All this week, ESPN.com will be looking ahead a few years in an attempt to see what the NBA will look like in the year 2010.
Mon., 9/18: Which current cellar dweller could turn into a champ?
Tues., 9/19: Which current elite team could find itself in the lottery?
Wed., 9/20: Who will supplant Dirk as the NBA's best international player?
Thurs., 9/21: Which player will rise from mediocrity a la Boris Diaw?
Fri., 9/22: A time line on the rise of the NBA's next young superstars.
We asked some of the top NBA writers from around the country to weigh in with their thoughts.
Here's today's roundup:
Q: Which player is most likely to eventually supplant Dirk Nowitzki as best international player in the NBA?
Chris Sheridan, ESPN Insider: I've got to stick with the choice of the past half-decade, Yao Ming. He only turned 26 a few days ago, and he can still become the most dominant center we've seen since Hakeem if he hits his prime in the next four or five seasons.
If he and Tracy McGrady could ever be paired completely healthy for 82 games, especially now with Shane Battier in the mix, this could easily be a 55-win team that could advance in the playoffs, and Yao would probably supplant Dirk in this category if he could take Houston to the Finals two years in a row.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA and international basketball for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.
John Denton, Florida Today: As strange as it might sound to Rockets fans, last season's back injury to McGrady might have been the best thing to happen to the Rockets in the long run.
Without McGrady dominating the ball, the offense ran through the hands of Yao. It forced him to assert himself and seek out shots rather than defer to others. And the results were sometimes jaw-dropping.
In March and April, he averaged 25.5 points and 10.7 rebounds while shooting 55 percent from the floor. He had a 20-game stretch late in the season where he scored at least 20 points 19 times and grabbed double-digit rebounds 17 times. He had back-to-back 36-point efforts against Dallas and New Jersey and hung 25 points and 17 rebounds on Los Angeles Clippers center Chris Kaman.
No, Yao will never have the physical force of Shaquille O'Neal or play with the fiery emotion of Alonzo Mourning. But what he just might do as his game continues to grow and his confidence continues to rise is revolutionize the way the position is played. His ability to hit the mid-range shot, hit free throws and hit back against those who try to hammer him on the lower block will help make Yao the game's best center long after Shaq retires.
John Denton covers the Orlando Magic for Florida Today.
Marc J. Spears, The Denver Post: Remember this name and don't try to spell it: Sofoklis Schortsanitis. Well, just remember his nickname: Baby Shaq.
The Los Angeles Clippers drafted the 6-foot-10, 300-pound plus center with the 34th pick in the second round of the 2003 NBA draft. At just 21 years old, Baby Shaq showed his superstar potential by playing well for his native Greece in the recent World Championship. He was a dominant force in the post for Greece, scoring 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting in a stunning semifinal victory over the United States in Japan.
Baby Shaq also made the highlight reels worldwide by dunking over Yao Ming in Japan, too. The Clippers, who could use some inside reserve help, made the mistake of not signing Baby Shaq to their roster this season. But after another year of playing overseas and losing some weight, expect Baby Shaq to be possibly one of the best rookies during the 2007-08 season and eventually blossom into an international star.
Marc J. Spears, who covers the NBA for The Denver Post, is a contributor to ESPN.com.
David Thorpe, Pro Training Center: It is important first to address how good Nowitzki truly is. In my view, he is the second-best offensive player on the planet, period. "Mr. 81" is the best. So with that said, and with all due respect to Yao and Manu and Boris, the next mega-superstar in the NBA born on foreign soil will be
Darko Milicic. C'mon, you know Joe Dumars is no dummy. You know he must have watched hundreds of hours of tape and thousands of plays to take Darko at No. 2. And I know what he saw: Terrific athleticism and size, tremendous reflexes and a feel for the game, excellent skill-sets on the offensive end and a true shot-blocker. The game is easy for him. Had he been a rookie anywhere else but Detroit, all of you would have seen this. Now he has found a home in Orlando.
Remember, Darko just turned 21 this past summer. And he will be paired the perfect complement, Dwight Howard (imagine Howard's progress had he gone to Detroit as a rookie -- would he still have been a part of Team USA?). Darko can score from the perimeter, allowing Howard room to play inside. Together they will be formidable. And when Howard is resting, Darko can score with a variety of moves from the post.
The Magic will emerge as a contender this season, and Darko will be thrust into the spotlight -- the beginning of his ascension to Dirk's throne.
Brian Windhorst, Akron Beacon Journal: He'll probably never be as good as Dirk, but the international player who has the brightest future is Darko Milicic. Darko has time on his side; he just turned 21 in June and already has three seasons of famously harsh seasoning behind him.
He's always had classic European big-man traits, especially the ability to play on the perimeter and hit the mid- to long-range jumper. But he's now showing a willingness and strength to play with his back to the basket.
Playing for Serbia in the World Championship, Darko was a force in the post. He showed a remarkably effective left-handed hook shot and some other developing moves. More important, he looked like he wanted to be down there, showing aplomb and aggression at both ends. In a matchup against tournament MVP Pau Gasol and Spain, Darko scored 18 points, pulled down 15 rebounds and blocked three shots.
Plus, there's his mate in the Magic frontcourt, Dwight Howard. For various reasons, from how their talent sets mesh to how opposing teams will have to deploy coverage -- the physically stronger opposing big man will almost always have to attempt to body Howard -- Milicic has some advantages coming his way.
Brian Windhorst covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Akron Beacon Journal.
Ian Whittell, The (London) Times: I'm an unashamed Dirk fan. I saw Nowitzki in Germany and followed the World Team on which he starred in his U.S. breakout game at the Nike Hoop Summit in 1998.
That's why NOBODY will supplant Nowitzki as the NBA's best international player, at least not in the foreseeable future. In fact, given his age (28), work ethic and the inspiration he will draw from losing the Finals, you could make the case that the best is yet to come from the Dallas Mavericks forward.
I would also make the case that, by the time he has finished his career, it will be tough for anybody to supplant him, maybe for generations to come.
But enough of the semantics. Who is the next great international player out there? I could go for Britain's very own Joel Freeland, taken 30th by the Blazers in this year's draft, but even though one NBA European scout has told me he's convinced he could be as good as Nowitzki, Freeland's best is still more than a decade away.
So, in the hope of convincing him to accept a standing invitation to play for the Great Britain national team, I'm plumping for London-born Ben Gordon. (What? You didn't even know he was one of ours?!)
He might not be a fashionable choice, but this is a player, still only 23, who became the first rookie to win the Sixth Man award and who has few peers in the clutch category. Someone that good in the fourth quarter and that young has some future ahead of him.
Ian Whittell covers the NBA for The (London) Times and BSkyB.