What is a Generational Talent in Basketball?

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Many terms are thrown around a lot in sports, and one of them is the description “generational talent.” Ask basketball fans, “What is a general talent in basketball?” and you would probably get a different answer each time. Well, to begin with, generational talent is already an exaggeration– a hyperbole–but it is still often misused in basketball circles, especially in the conversation among fans. What, then, is a generational talent in basketball?

What is Considered a Generational Talent in BasketballWhat is Considered a Generational Talent in Basketball?

From the term alone, there should be no confusion at all what a generational talent is. A generational talent comes once in a generation, or at least, a few times in a generation. His ability, skill level, and domination are otherworldly that friends and foes alike do not have any choice but to recognize his supremacy.

Speaking of domination, a generational talent should be someone who has won championships, changed what used to be the norm for his franchise, or carried on their excellence. His supremacy should be something so rare that what he did for the game of basketball will still be talked about through generations. 

From that definition alone, All-Stars are not always generational players; it would take a bit more than talent and charisma to be considered generational. Longevity is another criterion. To be considered once in a generation talent, you have to be dominant for an extended time, possibly no less than a decade.

Today, there are many highly-skilled individuals, and the number of first-time All-stars increases every year. However, that does not make you generational if you have not proven that you can be on top of the sport’s pinnacle. Anthony Davis, Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, James Harden, and Draymond Green are examples that come to mind. 

If we go back decades and eras, some of the generational players that we can think of are George Mikan, Bill Russell, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, and Oscar Robertson in the 70s. Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, Julius Erving, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson banner the 80s. Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and Tim Duncan are some of the best in the 90s and 2000s. 

There are probably some young and old players such as Kevin Garnett or Dirk Nowitzki right there, but we will stop short of calling them generational; instead, they are, in our opinion, the progenitors of modern-day basketball unicorns. If you do not know what unicorns are, that will be a story for another day.

How Many Players Today are Generational TalentsHow Many Players Today are Generational Talents?

As we said, this is quite an interesting and controversial topic because there literally is no book and metric that decides who generational talents are. These are all takes– some that are obvious and some that are crazy– but here are the generational players currently playing in the NBA.

1. LeBron James 

Not one player today can hold LeBron’s beer when it comes to the combination of sheer physical talent, individual accomplishments, championships, and longevity. I mean, how many 35-year-olds do you know that are still elite after 17 seasons? The guy is always expanding his game for crying out loud, leading the league in assists for the first time. 

Speaking of accomplishments, The King has made an All-NBA team 15 times, was league MVP four times, won an NBA championship three times, named Finals MVP three times, and an All-Star 16 times. 

Talent, check. Championships, check. Longevity, check. And you know what the scariest part is? The man is not even done yet.

2. Steph Curry

LeBron has a lot more hardware than Steph. Still, Curry’s argument as a generational talent is the championships, MVPs, and the fact that he single-handedly ushered in a new era of basketball with his insane shooting ability.

Curry was a little late when he stepped foot in the NBA at 21 years, but during 2015-2019, the NBA was his playground. He was the only unanimous MVP selection (2015), a feat even Michael Jordan did not have. Curry is 31 years old and has absorbed his fair share of injuries, but if there’s one guy that made three-pointers and 40-footers cool, it’s him. 

How Many Players Today are Generational Talents

3. Kevin Durant

After LeBron and Steph, it would be slim pickings, but if there is someone that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the first two, it’s Kevin Durant. KD is also considered among the best in the NBA for almost a decade now and has won two Finals MVPs, two rings, one league MVP, and four scoring championships along the way.

Even if we put Nowitzki or Bird in the mix, no one has legitimately seen anyone close to Durant offensively. Both Nowitzki and Bird were versatile scorers, but they have a combined zero scoring championships to their names. That is not a slight to both Dirk and Larry, but it’s a testament how insanely good Durant is! If you can put the ball in the basket comparatively better than Larry Bird, we think your name deserves to be on this list. No questions asked.

Who’s Next?

There is no guarantee this early in the careers of Embiid, Antetokounmpo, Williamson, and Doncic, but it looks like they are all on their way. Knock on wood that they don’t sustain significant injuries in their journey to greatness.

Speaking of injuries, Embiid and Williamson have dealt with some major ones already. Embiid’s stock fell off before the 2014 NBA Draft as he underwent surgery to repair a broken bone on his right foot. He also has suffered torn ligaments, sprained shoulders, a problematic left knee, and various ailments. Even so, it’s undeniable that the talent is there. He is already a two-time All-NBA selection and two-time All-Defense, while appearing in three All-Star games out of four seasons he has played.

On his path to greatness, Williamson experienced some setbacks, especially when he underwent surgery for a bum knee that caused him to miss eight weeks. However, when he returned, his impact on the team was undeniable. 

Williamson helped the Pelicans to an 8-6 record when he was in the lineup, and five of those losses came from playoff teams, including the Lakers and the Bucks. New Orleans is also top eight in offensive rating when Williamson plays compared to 17th when he does not. That’s what we are talking about when we say a generational talent has the ability to turn things around with his presence.

What about Antetokounmpo and Doncic? Well, the Greek Freak already has an MVP to his name and maybe another one coming his way. He is still 25 years old, and for the years to come, the NBA world is going to be his oyster. 

Doncic, in only his second year, is arguably one of the top 5 players in the league already. The Slovenian has broken records left and right along the way. He currently has the highest PPG average (28.7) for any player at age 20 and has put up at least 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists for 19 consecutive games, one more than Michael Jordan’s record. He also overtook Magic Johnson for the most triple-doubles before turning 21 (Luke had 15 and Magic had 7) and is already the all-time total triple-doubles leader for the Mavs franchise (22).

Generational Talents in Basketball

Without the debilitating effects of a major injury, these four– Embiid, Antetokounmpo, Williamson, and Doncic– will probably make their mark as the next generational talents for this era of basketball.

There is no guarantee this early in the careers of Embiid, Antetokounmpo, Williamson, and Doncic, but it looks like they are all on their way. Knock on wood that, they don’t get significant injuries in their journey to greatness.

Speaking of injuries, Embiid and Williamson have dealt with some major ones already. Embiid’s stock fell off before the 2014 NBA Draft as he underwent surgery to repair a broken bone on his right foot. He also has suffered torn ligaments, sprained shoulders, a problematic left knee, and various ailments. Even so, it’s undeniable that the talent is there. He is already a two-time All-NBA selection and two-time All-Defense, while appearing in three All-Star games out of four seasons he has played.

On his path to greatness, Williamson experienced some setbacks, especially when he underwent surgery for a bum knee that caused him to miss eight weeks. However, when he returned, his impact on the team was undeniable. 

Williamson helped the Pelicans to an 8-6 record when he was in the lineup, and five of those losses came from playoff teams, including the Lakers and the Bucks. New Orleans is also top eight in offensive rating when Williamson plays compared to 17th when he does not. That’s what we are talking about when we say a generational talent has the ability to turn things around with his presence.

What about Antetokounmpo and Doncic? Well, the Greek Freak already has an MVP to his name and maybe another one coming his way. He is still 25 years old, and for the years to come, the NBA world is going to be his oyster. 

Doncic, in only his second year, is arguably one of the top 5 players in the league already. The Slovenian has broken records left and right along the way. He currently has the highest PPG average (28.7) for any player at age 20 and has put up at least 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists for 19 consecutive games, one more than Michael Jordan’s record. He also overtook Magic Johnson for the most triple-doubles before turning 21 (Luke had 15 and Magic had 7) and is already the all-time total triple-doubles leader for the Mavs franchise (22).

Without the debilitating effects of a major injury, these four– Embiid, Antetokounmpo, Williamson, and Doncic– will probably make their mark as the next generational talents for this era of basketball.

The 5 Greatest Generational Talents in the NBA

We have mentioned 17 names (14 retired, three active) that fit our description of a generational talent, but let’s take a look at probably five of the best all-time.

1. Michael Jordan

Do we need to say more? Jordan’s trophy case during his basketball career must be bigger than the whole of Hawaii. MJ has five MVPs, ten scoring championships, a Defensive Player of the Year Award, led the league in steals three times, 11 All-NBA selections, six NBA titles, and six Finals MVPs. Shall we go on?

2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

If there is an underrated all-time great, Kareem maybe that guy. He is the NBA’s all-time scoring leader, a 19-time All-Star, 15-time All-NBA, 11-time All-Defense, and had six MVPs. Yes, that’s one more than Michael Jordan, and he rarely mentioned in the conversation as an all-time great. Isn’t that crazy?

3. Magic Johnson

Nobody has seen a 6-foot-9 point guard before, so Magic was truly ahead of his time. If it weren’t for the HIV infection he had, we would have seen three or four more seasons of prime Magic. During his career, Johnson led Showtime to five NBA championships, seven Finals appearances, three MVPs, three Finals MVPs, and 10-time All-NBA selections out of 12 seasons.

The 5 Greatest Generational Talents in the NBA

4. Bill Russell

Eleven rings out of 13 NBA seasons. Enough said.

5. Tim Duncan 

Duncan does not have the best career out of all the remaining names, but his longevity and the number of championships and MVPs make him a solid choice. He also played in the golden era of power forwards, competing with Chris Webber, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, and Rasheed Wallace in their prime. Duncan nonchalantly (at least that is how it looked) accumulated five NBA championships, two MVPs, two Finals MVPs, 15 All-Star selections, 15 All-NBA nods, and made 15 All-Defense teams. 

Wrapping Things Up: What is a Generational Talent in Basketball?

Here is the trickiest thing about tagging someone as a generational talent: Talent is everything but not the only thing. The NBA has seen some of the best athletes that ever walked this planet, but not everyone has made their mark like the names mentioned in this article.

In our definition, generational talent is someone who can change the direction of a franchise in a new direction. By doing so, they accrue accolades along the way, such as MVPs, championships, and All-NBA selections. 

Out of 73 NBA seasons, it is arguable that there could be as little as 17 generational talents ever, with perhaps three playing right now and four who have the most potential. These include LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant while we firmly believe Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Zion Williamson, and Luka Doncic will get there barring any significant injuries. 

With all that being said, mentioning all these names is still up for debate. There are still guys like Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, Elgin Baylor, Willis Reed, Clyde Frazier, Bob Pettit, Isiah Thomas, and others who may be in someone else’s definition of what is a generational talent in basketball. Whatever the case, just because someone is an awfully good player, that does not mean they automatically deserve the “generational” label. The most important thing is the body of work that proves that they indeed are of the rare breed.

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Hoops Addict
Hoops Addict

Hoops Addict was created to help basketball fans of all ages learn more about the sport and find the best basketball gear to improve their ability to hoop. He has been a huge basketball fan for decades, watching thousands of basketball games through the years to learn the ins and outs of the game.

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