5 Young NBA Stars Who Can Carry Their Own Team
There are some awfully good young players in this league who are still another year or two away from truly having what it takes to carry a team.
Count 23-year-old Blake Griffin as one of them.
Legitimate superstardom in today's NBA requires that a player can make a significant impact on both ends of the floor, take the season's most important games over and put a team on his shoulders for key stretches.
Griffin may be getting there, but he's not there yet. Nor are similar young stars like Eric Gordon, James Harden, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins or Kyrie Irving.
Some of them are on the verge, to be sure. Irving had an exceptional Rookie of the Year campaign last season and appears poised to turn the Cleveland Cavaliers around almost single-handedly. A healthy Gordon could do the same for the New Orleans Hornets, especially with Anthony Davis helping out in the paint.
But there are also guys who have established themselves as complete, dominating contributors in almost every facet of the game. Here are five guys under the age of 25 who stand out from all the rest.
Kevin Durant, SF, Oklahoma City Thunder (Age 23)
This one is a no-brainer.
It's not only the case that Kevin Durant can carry his own team. He does so with regularity, enough to warrant serious MVP consideration last season and lead the league in scoring three times.
Sure, he gets plenty of help, and that's why the Oklahoma City Thunder made it to the NBA Finals.
But even on a lesser team, Durant would remain a force with which to reckon. He's the league's best scorer, and he does a lot more than score. KD grabbed eight rebounds per game last season and used his length to his advantage on the defensive end, picking up more than a block and steal per contest.
You won't hear him get much credit for all that, largely because he wasn't an especially strong defender during his first couple of years in the league. He also struggles against stronger opponents when head coach Scott Brooks goes small and plays Durant at power forward.
Otherwise, though, he's a well-rounded player who can shoot his team back into games and then close those games out.
Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder (Age 23)
Kevin Durant may get most of the MVP attention, but Russell Westbrook would be the best player on most of the league's teams.
The fact that he and Durant are both just 23 years old seems too good to be true.
Westbrook averaged 23.6 points, 5.5 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.7 steals in his fourth season. He also had a higher usage rate than Durant, due to the fact that he's the Oklahoma City Thunder's principal playmaker and excels with the ball in his hands.
Though OKC wouldn't be nearly as good with one of its two superstars missing, there's no question that each of them has the ability to lead a quality team.
Westbrook can take games over when called to task and easily ranks as one of the game's most electric scorers. He's developed a nasty pull-up jumper that's made all the more dangerous by his ability to speed into the paint and explode to the rim.
When defenders give him an inch of space, he'll stop on a dime and bust the jumper.
Most importantly, even for those who don't count themselves fans of the Thunder, watching Westbrook is a guilty pleasure. Guys like Blake Griffin may be better known for their dunks, but there's nothing more thrilling that watching this guard throw it down over much bigger men.
Andrew Bynum, C, Philadelphia 76ers (Age 24)
The Philadelphia 76ers have to be absolutely thrilled they just got the game's second-best center in exchange for Andre Iguodala, Maurice Harkless, Nikola Vucevic and a first-round draft pick.
The fact that he is still just 24 makes the deal even sweeter.
You can see why 76ers fans took so much joy in the Andrew Bynum suggestion that he might just stick around Philly for a few more years after his contract expires next summer. They'll be even more pleased after they see this guy in action.
Bynum is one of the league's best rebounders, and his post game far outpaces that of most seven-footers. He's got an improving mid-range shot, and he can do a lot of damage with his back to the basket.
It's taken Bynum some time to overcome a series of injuries that hounded him earlier in his career, and he'll need to make the most of this opportunity to put questions about his maturity behind him for good.
If he does so, Philadelphia will have itself one of the very best young players in the league, a guy who will impact the game on both ends of the floor and generate offense in a game's waning moments.
Kevin Love, PF, Minnesota Timberwolves (Age 23)
When a guy averages 26 points and 13.3 rebounds for a season, it should go without saying that he can carry a team.
That's exactly what 23-year-old Kevin Love has been doing for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Even when surrounded by other superstars, he more than held his own on Team USA in the London Summer Olympics.
Love isn't a great rebounder by accident.
He's physical in the paint, has good size and strength and is quicker than many of the bigs facing him. But he's also made a science out of rebounding and anticipates the trajectory of missed shots as well as anyone in the league right now.
He's also cultivated one heck of a perimeter shot of late. Calling him a "spread-4" would oversimplify what he contributes to the game, but there's no question his shooting ability makes a huge difference for Minnesota.
Derrick Rose, PG, Chicago Bulls (Age 23)
You don't win an MVP award unless you have the ability to carry a team, and Rose took home the honor when he was just 22.
Of course, it helps that he has the poise and charisma of a 32-year-old.
Rose has developed an improved three-point shot, but his bread and butter involves getting into the lane and using his explosiveness and finishing ability to get buckets or get to the line. He's also got an exceptional mid-range game that's made especially dangerous by his ability to lift above defenders' outstretched hands.
Needless to say, Rose does more than score.
He leads one of the league's best defenses, rebounds like a forward and has averaged nearly eight assists in each of his last two seasons. And you can't even begin to assign a statistical value to his quiet leadership and the kind of humility that always seems to make teams better than they should be.
Only time will tell how long it will take Rose to recover from the knee surgery that repaired his torn ACL. Once he's returned to form, though, he'll instantly return his Chicago Bulls to contender status.