Every NBA Team's Most Promising Player Under 25

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 20, 2017

Every NBA Team's Most Promising Player Under 25

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    Outside of a small number of title-chasers dialed in on the present, NBA teams are highly future-focused.

    What does our roster project to be in three years?

    Do we have any cornerstones?

    Is Player X going to develop his jumper? His defense? His leadership?

    With that in mind, it makes sense to peg each team's most promising prospect. You can bet 30 general managers are trying to figure that out themselves.

    The cutoff will be the player's age Feb. 1, 2018. So if a guy is 23 right now but will turn 24 before Feb. 1, we'll refer to him as 24. With birthdays all over the place, that'll keep things simple.

    "Most promising" is a tricky term. It's a question of whose ceiling is highest, and in some cases, guys closer to age 25 may already be at their peaks. In those instances, we'll have to judge them against younger players on their own team and try to determine whether those less proven kids can get to their older (but still young) teammate's level eventually.

    It'll take some finesse.

    The close calls are the most interesting, so we'll give a little extra attention to the situations with more than one player vying for the honor.

Atlanta Hawks: Dennis Schroder, 24

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    You've got to admire John Collins for two reasons. First, when you see him, you're almost always literally looking up to him, usually because he's dunking on you. Second, his confidence.

    "Obviously I want to be Rookie of the Year," Collins told Spencer Davies of Basketball Insiders. "I think I'm a sleeper pick for that. Hopefully, I can prove everybody wrong."

    But as much as there is to like about the high-flying Atlanta Hawks rookie, and as promising as Taurean Prince's two-way game may be, 24-year-old Dennis Schroder is still Atlanta's most promising young player.

    Sure, he's on the high end of the range in question, but 2017-18 will only be his second as a full-time starter. Last year, he averaged personal bests of 17.9 points, 6.3 assists and 3.1 rebounds while pushing his true shooting percentage to a career high while cutting his turnover rate to a career low.

    Is he a clear All-Star as he hits his prime? Probably not, but that's a high bar. We can't be sure Collins or Prince, promising as they may be, will ever get to Schroder's level.

    Check back at midseason, though, and maybe Collins will have done enough to change this conversation.

Boston Celtics: Jaylen Brown, 21

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    It's difficult to pass on Jayson Tatum's NBA-ready skill as a shot-creator, but Jaylen Brown profiles as a more versatile defender, better athlete and surprisingly comparable shooter.

    In his lone season at Duke, Tatum shot 45.2 percent from the field and 34.2 percent from long range. Brown, as an NBA rookie, hit 45.4 percent of his shots and 34.1 percent of his threes. There's absolutely value in Tatum's ability to get his own looks in the mid-range and on the block, and Brown probably won't ever traffic in Tatum's level of offensive volume. But if Brown can be an equally efficient scorer at a more difficult level, which he was last season, it makes the decision easier.

    Tatum is still just 19 years old, and he showed surprising defensive capabilities in preseason play. If his stroke from long range improves (which it should; his 84.9 percent free-throw conversion rate in college is a sign he'll get better from deep), he could become a potent enough scorer to overtake Brown, who'll need to develop as a playmaker and ball-handler to reach real stardom.

    It's close, but in a league that increasingly values multipositional versatility and a broad array of skills, Brown gets the edge.

Brooklyn Nets: D'Angelo Russell, 21

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    The Brooklyn Nets' old regime traded the franchise out of the drafts that would have helped populate a roster with youthful candidates, but general manager Sean Marks (who was not responsible for mortgaging the team's future) found ways to grab a few prospects anyway.

    Third-year point guard D'Angelo Russell is one such player.

    Russell will excel in an uptempo (Brooklyn led the league in pace last season), well-spaced (it also shot the fourth-most threes per game) system that should maximize his savvy as a ball-handler and scorer in the pick-and-roll. He may never be a defensive dynamo, but Russell could become an All-Star-caliber guard.

    Even if his short tenure with the Los Angeles Lakers was marred by immaturity and a lot of losing, Russell became just the eighth 20-year-old in NBA history to average at least 15.6 points, 4.8 assists and 3.5 rebounds in a season. Six of the other players on that list became All-Stars, three have won MVP awards...and one is Tyreke Evans.

    That should be Russell's new mantra: Do not be Tyreke Evans.

Chicago Bulls: Lauri Markkanen, 20

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    There are plenty of under-25 options on the Chicago Bulls roster, which is what you'd expect to find on a team taking the rebuild plunge. But it's concerning that so few stand out as potential difference-makers.

    Kris Dunn failed to live up to his lottery pedigree as a rookie with the Minnesota Timberwolves, and at 23, concerns that he may not have much room to improve are doubly worrisome. Zach LaVine, 22, came over with Dunn in the trade that sent Jimmy Butler away, but even if he recovers his extraterrestrial athleticism following an ACL tear, he'll give back all of his offensive contributions on the defensive end.

    That leaves Lauri Markkanen, the stretchy big man from Finland (via Arizona) who the Bulls nabbed with the No. 7 pick they got from the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 2017 draft. The sweet-shooting big man, still just 20 years old, flashed surprising off-the-dribble skills in Eurobasket play, and he enjoyed some hot shooting stretches during the preseason.

    "One thing I never have to worry about Lauri is his shot. He has a beautiful stroke," Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg told K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. "He's going to keep shooting and has great confidence in himself."

    Of the Bulls' three best options, we know the least about Markkanen. Unlike Dunn and LaVine, his limitations remain more theoretical than demonstrably proven. That works in his favor for now.

Charlotte Hornets: Malik Monk, 19

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    In keeping with the spirit of "the less we know, the more optimistic we get to be," rookie Malik Monk is the pick for a Charlotte Hornets squad that also has Frank Kaminsky and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, both 24. And Jeremy Lamb, I guess, if you want to be thorough.

    Kaminsky and MKG have spent significant minutes as quality rotation players. And while it may not sound like some great achievement to reach the level of a viable rotation option, the truth is most young guys never get there.

    So Monk, a slithery scorer capable of lighting it up from deep (39.7 percent in college) and playing either backcourt position, will have to do pretty well to eclipse his best under-25 teammates. It helps that he's a full five years younger than Kaminsky and MKG, and Nicolas Batum's injury opens up minutes for him right away this season. He's going to get chances to succeed.

    "I think he can play some point guard. He can be a masterful scorer," ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy told Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer. "Coming off the bench, he's going to be dynamic. What it's going to take for him to be more is committing himself to things like defense."

    Whether Monk ever defends is an open question. But he has NBA-level shot-creation skills right now. At 19, he projects as a perfect scoring sixth man with upside considerably higher than that if he becomes an elite three-point shooter.

Cleveland Cavaliers: 2018 1st-Round Draft Pick

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    Cedi Osman? Ante Zizic?

    Nope.

    Sorry to cop out here, but rather than pick some unproven commodity that almost certainly won't factor into the Cleveland Cavaliers' present (or, probably, future), the only under-25 option worth discussing is the one who isn't on the roster yet*.

    Granted, Cleveland could trade the 2018 first-round pick it got from the Boston Celtics (which comes originally from the Nets) to gear up for a title chase. But as insurance for the possible departure of LeBron James, the pick has serious value. Perhaps the Nets won't be the league's worst team again this season...but they're not going to be objectively good.

    If Brooklyn winds up in the high lottery again, the Cavs could be selecting from a top-heavy class that includes Luka Doncic, Marvin Bagley III, Michael Porter Jr. and Deandre Ayton. All would immediately offer higher ceilings than any of the few and unremarkable options currently employed by the Cavs.

    Remember, we're talking about promising youth. Nothing has more promise than a lottery pick, right?

              

    *Don't worry. This is the only time we'll pull this move.

Dallas Mavericks: Dennis Smith Jr., 20

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    It's still not that hard to get excited about Nerlens Noel.

    If he could stay healthy, he might become one of the most useful frontcourt defenders in the league. But it's clear from the lack of interest he drew on the restricted market this summer that few teams see him as a franchise-changer, even if he's only 23.

    Dennis Smith Jr. already feels like the steal of the 2017 draft (if it isn't Monk), and he's in a terrific situation to maximize his considerable potential. A nuclear athlete in the mold of early Baron Davis, Smith is going to make us wish Vine were still a thing this season. Head coach Rick Carlisle knows how to put players in positions to succeed, often surprising observers by tasking players with duties nobody would have expected...and helping them excel.

    See: Harrison Barnes, isolation scorer.

    Unlike many guys with his bounce, Smith also possesses craft. He can change pace and manipulate defenders and see angles. Finishing through contact will not be a problem.

    Perhaps most encouragingly, concerns about Smith's effort and work ethic in college haven't followed him to the NBA.

    "He's improving every day," Carlisle said of Smith, via Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News. "I watched film with him before practice, and the learning process is ongoing, but he's very diligent. He's a student of the game. He wants to be a great teammate."

    Smith, taken ninth, could wind up being the best player from the 2017 draft.

Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic, 22

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    Is it promising if a 22-year-old is already the best passing big man in the league?

    What about when that 22-year-old suddenly turned a solid offense into the league's best last year, during his age-21 season?

    And if that same player can stretch out to three-point range, infect an entire roster with the desire to cut, dominate smaller opponents in the post, push the ball himself in transition and generate more assist highlights in a week than most point guards do in a season, is that...is that good?

    Look, Nikola Jokic is one of the absolute best centers in the league right now. Last year, he became the only player 21 or younger to average 16.7 points, 9.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists in league history. If you add in his 45 made threes, you get something truly special: Only three other players of any age have ever posted those numbers in a single year.

    Larry Bird, Charles Barkley and Russell Westbrook.

    B/R's Dan Favale ranked him fourth at the position, and it's not that tough to find reasons for him to warrant a higher placement. It's hard to quantify just how much a player's style and unselfishness juice the performance of his teammates. If we could measure that, I suspect Jokic would be viewed as even more valuable.

    That the Denver Nuggets also have Gary Harris (23) and Jamal Murray (20) is unfair. Those two would top the list for several other teams. In Denver, they're distant trailers behind Jokic, one of the most exciting young talents the league has seen in a long time.

Detroit Pistons: Andre Drummond, 24

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    Over the past year or so, it's become popular to pile on Andre Drummond.

    His career 38.1 free-throw percentage makes it hard to play him late in games. His effort waxed and waned, particularly in 2016-17. He hasn't made the impact on defense or the boards that many want to see from a player with as many obvious physical gifts as the Detroit Pistons center possesses.

    But Drummond is only 24, and even if his numbers dipped a bit from their All-Star levels two years ago, he still has four straight seasons of at least 13 points and 13 rebounds. The truth is, for all the criticism he took during a lackluster 2016-17 effort, he's still productive in several meaningful ways.

    The promise comes in when you note he lost 30 pounds over the summer and managed to hit 16 of his 20 free-throw attempts during preseason play. Though it feels like his game has achieved stasis, there's plenty of room for him to grow.

    Imagine how much more valuable he'd be if he could hit just 60 percent of his foul shots? And if he's in markedly better shape, it's possible we'll watch Drummond sustain a high effort level over long periods. Maybe he's ready to be his best self.

    As it is, even last year's somewhat disappointing Drummond was better than Stanley Johnson, who checks in as Detroit's second-best under-25 prospect after averaging a measly 4.4 points in his sophomore season.

Golden State Warriors: Jordan Bell, 23

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    Sorry, Patrick McCaw, you're last year's news.

    Rookie Jordan Bell is the new second-round stud prompting general managers around the league to wonder how they let the Golden State Warriors snag another immediate contributor so late in the draft. The Bulls simply sold the pick that became Bell to the Dubs for $3.5 million.

    Bell, an undersized center practically engineered to play a switchy, small-ball style in the modern NBA, started for Draymond Green in the Dubs' final preseason contest. In 25 minutes he flew around the floor and amassed 10 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocks.

    Afterward, Dieter Kurtenbach of the San Jose Mercury News relayed what everyone watching Bell all summer suspected: "Bell is an NBA-ready rebounder, and he clearly has excellent defensive instincts, as his two help-side blocks confirmed. His offensive game needs polish, but he clearly has exceptional court vision and is a plus passer for his position."

    McCaw's savvy and nose for the ball compensate for middling athleticism and a willowy frame. He's an NBA player but perhaps one best suited as a seventh or eighth man. Bell, on the other hand, looks like a first big off the bench or, perhaps, the eventual successor to Green as Golden State's undersized defensive linchpin.

    Minutes will be hard to come by on the defending champs, but Bell is in the right place to hone his considerable skills.

Houston Rockets: Clint Capela, 23

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    Clint Capela's looming restricted free agency makes 2017-18 a "prove it" year for a mostly conventional center in an era decreasingly interested in that prototype.

    To be fair to Capela, his speed in transition and vertical threat as a lob finisher make him more useful than most traditional bigs. But he's not particularly adept at switching out onto ball-handlers, and his rim-protection numbers are unspectacular. He ranked seventh among 11 bigs who defended at least six shots per game inside six feet last year, allowing opponents to convert at a 57.8 percent clip.

    Capela is a matchup-specific weapon for the Houston Rockets. He won't finish games against smaller opponents when Ryan Anderson and PJ Tucker are available to man the middle in Mike D'Antoni's preferred five-out units.

    That said, the fourth-year center has improved in every season of his NBA career, upping his effective field-goal percentage from 48.3 to 58.3 to 64.3 in his first three years. He should only become more efficient with Chris Paul and James Harden both looking to set him up.

    Even if Capela is a bit of a mixed bag who plays an anachronistic position, he's still the easy pick for the Rockets, who don't have anyone else similarly intriguing in the under-25 pipeline.

Indiana Pacers: Myles Turner, 21

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    A true no-brainer selection, Myles Turner is the lone glimmer of hope in the Indiana Pacers' otherwise bleak outlook.

    Turner offers a combination of rim protection and floor-stretching shooting unmatched in the league. In fact, would you like to see the entire list of players who've hit 40 threes, blocked 172 shots and converted at least 50 percent of their field goals in an NBA season?

    Here it is: Myles Turner.

    With Paul George gone, Turner's next challenge will be leading a Pacers team through the difficult early phases of a rebuild. At least one veteran teammate thinks he's ready.

    "He's got time," Pacers point guard Darren Collison told reporters. "But he's got the mindset 'I can pretty much do it,' and that's not a bad thing. I think he's going to be great, and I think it's great for this franchise to build around him."

    Turner profiles as a perennial All-Star in the East who'll add volume to his perimeter shooting as a No. 1 option in Indy's offense. Most importantly, he looks like the kind of player good enough to attract other quality assets.

    The Pacers need some of those.

Los Angeles Clippers: Sam Dekker, 23

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    That Sam Dekker, already 23, stands out among the Los Angeles' Clippers' under-25 crew says all you need to know about the team's approach to roster construction.

    There just aren't many kids to choose from.

    Even in the aftermath of Chris Paul's departure, the Clips continued to prioritize veterans via retention and acquisition. Blake Griffin inked a fat new deal over the summer, which ruled out a youth movement, and the Clips' other meaningful additions included Patrick Beverley, Danilo Gallinari, Milos Teodosic and Lou Williams, all of whom are 29 or older.

    Dekker missed all but three games of his rookie season with a back injury, but he recovered to play 77 games as a sophomore with the Rockets, averaging 6.5 points and 3.7 rebounds in 18.4 minutes per contest.

    At 6'9", he has the size to play as an undersized power forward—with the added bonus of good speed in transition and a wing's mentality. He'll have to improve on the 32.1 percent he shot from deep in his only full season, but he hit threes at a 34.8 percent clip in college, so maybe there's hope.

    A fringe rotation option for now, Dekker is the default pick for the Clips. Apologies to Montrezl Harrell.

Los Angeles Lakers: Lonzo Ball, 20

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    That anti-Clippers when it comes to rostering young players, the Los Angeles Lakers have several exciting under-25 options.

    Brandon Ingram improved significantly in the second half of his rookie season, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is somehow still just 24, preseason megastar Kyle Kuzma looks like a draft steal, Julius Randle is a jump shot away from being a terrifying offensive weapon and Brook Lopez could develop into...

    Just making sure you were paying attention with that last one. Lopez is, of course, 29. But you get the idea: There are so many young options on the Lakers that they all start to run together after a while. Fortunately, there's still one who stands out above the rest.

    Lonzo Ball may have work to do on jump shots moving to his right, and he has a long way to go until he's ready to match the physicality of the NBA. Yet unlike the rest of the inexperienced but talented Lakers, he seems to have "it."

    Preternatural court vision, inherent unselfishness and the ability to anticipate (and, when he's really rolling, seemingly control) the actions of his teammates make Ball the rare player who genuinely improves the quality of whomever he's playing with. He did it in college at UCLA, and he showed just enough in summer league and preseason play to assure us the uncommon gift would translate to the NBA.

    "The thing that makes him special...that's the ability to make everyone a threat on the court at all times," Lakers head coach Luke Walton told Bill Oram of the Orange County Register when Ball returned to practice from a sprained ankle. "Tyler [Ennis] and A.C. [Alex Caruso] have done a nice job filling in, but that's a special skill he has. We missed that."

    It's not easy to pass over Ingram or Pope, but Ball has the greatest chance to be a truly special player.

    Think of it this way: When the Lakers are selling themselves to big-name free agents next summer, Ball will be item No. 1 on the pitch list.

Memphis Grizzlies: Wayne Selden, 23

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    Welp, it ain't Wade Baldwin!

    The Memphis Grizzlies gave up on their 2016 first-round pick after just one year, continuing a troubling trend of draft misses. According to a tweet from Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post: "The last Grizzlies first-rounder to get a second contract from the team was Mike Conley. He was drafted in 2007."

    Yikes.

    Suffice it to say, the Grizz are short on promising youth.

    So let's go with Wayne Selden, a sturdy 6'5" wing the Grizzlies trusted enough on defense to start a couple of playoff games and guard Kawhi Leonard last spring. Selden's shooting remains a question mark, but he's a rugged athlete who can finish at the rim—and get there effectively, thanks to a strong handle for a wing player.

    Ben McLemore is 24 and might have started ahead of Selden if not for injury, and Deyonta Davis is only 20, which means his ceiling is harder to calculate. But Selden already projects as a useful defender and NBA-caliber athlete. That's enough to qualify as Memphis' best young player.

Miami Heat: Justise Winslow, 21

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    If Justise Winslow can be a primary playmaker at the 4 (or even the 5 in super-small lineups), the progression of his jumper suddenly matters a lot less. Because if he can contribute offensively in other ways—using his ball-handling, passing and court sense—his defensive versatility and competitiveness will matter more than a shaky shot.

    Still, he's working on the weakness that has limited him through two NBA seasons.

    "I don't want it to be my fault with the spacing and all that," Winslow told Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald. "I'm putting in the time and that's all I know. I've been seeing progress and I'll just continue to work at it because once I know it becomes reliable and consistent it will open up other things for my teammates and myself."

    The guy is only 21 years old, which is way too early to write off the possibility of Winslow becoming Draymond Green Lite. And that's if his perimeter shot never gets up to league average.

    Josh Richardson is almost definitely a better player than Winslow right now, but he's also three years older and much closer to his apex. There's still plenty of time for Winslow to make a leap.

Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo, 22

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    Last year, Giannis Antetokounmpo became the only player to ever average at least 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.6 steals at any age. Even if you junk the steals category, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the only other player to match the Greek Freak in the remaining four categories.

    So basically: A six-time MVP almost matched what Antetokounmpo did in his age-22 season.

    What are we even talking about here? Do we need to waste more digital ink espousing the many landscape-altering virtues of his skill set? Are we forgetting some other 7-foot wing who effectively plays point guard, defends the rim and dunks from the doggone free-throw line in actual games?

    Did we overlook another Milwaukee Bucks prospect with similar skills?

    If you had to bet on a player absolutely owning the league in three years, you'd be hard-pressed to find a safer choice than Antetokounmpo. So, yeah, I'd say he qualifies as the Bucks' top prospect.

    Sorry, I don't know why I'm yelling at you. I should have just left that clip up there and moved on.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Karl-Anthony Towns, 22

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    I'll just tell you now. We've entered the Murderers' Row section of this list. Antetokounmpo led it off, and now we have Karl-Anthony Towns up to bat for the Minnesota Timberwolves. The hits will just keep coming.

    Towns is only the most gifted scoring big man we've seen since Hakeem Olajuwon. And it should be noted that Olajuwon, while a dangerous mid-range shooter, never came close to knocking down the 101 treys KAT hit in his second NBA season.

    In fact, Towns is the only player in history to amass 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 100 threes in a single year. He did it last season. When he was 21.

    Twenty-one.

    As a reference point, Andrew Wiggins just got maxed out. And at no point was he even jokingly considered for this spot.

    The full scouting report has to include this, though: Towns is an abysmal defender. He has to improve his attention and effort on that end to become a true cornerstone on a contender. But when a center this young has the multiskilled makeup and polish to score from deep, dominate in the post and blow by opponents on devastatingly effective off-the-dribble attacks, it's impossible to say he can't develop other aspects of his game.

    Towns will become as great as he wants to. It's up to him.

New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis, 24

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    Somehow, it's become easier to overlook Anthony Davis. That's probably because he plays for the New Orleans Pelicans, an organization that, if you didn't know better, you'd assume was wholly committed to obstructing his path to success.

    The Pels have consistently dealt picks for quick fixes, eschewing shots at long-term greatness in exchange for present half-decency.

    It also doesn't help that AD caught serious MVP buzz heading into his fourth season but took a slight statistical step backward as his team fell apart around him. Sometimes, when a player doesn't take the next step when we expect him to, we assume he never will.

    Not that Davis needs to get any better to easily win this spot.

    He's not Towns on offense but is vastly better on D and outstrips the Wolves big man athletically. With four straight years of at least 20 points and 10 rebounds, plus an ever-increasing usage rate and a PER that hasn't dipped below 25 since his rookie season, Davis is one of the 10 best players in the NBA. Full stop.

New York Knicks: Kristaps Porzingis, 22

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    A fourth consecutive easy call.

    Kristaps Porzingis doesn't quite belong on the tier occupied by Antetokounmpo, Towns and Davis, but he's pretty darn good.

    KP will fight an uphill battle as he tries to develop in one of the league's most consistently dysfunctional environments. Even if Phil Jackson is no longer around clouding the air with his triangular thoughts (Isosceles Philosophies?), the New York Knicks still have James Dolan as an owner and longtime front-office man Steve Mills installed as president.

    The wacky, development-stunting status quo remains in place.

    It'll be a crowning achievement of Knicksdom if the organization somehow prevents Porzingis from becoming an All-Star eight or 10 times over. He's a fluid scorer whose 7'3" height makes his high release unreachable for virtually every defender. An improving handle and the clarity of a certain top-option role should produce big numbers for years.

    One other concern: injuries. Porzingis has missed 26 games in his first two years. Without much precedent for a player his size occupying his perimeter role, it's hard to know how he'll hold up.

    Quietly, the Knicks have some other tantalizing options. Rookie Frank Ntilikina and Willy Hernangomez both have serious potential—particularly Ntilikina who, at 19, already looks to be a viable defender. Neither are close to Porzingis' level, but they'll be nice to have around if/when the Knicks run KP out of town.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Steven Adams, 24

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    Steven Adams doesn't need them because the Oklahoma City Thunder lack anyone other than Alex Abrines, 24, who warrants mention, but he still gets bonus points for being the under-25 player you'd most like to get a beer with.

    Adams is among the best press-scrum quote-generators in the league. He gives honest answers nonchalantly, and his eminently personable demeanor is made all the more endearing by his resemblance to Khal Drogo. It's ill-fitting in a delightful way.

    He might be the toughest guy in the league, but he's also one of the most self-effacing.

    "As an idiot, I'm impressed," he told Tim Cato of SB Nation when asked about GM Sam Presti's bang-up job of a summer.

    Winning personality aside, Adams was one of only seven players last year to average 11 points and seven rebounds with at least one block, steal and assist. He also needs the ball less than just about anyone.

Orlando Magic: Aaron Gordon, 22

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    It's tempting to go with 20-year-old rookie Jonathan Isaac here, partly because Aaron Gordon's career to this point has been oddly defined by frustration about what he should be able to do by now, but hasn't.

    Gordon is still only 22, though, and the physical tools (length, speed, bounce, agility) that give rise to all those unmet expectations technically still qualify as potential. He fizzled as a small forward last year, failing to convert perimeter shots or scare anyone as a ball-handler. But after sliding over to the 4, where he should have been all along, he improved.

    After the All-Star break, Gordon averaged 16.4 points and 6.2 rebounds while upping his field-goal percentage from 42.8 to 50.3 percent.

    Isaac's ceiling as a defender and floor-spacer make him an exciting prospect, but Gordon feels like a player on the verge of solidifying himself as a quality starter in his age-22 season—with plenty more upside left untapped.

Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid, 23

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    It'll be interesting to see what criticisms arise when/if we see Joel Embiid play enough for the sheer wonder to wear off.

    You know it's coming. If Embiid stays healthy, we'll start picking at his imperfections—questioning his conditioning, deriding his tendency to stop the ball on offense, wondering whether he's a little too emotional to be an even-keeled leader.

    Those jabs will come after we all agree his overwhelming physical strength, quickness and three-level scoring touch make him one of the most dominant forces in the league...but they'll still come. It's the lot of the ascendant prospect; backlash is inevitable.

    For now, Embiid remains the biggest optimism-generator in the league: a potentially franchise- and generation-defining big man capable of making years of the Process worth the pain.

    Ben Simmons looks like a taller Grant Hill through a few games as a rookie, and Markelle Fultz (busted shot and all) is already flashing uncanny athletic burst and open-court craft. Neither measure up to Embiid, though.

Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker, 21

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    The Phoenix Suns committed to TJ Warren on a rookie extension and drafted Josh Jackson after letting Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender take their lumps as rookies in 2016-17.

    Perhaps the latter two big men still figure into the Suns' long-term rotation plans, but it's telling that Warren and Jackson started Phoenix's opener ahead of Chriss and Bender. The Suns got hammered by 48 points in that game, so it's difficult to say they made the right lineup decision.

    But head coach Earl Watson indicated he'd stick with the starters who won jobs in camp, telling reporters: "We're not going to alternate. I think for the psyche of the players, they need to know where they stand."

    Chriss and Bender, then, stand beneath Jackson in the Suns' hierarchy.

    That's probably for the best, as Chriss' lack of feel and basketball IQ may never measure up to his athleticism, and Bender's profile as a playmaking center is still almost entirely theoretical. Jackson, meanwhile, can do just about everything but shoot with decent form. He fits the modern game as a hybrid wing who could eventually handle power forwards on D.

    Know who's not part of a positional jumble or still trying to prove he's a starting-caliber player? Devin Booker, 21, who scored 70 friggin' points in a game last year. 

    The Suns are long on youth, but Booker's career to this point gives him a distinct edge on this crowded crew of kids.

Portland Trail Blazers: Jusuf Nurkic, 23

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    The way Jusuf Nurkic left the Denver Nuggets—overweight, disgruntled about his role and carrying a bit of a malcontent's stigma—was the last thing standing between him and acceptance as a true organizational cornerstone.

    After a summer spent shedding 35 pounds through workouts with Damian Lillard and further solidifying himself as a committed teammate. It's safe to say the stigma is gone, leaving a physically gifted, highly productive and more mature 23-year-old in its place.

    Check this out from Mike Richman of the Oregonian:

    "Lillard agreed to work out with Nurkic the next morning and said he was stunned when he first came into the practice facility. What he saw was the beginning of Nurkic's massive offseason transformation, in which he shed 35 pounds to drop from 310 to 275 pounds prior to training camp. That morning Nurkic went through Lillard's workout routine, pushing through the outside shooting and ball-handling drills usually reserved for a guard."

    Nurkic averaged 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assist and 1.9 blocks in 20 games with Portland last year. The Blazers were 14-6 and, most importantly, allowed 103.7 points per 100 possessions, a top-five rate, when he was on the floor.

    And that was 35 pounds ago.

    More and more, it's looking like Nurkic's post-trade production will be a baseline, not an outlier.

Sacramento Kings: De'Aaron Fox, 20

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    There's no shortage of youth on the rebuilding Sacramento Kings, but there aren't many guys who feel like sure things.

    De'Aaron Fox comes closest.

    Startlingly quick and highly aggressive, Fox is bound to be an open-court handful and a hard-driving pest on defense. If he sands down the rough edges on his shooting form, he has true All-Star potential.

    That makes him different from Skal Labissiere, Buddy Hield and even Bogdan Bogdanovic, none of whom can be said to need just one more element in their games to ascend toward excellence. All three of those prospects could become useful rotation players, but Fox's ceiling is higher.

    It's reckless to throw around the John Wall comparison, but it's difficult to watch Fox hit the turbo button without mulling it over for a second.

    Veteran teammate Garrett Temple couldn't resist, telling Ailene Voisin of the Sacramento Bee:

    "When those lights go on, his ability to get into the paint and push the pace is something I haven't seen, besides John Wall. When he gets it going, picks his spots, when he gets that jumper down he is going to be hard to guard. His pace can't be stopped right now. He's so fast."

San Antonio Spurs: Dejounte Murray, 21

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    Dejounte Murray is three years younger than any of his returning teammates, and he's even two years behind rookie Derrick White. While it's not as though Murray needed that age advantage on a Spurs team lacking much youth, it still helps.

    Also helpful: Murray's confidence.

    "What I do know, he's not fearful of the situation, getting the ball right now, being such a neophyte," head coach Gregg Popovich told reporters after Murray posted 16 points, five rebounds, two assists and two steals as the opening-night starter at the point.

    Already thrown into the playoff fire as a rookie, Murray will get an extended chance to solidify himself as Tony Parker's successor this year. He'll make mistakes, but the Spurs don't just hand the keys to anyone. San Antonio's trust in Murray tells us all we need to know about his potential.

Toronto Raptors: OG Anunoby, 20

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    This is a bold one. Let's just get that out there.

    Jakob Poeltl will probably be in the league for a dozen years, and Norman Powell has already shown enough to get a $42 million contract. But OG Anunoby, already back on the floor after tearing his ACL in January, projects as a next-level defender whose athleticism and intelligence will make him an asset on offense if he never irons out his jumper.

    Not only that, but the 6'8" Anunoby is only 20 years old—four years younger than Powell, and two behind Poeltl. It's not unreasonable to expect that with four more seasons of development, Anunoby could become a borderline starter or above-average sixth man, which is what Powell is right now.

    Really, Anunoby is a high lottery pick who fell because of injury. Head coach Dwane Casey called him a "top-10 pick" the Raptors were "lucky" to get.

    He'll be rusty in his first season back from that ACL injury, but Anunoby's ceiling is higher than any of his young teammates'.

Utah Jazz: Donovan Mitchell, 21

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    If Anunoby was a draft steal, I'm not sure what that makes Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell.

    The Louisville product started the season opener at shooting guard and logged significant minutes running the offense with the second unit. Aggressive (sometimes over-dribbling; hey, he was excited!), confident and capable on both ends, he performed better than his 3-of-11 shooting line suggests.

    Granted, Mitchell, the 13th pick in June, only got the nod because Rodney Hood was suffering from "gastric distress." That doesn't detract from a strong preseason capped by a 26-point outing in the exhibition finale, and it doesn't mean Mitchell won't soak up big minutes when Hood's intestinal discomfort subsides.

    "The young'un, man, he's going to be very special in the future," teammate Alec Burks told Jody Genessy of the Deseret News afterward. "He's got a lot of game. He made some great plays, some great defensive plays. He made some good passes at point guard. He's going to be all right."

Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal, 24

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    At 24, Bradley Beal gets in just under the wire.

    Even if ankle sprains and stress reactions in his legs contributed to an average of 20 missed games per season over his first four years, the injury worries surrounding Beal aren't enough to keep him out of this spot. He logged 77 games last year and probably should have been an All-Star with an average of 23.1 points and a long-range conversion rate of 40.4 percent.

    Beal is an underrated ball-handler who can run the pick-and-roll, and he's deceptively athletic for a guy principally recognized by his sweet jumper. There's some early Ray Allen in him that way.

    Kelly Oubre is two years younger and looks like he's ready to become a two-way weapon, possibly pushing Markieff Morris for time as an undersized 4 but definitely playing huge minutes off the bench in his third year. But he has a ways to go before he's a better prospect than Beal, who is already established as a starter and could still improve his all-around game.

                   

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

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