Which superstar is the next face of the NBA? All-Star Weekend showcased plenty of candidates

ByTim Bontemps ESPN logo
Monday, February 19, 2024

INDIANAPOLIS -- Midway through the second quarter of Sunday's NBA All-Star Game inside Gainbridge Fieldhouse, LeBron James secured an outlet pass with his left hand and, in one smooth motion, looped a pass over the head of Damian Lillard and into the hands of Western Conference teammate Paul George.

After one dribble, George slammed the ball off the court toward the basket, allowing it to briefly hover in front of an unguarded rim. James came sprinting down the right side of the court, grabbed the ball and slammed it through the hoop with two hands.

It was one of only a handful of familiar highlight moments from James in his record-setting 20th All-Star appearance. He mostly stayed in the background, scoring eight points in 14 first-half minutes before sitting the rest of the West's 211-186 defeat with a balky left ankle that has troubled him for most of the season.

Still, that James earned his starting spot in the NBA's midseason showcase held six weeks after the league's oldest player turned 39 was the latest reminder of his generation-long hold on the sport -- a place the NBA's all-time leading scorer said he never thought about reaching when he arrived in the league as the top draft pick 21 years ago.

"When I came into the league, I didn't look at myself as the face of anything," James said Sunday before the game.

"I didn't look at myself as the next Michael [Jordan], or the successor to Michael. When I came into the league, the first thing I thought about was, 'I have to start over now.'

"I had built my rep in high school from my freshman year to my senior year, from being a 14-year-old freshman that was 6-2, 180 pounds and I was like, 'OK, well how can I make a name for myself at St. Vincent-St. Mary,' all the way to my senior year where I was the No. 1 player in the country. And that's the same thing I did when I got drafted."

But James' 20th All-Star Game appearance served another reminder: Someday soon, arguably the greatest player in NBA history will cede the stage.

Who will be the one to take his place? The consensus among several of the games' biggest stars -- including James himself -- is that there isn't a clear answer.

"I don't think you just say, 'OK, well, this guy's the next person," James said. "You have to just let it happen organically and see what happens. But we have some great, great players in this league that can carry anything if they put their minds where they want it."

THIS ISN'T THE first time Adam Silver has had to oversee a succession.

Silver, now the NBA's commissioner, was in charge of the league's entertainment arm in 1998 when Michael Jordan retired after completing a second three-peat with the Chicago Bulls. After he drove the league to record-setting ratings and popularity throughout the 1990s, Jordan's departure created a massive void.

"That question often came up," Silver said Saturday during his annual All-Star news conference. "Who's going to be the next Michael Jordan?

"And I remember at the time, [former NBA commissioner] David Stern was saying whoever demonstrates on the court that they should be. That's what's so wonderful about the competition in the league."

When Tyrese Haliburton -- who jokingly referred to himself as the "prom king of All-Star Weekend" as the star of the hometown Indiana Pacers -- was asked for his prediction, he espoused a similar opinion.

"There's a lot of different guys it could be," Haliburton said Saturday. "We'll see. To be the face of the league, winning has to come with that. Whatever young guy takes that charge and is winning moving forward, that's probably who it will be."

Celtics wing Jayson Tatum agreed with that assessment.

"We win a championship," Tatum said Saturday with a grin, "[and] I've got something to say about it. I know that."

No one has a better understanding of that than Golden State Warriors All-Star guard Stephen Curry, one of the few players to rival James in stature and popularity. Ten years ago, Curry played in his first All-Star Game as a 24-year-old, and had played in the playoffs one time in his five NBA seasons.

At the time, the idea of Curry winning a pair of MVP awards, four championships and appearing in six NBA Finals over the next eight seasons would've been seen as nothing short of a fantasy.

"There's a lot of guys to pick from in this group of 24 that are here," Curry said Saturday. "You see Luka [Doncic], Ant [Edwards], Shai [Gilgeous-Alexander], guys that are really coming into their prime, and they're highly decorated already as All-Stars and All-NBA guys.

"I think the more you understand the authenticity around it, and like me and Bron and [Kevin Durant], have done it and tried to do that in our way, where it might look different for different guys. But the league is in pretty good hands when it comes to young talent that I think gets it and understands the magnitude of the platform we all have."

All of that, though, still doesn't answer the fundamental question.

And it was noteworthy that, whenever anyone was asked to give an answer, they quickly rattled off a series of names: Doncic, Edwards, Gilgeous-Alexander, Tatum and Haliburton were all mentioned by name by different players. So, too, were Devin Booker and Donovan Mitchell.

"There's a ton of young talent," Orlando Magic forward Paolo Banchero, another contender for the honor, said Saturday. "But these older guys are still elite, so you have to compete.

"You got to go after them in order to catch up. But our time is going to come eventually."

WHILE A BUNCH of players were touted this weekend as potential successors to James, there is one who stands out -- both literally and figuratively: 7-foot-4 rookie Victor Wembanyama of the San Antonio Spurs.

"For him, the most important thing, I think, throughout his career is going to be health," Giannis Antetokounmpo said Saturday. "Because, if he has health, he has everything. You know he's going to dominate on the court because he's unguardable. You cannot guard him one-on-one. I don't know if you can guard him two versus one or three versus one. We've tried, and we couldn't. A lot of people around the NBA have tried, and they couldn't.

"As long as Victor is healthy, the league is his. LeBron is kind of like that. He's close to the end of his career ... but we have to deal with this problem now moving forward."

As a high schooler, James was splashed on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline of "The Chosen One." Wembanyama, meanwhile, had been charted as the No. 1 pick for the past several years out of France, and the league broadcast many of his games last season on its platforms in anticipation of his first NBA season.

And, like James did as a rookie, Wembanyama carries himself with the poise of a veteran -- and a self-assuredness that he's capable of achieving his dreams. That's why the Spurs phenom didn't hesitate when asked if being a face of the NBA is something he has envisioned.

"Of course," Wembanyama said Saturday. "And it's something I've been working on for years, because being labeled as one of the faces of the league is not primarily basketball, but also, your image in front of everyone."

Wembanyama arrived in the league this season as just the latest of the young international stars who have dominated the sport in recent years. The past five MVPs have been won by international players,a trend that will likely continuethis season.

"I would say the league is in fantastic hands," Silver said. "From the time that Michael retired to now, look at the magnitude of the pool of international players coming into this league. Look at the amount of basketball that's being played on a global basis.

"I think it's, again, that these new players aren't anointed. They demonstrate to the world, they demonstrate to the league that they deserve to be viewed in that same rare position as players like Michael and Kobe [Bryant] and LeBron and others.

"Let's just watch."

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