For the first time since Sports Poll began tracking favorite NBA players in 1994, there is no clear successor to become the next “face” of the NBA. LeBron James and Stephen Curry have held as the two favorite NBA players for the past decade, but no one else has stepped up yet to become a major national star. This is the perfect time to begin asking because it’s the first year since 2005 that LeBron, Curry, or Kevin Durant didn’t make the second round of the playoffs. LeBron is 39 years old and Curry just turned 36, so we would assume that their careers will be winding down over the next few years.

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When Michael Jordan retired, Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, and Kobe Bryant were waiting in the wings. By the time Kobe retired, LeBron had already moved into the slot as NBA fans’ favorite player. Today’s younger stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, and Nikola Jokic don’t resonate the same way at the national level. That leaves us to speculate about who will step up as the next national star? Or does this mean we’re transitioning to a time when the next wave of stars won’t carry the same national appeal as previous generations? We’ve watched this happen in other sports when major stars retired over the past decade.

“Star power” is more important to the NBA because individual players drive engagement for NBA fans more than the other major sports. Avid NBA fans are the most likely to say that players are very important to their enjoyment of sports. They are also more likely to change allegiances when their favorite players move to another team. At the most extreme, NBA fans are more likely to follow the sport less or stop following when their favorites retire.

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Emerging players like Anthony Edwards, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Brunson, Luka Doncic, and Jayson Tatum are still in the playoffs and receiving more media attention with LeBron, Curry, and Durant out. Three-time MVP Nikola Jokic is also still in the playoffs. Yet none of those players enjoy nearly the same popularity nationally as LeBron or Curry today. No player has separated himself as the most likely to take over once those two stars retire.

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One surprise pick for the next face of the NBA is the rookie of the year, the Spurs’ Victor Wembanyama. Even though he didn’t make the playoffs, he already ranks among the top ten favorites, ahead of Brunson, Edwards, Gilgeous-Alexander, and others. Going back 30 years, only four other rookies were more popular than Wembanyama was in their rookie year. That should put him in a strong position to move up as he and his team improve over the next few years.

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The playoffs have provided a national stage for former stars to emerge in the past. We saw this with Shaq, Kobe, LeBron, and Steph in the past – all of whom were big enough to be recognized by just one name. We’ll be watching closely to see if any of the younger stars can do the same and separate from the pack over the next month.