B/R NBA Staff: Which Young Star Would You Build Around from Last 5 Drafts?

Bleacher Report NBA StaffAugust 9, 2022

B/R NBA Staff: Which Young Star Would You Build Around from Last 5 Drafts?

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    BOSTON, MA - MARCH 11: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics plays defense on Cade Cunningham #2 of the Detroit Pistons during the game on March 11, 2022 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE  (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

    The talent level across the NBA feels like it's at an all-time high, and thanks to the league's young stars, the future looks, almost incredibly, even brighter.

    Thinking about what's still to come, Bleacher Report set out to rank the best young stars to build around.

    Our Process

    Six NBA experts ranked 20 of the biggest names from the last five drafts (not including the 2022 class). That includes 2017—the year Boston drafted Jayson Tatum—through 2021 with Cade Cunningham.

    Experts used their own criteria to rank players, and from there, we averaged the rankings to establish a top 10.

    The results are in, and B/R's Sean Highkin, Greg Swartz and Andy Bailey are here to break down each player's case.

    Special thanks to Highkin, Swartz, Bailey, Mo Dakhil, Jonathan Wasserman and Zach Buckley for helping build our top 10.

Honorable Mentions

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    SALT LAKE CITY, UT - APRIL 28: Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Utah Jazz looks on during Round 1 Game 6 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs against the Dallas Mavericks on April 28, 2022 at vivint.SmartHome Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

    15. Tyrese Haliburton

    14. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

    13. Darius Garland

    12. Cade Cunningham

    11. Donovan Mitchell

    The crop of young talent in the NBA is so strong that Donovan Mitchell, a three-time All-Star who has dominated much of this offseason with speculation about his future in Utah, didn't even make the top 10—and it's not because he's undeserving. It's because there are that many great players in his age range.

    After a slow start, Cade Cunningham showed why he was worthy of the No. 1 overall pick with a strong finish in Detroit. Darius Garland is part of a core with Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen that has the Cavaliers back to relevance in a post-LeBron world. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has clear All-Star upside even if he's been trapped in rebuilding hell in Oklahoma City for the past three seasons. Tyrese Haliburton came over to Indiana at the deadline in the Domantas Sabonis trade and has the newly rebuilding Pacers in a good position to get back to the playoffs in the next few years.

    And there are many more deserving players beyond these to be considered here. The future of the NBA is in good hands.

    Also receiving consideration: Deandre Ayton, De'Aaron Fox, Jalen Green, RJ Barrett, Jalen Suggs.

    Sean Highkin

10. Scottie Barnes

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    TORONTO, ON - APRIL 23: Scottie Barnes #4 of the Toronto Raptors is presented with the Rookie of the Year trophy ahead of Game Four of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Philadelphia 76ers at Scotiabank Arena on April 23, 2022 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images)
    Cole Burston/Getty Images

    Highest Ranking: 7

    Lowest Ranking: 14

    There's no great NBA star comparison for Barnes at this point, and that's meant as a compliment. At 6'9" and 227 pounds, the 21-year-old can essentially play and defend four positions while having already stepped into a major role during his Rookie of the Year campaign (35.4 minutes per game in 74 starts).

    At this point he's a great mystery box, one that can already handle the ball, rebound and is a talented passer. His three-point shot (30.1 percent) and overall shooting mechanics still need work, but Barnes is a pretty polished overall player for his age.

    Perhaps Barnes' greatest strength is his versatility, as Nick Nurse and the Toronto Raptors can plug and play him into so many different roles depending on what the team needs. We don't know if Barnes can be an alpha scorer on a championship-level team like some of the players ahead of him on this list yet, but his potential is among the highest of any young star in the league.

    Greg Swartz

9. Bam Adebayo

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    BOSTON, MA - MAY 27: Bam Adebayo #13 of the Miami Heat dribbles the ball during Game 6 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Eastern Conference Finals on May 27, 2022 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE  (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

    Highest Ranking: 7

    Lowest Ranking: 14

    Bam Adebayo seems to think he’s the best defensive player in the NBA, and it’s not hard to see why. Few players in the league possess a combination of interior and perimeter defensive ability quite like his. And his versatility allows the Miami Heat to deploy a switch-heavy scheme or a more traditional "anchor the defense with a true 5" look.

    What really makes him interesting as a potential franchise cornerstone, though, is his ability to facilitate from the high post or top of the key. The arrival of Kyle Lowry for 2021-22 took a toll on his assist rate, but Adebayo eclipsed five per game in each of the prior two seasons. And when you have a big who can pass, the extra off-ball opportunities for the guards can do wonders for their efficiency.

    There would certainly be some limitations when building around Adebayo. Lack of outside shooting and off-the-dribble creation would hurt, but he’s far from a bad place to start.

    Andy Bailey

8. LaMelo Ball

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    ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 13: LaMelo Ball #2 of the Charlotte Hornets dribbles the ball to the basket during the first half against the Atlanta Hawks at State Farm Arena on April 13, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
    Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

    Highest Ranking: 3

    Lowest Ranking: 16

    For the first time in a long time, the Hornets have a franchise player. We saw in real time in 2020 how LaMelo singlehandedly transformed Charlotte from maybe the most irrelevant team in the NBA to a League Pass favorite, living up to what had at that point been four years of hype dating back to him and his brothers in high school. He won Rookie of the Year in 2021 and made his first All-Star team in his second season. And at 20 years old, the best years of his career are well in front of him.

    Ball's individual talent isn't in question. The part that still has to come is the team success—in each of his first two seasons, Charlotte has lost in the play-in. Some of that was due to a lack of talent, and they're hoping this summer's coaching change will bring with it a new mentality. But Ball isn't a novelty anymore. He has superstar expectations now. Can he be the best player on a team that makes a real playoff run?

    —Highkin

7. Evan Mobley

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    CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 10: Evan Mobley #4 of the Cleveland Cavaliers makes a slam dunk during the game against the Milwaukee Bucks on April 10, 2022 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)
    David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

    Highest Ranking: 2

    Lowest Ranking: 13

    Mobley had a significant range among voters, although a summer of putting on muscle and stepping into a larger offensive role this season should only continue to move him up this list.

    He's already one of the best overall defenders in the NBA with his rim protection (opponents shot 56.3 percent at the basket against Mobley) and ability to switch onto the perimeter as a 7-footer. Players his size simply aren't meant to be this athletic and quick of foot, factors that should eventually result in a Defensive Player of the Year award.

    There's still some polishing to be done on offense, and adding muscle to his 215-pound frame will help him establish post position and improve his overall interior scoring. Mobley also needs to develop a reliable three-point shot (25.0 percent as a rookie) and improve his free-throw shooting (66.3 percent), although the mechanics look solid. A high release point on his fadeaway jumper makes it extremely difficult to guard, and it's a move Mobley can go to whenever he wants.

    With no major weaknesses in his game and with elite defensive potential, Mobley could turn out to be 90 percent of Tim Duncan. He's that good.

    —Swartz

6. Anthony Edwards

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    MINNEAPOLIS, MN -  APRIL 29: Anthony Edwards #1 of the Minnesota Timberwolves warms up prior to the game against the Memphis Grizzlies during Round 1 Game 6 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs on April 29, 2022 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

    Highest Ranking: 3

    Lowest Ranking: 10

    Anthony Edwards is officially on star watch. The highlight finishes and his 21.3 points and 3.0 threes in the regular season were probably enough to get him there, but nudging those marks up to 25.2 and 3.8 in his playoff debut put him over the top.

    An offensive alpha is often the toughest thing to find when building a team from the ground up, and Edwards looks ready to assume that kind of role.

    And though his listed height (6’4”) might suggest he’s a little undersized for the ongoing wave of positionless basketball, he certainly has the strength and wingspan (6’9”) to hold up against wings and forwards in switch-heavy schemes.

    It would be nice if he’d shown a bit more as a creator for teammates during his first two seasons, but I wouldn’t bet against him developing that aspect of his game. His overall improvement from his rookie to sophomore year suggests a steep upward trajectory.

    —Bailey

5. Zion Williamson

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    NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - MARCH 26: Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans stands on the court prior to the start of an NBA game against the San Antonio Spurs at Smoothie King Center on March 26, 2022 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
    Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    Highest Ranking: 5

    Lowest Ranking: 10

    If we knew for certain that Williamson would be able to play in the majority of games for the Pelicans going forward, he'd have a legitimate case to be No. 1 on this list. In the parts of his first two seasons that he was able to play in, we saw what the upside is: a completely game-changing big man who is impossible to guard at the rim while also being an unselfish playmaker. There are few more exciting or higher-ceiling players in the league…when he's healthy.

    And that's the thing. Even beyond the foot injury that cost him the entire 2021-22 season, he's missed time with various injury issues in every season he's played. When the Pelicans signed him to a five-year max rookie extension this summer, they took the unusual step of including a weight clause aimed at making sure his conditioning stays where it needs to be for him to be able to stay on the floor. Clearly, these health concerns are ones the organization shares. But he's so good when healthy that it was worth the risk to give him that money anyway. Hopefully, this year he'll be able to stay healthy and show why he's maybe even undervalued on a list like this one.

    —Highkin

4. Trae Young

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    ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 24: Trae Young #11 of the Atlanta Hawks celebrates during Round 1 Game 4 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs on April 24, 2022 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images

    Highest Ranking: 4

    Lowest Ranking: 8

    It’s fair to wonder about Trae Young’s defense. With his height (6’1”) and slight frame, there’s a chance he’s never a plus on that end. But overemphasis there might actually be causing people to underrate Trae overall. Offensively, he’s off to one of the most absurd starts to a career we’ve ever seen.

    Young has totaled 7,076 points and 2,544 assists in his 280 career games. Oscar Robertson is the only player in league history to match or exceed both marks in his first 280 games.

    And this isn’t just empty-calorie production for Young. Over the last three seasons, his team is plus-1.1 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor and minus-4.7 when he's off.

    He’s a bona fide, one-man offense, with incredible vision and passing ability, way-beyond-the-three-point-line range and a creative floater package in the lane. Surround him with decent shooting, and you’re almost guaranteed to have a good offense.

    Now, if you can find players who combine that with gritty defense to cover for Young’s shortcomings there, you have the makings of a contender.

    —Bailey

3. Ja Morant

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    SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - MAY 07: Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies dribbling the ball looks to drive against the Golden State Warriors in the second half of Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals of the NBA Playoffs at Chase Center on May 07, 2022 in San Francisco, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Highest Ranking: 2

    Lowest Ranking: 5

    It's hard to have a better first three seasons than Ja Morant has—already, he's firmly established himself as one of the faces of the league for the decade to come. Going forward, he checks all the boxes for what you want in a franchise player: the on-court dominance, a magnetic leadership style and a personality that other players enjoy playing with. He also has an exciting playing style that sells tickets and jerseys.

    If there's one drawback to potentially building around Morant, it's injuries. He's already had a few that have kept him out significant time, and his explosiveness invites questions about how he'll age. But that's all stuff to be figured out in the future. For now, he's made the Grizzlies appointment television and a threat to go deep in the playoffs, well ahead of schedule for a team whose best player is as young as he is.

    —Highkin

2. Jayson Tatum

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    BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - JUNE 16: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics reacts against the Golden State Warriors during the second quarter in Game Six of the 2022 NBA Finals at TD Garden on June 16, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
    Elsa/Getty Images

    Highest Ranking: 2

    Lowest Ranking: 5

    Tatum barely edges out Morant here, as the two had the same range among voters.

    At 24, Tatum is already everything you want in a modern NBA wing. He's a proven three-level scorer, a versatile defender and just proved he can be the No. 1 option on a Finals team.

    The raw numbers are great (26.9 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.0 steals), but the advanced ones love Tatum even more. The Celtics were 16.5 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor last season, a swing rating that ranked in the 99th percentile overall.

    The only thing potentially holding Tatum back is his consistency. For all of the 11-of-18 and 15-of-23 shooting performances we get from Tatum, there are too many 5-of-16ish games mixed in. If he can continue to increase his efficiency, become pickier with his shot selection and get back to becoming a 40 percent marksman from deep, only then can we throw Tatum's name into the best player in the world conversation.

    If we're choosing young stars to build around, however, only one name should stand above Tatum.

    —Swartz

1. Luka Doncic

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    DALLAS, TEXAS - MAY 24: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks shoots a three point basket against Jordan Poole #3 of the Golden State Warriors during the fourth quarter in Game Four of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Finals at American Airlines Center on May 24, 2022 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Highest Ranking: 1

    Lowest Ranking: 1

    It probably comes as no surprise that Luka Doncic was the top pick of every expert consulted for this exercise.

    In a recent blind poll pitting his numbers against those of LeBron James’ first four seasons, Luka’s production garnered three-quarters of the vote. And it isn’t hard to see why. The totals Luka is putting up are absurd.

    He’s the only player in NBA history with career averages of at least 26 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. And those are likely to go up as he approaches his prime.

    He also has room to improve as a shooter. That’s a truly scary proposition, since he already has an above-average true shooting percentage for his career.

    He seemingly sees every passing lane, angle and outlet on the floor, and he can exploit those or get by just about any defender with a combination of size, quickness and wise-beyond-his-years craftiness.

    Even on defense, which looks like the only real weakness right now, Doncic is starting to figure out how to make an impact. Beyond big totals as a defensive rebounder and a respectable steal rate, Doncic seemed to take being targeted by the Phoenix Suns in the playoffs personally. All the same traits that make him dangerous in offensive isolation can apply to the other end, and Luka is putting that together.

    To the extent there are any real drawbacks here, it’s hard to imagine the 23-year old doesn’t fix them.

    —Bailey

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