No professional sports league relies as heavily on a “face” of the league as much as the NBA.
Since the NBA/ABA merger before the 1976-77 season, the league has had five “faces” of the league. Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James have all fulfilled that key role admirably.
While Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal were great enough to fill that role, they fell short of having the impenetrable brand of the aforementioned quintet.
The current “face” of the NBA is its best player, LeBron James. At 36 and in phenomenal shape, he should continue in that role for three to four more years. At that point, who will take over the crown from “The King”? There are several candidates, but one that checks many, if not all, of the boxes to be the next “face” of the NBA.
Let’s remember, James will continue to be that guy for the next several years. So, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, James Harden, or any player in their early 30’s need not apply.
In three years the debate for best player in the league may come down to Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, or Joel Embiid. Not to sound xenophobic, but it is highly unlikely that a foreign-born player can be the league’s next “face”.
The two most likely candidates are a rookie and a second-year player, who have the game and nearly as importantly the personality and charisma.
Again, I am foreshadowing to 2024-2025.
LaMelo Ball has surprised many with his wide range of skills in his rookie season with the Charlotte Hornets. Ball is averaging 15.9 points, 6 rebounds, 6.2 assists, and 1.6 steals in 28.8 minutes per game. Ball is shooting a respectable 38% from 3 point range.
What makes Ball appealing is that he will not turn twenty years old until August. In addition, Ball plays with a flair and joy that translate well to younger fans. The Hornets are a surprising 20-20 and are positioned to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since the 2015-16 season.
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Ball is my long-shot special to be the next “face” of the league. My “chalk” selection is none other than Zion Williamson.
In his second season, Zion has emerged as an all-star, putting up 25.6 points, 7 rebounds, and 3.5 assists in 32.7 minutes per game, while shooting 62 percent from the field.
The former Duke star hasn’t developed his three-point game but is scoring more points per game in the restricted area than any player in the league.
In addition to being a burgeoning superstar as a player, Zion has the personality, smile, and exciting style of play to cross over and bring non-traditional basketball fans into the NBA’s expanding tent.
The 6’7” 285-pound powerhouse, who doesn’t turn 21 until July, has made New Orleans relevant with the Pelicans being very popular on the league’s national television broadcasts.
Winning titles is important, but not essential to becoming the “face” of the league.
While Bird and Magic won immediately, Erving and Jordan were in their 7th season when they won their first championship. LeBron won his first title in his 9th season. However, it is imperative that Zion’s team begins to contend and make deep playoff runs. He has time on his side.
John Sapochetti is co-host of three podcasts heard on Full Press Radio:
-The Pick & Roll NBA Podcast With Jet & Sap
-The Sap & Kat Show
-The Get Off My Lawn Podcast With Keegan & Sap
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