The 1 Thing Holding Back NBA's Top Under-25 Stars

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRFeatured Columnist IVJuly 28, 2022

The 1 Thing Holding Back NBA's Top Under-25 Stars

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    The NBA is jam-packed with young talent, players who will be regulars on All-Star and All-NBA teams for the next decade.

    All of these under-25 stars are far from complete players, however, as there's at least one glaring weakness holding every one back.

    From developing a reliable outside shot, improving individual defense or even adding to alterations to the player's physical frame, no two improvements are alike, either.

    For the NBA's top-10 stars under 25, these are the factors stopping them from reaching their massive potentials.


    Players who just missed the cut: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jarrett Allen, Deandre Ayton, Cade Cunningham, Darius Garland, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jamal Murray.

LaMelo Ball: Getting to the Line/Finishing Through Contact

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    Ball made his first All-Star game in Year 2, increased his assist rate while cutting his turnover percentage and showed real defensive promise with his 6'7" frame.

    While he'll always be one of the best and most creative passers during his time in the NBA, Ball could become a three-level scorer as he improves his ability to get to the free-throw line and finish through contact in the paint.

    Among the 40 players who averaged 20 points per game or more last season, Ball ranked 38th in free-throw attempt rate at 19.4 percent, only above CJ McCollum and Klay Thompson. By comparison, fellow point guard James Harden had a free-throw attempt rate of 54.0 percent.

    Ball is an excellent free-throw shooter—he connected on 87.2 percent of his attempts (15th overall in the NBA)—yet got to the line just 3.2 times per game.

    Part of this improvement will be adding muscle to his 6'7", 180-pound frame. The ability to absorb more contact and still finish in traffic will allow Ball to get to the line more and capitalize on potential and-1 opportunities.

    He'll also need to make a conscious effort to get into the paint more and not settle for mid-range jumpers or floaters. Only 20.4 percent of his total shot attempts came within three feet of the basket last season, down from 30.2 percent his rookie season.

    With the uncertainty surrounding Miles Bridges' availability for next season and beyond after he was charged with multiple counts of felony domestic violence and child abuse, Ball will almost certainly need to take on a larger scoring role.

Scottie Barnes: 3-Point Shooting

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    Even as a rookie, there wasn't much the 20-year-old Barnes couldn't already do.

    His athletic, 6'9" frame is going to land him on multiple All-Defense teams throughout his career, and with improved ball-handling he could be a nightly triple-double threat as a do-it-all wing. His touch from inside the paint was impressive as well.

    That being said, we knew three-point shooting would be an issue from his days at Florida State.

    After connecting on just 27.5 percent of his threes as a freshman in college, Barnes shot a similar 30.1 percent with the Raptors last season. His release looks slow at times, as Barnes can start the shot too low in his stance.

    There was basically no difference in his shooting success via pull-ups (31.3 percent) or when shooting off the catch (29.0 percent), the latter probably being more important to improve while playing alongside Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby.

    Offseason videos (take them for what you will) have his jumper mechanics looking a little smoother, however, so there's plenty of hope for a leap in Year 2.

    The Raptors should already have Barnes as an untouchable in a potential Kevin Durant trade, as a reliable three-point shot will quickly make him the best player on this Toronto roster.

Brandon Ingram: Off-Ball Efficiency

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    Ingram barely made the cut for this list as a 24-year-old, one who will celebrate his 25th birthday by the time the season begins.

    He's already made noticeable improvements in his six seasons as a defender, rebounder and especially as a playmaker, and has been forced to play the alpha role in New Orleans with Zion Williamson missing the majority of his three professional seasons.

    Where Ingram can really round out his game is by being a better off-ball threat, something he's never really had the opportunity to do since his time with the Los Angeles Lakers.

    Ingram was used as a cutter on just 31 total possessions in his 55 games last season, with his 1.32 points per possession ranking in the 60th percentile. While this isn't terrible, someone with his athletic 6'8" frame should be far higher up the list.

    As an off-ball shooter, Ingram connected on 36.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes, a number that, again, is lower than it should be given his solid mechanics.

    This season projects to be the best team Ingram has ever played on with a healthy Williamson, CJ McCollum and Jonas Valanciunas. Ingram isn't going to have the ball in his hands nearly as often and will have to learn to be effective as a spot-up shooter and timely cutter as others take their offensive turns.

Anthony Edwards: Shot Selection

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    Despite being one of the best dunkers in the NBA and a physical force of nature when he gets into the lane, Edwards doesn't always capitalize on his strength and athleticism.

    While he's a solid three-point shooter (35.7 percent last season), nearly half of Edwards' shots (48.4 percent) came from outside the arc. Among the 30 players who matched or exceeded Edwards' 21.3 points per game, the 20-year-old ranked third in three-point attempt rate, only behind Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard.

    Edwards taking a three-pointer with nearly every other shot attempt is simply a waste of his talent.

    While it should be part of his game, his 6'4", 225-pound frame was built to get downhill, draw contact and either finish over defenders, get to the free-throw line, or both. He shot 65.8 percent from within three feet last season despite only 28.2 percent of his shots coming from said area.

    Never a player lacking for confidence, Edwards should believe he can make every shot he takes. There's also a fine line in thinking you can make a shot while also knowing that a better shot probably exists somewhere.

    With the Timberwolves in championship-or-bust mode following a trade for Rudy Gobert, Edwards needs to be the best offensive version of himself, which includes cutting down his outside attempts and getting to the basket at a greater rate.

Evan Mobley: Adding Muscle

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    Mobley put on one of the greatest defensive performances we've seen from a rookie in decades, all while flashing his ability as a three-level scorer, rebounder and budding passer.

    Of course, all of this becomes easier if he can continue to add muscle to his thin frame.

    Of the 30 NBA players who measured 7'0" or taller last season, only Aleksej Pokusevski (190 pounds) weighed less than Mobley's listed 215. Given the amount of cardio that takes place, it's typically difficult for NBA players to actually gain weight during the regular season.

    “It’s on us to continue to develop him and come up with an individualized plan for his strength and conditioning,” Cavs President of Basketball Operations Koby Altman told reporters. “He couldn’t keep weight on because we played him 40 minutes a night (actually 33.8). So, this offseason will be good for him. But, again, he played his whole rookie season at 20 years old. The future is incredibly bright for him and for us.”

    While Mobley played well at power forward next to Jarrett Allen, a first-time All-Star, his future may be at the center position as well.

    If Mobley can add another 10 to 20 pounds of muscle to his 7'0" frame, having him as a center who can attack off the dribble, switch on defense and move like a wing could be a huge mismatch for the Cavs to use moving forward.

    The overall skill set for Mobley is already there. Maximizing his frame should be priority No. 1.

Ja Morant: Jump Shooting

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    No guard is better at getting into the paint and converting shots than Morant.

    A first-time All-Star in his third season, Morant uses his incredible speed and athleticism to drive by defenders on the perimeter, get into the paint and elevate around or over awaiting rim-protectors.

    Despite his 6'3", 174-pound frame, Morant finished fourth overall in made shots within the restricted area (5.3 per game), with only Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Anthony Davis ranking ahead of him.

    The 22-year-old also finished off a whopping 70.6 percent of his shots from within three feet, although the numbers quickly decline from there.

    The scouting report on Morant is out, and teams will do whatever they can to force him into making jump shots. The only way to combat this, of course, is to start making jump shots.

    Morant is just a 32.7 percent career shooter from three and 29.4 percent marksman from mid-range. While he's been wise to limit attempts from both areas (his three-point attempt rate ranks 107th among 112 qualified guards), teams are eventually going to adjust their defenses (especially in the playoffs) and begin to pack the paint more.

    Already one of the most exciting players in the league, a reliable jumper would make Morant a complete offensive player.

Zion Williamson: Durability

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    We could nitpick about Williamson's lack of a three-point shot or his shortcomings as a rim-protector, but really none of this matters if he can't stay on the court.

    This didn't stop the Pelicans from giving the 2019 No. 1 overall pick a five-year, $193 million max extension, however, and one that could grow even larger if he hits certain milestones.

    New Orleans is paying for potential, something Williamson oozes whenever we actually get to see him. The 22-year-old has played in just 85 games over his first three seasons, including zero last year while rehabbing from foot surgery.

    Finding the ideal playing weight for his 6'6" frame is important; Williamson was listed at 284 pounds the last we saw him. The Ringer's Bill Simmons reported in March that Williamson had lost 24 pounds, although we don't know what his original number was. He certainly looks in good shape, however.

    An unstoppable force with his combination of muscle and athleticism, Williamson will be the key to the Pelicans going from the eighth seed to a legitimate contender in the West this season.

    Durability will forever be the key to his individual growth, as the talent is there for him to become one of the best players in the league.

Trae Young: Defense

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    The NBA's leader in total points and assists last season, Young can hoist an entire offense on his shoulders and keep it running for 48 minutes.

    On the other end, however, he's been one of the worst defensive players in the league.

    After Nikola Jokic, Young had the highest offensive estimated plus-minus score (plus-6.5) of anyone in the NBA, ranking in the 99th percentile overall. His defensive score (minus-1.6) ranked in the 16th percentile overall, however, as the Hawks gave up an estimated 4.2 more points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor.

    Young's size (6'1", 164 pounds) limits him from ever becoming an elite defender, as point guards are only growing taller (Luka Doncic, LaMelo Ball, Ben Simmons) and becoming more physical. Young will always need help in isolation situations vs. players like Doncic and Ball, but there are other areas he could improve on immediately.

    Young often loses focus on defense watching the ball and is caught having to sprint out to a shooter to contest a shot. He needs to work on his screen navigation and challenge everything the best he can while forcing players into contested outside shots.

    Having Dejounte Murray now on board to take over some scoring and playmaking duties should help Young conserve some energy for the defensive end. There's no reason why we shouldn't see his best performance on that end this season.

Jayson Tatum: Shooting Consistency

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    Tatum is coming off the best season of his career, both individually and by leading the Celtics to the NBA Finals.

    His performance in those Finals was subpar, however, as he finished shooting just 36.7 percent in the six-game series.

    Some nights, Tatum looks like he can't miss from all three levels, combining an incredible variety of footwork and touch. On others, he'll leave fans and coaches shaking their heads with his shot selection.

    In the playoffs alone, Tatum shot 50.0 percent or better from the floor nine times, under 40.0 percent nine times and in the 40's just six times. It was often feast or famine for the Celtics star.

    Naturally, Tatum's efficiency has a direct correlation with Boston's success.

    Tatum made 48.0 percent of his total shots and 39.7 percent of his threes during wins, numbers that crumbled to just 40.4 percent overall and 26.3 from deep in losses.

    Finding a new level of consistency would do wonders for a Celtics offense that we saw get stagnant a lot during the regular season and playoffs. Adding point guard Malcolm Brogdon should help with getting Tatum some early shots in his favorite spots as well.

Luka Doncic: Turnovers

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    While it's easy to get mesmerized by Doncic's ball-handling, footwork, shooting and incredible passing ability, let's not forget that way too many of those passes end up in an opponent's hands or out of bounds.

    No player in the NBA turned the ball over more than Doncic last season, with his 4.5 miscues per game also a personal high.

    Part of this is due to his usage rate, which ranked second overall this past season behind Joel Embiid. Not having a reliable second option to bail him out hurts, especially now with Jalen Brunson leaving for the New York Knicks.

    Newly acquired big man Christian Wood should help as a pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop option, and Doncic did a better job of limiting his turnovers in the postseason (3.9 per game, ninth-worst overall).

    If Doncic can tighten his defense, continue to improve his three-point efficiency and cut down on his high turnover rate, the 23-year-old will soon become the best player in the NBA.

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