Ranking the NBA's Most Dangerous 1-2 Punches Under 25
The process of acquiring multiple promising young talents is almost never pleasant in the NBA, but the results can be pretty exciting.
The promising pairs we'll list here are almost uniformly the products of tanked seasons, long-term futility, trades that jettisoned disgruntled superstars...or all three. Dark times have, in these cases, yielded bright lights pointing toward the future.
In ranking the league's best under-25 duos, we'll perform a somewhat-tricky balancing act. The two primary factors will be present value and future potential. If a pairing is already dominant, that's going to weigh heavily. But if another tandem profiles as an even more potent force down the road, it's unfair to ignore that.
Related: If the combo in question is substantially younger than 25, that may be worth a bump up the rankings over an older pair who may already be in or near their prime. That consideration factors in when the tough call arises between representatives from the Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves at the top of the rankings.
Enough with the rules. Let's rank the kids.
Honorable Mention: Anthony Davis and Player X, New Orleans Pelicans
We have to break the rules here and at least give this speculative pairing an honorable mention for a couple of reasons. First, just about any warm body capable of standing upright would, theoretically, pair with Anthony Davis (22) to form an overpowering under-25 duo.
That's how good Davis is.
The second reason it's important to highlight this fictitious pair is that it's kind of a crime it doesn't exist in reality. Run down the New Orleans Pelicans' current roster and it leaps out at you: This team doesn't have another player under 25.
Maybe that's fine, and maybe the fact that AD was already good enough to lead his club to the playoffs last year suggests he doesn't need a group of like-aged players around him to build toward the future. But we know from analyzing the construction of some of the league's best teams that one of the best ways to foster growth in a young superstar is to surround him with young talent that can grow with him.
That's not to say there's only one way to build a winner. It's just that the roster around Davis now isn't good enough, young enough or healthy enough to compete for anything more than a mid-to-low playoff seed right now. With no other young talent in the pipeline and an organizational mandate that seems unwilling to tank for a high lottery pick, it's hard to see where Davis' running mate of the future will come from.
Everybody needs a sidekick. Even Davis.
And the Pelicans have kind of failed in not providing him one.
8. Victor Oladipo and Tobias Harris, Orlando Magic
There's no shortage of under-25 options on the Orlando Magic, as Evan Fournier (23), Elfrid Payton (21), Aaron Gordon (20) and Mario Hezonja (20) all qualify. In fact, it's entirely possible any two of those four players wind up being more valuable than the ones ultimately picked here: Tobias Harris and Victor Oladipo, both 23.
Harris still stops the ball a bit too often, but his rebounding, off-the-dribble skills and better-than-you-thought three-point shot make him a fantastic modern power forward.
As he continues to develop, his defense should improve. And if he can get a little better at turning his quickness into shooting fouls—he averaged just 3.3 free-throw attempts through his first nine contests this season—we could be talking about a borderline All-Star player.
Scoring efficiently has continued to be a problem for Oladipo, but he has so much promise in so many other areas that his shot selection (he likes the tough ones, for some reason) and perimeter accuracy are mostly forgivable.
Oladipo competes—on defense and on the boards. And he's not all that far away from being the kind of three-position lockdown defender who could someday facilitate the switch-heavy defense the Magic's rangy, like-sized personnel suggests is possible.
The only reason these two don't rank higher is because it's difficult to see either becoming a true, team-defining star.
7. Emmanuel Mudiay and Jusuf Nurkic, Denver Nuggets
OK, look: Maybe you're not wild about Jusuf Nurkic (21). Maybe you haven't seen enough in just 62 career games to be convinced the 7-footer can be a high-end starting center in the very near future. Maybe his per-36 numbers last year, which included 13.9 points and 12.5 rebounds, don't assuage concerns about his high foul rate or low field-goal percentage.
That's fine. We disagree, but that's fine.
Because Emmanuel Mudiay is (or will be) good enough to prop up the Denver Nuggets' one-two punch for years to come.
That's according to Jason Kidd, who knows a thing or two about playing the point. His take on the 19-year-old rookie was an eye-opener, per Chris Dempsey of the Denver Post:
He’ll be better. He’s better already. Being able to run an NBA team at 19 is not easy. You look at some of the greats — Magic (Johnson) was able to do it. And you’re looking at this kid Mudiay, who has the opportunity to do something special. So, I would encourage him to be better than me, and I think he will be at the end of the day.
We're a long way (20 years, maybe) from seeing if Mudiay can deliver on Kidd's expectations. But that's a pretty good place to start, and it's pretty high praise for a player with an equally high ceiling.
Nurkic has a chance to be good too. But let's be real: He's mostly along for the ride on this one.
6. Andre Drummond and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Detroit Pistons
With the Detroit Pistons, we see another scenario like the one in Denver: A solid young player, in this case 22-year-old Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, is a solid starter making improvements. But just like Nurkic with the Nuggets, KCP is merely clinging to the rising star of fellow 22-year-old Andre Drummond.
The difference, and the reason this pair ranks higher than the one in Denver, is that Drummond, unlike Mudiay, is good enough to anchor a playoff team right now.
Per Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated: "Detroit, at this stage, is a team that subsists primarily on offensive rebounds and blanketing defense. This is the purview of Drummond, who has been one of the best players in the league to start the year."
The leviathan-long, frighteningly fast, fearsomely athletic Drummond has bounded forward under head coach Stan Van Gundy, whose one-in, four-out offense has cleared space in the lane for the big man to dominate. Drummond has cleaned up on the offensive glass, grabbing at least eight of his teammates' misses in five games already this year.
Overall, he averaged 19.3 boards per game through his first eight contests, and his presence in the middle on defense is enough to dissuade all but the boldest penetrators.
Remarkably, Drummond's productivity comes in spite of a skill set that remains raw. He's not an efficient post scorer, and he is still prone to lapses defensively. Imagine what'll be possible for a player who has already had three 20-point, 20-rebound games this season when he smoothes out his rough edges.
And just to give Caldwell-Pope a little more credit, he's been vastly improved as a wing defender and may even profile as a true stopper soon. Coupled with a pretty release that hints at improving accuracy from deep and you have a nice player with lots of room to get better.
But, again: Drummond!
5. Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers
Kyrie Irving is an established presence in the league—a borderline superstar at 23 with four strong statistical seasons and three All-Star appearances already. Nobody on this list has a resume better than his (unless you count Davis, who's only here as an honorable mention).
Injuries have been a concern for Irving, and he still hasn't played since suffering a fractured kneecap in last year's NBA Finals. But assuming he returns to full health, there's really no reason to expect fewer than 10 career visits to the All-Star Game and at least one more NBA Finals appearance.
The challenge here is making the case for Tristan Thompson, who's paid like a superstar but is actually just a useful, somewhat-limited player with a couple of very valuable skills. At the same time, he was also a critically important figure in the Cavs' 2015 Finals trip, as his offensive rebounding and ability to switch out onto guards on defense gave the Golden State Warriors some issues.
Thompson is 24, and we shouldn't expect a great deal of improvement from him going forward. There's also the question of opportunity, as he plays behind Kevin Love.
Still, the big man is a very good player for a very good team. Combined with Irving's brilliance, it's reasonable to have these two ahead of some less-proven pairs.
4. Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers
Maybe this seems like a high ranking for two players who currently lead the league's worst team. I mean, how good can Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor really be if the Philadelphia 76ers continue to sit in the NBA basement?
Call it a leap, but these two feel like the first duo so far who could both wind up with multiple All-Star appearances.
Noel is 21, and despite being extremely raw in some areas and lacking a clearly defined offensive game, he has already shown the ability to profoundly impact a defense. He's wildly active, long and has that rare knack for getting his hands on the basketball when opponents don't see it coming. He had 133 steals and 142 blocks in his age-20 season last year.
Blocks and steals are only a small part of good individual defense, but in Noel's case, his high totals in those areas reflect just how disruptive he can be.
Okafor is something different altogether. He's a pure interior scorer with unteachable touch and an arsenal of moves young players just don't possess anymore. There's reason to question the value of a post-up scorer in today's spaced-out, pace-obsessed NBA, but doesn't it stand to reason that all the space could benefit someone who can't be single-covered down low?
Okafor, 20, is off to a fine start as a rookie, averaging 20.6 points per game on 50.7 percent shooting through his first eight career games. He needs to rebound better, and his defense isn't up to snuff yet. But he's still so ridiculously young, and he has an undeniably elite NBA skill already.
If one of these guys ever develops range on a jumper, this ranking is going to look stupidly low a few years from now.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks
It was tough to decide between the Sixers' pair and this one. It really was.
Jabari Parker shares some similarities to Okafor, in that he's primarily known for offensive polish but needs to improve in other areas. The difference is that Parker profiles as an inside-outside scoring threat who could eventually become a quintessential stretch 4 if his three-point shot improves.
At just 20 years old, there's every reason to believe that'll happen. Ultimately, it's just easier to see how Parker fits into the trends of the future, while Okafor might spend time fighting against them.
Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to be the league's most pleasant young enigma. Whereas it can sometimes be frustrating to study a player whose varied gifts make it hard to imagine what kind of talent he'll ultimately become, it's exhilarating in this case because it feels like Antetokounmpo could develop into anything.
So far this year, the 20-year-old has been an open-court beast whose remarkable length and improving handle make him impossible to contain. He's also shown real growth from long range, evidenced by a higher volume of threes than ever and a career-best accuracy rate of 35.3 percent through eight games.
Can he be a point forward at 6'11"? Probably.
Might he anchor a defense as a shot-blocker inside? Why not?
Could he someday switch onto any of the five positions and provide good D? Yeah, that too.
Antetokounmpo has taken real strides forward every year, and he's still somehow a blank slate in all of the best ways. Based on pure, incalculable potential, he's superior to Noel. And for that reason, the Bucks' young duo gets the nod ahead of the one from Philly.
2. Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz have the league's best collection of youth, and it's not particularly close. In fact, if you wanted to fill out another slot in these rankings, you could do pretty well with any combination of Alec Burks, Rodney Hood and Dante Exum. All three have shown flashes in their young careers (though Exum will have to wait another year to show more because of a torn ACL), with Burks looking particularly promising this season.
But the real stars on one of the NBA's top defensive teams are Rudy Gobert (23) and Derrick Favors (24).
You could take away points because these two are among the oldest tandems on the list, but we said from the outset that actual present value was still going to be important. And nobody has more than these two.
Favors is probably the best player you rarely watch, capable of dominating smaller 4s on the block, knocking down perimeter shots, chasing undersized opponents on the perimeter and snuffing out bigger ones inside.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, two players averaged at least 16 points, eight rebounds and a block while shooting better than 50 percent from the field last year: Anthony Davis and Favors.
Put simply, he's on the short list of the NBA's best two-way big men.
Gobert isn't the multi-skilled force Favors is, but as a pure rim-protecting specialist, he's about as good as it gets. The 23-year-old Frenchman gives Utah a second defensive anchor with shot-altering length and the kind of elite offensive rebounding the clunky offense needs to survive.
More of a project than Favors, Gobert's ceiling may actually be higher. He and Marcus Camby are the only players in NBA history to finish a full season with a block rate over 7 percent and a rebound rate of at least 20 percent, according to Basketball-Reference.com. And Gobert achieved that at age 22 last year.
Gobert and Favors are the keys to a Jazz team that looks playoff-ready in the difficult West, and both should get better. That's unique on this list.
1. Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
With apologies to the more established entries, mind-melting, incalculable, otherworldly potential wins. It just does.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have the last two No. 1 overall picks in the NBA draft playing together in Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, both of whom are still just 20 years old. And it's already difficult to oversell the potential these two share.
Wiggins has all of the tools to become a superstar two-way wing, and he's been more accurate from deep (38.9 percent through seven games) while shoring up his defensive game in his second season. He's bouncy, aggressive, long—looking every bit the franchise superstar he was billed to be.
And Towns is even better.
We've got a pitiably small sample size to deal with, but there's just something about Towns that makes the word "special" feel like an understatement.
Listed at 7'0", Towns is unfathomably mobile and agile, and you can already observe next-level defensive instincts in his movements. Look past the impressive 2.6 blocks per game in just 29.1 minutes and you'll see the kind of intuitive movement and timing that screams much more is possible.
Offensively, Towns has touch inside and looks tantalizingly comfortable from the perimeter—even on the bounce. He's already hit a three in his brief rookie season.
He's essentially the perfect next-generation big man—one who practically begs for hyperbolic description even at this ridiculously early stage. We can't use a few short weeks to prove Towns will be a superstar, a future champion and a Hall of Famer.
But we can say the signs are there. And they are.
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