Players Who Are Clearly the Future of the NBA

Alec NathanFeatured ColumnistFebruary 2, 2014

Players Who Are Clearly the Future of the NBA

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    Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

    The NBA is stocked with young talent, and it comes in a vast array of shapes and sizes.

    Just take a look at this year's All-Star rosters, which boast studs like Damian Lillard, Blake Griffin, John Wall and Paul George, players who are still forming identities at the professional level despite posting gaudy figures under the age of 25. 

    Which leads us to the focus of this list: The following players were selected because they're currently younger than 25 years old and have credentials that suggest they'll be superstars—if they aren't already—in the near future. 

    So for that reason, 25-year-old studs like Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose and a host of others were omitted in an effort to shine a light on those who are achieving so much before the midway point of their 20s. 

     

    All statistics are current as of Sunday, Feb. 2 and were retrieved from Basketball Reference or NBA.com unless noted otherwise.

Honorable Mentions

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    Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    Lance Stephenson, SG, Indiana Pacers

    He may have been snubbed from this year's All-Star Game, but Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson is an absolute gem who's primed to explode. 

    And as Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes noted, Stephenson will assuredly find himself in the mix for midseason honors as the years pass: 

    Don't worry, Lance. You're a rising star who'll cash in as a free agent very soon, and you've got a championship chase to keep the sadness away.

    Stephenson missed out this time, but I'm guessing this won't be the last time he joins the All-Star conversation.

    At only 23 years old, Stephenson has been wreaking havoc on opponents with his relentless energy and unmatched motor, one that has helped the Pacers become the league's premier defense.

    Stephenson also recently notched his fourth triple-double this season, which is two more than any other player has compiled during the 2013-14 campaign, according to ESPN Stats and Info.  

     

    Michael Carter-Williams, PG, Philadelphia 76ers

    Think this is a questionable selection? Think again.

    Philadelphia 76ers point guard Michael Carter-Williams has been the saving grace of the 2013 draft class, averaging better than 17 points, six assists, five rebounds and two steals a game.

    Those numbers look terrific, but the meaning behind them is enhanced when you come to realize that the only other player to average those numbers during a rookie season was Magic Johnson during the 1979-80 campaign, according to Basketball Reference.  

    The 22-year-old's shot could still use a fair bit of work, but Carter-Williams' desire to embrace the role of fearless floor general under Brett Brown has the Sixers' future looking bright. 

     

    Serge Ibaka, PF, Oklahoma City Thunder

    Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook missed the cut due to the age requirement, but Serge Ibaka certainly qualifies, as the versatile Oklahoma City Thunder power forward still has seven more months until he turns 25. 

    Quickly evolving into a terrifying force on both ends of the floor, Ibaka isn't only blocking shots at an elite level (2.52 blocks per game, No. 3 overall), but he's shooting 53.8 percent from the field and a solid 36.1 percent from three while knocking down a wildly impressive 47.8 percent of his attempts between 16-24 feet, per NBA.com

    A matchup nightmare, Ibaka is only beginning to scratch the surface of his pro potential as he's helped guide the Thunder to the Western Conference's best record to this point in the season. 

Andre Drummond, C, Detroit Pistons

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    Dan Lippitt/Getty Images

    Age: 20 

    2013-14 Statistics: 12.8 points, 12.8 rebounds, 0.4 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.9 blocks, 21.9 PER

    It's almost frightening how quickly Andre Drummond has burst onto the scene and stated his case as one of the game's most dynamic centers.

    Considered an offensive project with endless potential and freakish athleticism coming out of UConn, Drummond has made good on the Detroit Pistons' investment in him at No. 9 overall in the 2012 draft.

    After posting staggering per-36 numbers during a productive rookie season, Drummond has earned praise and even All-Star consideration with his delightful play at just 20 years old.

    Yes, Drummond still has plenty of work to do as it pertains to refining his offensive game on the blocks and with his back to the basket, but his progression as a prospect has been simply delightful.

    With crazy length, quickness and an intense hunger to dominate the glass, Drummond has put up prolific numbers.

    A defensive maven averaging better than a steal and nearly two blocks per game, Drummond also ranks fifth among all players logging more than 32 minutes a night in contested rebounding percentage and seventh when it comes to percentage of rebounds per chance, according to the NBA's SportVU player tracking data.

Anthony Davis, PF/C, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    Age: 20 

    2013-14 Statistics: 20.4 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 3.3 blocks, 27.1 PER

    Well, you knew this one was coming.  

    Anthony Davis has somehow been better than advertised, and the numbers have been truly remarkable. You can see them above. But what you can't see are Davis' numbers compared to comparable big men when they were all 20, which were brought to my attention by Hardwood Paroxysm's Brian Schroeder

    Not only is Davis averaging more points than Kevin Garnett, Chris Webber, Amar'e Stoudemire, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Howard all were at 20 years old, but he's posting a block more per game than C-Webb did and owns the highest offensive rating of the group by a fair margin. 

    In just his second season, Davis leads the league in total blocks and swats per game, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that opponents are shooting 44.9 percent against him at the rim, according to the NBA's player tracking data, a mark which ranks No. 2 behind only Paul George among players logging more than 35 minutes per game. 

     

Blake Griffin, PF, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Age: 24

    2013-14 Statistics: 23.0 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.6 blocks, 22.9 PER

    If you're one of the disillusioned who still thinks that all Blake Griffin does is dunk, please pay very close attention. 

    Griffin has been simply tremendous in his fourth season, carrying the Los Angeles Clippers on his back in Chris Paul's absence. 

    Need specifics? Here they are. 

    Griffin shot a season-high 55.4 percent from the field in January, a month during which the Clippers went 12-4 and bolstered their standing as the class of the Pacific Division. Not only that, but the four-time All-Star selection recorded a true shooting percentage of 61 over those 16 contests while scoring 25.7 points per game, nearly five points more than his career average. 

    In addition, Griffin's sweet jumper has become arguably the Clips' biggest offensive asset.

    Through Sunday, Griffin is shooting just a shade under 40 percent between 16 and 24 feet, up four percent from last season. Griffin's especially taking a liking to mid-range jumpers from straightaway and the left side, where he's hitting on 44.64 and 65.52 percent of his attempts, respectively, per NBA.com

    Factor in that Griffin is one of only four power forwards averaging better than three assists per game, and his status as one of the game's elite 4s is indisputable. 

Damian Lillard, PG, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Age: 23

    2013-14 Statistics: 20.6 points, 3.6 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.4 blocks, 18.9 PER

    After he captured 2012-13 Rookie of the Year honors, it was clear that Damian Lillard was destined for superstardom. He had the quickness, pure scoring ability and leadership capabilities necessary to vault the Portland Trail Blazers into the Western Conference title conversation, which is exactly what's happened this season.

    Recently selected to his first All-Star game, Lillard has emerged as the versatile second element of the Blazers' one-two offensive punch, one that's consistently vexed opponents during a breakout 2013-14 season.

    Not only has Lillard been terrific on drives to the basket, ranking among the top 10 in terms of points per game on drives with players like LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, but he ranks No. 2 overall among all players (minimum 35 minutes per game) when it comes to effective field-goal percentage (52.1) on pull-up jump shots, per NBA player tracking data.  

    Based on those numbers, it's easy to see Lillard as a Russell Westbrook-type talent on the offensive end, but he still has some work to do if he wants to become the sort of tenacious defender that's made the Oklahoma City Thunder point man so valuable to his championship-caliber team. 

DeMarcus Cousins, C, Sacramento Kings

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    Age: 23

    2013-14 Statistics: 22.6 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.8 steals, 1.2 blocks, 26.6 PER

    Prior to this season, questions lingered regarding DeMarcus Cousins' unnerving personality, one that was laced with immaturity. 

    And while those concerns were absolutely grounded in fact, the reality remains that Cousins has done enough to quell speculation that his attitude would ultimately derail his shot at becoming one of the league's ascendant stars.

    After signing a four-year, $62 million extension prior to the 2013-14 season, Cousins has been everything the Kings knew he would be, posting career-high scoring and rebounding averages, as well as a career-best field-goal percentage of 48.8. 

    The more encouraging number, though, is 102, which just so happens to be Cousins' defensive rating, one that's dropped four points from a career-worst mark of 106 last season. 

    His player efficiency rating of 26.6 is also good for No. 6 overall behind only Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kevin Love and Anthony Davis.

Eric Bledsoe, PG, Phoenix Suns

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 24

    2013-14 Statistics: 18.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.3 blocks, 20.0 PER

    It took three seasons as a backup before Eric Bledsoe finally got a chance to shine all his own, and boy has he capitalized during his first season as a member of the Phoenix Suns.

    Not only has Bledsoe (in tandem with Goran Dragic) helped Phoenix become a relevant Western Conference contender after three years of irrelevancy, but he's quickly throttled himself into the best young point guard conversation thanks to a dedicated style of play on both ends of the floor.

    An absolutely perfect fit for Jeff Hornacek's up-tempo scheme, Bledsoe's athleticism has been on display throughout his inaugural season in Phoenix. Not only has he proven to be one of the few guards capable of blocking Anthony Davis' shot, but Bledsoe also ranks No. 4 overall with 5.9 points per game on drives, according to SportVU player tracking data

    You can bet that Bledsoe, a restricted free agent at season's end, has earned himself a sizable raise thanks to his explosive playmaking ability. 



James Harden, SG, Houston Rockets

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    Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 24 

    2013-14 Statistics: 23.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.5 blocks, 21.2 PER

    Firmly established as one of the Association's premier scorers at the age of 24, James Harden has made a living at the free-throw and three-point lines in order to post efficient (and sometimes very strange) numbers. 

    After leading the league in free-throw attempts per game (10.2) last season, Harden sits at No. 3 overall behind Kevin Durant and Dwight Howard, although he does rank first among all shooting guards. 

    It's for that reason that Harden was named one of the league's advanced stats All-Stars by Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal:

    The Houston Rockets shooting guard is averaging 23.7 points per game, and he's doing so with a 59.3 true shooting percentage. Even with a struggling three-point stroke, Harden is this efficient because he's that good at getting to the charity stripe. 

    In fact, only Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin have attempted more free throws in 2013-14, and the bearded 2-guard has knocked down 84.8 percent of his looks at the line. His game may be depressing to watch at times because he flops around and spends way too much time stopping the flow of play, but it's still effective. 

    Remember: This is a guy who managed to score 27 points against the Memphis Grizzlies earlier this season, despite making only two shots, because he got to the line 25 times. 

    "Just being aggressive, being aggressive," Harden said of the free throws, according to the Associated Press (via ESPN) following his anomalous performance. "I couldn't make a shot. I just tried to get to the rim..." 

    It's that approach to the game that has Harden headed to his second-straight All-Star game and ranked among the league's scoring elite. 

John Wall, PG, Washington Wizards

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    Ned Dishman/Getty Images

    Age: 23

    2013-14 Statistics: 19.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 8.6 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.4 blocks, 20.1 PER

    John Wall's inclusion may have been debatable at this time last season, but a breakout 2013-14 campaign that's seen Wall earn his first-career All-Star nod has him listed among the league's most promising future attractions. 

    After finishing outside of the top five in assists per game last season, Wall has improved to the tune of 8.6 dimes a night (first among Eastern Conference point guards) and 396 total, a mark which ranks second behind only Stephen Curry. 

    However, Wall's arguably made bigger strides on the defensive end, especially as it pertains to defending the pick-and-roll. 

    According to mySynergySports (subscription required), Wall is surrendering a meager 0.62 points per possession (No. 13 overall) against ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll, which is a significant departure from the 0.88 points per possession (No. 179 overall) he allowed in similar situations during 49 appearances last season. 

    With that improved defensive efficiency in mind, it shouldn't come as a major shock that Wall's steal percentage is sitting at a career high of 2.8 percent, tied for eighth in the NBA.  

Kyrie Irving, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sport

    Age: 21

    2013-14 Statistics: 21.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.3 blocks, 19.9 PER

    Given the tumultuous season the Cleveland Cavaliers are currently in the midst of, it would be easy to frown upon Kyrie Irving's third professional season. 

    The Cavs point guard has even openly admitted that this year's been a reality check, according to Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal

    I needed this. It was more or less a wake-up call, Irving told the Beacon Journal following practice Friday. I got away with so much my first two years. It wasn’t a breeze, but everything came easy. This is the first year where every single night it’s going to be a challenge. That’s one of the things I’m getting used to and I’ve accepted.

    But let's not lose perspective. 

    Irving is 21. He's still figuring the pro game out, which is pretty frightening when you consider the following fact: According to Basketball Reference, Irving is one of six players to average at least 21 points, six assists and a steal in his age-21 season. The other five? LeBron James, Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson

    Whether you like his game or not, that's some pretty spectacular company to keep. 

    There will certainly be more growing pains ahead for Irving and the Cavs, but to discount him as a future star feels a tad premature.  

Paul George, SF, Indiana Pacers

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 23

    2013-14 Statistics: 22.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.3 blocks, 21.4 PER

    It's truly remarkable how quickly Paul George transformed from an intriguing prospect with potential and into a full-fledged superstar. 

    What's arguably more absurd is that George is still just 23 years old—now in his fourth season—and has seen his numbers skyrocket in conjunction with the Pacers' ascent up the Eastern Conference ranks. 

    After shooting 41.9 percent from the field and 36.2 percent from three last season, George's shooting percentages have ballooned to 44.8 and 37.2 percent, respectively. In addition, George's player efficiency rating has leaped nearly five points, while his usage is up five percent and ranks No. 8 overall, just behind Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry. 

    But the advanced statistical improvement doesn't end there: George's true shooting percentage is up to 57.3 from a mark of 53.1 last season, while his mark of 3.9 defensive win shares leads the league. What's crazier is that George is the only wing player who ranks among the top five in terms of individual defensive rating, and he sits at No. 2 overall behind teammate Roy Hibbert

    Aside from LeBron James, there may not be a better two-way player in the game than George.