The NBA's 10 Most Exciting Young Players

Geoff Ratliff@@geoffratliffContributor IIIJanuary 1, 2013

The NBA's 10 Most Exciting Young Players

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    The NBA is a star-driven league, and its future is in great hands with the next generation of young stars*.  

    Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Paul Pierce continue to impress well into their thirties.  Other NBA greats like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant are just hitting their prime. 

    But even as the seasoned veterans continue to dominate headlines and highlight reels, a small group of emerging stars are making their presence felt on a nightly basis.

    Some may be another year or two away from earning their first All-Star nod, but these ten players will become household names in the very near future. 

    *All players on this list were either drafted in 2010 or later, or have less than three years of NBA experience.

10. Evan Turner, G/F, Philadelphia 76ers

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    After a spectacular college career at Ohio State, many people wondered how well his skills would translate to the NBA. Turner did everything well, but was considered not a good enough shooter to play the 2, and not explosive enough to be an effective 3.

    Now in his third season with the Philadelphia 76ers, Turner’s well-rounded game is one of the biggest reasons why the team has such a bright future.

    He is averaging 15.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.1 assist per game this season and has finally gotten comfortable with his role. Turner has even shown the ability to run the point for games at a time, helping the 76ers tremendously when Jrue Holliday missed a few games earlier this month.

    After leading Philadelphia to a first-round upset of the Chicago Bulls in last year’s playoffs, Turner and the 76ers are looking to take another step towards winning an NBA Title this season.

9. Jordan Crawford, G, Washington Wizards

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    The season-long absence of Washington Wizards point guard John Wall has given Jordan Crawford more opportunities to shine, and Crawford has not disappointed. The third-year shooting guard has been Washington's best player this season, delivering on the promise he showed in his two seasons at Xavier.

    Many basketball enthusiast first learned of Crawford when he delivered this memorable dunk over LeBron James at the reigning league MVP's summer camp in 2009. Now that he's gotten a chance to display his talents on the NBA, Crawford is proving to be much more than a one-trick pony.

    For the season, Crawford is averaging 15.8 points, 4.8 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game, demonstrating an extremely versatile game. Those averages have jumped to 18.5, 6.5 and 5.2—along with 1.5 steals per game—in December while Crawford has filled in for the injured A.J. Price at point guard. 

    Crawford needs to become more efficient with his shooting and ball handling, but he’s definitely shown that he can be a future star in this league.

8. Anthony Davis, F, New Orleans Hornets

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    It will definitely take longer for Anthony Davis to lead the New Orleans Hornets to an NBA Title than it did for him to lead Kentucky to a national championship. Hornets fans have no reason to worry, however, as both he and the team have bright futures. 

    Davis entered the NBA as the consensus choice as the top selection in last summer’s NBA Draft. In his one season at Kentucky, he led the Wildcats to a 38-2 record, delivered coach John Calipari his first title and earned the Naismith Award as the most outstanding player in college basketball. 

    Although Davis missed 13 games this season with a sprained ankle, he has wasted no time showing why he is considered perhaps the best frontcourt prospect since Kevin Garnett. He is averaging 14.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in his first 14 games, while still developing an offensive repertoire and adjusting to the NBA game. 

    Basketball fans should get used to seeing Davis at All-Star weekend for the next 10-15 years.

7. Kemba Walker, G, Charlotte Bobcats

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    Like Turner, Kemba Walker also entered the NBA with questions about his future following an outstanding college career. 

    Walker led an inexperienced Connecticut Huskies on a surprising run to the national championship during his senior season. Despite his heroics, many NBA experts pegged him as potential bust when the Charlotte Bobcats selected him with the No. 9 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft.

    Walker struggled during his rookie season, as he shot just 36.6 percent from the field, including 30.5 percent from three-point range. He has increased both numbers significantly this season while leading the Bobcats in scoring (18.3 PPG), assists (6.0) and steals (1.9).

    Walker’s improvement has not translated into much more team success this year with Charlotte mired in a 15-game losing streak after an encouraging 7-5 start. His improved play is still a great sign for franchise that has missed on so many lottery picks of late.

6. Demarcus Cousins, C, Sacramento Kings

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    Since arriving in the NBA in 2010, Sacramento Kings center Demarcus Cousins has been a terror both on and off the court. Character issues did not keep him out of the draft’s top five, but they have prevented Cousins from becoming perhaps the best big man in the league.

    Coming off a year in which Cousins averaged 18.1 points and 11 rebounds per game, he appeared ready to start a string of consecutive 20-and-10 (points and rebounds) seasons in 2012-13. Instead, Cousins’ history of immature behavior has continued. 

    He has already drawn two suspensions this season for conduct detrimental to the team. 

    Cousins has time to grow up as he's still just 22, but the Kings need that to happen sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, Sacramento has no established veterans or a well-respected coach to hold him accountable, so Cousins may need a change of scenery in order to reach his full potential.

5. John Wall, G, Washington Wizards

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    John Wall’s ascent to NBA stardom has been delayed following a right-knee injury that has sidelined him the entire season. When has been on the court, Wall has mostly justified his status as the No. 1 pick of the 2010 NBA Draft. 

    Wall still needs to develop a more reliable outside shot and cut down on his high turnover rate (nearly 4 per game in 135 career games). But he has dazzled NBA fans during his first two seasons with his lightning-quick first step and explosive drives through the lane.

    There is still no definitive timetable for Wall’s return to the court this season. The Wizards won’t rush the return of their most talented player, so Washington fans will have to be patient.

    Once he finally makes his way back to the starting lineup, Wall will try to lead the Wizards to a resurgence similar to what fellow Washington phenom Robert Griffin III has done with the Redskins.

4. Paul George, F, Indiana Pacers

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    Indiana Pacers small forward Paul George is threatening to become the crown jewel of a loaded 2010 draft class. He has taken full advantage of the absence of Danny Granger to lead the Pacers to a 16-12 start, good for fourth in the Eastern Conference.

    While Granger is expected to miss another month or more, George has emerged as Indiana’s best player. He is achieving career highs in points (16.3), rebounds (7.1), assists (3.6), minutes (35.9) and free throw percentage (81.1%), all while becoming a team leader.

    George needs to deliver on a more consistent basis in order to make the leap to superstardom. At just 22 years of age, there is little question that George will continue to improve.

3. Damian Lillard, G, Portland Trailblazers

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    Anyone who thinks Anthony Davis will run away with this season’s NBA Rookie of the Year award has apparently not watched Damian Lillard play. Between his time at Weber State and his short stint as the Portland Trailblazers dynamic point guard, those without the NBA Ticket can be forgiven for the oversight. 

    Unless you are a hardcore basketball junkie, you may have raised your eyebrows when Portland selected Lillard with the No. 6 pick in this year’s draft. By leading all NBA rookies in minutes (37.8), points (18.6), assists (6.5) and steals (1.1), Lillard has more than justified the pick.

    The Trailblazers are unlikely to make the playoffs in a tough Western Conference this season. With Lillard at the helm, however, don’t expect Portland’s playoff drought to continue for much longer.

2. Ricky Rubio, G, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Ricky Rubio’s path to the NBA was delayed for two years, but he did not disappoint once he finally debuted with the Minnesota Timberwolves last season. 

    Minnesota selected Rubio with the fifth pick of the 2009 draft, the first of three point guards they selected in the first round that year. He was always considered to be the grand prize, even if the T-Wolves had to wait a couple of years to reap the benefits of his services. 

    In 41 games last season, Rubio averaged 10.6 points and 8.2 assists per game. Along with star power forward Kevin Love, Rubio had Minnesota in position to earn a playoff berth with a 21-20 record.

    But Rubio’s season came to an abrupt end when he tore his ACL in a March 9 game against the Los Angeles Lakers. He also missed the first 21 games of this season while recovering from the injury.

    Although the Timberwolves are being cautious with Rubio in keeping him on a pre-set minutes limit early on, his return has already provided a huge emotional spark for Minnesota. If he can remain on the court, the Timberwolves have a great shot at making the playoffs for the first time since the 2003-04 season.

1. Kyrie Irving, G, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    No young star shines brighter than Kyrie Irving these days. The top pick of the 2011 draft has done nothing but impress since the day he made his debut for Cleveland Cavaliers. 

    Irving’s NBA career was slightly delayed as he continued to recover from a foot injury that limited his college career to 11 games at Duke. But in 51 games last year, Irving averaged 18.5 points, 5.4 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game while demonstrating the poise of a 10-year veteran.  

    He was also forced to miss 11 games this year after injuring his index finger in November. However, in 18 games this season, Irving has upped his scoring to 22.8 points per game while maintaining his previous levels of assists and rebounds. 

    Still just 20 years old, it’s amazing to think what Irving will achieve if he stays healthy and fully masters the NBA game. Apparently the good folks at ESPN believe that his rise is inevitable, as he is featured in their annual NEXT issue, which hit newsstands this week.

Honorable Mention

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    Avery Bradley, G, Boston Celtics: The third-year guard out of Texas was sorely missed during Boston’s surprising playoff run last year. He will soon return to the lineup to help the Celtics get back to the NBA Finals.

    Kenneth Faried, F, Denver Nuggets: Faried has quickly established himself as one of the league’s best rebounders, eliminating questions about him being a classic tweener. He has also added a surprising amount of offense to the Denver Nuggets, while becoming one of their emotional leaders.

    Austin Rivers, G, New Orleans Hornets: Rivers has mostly struggled during his rookie season with the New Orleans Hornets, but he has occasionally justified the hype. Along with fellow rookie Davis, Rivers will make it easier for basketball fans in New Orleans to get past the Chris Paul era.

    Larry Sanders, F, Milwaukee Bucks: After leading VCU to a surprising Final Four run during the 2011 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, Sanders has emerged as a spark plug for the Milwaukee Bucks off the bench. The second-year forward leads the NBA in blocked shots thanks to monster efforts like his 10-point, 12-rebound and 10-block performance against the Timberwolves on November 30.