NBA Top 25 Under 25: Players Who Will Shape the Future of the League

Joye Pruitt@hoopselectSenior Analyst IDecember 1, 2011

NBA Top 25 Under 25: Players Who Will Shape the Future of the League

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    The league is dominated by the LeBrons, Wades and Bryants. All of the aforementioned men are over the age of 25 and are firmly established in the NBA.

    How about those rising stars who are still carving their names into the hardwood?

    While listing the bigger names who shape the league, we often forget about the young men who come into the game and attempt to snatch those league-leading roles away from the vets.

    Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose are two of the most talked-up under-25 players in the NBA, but there is a wider variety of young guys establishing themselves. They should be given a shout out as well. And here it is...

25. Rodney Stuckey, Detroit Pistons

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    Age: 25

    Stats: 15.5 PPG, 5.2 APG, 3.1 RPG

    Rodney Stuckey sometimes gets lost in Detroit’s melee of guards, but he is the best player the Pistons have on any given day.

    Stuckey is a restricted free agent, but the franchise has no reason and has given absolutely no indication that they wish to send him away.

    The drafting of Brandon Knight will only show how versatile Stuckey can be in Detroit’s system. 

24. Jeff Teague, Atlanta Hawks

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    Age: 23

    Stats: 5.2 PPG, 2.8 APG, 1.5 RPG

    Jeff Teague had yet to be tested until Kirk Hinrich’s strained hamstring during the Orlando series in last season’s playoffs forced him into the starting position.

    His best moments of the season came against Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls in the next series, where he forced the regular-season MVP to work for every point he scored.

    This season, Atlanta fans will be able to see if Teague is more than just a playoff sensation or if his heightened poise and offensive consistency have been established.

23. Lou Williams, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Age: 25

    Stats: 13.7 PPG, 3.4 APG, 2.0 RPG

    When you think about Lou Williams, the last huge play that comes to mind must be the buzzer-beating shot against the Miami Heat in the playoffs. It was not the first time last season that Williams hit one of his buzzer beaters and it probably will not be the last.

    When the Sixers finally figure out what to do with Andre Iguodala and move forward, Williams will be one of the largest parts of a postseason run.

    With true leadership, the Sixers are true contenders.

22. Nicolas Batum, Portland Trailblazers

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    Age: 23

    Stats: 12.5 PPG, 4.5 APG, 1.5 RPG

    Nicolas Batum will be a breakout star for Portland as spurts of what the future holds for the Blazers’ small forward were shown in 2010. Batum got more aggressive towards the end of the season and seemed to fit right in to Portland’s system.

    His sense of the game is undeniable and if he continues to grow, his ball-handling skills will get much better and he will contribute more heavily on both ends of the court. 

21. Wesley Matthews, Portland Trailblazers

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    Age: 25

    Stats: 15.9 PPG, 2.0 APG, 3.1 RPG

    Wesley Matthews is the type of guy that you want on your team. Without hesitation, he comes off of Portland’s bench putting up threes as if it is simply human nature.

    Not only that, but he single-handedly outscored the Dallas Mavericks at the beginning of a game in the postseason series against the eventual NBA Finals champions.

    Matthews leads the Trailblazers in three-pointers made and attempted. His production and drive in Portland is far different than when he was with Utah.

    Only expect greater things from the guard in the 2011 season. 

20. Darren Collison, Indiana Pacers

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    Age: 24

    Stats: 13.2 PPG, 5.1 APG, 2.8 RPG

    Darren Collison first made a stir in the league as Chris Paul’s backup. With Paul out of the lineup, Collison had major production at the point guard position and has not slowed his pace with the Indiana Pacers.

    The entire Pacers’ squad had some irregularities to deal with while Jim O’Brien was the head coach, perpetuating the most awkward of NBA rotations.

    During the Chicago postseason series where he was matched up against Derrick Rose under coach Frank Vogel, Collison did something that no one expected him to do: He challenged Rose every step of the way and even got the better of him a few times.

    His future is brighter than any other team in the Eastern Conference would hope. 

19. Marcus Thornton, Sacramento Kings

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    Age: 24

    Stats: 12.8 PPG, 1.8 APG, 3.5 RPG

    Free agency will be sped up a bit this season as teams will be snatching up and re-signing players day-to-day. Marcus Thornton is one of the Sacramento’s restricted free agents, meaning that the Kings can match any deal offered to him by any other franchise.

    Thornton will be one of the first lines of business for the Kings when business begins to stir up once again around the league and with good reason.

    Thornton hopped straight into Sacramento’s lineup and proved how much of a scorer he can be when the offense grows stagnant. There will be a bit of competition for the shooting guard position because the team drafted Jimmer Fredette.

    However, something tells me that with Tyreke Evans back in the rotation, Thornton would definitely be a better fit playing beside him as a 2-guard. 

18. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

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    Age: 22

    Stats: 17.2 PPG, 1.8 APG, 3.8 RPG

    The Toronto Raptors are going down the exact same road they did with Vince Carter, who was drafted and known mainly for his ability to dunk.

    Ta-da! DeMar DeRozan seems to be heading down that same path, but if you look a little closer he is simply a hard-working leader in Toronto who gets half the credit he deserves.

    His general ability to take the reins of his team at such a young age speaks volumes to his maturity in and out of the locker room.

    If the second half of last season is a telltale sign for DeRozan’s future, the Raptors have a lot to look forward to.  

17. Greg Monroe, Detroit Pistons

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    Age: 21

    Stats: 9.4 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 0.6 BPG

    Greg Monroe was drafted to the Detroit Pistons at one of the worst moments in the franchise’s history. The “John Kuester” era was tearing the team a new one and the ridiculous decisions being made in his name put every player in a bad light.

    Except for Greg Monroe.

    Even throughout the nonsense placed in front of him, Monroe continued to shine as one of the most NBA-ready players in the 2010 NBA Draft.

    This season with new coach, Lawrence Frank, and the possible retirement of Ben Wallace, Monroe will have a defining role on the floor and will be able to expose more of his talents in such a short season. He is underrated and able. 

16. Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Age: 22

    Stats: 20.2 PPG, 15.2 RPG, 0.4 BPG

    Teams are also pining over Kevin Love before he is even able to head to another team.

    It is not just about Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. Love is a hot commodity and after a season full of double-doubles, he snagged the Most Improved Player Award.

    The only thing that is a bit concerning about Love is his lack of defense. Other than that, for rosters searching for a huge offensive talent that can come up with huge boards, Love is the man.

    The Minnesota power forward is the biggest part of a large scope of the Timberwolves’ future and losing him would be hard to recover from.

15. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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    Age: 23

    Stats: 18.6 PPG, 5.8 APG, 3.9 RPG

    Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis seemed like it may have been a tumultuous match when Ellis showed a clear disdain for the newly drafted Curry just a couple of seasons ago.

    Now, the point guard has begun to shift his game to what fits the needs of the Golden State team and is more comfortable facilitating, rather than finding a home on the perimeter.

    With Ellis playing beside him, he has found a happy medium and the backcourt is one of the highest scoring in the league. 

14. Josh Smith, Atlanta Hawks

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    Age: 25

    Stats: 16.5 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 1.6 BPG

    Josh Smith’s temper sometimes distracts fans from his true talent on the floor. His most powerful attribute, however, would have to be that he is the most vocal person on the Atlanta squad.

    Al Horford may be the conceivable leader on the team, but Smith is definitely the man you look to in order to inspire the Hawks when they need some sort of boost.

    He is on the chopping block in Atlanta, it seems, as the franchise is rumored to be shopping the power forward for a more lucrative piece to Atlanta’s playoff chase.

    There are a variety of players they could bring in with a trade involving Smith, but they would lose the most aggressive player they have on the squad. 

13. Tyreke Evans, Sacramento Kings

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    Age: 22

    Stats: 17.8 PPG, 5.6 APG, 4.8 RPG

    The Sacramento Kings guard had the unfortunate destiny of being plagued with injury last season, therefore not being properly able to assist DeMarcus Cousins for the extent of 82 games.

    If Tyreke Evans returns in ideal shape alongside Cousins and Thornton, the sky is the limit as far as what Sacramento is able to achieve.

    The Kings are a young and developing team and Evans is the core entity that will determine how far they go in 2011. After his rookie season, the hopes were high for his future achievements.

    Do not expect him to let anyone down as the restored and shortened NBA season comes into play. 

12. James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Age: 22

    Stats: 12.2 PPG, 2.1 APG, 3.1 RPG

    It was interesting to see James Harden step the forefront, especially when it seemed as if Russell Westbrook was standing in his own way. He provided OKC with a lethal combination of passing and playmaking ability that provided crucial effort in the Thunder’s arrival in the Western Conference Finals.

    Harden is extremely underrated for fans who solely view the statistics to see how instrumental a player is to his organization. He plays at the guard position with an extremely high IQ.

    While he is not as flashy as the more known guard stars in the league, he is an effective role player who shows those flashes of ultraviolet substance every now and then.

    The Thunder will never let a player of his caliber and potential go. 

11. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings

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    Age: 21

    Stats: 14.1 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 0.8 BPG

    Being around Demarcus Cousins last season barely seemed like a walk in the park, even if you were his teammate. When reports surfaced that the obviously hotheaded rookie got into an altercation with his own teammate, of course the trade rumors started flying.

    Thankfully, Sacramento is willing to practice restraint and patience with the rookie.

    Cousins is a true difference maker for the Kings. He can also become a bit more likable and respected in the league after a major attitude adjustment.

    No matter how much you hate his overly emotional ways, no one can deny that he is a well-rounded talent with a bright future in the NBA. 

10. Rudy Gay, Memphis Grizzlies

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    Age: 25

    Stats: 19.8 PPG, 2.8 APG, 6.2 RPG

    It is crazy to think that the Memphis Grizzlies actually fared better as the season wound down without Rudy Gay—the most interesting man in the NBA—than they did with him.

    His achievements in the franchise may be overshadowed by the breakout performances of both Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, but do not forget who the standing leader of the franchise is.

    The thought is in the back of everyone’s mind how strong the Grizzlies could have been with him healthy and in the starting five. This season, Gay is expected to return healthy and ready to ball.

    With him back on the floor for Memphis, there is no telling how far the Grizzlies can make it in the Western Conference. With so many teams rebuilding their rosters, Gay is a part of one of the most stable rotations in the league. 

9. Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Age: 22

    Stats: 16.2 PPG, 4.8 APG, 3.7 RPG

    Everyone hopes Brandon Jennings’ talk is as grand as his bite when the season begins, speculated for Christmas day.

    Jennings has been using the offseason not only to beef up his game but to gain a few internships on his resume, namely as an Under Armour spokesperson.

    Besides his rare ability to endorse products as a basketball player, Jennings has an array of skills as a point guard that give him sky-high potential. His handles are vastly improving and if he can define his game as a shooter or a passer, it would give the Bucks a clear shot at contention in the Eastern Conference.

    The Bucks’ PG has everything it takes to be one of the more elite guards in the league right behind the likes of Derrick Rose, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. 

8. Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks

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    Age: 25

    Stats: 15.3 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 1.0 BPG

    Al Horford seems a bit mild-mannered, but on the court he is of high impact under the rim. Horford is an efficient shooter and one of the great dirty work players in the NBA. His game is not exuberant and does not often makes crowds stand to their feet.

    However, playing on a team that does not run plays for him but consistently expects him to make things happen with 35 minutes of playing time, he does not give way to making things look cuter than they ought to. Horford gets the job done by any means necessary and deserves a lot more credit than Joe Johnson.

    The biggest problem with the Atlanta Hawks is that they have been singled out for not playing with too much heart. Horford brings a silent, but deadly feel to the hardwood. 

7. Andrew Bynum, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Age: 24

    Stats: 11.3 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 2.0 BPG

    Andrew Bynum is one of those high risk/high reward players that everyone raves about and then ultimately criticizes his role.

    After injuries knocked him down from the potential that everyone could have sworn the kid had, this last season in Los Angeles proved to be one of his most dominant.

    While players like Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher were on a slippery slope during the season, teammates such as Bynum and Lamar Odom had great years that were not as widely recognized.

    Bynum skyrocketed in value after showcasing himself as one of the more solid players on the Hollywood-esque franchise. It would seem as if he should be one of the Lakers most secure in his position.

    However, the Lakers still need to keep his injuries in mind, keeping him up under the basket where he is most productive.

6. John Wall, Washington Wizards

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    Age: 21

    Stats: 16.4 PPG, 8.3 APG, 4.6 RPG

    It would be far too easy to rank John Wall in the bottom half of this ranking because not only was he a part of the squad with one of the most horrible road records of the league and he also missed a slew of games due to injury.

    Still, Wall is a player in the NBA with one of the highest ceilings. He led his team automatically—not statistically, but in morale and aggressiveness.

    His fight with former Miami Center Zydrunas Ilgauskas only showed how much fight he has in him. When he improves his outside shot, he will be able to begin climbing the ranks in his position, because he already has the handles and the agility to match any of his opponents. 

5. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Age: 23

    Stats: 21.9 PPG, 8.2 APG, 4.6 RPG

    Russell Westbrook has a growing reputation of being a spoiled brat, but that should not overshadow his athletic ability. He can get to the hoop regardless of who his defender is and that is the most tantalizing avenue of his game.

    Watching Westbrook put up 30 points is comforting, but at the same time it has the likelihood of putting his coaching staff in a bind.

    Kevin Durant is already firmly set as the franchise’s go-to guy and when Westbrook takes those wild shots he is so known for since last season, it takes away from Durant’s touches. This should not be such an issue as long as OKC allows him to resurface and restructure his game to reform to what Durant truly needs in a point guard.

    Westbrook is a great athlete, and an even better basketball player.  

4. Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics

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    Age: 25

    Stats: 10.6 PPG, 11.2 APG, 4.4 RPG

    The recent rumors about Rajon Rondo being moved to either OKC or New Orleans in a trade that consists of point guards like Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul may be some of the most awkward trade talks I’ve witnessed throughout actually paying attention to the NBA.

    Rondo is one of the shining stars for Boston and with such an aging roster the Celtics need every ounce of youth they can grab.

    Rondo’s resilience has to be the most impressive about his game, after he fueled past an elbow injury to continue to play against the Miami Heat, knowing his team needed him at his best. It was not something fans had never seen before, but it was a breath of fresh air during a series in which the Heat appeared to be taking control.

    Discarding Rondo after he has grown alongside the Big Three would only exploit the relationship and the chemistry that has formed in the last years of the veterans’ last stand. 

3. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Age: 22

    Stats: 22.5 PPG, 12.1 RPG, 0.5 BPG

    Despite the controversy surrounding Blake Griffin’s true rookie status, the young Clippers’ star rightfully deserved each individual accolade he was rewarded. Not only did he take over his team immediately after stepping on the court, but he also took the league by storm by dominating players around the rim.

    The dunk where Griffin used Timofey Mozgov’s head as sort of an accelerant towards the basket was probably the most interesting before his over-the-Kia dunk in the finale of the Slam Dunk contest during All-Star Weekend.

    Griffin also sculpted a mid-range game through the season and only needs to become more powerful through his years in the league under the basket to get his team more second chance opportunities. 

2. Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls

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    Age: 23

    Stats: 25.0 PPG, 7.7 APG, 4.1 RPG

    Derrick Rose is heading towards being the best point guard in the league, especially when he is able to get his teammates more involved this season. Right now, Rose battles through defenders with supreme athleticism that only leaves his opponents piling up jaw-drops.

    The Chicago Bulls would not be able to get to the level that they were last season without him. Every Chicago player, former and present, fan and front-office member understands how vital he is to the franchise.

    He can still stand to improve his three-point shot, but finding flaws in Rose is harder than it seems for such a young player that did not have this much attention before 2010. 

1. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Age: 23

    Stats: 27.7 PPG, 2.7 APG, 6.8 RPG

    Kevin Durant is that guy.

    There are no other words to explain how the 23-year-old OKC Thunder small forward has contributed to the youthful uprising in such a small-market franchise.

    Durant, or "Durantula" (the nickname fans are flocking to), is the greatest scoring threat in the league next to an aging Dirk Nowitzki. His stroke is lethal at any point in a game which is why the Thunder can never be counted out.

    Durant is also gaining some aggressiveness with his execution and the chest-pounding is of significance when it comes to re-energizing his teams in moments where they have begun to fall flat.

    The Thunder team is still very young, but the maturity of Durant is what has lifted them so far in power rankings against the more experienced teams in the West. He loves where he is and the loyalty he shows to the city he has fallen in love with is only perpetuated on the court.

    Kevin Durant does not have the desire to join up with the more powerful forces in the league. He is comfortable with the men he has in place now and forming a bond that will eventually develop the chemistry needed to win in the NBA Finals.

    Not one. Not two. Not three. Not four.