NBA 1-on-1 Tournament Rankings: Our Top Individual Players Ranked 1-64
Getty Images. Pictured (clockwise from top left): Celtics guard Jayson Tatum, Lakers forward Lebron James, Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, Rockets guard James Harden, Pelicans forward Zion Williamson.
Who are the best 64 individual players in the NBA? You might think that’s an easy question to answer, but even our basketball experts don’t all agree.
To hash it out, they’ve each ranked their top hoopers below to help us begin to form the bracket for Action’s King of the Hill 1-on-1 Tournament (more details here).
Our panelists — Matt Moore, Rob Perez, Justin Phan and Bryan Mears — used a variety of factors when putting together their individual set of rankings, including:
1. Advanced analytics courtesy of Synergy, including isolation volume and efficiency on offense and defense in 1-on-1 situations.
2. Conversations with current and former NBA players.
3. The eye test.
Our NBA 1-on-1 Rankings
Players ordered in terms of their average ranking among the panelists, from top-to-bottom. Sort the columns at the top to see each individual panelist’s 1-64 rankings.
Stop throwing fruit and listen; I can feel many of you steaming through the screen.
These are rankings of the best 1-on-1 players in the NBA. Not isolation players during games, not the best players, not the most valuable … this is ‘show up to the park with your gym bag and Infusion that your aunt gave you for your 16th birthday and check up.’ First to 11, ones and twos … losers take.
It’s almost a different sport because of the drastic importance of play-making creativity, ability to finish in the post and on-ball defense versatility. Every other aspect of the game is lower in priority and that’s why the most glaring trend above is guys who can play/defend positions 1-5 are towards the top.
That’s why I have stars like Steph Curry, Trae Young, Kemba Walker, Chris Paul and Damian Lillard rated lower than if this were a “best NBA player” ranking. To win a game against a swingman, they would have to catch fire from the perimeter because there’s just no way they can stop from being backed down into the post and shot over. They’re shooting jumpers while their opponents are getting bunnies … feel me?
The rebuttal to this: Well, they have speed, so they could just blow past the defender if they wanted. No, that’s not how 1-on-1 works. Chase-downs are so much easier when there is nobody out there setting screens or tip slamming over you. Any swingman or big guy with athleticism can make up three feet of barbecue chicken easily.
A couple of things I need to address:
- I have Kevin Durant ranked 18th. Before his ruptured Achilles, Durant was so good that we were ready to have the “OK, is he better than LeBron?” conversation. It may not have been true — the 1A/1B designation was still valid for many — but it was, without a doubt, a talk that needed to be had. But then he went down with one of the worst injuries in basketball you can possibly suffer. Nobody besides Dominique Wilkins, who was at the very beginning of his career, has ever … ever … returned anywhere close to 100 percent from a torn Achilles. Elton Brand, Rudy Gay, Mehmet Okur, Wes Matthews, Kobe, DeMarcus Cousins, Chauncey Billups, Maurice Taylor, LaPhonso Ellis, Christian Laettner, Isiah Thomas … do I need to keep going here or do you see the trend yet? Kevin Durant is so good that even at 80 percent he can still be a bona fide All-Star. But this man has a CVS receipt of leg injuries, including his knee, leg and foot. Father Time is undefeated for a reason, and I just can’t rank Durant at the very top anymore until he proves he can do the unprecedented. Matt Moore lives on a planet where you can press pause, scroll down to settings and turn off chronic injuries in real life.
- Harden. He would be No. 1 if there were free throws and referees, but there aren’t. So many of his advanced analytics and efficiency numbers rely on him shooting large quantities of free throws, 3s and 2s only at the rim. But do not let that distract you from the fact that this man still has more moves than just about anybody in the league not named Kyrie Irving. AND, oh by the way, he is in the top of almost every single isolation defensive statistic via Synergy. He has been significantly better as an individual defender — hell, he was at the top of the charts last year in deflections alone — and this would undoubtedly translate to his 1-on-1 game.
- Ben Simmons. No, that is not a typo. Good f**king luck stopping this guy from getting to the rim. Just like Giannis Antetokounmpo, you can slack off and dare him to shoot all you want — you’re just giving him more room to rev up the engine, start running downhill and do something to you at the rim that would be deemed a felony in 45 states. This man is 6-foot-10, has better handles than you and is arguably the best defender in the NBA. Make fun of his jump shot all you want — giving him space does nothing but delay the inevitability of your death, because there are no teammates out there to help you nor a defensive scheme to trap him in the short corner and funnel him into a center. You’re on an island against Pointzilla with an Australian accent and a future E! spinoff — the only defense is to sit cross-legged, put your head in your lap, count to 10 and hope he goes by without killing you.
- Nikola Jokic: Would there be a single possession in which he stops his opponent from getting a wide-open look? I get that he’s got YMCA Sunday morning open run moves for days, but this is why he’s ranked 60 for me.
- Jaren Jackson Jr.: Would there be a single possession in which he allows his opponent to get a single open look? There are no refs to foul him out. I don’t care what you think about his dribbling ability … good luck scoring against a pterodactyl with a 3-point jumper and an unstoppable drop-step out of the post. He can just do the same move 11 times every game and nobody besides Giannis, Anthony Davis or Ben Simmons can do anything to stop it.
This whole process was a trip because it warps the way you’re used to valuing players. It feels weird as hell to feel good about ranking Kyrie Irving ahead of Luka Doncic and Zach LaVine over Nikola Jokic, but pickup ball is a totally different animal. It’s all about buckets; there are no teammates to set up or free throws to draw.
If you want to be the King of the Hill, you need to be able to survive a gauntlet of differing styles and opponents. Like any tournament, it comes down to matchups, so versatility was the most important consideration for me when putting these together. Players like Jayson Tatum, Ben Simmons and Pascal Siakam, who have the ability to punish smaller guards in the post and burn big men off the dribble, got a bump. Smaller guards and traditional big men were penalized.
Here are a few of my biggest takeaways:
- The year is 2020, and Matt Moore and Wob have Lou Williams ahead of Trae Young. Moore has Lou at 24 (!!!) and Trae at 58. Look, I get that Trae is punished in this format because he’s a small guard who won’t be able to get a stop against a wing or big man, but you run into the exact same problem with Lou. And there’s no way in hell Lou is a better scorer than Trae right now, particularly in a format that rewards isolation scoring and 3s more than usual (#math). While Trae ranks in the 70th percentile this season in isolation scoring, Lou is in just the 26th percentile. This may have been a debate last season, but Father Time remains undefeated.
- Put some respect on Khris Middleton’s name. It’s undeniable that he’s benefited from playing alongside Giannis, but to punish him because of that discounts how much his game has evolved. In seven full games without Giannis this season, he’s averaged 29 points on 49/44% shooting. He’s served as the interim king of the mid-range with Kevin Durant hurt, which should serve him well in this format. Only three players averaged at least two isolation possessions last season while ranking in the 90th percentile or better: James Harden, Jimmy Butler and Middleton.
- Jokic was by far the hardest player to rank. I ended up putting him on the higher end of his range at 30 but had him as low as 41 at one point. His greatest strength as one of the best passers at his position in league history is completely negated, and it’s fair to wonder how effective he can be in this format. More than any other player, how far he advances will likely depend on the matchups he draws.
When I came up with this idea, I did not realize that it would become a contest of how hard Wob and Justin could dunk on me. We badly need sports to come back so they have something to bet on instead of ripping on me.
The big thing I’ve done is base this off player perception. The players believe that Lou Williams is a top-level 1-on-1 guy. DeMar DeRozan is absolutely a top 1-on-1 guy. I get it: These guys are obsessed with tall dudes. But 1-on-1 is about getting to shots you’re comfortable with. And those guys are elite at it. It’s one reason I’m worried about the simulations on 2K; the problem is optimal shots. In the game, these players are likely to take these shots, whereas in real life, guys often don’t because they’re not used to taking them.
Some big takeaways:
- I have Anthony Davis ranked 18th, and I accept this as absurd. I do not think Anthony Davis is the 18th best NBA player … he’s top-five. But Davis’ jumper is not silky smooth, and he goes to it all the friggin’ time. So much of his success this year has been built on simply finishing plays that LeBron James completes. And the same has been true his entire career when he’s had Jrue Holiday and other capable guards to provide him the ball. Now, Davis grew up as a guard and can make a lot of plays. But his decision-making often results in fadeaways. He’s had trouble both backing down and not being backed down by physical defenders, he’s going to run into a lot of them in this tournament. This is one where I’m sure the simulation is going to hurt me, but I really feel that he’d struggle more than we expect.
- Size matters, but it didn’t factor into my ratings as much, because you have to know how to use it. Jaren Jackson Jr. has very few go-to moves this season and is 25th percentile or worse in both isolation and post-ups. Yes, he can shove the ball down Trae Young’s throat, but against wings — and even bad wings (looking at you, Justin Phan) — he’s going to put up wild shots more often than not.
- The player I think I underrated most was Westbrook. He’s not the player he was three years ago… but he’s still maybe the fastest player on the planet. He’s a tough one to try to evaluate, and his future odds will be pretty tasty for the tournament.
I think most people will overvalue the sexy, visible skills you see on the basketball court and on TV back when AND1 street ball was popular. Kyrie Irving has arguably the best handles of all time — how would he not win this thing?
Further, people might look at one-on-one situations in the NBA as some sort of comparison for an actual one-on-one tournament. But it’s completely different when 10 players are on the floor vs. just two. Ben Simmons is a pretty bad one-on-one player at the end of an NBA game given that he can’t shoot and defenses can scheme to stop him from attacking the basket. In this setting? No such problems for Simmons, who would eat against guards.
You can probably tell what I valued in my player rankings: Size, strength, length and versatility. I have wings ranked near the top given they have all of those attributes in spades — they can guard anyone credibly, they have the ball-handling skills and they can shoot. There are really no bad matchups for them.
That’s not to say Kyrie wouldn’t do well in this tournament — at the end of the day, his elite skillset would win against most players in the league. But, for example, I have T.J. Warren at No. 22 overall — ahead of guys like Kemba Walker, Ja Morant, and CJ McCollum. That combination of size, strength and athleticism — especially when it comes with ball-handling skills — just doesn’t lose in this competition.
One final note: This is perhaps the most matchup-dependent tournament of all time. Irving probably beats any other guard in the league pretty often — but how would he fare against Zion Williamson, who will lower his shoulder every single possession? This is what makes the one-on-one tournament so fascinating — draws will be supremely important.