NBA History: 50 best NBA players of the 21st century

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Deron Williams
Deron Williams (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images) /

118. . PG. Utah Jazz. Deron Williams. 48. player

50 greatest NBA players from the 21st century: 48. Deron Williams

Before his infamously uneven stretch in Brooklyn, Deron Williams was considered one of the top point guards in basketball. He struggled to achieve proper recognition — a common slight for Utah stars, it would seem — but three All-Star appearances and two All-NBA nominations serve as merely the tip of Williams’ iceberg.

In 2010-11, arguably his best season and one he split between Utah and Brooklyn, Williams averaged 20.3 points and 10.3 assists. A talented scorer and an even more gifted playmaker, Williams was confident in the driver’s seat. He could bury shots from all over the court, and deliver pinpoint passes from virtually any angle.

Williams sits higher than many would think in the hierarchy of Jazz All-Stars. He even played better than he’s often credited for in Brooklyn, where his first couple seasons were remarkably strong. There’s a reason the Nets, in shortsighted pursuit of a superteam, paid top dollar to put Williams on the roster.

The Jazz made the conference finals in 2007 behind Williams’ on-court leadership and were privy to one of the best point guard stretches of the early-to-mid 2000s during his time there. Not many players ever enter the conversation for best at their respective position. For a time, Williams was in the mix.

Atlanta Hawks. Al Horford. 47. player. 125. . C

50 greatest NBA players from the 21st century: 47. Al Horford

Another “beyond the box score” star, Al Horford was the centerpiece of a remarkably consistent Hawks team for almost a decade. His status as Atlanta’s “leader” fluctuated, but there has been no Hawk more noteworthy since the turn of the century than Horford.

Evolving over time from a mostly traditional center to one of the league’s most versatile two-way bigs, Horford has left an indelible mark on the modern NBA — even if more casual viewers struggle to appreciate his brilliance. His sour turn in Philadelphia in 2020 has too greatly spoiled the reputation of a great career.

At his peak, Horford was wide-ranging in his contributions and unceasingly clever. He was a maestro running the offense from the elbow, slinging accurate passes to cutters or open shooters. He was also a skillful face-up scorer, with a deadeye mid-range game to keep the defense honest.

The Hawks were a perennial playoff team under Horford’s guidance. In Boston, he was arguably the best player on that team. If not the best, certainly the most important — even over the much flashier Kyrie Irving. He has never put up big numbers, and has therefore evaded the critical spotlight of his peers, but Horford is a five-time All-Star for good reason.