Every NBA Team's Best Player Under 25

Grant Rindner@grantrindnerContributor IIIAugust 22, 2012

Every NBA Team's Best Player Under 25

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    After watching the youthful, hyper-athletic Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder square off in the NBA Finals, it’s safe to say that professional basketball is officially a young man’s game. While there are plenty of veterans still playing at a high level, the fast-paced, high-flying style of basketball employed by many of the league’s top teams relies primarily on young legs to be successful.

    Even the older squads boast some impressive young talent, and while not everyone has a decorated under-25 star like Derrick Rose or Blake Griffin, there are plenty of intriguing, emerging players scattered all over the nation.

    From rebuilding clubs like the Charlotte Bobcats to grizzled contenders like the San Antonio Spurs, the next generation of quality NBA players can be observed on any given night, whether they are elite scorers, savvy playmakers or dynamic defenders.

    Without further ado, let's examine the best player under the age of 25 from every team in the league.

Atlanta Hawks: Jeff Teague

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    By trading Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams, the Atlanta Hawks have firmly committed to their youthful core of Jeff Teague, Josh Smith and Al Horford. While Horford and Smith are both 26 and in the midst of their respective primes, the 24-year-old Teague still has significant upside heading into his second season a starter.

    Last year, Teague averaged 12.6 points, 2.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 47.6 percent from the field and 34.2 percent from beyond the arc. In his first year as a starter, he powered the Hawks to home court in the first round of the playoffs, although they were beaten in six games by the Boston Celtics.

    Teague is a tremendous athlete who excels pushing the ball in transition and attacking the basket. He can break a defense down off the dribble and find his way into the paint for a high-percentage shot. He also showed a consistent outside stroke and was able to stretch the floor consistently.

    In addition to his scoring prowess, Teague showed off better passing skills and court vision than fans had seen of him in the past. He ran the pick-and-roll well, made the right pass on the fast break and could collapse an opposing defense to create an open kick-out jump shot for one of Atlanta’s many perimeter shooters.

    Defensively, Teague is an outright pest on the ball with his length, lateral quickness and knack for reading passing lanes and coming up with loose balls. He may have gambled a little too frequently sometimes, but defensive discipline usually comes with time in the league.

    Next season, Teague will shoulder an even bigger load offensively as Atlanta tries to make yet another playoff run, but Hawks fans should have faith in their young point guard, who has the makings of a future star.

Boston Celtics: Avery Bradley

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    Coming into the 2011-2012 season, little was expected of second-year guard Avery Bradley, who showed some nice flashes during his rookie year but simply did not have a role on this veteran-laden Boston team.

    However, once the injuries hit, Bradley finally had the forum to showcase his tremendous skills and stunned nearly all fans and pundits with his defensive prowess.

    Bradley averaged 7.6 points, 1.8 rebounds and 1.4 assists last season, but in 28 starts the 21-year-old Texas product notched 12.3 points, 2.9 boards and two assists per game while shooting 50.4 percent from the floor and 46.5 percent from beyond the arc.

    Initially miscast as a point guard coming out of college, Bradley thrived as a shooting guard to the point that the team actually benched Ray Allen. Bradley is an excellent slasher and cutter who is particularly adept at slipping backdoor and creating easy shots, but he also improved his jumper and looked far more comfortable out on the perimeter than he did in his first campaign.

    Bradley can still handle the ball and make plays, but it is clear that he works best moving without it, which complements Rajon Rondo perfectly.

    Defensively, Bradley ranks among the league’s top perimeter defenders. He can be a force both on and off the ball thanks to his toughness, length and speed, which allow him to keep his assignment in front of him and not get beat off the dribble.

    Bradley also provided absolutely brutal full-court pressure on opposing guards, wasting valuable shot-clock time and in some cases even forcing a turnover with his aggressiveness.

    Though he will miss the beginning of this season due to shoulder surgery, Bradley should resume his role as the starting 2-guard even with the Celtics’ backcourt depth and will be integral in the team making a run at its 18th championship banner.

Brooklyn Nets: Brook Lopez

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    This was a tough decision between MarShon Brooks, who surprised many with an extremely productive rookie season, and Brook Lopez, the offensively talented but defensively troubled center who played in just five games last season due to lingering foot problems.

    However, the 24-year-old Lopez has shown that when healthy, he is one of the league’s most polished scoring centers, and he was tendered a max contract by Brooklyn this summer, earning him the nod.

    In five games, Lopez averaged 19.2 points on 49.4 percent shooting but grabbed a disheartening 3.6 rebounds per game. Going back to the 2010-2011 season, in which he played all 82 games, Lopez averaged 20.4 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.5 blocks per game while shooting 49.2 percent from the field.

    Lopez is a reliable outside shooter that can draw opposing centers away from the basket but also has a nice set of go-to post moves that he can use to exploit his size and length. In addition, Lopez is one of very few seven-footers in the NBA that reliably knocks down his free throws, meaning teams cannot simply foul him to prevent a score.

    Lopez played well in the pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop game with Deron Williams and is also a decent passer out of the post.

    Defensively, Lopez sometimes struggles with more physical post players and needs to work on not giving up position, but he does have good timing as a shot-blocker. Lopez is a good help defender and can recover to block a shot from behind.

    His rebounding numbers have steadily regressed over the last few years but should improve once he is fully healthy. In addition, Kris Humphries and Reggie Evans, his frontcourt teammates, are two of the best rebounders in the league and should help make up for Lopez’s issues in that area.

    The Nets have built a team that is capable of making some noise in the playoffs, and Brook Lopez is an integral part of the team’s core, especially with Dwight Howard out of the picture.

Charlotte Bobcats: Gerald Henderson

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    One of the few bright spots for Charlotte during an otherwise dismal 2011-2012 campaign was the play of shooting guard Gerald Henderson, who had easily the best year of his career and is emerging as a leader on the court for the Bobcats.

    Last season, Henderson averaged 15.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game while shooting a solid 45.9 percent from the floor. He was often Charlotte’s first option on offense and proved that he could be a reliable scorer thanks to his slashing abilities and mid-range shooting.

    Henderson is not much of a three-point threat, shooting just 23.4 percent last season and attempting less than one shot per game from deep, but he was able to both find his way to the basket with regularity and be a serious threat coming off screens and creating separation for an open shot.

    Henderson also showed growth as a passer, recognizing cutting teammates and spending more time with the ball in his hands this past year.

    Defensively, Henderson is one of the better wing players in the league. He is aggressive and physical on the perimeter without being too foul-prone and knows when to stay at home and not gamble to come up with a loose ball. Henderson can seal off penetration and prevent guards from driving to the basket while effectively locking down both the 1 and 2 as needed.

    The 24-year-old makes up for his relatively small stature with strength and athleticism that allows him to guard lightning-quick point guards and taller, longer shooting guards.

    This Charlotte team has a number of young, intriguing players that could be very good in the future, but heading into next season, it is clear that Gerald Henderson will be the best under-25 Bobcat.

Chicago Bulls: Derrick Rose

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    Derrick Rose will miss a significant amount of Chicago’s 2012-13 season rehabbing the ACL he tore in Game 1 against Philadelphia last season, but the former MVP is still unequivocally the best player on the Bulls’ roster, regardless of age.

    Last season, while battling a slew of injuries including toe, ankle and back problems, Rose still managed to average 21.8 points, 3.4 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game while shooting 43.5 percent from the floor and 31.2 percent from distance.

    When he was on the court, Rose showed off the athleticism that makes him one of the league’s top point guards, as he attacked the rim seemingly at will, demonstrated masterful body control in the air and was always able to draw a foul and find his way to the free-throw line.

    Rose has an excellent handle and can weave through a defense to find his spots on the floor. He has also worked tremendously to improve his outside shooting, forcing his man to play tight defense and open up driving lanes.

    Defensively, Rose has become one of the better point guards in the league thanks to his lateral quickness and ability to keep his man on the perimeter without fouling. Rose does not come up with too many steals, but he is a good shot-blocker relative to his stature and makes few mistakes on that end of the court.

    He also showed off an improved passing game, running the pick-and-roll better, recognizing cutters like Luol Deng and Richard Hamilton moving off the ball and still being able to create open shots for teammates with his penetration.

    At just 23 years old, Rose is nowhere near his prime, and as long as he can successfully return from his knee injury, the future of the Chicago Bulls is in very capable hands.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving

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    Expectations were high for Kyrie Irving after the Cleveland Cavaliers selected him first overall in 2011 to be their new franchise player, but few anticipated such a stellar rookie season from the young point guard, who appeared in just 11 games for Duke.

    In 51 games for the Cavs, Irving averaged 18.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.1 steals per game while hitting 46.9 percent from the floor and 39.9 percent from beyond the arc.

    Irving excelled as a traditional pass-first point guard with his ability to see the floor and find his teammates for easy scoring opportunities, but on a Cleveland team that lacked offensive firepower he also took on the role of primary scorer very often.

    Irving can penetrate and get to the basket easily but also boasts a very impressive shooting touch that makes him a threat to score from virtually anywhere on the court. He was one of Cleveland’s primary three-point threats and needs very little space to produce a quality shot.

    Although he is not lightning-quick, Irving has an extremely high basketball IQ, a fast first step and a bevy of moves off the dribble to create space or beat his man to the basket.

    In addition, Irving played with tremendous poise for a 20-year-old, showing some serious clutch chops and making a number of crunch-time plays in close games for the Cavs. Even on an off night, Irving could still rise to the occasion and make big fourth-quarter plays as needed.

    He is not a great defender, but not a liability either, and the Rookie of the Year winner appears poised to be the league’s next elite point guard.

    Cleveland has added a number of young pieces around Kyrie Irving, and as long as he can stay healthy, this team is in great shape for the future.

Dallas Mavericks: O.J. Mayo

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    One of the few key pieces on this Dallas Mavericks squad who isn’t a veteran, Mayo was brought in as a free agent this summer after two seasons coming off the bench for Memphis. He will be asked to make a huge impact offensively as the starting shooting guard.

    Mayo’s first two seasons for the Grizzlies were brilliant, as he averaged 18.5 points as a rookie and 17.5 points as a sophomore, and though he struggled adjusting to a bench role in 2010-2011, he showed maturity and growth excelling in the role last season.

    In 66 games off the bench, Mayo averaged 12.6 points, 3.2 boards, 2.7 dimes and 1.1 steals per game while hitting 40.8 percent of his shot attempts and 36.4 percent of his three-pointers.

    Mayo carried the Grizzlies’ second-team offense, playing extended minutes and spending plenty of time working with the ball in his hands. Mayo ran the pick-and-roll well with Memphis’ slew of offensively talented big men but also scored well in isolation, taking his man off the dribble.

    Although his assists per game were far from staggering, Mayo passed the ball well, running the floor with Rudy Gay and Mike Conley or finding Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in their best spots on the block.

    Defensively, Mayo made significant strides under Lionel Hollins, putting in consistent effort, reading passing lanes and playing good pressure defense on the ball. Mayo is quick enough to cover both guard spots and improved his discipline and ability to stay in front of his man.

    With increased playing time, O.J. Mayo should thrive as the Mavs’ second option behind Dirk Nowitzki and will regularly score 20-plus points on any given night, but his growth as an all-around player is what earns him the title of best Maverick under 25 over players like Darren Collison and Rodrigue Beaubois.

Denver Nuggets: Ty Lawson

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    Strong cases could be made for either JaVale McGee or Kenneth Faried, the big man tandem that played extremely well against the super-sized Lakers frontcourt during the opening round of the playoffs, but point guard Ty Lawson had an absolutely outstanding first year as a full-time starter for George Karl’s club.

    Lawson became the de facto starter after the team dealt Chauncey Billups and thrived in the role last season, averaging 16.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 48.8 percent from the floor and 36.5 percent from three-point territory.

    Offensively, Lawson is great off the dribble breaking down a defense with his blinding speed and is a nightmare to cover in transition because he can simply blow through defenders. He can finish at the rim consistently and is great at weaving through traffic.

    He makes great decisions with the ball, averaging just 1.1 turnovers per game in the postseason while torching the Los Angeles backcourt, takes high-percentage shots and is a capable option from outside to boot.

    As a facilitator, he was solid in the half court but really played his best basketball pushing the ball in transition and finding open shooters or slashers going to the hoop. Lawson forms a great point guard duo with Andre Miller, who thrives playing at a slower tempo; each provides a different dynamic, and they even played well when sharing the floor.

    Defensively, Lawson makes up for a significant size and strength disadvantage with his quickness and ability to come up with steals. Once Lawson knocks a ball loose and turns on the jets, it is practically impossible to slow him down.

    At just 24 years old, Lawson has not yet entered his prime as a player, but he is fast emerging as the leader of this extremely deep, competitive Denver Nuggets team.

Detroit Pistons: Greg Monroe

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    If Andre Drummond eventually lives up to his gargantuan potential, this spot could be his. For now, the 22-year-old Greg Monroe is definitely the best under-25 player Detroit currently has. The Georgetown product followed up a solid rookie season with a brilliant sophomore campaign that has many fans optimistic he could be the Pistons' newest franchise player.

    With increased playing time and touches offensively, Monroe averaged 15.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 52.1 percent from the field. Monroe logged time at both power forward and center for Detroit while also taking on a major role as a scoring big man.

    He is among the league’s most skilled frontcourt players; he has excellent footwork and reliable post moves, which makes him a threat to score off the block. He is also a great passer who, because of his post passing skills, can actually run the team’s offense for stretches.

    Monroe has a reliable mid-range jumper, great hands around the basket and a decent handle on the ball, making him an extremely tough cover for opposing big men even if he is not a tremendous athlete.

    Defensively, Monroe is not much of a shot-blocker, but he uses his size well and can carve out great position for rebounds and snag tough boards. He also showed an uncanny ability to knock balls loose and come up with steals, unusual for a player of his size.

    Monroe played well with rookie point guard Brandon Knight, and having Drummond to contest shots and provide help in the paint should take some of the defensive pressure off him.

    Expect a monster third season from Greg Monroe next year as the Pistons lean heavily on their young core to bring them back to NBA relevance.

Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry

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    These Golden State Warriors have a number of intriguing young players, including sharpshooters Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson, but a healthy Steph Curry can still comfortably claim the title of best player on the Warriors’ roster.

    Curry battled nagging ankle problems but still managed to average 14.7 points, 3.4 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.5 steals per game while shooting an impressive 49 percent from the field and a blistering 45.5 percent from three-point territory.

    Those numbers are actually disappointing for Curry, who, when fully healthy, averaged 17.5 points and 18.6 points in his first two seasons with Golden State, respectively.

    Curry has a great handle and can work both as a scorer and a playmaker. He can play at a faster tempo and push the pace but is also a capable half-court facilitator that can read a defense and find angles to get the ball to his teammates. Curry and forward David Lee make a formidable pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop threat, and Curry should help new acquisition Andrew Bogut put up solid scoring numbers.

    The biggest thing Curry brings to the court is his shooting ability. Curry is among the game’s best shooters, both from three-point range and within the arc. He can create a shot off the dribble but is also capable of playing off the ball and running off screens or spotting up.

    Curry has a lightning-quick release and can also react to a closeout and attack the basket should a lane present itself. The backcourt of Curry and Thompson is a nightmare to guard because both players can absolutely shoot the lights out.

    Defensively, Curry is not great because of his lack of strength, but he is quick on the perimeter and can force turnovers thanks to his quick hands.

    With more talent than it has had in years, Golden State has a chance to contend for a playoff berth, and the play of 24-year-old Steph Curry will be a huge reason it could sneak into the postseason conversation.

Houston Rockets: Jeremy Lin

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    Welcome to Houston, the new home of Linsanity!

    The Rockets made one of the biggest splashes of free agency by bringing in Jeremy Lin on a three-year, $25.1 million backloaded deal, and though plenty of people have criticized the contract, there is no denying the talent Lin displayed during his time as New York’s starting point guard.

    Lin averaged 14.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 6.2 assists for the season, but in 25 starts for the Knicks those numbers jumped up to 18.2 points, 3.7 boards, 7.7 assists and two steals while shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 34.3 percent from beyond the arc.

    Lin was among the league’s best pick-and-roll point guards last season, forming a formidable attack with Tyson Chandler and Amar’e Stoudemire, both of whom are excellent finishers at the rim. Lin’s unselfishness and pure passing ability were infectious, as the team played some of its best basketball with Lin being featured offensively.

    In addition to his passing, Lin could drive the ball and find his way to the basket or the free-throw line. Though he did struggle going left, Lin could consistently get into the paint and either take a high-percentage shot or make a pass to an open teammate.

    Though not considered a great shooter, Lin hit some key three-pointers for New York and was able to consistently create good shots. Though he lacks athleticism, Lin has a quick first step that helped him to blow by defenders.

    Defensively, Lin had difficulty covering the league’s more athletic point guards but was capable of forcing turnovers and coming up with loose balls.

    He needs to cut down on his turnovers, but as the featured player on a Houston team filled with youth that can play uptempo basketball, Lin should again put up All-Star numbers.

Indiana Pacers: Paul George

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    The Indiana Pacers, despite their reputation as a young contender, actually only feature two players on their roster that are under 25 who should see consistent, heavy minutes during the 2012-2013 season. Of those two, Paul George beats out D.J. Augustin because of his athleticism, versatility and defensive prowess.

    George had a solid rookie season for Indiana but broke out last year after having an unexpected growth spurt in the summer of 2011. Boasting a size advantage over almost every shooting guard in the league, George averaged 12.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 44 percent from the field and 38.5 percent from three-point range.

    George’s size and length allow him to cover both the 2 and 3 positions, while his surprising quickness also gives him the ability to guard point guards if necessary. George can deny driving lanes, come up with steals and contest jump shots thanks to his long arms.

    Offensively, he is great at slashing to the rim and making plays at the rim thanks to his athleticism and leaping ability. Because of his size, he can often simply rise up and shoot over his defender, and he was one of the Pacers’ premier three-point threats last season.

    George uses his size to crash the glass from the perimeter and also can handle the ball and make the proper pass when necessary. His unique skill set makes him one of the NBA’s most versatile guards, and he can impact the game even when his shot isn’t falling.

    He struggled against the Miami Heat in the second round of the playoffs, but at just 22, George still has an incredibly high ceiling as an all-around player, especially if he can grow another few inches.

Los Angeles Clippers: Blake Griffin

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    Possibly the easiest selection for this slideshow, the Clippers do boast some good, young talent in Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan, but neither player possesses the talent of Blake Griffin, the 23-year-old former first-overall selection of Los Angeles.

    Griffin is one of the best athletes in the NBA; he runs the floor extremely hard, plays above the rim and can be depended on for at least one show-stopping dunk per contest. Though he needs to work on the finesse aspects of the game, primarily jump shooting, and improve his overall defensive play, Griffin is still one of the league’s elite power forwards.

    Last season, he averaged 20.7 points, 10.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game while shooting 54.9 percent from the field. Although he regressed slightly in many statistical categories, that was largely a product of playing on a far better, deeper team.

    Griffin is a force in the paint thanks to his strength size and leaping ability. He can overpower opponents and attack the rim and is also dominant on the glass both offensively and defensively.

    His shooting is a serious area of concern though, as Griffin made just 3.7 of the 7.1 free throws he attempted per game and would often struggle when a defender forced him out to the perimeter. Still, Griffin had some decent shooting moments and would be virtually unguardable if he could hit from mid-range consistently.

    Griffin is also an underrated passer and playmaker. For a power forward, he has an excellent handle and can make plays with the ball in his hands beyond just looking to score. He is a willing passer and reacts well to double-teams, which is rare for a player his age.

    He had some difficulty in his first trip to the playoffs, averaging 19.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists, and should be a far better shot-blocker and defender based purely on his physical gifts, but the pairing of Griffin and Chris Paul makes the Los Angeles Clippers one of the NBA’s most formidable squads.

Los Angeles Lakers: Devin Ebanks

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    The L.A. Lakers have one of the league’s best starting lineups, featuring four star players, and bolstered their bench with the signings of Jodie Meeks and Antawn Jamison.

    Still, for all of their talent, this Los Angeles team is not exactly filled with youth, as their under-25 players are draft picks Robert Sacre and Darius Johnson-Odom, little-used sophomores Andrew Goudelock and Darius Morris, the newly acquired Earl Clark and swingman Devin Ebanks—not exactly stellar NBA players.

    Of the players on the roster, Ebanks is both the most proven and the one likely to have the biggest impact next season. For the 2011-2012 campaign, Ebanks averaged four points, 2.3 rebounds and 0.5 assists per game.

    Ebanks played better as a starter, averaging 6.4 points, 3.2 rebounds and 0.8 assists while shooting 47.8 percent from the field in a dozen starts.

    He is not much of an outside shooter, but Ebanks is a good athlete that can attack the basket and is particularly adept at slashing to the hoop. He can play in transition, and on a team with as much offensive talent as the Lakers have, he will benefit from open mid-range looks.

    Ebanks’ main impact is on the defensive end, where he can effectively guard shooting guards with his quickness, but at 6’9” he can also defend small forwards. Ebanks is tough, physical and uses his speed and athletic ability to hound opposing wing players.

    With Los Angeles’ improved depth he won’t see heavy minutes by any means, but he will provide some much-needed hustle and young legs to this Lakers team that is considered by many to be a championship favorite.

Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Conley

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    Although their three stars, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, all have plenty of experience in the NBA, Memphis has a number of talented young players who deserved consideration for this spot.

    While Darrell Arthur is a good athlete and great defender who can finish at the rim and Jerryd Bayless is an excellent scorer and a versatile combo guard, this spot goes to starting point guard Mike Conley.

    Conley followed up a breakout 2010-2011 season with yet another solid year, as he led Memphis to the Western Conference’s fourth seed. He averaged 12.7 points, 2.6 boards, 6.5 dimes and 2.2 steals per game while shooting 43.3 percent overall and 37.7 percent from three-point territory.

    The 24-year-old former Ohio State star has made tremendous strides as a playmaker and facilitator. He runs the pick-and-roll, has the court vision to find players cutting to the hoop and makes the proper pass in transition for an easy bucket.

    Conley has also improved as a scorer; he has good range on his jumper but can also attack his man off the bounce. On a Grizzlies team that needed outside scoring, Conley was often asked to be a primary floor-spacing option. He can penetrate and look to score in the paint and is also a solid mid-range threat.

    Defensively, Conley is among the NBA’s best pickpockets. He is great at reading passing lanes and coming up with loose balls, finishing among the league leaders in steals last season. Conley is a great on-ball defender who can play excellent pressure defense despite his lack of strength.

    He may never be a star, but Mike Conley’s play is vital to the success of these Memphis Grizzlies, who are certainly a dark-horse contender thanks to their aggressive and, at times, chaotic defensive play.

Miami Heat: Norris Cole

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    The Miami Heat won last year’s title based on their athleticism and tremendous defense and are positioned to be contenders for years to come. But their roster boasts just three under-25 players: little-used big man Dexter Pittman, second-round draft pick Justin Hamilton and sophomore guard Norris Cole. Hardly a ferocious trio.

    Cole gets the nod here because he was a consistent contributor for Miami last season, appearing in 65 games and logging 19.4 minutes per night. Cole averaged 6.8 points, 1.4 rebounds and two assists on just 39.3 percent shooting from the field while seeing his minutes vary greatly in Erik Spoelstra’s rotation.

    Cole struggled with his shot last season, as plenty of rookie scorers do, but had a few excellent games, most notably a 20-point, four-assist, three-steal performance against the Boston Celtics and another 20-point outing against the Indiana Pacers.

    He can fill up a stat sheet in a hurry with his quickness and driving ability, receiving plenty of open looks as defenses key in on Miami’s star trio.

    Cole moves well without the basketball as a scorer but also had some impressive moments as a playmaker and a facilitator, including a nine-assist effort against the Charlotte Bobcats. Cole can play both guard spots and make kick-out passes thanks to his penetration ability.

    Although he does not have the highest upside after four years at Cleveland State and he saw his minutes reduced during the playoffs, Cole plays with maturity and should continue to be a valuable rotation piece as the Heat look to repeat their 2012 championship effort.

Milwaukee Bucks: Brandon Jennings

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    The Milwaukee Bucks narrowly missed the playoffs yet again last season, making a late charge but ultimately ending up in ninth place. One of the main reasons they were in postseason contention was the play of Brandon Jennings, who had the best season of his young career and averaged career highs in points, minutes, steals and field-goal percentage.

    Jennings averaged 19.1 points, 3.4 boards, 5.5 assists and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 41.8 percent from the floor and 33.2 percent from three-point territory. Although far from efficient, he filled his role as a volume scorer well and was capable of filling up a stat sheet both as a scorer and a facilitator.

    Jennings attempted nearly six threes per game but scored the majority of his points by attacking the basket and using his quickness and athleticism to break down an opposing defense. Jennings could blow by opponents, absorb contact and consistently finish at the rim.

    He also showed growth as a player, forcing the issue less and making fewer mistakes with the ball. Instead of going for a flashy pass or a highlight-reel finish, Jennings was more willing to make the simple, fundamental play. Because of his ability to get into the paint, Jennings is great at collapsing a defense, and the Bucks have plenty of shooters to benefit from the attention Jennings demands.

    Defensively, Jennings’ best attribute is his ability to read passing lanes and deny driving lanes, as he primarily spends his time guarding the ball. He is a little undersized at 6’1” but makes up it with lateral quickness.

    Though he needs to work on calling his own number a little less, the 22-year-old point guard is still learning the ropes of the NBA and has a long, productive career ahead of him.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Kevin Love

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    Another extremely easy choice, Kevin Love, an All-NBA second team selection last year, beats out dynamic passer Ricky Rubio and elite athlete Derrick Williams with his uncanny scoring and rebounding ability. The two-time All-Star has cemented himself as the league’s best power forward thanks to his versatility and polished skill set.

    Last season, he averaged 26 points, 13.3 rebounds and two assists per game while shooting 44.8 percent from the field and 37.2 percent from distance. Love was Minnesota’s clear first option offensively, and his ability to shoot the ball from outside presented huge matchup problems, drawing opposing big men away from the basket. Love is also a back-to-the-basket threat and can score consistently out of the post.

    Love was among the league’s most consistent players last season and notched several monster games, including a 51-point, 14-rebound effort against Oklahoma City and a 40-point, 19-rebound performance versus Charlotte.

    In addition, he showed excellent chemistry with Rubio in their brief time playing together. They ran an absolutely devastating high pick-and-roll that opponents struggled to guard. He also was capable of getting to the free-throw line and converting, connecting on 6.9 of 8.4 attempts from the charity stripe.

    Love is not a brilliant defender or shot-blocker by any means, but he controls the glass better than anyone in the NBA. He carves out great position, gives multiple efforts and simply seems to know where the ball is going. Love thrived as a rebounder and hustle player this summer for Team USA, keeping balls alive and sacrificing his body.

    With an improved roster and a healthy Rubio, the 23-year-old should have another MVP-caliber season and will look to lead the Timberwolves back to the playoffs for the first time since the Kevin Garnett era.

New Orleans Hornets: Eric Gordon

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    The New Orleans Hornets tabbed Eric Gordon as their new franchise player, making him the centerpiece of the Chris Paul trade, and though Anthony Davis could very well surpass Gordon one day, the 23-year-old shooting guard remains the Hornets’ best young player.

    Gordon struggled with injuries last season, appearing in just nine games, but looked sharp when he was on the court, averaging 20.6 points, 2.8 boards and 3.4 assists and 1.4 steals per game while shooting 45 percent from the floor. Gordon was the team’s first option offensively and also showed some serious clutch prowess, making a number of big shots and key fourth-quarter plays.

    Although Gordon stands at just 6’3”, he is an extremely strong and physical guard that can often just overpower his opponent and attack the basket. He is not lightning-quick but has a good handle and can drive past his man on his way to the rim.

    Gordon had difficulty hitting his three-point attempts, shooting just 25 percent from beyond the arc last season, but hits 37 percent for his career. With Austin Rivers and Ryan Anderson coming aboard, New Orleans has plenty of shooting and can really stretch out a defense.

    Defensively, he can move his feet well to stay in front of his man and knock balls loose, and he knows when not to gamble for a steal.

    He may have wanted to jump ship and sign with the Phoenix Suns, but with a number of talented young players headlined by the guard-forward tandem of Gordon and Davis, the Hornets have an extremely bright future and could be a playoff threat as early as next season.

New York Knicks: Iman Shumpert

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    The New York Knicks rapidly aged their roster during free agency when they parted ways with Jeremy Lin and brought in Marcus Camby, Raymond Felton, Kurt Thomas and Jason Kidd to provide depth and defensive chops. Now, the team boasts just two players under 25, J.R. Smith’s younger brother and Louisville standout Chris Smith and All-Rookie First Team member Iman Shumpert.

    Undoubtedly, the 22-year-old Shumpert earns the title of best Knick under 25 and should retain that title for the foreseeable future.

    The Georgia Tech product stunned many fans last season by being an immediate impact player, taking over the starting 2-guard role and averaging 9.5 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.7 blocks per game. He struggled with his shot, hitting 40.1 percent of his attempts from the floor and 30.6 percent of his three-point attempts, but provided New York with a dose of athleticism and some much-needed perimeter defense.

    Shumpert initially logged some time as a point guard, a role that did not suit the 6’5” superb athlete. Although he can run the offense for stretches and has decent court vision, Shumpert works best off the ball or driving to the basket. He occasionally made some bad decisions with the ball, but at such a young age that is obviously understandable.

    Shumpert emerged last year as one of the league’s best perimeter defenders. He was gritty and physical while using his tremendous length to disrupt opponents and force them into tough, heavily contested shots. Shumpert guarded the 1, 2 and 3 spots effectively due to his strength and speed and was often asked to cover the opposing team’s best perimeter scorer.

    His ACL tear is obviously troubling, but if Shumpert can return to somewhere near full strength, there is no reason to think he couldn’t become one of the NBA’s all-around best defenders and a potential star of the future for New York.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Kevin Durant

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    This one needs no explanation. Even with a two-time All-Star in Russell Westbrook and the league’s best sixth man in James Harden, Kevin Durant remains unequivocally the best under-25 player on this Oklahoma City roster brimming with young talent.

    Last season, Durant captured his third consecutive scoring title and finished second in MVP voting by averaging 28 points, eight rebounds, 3.5 assists and over a block and a steal per game. Even with the attention defenses paid to him, including frequent double-teams, Durant still made 49.7 percent of his attempts from the field and 38.7 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.

    Durant has always had an effortless scoring touch and continued to showcase that last season. He has a picture-perfect jumper, and with his length, he can elevate and release over nearly any defender. Durant can knock down shots from three-point range and thrived both pulling up and working as a catch-and-release marksman.

    He does not have a great post game, but Durant’s offensive game is practically flawless otherwise. He has a great handle for a forward and can get to the rim or the foul line at will, while also being able to pull up in the paint and hit floaters and high-percentage shots. He also improved as a passer and spent more time in the point-forward role than at any other point in his carer.

    Defensively, Durant made significant improvements last season. He used his long wingspan to contest shots and improved both at reading passing lanes and blocking shots. Durant’s speed and size allows him to guard the 2, 3 and 4 spots for Scott Brooks and the Thunder.

    Coming off a heartbreaking NBA Finals loss, expect Durant to start the season with extra motivation and potentially snag his first MVP award. At just 23 years old, he is still brimming with potential and will be leading OKC deep into the playoffs for years to come.

Orlando Magic: Maurice Harkless

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    This Orlando Magic team was always in for a brutal 2012-2013 season with the Dwight Howard saga, but few anticipated how rough it could potentially be after Orlando failed to land any impact players besides defensive-minded shooting guard Arron Afflalo.

    The Magic did manage to land a few intriguing pieces for the future, including Maurice Harkless, a first-round selection of the Philadelphia 76ers and an incredibly versatile wing player.

    In his lone season with St. John’s, he averaged 15.3 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game while shooting 44.5 percent from the floor. Harkless led an extremely young, inexperienced team, and though he occasionally struggled with shot selection, Harkless showed extreme promise both as a scorer and a defender.

    At 6’8” Harkless can play both the 2 and 3 positions and is excellent at attacking off the dribble and slashing to the hoop. Despite not being much of a three-point threat, Harkless has a reliable mid-range shot and can come off screens to create open shots while also making plays with the ball in his hands.

    Defensively, Harkless showed incredible versatility, he averaged 1.6 steals and 1.4 blocks per contest last season while covering multiple positions. His length allows him to contest shots and make it difficult for an opponent to see the court, and his tremendous athleticism and leaping ability make him a shot-blocking threat both on his own man and as a help defender.

    At just 19 years old, Harkless will undoubtedly have some difficult moments in his rookie campaign, but he will take on a significant offensive role for the Magic as they begin their rebuilding process around Harkless, Andrew Nicholson, Nikola Vucevic and their slew of future draft picks.

Philadelphia 76ers: Andrew Bynum

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    The Philadelphia 76ers were stuck as a middle-of-the-road playoff team heading into this offseason, but by acquiring Andrew Bynum in the blockbuster Dwight Howard trade, the team has vaunted itself into legitimate contention. The 24-year-old center had a breakout 2011-2012 campaign, as he assumed a bigger role offensively, thrived in increased minutes and managed to avoid the injury bug.

    Last season, Bynum averaged 18.7 points, 11.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.9 blocks per game while playing a career-high 35.2 minutes per night. He asserted himself both offensively and defensively, using his size to overpower opponents and lock down the glass.

    Bynum is not the most polished player, but he has good hands around the basket and a few reliable post moves. However, his real asset is his size and strength, which allows him to back down opponents and attack the rim. In addition, Bynum is a reliable free-throw shooter who is capable of capitalizing on his trips to the line.

    Although he needs to handle double-teams better and not cough up the ball, Bynum is one of the best offensive big men in the NBA and should see his scoring numbers increase with a more featured role in Philadelphia.

    Defensively, Bynum uses his size and length to carve out great position and can control both the offensive and defensive glass. Although the Sixers have plenty of quickness and athleticism on the perimeter, they lacked a dominant inside presence that can dictate the tempo of the game from the paint, which they now have with Bynum.

    This 76ers squad has a phenomenal core of under-25 players, and with Bynum leading the team they have as bright a future as any team in the league.

Phoenix Suns: Michael Beasley

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    The Phoenix Suns lost Steve Nash this summer but managed to rebuild on the fly by bringing in a number of pieces, including breakout point guard Goran Dragic, offensively gifted big man Luis Scola and the talented-but-troubled Michael Beasley, who, at just 23 years old, earns the title of best Sun under 25.

    Beasley had a tumultuous 2011-2012 campaign in Minnesota, as he clashed with coach Rick Adelman and found himself in the doghouse regularly. Still, the versatile forward managed to average 11.5 points, 4.4 rebounds and an assist per game while hitting 44.5 percent of his field goal attempts and 37.6 percent from three-point territory.

    Going back to the previous season, he started 73 games and averaged 19.2 points, 5.6 boards and 2.2 assists per contest.

    At 6’10”, Beasley has the quickness to play the 3 but also creates mismatches as a stretch 4 with his shooting ability. Beasley can hit from the perimeter but also has the ability to attack the basket off the dribble and pull up for mid-range, high-percentage shots.

    Beasley should thrive in Alvin Gentry’s uptempo offense given his ability to run the floor and finish in transition. He can also attack the glass from the perimeter or play inside and work in the paint thanks to his leaping ability.

    Defensively, Beasley has the quickness to cover ground quickly, and though he is not a great individual defender, he has the talent and athleticism to make an impact as more than just a scorer.

    After a controversial, drama-filled year, Beasley will be looking to get back on track and has the perfect forum to do that in Phoenix.

Portland Trail Blazers: Nicolas Batum

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    The Portland Trail Blazers blew up their roster at the trade deadline last season and committed to rebuilding around their youthful core.

    While this spot could eventually go to much-hyped sixth overall pick Damian Lillard, the Summer League MVP, the 23-year-old Nicolas Batum is coming off of a career year. With a new, hefty contract under his belt, Batum is looking to continue to develop as the team’s second option behind star LaMarcus Aldridge.

    Last season, Batum averaged 13.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.4 assists and a block and a steal per contest while shooting 45.1 percent from the field and 39.1 percent from beyond the arc. He split time with Gerald Wallace initially, but once Wallace was shipped to New Jersey, Batum emerged as a consistent scorer and a stalwart perimeter defender.

    Batum is an excellent athlete who plays his best at a brisk tempo racing up and down the floor, using his length to get to the rim. However, last season Batum showcased an improved stroke from three-point territory and emerged as one of the team’s premier outside shooters. In addition, Batum is adept at working without the basketball and slashing to the basket.

    Defensively, Batum’s size and tremendous wingspan allow him to cover both guard spots and even small forwards. He can deny penetration, come up with steals and is also a threat as a shot-blocker from the perimeter.

    Batum should continue to guard the opposing team’s best scorer for the foreseeable future, and has emerged as one of the league’s best wing defenders.

    The Blazers are in for a rough season as their new players adjust to the rigors of the NBA, but Batum should continue to be a serious bright spot for the team thanks to his play on both ends of the court.

Sacramento Kings: DeMarcus Cousins

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    The Sacramento Kings have struggled over the past few seasons to get their slew of young, talented players to play cohesive, team-oriented basketball, but there is simply no denying how gifted the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Tyreke Evans and Thomas Robinson are.

    Cousins in particular had an excellent 2011-12 season, even if he does still need to mature and trust his teammates and coaching staff more. Cousins averaged 18.1 points, 11 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.5 steals per game while hitting 44.8 percent of his attempts from the field.

    He spent time at both the 4 and 5 spot thanks to his surprising quickness and strength on the block.

    Cousins emerged as one of the league’s best centers thanks to his scoring ability. The big man can play in the post, has excellent hands around the basket and also worked on his mid-range jump shot, spacing the floor and drawing opposing big men away from the hoop to create driving lanes.

    Defensively, Cousins was able to lock down the boards, defend the post and protect the rim thanks to his leaping ability and timing. Though he fouled too frequently, Cousin is aggressive, certainly a positive trait.

    He posted several monster games, including a 21-point, 20-rebound performance against the Golden State Warriors and a 38-point, 14-board effort against the Houston Rockets.

    Cousins needs to improve his attitude and begin to show growth, because if the 22-year-old’s basketball IQ can catch up to his tremendous skills on the court, he could easily become a perennial All-Star for Sacramento.

San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard

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    Despite their reputation as a veteran team, the San Antonio Spurs boast a number of extremely talented young pieces that will play valuable roles for the team in the future, as they look to the future beyond the Tim Duncan-Manu Ginobili-Tony Parker era.

    Among those players is Kawhi Leonard, the 21-year-old San Diego State product who took over the starting 2-guard role and played excellent basketball on both ends of the floor. Leonard was a first-round pick of the Indiana Pacers but was immediately traded to the Spurs and fit in immediately with the San Antonio culture.

    In his rookie season, Leonard averaged 7.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 49.3 percent from the field and 37.6 percent from three-point range.

    Questions were raised about Leonard coming out of college pertaining to what position he would play and whether he could consistently knock down open perimeter shots, but Leonard proved capable of playing the shooting guard and both forward spots with ease. He also clearly worked in the offseason to improve his jumper.

    Leonard is a phenomenal athlete with an absurd wingspan who can read passing lanes, force his assignment into tough shots and even guard the post if necessary. The rookie often was asked to guard the opposing team’s best scorer and did so effectively and without getting into foul trouble.

    Offensively, Leonard played well, moving without the ball to create open looks, making the right pass for a high-percentage shot and capitalizing on his limited touches.

    In the playoffs, he further raised his level of play and was integral in San Antonio’s run to the Western Conference finals. Although the Spurs’ stars are beginning to show signs of wear, the future of San Antonio basketball is in good hands with Leonard on the roster.

Toronto Raptors: DeMar DeRozan

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    The Toronto Raptors have had a pair of forgettable seasons but have built a young, super-athletic core of players that are looking to shock the NBA world next season and compete for a playoff berth. Leading their slew of quick, talented players is 23-year-old swingman DeMar DeRozan, who is coming off yet another solid season in a Raptors uniform.

    The former USC standout averaged 16.7 points, 3.3 rebounds and two assists per game while hitting 42.2 percent of his shots from the field. Although he made just 26.1 percent of his three-point attempts, DeRozan is relied upon for his mid-range scoring and slashing abilities, not his outside shooting.

    DeRozan is as explosive as any guard in the league with his ability to blow by defenders and get into the paint. He can handle the ball, initiate the offense and consistently break down a defense off the dribble. In addition, he improved as a passer last season, finding slashers and making kick-out passes once he collapsed a defense.

    DeRozan can also move without the ball and create a quality look at the basket from mid-range, sprinting around picks in order to free himself up and elude his defender.

    Although not a great defender, he has the quickness to stay in front of his man and can pressure full-court if necessary. He also is capable of playing both the 2 and 3 and has the talent to be a very solid perimeter defender in this league.

    He may lose some minutes to eighth overall pick Terrence Ross, but DeRozan is still improving as an all-around player and will continue to be featured heavily as a scorer for Toronto.

Utah Jazz: Derrick Favors

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    The Utah Jazz have a number of talented big men, including the gritty Paul Millsap and offensively talented Al Jefferson, but neither of them has the tremendous upside and natural athletic ability of the 21-year-old Derrick Favors, who joined the team in the blockbuster trade with New Jersey that sent the Nets Deron Williams.

    Last season, Favors averaged 8.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, 0.7 assists and one block per game on 49.9 percent shooting but played even better in the playoffs, where he averaged 11.8 points, 9.5 boards and 1.5 blocks while playing increased minutes against San Antonio.

    Favors runs the floor hard and plays above the rim, relying on his pure athleticism to make plays on both ends of the court. His game lacks polish, but Favors can finish at the basket, play the pick-and-roll and is improving as a back-to-the-basket scorer.

    In addition, his length and leaping ability allow him to grab tough rebounds in traffic and make multiple efforts to create easy scoring opportunities on putbacks. Though he is a natural power forward, Favors is capable of spending time at center thanks to his physicality and can protect the rim.

    Defensively, Favors has the timing to be a dominant shot-blocker and can move his feet well to protect the post without fouling.

    With increased minutes and a potential starting role, the Georgia Tech product should build on the momentum of his phenomenal, if brief, postseason performance.

    Utah needs to figure out its logjam in the frontcourt, but the team absolutely must retain Favors in order to have a shot at taking the leap from low playoff seed to potential championship contender.

Washington Wizards: John Wall

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    The Washington Wizards made some serious changes to their roster, dealing talented but selfish players JaVale McGee and Nick Young for team-oriented veterans Emeka Okafor, Nene and Trevor Ariza.

    Now, armed with a proven, defense-first frontcourt, Washington has the talent to help 21-year-old star point guard John Wall develop into the franchise-changing player he has the potential to become.

    Wall again put up excellent numbers last season, to the tune of 16.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, eight assists and 1.4 steals per game on 42.3 percent shooting from the field. He seriously struggled with turnovers and hitting from three-point range but beyond that looked phenomenal offensively.

    Wall is capable of attacking the paint off the dribble and has the explosiveness to finish at the rim better than almost any guard in the league. He also can draw fouls and absorb contact while still getting off a quality shot. He can pull up off the dribble and hit from mid-range too, and if he improves his three-point shot, he will be even more of a nightmare defensive assignment.

    As a playmaker, Wall is a threat in the pick-and-roll with Nene and also should play well with new teammate Bradley Beal, finding Beal for open threes on the perimeter or slashing to the hoop. Wall also can make plays in transition, racing up the court with the ball and either taking it to the rack or finding a teammate for an easy bucket.

    Defensively, Wall can pressure full-court, disrupt opposing point guards and force turnovers with his quick, active hands.

    The Wizards are serious about building a playoff-caliber team, and by giving Wall the most talented roster of his three NBA seasons, they have a great shot at seriously surprising people next season.