants to increase his impact, he’ll have to continue to improve defensively and also look to share the ball more. The attention he requires down low creates space and opportunities for teammates. It’s critical for coach Clifford and Jefferson to take advantage of that and help make the Hornets a more dynamic offense this year.
As it stands, Jefferson was ranked ahead of Serge Ibaka (25), Al Horford (26), and Andre Drummond (30). Although Ibaka is a power forward in most lineups for the Oklahoma City Thunder, he could play center and be great for a ton of teams. Looking at those three guys, I might argue Ibaka is more valuable, and if healthy, Horford might have an argument too. However, Jefferson is rightly placed over Drummond, who is still a low usage player dependent on teammates and offensive rebound opportunities for scoring.
Looking below Jefferson in the rankings, it seems there are four players yet to be ranked in Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah, and Demarcus Cousins. And if you’re among those that count Tim Duncan as a center, he was ranked one spot ahead of Jefferson at 21. Personally, I think that Al Jefferson could potentially be a top-five center again this year, so being ranked as the sixth-best center in the league by ESPN seems fair. However, considering how few minutes Tim Duncan is likely to play this year, I’ll vote that 22 is one spot too low.
RV: It’s nice to see a player in Charlotte get the respect they deserve and not get overlooked just because they play in a smaller market. Jefferson arguably has the best low post moves in the league and is one of the few true centers left in basketball.
I want to argue with you so that this becomes more interesting, but it is really hard to complain about Jefferson being ranked as the 6th-best center and 22nd-best player in the league. He has already established himself as one of, if not the best player in the brief history of the Bobcats, and would probably be among the finalists for best player if you included the former Hornets franchise into the conversation as well.
The biggest problem with Jefferson is not his defense in my opinion, but if he can stay healthy. He has had plenty of wear and tear on his body throughout his 10-year NBA career and had two separate injuries last season. As he goes, so the Hornets go. If the team loses him, they could be in trouble. I feel as if he has a reputation around the league as being injury-prone, so perhaps that also played in his ranking?
I agree that Jefferson should be a top-five center and should be placed above Duncan in the rankings. While Duncan is still a solid player, Jefferson had more points per game, rebounds per game, and a higher free throw percentage and PER than the Spurs’ star. I think the Spurs’ success as a team may be why he is ranked above Big Al.
It is hard to rank Jefferson above Howard, Gasol, Noah or Cousins. There is a name I would probably rank Jefferson above that has yet to be mentioned: Chris Bosh, another player who falls into the ‘Is he a 4 or a 5’ conversation. Bosh was announced as the 20th-best player in the league, which is surprising to me since he hasn’t done much in the shadows of Lebron James and Dwyane Wade since taking his talents to South Beach. I’m guessing it was Bosh’s offensive versatility that led him to be ranked higher, but I think that is a mistake. Why don’t we switch him and Big Al, ESPN?
What do you think? Were the players ranked too high, too low or just right? Should any other Hornets have made the Top 100?