Which Young Player Is the Future of Every NBA Franchise?
A youth movement has descended upon the NBA.
From a crop of brilliant young point guards to a new generation of diverse big men, the landscape of the Association continues to change as these players emerge and make names for themselves.
What's even more surprising is the depth of young talent across the league. Nearly every team has a young asset or two to build around, and those that don't are replete with established superstars, making them perennial playoff contenders.
Note: For the purposes of this slideshow, young players are classified as 27 years old or younger.
Atlanta Hawks: Al Horford
Although the Atlanta Hawks decided to match the Milwaukee Bucks' offer sheet to Jeff Teague, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Chris Vivlamore, Al Horford is still the choice.
Horford, a two-time All-Star, is an absolute rock in the middle and the primary reason the Hawks will remain in playoff contention this season, despite undergoing significant changes this summer.
The University of Florida product is coming off the best season of his career, statistically, having averaged a double-double (17.4 points and 10.2 rebounds) for the first time in 2012-13.
Horford is efficient to boot, posting the 12th highest PER (19.84) among centers last season, according to ESPN.
Boston Celtics: Rajon Rondo
As far as young stars go, Rajon Rondo finds himself on the older end of the spectrum.
The Boston Celtics' floor general has been dubbed the team's future star by default, but there's no denying he possesses the skill and intelligence necessary to assume that role. The real question surrounds Rondo's ability to lead—and lead well.
Rebuilding will presumably take more than a few years, but if Rondo is willing to stick it out with Brad Stevens and place his trust in Danny Ainge to make big-time personnel moves, the Celtics should be back in the playoff conversation in short order.
Although Rondo is often criticized for lacking a jump shot, his statistics last season would seem to indicate that he's found his stroke from mid-range.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, Rondo converted on 50.8 percent of his 132 attempts between 16 feet and the three-point line, which is the highest percentage he shot from any range on the floor outside of the rim.
Brooklyn Nets: Brook Lopez
If Brook Lopez can sustain his current level of play over the life of his four-year, $60 million deal with the Brooklyn Nets, it won't matter how many veteran parts come and go, so long as they can complement his versatile game.
Lopez ran roughshod over Eastern Conference bigs last season to the tune of 19.4 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game.
But it was Lopez's efficiency that was the icing on the cake.
According to ESPN, Lopez finished fifth among all players with a PER of 24.81, with only Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant and LeBron James posting higher marks. In addition, Lopez posted the highest PER of any center, with the second-closest being teammate Andray Blatche (21.98).
Charlotte Bobcats: Kemba Walker
The Charlotte Bobcats are replete with young guns, but it remains to be seen which, if any, develop into franchise centerpieces.
Among the candidates are Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kemba Walker and Cody Zeller, but at this point in time, one of those names stands out above the rest.
Walker, in his second season out of UConn, showed significant improvement on the offensive end, upping his field-goal percentage from 36.6 to a steadier 42.3 percent.
In addition, Walker posted increases in scoring (17.7 points per game) and assists (5.7 per game) during his sophomore campaign, one in which his efficiency bolted from a pedestrian mark of 14.9 to an above-average 18.8. Walker also finished fourth in the league in steals last season, swiping the rock 160 times over the course of 82 games.
Chicago Bulls: Derrick Rose
A year after they bowed out of first round of the playoffs due to Derrick Rose's torn ACL, the Chicago Bulls returned with a vengeance, advancing to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Although the Bulls fell to the Miami Heat in five games, their resiliency sans Rose was impressive.
With Rose back next season? Watch out.
The 2010-11 MVP will finally return at full strength after months of speculation, and reprise his role as the centerpiece of the Bulls offense.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, Rose's career similarity score through four seasons mirrors that of John Stockton. If he can sustain such a pace, the Bulls will find themselves in the title conversation in no time.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving
Kyrie Irving is nothing if not consistent. After capturing Rookie of the Year honors in 2011-12, Irving was named to his first All-Star Game in 2013. If the first two years have been any indication, expect Irving's trophy case to fill up more in year three.
At 20 years old, Irving led the Cleveland Cavaliers in scoring (22.5 points per game), assists (5.9 per game) and steals (1.5 per game).
One year earlier, Irving averaged 18.5 points per game on 46.9 percent shooting. His shooting percentage dipped slightly to 45.2 this season, but Irving's PER remained steady at an impressive 21.4.
Arguably the game's brightest young point guard, Irving and the Cavaliers will be the premier young team to watch in the Eastern Conference this season.
Dallas Mavericks: None
Dirk Nowitzki? Thirty-five years old. Jose Calderon? Pushing 32. After striking out in their pursuit of Dwight Howard, the Dallas Mavericks lack a true young stud who will help move the franchise forward.
According to ESPN's Marc Stein, 27-year-old Monta Ellis has agreed to terms with Dallas on a deal that will last three years and pay up to $30 million. And while Ellis is an intriguing name, he doesn't possess the credentials to be considered the future of the Mavericks.
Not only is Ellis turning 28 years old in October, but his style of play is inefficient and downright frustrating to watch at times.
Ellis is one of the game's most gifted scorers, but he shot 41.6 percent from the field (28.7 percent from three) last season en route to a 19.2 point-per-game average.
With ESPN's Tim MacMahon reporting via Twitter that it's a "virtual certainty" Brandan Wright will return to the Mavs, fans in Dallas need to cross their fingers and hope that the 25-year-old center breaks out in 2013-14.
Denver Nuggets: Ty Lawson
With Andre Iguodala now situated in Golden State, the Denver Nuggets' offensive burden will fall squarely on Ty Lawson's shoulders.
Lawson was erratic during the first half of last season, but his second-half performance was more indicative of what the Nuggets should expect from their franchise point guard moving forward.
After the All-Star break, Lawson converted on 50.4 percent of his field goals while scoring 18.8 points per game (three points better than his average prior to the All-Star break).
The Nuggets are in a tough spot heading into next season, but assuming management surrounds Lawson with defensive complements on the wing, Denver will be nicely situated out West.
Detroit Pistons: Andre Drummond
13.8 points, 13.2 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game.
That line is precisely what Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond averaged per-36 minutes last season, according to Basketball-Reference.com, and it has him trending upward after being labeled a project heading into the 2012 draft.
Drummond still needs to work hard at improving his post game, but after last season, one thing's for sure: He's built for today's NBA.
Drummond is a spectacular athlete who can run the floor, fill passing lanes and finish off lobs as well as the most athletic bigs in the game.
A shot-blocking and rebounding machine with a nose for the basket, Drummond looks like the sort of big man who can carry the Pistons for the next decade.
Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry
If there's another star who's going to join the 50-40-90 club next season, it's Stephen Curry. That is, if his ankles cooperate.
Curry appeared in 78 of the Golden State Warriors' 82 games last season, an impressive number when you consider he missed 40 games during the lockout-shortened campaign of 2011-12.
Returning to form, Curry proved on several occasions why he's one of the most feared perimeter shooters the game has seen in some time.
With phenomenal court vision to boot, Curry and a loaded Warriors team are in prime position to contend for a top-four seed in the Western Conference.
Houston Rockets: James Harden
James Harden announced his presence to the NBA universe with a breakout 2012-13 campaign in which he finished fifth in scoring, averaging 25.9 points per contest.
And it wasn't just the fact that Harden filled it up night after night. It's how he did it.
Harden was an efficiency machine in his first season with the Houston Rockets, getting to the free-throw line 10.2 times per game while attempting 6.2 threes a night.
This sort of refined inside-outside approach resulted in a career-best PER of 23 per Harden, which ranked just outside of the top 10, according to ESPN.
Indiana Pacers: Paul George
Paul George emerged as an offensive dynamo in the absence of Danny Granger, but it's defense that consistently keeps George in the superstar conversation.
There's no doubting George's star credentials. He can create off the dribble or hit shots off the catch, attacks the hoop with gusto and competes relentlessly on the defensive end, thanks to his elite athleticism and length.
Along with David West and Roy Hibbert, George did the heavy lifting necessary to carry the Indiana Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals last season. With George's emergence complete and the guts of the Pacers' roster returning, Indiana has a chance to return to make a lengthy playoff run against next season.
Los Angeles Clippers: Blake Griffin
The number of years Blake Griffin has played in the NBA corresponds directly to how many All-Star appearances he's made. Three.
At 24 years old, Griffin has taken the Association by storm with his high-flying acrobatics and emphatic flushes.
But there's so much more to Griffin's game than the highlight-reel jams that cloud our schemas of the 24-year-old.
Griffin has developed a top-notch post game in the span of three years and has never averaged fewer than 18 points per game. He's also never shot worse than 50 percent from the floor.
On shots between three and nine feet last season, Griffin converted on 46.6 percent of his looks, according to Basketball-Reference.com, which speaks to the versatility he's worked so hard to cultivate.
Los Angeles Lakers: None
Simply put, the Los Angeles Lakers have no young building blocks. They'll make due with an aging core consisting of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash this season, then turn to free agency in the summer of 2014 to replenish their stock of young talent.
While the Lakers are being widely viewed as a lottery team next season, I highly doubt we'll see a team led by Bryant, Gasol and Nash fall so fast.
Only once in Bryant's career have the Lakers missed the playoffs (2004-05), and although the Western Conference continues to improve, the Lakers have enough ammo to compete with the likes of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets for the seventh and eighth seeds.
Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Conley
Prior to last season, this may have been more of a debate. But after Mike Conley exploded in the second half of the season following Rudy Gay's departure, it's clear that the Memphis Grizzlies made the right decision to sign their point guard to a five-year, $40 million contract extension in the fall of 2010.
After the All-Star break, Conley's scoring average jumped 3.4 points (from 13.3 to 16.7), while he shot 46 percent from the field, besting the 42.6 percent he shot prior to the break.
Conley has always been known as a reliable and aggressive defender, but his emergence as a point guard who could create, not just for others but for himself, was a significant development.
Miami Heat: None
Of course, James can be that player for another four or five years should he re-up with the Heat next summer, but as mentioned previously, he exceeds the age requirement for qualification on this list.
Heck, even Mario Chalmers is 27. But even if he were younger, he hasn't flashed enough to make anyone believe that he could lead a team all by himself.
The Heat have a three-peat in their sights, and they may very well capture it. It just remains to be seen what happens to the league's most dazzling collection of talent after the final horn sounds.
Milwaukee Bucks: Larry Sanders
First, and most importantly, watch the video above in which Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry explains Larry Sanders' capabilities on the defensive end. If you're not convinced Sanders is a young player a team can build around, your mind will be changed after watching Goldsberry's breakdown.
With Monta Ellis now residing in Dallas, the Milwaukee Bucks' youngster tasked with leading the way is the nimble and lengthy Sanders.
Sanders differs from his young contemporaries in that he makes his living on the defensive end, using his absurd 7'6'' wingspan to disrupt and block shots at a high clip.
Based on Goldsberry's breakdown, we begin to understand that Sanders makes many little plays down in the restricted area that aren't exactly quantifiable with simple statistics.
But if we do take those box score statistics into account as well, it's clear that Sanders is among the league's premier shot-blockers after a breakout campaign in 2012-13.
Sanders finished last season ranked second in blocks per game (2.83) and accrued the third-most total blocks (201), finishing behind only Serge Ibaka (242) and Roy Hibbert (206).
Minnesota Timberwolves: Kevin Love
This is a two-horse race between Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, but in the end, the two-time All-Star won out.
The Minnesota Timberwolves find themselves fortunate to have two players under the age of 25 as talented as Love and Rubio, each of whom is capable of creating matchup problems for opponents.
Love missed the bulk of last season battling hand and knee injuries, but assuming he returns at full strength in 2013-14, he should help end the T'Wolves' nine-year playoff drought.
An exemplary stretch 4, Love is a 35.2 percent shooter from three for his career and has proven in the past that he's capable of stepping up and hitting big shots, no matter the distance.
New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis didn't win Rookie of the Year or capture any high honors during his inaugural NBA season, but he sure did show some serious promise.
Davis logged 28.8 minutes per game last season, but with an increase in playing time in the years ahead, he should be a lock to average a double-double.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, Davis averaged 16.9 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes last season. If he can replicate that production this season, he'll find himself suiting up in the All-Star Game.
While arguments could be made for young guns like Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, it remains to be seen how the two adapt to new roles in an offense loaded with scoring options and ball-handlers.
New York Knicks: Iman Shumpert
Iman Shumpert wins future centerpiece honors, as the New York Knicks possess few assets under the age of 27.
Through two seasons, however, Shumpert has shown improvement on both ends of the floor. During his rookie season, it was Shumpert's defensive abilities that stood out.
In the 2013 postseason, Shumpert's offensive game shined brightest, as he averaged 9.3 points per game on 41 percent shooting (42.9 percent from three).
A selfless player oozing with athleticism, Shumpert is the sort of role player who can have a significant impact on a championship-caliber club.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Kevin Durant
Both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are 24 years old, but the obvious pick here is the three-time scoring champion.
In just his sixth season, Durant was off the charts, averaging 28.1 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. But those numbers hardly do his performance justice.
Durant qualified for the exclusive 50-40-90 club with shooting splits of .510/.416/.905, which are miraculous when you consider that he took 976 more jump shots than he did dunks and layups combined, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Perhaps the purest shooter of his generation, Durant is the undeniable present and future of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Orlando Magic: Victor Oladipo
Rob Hennigan and the Orlando Magic have done a commendable job adding young talent over the past year-and-a-half.
Among the names Hennigan has managed to add via trades and the draft are Nikola Vucevic, Moe Harkless, Tobias Harris, Arron Afflalo and Andrew Nicholson.
And then there's Victor Oladipo, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2013 draft. Oladipo possesses all of the traits to be a franchise cornerstone. His athleticism and defensive instincts are strong enough that they could one day buoy the Orlando defense. And if he adds a reliable jumper to his offensive arsenal, there's no telling how high Oladipo's ceiling will be.
The next two years will likely be developmental in nature for Oladipo, but don't be surprised to see the former Hoosier's name crop up in Rookie of the Year conversation this season.
Philadelphia 76ers: Nerlens Noel
As you can tell from the composition of this list, young, talented centers are had to come by these days.
The Philadelphia 76ers took a shot when they acquired Nerlens Noel and a 2014 first-round pick in exchange for Jrue Holiday, but there's no denying Sam Hinkie got phenomenal value in return for his All-Star point guard.
Noel enters the league a raw offensive prospect at 19 years old, but his shot-blocking and rebounding capabilities alone make him a solid building block as the Sixers look to start from scratch.
Finding their next superstar will be a tall task, but with Noel in the middle, the Sixers have a reliable commodity who, at the very least, will be able to anchor their defense for the foreseeable future.
Phoenix Suns: Eric Bledsoe
The Phoenix Suns made noise in a positive way for the first time in recent memory when they acquired Eric Bledsoe from the Los Angeles Clippers in a three-team trade.
Bledsoe's taken a backseat to Chris Paul in L.A. for years, but now he finds himself the star of the show in Phoenix, where he'll be given every opportunity to succeed.
An athletic specimen with a lightning-quick first step, Bledsoe will thrive should the Suns implement an up-tempo attack under Jeff Hornacek.
In 2013-14, Bledsoe should shatter all previous career-highs as he approaches the 30-minute-per-game threshold. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 14 points and six assists per game sounds reasonable to start.
Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard
Damian Lillard entered the NBA a polished offensive prospect and broke out for 19 points per game on 42.9 percent shooting (36.8 percent shooting from three) en route to 2012-13 Rookie of the Year honors.
The Weber State product also proved to be a proficient passer during his rookie season, averaging 6.5 dimes per game. Soon to be 23 years old, Lillard is firmly entrenched as one of the league's brightest young point guards.
And although Lillard leaves plenty to be desired on the defensive end, he's an explosive scorer capable of being a legitimate No. 1 option for the Portland Trail Blazers offense for years to come.
Sacramento Kings: DeMarcus Cousins
Despite visible issues with DeMarcus Cousins' immaturity, the 22-year-old center is dripping with potential.
One of the most talented young bigs in the game, Cousins averaged a near-double-double last season, scoring 17.1 points and pulling down 9.9 rebounds.
Another positive sign for Cousins is that his shooting proficiency ticked up last season. Cousins hit on 46.5 percent of his field goals in 2012-13, up from 44.8 percent during the 2011-12 campaign.
If new head coach Mike Malone can work his magic and make Cousins' focus laser sharp, the Kings will have a winning foundation to build upon.
San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard
So much for the San Antonio Spurs being old and boring. Over the course of the Spurs' run to the NBA Finals, Kawhi Leonard emerged as a major player, one who could soon be an All-Star.
In 21 playoff games, Leonard posted averages of 13.5 points, nine boards and 1.8 steals. But the advanced numbers tell a more complete story.
Leonard tied Tim Duncan for the team lead in defensive rating throughout the postseason (among players who logged more than 200 minutes), allowing just 98 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
A defensive wizard with a surprisingly complete offensive game for a 22-year-old, Leonard has all the makings of a star.
Like Indiana Pacers All-Star Paul George, Leonard makes his living on the defensive end, but can step out and knock down treys or put the ball on the floor when necessary.
Toronto Raptors: DeMar DeRozan
The Toronto Raptors are loaded with young assets—namely Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross.
Gay is arguably the most talented of that foursome, but considering his contract expires after paying out a gargantuan $37.1 million over the next two years, there's no lock that he'll be around to see the Raptors' future unfold.
Instead, I'll go with DeRozan, who's signed through 2016-17 after inking a four-year, $40 million extension last November.
From a scoring standpoint, DeRozan is coming off his strongest season to date. In 2012-13, the Southern California product averaged a career-high 18.1 points. However, DeRozan still has work to do when it comes to contributing in other areas of the game.
DeRozan has never averaged more than four rebounds per game for a single season and has yet to crack the three-assist-per-game mark. Even for a shooting guard, that's a tad low.
If the Toronto 2-guard can work an even semi-reliable three-point jumper (23.9 percent from three over four seasons) into his repertoire, the Raptors will be happy they signed DeRozan to that extension when they did.
Utah Jazz: Derrick Favors
Age: 21 (turns 22 on July 15)
With Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap now residing in Charlotte and Atlanta, respectively, it's Derrick Favors' time to shine with the Utah Jazz.
Favors barely cracked the 20-minute-per-game threshold each of the last two seasons, but with the frontcourt logjam now gone, Favors figures to start at power forward alongside Enes Kanter.
If we're to draw conclusions based on Millsap's playing time at the 4, Favors should see somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 to 34 minutes per game, which should result in some big numbers.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, Favors' projected per-36 numbers in 2013-14 are as follows: 14.9 points, 10.9 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 1.2 steals.
With a significant increase in playing time looming, Favors will quickly remind spectators why he was drafted No. 3 overall in 2010.
Washington Wizards: John Wall
After two seasons of relatively disappointing performances, John Wall broke out in 2012-13. The 2010 No. 1 overall pick averaged a career-high 18.5 points per game last season, 44.1 percent shooting and posted an assist percentage of 43.9 which was far and away the best mark of his career by seven points.
In addition, Wall was the most efficient he's ever been, posting a PER of 20.8, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Surrounded by Bradley Beal and Otto Porter, Wall and the Wizards should find themselves consistently in the Eastern Conference playoff picture for the next five years.