Ranking the Most Exciting Young NBA Prospects at Every Position

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBAFeatured Columnist IVAugust 4, 2022

Ranking the Most Exciting Young NBA Prospects at Every Position

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    The NBA revolves around its stars and not just the ones currently in orbit.

    Up-and-comers can be just as intoxicating as established stars, maybe even more so in the right, forward-thinking markets.

    There is an inherent excitement around young players given the seemingly limitless possibilities in front of them, but some take that excitement even further with statistical domination, viral highlights and unique skills.

    In fact, the following 10 players (two at each position) elicit that excitement better than anyone in their age group, defined for our purposes as 22 or younger as of Oct. 1. This not only celebrates the players, it also ranks them by excitement, which subjectively measures some combination of their performance and entertainment value.

    Rookies are excluded from this exercise. While fans should feel confident that first-timers like Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren and Jaden Ivey can produce plenty of excitement, they haven't faced true NBA competition yet, so judgment should be reserved until they do.

PG No. 2: Darius Garland, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    There are many different ways to describe Garland's game—velvety, ingenious and prolific spring to mind—but maybe the simplest is this: He makes things happen. For himself and his teammates.

    He's what you picture when you think of a floor general, only less robotic and more flashy. He makes the simple reads and the special ones, and he can dial his own number at any time and from any distance.

    He must be seen for his creativity to be fully appreciated, but the stat sheet hammers home his impact just fine. He landed in the 86th percentile on isolations and the 68th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler while pumping in personal-bests of 21.7 points and 8.6 assists.

    Just 26.1 percent of his two-point shots and fewer than half of his threes came off of assists. Meanwhile, his 39.9 assist percentage landed seventh among the 272 players who logged 1,000-plus minutes.

    His star already shines brightly, and it should only grow more luminous going forward.

    Honorable Mention: Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder; Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana Pacers

PG No. 1: LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets

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    Regardless of what you think you know about Ball, it should be universally accepted that he's just a baller—not like a decent, pretty good player, but a full-fledged franchise talent.

    He's the one who gave Buzz City its buzz back. He gives these Hornets their wings and their stinger.

    His game isn't as always as loud as his fashion, but it has the perfect blend of flair and function, style and substance. He can spark viral fires with no-look feeds or behind-the-back beauties, but he's just as likely to dismantle defenses with simple on-time, on-target deliveries.

    Last season was his first as a full-time starter. By its end, he had become just the fourth player ever to average 20 points, seven assists and six rebounds by his 21st birthday. It's frightening to think about what his future could hold.

SG No. 2: Jalen Green, Houston Rockets

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    If you're unconvinced that Green is the second-best shooting guard in the 22-and-under bracket, then let me remind you of two things.

    First, this ranking is about excitement, not just talent. Second, if that was the debate, Green wouldn't be buried in it. You could ultimately side with a player like Cade Cunningham or Tyler Herro, but you'd at least have to acknowledge the spectacular nature of Green's post-All-Star surge: 22.1 points per game on 47.6/38.7/75.6 shooting.

    His game is incredibly easy on the eyes. He's a blur in the open court, an aerial acrobat above the rim and a fiery shooter from long range. The rebuilding Rockets can't offer the top defensive development plan just yet, but he has already shown promise as a lanky, versatile, disruptive defender.

    The list of current players with more potential than Green isn't a long one. The list of players with more compelling highlight reels than his barrage of pull-up buckets and rim-rockers might be even shorter.

    Honorable Mention: Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons; Tyler Herro, Miami Heat

SG No. 1: Tyrese Maxey, Philadelphia 76ers

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    You'd think a player with burst like Maxey's would impress most with his zero-to-60 time, but it can't hold a candle to the size, scope and significance of his sophomore leap.

    In a single campaign, he transformed from an intriguing curiosity to a top-three contributor on a championship contender. His scoring spiked. So did his shooting. Ditto for his distribution.

    "I think we should celebrate Tyrese," Sixers skipper Doc Rivers told reporters after the season. "He grew up in front of our eyes."

    Maxey's explosion and energy impressed during his rookie season, but his sophomore breakout was more skill-based. Sure, his speed and hops still popped at times, but the more tangible growth was seen in his reliable long-range shooting (42.7 percent) and top-notch decision-making (4.3 assists against 1.2 turnovers).

    He's fun to watch and fundamentally critical to the Sixers' success.

SF No. 2: Keldon Johnson, San Antonio Spurs

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    Johnson is a scorer. He's more than just that, of course, but his ability to get buckets is what first got him noticed at this level.

    He pumped in an impressive 18.4 points per 36 minutes on 59.6 percent shooting as a freshman when he feasted on point-blank chances and overpowered or outworked his opponents. The scoring rate hasn't changed much since (19.2 per 36 minutes this past season), but his responsibilities, perimeter shooting and pay rate are way up.

    He's a better player than entertainment source, which probably makes him a perfect fit in San Antonio, but he has some juice around the rim. Plus, his rapid rise as a three-baller (13 threes as a rookie, 159 at a 39.8 percent clip in 2021-22) gives him more room to operate, and there are flashes of self-creation in his skill set.

    His one-on-one arsenal needs further expansion, and his defensive impact leaves much to be desired, but he's a good player who pushes himself closer to greatness with an elite motor.

    Honorable Mention: Jonathan Kuminga, Golden State Warriors; Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic

SF No. 1: Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    It's getting harder to talk about Edwards in hyperbolic terms because he keeps pushing his ceiling higher and opening a wider range of possibilities. If a time-traveler from 2027 told you Edwards was the league's top two-way player, you might be surprised to hear that, but you definitely wouldn't be shocked.

    "Few players in the NBA can get a bucket with sheer burst, force and bounce or beat you with skill," Portland Trail Blazers assistant general manager Mike Schmitz wrote for ESPN in April. "... Edwards has proved he can do both with the type of space creation you rarely see from players his age."

    Edwards is the type of talent you want your created player on NBA2K to be. He can destroy defenders at the basket or dust them off the dribble away from it. His three-point cannon shows impressive accuracy at such a heavy volume (215 makes, 35.7 percent). He's already a scoring threat from every level despite having so many obvious paths for improvement.

    He could be more consistent with his defense and decision-making, but that's to be expected of a soon-to-be 21-year-old. His trajectory points straight up and watching him realize his potential will be great basketball theater.

PF No. 2: Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors

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    The easiest way to appreciate Barnes might be to see how the Raptors view him. He is, by all accounts, already untouchable.

    Not even a mega-deal for Kevin Durant could shake Barnes loose, as ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski labeled the idea "a non-starter" for Toronto (h/t SI.com's Nick Selbe).

    That should be jarring since Durant is an all-time talent who could arguably make the Raptors championship favorites, but it kind of checks out. Barnes just turned 21 years old, has a single season under his belt and might already be only a jump shot shy of offering a complete arsenal.

    He's a 6'9", 227-pound puzzle piece that can be molded however his team needs. He has five-position versatility on defense, and on offense, he can function as anything from a jumbo-sized playmaker to an athletic finisher. In his first NBA go-round, he gave Toronto its third-ever Rookie of the Year and became just the 12th freshman to average 15 points, seven rebounds, three assists and a steal.

    Honorable Mention: Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers; Jaden McDaniels, Minnesota Timberwolves


PF No. 1: Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

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    If you expected to see anyone other than Williamson here, you're overdue for a refresher on the big fella.

    His bounce jumps off the screen of your preferred streaming device. He hops around like he isn't bound by the same gravitational rules as the rest of us. His jumps are speedy too—for anyone, but unfairly so for a 6'6", 284-pounder—and always backed by ferocious power. If that's all he had in his arsenal, you could argue it's enough to warrant this spot.

    But there's more. A lot more.

    While he has the size and springs to play as a small-ball center, he's skilled enough to initiate offense and can pile up points like the best wing scorers. The last (sort of only) time he was healthy, he became just the 35th player to average 27 points, seven rebounds and three assists. Add his 60-plus percent shooting to the mix, and you had an unprecedented stat line.

    Frankly, there's almost too much excitement around him since you have to cherish his on-court action without knowing when or where you'll see the 22-year-old again. Hopefully, the basketball gods grant him a clean bill of healthy sooner than later, though. He cracks the short list of the Association's most electrifying talents, regardless of age.

C No. 2: James Wiseman, Golden State Warriors

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    It sure would be nice if Wiseman had suited up at all last season to give a clearer indication of whether this ranking is too high, too low or just right. Without that information, the temptation to side with Onyeka Okongwu or Isaiah Stewart here was real.

    Still, Wiseman got the nod for the excitement he has generated to this point and his potential to provide so much more going forward.

    Now, that's largely tied to his combination of size (7'0", 240 lbs) and athleticism, which has already aided his finishing and rim protection. His swats and slams alone are energizing, and that's with plenty of polish missing after injuries limited him to just 39 games across his first two seasons.

    Still, it's the flashes of other stuff that really get the juices flowing. Wiseman has already shown some shake in the low post and touch on his jumpers, and if he harnesses those consistently, he could grow out of a rim-running role and approach franchise-center territory.

    Honorable Mention: Onyeka Okongwu, Atlanta Hawks; Isaiah Stewart, Detroit Pistons

C No. 1: Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets

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    Photos by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

    You know Sengun is uniquely skilled when most conversations about his game contain some version of: "I'm not saying he's the next Nikola Jokic, but..."

    Now, I'm not saying he's the next Joker, but...the similarities are easy to spot. Sengun drops some of the most delectable dimes you'll see from a center not named Jokic, and if Sengun can expand his shooting range—hitting 71.1 percent of his free throws as a rookie was a promising start—then he could offer a similar inside-and-out scoring punch.

    Again, the point of this exercise isn't to paint Sengun as a Jokic sequel. If it was, though, it would note the resemblance of Sengun's rookie stats (16.7 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per 36 minutes) and Jokic's (16.5, 11.6 and 3.9, respectively).

    Sengun's passing is the most exciting thing happening with a young center right now, and if he can branch out his game, he could have cornerstone potential.


    Statistics used courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.

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