It might be Jack Bauer's favorite number. It's certainly way too high a total when playing blackjack. It's the number of seconds an NBA team has to shoot before the shot clock expires. It's the jersey number of Sam Jones, among other greats in basketball history.
It's also important for this article, because it's the oldest possible age with which a player can qualify for the rankings.
These are the young studs that make the Association go. They're the ones who force you to scratch your head and wonder how a player can possibly be so good at such a young age.
And—perhaps more importantly—it's an absolutely stacked group of players. The NBA is entering into a new age (cue Imagine Dragons if that's your jam), and these guys will be at the forefront of the landscape for a long, long time.
Keep in mind that players are ranked based on their current level going into 2013-14, though. Potential isn't accounted for, or else the order would look significantly different.
Team: Detroit Pistons
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 7.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.6 blocks, 21.6 PER
Expect big things from Andre Drummond in 2013-14.
I'd be shocked if he didn't rocket up these rankings after he turned 21 (not that there's a correlation there, of course). But Drummond fills up the honorable mention spot in the rankings because these are based on level of play going into the season, not potential.
Right now, Drummond is an extremely limited offensive player who thrives putting back offensive rebounds and finishing at the rim either after cutting to the basket off the ball or rolling to the rim once he sets a screen.
It's defense and rebounding where he can make his biggest mark. Even as a supposedly raw first-year player, the Detroit Pistons center held his own against the best the NBA could throw at him, emerging as a quality rim protector with Defensive Player of the Year potential.
Other players worth mentioning (in alphabetical order): Harrison Barnes, Bradley Beal, Eric Bledsoe, Derrick Favors, Tobias Harris, Gordon Hayward, Brandon Knight, Iman Shumpert, Lance Stephenson, Tristan Thompson, Jonas Valanciunas, Nikola Vucevic, Kemba Walker, Dion Waiters
Team: Minnesota Timberwolves
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 10.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 2.4 steals, 0.1 blocks, 16.2 PER
Do you ever wonder what Ricky Rubio would look like right now if he hadn't torn his ACL near the end of his rookie season?
Here's where you can cut to thousands of Minnesota Timberwolves sadly nodding their heads.
There's no denying that Rubio has elite court vision. He sees the court like few others and—even more importantly—has the passing chops necessary to find the gaps that few people can even imagine. If the Spanish point guard doesn't compete for the league lead in assists per game during the 2013-14 season, it would be pretty shocking.
The problem is the rest of his game.
Rubio can't shoot at this stage of his career, and his defense largely consists of gambling for steals. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), the floor general allowed 0.9 points per possession during his sophomore season, placing him at No. 279 among all qualified NBA players.
Improving in one—or both—of those areas is vital.
Team: Golden State Warriors
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 16.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks, 12.7 PER
To the best of my knowledge, Klay Thompson hasn't been commonly associated with the "three-and-D" group, but it needs to happen.
Synergy shows that he was the No. 72 defender in the Association when discussing overall points per possession allowed. While he struggled as an isolation and post-up defender (somewhat surprising given his size), he thrived navigating screens and closing out on opposing shooters.
As for the "three" part, I don't think I have to do much justifying there.
Thompson made 2.6 triples per game as a second-year player, and he did so on 40.1 percent shooting. That's a combination of volume and efficiency that really isn't supposed to happen.
Especially at such a young age.
Team: Sacramento Kings
Position: PG/SG/SF/Position yet to be discovered (probably)
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 15.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.4 blocks, 18.1 PER
Tyreke Evans is finally getting a fresh start.
After years of struggling with the Sacramento Kings, who surrounded him with coaching turmoil and a constant shift in roles, he'll get to join the New Orleans Pelicans. Now he'll be playing alongside more offensive talent than ever before, and he should thrive as a secondary option.
Evans still doesn't have much of a jumper, but he's as dynamic as it gets with the ball in his hands. His Eurostep is in the same realm as Dwyane Wade and Manu Ginobili's, and the crossover would make most true point guards jealous.
We won't see another season in which he averages 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game, as Evans did during his first professional season. That would require too much ball control.
But don't be surprised when his numbers are more efficient than ever before.
Team: New Orleans Pelicans
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.8 blocks, 21.7 PER
Anthony Davis didn't take the world by storm during his rookie season. However, when healthy, he was still a dynamic offensive player and rebounder who thrived playing help defense.
In order to live up to the massive hype that accompanied him after he left Kentucky, Davis has to continue improving his pick-and-pop game while becoming a stellar interior defender. Synergy shows that he actually struggled in the latter area as a first-year big, allowing 0.97 points per possession.
Four hundred players beat that mark.
Davis's team defense was significantly better than his individual work, and his efficient offense made him a valuable contributor. Now it's time for the weakness to turn into a strength, and it should as he gains experience and continues to fill out his lanky frame.
Team: Houston Rockets
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 15.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.4 blocks, 15.3 PER
Everything about Chandler Parsons' game rubs me the right way.
He's an effort guy who constantly hustles and is willing to do the little things. And that includes the less glamorous end of the court, as Parsons has developed into a gritty perimeter defender who makes the Houston Rockets significantly better on that end of the court.
Basketball-Reference shows that Houston allowed 105.9 points per 100 possessions when Parsons was on the court during the 2012-13 season. When he sat, that number rose to 107.5.
On offense, Parsons understands efficiency.
His shots are generally concentrated at the rim and from beyond the three-point arc, and that makes him a much more effective scorer than he would be otherwise.
Team: New Orleans Pelicans
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 17.0 points, 1.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.2 blocks, 15.4 PER
Is this the year that we see Eric Gordon take the next step and join the trinity of shooting guards at the top of the positional rankings?
That was supposed to have happened already, but two things have prevented Gordon from truly blossoming: his knees and his happiness.
A full offseason of rest and a lowered offensive burden should help the former, and you no longer have to be worried about the latter. Gordon is playing beside two former AAU teammates now, and the level of talent in the bayou skyrocketed after the team acquired both Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans.
Let me put it this way: Gordon is already the third member of the New Orleans Pelicans to appear in this slideshow, and he won't be the last.
No other team can boast that much young talent.
Team: Milwaukee Bucks
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.7 steals, 2.8 blocks, 18.7 PER
However good you think Larry Sanders' defense is, it's better.
First, Synergy shows that guarding spot-up shooters was his only big weakness. That depressed his overall points per possession allowed to 0.84, but he still ranked 21st against isolation sets, 39th against post-up players and 48th against roll men.
Basketball-Reference reveals that Sanders helped the Milwaukee Bucks allow 5.9 fewer points per 100 possessions when he was on the court. And remember, he often played alongside the defensive sieves known as Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis.
The scariest part isn't that Sanders did this at such a young age. It's that he produced these numbers—and passed the eye test in a big way—while playing much more minutes than he'd ever received.
Just imagine what he's going to do now that he's comfortable in his role.
A mature Sanders is a terrifying thought for any NBA player with the Bucks looming on the schedule.
Team: Denver Nuggets
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 11.5 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.0 blocks, 18.5 PER
Kenneth Faried continues to be a rebounding machine.
He grabbed 11.8 boards per 36 minutes during his second season out of Morehead State, and that rate figures to rise even higher now that JaVale McGee is replacing Kosta Koufos in the starting lineup. Faried plays with constant energy, and he's never afraid to put his body in harm's way while chasing down a loose ball.
If he's going to rise even higher, it's all about offense.
Faried is still limited to shots right around the rim, and developing a jumper is crucial. Especially without Andre Iguodala, floor spacing is needed in Denver, and the team can't afford to play two paint-bound big men at the same time for extended minutes.
Team: Chicago Bulls
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 8.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.4 blocks, 15.2 PER
Jimmy Butler is going to get a lot of buckets during the 2013-14 season. Don't be surprised to see him challenge Luol Deng for the secondary scoring role now that he's got even more NBA experience under his belt.
The swingman from Marquette emerged as a sharpshooter during the second half of his sophomore season. He drilled 47.5 percent of his looks from downtown after the All-Star break, then followed that up by hitting 40 percent of them in the playoffs.
It wasn't a fluke, and Butler also started showing off moves that shouldn't be in his arsenal. The step-back fadeaway jumper while driving to his right, for example.
And, of course, I haven't even mentioned his defense. Let's just say that if Butler isn't on an All-Defensive team at the end of his third year, it'll be an absolute travesty.
Team: Portland Trail Blazers
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 14.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.1 blocks, 15.7 PER
Nicolas Batum's development has stagnated over the last few seasons, but that doesn't mean he's a bad basketball player. Not by any stretch of the imagination.
In fact, Batum remains one of the more versatile contributors out there, capable of scoring inside and out, pulling down rebounds at a high level, dishing out the ball to his open teammates and locking down on defense.
The problem is that he doesn't truly thrive in any one of those areas. It's the total package that makes him such a special player.
Perhaps this is the season in which he actually breaks out. He's shown glimpses of an upcoming explosion before, but the added depth in Rip City could make it a more legitimate possibility in 2013-14.
Team: Detroit Pistons
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 17.5 points, 3.1 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.1 blocks, 16.1 PER
Can Brandon Jennings really take a step back and think about his shots before he lofts them up with reckless abandon?
Only his shot selection and proclivity for letting offensive players waltz into the paint is holding him back, and the former can be fixed rather easily. He just has to show restraint.
Now that Jennings is with the Detroit Pistons, he's surrounded by more offensive talent than ever before. With the Milwaukee Bucks, he could either pass the ball to the black hole that is Monta Ellis or hope that one of his less-talented teammates actually got him an assist.
But on the Pistons, Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond (in some situations) all are more than viable scoring options. That should be all the impetus Jennings needs in his quest to become a more efficient player.
Another season shooting below 40 percent would simply be unacceptable.
Team: San Antonio Spurs
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 11.9 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.6 blocks, 16.4 PER
How good was Kawhi Leonard's defense in 2012-13?
Good enough that he allowed only 0.82 points per possession, according to Synergy. While coming in at No. 87 might not seem all that impressive, it is for a young wing player who constantly took on the toughest perimeter assignment.
Hell, Leonard didn't even show any fear when he was asked to contain LeBron James. The same can't be said about James' reaction when he learned Leonard was coming back into the game, though.
Then again, it's not like the San Diego State product ever shows emotion about anything.
Leonard is going to play a big role for the San Antonio Spurs in 2013-14. With Manu Ginobili declining, it's up to the young forward to rise to the occasion and take on a bigger scoring load while maintaining his steady and heady play on defense.
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 13.2 points, 7.7 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.4 steals, 3.0 blocks, 19.4 PER
The Oklahoma City Thunder's season hinges on two factors.
- Whether Reggie Jackson and/or Jeremy Lamb can step up offensively and replace Kevin Martin's production.
- Whether Serge Ibaka can actually become the third wheel in the OKC Big Three.
Let's focus on the second part here.
Ibaka hasn't been able to develop into anything more than a pick-and-pop threat on offense. He doesn't create his own offense, instead relying on his fairly consistent jumper when the defense leaves him open.
Russell Westbrook's torn meniscus in the playoffs should have resulted in Ibaka stepping up to shoulder a larger offensive burden.
He didn't. If anything, the Congolese big man got worse.
If that trend continues, Ibaka will move down in these rankings, and the Thunder will experience a similar trend in any rankings of the elite teams in the Western Conference.
Team: Detroit Pistons
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 16.0 points, 9.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.7 blocks
Greg Monroe's athleticism prevents him from ever becoming a truly elite center, but his skill set begs to differ.
The big man has emerged as one of the best distributing big men in basketball, a trait that should serve him rather well now that he's surrounded by Andre Drummond, Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith. Personally, I can't wait to see the Smoove-Monroe two-man game come to fruition.
Expect to see more of the same and then some now that Monroe's importance as a scorer has diminished.
Team: Portland Trail Blazers
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 19.0 points, 3.1 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.2 blocks, 16.4 PER
Damian Lillard has the potential to become a bona fide All-Star, even given the ridiculous number of top-notch point guards currently populating the NBA.
He's a special offensive player, capable of both creating his own looks and spotting up. Plus, he's a great distributor when he isn't calling his own number.
Not many rookies can average 19 points per game.
In fact, Lillard is only the 56th player in NBA history to do so, and he joins Blake Griffin, Tyreke Evans, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James as one of only six players to do that since the start of the 2000-01 season. That's not a bad group to be in, and Lillard's status as an elite player is only tempered by his ability to work past screens while playing defense.
Team: New Orleans Pelicans
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 17.7 points, 4.2 rebounds, 8.0 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.4 blocks, 16.7 PER
Take a look at Jrue Holiday's monthly splits, courtesy of ESPN.com:
- October: 14.0 points and 11.0 assists per game
- November: 18.5 points and 9.3 assists per game
- December: 19.2 points and 8.1 assists per game
- January: 20.9 points and 8.9 assists per game
- February: 17.9 points and 7.5 assists per game
- March: 16.3 points and 8.2 assists per game
- April: 12.7 points and 4.2 assists per game
Can you tell that Holiday wore out as the season progressed? It's pretty obvious, and I didn't even show you his declining field-goal percentage that bottomed out at 33.8 percent in April.
He had to take on too much responsibility for the Philadelphia 76ers, and it made him suffer rather dramatically during the second half of the season.
There won't be a repeat of that in New Orleans, though.
Holiday is no longer the only stud. He's joined by two (potentially three, if Anthony Davis breaks out) standout players who can all capably score and distribute.
That's why you shouldn't be at all surprised when Holiday averages something crazy like 16 points and 10 assists per game over the course of the entire season. The only reason for the dip in scoring is the presence of Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon, both of whom need to get their shots up pretty regularly.
Team: Los Angeles Clippers
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 18.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.6 blocks, 22.4 PER
Can we just stop with the "Blake Griffin is overrated" thing?
It's simply not true.
Maybe Griffin hasn't developed as quickly as Los Angeles Clippers fans would have liked, but it's not like he's failed to improve. And he was already pretty damn good when he entered the league.
The power forward has made strides as an individual defender, and he'll need to continue doing exactly that or else the Clips will fail to live up to expectations. According to Synergy, he cut his overall points per possession allowed from 0.91 in 2011-12 to 0.83 in 2012-13.
His jump-shooting improvement hasn't been as impressive, but he's shown flashes of developing moves, and his spin move is absolutely devastating.
Sure, Griffin dunks a lot. But if that was so easy, then why doesn't everyone else follow suit?
After all, the slam dunk is the most efficient shot in basketball, bar none.
Team: Sacramento Kings
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 17.1 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.4 blocks, 0.7 steals, 20.2 PER
Imagine what would happen if DeMarcus Cousins got his head screwed on straight. Think about how dominant he'd be without racking up technical fouls, ejections and suspensions for his on-court behavior.
Boogie is a physical behemoth.
He can overpower almost any defender, and that dominance translates to the glass as well, where he's emerged as one of the best offensive rebounders in the NBA. Now it's just time for him to showcase his physical tools on defense as well.
That's really the biggest thing holding back the former Wildcat. The Sacramento Kings allowed 1.8 more points per 100 possessions when the big man was on the court during the 2012-13 season. If he can figure out how to effectively use his body to prevent buckets, the sky is the limit.
And by the sky, I clearly mean the top of the center rankings.
Team: Washington Wizards
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 18.5 points, 4.0 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.8 blocks, 20.8 PER
There's an outside shot that John Wall becomes the first player since Deron Williams in 2010-11 to average 20 points and 10 assists per game. Doing so would make him only the third point guard in the last two decades (D-Will and Chris Paul are the others) to join the exclusive club.
Wall definitely possesses that type of scoring talent, especially as his jump-shooting continues to improve.
During the 2012-13 campaign, Wall returned from injury to post a pure shooting score of minus-19.95. For those unfamiliar with the new metric, you can find it explained in its entirety here, but just know that anything worse than zero means the player in question is a below-average shooter.
In 2011-12, his score was minus-82.94. As a reference point, Monta Ellis was the worst of the 172 qualified players this year, and he posted a minus-68.45.
Though Wall is still a below-average shooter, he's improved rather dramatically and should continue that trend on into the future.
As for his passing, the Kentucky product is finally playing with other talented offensive players. After averaging 7.6 assists per game (a career-low) with the Washington Wizards' mediocre collection of talent, 10 dimes per contest isn't outside the realm of possibility now that the roster has been upgraded.
Team: Cleveland Cavaliers
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 22.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.4 blocks, 21.4 PER
It's hard to believe that Kyrie Irving is only 21 years old. Especially because he's a young 21 and won't have his next birthday until the end of the 2013-14 season when he's already emerged as a legitimate top-10 player in the NBA.
Irving's offense is that good.
When he wants to go to the rim, he can't be stopped. Using his yo-yo handles, ridiculously tight spin move, nifty crossover and pull-up jumpers, Irving just puts defenders on skates each and every night. I'd go so far as calling his handles the best in the league.
Let's just treat it like the Duke product does and ignore it completely.
Team: Indiana Pacers
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.6 blocks, 16.8 PER
Indiana Pacers fans should be absolutely thrilled that Paul George is planning to sign a long-term deal that would keep him in a yellow jersey for the foreseeable future, according to Michael Pointer of IndyStar.com.
The 23-year-old swingman quickly developed into one of the league's premier stars while Danny Granger nursed injuries throughout the 2012-13 campaign.
On offense, he was a dynamic ball-handler who could shoot three-pointers and crash to the rim, all while finding open teammates in the blink of an eye. Defensively, he was just as versatile, capably guarding every type of player and constantly seeking out the toughest assignment possible.
The Pacers scored 6.2 more points and allowed 2.5 fewer per 100 possessions when George was on the court, and that's a level of impact that really can't be overstated.
However, the swingman isn't without his flaws.
Until he can control his handles a bit more and start hitting a higher percentage of his shots, it's going to be tough for him to truly emerge as one of the 10 best players in the NBA.
Team: Houston Rockets
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 25.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, 72.6 beards, 5.8 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 23.0 PER
James Harden plays basketball the way it was meant to be played. On the offensive end of the court, at least.
Modern-day analytics have made it abundantly clear that shots at the rim and three-pointers are the most efficient looks on the court, and that's exactly what the bearded shooting guard seeks out each time he has the ball in his hands.
Harden is almost as averse to mid-range shots as he is to razors. Instead, he thrives by firing away from the perimeter and crashing to the rim so that he can either finish the play in live action or draw contact and work his way to the charity stripe.
It's the type of offense that everyone should strive for.
And as for his defense, that's the type of play everyone should strive to avoid.
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 23.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.3 blocks, 23.9 PER
Defense is what pushes Russell Westbrook past his former teammate.
The Oklahoma City Thunder point guard hasn't generated much of a reputation as a standout defender, but his tenacious play has made him solid on that end of the court, even if it's gone largely unnoticed.
That said, I'd hesitate to call him anything more than "solid."
According to 82games.com, he allowed opposing point guards to post a 14.5 PER against him during the 2012-13 campaign. While that's not terribly unimpressive or impressive, it's at least solid. See, there's that word again!
Of course, you know all about Westbrook's offense already.
He's prone to shooting too much, but that's part of what makes the OKC offense function. His shot-happy nature takes pressure and defensive attention away from Kevin Durant, and it also allows him to become a premier dual-threat at point guard.
Team: Chicago Bulls
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: N/A
This is obviously an aggressive spot for Derrick Rose after he missed the entire 2012-13 season to rehab his torn ACL, but let's not forget about what the dynamic point guard did when he was healthy.
Rose is the only player not named LeBron James to be named MVP in the last five years. He's the leader of one of the best teams in basketball, and he's an incredible athlete on both ends of the court.
The only weapon missing from Rose's arsenal over the last few years has been a consistent jumper, and that's something that has tended to develop for young players coming back from a major injury.
After all, what else was he able to work on while rehabbing?
If Rose is at 100 percent, he should average something around 23 points and eight assists per game while shooting just about 44 percent from the field. Those are ultra-elite offensive numbers, which is only fitting for an ultra-elite offensive player.
Here's hoping we can see vintage Rose from start to finish in 2013-14.
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 28.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.3 blocks, 28.3 PER
Was there any doubt that Kevin Durant would occupy the No. 1 spot in these rankings?
The only reason you might have expected to see a different player would be if you thought KD was already 25 years old. It would be understandable, since he's been a dominant player for a number of years at this stage in his young career.
But Durant is still 24, and he's the clear-cut No. 2 player in basketball. LeBron James is head and shoulders above him, but so too is the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar head and shoulders above the rest of the field.
Durant is an emerging defender and distributor, and he's already an established offensive powerhouse. Quite frankly, he's the best scorer in the world and one of the greatest point-producers of all time, even at his ripe young age.
Only Durant and Larry Bird have ever competed for a scoring championship while posting a 50/40/90 season. And the scary thing is that the small forward is about to do it again.