2016-17 NBA Under-25 Player Power Rankings
The NBA is rife with young talent like never before. Each conference will feature one player under the age of 25 in its starting lineup at the All-Star Game: Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo for the East and New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis for the West.
But the store of talent that has yet to reach the silver birthday runs much deeper than that around the league. From playoff contenders (e.g., the Bucks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Washington Wizards and Indiana Pacers) to lottery-bound pretenders (e.g., the Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic), you can hardly swing a dead cat around the Association without hitting a rising star who's ready to lead the league's next generation.
For now, the NBA is in great hands, with LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, James Harden and their ilk still lighting up the league from coast to coast. But once those established superstars lose their grip on the Association, these 25 studs—picked and ranked according to individual production and team-wide impact—will be ready to take over and keep the league on the up-and-up.
The list of promising NBA players under the age of 25 is so long that we'd be remiss if we didn't mention some of the guys who missed the cut, listed in alphabetical order.
Clint Capela, Center, Houston Rockets, Age 22
Dwight who? This Swiss-born center has been a terror finishing in Mike D'Antoni's spread pick-and-roll offense (1.30 points per possession, 91st percentile, per NBA.com) and a top-six rim protector (45.3 percent field-goal percentage allowed at the rim, per NBA.com). Where he does look like Superman: at the stripe (46.5 percent on free throws).
Jordan Clarkson, Guard, Los Angeles Lakers, Age 24
Clarkson is a key cog in the Los Angeles Lakers' stellar bench mob (plus-8.9 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com). We'll have to wait and see if he starts alongside D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Brandon Ingram down the line. Either way, Lakers fans will take his 14 points on 45.2 percent shooting (34.6 percent from three).
Elfrid Payton Jr., Point Guard, Orlando Magic, Age 22
Payton is more than just a unique head of hair. Since returning to the starting lineup after more than a month off the Orlando Magic bench, he's averaged 15.9 points, 5.8 assists and 4.1 rebounds while shooting 49.1 percent from the field (44.4 percent from three).
Austin Rivers, Guard, Los Angeles Clippers, Age 24
Rivers is not just a nepotism case. Since sliding into starting lineup amid Los Angeles Clippers injuries, Rivers the Younger has averaged 16.8 points and 3.8 assists while taking on the toughest perimeter defensive assignments. His outside shot has improved too (career-best 39.5 percent from three).
Jonas Valanciunas, Center, Toronto Raptors, Age 24
Valanciunas is a reliable double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds) who either can't break through the Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan tandem or isn't ready to be a cornerstone for the Toronto Raptors.
25. Aaron Gordon, Power Forward, Orlando Magic, Age 21
Nights like the one Aaron Gordon put together against the Bucks on Friday hint at a future much higher on this particular list. His 17 points—including the awesome alley-oop finish above—eight rebounds and three assists were swell, but it was the defense Gordon played on Antetokounmpo that propelled the Magic to a 112-96 win. He helped hold the Greek Freak to 17 points on 6-of-17 shooting with four turnovers while keeping the Bucks' All-Star starter in foul trouble all night.
But nights like this have yet to come consistently for Gordon. Despite being the most gifted all-around player on Orlando's roster, he's scored in single digits during nearly half of the 45 games he's played this season while shooting 44.3 percent from the field and 31.4 percent from three-point range.
That's not all on Gordon. As Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley explained, the Magic's logjam up front has forced the versatile youngster to stretch himself on the perimeter: "Two years removed from being 2014's No. 4 pick, he's already been forced into a position change. His size, skills and explosive athleticism all fit the mold of the modern small-ball big. But Orlando's ill-fitting roster has pushed its most prized prospect away from his natural position."
Some day, Gordon could dominate the NBA as a high-flying power forward. But until that time comes, his true talent might only show from time to time—that is, unless he throws his hat back into the ring for the Slam Dunk Contest in February.
24. D'Angelo Russell, Point Guard, Los Angeles Lakers, Age 20
Injuries have thus far marred D'Angelo Russell's sophomore campaign. The Louisville, Kentucky, native missed three weeks earlier this season with a sore left knee, and he could be back on the shelf for a bit after spraining the MCL in his right knee and straining his right calf during the Lakers' 108-96 win over the Pacers on Friday.
Those setbacks haven't stopped the former No. 2 pick from strutting his stuff, albeit in fits and starts. He torched the Toronto Raptors for 28 points on New Year's Day, posted 22 more two games later against the Portland Trail Blazers and added another 20 against the Detroit Pistons.
All three of those efforts came in defeat for the Lakers, and Russell logged 10 assists to go with eight turnovers across them. He has the vision and the touch to deliver some next-level passes, which can get him in trouble when he tries for the spectacular over the simply effective.
His shot is still inconsistent (39.5 percent from the field, 34.4 percent from three), and his defense is about what you'd expect from a guard barely beyond his teenage years (39th in defensive real plus-minus among point guards, per ESPN.com).
Skill-wise, Russell has all the tools to fit the mold of the modern scoring floor general. He's not particularly fast or athletic, but his understanding of angles and how to create space off the dribble can make up for that.
What he needs more than anything is time—away from the training table and on the court.
23. Victor Oladipo, Shooting Guard, Oklahoma City Thunder, Age 24
The Thunder miss Victor Oladipo's voice. Ever since the former No. 2 pick got his tongue stitched up, he's hardly been able to talk on or off the floor.
"It's a problem," head coach Billy Donovan said, per The Oklahoman's Brett Dawson. "For him, it's not a problem when he's in pick-and-roll coverage, because the bigs are doing, generally, the talking. But certainly when it's guard-to-guard action, things like that, that can be a problem, especially the communication part of it for him, definitely."
Not that it's stopped Oladipo from scoring. In the seven games following the procedure, he averaged 16 points on 44.9 percent shooting, just below his season-long numbers of 16.2 points per contest on 45 percent shooting.
Come 2017-18, he'll be hauling in $21 million as part of a four-year, $84 million extension. The Thunder will need him to be worth every penny if their young squad is going to grow into a contender around Westbrook while he's still at the peak of his superstar powers.
22. Otto Porter, Small Forward, Washington Wizards, Age 23
It seems as though the league has yet to figure out that Otto Porter can shoot. Either that, or opposing defenses are so spooked by the Wizards backcourt duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal that they're willing to take their chances with Porter on the perimeter.
Whatever the case may be, the Georgetown product is making teams pay. He set a new career high with six made threes during Washington's win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday, then matched it the very next night to help the Wizards beat the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Between the two games, Porter combined for 48 points and 13 rebounds.
"I'm getting into a rhythm," Porter said, per the Washington Post's Candace Buckner. "You're in that position, you know, just let it fly."
That free-flowing approach has worked wonders for Porter's game and the Wizards' fortunes. He's torched the nets to the tune of 54 percent from the field (10th-best in the NBA) and 45.8 percent from three (second-best, behind only Utah Jazz forward Joe Ingles).
Porter's stretchiness has opened the floor for Wall and Beal to attack and boosted Washington to 13 straight home wins—its longest such streak since moving into the Verizon Center in 1997. If Porter keeps this up, it could cost the Wizards a pretty penny to keep their young restricted free agent this summer.
21. Tobias Harris, Power Forward, Detroit Pistons, Age 24
Tobias Harris seems like he shouldn't be on this list—not because of talent, but due to age. He's in the midst of his sixth NBA season on his third team as a pro.
Yet the records insist that Harris won't turn 25 until July. For the time being, he belongs among the top young players in the game today.
Harris is as close to a go-to scorer as the Pistons have. He leads the team with 16.7 points per game while shooting a career-high 48.1 percent from the field.
Head coach Stan Van Gundy recently toyed with bringing Harris off the bench, only to install him back into the starting lineup. In the five games following that return, he upped the ante to 18.2 points per night and drained 38.5 percent of his threes.
Harris was even better than that during his time on the pine. He averaged 20.3 points on 51.7 percent shooting with 6.6 rebounds across a stretch of seven subs in eight games. The worst of those performances, as it happens, came during Harris' lone start (14 points on 5-of-14 shooting in Atlanta).
Whatever his role, and wherever he plays, Harris has proved he can put the ball in the basket consistently. His other skills are coming along, but when scoring more points than your opponent is the name of the game, a player of Harris' abilities will always have a spot on the court.
20. Enes Kanter, Center, Oklahoma City Thunder, Age 24
Step by step, Enes Kanter has turned himself into a key building block for the Thunder.
Last season, he was one of the league's leading sixth men, with 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game off the bench. In 2016-17, he's once again one of the NBA's best subs, pouring in 14.6 points and 6.7 boards per contest in 21.7 minutes.
But where once Kanter was a black hole, sucking in passes and rarely kicking it out, he's now begun to expand his game as a passer out of the low post.
"I think it's something that he's maybe struggled with during his career," Donovan explained to Bleacher Report. "What I've tried to do with Enes is tried to help him move the floor in a way so he knows where his outlets are. So based on where the help is coming from, he knows what the next read is. And he's done a very, very good job of that progression-wise, because depending on where help comes from, he's got to recognize who's open."
So far, the result may not look like much; Kanter's averaging one assist per game. But for a Thunder team that can't rely on Westbrook to do everything all of the time, Kanter could be just the offensive fulcrum the second unit is looking for.
19. Myles Turner, Center, Indiana Pacers, Age 20
Larry Bird isn't one to speak much publicly, much less mince words when he does. So when the Legend says he thinks Myles Turner has a bright future for the Pacers, it's best to listen.
"He plays hard," Bird said of Turner, per the Indianapolis Star's Nate Taylor. "He works hard. He wants to be great. He's going to be great. To me, I think he's got a chance to be one of the best players or maybe the best player [in the franchise's history]. You've still Paul [George] with a bunch of time left, too, and you had Reggie [Miller] here with all the other great ones. But being a 20-year-old and doing what this kid is doing just blows my mind."
There aren't many players in the NBA who can do what Turner does, regardless of size or age. Through his first 41 games of 2016-17, the Texas product averaged 15.6 points on 52.7 percent shooting (40.9 percent from three) with 7.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in 30 minutes per contest.
And he's done all that while being outmuscled by some of the bigger, stronger and older pivots he's had to face night in and night out (Turner is 6'11", 243 lbs).
"You forget the fact that he's a young man playing in a men's league," Bird added. "I always say throwing that kid out there—what I did to him this year—is really unheard of. His body is not mature for where it's going to be in a couple years. You're our starting center. Go out and get Dwight Howard. That's a tough assignment. The other night, playing against DeMarcus [Cousins], probably the best big man in the league. Those are tough chores, but the kid doesn't back down."
18. Julius Randle, Power Forward, Los Angeles Lakers, Age 22
Some day, D'Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram might be superstars who are capable of carrying the Lakers' storied torch. For now, Julius Randle is the closest thing the Purple and Gold have to a cornerstone among their young core.
He leads the Lakers in rebounds per game (8.5) and double-doubles (10), and he ranks second in assists (3.9) and fifth in points per contest (13.3). Those aren't superstar stats by any means, but they point to what kind of all-around threat Randle can be. With his hulking frame (6'9", 250 lbs), quick first step and left-hand dominance, he's already a freight train in transition and is finishing much better around the rim (64.9 percent, per Basketball Reference) than he did in 2015-16.
Consistency, though, continues to escape the 22-year-old Kentucky product.
"Sometimes I'm like, 'Holy Lord, he's figured it out, and the rest of the league is in trouble,'" coach Luke Walton said of Randle, per the Los Angeles Times' Mike DiGiovanna. "And there are other times when it's like, 'Wow, what was he looking at right there?'"
It's moments like those when Lakers Nation must remind itself that Randle is in just his second actual season of pro ball, after breaking his leg during the first game of his rookie campaign. The sooner Randle brings his game into proper balance, the better able the Lakers will be to climb out of Kobe Bryant's end-of-career crater.
17. Zach LaVine, Shooting Guard, Minnesota Timberwolves, Age 21
You might not think of Zach LaVine in the same terms that are often showered on his star-bound Timberwolves teammates, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Though LaVine was never Rookie of the Year and was the 13th pick in the draft rather than the first, he's worked himself into the sort of player for which the term "third wheel" is anything but pejorative.
"You watch him before the game, his workouts," Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers told Bleacher Report. "He's really serious about basketball. When you're that talented and that serious, usually good things happen, and good things are happening."
For LaVine, those good things look like 19.8 points per game on 46.4 percent shooting (40.9 percent from three). Before winding up with nine points on 3-of-13 shooting Thursday, the back-to-back Slam Dunk Contest champ had given the T-Wolves a trio of 20-points-per-game scorers, making them one of three teams in the league with such diverse scoring.
Minnesota has a long way to go if it's going to match the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers in terms of wins and losses. But the talent is there for the T-Wolves to reach the elite, and LaVine belongs among them.
"They're definitely going to be a team that we're going to see in the future," Clippers center DeAndre Jordan said after watching his team lose to the T-Wolves on Thursday.
16. Devin Booker, Shooting Guard, Phoenix Suns, Age 20
Apparently, Mexico City suits Devin Booker. He scored 39 points apiece in the two games the Phoenix Suns played there, including their stunning upset of the San Antonio Spurs.
He's slowed down some since then, though not by much. Booker popped for 25 points against the defensive-minded Jazz, then logged career highs in rebounds (seven) and assists (eight) while racking up 21 points on 13-of-14 shooting from the free-throw line against the Cavaliers.
Booker's outburst, though, has had less to do with criss-crossing the border than with battling P.J. Tucker and Leandro Barbosa in practice—without the benefit of a referee's whistle.
"That's helped a lot," Booker said, per AZCentral's Doug Haller. "P.J. and [Leandro] Barbosa. Two really talented guys. We've got into it in practice. They hold, they grab, but when we get into a game, it makes everything a lot easier."
As if the game didn't already come easy enough to Booker, who's averaging 20.4 points per game in just his second NBA season. If those practice tussles continue to toughen him up, Booker might look like a bona fide superstar by the time he turns 21 in late October.
15. Harrison Barnes, Small Forward, Dallas Mavericks, Age 24
While the Dallas Mavericks wallow in the Western Conference cellar, Harrison Barnes continues to climb, if not toward the superstar stratosphere, then at least within range of being a valuable building block for the post-Dirk Nowitzki era.
Through his first 42 games in a Mavs uniform, the former No. 7 pick poured in 20.5 points on 47.7 percent shooting (34.6 percent from three) with 5.4 rebounds and 1.5 assists in a career-high 35.9 minutes per game. Lately, he's done all that while defending bigger, more bruising power forwards in small-ball lineups next to Nowitzki at center.
ESPN.com's Zach Lowe is right; Barnes deserves some shine for that sacrifice: "We've all praised Barnes for thriving in a high-usage role most people didn't think he could handle. He hasn't gotten enough credit for the sheer toughness of his new assignment on defense. He's taking one for the team."
If he can handle that game-to-game pounding while carrying the heaviest scoring load in Dallas, Barnes may yet be able to deliver on the considerable promise he had when he first arrived in the NBA—and provide the Mavericks with a bona fide bridge to their future.
14. Dennis Schroder, Point Guard, Atlanta Hawks, Age 23
The Atlanta Hawks look like they made a sound choice when they promoted Dennis Schroder and traded Jeff Teague to the Pacers. Atlanta's new starter is outscoring and outshooting his predecessor, albeit while trailing him in rebounds, assists and free-throw attempts per game:
The most important statistical difference, though, is age. Teague will be 29 in June. Schroder turned 23 in September. That disparity will be key as the Hawks look to build around Schroder going forward.
The German floor general has already shown his importance; the Hawks are 10-4 when Schroder scores 20 or more points. He's not quite the passer Teague is, but in time Schroder could match (if not exceed) his former teammate across the board.
13. Rudy Gobert, Center, Utah Jazz, Age 24
Few players in the NBA today (if any) have the types of tools that Rudy Gobert brings to the table. At 7'1" with a 7'8 ½" wingspan and feet fleet enough to fly up the floor, the Stifle Tower has fashioned himself into one of the league's elite pivots, particularly on the defensive end.
According to NBA.com, Gobert has held opponents to 43.2 percent shooting at the rim—the third-stingiest mark among players who've faced at least five such shots per game. Over the two seasons prior, he was the best in the business.
But Gobert does more all over the floor now for the Jazz than he ever has. His 12.8 points, 12.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game are all career highs, and his field-goal percentage (66.4) is the second-highest in basketball.
Those numbers, along with Utah's team success, have Gobert dreaming of a trip to New Orleans in February.
"I think the most important thing to judge about is winning and the way you help your team win," he said, per ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon. "So I think I should be an All-Star."
His 27-point, 25-rebound rampage during the Jazz's overtime win in Dallas should only bolster his case.
12. Jabari Parker, Power Forward, Milwaukee Bucks, Age 21
Jabari Parker is already far and away the best No. 2 pick the NBA has seen since Kevin Durant.
Granted, the competition is thin, with the likes of Michael Beasley, Hasheem Thabeet and Derrick Williams tainting that spot. But considering the road Parker had to travel after tearing his ACL as a rookie, his play this season has been plenty remarkable.
The Duke product has been more than just a sidekick to Antetokounmpo for the Bucks. He's averaged 20.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.0 steals per game—numbers nearly worthy of an All-Star selection in and of themselves.
Parker's flashed plenty of athleticism now that his knee is healthy, but it's his outside shot that could be the biggest boon for the Bucks going forward. At 49.3 percent from the field and 41.2 percent from three, he's fashioned himself into the sort of perimeter threat who opens the floor for Antetokounmpo's terrorizing drives to the rim.
11. Steven Adams, Center, Oklahoma City Thunder, Age 23
How important could Steven Adams possibly be to the Thunder? After all, he's not particularly proficient posting up (0.86 points per possession, per NBA.com) for a 7-footer, and he can't so much as sniff the league's top 25 in rebounding (7.5 per game).
For proof to the contrary, look no further than how the Thunder have fared without him. In Adams' first game out after he suffered a concussion in Sacramento, the Thunder lost by 22 to a Clippers squad that lost Chris Paul to injury in the second quarter and that OKC had beaten twice before. In his second, the Thunder were crushed by the Warriors, 121-100, with Zaza Pachulia not only fouling Westbrook hard in the first half but also standing over him after delivering the blow.
Chances are that Adams would've been the one to retaliate on OKC's behalf, assuming Pachulia would've been so bold at all with the brick-built Kiwi on the court.
Beyond intimidation, Adams brings a ton to the Thunder on both ends. On offense, he's powerful in the pick-and-roll (1.17 points per possession, per NBA.com). On defense, he's an indispensable anchor at the back of OKC's top-10 unit.
"We're not going to have one person that's going to do what he does defensively," Donovan told Bleacher Report. "I think it's no different on the defensive end of the floor than the offensive end. We're going to have to do it collectively as a group."
Any player who's that important to his team is a star in his own right, even if he might not look it.
10. Andrew Wiggins, Small Forward, Minnesota Timberwolves, Age 21
Andrew Wiggins is a young man of few words. So it was no surprise when he offered fewer words than points after putting 27 on the Los Angeles Clippers Thursday.
"I'm just trying to be aggressive and attack the hoop and put pressure on the defense," Wiggins told Bleacher Report after the Minnesota Timberwolves' 104-101 win.
His aggression has waxed and waned over the course of his third NBA season. Through 43 outings, Wiggins racked up nearly as many games under 20 points (20) as over (23). But that's not for any lack of understanding or improvement as a scorer.
"Wiggins has really improved his shot," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "He kind of knows how to score now."
It helps that Wiggins is now shooting a respectable 34.2 percent on 3.5 three-point attempts per game. Having that shot in his arsenal should only open up more room for Wiggins to put his elite athleticism to good use.
9. Andre Drummond, Center, Detroit Pistons, Age 23
In terms of raw production, Andre Drummond isn't quite the same dominant presence that he was last season for the then-playoff-bound Detroit Pistons. Drummond has played about two minutes fewer per game in 2016-17, but even on a per-36-minute basis, he's scoring and rebounding less, blocking fewer shots and turning the ball over more.
But Drummond has improved his efficiency as a shooter and finisher.
He's shooting 53.1 percent from the field—his best mark since his sophomore season—and has converted 68.3 percent of his looks within three feet of the rim, per Basketball Reference. He still ranks among the NBA's worst free-throw shooters, though this year's mark (43.5 percent) counts as a considerable improvement over last season's all-time low (35.5 percent).
The rest of Drummond's finesse game has a ways to go too. According to NBA.com, he's the 12th-most frequent visitor to the low post but ranks among the Association's bottom 18th percentile in points per possession (0.73) in that regard.
Warts and all, Drummond ranks as one of the best centers in a league that's teeming with them right now. And since he's just 23, his game has plenty of room and time to grow.
8. Bradley Beal, Shooting Guard, Washington Wizards, Age 23
Bradley Beal finished 10th among Eastern Conference guards in composite All-Star voting. While that may not seem like much, for a guy who's long had that talent but lacked the good health luck to bring it to life, it marks a significant step forward.
Even more so when you consider how he started off the season. Through the Washington Wizards' first seven games, Beal shot 36.6 percent from the field (29.4 percent from three) before missing three games with an ankle injury.
Since his return, Beal has been burning up nets around the league, pouring in 23.3 points on 47.3 percent shooting (40.9 percent from three). Not surprisingly, the Wizards have vaulted into the playoff picture over the time that he's been back in the lineup.
Beal's not the singular force of nature that John Wall has become, but his ability to defray some of the team's scoring load and spread the floor with his shooting makes his teammates better. As Sports Illustrated's Andrew Sharp noted, that pack of benefactors includes Wall: "Beal's emergence has helped Wall hit another level. Wall can be counted on for triple double-ish numbers regardless, but he's deadliest when he can pick his spots scoring and spend most of his time setting up teammates."
If Beal can stay healthy, his overall production (21.8 points on 45.6 percent shooting, 39.4 percent from three) and Washington's recent winning ways could earn him more than an edgewise word in the conversation for a spot among the East's All-Star reserves.
7. Nikola Jokic, Center, Denver Nuggets, Age 21
How are the sub-.500 Denver Nuggets anywhere near a playoff spot right now? For one, blame the West, which has yet to produce an eighth team that can win with consistency.
If you're inclined to look on the bright side, turn your attention to Nikola Jokic. The 6'10" Serbian has been sensational since reclaiming his starting spot from fellow Balkan big man Jusuf Nurkic. In 15 games from mid-December on, he's averaged 20.4 points, 9.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists while shooting 63.8 percent from the field and 46.4 percent from three in 28.3 minutes. More importantly, the Nuggets went a respectable 8-7 in that span.
It's no wonder the Nuggets are so high on their second-year center. Their second-round pick in 2014 has blossomed into a potential franchise cornerstone. He can dominate a game with has back to the basket, from beyond the arc and with his deft passing touch.
However Denver reconfigures its roster in the weeks, months and years to come, Jokic figures to factor prominently into the team's thinking.
6. Kristaps Porzingis, Power Forward/Center, New York Knicks, Age 21
What do you call someone who hits more than 40 percent of his threes, holds opponents to 42.1 percent shooting at the rim and does it all at 7'3", per NBA.com? A unicorn.
At least, that's how Kristaps Porzingis has come to be known around the NBA, courtesy of someone who would know.
“He can shoot, he can make the right plays, he can defend, he’s a 7-footer that can shoot all the way out to the three-point line,” Kevin Durant said last season, per ESPN.com's Royce Young. “That’s rare. And block shots—that’s like a unicorn in this league."
That unicorn could soon be taking wing at center for the New York Knicks.
"We're going to look over that," head coach Jeff Hornacek said, per the New York Daily News' Stefan Bondy. "Maybe mix it up a little bit more."
Porzingis didn't start in his return from an Achilles injury, but he looked like his high-flying, putback-slamming self nonetheless (see video above) while pouring in 15 points Thursday. He's destined to be the starting center at Madison Square Garden once he works himself back into shape.
When he does, the Knicks will get a good, long look at their fantastic (and fantastical) future.
5. Joel Embiid, Center, Philadelphia 76ers, Age 22
Kristaps Porzingis is hardly the only unicorn among the under-25 crowd. Drive down I-95 from New York City to Philadelphia, and you'll find one who is inspiring 76ers fans to "trust the process."
Folks in the City of Brotherly Love had to take that on faith alone until Joel Embiid finally made his NBA debut this season. They saw him tally 20 points, seven rebounds and two blocks in his first game, and they've only seen him improve since.
After sitting for two years spent with nagging foot problems, Embiid has been held to around 25 minutes per game out of caution. No matter: He's averaging nearly 20 points.
And not any one way, either. He's flashed a reliable outside jumper (34.8 percent from three), a feisty face-up game and back-to-the-basket skill that's caught the eye of none other than Hakeem Olajuwon.
“I saw some YouTube videos of his game and I was very, very impressed with how he was moving,” Olajuwon told NBA Inside Stuff. “The movements, I go, 'wow, I can see myself.'"
With Embiid off to such a roaring start, the Sixers can now see some of the fruits born of their long-simmering process.
4. Karl-Anthony Towns, Power Forward/Center, Minnesota Timberwolves, Age 21
After piling up 37 points—including 15 in the fourth quarter—to lead the Minnesota Timberwolves to victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday, Karl-Anthony Towns demanded that some "respeck" be put on his name.
The Clippers were quick to oblige.
"He was unbelievable," Doc Rivers told Bleacher Report after the game.
"He’s a great player, man," DeAndre Jordan said. "He’s super skilled. He can do it from inside and outside. He’s learning every day, man."
"Karl Towns is on another level the way he’s playing," Austin Rivers added. "Sometimes, as hard as it is, you’ve got to put your ego aside. He was, man, hitting threes, mid-range, doing everything, tip slam. I don't know what else he could do."
More consistent dominance at the defensive end from Towns would help the T'Wolves, who rank among the bottom 10 in defensive efficiency, per NBA.com. His shooting percentages have slipped a bit in Year 2, as well.
But when you're a young team with a 21-year-old who's averaging 22.3 points, 12.0 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.4 blocks per night, it's tough to pick too many nits—especially when he already has the moxie to shine in crunch time.
"I always thought I was a clutch player," Towns said. "I never thought I was anything else. If the ball is in my hands with the game on the line, I feel very, very confident I’m going to hit those shots."
3. Kyrie Irving, Point Guard, Cleveland Cavaliers, Age 24
Kyrie Irving isn't the only NBA champion on this list, but he is the only one to have hit the deciding shot in Game 7 of the Finals.
Uncle Drew's credentials, though, extend well beyond a single historic splash in Stephen Curry's eye. The former No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft is scoring a career-high 23.6 points per game as LeBron James' second-in-command for the Cleveland Cavaliers this season.
Come February, he'll notch his second start in four All-Star appearances. The last time he was one of the first five on the floor for the Eastern Conference, Irving led his side in points (31) and assists (14) en route to All-Star MVP honors.
Irving's game is tailor-made for the exhibition stage. His handles are second-to-none, and if the Fancy Layup Contest were a thing, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better choice to win.
That Irving can treat an NBA game the way an And-1 All-Star might operate on the playground at Rucker Park is a testament to his next-level ball skills, regardless of age. That he's already a crunch-time killer and bona fide champion—both domestically and internationally—only confirms his primacy among young guards.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Power Forward, Milwaukee Bucks, Age 22
It's no accident that Giannis Antetokounmpo will be starting for the East in his first All-Star appearance. Outside of LeBron James, the Greek Freak might be the conference's best player.
You'll find no other player anywhere who ranks among the top 25 in every major statistical category, from points (23.7), rebounds (8.7) and assists (5.6) to steals (1.8), blocks (2.1) and free-throw attempts (7.3). Nor will you find another near-7-footer who runs point for his team unless you consider Kevin Durant's on-ball exploits in the same category.
But where Durant is an occasional creator next to Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, Antetokounmpo is the main man running the Milwaukee Bucks' show, with Matthew Dellavedova and rookie Malcolm Brogdon lending their hands. And where some might see Durant as the closest comparison to George Gervin, the Iceman sees more of his own game in the Greek Freak's.
"Just see how he glide and flow and use both hands," Gervin told Bleacher Report.
That elite physical artistry, along with an expanding grasp of the pro game, has allowed Antetokounmpo to notch a pair of triple-doubles, making him just one of six players to do so this season. With him at the helm, the Bucks are poised to conquer the Eastern Conference.
That is, whenever The King decides to call it quits.
1. Anthony Davis, Power Forward/Center, New Orleans Pelicans, Age 23
Anthony Davis will be making his first All-Star start in his NBA hometown of New Orleans next month. That honor, though, has been a long time coming for the Brow.
The 23-year-old has been averaging better than 20 points and 10 rebounds per game since his second season in the league, when he made his All-Star debut at the Smoothie King Center. He's only gotten bigger, stronger and more dominant since then.
Nowadays, the Pelicans' most prized player ranks among the top six league-wide in points (28.8), rebounds (12.0) and blocks (2.4)—the only baller of any age to be in such elite company across those categories.
And he's doing all this on a New Orleans squad that has been ravaged by injuries and is still searching for itself under head coach Alvin Gentry.
"It has been such a struggle to find our identity," Davis told ESPN.com's Zach Lowe. "And we don't have much time left."
As far as Davis is concerned, the Pelicans have until 2020 to figure it out. If they ever do, the league at large may have little choice but to bow down to the Brow.