In four short years, there will be players in the NBA who were born in the year 2000. The Y2K generation of NBA players and culture is fast approaching and that makes most of us feel old, especially me since I still wear an Orlando Magic Grant Hill jersey from 2000. The current NBA MVP candidates LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook (still can’t believe the Thunder willfully messed up their teams so badly) will still be casting a large shadow over the rest of the NBA but they will be joined by the next wave of NBA stars who aren’t waiting for the baton to be passed but rather are intent of snatching it away.
This year can see as many as 5 new NBA All Stars under the age of 22 and it wouldn’t surprise me to see some of the players listed below getting legitimate MVP votes as early as next year. The NBA is skewing younger right before our eyes, thanks to savvy drafting and the emergence of the NBDL as a legitimate minor league to develop and reclaim talent. With basketball being argumentatively the most popular sport in the world amongst the millennial generation and combined with thorough international scouting there has never been such a pool of international talent.
We’re going to look at the best young stars in the NBA today. The definition of “Young’ for the article means that the player must be under the age of 23 and currently on their rookie contract. This means that players like Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Bradley Beal, Rodney Hood, Harrison Barnes and even Ben Simmons (yet to play a regular season game due to injury) do not qualify as they are ostensibly much later in their career development path than the players mentioned below.
The players are solely being ranked on how well they are performing right now and while I would love to be able to predict the future their improvement does not always occur on a continuous smooth path (James Harden, Blake Griffin) but rather in fits and jumps (DeMar DeRozan, Steph Curry) or it can plateau at the beginning and endure a long slow decline (Tyreke Evans). If you were to rank all of the aforementioned 2009 draftees on their career in 2011 it would probably be:
Thankfully there are more advanced stats now and the NBA League Pass where anyone can watch any of the games at any time. We are able to see more of the young players take full advantage of the opportunities presented to them and prepare their bodies for the rigors of the NBA much faster due to improvements in sport science and it should come to no surprise that the best young player in the NBA is a former chubby teenager from the Dominican Republic via New Jersey
An NBA prospect is typically discussed in two terms; ceiling and floor. Karl-Anthony Towns (KAT) might not have the biggest ceiling as the rest of the players on this list but he has the highest floor. Legendary college basketball recruiter and NBA factory John Calipari saw his potential at an early age and coached the Dominican Republic National team when KAT was 16 years old. This gave him early access to professional coaching advice as well as elite facilities and trainers.
In the 5 years since, he has dropped weight while adding muscle, improved his 3-point shot and learned how to defend without fouling. He entered the NBA an almost finished product and the consensus No 1 pick. His game and demeanor is similar to Tim Duncan and he’s averaging 20 and 10 in his second season with exceptional efficiency. He is the bridge between old school and the modern NBA, equally comfortable with his back to the basket or spotting up from the 3-point line while anchoring the defense from either the PF or C positions. His most impressive stat is that he has started every game since being drafted while playing over 30MPG. Health is an indicator of true skill and longevity in the NBA as well as trust placed in you by the head coach.
The only thing left for him to improve and I’m nitpicking here is to get up to about 38 – 40 MPG while keeping his averages the same. He should be able to average 25 PPG, 12RPG, 4APG and 2BPG while shooting 50%, 40%, 80% from the field, 3-point and free throw before long.
Career development so far 8/10, current All Star production
Career ceiling: Most Valuable Player, 10+ All Star Appearances
Nobody saw this guy coming and with each passing game his stakes to the best young player in the game increases. “The Greek Freak” as he’s more commonly known arrived to the NBA as a virtually unknown after playing in the lower levels of the Greek basketball leagues. He entered the league with the largest gap between his Ceiling (All Star) and Floor (Complete NBA bust) and will definitely make his first of many All Star Appearance this season. The only comparable drafted player to him is Bruno Caboclo (who’s perennially 2 years away from being 2 years away) and he has a career average of 1PPG in his 3rd season. The Greek Freak has already blown past his ceiling and is creating a ceiling higher than has been expected for any SF in modern NBA history except for LeBron.
He’s in his 4th year in the league at age 22 and has improved every facet of his game every season and is currently in the running for the defensive player of the year with 2 steals and blocks per game. This has not been done since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1991. He leads the Bucks in every significant category and they have a legitimate chance of making the playoffs this season. This is Bucks team that has historically poor spacing especially with the absence of Kris Middleton and this has likely depressed his assist totals this season.
The Milwaukee Bucks could not have envisioned him developing this quickly and like this, He was drafted as a slippery, pass first 6’9” SF (a young Lamar Odom) and has literally and figuratively grown into a 6’11” PG and team leader the league has never seen before. If he develops a respectable 3-point shot, then he will challenge for the best player in the league sooner than later. It’s not out of the question for him to average a quintuple double (or close to) in the far future as a taller more efficient Russell Westbrook: 25 PPG, 10 RPG, 10 APG, 2 BPG and 2 SPG.
Career development so far 6/10, current All Star starter
Career ceiling: Multiple Most Valuable Player Awards, 10+ All Star Appearances
Another boom or bust NBA draftee. Kristaps Porzingis entered into the NBA to overwhelming skepticism and has quickly quieted even his most ardent doubters which includes his GM, Phil Jackson who has gone out of his way to marginalize his talents by surrounding him with aging and ball dominant players in the outdated triangle. His ceiling has been unfairly compared to Dirk Nowitzki and his floor to every poor European big man drafted in the last 25 years. He is only European by birth as he has modeled his game and lifestyle to the Northeastern American style of play and regrettable hairstyle choices.
Standing 7’1” without shoes, he boasts a dependable 3-point shot, smooth mid-range game and the athleticism to drive to the hoop with ease. While he can be robotic at times his biggest weakness is not his fault. He simply does not have the proper teammates from which he can truly learn the game from. This will probably change next year when the Knicks swap put Derrick Rose for Chris Paul.
Kristaps is averaging about 20 PPG and a shade under 2BPG in his second season while being the most effective scorer on his team. He cannot average 10RPG due to him being out on the wing on both offense and defense due to the Knicks incomprehensibly giving the corpse of Joakim Noah, 4 years and 72 million as an early retirement bonus and to do this
It’s too easy to point out that Porzingis is being guarded in the post by 6’9” SF Tobias Harris not known for his defense in this sequence.
Porzingis is progressing nicely in his career development but desperately needs to round out his game to pass more and avoid silly fouls. I think his career will mirror the person he is most similar to, Kevin Durant, where his scoring will increase faster than his rebounding and passing improvements. It’s easy to see him averaging 25 PPG, 9 RPG and 2BPG by the end of next season but unless the system he plays in drastically changes he will never his true potential until the team is built around him.
Career development so far 7/10, current All Star production
Career ceiling: 10+ All Star Appearances
The perfect shooting guard for the new NBA. Devin Booker is the most unlikely person to be on this list despite being a lottery pick from Kentucky and the youngest player in the NBA when drafted. When he was drafted by the Suns, some thought he might never develop a la James Young but he quickly showed a different part of his game when thrust into the starting lineup after Eric Bledsoe’s injury. This season he’s averaging about 21 PPG and 3 APG and 3RPG while essentially playing in a 4-person backcourt with Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and Leandro Barbosa.
Devin Booker has shown thus far that he can handle the ball as the lead guard and score off drives and also from the 3-point line. His efficiency does not currently match his capability but they will surely increase as he matures, the team matures and neophyte head coach Earl Watson cleans up his rotation and develops an offensive identity. He has already improved on his two perceived drawbacks, athleticism and defense. This is likely due to a combination of his not getting enough playing time at Kentucky and his age.
Luckily for Booker, he (and the rest of the backcourt) have been gifted total offensive freedom which has allowed him to develop his game on the court through trial and error. Otherwise he would have been yanked to the bench every time he made a mistake. Mario Hezonja, a similar player, cannot see any court time for the Magic. If he continues to work hard he can easily develop into a Klay Thompson or Brandon Roy type of player and average 20PPG, 5RPG and 5APG. He does not project to the best player on a championship caliber team but can be one of the best 2nd options which is just as important.
Career development so far 4/10, NBA Starter
Career ceiling: 5+ NBA All Star Appearances
To be successful in the NBA you must possess 2 skills that set you apart from similar players or perform each task at an above average rate. You can have a lengthy career as a one skill specialist (Kyle Korver, Tony Allen and Jamal Crawford are the best examples) but being able to hang your hat on a skill on offense and defense makes you an essential NBA player. No young player exemplifies this more than Myles Turner. He is late career Kevin Garnett, already one of the best interior defenders in the NBA and scores almost exclusively in the paint (69% at the rim) and at the top of the corners (55% from 16ft out to the 3-point line). He also has solid 3-point range in limited shots. His career floor is Raef LaFrenz and his ceiling depends on how much he can improve his rebounding rate and his conditioning to play up to 38 MPG. Ideally he should try to emulate Karl Anthony Towns’ game as he is the most similar in build and playing style and if he does he can become the KAT of the Eastern Conference.
Career development so far 8/10, NBA Starter
Career ceiling: 2+ All Star Appearances, NBA Defensive Player of the Year
Zach LaVine possesses two of the hardest skills to find in tandem in a NBA player. He can shoot and dunk. There are a lot of people who can shoot and also dunk in the NBA but there’s nobody in the league right now who can shoot and dunk as well as he He’s currently shooting about 38% from 3 this year while attempting just under 7 a game while scoring 18 PPG at a respectable rate. He’s basically Klay Thompson if you swapped out Klay’s defense for LaVine’s dunking.
Zach LaVine and Klay Thompson have almost identical stats this season which should come as a surprise to most people as they think he’s only a dunker but he has always been raised to be a shooter by his father. His NBA growth has seen ups and downs as he has vacillated between starting and on the bench and between shooting guard and point guard. The Arrival of Tom Thibodeau seems to have solidified his place on the team and he now has a defined position (SG) and role (kick out shooter). Since he’s currently playing 37 MPG he will have to become at least an average defender under Thibodeau’s tutelage.
Zach is the closest player to a young Vince Carter who was also a high flying, 3-point shooter not known for his defense and he should be able to increase his averages across the board as he gets older. He’s known to be hard worker and spends time improving his skills in the offseason. This is something you would think every NBA player does but you would be surprised how many players skip the offseason completely. If he continues with his hard work and there’s tangible improvement on the defensive end he could develop into a 30 PPG scorer who can work within a team defense (much easier with KAT defending the paint).
Career development so far 4/10, NBA Starter
Career ceiling: 5+ NBA All Star Appearances, NBA Leading Scorer
Most NBA players would love to have Andrew Wiggins’ start to his career. But in the context of his hype and expected dominance ever since team were openly tanking or “Riggin’ for Wiggins” a few years ago his career has been a mild disappointment. This is partly due to the lofty expectations placed upon him and also due to his NBA career being opposite to what was envisioned for him. When he was drafted, most pundits agreed that while he would struggle to score in the NBA, he would be an elite defender immediately. The opposite has occurred as Wiggins has settled into a high volume scorer with low efficiency but is a below average defender, rebounder and passer. With a career average of 36 MPG, he has missed only one game in his career which means he has had ample time to refine his skills. Scoring is the most fungible skill in the NBA where almost anyone can average over 20 PPG. It’s much harder to scorer over 20 PPG while also rebounding, passing and playing good defense. I would love to have Wiggins rated higher but he seems content to be a 2nd or 3rd option on the Timberwolves.
At 6’8”, and playing small forward with a 44 inch standing vertical, Wiggins should be able to average more than 4 RPG and should be able to get at least a block and a steal per game. Combined with an APG that seems to be stuck around 2, he seems to be quickly approaching his ceiling. At this point we can only hope that his development has been stunted due to attitude and not ability as someone with his physical gifts his rebounding should be at least 7 per game which would mirror similar players like Tracy McGrady or Paul George and it would behoove him to try to achieve their defensive skills.
Currently his ceiling and floor seems to be DeMar DeRozan, an electric but inefficient high volume scorer with below average contribution in all other aspects. His 3-point shooting has improved this season but he needs to maintain that accuracy while doubling his attempts to reach the next level of scoring. If he increases his rebounding, he can become a similar player to Carmelo Anthony but he must truly dedicate himself to defense to reach his own vast potential. If he approaches his ceiling he can lead the league in scoring easily while providing Kawhi Leonard like defense.
Career development so far 5/10, NBA Starter
Career ceiling: 3+ All Star Appearances
Most casual NBA fans may not know who he is but Nikola Jokic is trying to singlehandedly bring the Denver Nuggets to get slaughtered by the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs. The only second round pick to make this list and he has made the most of his limited opportunities. HE has excelled so much this season that the Nuggets quickly jettisoned Jusuf Nurkić who was the incumbent starter at Center and a 1st round pick in the same 2014 draft.
Nikola Jokic is apparently a triple double threat from the center position in a team that is currently loaded with wing players. He’s able to be the fulcrum of the offense from multiple parts of the floor. His closest comparison on offense is Marc Gasol but Jokic does not do much currently on the defensive side.
His production has increased each month this season as he has been given more minutes and the Nuggets have pared down their offensive sets. There reasonably stands to be a regression in his stats as more teams attempt to prevent him from getting the ball to initiate the offense. The Nuggets front office and coaching staff are one in the league currently at letting their young players learn from their mistakes in addition to developing off the court so there is also a chance that he might still be just scratching the surface of his potential but only time will tell.
Career development so far 7/10, NBA Starter
Career ceiling: 3+ All Star Appearances
The soon to be recipient of a max contract this coming offseason, Otto Porter has gone from NBA bust to integral role player. It is unlikely that he will ever be an All Star. He instead excels in the gap between role player and star. As a low usage player alongside ball dominant (not ballhogs) players such as John Wall and Bradley Beal, he provides whatever the rest of the Wizards are not doing at any particular time from rebounding, scoring, defending etc.
His efficiency is off the charts for a young player in the modern NBA and seem likely not to regress and his usage increases in the future. Compared to his rookie season, nobody would have thought he would average 53% from the field and 46% from 3-point land in his 4th season. He is the quintessential glue which is becoming increasingly rare. If he remains with the Wizards his role will likely remain the same but it easy to envision him becoming a more focal part of the offense for a new team if he signs with them in the offseason similar to Harrison Barnes.
Career development so far 8/10, NBA Starter
Career ceiling: 2+ All Star Appearances
The last player on the healthy portion of the list, Clint Capela might not have the best standard statistics for his career but he’s the only young player to play an integral role on a serious playoff team. While the Rockets are ostensibly built on the seven seconds or less mantra of Mike D’Antoni, Capela anchors the defense and has surprisingly good hands and off the ball movement which allows him to get the majority of his points through open dunks. His 64% FG stands in stark contrast to his terrible free throw shooting which to be fair has improved considerably from his rookie year.
His development has come about much faster than anticipated and this enabled the Rockets to allow Dwight Howard to leave in free agency. Dwight Howard has been an obviously great mentor to Capela as their movements on the court are very similar but he does not have any off court baggage. His contributions on the court will increase as he continues to gain more of the coaches trust and it won’t be long before he’s averaging well over 30 MPG and a double-double with about 2 BPG.
Career development so far 3/10, NBA Starter
Career ceiling: Defensive First Team , 2+ All Star Appearances
Trust the process. Never has there been a more fitting nickname. In a vacuum Embiid would be ranked much higher but the NBA does not exist in a vacuum and there are legitimate worries about his short and long term health.
This is Embiid’s 3rd NBA season and the first in which he has been able to play at 22 years old. As such he plays with an unbridled and freedom typically not afforded to “rookies”. It takes just a few minutes of watching Embiid to see his talent and effect on the game on both sides of the court. The longer you watch him, the more it becomes painfully obvious that he is not playing within the 76ers game plan on both ends and is instead freestyling. This hopefully will subside as his career progresses but that’s not why he’s currently listed at 11. Injury is a component of skill, your technique on the court in terms of footwork and spatial awareness aids elite players in the NBA from picking up niggling injuries from the grind of the season, injuries due to overcompensation and freak accidents. A dedication to conditioning also helps greatly but ultimately cannot prevent career defining injuries.
Remove health from the equation and he would be at top of this list (assuming he played over 30 MPG). Hopefully his career games played will be close to Blake Griffins rather than Greg Oden.
Career development so far 6/10, NBA Starter
Career ceiling: Most Valuable Player, 8+ All Star Appearances
Another player whose career is quickly becoming held hostage by his left ACL, Jabari Parker is a very weird player who somehow blends a mid-nineties NBA physique with millennial talents. Two ACL tears in the same knee in 3 years has slowed down his physical improvement but he has always been ahead of the curve in the mental aspects of the game. He’s a great complement to the Greek Freak. His offensive game is predicated on knowing exactly what he’s going to do with the ball and it’s typically the opposite of what his defender expects.
Coming into the league, most experts predicted that he would initially find his feet as a spot up shooter and post player but in his first two years he rarely took and outside shot as he preferred to drive to the rim with speed that belies his frame. This season as he was finally finding his feet, he began to expand his beyond the three-point line and became better at not holding on to the ball as long.
His career Field Goal percentage of 49% is more impressive when you realize he’s spent his entire career alternating between SG/SF/PF with a 60+ game gap between his first and second year. Hopefully he can recover once again from his latest ACL tear and use this time off the court to study how to become a better defender.
Career development so far 7/10, NBA Starter
Career ceiling: 5+ All Star Appearances
The hardest position to learn in the NBA is point guard. Being the highest drafted player for the Lakers since 1982 (James Worthy with the 2nd overall pick) puts an intense spotlight on you especially when combined with the final seasons of Kobe Bryant and Bryon Scott two of the most cantankerous curmudgeons the game has ever seen. Bryon Scott spent Russell’s entire season trolling and then gaslighting him.
His entire rookie playbook consisted of two plays:
Bring the ball up the court and pass it to Kobe
Watch Kobe bring the ball up the court while standing in a corner
So it was a pleasant surprise this season before he got injured, after the ridiculous Nick Young videotaping scandals, that he has quickly shown why he was the second overall pick under new head coach Luke Walton. The Lakers were above .500 at the beginning of the season and quickly went into a tailspin when Russell became injured. His statistics are good for a second year player with 15 PPG 3 RPG and 5 APG but his value lies beyond the statistics. He can control the offense and dictate the flow of the game which is doing for a team that has a new head coach, new center, new small forward and new starting shooting guard. Being able to adapt to change is a key trait for successful players and Russell seems to have a lot of it.
His floor seems to be a taller Kemba Walker and if he can refine his interior and increase his burst through dedicated training he can become closer to James Harden.