NBArank: These stars are knocking on the top 10 door

NBArank is back for its 12th season counting down the best players in the league.

Where are MVP candidates such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic? What about rookies and young stars ready to take the leap into the upper tier of NBA players?

Where is LeBron James, who is entering his 20th season?

To get the final NBArank prediction, we asked our expert panel to vote on pairs of players: LeBron vs. Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry vs. Ja Morant, Luka vs. Jayson Tatum … and the list goes on.

We asked, “Which player will be better in 2022-23?” Voters had to predict what they expected from each player during the season.

We’ve already revealed players Nos. 100-26. Today, our rankings continue with players Nos. 25-11.

Note: ESPN’s NBArank panel, composed of over 200 reporters, editors, producers and analysts, were asked to rank players based on their predicted contributions — quality and quantity — for the 2022-23 season only.

NBArank 2022: Zion, Russ and players Nos. 100-26

No. 25: Anthony Edwards

Minnesota Timberwolves | SF

2021 NBArank: No. 52

Swing skill: Pull-up 3-point shooting. Much of Edwards’ development will be tied to his 3-point shot. As a rookie, Edwards attempted 7.2 per game — most ever by a qualified first-year player — but made just 33% of them. That improved to 36% in Year 2 as Edwards ranked 14th in made 3s. Edwards was strong on catch-and-shoot attempts (41% accuracy, per NBA Advanced Stats) but must still improve off-the-dribble 3s, which he hit at a 32.5% clip.

One huge question for 2022-23: How quickly will Edwards develop? Clearly, expectations are running high. Edwards ranks ahead of players who were All-Stars and even All-NBA picks a year ago. Edwards wasn’t that good as a sophomore, but his rapid development from low-efficiency scorer to one whose true shooting percentage (.560) was nearly league average was promising. If Edwards takes the leap we’re anticipating, an All-Star nod and Most Improved Player honors are within reach at age 21.

— Kevin Pelton

No. 24: Donovan Mitchell

Cleveland Cavaliers | SG

2021 NBArank: No. 18

New face in a new place: The Cavs paid a steep price to acquire Mitchell, a three-time All-Star, to add him as part of their four-man core of players 26 and under. Now Mitchell will be out to prove that he can be a difference-maker and help the Cavs take the next step.

One game to watch: Dec. 4 at New York. Knicks fans believed they were the team to land Mitchell before the Cavs swooped in this summer. The New York native visits MSG for the first time since the deal.

— Jamal Collier

No. 23: Bam Adebayo

Miami Heat | C

2021 NBArank: No. 21

Why he could exceed his ranking in 2022-23: One of the biggest knocks on Adebayo’s game is a sometimes inconsistent offense, especially on a team that lacks a true second star alongside Jimmy Butler. Adebayo averaged a career-high 19.1 points per game in the regular season but 14.8 points per game over 18 postseason contests. Miami could get over the hump in the East if Adebayo adds to a game that has been defined more by defense and rebounding through the first five seasons of his career.

One huge question for 2022-23: Adebayo is a max player, an Olympic gold medalist and has helped carry the Heat to the Eastern Conference finals in two of the past three seasons — but can he develop his offensive presence more to not only take more pressure off of Butler, but the rest of a Heat offense that stalled out at times in the postseason? If he does, the Heat should be near the top of the East again.

— Nick Friedell

No. 22: Jaylen Brown

Boston Celtics | SG

2021 NBArank: No. 27

Why he could exceed his ranking in 2022-23: Brown has yet to make an All-NBA team in his career. But if the Celtics can follow through on preseason expectations and finish the season with the best record in the East, Brown will all but certainly get the credit of both being in the All-NBA conversation and moving up these rankings.

One huge question for 2022-23: Can Brown improve as a playmaker and ball handler? That’s been something coach Ime Udoka has stressed both he and Jayson Tatum need to do since Udoka arrived last summer. But over the final three rounds of the playoffs, Brown averaged more than three turnovers per game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Heat and Golden State Warriors. For Boston to take that final step toward a championship, Brown needs to have to improve in those moments.

— Tim Bontemps

No. 21: Chris Paul

Phoenix Suns | PG

2021 NBArank: No. 13

One huge question for 2022-23: Did the Mavericks series signal the end of Paul’s dominant days? The “Point God” was diminished against Dallas, averaging just 8.8 points, 6.3 assists, 2.8 turnovers and 4.0 fouls in Games 4 through 7, as the Suns’ playoff run ended in the second round. At 37 and entering his 18th season, the clock is running against him.

Why he could exceed his ranking in 2022-23: Count out CP3 at your own risk. Remember when ESPN BPI gave the Oklahoma City Thunder just a 0.2% chance of making the playoffs in Paul’s lone season with the franchise and he led them to a 44-38 record and Game 7 in the first round against the Houston Rockets?

— Dave McMenamin

No. 20: Anthony Davis

Los Angeles Lakers | PF

2021 NBArank: No. 9

One game to watch: Oct. 18 at Golden State. The Lakers go north to play the defending champs on ring night, and it will be the first chance for Laker Nation to see how Davis’ course corrects after a disappointing stretch following the 2020 title. One game does not a season make, but the Dubs game is as good of a time as ever for Davis to reintroduce himself as one of the game’s most dominant two-way talents.

Why he could exceed his ranking in 2022-23: Davis missed 78 of the Lakers’ 154 games the past two seasons because of various injuries. Just by virtue of some good health and some good luck, Davis can and should impact winning the way he did in his first season in L.A. when the Lakers won it all.

— McMenamin

No. 19: Bradley Beal

Washington Wizards | SG

2021 NBArank: No. 11

Why he could exceed his ranking in 2022-23: Beal had a season to forget, averaging 23.2 points per game in 40 games before undergoing season-ending surgery on his left wrist. But that doesn’t mean people should forget what Beal can do. He averaged 30.5 points and 31.3 points per game in the previous two seasons and will have more talent and depth around him, including new point guard Monte Morris.

One huge question for 2022-23: How will Beal and Kristaps Porzingis fit together? Now that Beal is staying in D.C. to the tune of $251 million, the Wizards are hoping that he and Porzingis will get them back to the postseason. Beal has no problem with playmaking, dishing a career-high 6.6 assists last season before his wrist injury. If Beal and Porzingis can stay healthy — it’s a big if — Washington could be in the playoff hunt again.

— Ohm Youngmisuk

No. 18: Rudy Gobert

Minnesota Timberwolves | C

2021 NBArank: No. 25

New face in a new place: After spending the first nine years of his career in Utah, Gobert moved to Minnesota in a blockbuster trade that pairs him with Karl-Anthony Towns, a fellow All-Star big man with a completely different skill set. It will be fascinating to see how coach Chris Finch utilizes Gobert, a premier screener and finisher, and enhances the scoring ability of Towns and Anthony Edwards instead of clogging the Timberwolves’ spacing.

Swing skill: “The Stifle Tower” is a defensive system unto himself. Gobert’s arrival directly addresses two of the Timberwolves’ biggest weaknesses: rim protection and defensive rebounding. Opponents made 64.2% of defended field goals within six feet against the Timberwolves last season, which tied for seventh worst in the league. Gobert (50.7% last season) is annually among the stingiest rim protectors. Only the Nets had a lower defensive rebounding rate than the Timberwolves (70.6), while Gobert had the league’s highest individual defensive rebounding rate (36.3).

— Tim MacMahon

No. 17: Jimmy Butler

Miami Heat | SF

2021 NBArank: No. 16

Swing skill: Toughness. Butler’s career has been defined in part by his ability to perform at a high level no matter what lingering injury he is dealing with but at age 33 it remains to be seen if all the minutes he has logged since coming into the league in the 2011-12 season have taken a toll. Butler has played in just 109 out of a possible 154 games over the past two seasons.

One huge question for 2022-23: Can Butler come close to the postseason run he produced last season? If one more 3-pointer had gone down late in Game 7 of the 2021 Eastern Conference finals, Butler likely would have carried the Heat to the Finals for the second time in three seasons. Butler polished off one of the strongest postseason runs in Heat history, averaging 27.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists in 17 postseason games, including an unbelievable run in the ECF which featured a memorable 47-point, nine-rebound, eight-assist, four-steal performance in Game 6.

— Friedell

No. 16: Trae Young

Atlanta Hawks | PG

2021 NBArank: No. 17

One game to watch: Dec. 7 at New York. Trae loves the Garden. The Garden? Well, the fans there feel a certain way about Trae. Any time Young plays at MSG, it’s going to be must-see TV. Young only played there once last season, missing a Christmas Day game because of health and safety protocols, but he dropped 45 in a 117-111 Atlanta victory.

One huge question for 2022-23: How much will Dejounte Murray’s presence help Young? Murray gives the Hawks one of the best secondary ball handlers in the league and will ease some of the burden on Young for a team that is looking to bounce back after a disappointing 2021-22 season. Young’s efficiency took a jump last season and could take another one this season alongside Murray.

— Andrew Lopez

No. 15: Paul George

LA Clippers | SF

2021 NBArank: No. 12

Why he could exceed his ranking in 2022-23: It was a rough season for George, who tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow last December, came back in late March for six games but missed the second play-in game due to COVID-19. Prior to the elbow injury, George averaged 25.4 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists in the month of November, carrying the Clippers without Kawhi Leonard. When Leonard returns, George won’t have to face as much defensive attention on what will be the deepest roster the Clippers have had since the two teamed up in the summer of 2019.

One huge question for 2022-23: Is this the year the Clippers finally win the West? This is Year 4 for the George-Leonard partnership, and it has yet to play one full uninterrupted season and postseason together. Coach Tyronn Lue hopes he will have both of his stars healthy and clicking come playoff time.

— Youngmisuk

No. 14: Damian Lillard

Portland Trail Blazers | PG

2021 NBArank: No. 8

Why he could exceed his ranking in 2022-23: Lillard was six spots higher a year ago before being limited to 29 underwhelming games by a core muscle injury that ultimately required season-ending surgery. Lillard’s numbers dropped across the board in 2021-22, most notably his 32% accuracy from 3-point range after hitting better than 39% the previous two seasons. Lillard had been playing through pain for years until the injury worsened after the Tokyo Olympics. But he should be healthy now.

One huge question for 2022-23: How will Anfernee Simons fit with Lillard? During his absence, Lillard saw a changing of the guard next to him. Portland traded longtime backcourt mate CJ McCollum and re-signed Simons to a four-year, $100 million deal that confirms him as McCollum’s replacement. Lillard and Simons played together just 377 minutes last season, per NBA Advanced Stats, and Simons was more deferential in those pairings. The Blazers need Simons to be the scoring and playmaking complement to Lillard that McCollum long was.

— Pelton

No. 13: Karl-Anthony Towns

Minnesota Timberwolves | C

2021 NBArank: No. 24

Swing skill: Whether Towns is really the greatest shooting big man of all time, as he declared ahead of last year’s 3-point contest win to the dismay of Dirk Nowitzki fans, depends on the definition. Although Nowitzki was more versatile, in terms of 3-point shooting, the answer is yes. Last season was Towns’ fourth with at least 100 3s on 40% shooting or better, twice as many as Nowitzki or anyone else taller than 6-foot-10.

One huge question for 2022-23: Can Towns defend power forwards? Offensively, Towns’ shooting ability should make the addition of Gobert a relatively seamless one. The questions are more at the defensive end, where Towns had settled in at center after toggling between the two frontcourt spots. Per Second Spectrum tracking data, 71% of Towns’ half-court matchups last season were against a player who primarily played center. Now he’ll have little choice but to chase smaller, quicker forwards around the perimeter.

— Pelton

No. 12: Kawhi Leonard

LA Clippers | SF

2021 NBArank: NR

Why he could exceed his ranking in 2022-23: Leonard hasn’t played since suffering a partial ACL tear in the second round of the 2020-21 playoffs. But when healthy, the two-time Finals MVP is a top-five player. If he can regain his form and stay healthy, Leonard can return to being one of the best in the game.

One huge question for 2022-23: How will Leonard look once he returns? The Clippers have given no timetable for his return and little intel on Leonard. With 11 of their 15 back-to-backs taking place before February, the Clippers will have to keep an eye on Leonard’s workload. Leonard plays with power and strength, and the Clippers have to make sure their star is healthy and at his strongest for the postseason.

— Youngmisuk

No. 11: James Harden

Philadelphia 76ers | PG

2021 NBArank: No. 10

One game to watch: Nov. 22 at Philadelphia. After Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving came to Philadelphia and demolished Harden and the 76ers while Ben Simmons watched in street clothes, the first game between the two teams in Philadelphia will get just as much attention to see how Harden plays this time around.

One huge question for 2022-23: Will the real Harden please stand up? After a summer full of videos of Harden’s dedication of working out and preparing for the upcoming campaign, all eyes will be on The Beard in order to see if his MVP form can return, or if the version who wasn’t given serious All-NBA consideration is here to stay.

— Bontemps

NBArank 2022: Players Nos. 100-26 | Nos. 25-11 | Nos. 10-6 (coming Thursday) | Nos. 5-1 (coming Friday).

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