Ranking Best Young NBA Cores After 2022 Free Agency

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesFeatured Columnist IVJuly 14, 2022

Ranking Best Young NBA Cores After 2022 Free Agency

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    Nothing rekindles hope for the future of an NBA team like the offseason.

    It's when dreams of year-over-year leaps take hold and presumptions that every shred of potential a young player showed last season will become the norm going forward feel realistic. Optimism reigns—both for individual talents and entire groups of up-and-comers.

    The best young cores, which we'll limit to include players who will be 25 or younger on Feb. 1 of the 2022-23 season, have a mixture of past achievement and future potential—perhaps with a little extra emphasis on the latter. Those ranking highest will have already produced team success while still retaining upside that portends greater things ahead.

    It can be tricky to balance current value against the likelihood of future growth. How do you compare a 19-year-old with a sterling draft pedigree against a 23-year-old with a handful of strong postseason games on his resume? Guesswork will be required. Gut feelings, too.

    Depth is also a factor. We have to measure some cores with several projectable under-25 talents against others with just a few. And even then, we must determine which players even qualify as core pieces—the kind around which teams construct multiyear plans.

    Finally, there's the even hazier issue of fit. Do the players complement one another? Do they overlap in ways that could presage problems down the line?

    The best cores have it all: promise and production, youth and high-leverage reps, depth and star power.

    With free agency, the draft and a handful of trades shaking up multiple rosters, now is a great time to reassess the hierarchy of the NBA's top young cores.

Honorable Mention

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    Denver Nuggets

    The Core: Jamal Murray (25), Michael Porter Jr. (24), Bones Hyland (22)

    Other Young Talent: Zeke Nnaji (22), Christian Braun (21)

    Murray and Porter come with health questions after the former missed last season with a torn ACL and the latter saw action in just nine games before his season ended with back surgery. Murray, too, barely makes the cut as an under-25 player; he'll be 26 just a few weeks after the Feb. 1 cutoff.

    Those two factored significantly in Denver's playoff run two years ago, though, and they could help push the Nuggets into one of the West's top four spots if everything breaks right. This is still a thin group with Hyland a bit of a stretch as a core piece based on his short track record.

    Golden State Warriors

    The Core: Jordan Poole (23), Jonathan Kuminga (20), Moses Moody (20), James Wiseman (21)

    Other Young Talent: Patrick Baldwin Jr. (20)

    This group has a ceiling that could make listing them in the honorable mention section laughable in hindsight. Poole played a critical role on a title-winner last season and could hardly be better positioned to succeed than as an observant Stephen Curry sponge. Already, he's picking up the off-ball tricks of the trade that make Curry such a headache to guard.

    Kuminga has elite physical tools and a nose for contact. He averaged 19.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per 36 minutes as a 19-year-old rookie, fighting for playing time on a veteran-laden roster in pursuit of a championship. Unlimited athletically, the 6'8" forward has legitimate superstar upside. Wiseman has that same sky-high ceiling at center, but with a worrisome injury history, and Moody is a rotation-ready glue guy who can shoot and defend on the perimeter.

    That said, no member of the Warriors' young core projects as a starter anytime soon. Opportunities to justify the hype with production will have to wait. If you've got stock in this group, hold onto it. Its time will come.

    Miami Heat

    The Core: Bam Adebayo (25), Tyler Herro (23)

    Other Young Talent: Omer Yurtseven (24), KZ Okpala (23)

    Adebayo and Herro are a stronger one-two punch than any pair of teammates here, with the possible exception of a healthy Murray and Porter in Denver. But it's hard to feel good about calling two players a core.

    Reasonable minds could disagree, citing Adebayo and Herro's major roles on a Heat team that made a Finals run in 2020 and was one game away from advancing that far this past season. This isn't "top young duos," though. If it were, Adebayo and Herro would easily belong in the top 10.

    New York Knicks

    The Core: RJ Barrett (22), Mitchell Robinson (24), Immanuel Quickley (23), Obi Toppin (24)

    Other Young Talent: Cam Reddish (23), Quentin Grimes (22), Miles McBride (22), Jericho Sims (24), Isaiah Hartenstein (25)

    There's no shortage of depth here, but the Knicks may not have a single star atop the pile of 25-and-unders on the roster. Barrett comes closest, and we shouldn't overlook the 20.0 points per game he scored as a 21-year-old last year. Other than the lefty wing, New York has a whole bunch of options that might not top out above the "solid starter" level.

    There are worse things than having this many bites at the apple, but there's not enough upside here to warrant a spot in the top 10.

10. Orlando Magic

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    The Core: Paolo Banchero (20), Wendell Carter Jr. (23), Franz Wagner (21)

    Other Young Talent: Jalen Suggs (21), Cole Antony (22), Mo Bamba (24), Markelle Fultz (24), Jonathan Isaac (25), Chuma Okeke (24), RJ Hampton (21), Caleb Houstan (20)

    The Orlando Magic's youth brigade hasn't achieved anything yet, but it makes up for that in volume. Odds are, one or two of the players listed outside the core three will join Banchero, Carter and Wagner. If that happens, we'll probably need to move the Magic up a few spots in our next set of rankings.

    As it stands now, Carter has already established himself as a quality starter with upside. He heads into his fifth season with semi-realistic All-Star hopes. He put up 15.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists while upping his long-range attempts to 3.5 per game last year, which wasn't bad for a 22-year-old on a lottery team.

    Wagner featured prominently in Rookie of the Year chatter, which was a promising sign even if he never had much of a shot to win it. Assuming Banchero lives up to his billing as a first-option shot-creator, Orlando's three-man core should function well together with minimal overlap. Defense will be a question mark, but it almost always is with players in their early 20s.

    Suggs could be the swing piece for this group, which would benefit from some capable play in the backcourt. Anthony has been more productive to this point, but he still profiles as a bench weapon, while Suggs brings the size and playmaking Orlando needs. If last year's No. 5 pick can find a way to get the ball in the basket more often (36.1 percent from the field, 21.4 percent from deep), he'll get to showcase his solid on-ball defense and developing facilitation skills in a larger role.

9. Houston Rockets

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    The Core: Jalen Green (20), Alperen Sengun (20), Jabari Smith Jr. (19)

    Other Young Talent: Tari Eason (21), TyTy Washington (21), Kevin Porter Jr. (22), Josh Christopher (21), Kenyon Martin Jr. (22), Usman Garuba (20)

    Jalen Green is the reason the Houston Rockets slipped past the Magic for the No. 9 spot. He put together a stretch run last season that hinted at superstar upside, and none of the Magic's non-rookie players managed to match him in that regard.

    After the All-Star break, Green averaged 22.1 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists with a 58.9 true shooting percentage and a 23.6 percent usage rate. We're cherry-picking, and Green put up those numbers on a tanking team playing zero-stakes games, but the list of players who put up over 22.0 points while matching Green's post-break true shooting and usage over the full year isn't long. It includes 12 players, seven of whom have won an MVP in their careers.

    Sengun is among the most skilled (and risk-tolerant) passing big men in the league, and he might also be one of the few remaining post players with an actual arsenal of moves on the block. Though limited defensively, Sengun is highly intelligent, has great feel and ranked in the 93rd percentile in assist rate among bigs last year. Not many rookies come along with his vision and court sense, and he gives the Rockets another true foundational piece.

    The jury's out on Smith, as it should be on rookies who've only seen professional reps against summer league opponents. If he's the type of shot-making second option he appears to be, and if he can hold up across multiple positions on defense, the forward with the feathery touch has every chance to justify most predraft analysis that had him coming off the board first...right up until he slipped to third.

    Billed as a five-position defensive menace with untapped perimeter skill and the ability to catch lobs on the roll, Garuba might rank as Houston's most intriguing non-core youngster. To say he's raw is an understatement, but Garuba has the rangy frame and quick feet to someday become a transformative defensive force—something the Rockets will need if Green and Sengun continue to feature prominently. Those two will assure Houston fills it up on offense, but opponents won't get much resistance from them on the other end.

8. Detroit Pistons

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    The Core: Cade Cunningham (21), Jaden Ivey (20), Jalen Duren (19)

    Other Young Talent: Isaiah Stewart (21), Saddiq Bey (23), Killian Hayes (21), Marvin Bagley III (23), Hamidou Diallo (24)

    We've already hit the point in our rankings where every team has at least one bankable star. For the Detroit Pistons, that's Cunningham, a smooth playmaking wing who shook off a rough start to finish as one of just five rookies aged 20 or younger in NBA history to average at least 17.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists.

    Cunningham isn't a blow-by, jump-over athlete, but he has an innate understanding of how to use his size to create advantages. Most NBA players go their whole careers without developing the start-stop cadence and clever footwork that Cunningham has already mastered. When the pretty form on his jumper translates to higher hit rates from three (which it will), he'll be a regular presence in All-Star Games and should show up on more than a few All-NBA teams.

    The rest of the Pistons' true core is pure projection at this point. Ivey is a breathtakingly athletic guard with a chance (but no assurance) of achieving stardom, while Duren is already a physical marvel as a teenager. There's a tantalizing future in which Ivey is sprinting around like a next-gen Russell Westbrook, Cunningham is doing a decent Luka Doncic impression and Duren is high-rising like Amar'e Stoudemire...but two-thirds of that forecast is purely speculative.

    Bey and Stewart have both shown at least one firm NBA skill. One is a capable high-volume three-point gunner from the wing, and the other looks like his motor and mobility will make him a switchable defensive big. Each should contribute as the Pistons mold their rotation of the future, but neither projects as a high-end starter or star.

7. Toronto Raptors

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    The Core: Scottie Barnes (20), OG Anunoby (25), Gary Trent Jr. (24), Precious Achiuwa (23)

    Other Young Talent: Malachi Flynn (24), Dalano Banton (23), Christian Koloko (22)

    We may be stretching it by including Trent and Achiuwa in the Toronto Raptors core, but this is a different situation than we dealt with for the last three teams, all of which were rebuilders. The Raps are a playoff team, led by veterans like Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, which naturally reduces the roles of younger teammates. That's not to say Trent and Achiuwa rode plentiful pine last year; they didn't. But both are iffy inclusions here for the Raptors, while they'd easily fit in the inner circles on the Pistons, Rockets or Magic.

    Trent shot 38.3 percent from long range on 7.8 attempts per game last year while playing high-energy perimeter defense that led to a fourth-place finish in total steals. Achiuwa's is a tougher skill set to pin down. He flashed potential as a five-position defender and finished the season with a flourish, averaging 12.2 points and 5.7 rebounds while shooting 39.2 percent from deep after the All-Star break. Heading into his age-23 season, it doesn't seem like we've seen anything close to his final form. And there's no better place for him to max out his breadth of talent than Toronto, a team on the vanguard of positionless basketball.

    Barnes' breakdown is simple. He was the 2021-22 Rookie of the Year and is a three-point shot away from being a nearly perfect cornerstone. At 6'9", Barnes is an adept ball-handler who can cover acres of open floor in a blink, facilitate, crash the glass and defend in space. He's tough, competitive and a terrific tone-setter from an attitude standpoint. Few players smile more often, and even if that sort of analysis strays too far from the quantifiable for some, it still matters. How often do we have to hear Stephen Curry's positive leadership qualities lauded until we acknowledge good vibes contribute to success?

    Anunoby isn't the multiskilled force Barnes is, and his refusal to bust out as an All-Star in each of the last two seasons is frustrating. But when he's engaged, Anunoby is among the most overwhelming defensive presences in the league—one who can contribute as a spot-up shooter, slasher and (slowly) developing self-sufficient creator on the other end.

    Broken record alert: Maybe this will finally be the year Anunoby puts it all together and becomes a star.

    I can hear the Pistons fans complaining already, but we can't just ignore how Toronto's young players have actually contributed to wins and playoff berths already. Chill, Detroit. You have a chance to leapfrog the Raptors and a few others with a strong showing this season.

6. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    The Core: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (24), Luguentz Dort (23), Josh Giddey (20), Chet Holmgren (20), Ousmane Dieng (19), Jalen Williams (21)

    Other Young Talent: Jaylin Williams (20), Darius Bazley (22), Tre Mann (21), Aaron Wiggins (24), Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (22), Aleksej Pokusevski (21), Theo Maledon (21)

    At the risk of spoiling the rest of the list, nobody's going to have more entries than the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team made up almost entirely of projects and prospects. To a cadre of long, shooting-challenged human dice-rolls, the Thunder have recently added true blue-chip talent in the form of Holmgren. He joins SGA, Dort and Giddey as a headliner in what OKC hopes will be the next great Thunder team.

    Gilgeous-Alexander has been a forgotten man over the last two years. Limited to 35 games in 2020-21 and 56 this past season, the league's most prolific paint-penetrator will hopefully get a chance to showcase his slithery on-ball game to a wider audience as the Thunder improve around him. SGA is an easy 20-points-per-game scorer who'll level up to perennial All-Star status if Oklahoma City can ever put enough shooting on the floor to clear the lane.

    Giddey is a savant-like passer with forward size and the rebounding to go with his frame. He's among the most promising grab-and-go threats in the league and, like an updated version of Lonzo Ball, may only be a three-point shot away from producing like a high-end starter. Even in his currently limited state, Giddey is an ace connector who should make life easier for promising rookie teammates other than Holmgren, who might not need much help.

    Dort is an established starter who (you guessed it!) needs to dial in his outside shot, while Dieng is a mystery box of a prospect. Check back on the 6'10" wing in three or four years.

    Jalen Williams (not Jaylin Williams; this is going to be confusing for as long as the two are teammates) is a pivotal piece in OKC's rebuild. The Santa Clara product has ideal wing size, a reliable jumper, creation skills in the pick-and-roll and the frame to defend guards and wings. If he can compensate for his lack of Grade-A athletic burst with craft and size, he'll justify his steep ascent up the draft board and give the Thunder the complete two-way wing they lack.

5. Atlanta Hawks

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    The Core: Trae Young (24), John Collins (25), De'Andre Hunter (25), Onyeka Okongwu (22)

    Other Young Talent: Jalen Johnson (21), AJ Griffin (19), Sharife Cooper (21)

    Young has been one of the best individual offensive players in the league for three years now, which pretty much removes him from consideration as a prospect. Whatever upside he has left will mostly be subtle and, the Atlanta Hawks hope, on the defensive end. It would be difficult for the two-time All-Star to get much better as an offensive engine after leading the NBA in total points and assists last season.

    Like Young, some of Atlanta's other young pieces are close to aging out. Collins and Hunter are entering their age-25 seasons, which probably means they're nearing their productive peaks. Hunter once appeared to have an elite three-and-D forward future, but injuries interrupted his progress in each of the last two years. This increases Okongwu's importance to Atlanta's future. He's the Hawks player with plenty of breakout potential still intact.

    Injuries have limited 2020's No. 6 pick to 98 games over the last two seasons, and he's also been stuck behind Collins and Clint Capela in the rotation. But Okongwu's defensive talent is obvious whenever he sees the floor. Switchable, quick off his feet and an instinctive rim-protector (2.2 blocks per 36 minutes in 2021-22), Okongwu seems a safe bet to eventually unseat Capela at the 5. The upcoming season will be telling, both for Okongwu and the Hawks. Is he a cornerstone who could provide the defensive versatility Atlanta needs to hide Young, or is he a backup big who can't stay healthy?

    Thanks mostly to Young, the Hawks' core has already reached a conference finals. The Raptors' youth can technically claim a title, but only Anunoby factored in that 2019 triumph. In addition to the best track record of any group we've covered in the top 10 so far, Atlanta also has a couple of lottery tickets in Johnson and Griffin, Duke products drafted a year apart who could eventually develop into complementary starting wings.

    With former core member Kevin Huerter dealt to the Sacramento Kings and Bogdan Bogdanovic likely to start the season on the shelf, Atlanta's Blue Devil combo will have ample opportunities to prove themselves.

    Dejounte Murray just missed inclusion heading into his age-26 season.

4. Boston Celtics

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    The Core: Jayson Tatum (24), Robert Williams (25), Grant Williams (24)

    Other Young Talent: Payton Pritchard (25), Sam Hauser (25)

    We relegated Miami's two-man operation to the honorable mention section, and it might feel a little unfair that Grant Williams, the third member of the Boston Celtics' young core, prevents the same fate. If Williams weren't such an important piece to a Boston team that figures to challenge for multiple championships over the next few years, the argument that Boston and Miami deserved similar treatment might hold some weight.

    Williams, though, proved he's more than a throw-in to a core that includes a superstar in Tatum and perhaps the best defensive player in the league during the second half of last season in Robert Williams.

    It was Grant Williams who closed out the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks with seven threes in Game 7 of the East semifinals, and it was his defensive versatility that helped unlock some of the Celtics' most effective switching lineups. He posted the highest Defensive Versatility score of any Boston player last year, which is saying something on a team that includes DPOY Marcus Smart along with several other elite stoppers.

    The presence of a fully switchable forward who shoots 41.1 percent from three-point range and shows up in big moments during his age-23 season is more than enough to distinguish this core from Miami's. And the Celtics' current status as youth-driven preseason title favorites justifies their high ranking—even if some of the teams we've already covered have a larger quantity of 25-and-under players.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    The Core: Darius Garland (23), Evan Mobley (21), Jarrett Allen (24)

    Other Young Talent: Lauri Markkanen (25), Isaac Okoro (22), Ochai Agbaji (22), Lamar Stevens (25)

    Welcome to hair-splitting territory, where it becomes nearly impossible to separate this stellar Cleveland Cavaliers core from the ones that will occupy the top two spots. Every team we hit from here until the end has top-end players who've either already established their stardom, seem sure to quickly achieve it, or both. And the depth issues that made Boston's inclusion iffy are long gone.

    Garland is at the controls for the young Cavs, and his 21.7 points and 8.6 assists during his age-22 season marked him as one of the league's best young point guards. The only knock on the first-time All-Star is his lack of size, but Garland makes up for that with a shooting stroke that projects as elite. He hit 38.3 percent of his threes this past season and knocked down 89.2 percent of his free throws. With deep range and the ability to get shots off on the move, he's already the kind of defense-warping primary ball-handler that unlocks opportunities everywhere else on the floor.

    Mobley and Allen solve whatever defensive problems Garland's small stature presents. Both of Cleveland's bigs are lightning-quick help rotators with incredible length, and they were a key reason opponents found it nearly impossible to score around the basket. Among defenders credited with covering at least 300 shots inside six feet, Allen ranked first in defensive field-goal percentage allowed, and Mobley was sixth.

    Allen, like Garland, was an All-Star last year, but it's Mobley who has the highest ceiling of them all. His tremendous feel, size and mobility make him a strong candidate to win multiple Defensive Player of the Year honors, and he's going to get serious consideration as soon as 2022-23. We're talking about the type of defensive force who could make All-NBA teams with middling offensive stats. The sky is the limit for the No. 3 pick from the 2021 draft.

    Beneath the headliners, the Cavs have a quality floor-stretching starter in Markkanen, a potential wing stopper in Okoro and a ready-for-action rookie wing in Agbaji, a four-year collegian with a national championship and NCAA tournament MOP on his resume. That depth and the younger set of ages are more than enough to separate Cleveland's core from Boston's.

2. New Orleans Pelicans

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    The Core: Zion Williamson (22), Brandon Ingram (25), Herb Jones (24), Trey Murphy III (22), Dyson Daniels (19)

    Other Young Talent: EJ Liddell, Jose Alvarado (24), Jaxson Hayes (22), Kira Lewis Jr. (21), Naji Marshall (25)

    If you could guarantee the knee and foot issues that held Williamson out of the entire 2021-22 season and limited him to 85 games across his first two campaigns were a thing of the past, the Pelicans core would deserve the No. 1 ranking. That they still end up this high despite uncertainty surrounding their most important player speaks to both Williamson's megastar potential and the sheer number of other quality young players around him.

    Williamson was an All-Star at 20 and found his form as a ball-handling freight train in the open floor. He posted 27.0 points on 61.1 percent shooting in his last healthy season while still figuring out the nuances of NBA play. The ceiling—complete with MVP, All-NBA and best-player-on-a-championship-team potential—remains as high as ever. It's just that health and conditioning lower the floor.

    Ingram also has an All-Star nod, and though it came in 2019-20, he's improved on the margins since then. Williamson's absence allowed the willowy forward to expand his facilitating game and sharpen his defensive awareness. He averaged 22.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.6 assists last year. Imagine what he'll do when defenses shift their attention away from him and toward the lethal threat of Williamson's wrecking-ball drives.

    Jones is a game-changing defensive disruptor ideally suited to covering for the relatively suspect work Williamson and Ingram perform on that end of the floor, and Murphy brings stretch from the wing. He shot 38.2 percent from deep as a rookie last year and heated up as his role increased down the stretch of a franchise-altering late-season run, hitting 46.0 percent of his triples in March and 39.3 percent in April.

    Daniels, the teenager, projects as a high-IQ playmaker and defender who may only need to hone his shot to earn consideration for a starting gig in a couple of years. Alvarado is a pest, Hayes came on as a shot-blocker and rim-roller toward the end of last year, Lewis and Marshall have shown flashes and Liddell brings a young Paul Millsap to mind.

    Health permitting, New Orleans will be heard from in playoff series and maybe even championship chases for years to come.

1. Memphis Grizzlies

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    The Core: Ja Morant (23), Jaren Jackson Jr. (23), Desmond Bane (24), Ziaire Williams (21)

    Other Young Talent: Xavier Tillman (24), Killian Tillie (24), Santi Aldama (22), Jake LaRavia (21), David Roddy (21), Kennedy Chandler (20)

    Everything starts with Morant, the NBA's most electrifying guard who probably also tops the field in brash confidence. You won't find many people who'll self-assuredly claim they would have cooked Michael Jordan, but then, "Nobody got more confidence than 12."

    Morant's belief in himself is well-founded. He finished seventh in MVP voting and led the Memphis Grizzlies to the second-best record in the league last year. Winner of the Most Improved Player award, an All-Star and an All-NBA second-teamer in his age-22 season, Morant piled up 27.4 points, 6.7 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game. His Grizzlies took their series against the champion Warriors to six games, something only the Celtics matched. It's anyone's guess as to what might have happened if Morant hadn't missed the last three games of that clash with a knee injury.

    Just as with Williamson in New Orleans, Morant's health record is cause for pause. His reckless high-flying limited him to 57 games last year, and he's never played more than 67 contests in any of his three seasons. A slight frame, boundless athleticism and the absence of an instinct for self-preservation make Morant a risky injury play going forward, and Memphis' issues don't stop there.

    Jackson has already missed nearly an entire season with a torn meniscus, and now he's slated to sit out a chunk of 2022-23 following surgery to repair a foot fracture. When healthy last season, the 6'11" big man led the league in blocks per game and realized his potential as an All-Defensive force.

    Bane is already among the very best shooters in the league, having hit 43.2 percent of his treys as a rookie and 43.6 percent this past season. A rugged defender who defied predictions that he'd struggle to create his own shot, the shooting guard is an ideal complement to Morant's downhill drives and Jackson's defensive dominance. More than any other core, Memphis has the balance factor covered.

    Throw in Williams as a developing wild card with a real shot to become the rangy do-it-all wing Memphis' core lacks, and there are simply no holes in this team's projected future lineups. Considering the Grizz have already demonstrated their present excellence by racking up 56 wins last year, it's hard to argue any other collection of youngsters has more promise.

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through 2021-22 season. Salary info via Spotrac.

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