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Andrew is Collectable's Head of Research and Analytics.
A passionate Notre Dame alum, he's been collecting memorabilia for 15 years.

For the past nine years, ESPN has had the unenviable task of ranking who the best players in the NBA will be for the upcoming season.

While a panel of experts talking hoops and assigning a numerical rank doesn’t sound too tough, the backlash from the LeBron stans when the King is ranked anything but #1 can be too much to handle. That said, ESPN may rate a player a couple of spots too high or low, but the top 25 usually checks out. 

Advanced stats play a major role in these decisions, and while I’m sure talking about win-shares and points-per-game gets some people excited, as a memorabilia fan, I felt it important to rank these same players based off of a different metric: How fresh is their autograph? 

Thing is, we can’t calculate and quantify freshness. We can ask questions like, “How many letters can I make out?” or “How the hell is this collection of squiggly lines supposed to be an autograph?” but ultimately, I define freshness with a little phrase that the venerable Justice Potter Stewart bestowed upon us, “I just know it when I see it.”   

Without further ado, please enjoy our re-ranking of ESPN’s top 25 NBA players.

Note: If any NBA players take offense to their rankings and would like to send me an autograph for a freshness re-ranking, please know I can be bought.  

#25: Rudy Gobert

Gobert starts off well with what appears to be a “G,” but ends by scribbling his way to a lackluster “T.” On the court, the Stifle Tower wreaks havoc on defense, but off, he wreaks havoc for NBA autograph collectors. We’ll give him a break, though, as we’re not sure what French penmanship classes look like.

#24: De’Aaron Fox

While we struggle to make out any letters in this speedy point guard’s autograph, we appreciate the thoroughness and intricacy of his doodle. Speaking of doodles, Fox seems to be missing a real opportunity to show off his artistic side by simply drawing a fox sketch for his autograph

#23: Joel Embiid

As a 76ers fan with an unhealthy obsession with “The Process,” it physically pains me to rank Joel this low. A lesser man would have let his feelings for the player interfere with the rankings, but I have nothing if not my objectivity. Joel’s autograph features what appears to be a giant “J” with some other markings that could pass for letters in a pinch. There’s an old narrative that Shaq was a poor free throw shooter because his hands were too clunky. Why don’t we give Joel the same benefit and agree that his hands are just too big to properly hold a pen?

#22: Donovan Mitchell

Coming out of Louisville with a strong autograph, Donovan Mitchell displayed great penmanship and his autograph would have been a contender for a top ten finish in our rankings. Unfortunately, it seems somewhere along the way—probably when he began bickering over the definition of “Rookie”—Donovan decided to stop chasing greatness (yes, I’m talking about a top autograph ranking) and instead decided to compete for first-team All-Scribble.

#21: Mike Conley

Mike Conley’s autograph shares some parallels with his playing career—nothing flashy, but good enough to get the job done. Displaying a clean “M” and something that I can only assume to be a “C,” the autograph seems to fit the player. While we haven’t found any for sale, it’s only natural to assume all autographs going forward will come with the inscription “NBA Horse Champion 2020.”

#20: Stephen Curry

Much like the future of the Warriors’ dynasty, Steph Curry’s signature is a bit of an enigma. An optimist, a true believer, would feel there’s a the large distinctive “C” and possible “S” tucked away inside. That same person can see the Warriors nabbing James Wiseman in the draft and being right back at the top of the NBA’s Western Conference rankings in 2021. A pessimist would argue that this is just some scribbles with a nice looking “C” and that the Warriors’ dynasty has died. We split the difference and ranked him ahead of the one-letter wonders, but behind some of our two letter superstars.

#19: Karl-Anthony Towns

Here begins the portion of our list where, with a discerning eye, you can make out the beginning letters of the first and last name. While maybe not as visually appealing as some in our top-ten, if someone gave you KAT’s signature on a basketball, you could probably guess who it belonged to in the first twenty tries.

#18: Ben Simmons

Like KAT, Simmons’ autograph displays two somewhat recognizable letters. Perhaps looking a bit more like an “R” than a “B,” we’ll give the Aussie the benefit of the doubt as he might be holding the pen in the wrong hand. (Who knows, maybe that’s how they do it Down Under.) While it could be a challenge to identify his autograph with no context, it’s even harder to find one for your collection. As Simmons is one of a handful of Upper Deck’s exclusive athletes—other notables include Michael Jordan and LeBron James—you’d have a better chance seeing him take a three than scoring one of his John Hancocks.

#17: Blake Griffin

Like his later-career on-court performance, Blake’s signature lacks consistency. When he signs like he did as a rookie—with a bold “B” and his number included—it really is a sharp autograph. Unfortunately, too often he will sign like he did here, which more resembles a doodle of a mountain range with a valley. Maybe Blake is just a really big Marvin Gaye fan. ‘Cause baby there ain’t no mountain high enough. Ain’t no valley low enough.

#16: James Harden

Seemingly a fan of giant loops, James Harden’s “JH” signature is remarkably consistent, but just like his defense, leaves us wanting for a little bit more. While his ability to maintain a great beard and consistently step-back without being called for a travel may amaze some, I’m even more impressed that he doesn’t smear the signature, given his lefty signing stroke.

#15: Kyrie Irving

Is it weird to say that I find the way Kyrie writes his “K”s intoxicating? I think Kyrie knows he has a good-looking “K,” too. (Probably even gets cocky about it and offers Kevin Durant use of said “K” for his own signatures.) With such good handles and a great start to the autograph, I, like the Celtics in 2018, can’t help but be let down with the finish, a single sloppy “I.”

#14: Russell Westbrook

While Kyrie has the best singular letter, Russell puts a little extra something something at the end of the “R” and the “W” that helps secure a higher spot in the rankings. The vertical distance between the letters is perhaps a bit odd, but likely a subconscious decision to highlight his ferocious vertical leaping ability. As crazy as it sounds, I also imagined who would want it more if I were able to tell them about this silly competition. Given Russ once played with a dent in his head, I had to give him the edge.

#13: Damian Lillard

Dame D.O.L.L.A.’s penmanship leaves something to be desired, with a way too vertical “D” and what I suppose we are to believe is an “L.” However, the way he tucks that 0 in there—even with a true # sign—wow! *Chef’s kiss*

#12: Anthony Davis

Like Donovan Mitchell, The Brow traded in a fantastic, nearly full-name autograph/adjoining number combo platter for an abbreviated “AD 3.” While his autograph is not nearly as fresh as it once was, we gave him a pass because, at this point in his career, he does effectively go by “AD.” It does seem odd that he now chooses to connect his letters after deciding to un-connect his brows.

#11: LeBron James

Much like my feelings about LeBron, I go back and forth with this signature. But now I’m ready to make a public decision in an awkward, yet egocentric way. The Chosen One’s autograph is a lot like a Rorschach test. Some are able to see through the ambiguity and identify a clear “L,” “B,” and “J,” while others are hard pressed to make out a single letter. As I didn’t want to face the wrath of those aformentioned LeBron stans, I chose to allow myself to see the three-letter signature, as well as a near-top-ten rank.

#10: Giannis Antetokounmpo

With twenty letters in his name, Giannis certainly faces the toughest challenge producing a high-quality autograph, but after his performance of the past two seasons, he might just be better off signing his name “MVP.” To call the Greek Freak’s autograph legible is much like the man himself, an incredible reach. For his efforts on the longer autographs, we’ve bumped him up a few spots ahead of those notorious two-letter signers.

#9: Pascal Siakam

Good stuff from Spicy P, but I can’t help be put off by the last name and the “S” coming first. In fact, Pascal’s autograph resembles how I imagine Steph Curry signs his first name on official documents. However, if Siakam’s penmanship skills make the leap that his basketball skills did, he’ll be a shoe-in for the top five in no time.

#8: Paul George

With both a clean multi-letter signature and his old number, George’s signature is easily identifiable on a basketball with little context needed. We tried to find a picture that depicted his autograph with his more well-known number of 13, but the market is dominated by signatures with 24. I guess Indiana fans are still getting over the breakup. 

#7: Jimmy Butler

Living in Chicago during Jimmy Butler’s Bulls’ days, each morning on my way to work I saw Butler’s face on a Bonobos ad that read “The Fashion Forward Small Forward.” His persona, as the face of this hip menswear company, suits his autograph very well. Featuring the “B” neatly tucked into the bottom of the “J,” Jimmy even gives us a little splash with a few additional letters along with his number. There’s no doubt Jimmy takes personal offense to some of his former teammates’ lack of effort on their signatures.

#6: Kemba Walker

While lacking the sexiness of Kyrie’s “K”—yes I called a letter sexy—Kemba beats out less worthy candidates by featuring clear crisp letters and a #15. We think with a new team and number, Kemba has the potential to climb into the top five and have something as equally as amazing to brag about.

#5: Nikola Jokic

I can’t help but love Jokic’s autograph. It hardly meets my other criteria of including multiple letters across first and last name, or even having a number, but mmm mmm mmm, that “J” is something special. For that matter, it made me want to go out and buy his autograph even if my previous experiences with Nikola revolved around arguing why he is not the best center in the NBA (see #23 Embiid, Joel).

#4: Luka Dončić

How cool is it that a 21-year-old from Slovenia can just write Luka and almost most NBA fans can immediately intentify the autographer? A testament to his early success, Luka has already earned first-name status usually reserved for generational greats. While it’s not in my nature to offer free business advice—I did go to Wharton, after all—the way Luka signs his name could make for some fantastic co-branding opportunities with a certain yoga inspired fitness brand that shall remain nameless

#3: Kawhi Leonard

I’d like to imagine that somewhere along the way, a teacher told nine-year-old Kawhi that he couldn’t go out to recess until he perfected his cursive. He probably then spent the next two weeks straight burning through notebook after notebook until it was perfect. As for the autograph itself, a strong “K” and “L” are only outdone by that little extra pizzazz at the end, which aptly mirrors Kawhi’s wild and eccentric personality.

#2: Bradley Beal

Bradley Beal just has it. And by it, I don’t mean a burning desire to get out of Washington and onto a contender despite pretending like he’s happy, but rather I mean a fresh autograph. Featuring two twin beautiful “B”s and a loop-de-loop that’s probably an “L,” this signature stands out as a piece of art. The only thing keeping him out of the top spot is a lack of letters.

#1: C.J. McCollum

Featuring almost every letter in his name, C.J.’s autograph has it all. It’s visually stunning, it’s readable, and it is complete…and fresh. The sharpshooter’s signature is so prim and proper that it looks like how my bank expects me to sign my mobile deposits. The ups and downs of each letter look like an EKG of my heart looking at his signature. It’s a shot of serotonin to the brain.