Ranking the Best 1-2 Combos in the NBA Under 25 Years Old
Young talent is the NBA's most valuable commodity—so valuable, in fact, that the latest league-wide trend in roster building focuses on accumulating under-25 talent and letting it grow together. One youthful star is a start, but squads that have a pair of up-and-coming studs are well on their way to constructing perennial playoff contenders.
Just ask the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In ranking the NBA's top one-two punches under the age of 25, we're looking primarily at how good those pairs are right now. So last season's win share totals will be key in the evaluation process.
But raw statistics can't be the sole determinant, especially when dealing with players who, by and large, haven't come close to reaching their full potential. Thankfully, old-fashioned gut instinct and a healthy dose of prognostication will factor in as well.
If a duo has what seems to be an especially high ceiling, they'll earn a high rating even if they haven't put together much of a resume just yet.
So, uh, "twerk" and #yolo...or whatever. Is that what the kids are saying? Anyway, we're running down the best young pairs of teammates in the NBA.
Honorable Mention: Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio
Kevin Love (24) and Ricky Rubio (22) just miss the top 10 for a handful of reasons, not the least of which being the fact that Love turns 25 on Sept. 7. That puts him dangerously close to disqualification from our list.
More problematic, though, is this duo's inability to log much court time together. Love missed nearly the entire 2012-13 season, and Rubio tore his ACL in March of his rookie year. He couldn't get back on the hardwood consistently until January, 2013, by which point Love's campaign was over.
Theoretically, these two should work well together. Rubio excels as a creative passer who finds unconventional opportunities to set up his teammates. And Love's pick-and-pop game is second to none.
These guys will eventually settle into a groove that should help the Minnesota Timberwolves stay in the hunt for the eighth spot out West this season. It's just too bad that it has taken two full years for them to get that chance.
No. 10: Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson
If only Stephen Curry hadn't turned 25 last March...
Harrison Barnes (21) and Klay Thompson (23) may be fighting for a starting spot during training camp, but you can bet that's a battle the Golden State Warriors are happy about.
Both of the Dubs' young wings are on the rise, with Thompson adding a splash of defense to his elite perimeter shooting and Barnes using the 2012-13 playoffs as his personal breakout party. With Andre Iguodala on board as a mentor, expect the growth process to suddenly accelerate.
Golden State is set at the wing positions for years to come.
No. 9: Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum
The Portland Trail Blazers will be glad to finally have a bench this season, but the real source of joy in Rip City is the team's promising backcourt.
In Damian Lillard (22), the Blazers have one of the NBA's top offensive point guards. If he shores up his defense to anything close to league-average levels, he'll be on the fast track to an All-NBA berth in short order.
Nicolas Batum (24) is a bit more of an enigma, as he seems to possess all of the tools to be an elite wing player, but hasn't quite put them all together yet. Of course, that's the beauty of young players: There's always room for them to improve.
Lillard and Batum both amassed 5.8 win shares last season, per Basketball-Reference.com, giving them a combined total of 11.6 that actually ranks third among all of the duos on this list. If they can both take steps forward this year, the Blazers will be in the playoff hunt.
No. 8: Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis
Welcome to the speculative section of the rankings, where we take two players who have never worn the same uniform (except for team photo shoots, obviously) and recklessly assume that they'll be great together.
Really, though, how hard is it to imagine Jrue Holiday (23) and Anthony Davis (20) comprising one of the league's best one-two combos?
Holiday slipped a bit after the All-Star break last season, but it's hard to blame a guy who was carrying the entire Philadelphia 76ers offense on his shoulders for losing some steam down the stretch. Forget the late-season swoon; Holiday is a real talent who plays both ends well.
And then there's Davis, already a defensive asset and looking like a guy with potential to lead the league in rebounds while developing a dangerous perimeter game on offense. Truth be told, there's no way to know how good Davis might one day become. If he makes only marginal improvements, this duo could still earn its No. 8 rating.
But if he reaches his full potential, the Holiday-Davis tandem could shoot up another five or six spots with ease. Stay tuned New Orleans Pelicans fans; things could get very interesting in the next couple of years.
No. 7: Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond
Our first frontcourt only duo is a big one. But size isn't all Greg Monroe (23) and Andre Drummond (20) have going for them. They've also got a pair of complementary games that could soon give the Detroit Pistons one of the nicest big-man pairings in the game—regardless of age.
Drummond is a leaping, alley-oop-slamming, shot-swatting beast. Monroe is a polished offensive player who excels at the elbows as a facilitator. While Drummond may always be too raw to function as more than a dunker on offense, he'll help erase the defensive blunders his plodding teammate makes against the pick-and-roll.
It's a match made in heaven!
Well, except for the part where the Pistons have to figure out a way to get Josh Smith involved without letting him play small forward. But hey, we're focusing on the positives here.
No. 6: Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors
It might sound crazy, but there's a great chance that Enes Kanter (21) and Derrick Favors (22) will be more productive this season than the veterans who kept them confined to the bench a year ago. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap were a nice duo for the Utah Jazz last season, but with immense size, great athleticism and more playing time than they'll know what to do with, Kanter and Favors are going to be huge in 2013-14.
And since they're both so young, expect them to hold down Utah's frontcourt for a long, long time.
In terms of this list, Kanter and Favors finished a combined 3.7 win shares behind Drummond and Monroe last year, per Basketball-Reference.com, but that will certainly change with the Utah tandem set to play starter's minutes all season long.
The Jazz aren't sure if Trey Burke or Alec Burks are the guards they want in their backcourt of the future, but there's no doubt that Kanter and Favors are both ready to put a charge into Utah's rebuilding project.
No. 5: Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters
If Dion Waiters (21) had posted even half-decent shooting numbers as a rookie, it might have helped him and teammate Kyrie Irving (21) fare a bit better in these rankings.
Then again, the top four are pretty spectacular, so even if Waiters could have hit more than 41 percent of his shots from the field, it wouldn't have made enough of a difference.
It sounds like we're bashing Waiters here, but his shooting is really his only glaring weakness. He can get to the rim at will, should eventually become better at drawing contact and has a real nose for the ball on defense.
And Irving is, without qualification, one of the league's best players. Assuming both enjoy good health going forward, the Cleveland Cavaliers are going to be a perennial playoff team.
No. 4: John Wall and Bradley Beal
John Wall will turn 23 on Sept. 6, but the Washington Wizards have already paid him like one of the NBA's elite players. With his new five-year, $80 million contract in tow, Wall will head into the 2013-14 season with major expectations.
Fortunately for Wall and the Wizards, there are plenty of signs that the point guard is ready to meet them.
Bradley Beal (20) will be ready to pitch in as well.
Beal's upside is tremendous, as he averaged 13.9 points per game while shooting a terrific 38.6 percent from three-point land. Only one other player in NBA history has ever posted those totals at such a young age: Kyrie Irving.
Beal is in rare company as a prospect, and he'll provide an able backcourt buddy for the lightning-fast Wall. Together, the drive-and-kick combo will keep the Wizards offense afloat for years to come. And from the looks of it, they're both ready to start shredding nets right now.
No. 3: Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler
Consider this a bet on Derrick Rose's return to full health. Only one player on our rankings has an MVP award to his name, and Rose (24) will be looking to reclaim his spot as one of the NBA's upper-echelon talents this season.
He'll single-handedly transform the Chicago Bulls back into title-contenders, but he won't have to do it alone.
Jimmy Butler (23) emerged as Chicago's breakout star last season, pairing elite perimeter defense with a deft perimeter touch and jaw-dropping athleticism. Perhaps he's still somewhat under the radar because casual fans aren't up to speed on the value of top-notch defense, but Butler absolutely belongs on this list.
Last season, he posted seven win shares, which was more than any player we've seen on this list so far.
Rose is the Bulls superstar, but Butler is one of the NBA's most underrated players. They'll both make plenty of noise over the next several years.
No. 2: James Harden and Chandler Parsons
Maybe it's the beard, but it's hard to believe that James Harden is still just 24 years old. One of the NBA's top offensive forces, the Houston Rockets guard seems to have been around forever. But the truth is that he's still got plenty of time to improve.
That should be a scary thought for 29 other teams.
Scarier still is the prospect of Chandler Parsons (24) getting even more open looks with Harden running the pick-and-roll alongside Dwight Howard. The versatile forward remains a deadly threat from beyond the arc (38.5 percent in 2012-13) and above the rim.
As far as perimeter duos go, it's tough to beat Harden and Parsons, who combined for a whopping 19.8 win shares last season, per Basketball-Reference.com. The key term there, is "tough," though. As the next under-25 pairing will show us, it's not impossible.
No. 1: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook
Were you expecting someone else?
This wouldn't have to be a list restricted to the NBA's best under-25 combos for Kevin Durant (24) and Russell Westbrook (24) to top it. Any ranking of the league's best tandems would have to include these two in the No. 1 spot.
Durant is the NBA's best high-volume, high-efficiency scorer—and he might wind up being the best ever.
Westbrook is a devastating force on both ends, an athletic freak whose only setting is "destroy."
These two were good enough to get the Oklahoma City Thunder to the NBA Finals when they were each just 23 (h/t James Harden), and they'll be hellbent on getting back there again for as long as they're both breathing.
Enjoy their positioning atop this list while you can, though, because Durant will turn 25 at the end of September.