Metrics 101: Ranking the NBA's Most Dangerous 25-and-Under Duos
Every NBA team wants young stars.
Contenders would love to find youthful contributors who can help them compete for championships while also extending their reign atop the Association. Rebuilding squads are even more desperate for inexperienced players already making monumental impacts, since their timetables mesh with the long-term nature of the upward-climbing process.
But desire is one thing; finding such standouts is far more difficult.
Which teams already have not just one, but two of the premier active players yet to celebrate their 26th birthdays? We're looking at everyone 25 or younger, then putting together the best duo for each of the NBA's 30 squads, focusing only on the 2017-18 campaign.
To determine the order of the countdown, we'll turn first to the grades provided by NBA Math in its #CrystalBasketball project for one primary reason: The rankings go well beyond the league's top 100 players, and we'll need to dig deep for some of the bottom-feeders in this analysis.
The differentiation is that we're not simply looking at the raw scores of each player and adding them together. Instead, we're counting the score of the second-best qualified figure twice to penalize the teams that only have one dominant 25-and-under contributor. Talent in each of the two eligible slots should supersede awe-inspiring star power in only one.
30. Cleveland Cavaliers: Ante Zizic and Cedi Osman: 6.63
The Cleveland Cavaliers have plenty of star power, but it all comes from older contributors. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are in their 30s, while Kevin Love and Isaiah Thomas are playing out their age-29 and age-28 seasons, respectively.
In fact, Ante Zizic and Cedi Osman, two rookies during the 2017-18 campaign, are two of the only three players on this roster who qualify for consideration. The other? London Perrantes, who's on a two-way contract and will spend most of his time with the G League's Canton Charge.
29. Memphis Grizzlies: Ben McLemore and Wayne Selden: 7.94
Perhaps Ben McLemore could break out now that he's escaped the Sacramento Kings. Once in consideration to go No. 1 overall during the 2013 NBA draft, the Kansas product has floundered during his first four NBA seasons and must recover from surgery to fix a non-displaced fracture of the fifth metatarsal in his right foot before he can debut for the Memphis Grizzlies.
Once he does, it'll be time to prove he's more than just a spot-up shooter. Should he become capable of leveraging his immense athletic gifts into actual two-way production, the Grizz could rise up these rankings. That'll also be true if the other former Jayhawk, Wayne Selden, builds upon the defensive promise of his rookie season while also becoming more confident in his perimeter jumper.
28. Golden State Warriors: Patrick McCaw and Jordan Bell: 8.82
Allow the Golden State Warriors to underscore the purpose of our analysis. Though Jordan Bell and Patrick McCaw both have the talent necessary to become legitimate rotation members on a championship-contending team, they're raw and inexperienced, and subject to youth-related downswings of production. Neither went in the first round of their respective drafts for a reason.
Only the potential expected to be realized in 2017-18 matters.
(Important note: Self-oops off the backboard don't boost scores.)
27. San Antonio Spurs: Dejounte Murray and Kyle Anderson: 10.51
Dejounte Murray has gotten off to a rip-roaring beginning as the San Antonio Spurs' starting point guard, averaging an efficient 13.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists during the first three appearances of his sophomore campaign. But is that sustainable for a guard who struggled with his jumper and didn't often look to facilitate throughout his opening go-around?
Meanwhile, Kyle Anderson's defensive presence continues to be imposing, but his offense isn't there yet. That needs to change before the young San Antonio duo has enough firepower to push out of the bottom 10.
26. Los Angeles Clippers: Austin Rivers and Montrezl Harrell: 10.63
The Los Angeles Clippers have plenty of players to choose from: Sam Dekker, Jawun Evans, Montrezl Harrell, Brice Johnson, Austin Rivers and Sindarius Thornwell.
But which of them are established? Until Dekker or Harrell proves to be a capable rotation member—or one of the others breaks out unexpectedly—Rivers is the clear-cut leader of the group. His reputation may still lag behind his production, but he's functioned as a growing offensive player capable of playing excellent defense against both 1s and 2s.
25. Houston Rockets: Clint Capela and Tarik Black: 11.25
This isn't Clint Capela's fault.
As expected, the big man has started out his latest season in tremendous fashion, becoming a two-way standout for the Houston Rockets who can capably protect the interior and finish pick-and-roll plays with unrelenting efficiency. But he doesn't have a laudable running mate in the 25-and-under division, since Tarik Black, Demetrius Jackson, Chinanu Onuaku, Zhou Qi and Troy Williams are the only qualified options.
Not a single one of them should be a featured member of the rotation, though Black's dunking and improvements from the charity stripe make him at least somewhat valuable off the pine.
24. Chicago Bulls: Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn: 12.19
Neither Zach LaVine nor Kris Dunn has missed a single shot or turned the ball over even once during the 2017-18 campaign. How's that for an advanced stat? Unfortunately, that's because the former is still recovering from an ACL tear, while the latter is recuperating after a dislocated left index finger knocked him out of preseason action.
Once they return, they'll imbue the Chicago Bulls' rebuild with upside, but it won't necessarily come in the form of well-rounded production. LaVine remains an atrocious defender who's at his best operating in spot-up situations, while Dunn is a decent defensive presence without any semblance of a consistent jumper.
23. Atlanta Hawks: Dennis Schroder and Taurean Prince: 13.07
Dennis Schroder hasn't proved he can carry a team to success in the absence of other stars, and that's what needs to change before this duo can ascend higher up the rankings. Even last year, he led the Atlanta Hawks to a minus-8.0 net rating, per nbawowy, when operating without Paul Millsap on the floor—which will be a constant this season, since the All-Star has gone to the Denver Nuggets.
Fortunately for the Hawks, his running mate should at least trend up. Taurean Prince is the leading contender after showing promise on both ends, but John Collins could easily take over the beta role after displaying his immense upside during summer league, the preseason calendar and the opening salvo of the 2017-18 campaign.
22. Miami Heat: Dion Waiters and Tyler Johnson: 14.01
Just like the overall roster construction, the Miami Heat's dynamic duo seems to be shooting for a higher floor that comes at the expense of a loftier ceiling. Dion Waiters and Tyler Johnson don't have the upside necessary to compete for All-Star berths (even in the weaker Eastern Conference), but the pair of 25-year-olds have both developed into quality contributors who help their team win games.
That sought-after potential might come from Bam Adebayo, Josh Richardson or Justise Winslow, but all have more proving to do before they can supplant last year's breakout scorer (Waiters) or fringe contender for Sixth Man of the Year (Johnson).
21. Portland Trail Blazers: Jusuf Nurkic and Maurice Harkless: 14.12
If Jusuf Nurkic can prove last year's post-trade performances weren't fluky—and I suspect he will—he'll help the Portland Trail Blazers elevate out of the bottom 10 rather quickly. The big man has the ability to provide strong defense behind Rip City's porous backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, and the passing acumen he unexpectedly flashed after departing from the Denver Nuggets offered hints of a larger role in the offense.
But Maurice Harkless still holds him back.
The Blazers don't have a second established figure to qualify for the 25-and-under duo, though this wing could eventually step into the place of Allen Crabbe and become a three-and-D contributor. That's far from a guarantee, though.
20-16: Kings, Raptors, Pelicans, Nets, Hornets
20. Sacramento Kings: Buddy Hield and Willie Cauley-Stein: 14.14
Even when he was with the Sacramento Kings last year, following the midseason trade that shipped him away from the New Orleans Pelicans as a centerpiece in the DeMarcus Cousins deal, Buddy Hield averaged 15.1 points per game on a 60.0 true shooting percentage. That represented a massive stride in the right direction, as only 13 players managed to match both the volume and efficiency components throughout the year.
But Hield must show consistency in that role while growing on defense, and he has yet to prove he can be a go-to scoring option on a competitive squad. He'll get opportunities to change that in 2017-18, even if the rebuilding Kings are deep enough to offer plenty of intriguing options at many positions.
Willie Cauley-Stein's jump-hook and mobile defense earn him the secondary nod, but Bogdan Bogdanovic, De'Aaron Fox, Harry Giles, Justin Jackson, Skal Labissiere, Frank Mason, Georgios Papagiannis, Malachi Richardson and JaKarr Sampson are all youthful enough to throw their names into the ring. Fox, in particular, seems like a legitimate contender to displace one of the two featured youngsters.
19. Toronto Raptors: Jonas Valanciunas and Norman Powell: 14.2
Now we're starting to see legitimate talent in a pair.
Jonas Valanciunas, unless his hot start to 2017-18 isn't fluky, has seen his development stagnate. Though he's a useful piece on both ends, he doesn't appear to have star potential alongside the Toronto Raptors' leading players. He's instead content to provide non-glamorous production and challenging for point-rebound double-doubles.
The upside belongs to Norman Powell, whose physicality and instincts on defense, coupled with his knack for spot-up shooting and ball-handling in the pick-and-roll, offer hope that he could one day develop into another big-name wing north of the border. Consistency has eluded him early in his career, and his growth won't happen in expeditious fashion while he's fighting DeMar DeRozan and C.J. Miles for minutes on the wings, though.
18. New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis and Cheick Diallo: 14.63
The New Orleans Pelicans don't have anyone to pair with Anthony Davis, thereby ruining the strong start he provides. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the NBA's only better player who hasn't yet celebrated his 26th birthday, but we're interested in depth as much as talent at the top.
So the Pelicans' choices of Robins to pair with Davis' Batman? Charles Cooke, Cheick Diallo, Frank Jackson and Jalen Jones. That's it. Diallo is the only one who's even made his way onto the court during the opening week of the 2017-18 season, playing a grand total of...14 minutes.
17. Brooklyn Nets: D'Angelo Russell and Allen Crabbe: 14.7
Don't be fooled by Allen Crabbe's gaudy salary ($19.3 million this year), because it doesn't prevent him from looking like a quality rotation piece. Maybe he's not worth the exorbitant expenditures, but he's still coming off a year with the Portland Trail Blazers in which he shot 44.4 percent from beyond the arc and chipped in with 1.23 points per spot-up possession (92.9th percentile).
Pair that with D'Angelo Russell's ever-growing offensive game—again, his ugly exit from the Los Angeles Lakers masks how much he improved during his time with the Purple and Gold—and you have a potentially destructive duo toiling in relative obscurity for a rebuilding Brooklyn Nets squad.
Russell and Crabbe don't boast the star power of other pairings in this portion of the rankings, but their production should still speak for itself.
16. Charlotte Hornets: Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist: 15.13
Speaking of diminished name power...
Cody Zeller isn't starting at center for the Charlotte Hornets after the organization moved to acquire Dwight Howard over the summer, but he remains one of the NBA's most underrated bigs. Whether he's setting hard screens, hitting mid-range jumpers or capably defending the interior of Charlotte's schemes, he's a productive player whose impact goes beyond his per-game numbers.
Ditto for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who has used defensive prowess and athletic transition play to overcome a still-broken jumper that makes him a liability on the scoring end. He didn't even average a single-double in 2016-17, but Charlotte was still 2.5 points per 100 possessions better when he played.
15-11: Suns, Lakers, Magic, Mavericks, Knicks
15. Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker and Josh Jackson: 15.32
Eventually, this should be a dynamic offense-defense combination. Devin Booker has already established himself as one of the league's more dangerous volume scorers (the efficiency lags behind the actual number of points he produces), while Josh Jackson's athleticism and instincts made him an intriguing potential stopper during his time at Kansas.
But a junior with defensive woes and a rookie who hasn't proved anything at the professional level can only climb so high. Booker and Jackson seem a safe bet to eventually work their way into the top 10 and supplant some of the pairings without nearly as much star power; they just have to start winning games and putting up big numbers in tandem first.
Plus, despite what his growing reputation might seem to indicate, Booker isn't yet at a point where he can single-handedly carry a duo. Lest we forget, his 70-point outburst in a loss to the Boston Celtics didn't prevent him from finishing No. 476 in NBA Math's total points added last year, nor did it keep him from a No. 241 placement in ESPN.com's real plus/minus.
This placement is already assuming a substantial leap in production from the 20-year-old 2-guard.
14. Los Angeles Lakers: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Lonzo Ball: 15.56
During his first three appearances in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform, Lonzo Ball has flirted with a triple-double and averaged 13.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 8.7 assists per game. Those numbers would be impressive for a player with any level of experience, much less a fresh-faced rookie dealing with the inordinate amount of attention cultivated by his father's boasts and the hype constantly encircling him.
But those per-game statistics oversell his impact, which is why we're keeping Ball at a realistic level. He's shot just 34.8 percent from the field, 29.4 percent from downtown and 50.0 percent from the charity stripe. He's turned the ball over 3.7 times per game. The Lakers have seen their net rating improve by a mind-numbing 37.5 points per 100 possessions when he's off the floor.
Of course, these are all products of a small sample. Ball's per-game figures will trend toward more reasonable levels as the season progresses; so too will his on/off impact and shooting percentages.
The point, however, is simple: We're worried about current production, and Ball's gaudy counting statistics shouldn't sway you from thinking this rookie point guard will struggle to make the impact of a bona fide star during his first professional campaign. He's still not even the best 25-and-under contributor on the Lake Show, as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope should prove in short order.
13. Orlando Magic: Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier: 16.51
This may be Aaron Gordon's fourth NBA season, but he's just 22 years old. He still has time to figure everything out and keep improving.
Though his athletic dominance is beyond reproach, the Orlando Magic haven't exactly done wonders for his career development. They've insisted on playing him at wing positions in previous seasons, and that's instilled a strange mentality. Rather than playing to his obvious strengths around the hoop, he still fancies himself a ball-handling forward and hasn't done nearly as much good as he could.
This may be Evan Fournier's sixth NBA season, but he'll turn 25 in late October. He still has time to figure everything out and keep improving.
Thanks to his well-rounded scoring game, Fournier is already a dangerous offensive player. His defense holds him back—as does a role that asks him to operate with the ball in his hands too frequently—but his knack for putting up points in a variety of play types helps him maintain his value.
Gordon and Fournier have far more experience than the vast majority of pairings here, but that doesn't mean they're devoid of enduring upside. They also represent a big step up into the realm of players who have already started proving themselves as viable NBA starters.
12. Dallas Mavericks: Harrison Barnes and Nerlens Noel: 17.06
Yes, Harrison Barnes' start to the season has been atrocious. Through four games in 2017-18, he's averaging 16.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists but is slashing 34.9/20.0/75.0 and playing woeful defense.
Yes, Nerlens Noel has been inexplicably buried on the bench to start the season. Through those same four games, he's playing just 18.5 minutes per contest and has been unable to parlay his two-way abilities into consistent run under head coach Rick Carlisle.
But that's fine.
Barnes will bounce back and begin to resemble the high-scoring threat he was in 2016-17 (19.2 ppg) while also asserting himself as a solid defender who can body up against power forwards and show off his foot speed against smaller players. Noel should eventually fill a bigger role, especially after his initial stint in Dallas last year featured contagious enthusiasm and relentless energy on the defensive end.
Neither of these young men are superstars, but they're both legitimate starters at the sport's highest level.
11. New York Knicks: Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr.: 17.06
By our estimations, Kristaps Porzingis is the seventh-best player who hasn't yet celebrated his 26th birthday, trailing (in alphabetical order) Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert, Kyrie Irving, Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns. That alone elevates the New York Knicks well up the standings.
And based on the early returns in 2017-18, we might be selling Porzingis short.
Freed from Carmelo Anthony's ball-dominant style, the Latvian legend has already shown takeover instincts. He's capable of scoring in spot-up situations, putting the ball on the floor and finishing with a face-up jumper or driving to the hoop for an athletic finish. We're still dealing with a remarkably small sample, but Porzingis looks every bit the part of a legitimate superstar.
Much as was the case with Davis and Cheick Diallo, though, the second member of the duo depresses the overall score. Tim Hardaway Jr. might be the recipient of a ginormous offseason contract (four years, $71 million), but he's still a (relatively) inefficient volume scorer who struggles immensely on the defensive end. Until he disproves either of those statements, he'll keep his running mate just outside the top 10.
10. Indiana Pacers: Myles Turner and Victor Oladipo: 17.18
Victor Oladipo is another one of those players who's deceptively young.
Though he's spent just 25 years on the planet, he's gone through quite a journey during his brief NBA career. Since the Orlando Magic took him out of Indiana with the No. 2 pick of the 2013 draft, he's suited up for them, the Oklahoma City Thunder and now the Indiana Pacers in a return to his collegiate stomping grounds.
But don't be fooled by his brief downtick in OKC. As The Ringer's Haley O'Shaughnessy explained, he was forced into a filling a role that the Thunder never intended to place him in:
"OKC seemed like the perfect destination to harness the 24-year-old's upside. He had dabbled in the combo guard role enough that Billy Donovan could slot him as a secondary ball handler, and his leaping abilities would be showcased better paired with two already-established superstars. He wouldn't be shoehorned into a focal-point role any longer. Then Durant left for Golden State. ...
"Here, as second fiddle to Russell Westbrook, Dipo had little choice but to try his hand at spot-up shooting. The former went on to claim a record-high usage rate, while his counterpart left the isolation game behind. In its place were the most catch-and-shoot attempts of Oladipo's career. He attacked the rim less than ever, released the majority of his shots after two seconds or less of possession time, and used a greater percentage of his touches for 3-point attempts than Russ did. To the non-shooting shooting guard's credit, there was improvement. Oladipo ended the season shooting 36 percent from deep and found rhythm with the corner 3s at 43.8 percent altogether. He was OKC's second-leading scorer."
Now, Oladipo is back in a natural role as a secondary ball-handler who has the capabilities to assume just about any offensive burden, and the early returns have been promising. But he's still the clear-cut second-fiddle to Myles Turner, who has emerged as Indiana's best player before even celebrating his 22nd birthday.
Turner is still working to develop a consistent three-point stroke (33.3 percent career), but his interior defense (opponents shot 49.4 percent while he was stationed at the rim last year) and versatile offensive game already make him the singular player in a Pacers uniform for whom opponents have to scheme. He might not get mentioned as frequently as Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis or Nikola Jokic, but he's yet another young big who's trending toward unabashed excellence.
9. Oklahoma City Thunder: Steven Adams and Andre Roberson: 17.32
How do you score on these two?
Andre Roberson's shot remains broken—when he's not forcing the Oklahoma City Thunder to play four-on-five, he's clanging shots off the backboard and iron—and Steven Adams has such limited range that his offensive exploits remain confined to close-range finishes and pick-and-roll play. But that's fine while they each remain elite stoppers.
The early returns from this season haven't been telling, but the Thunder allowed just 103.4 points per 100 possessions when both stoppers were on the floor in 2016-17. Not only was that substantially better than OKC's overall mark (105.1), but it would've trailed only the season-long defensive ratings of the San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors, Utah Jazz and Atlanta Hawks.
And that makes sense.
The 6'7" Roberson is a devastating defender on the wings, capable of corralling even the league's biggest names with his lanky wingspan, athletic gifts and film-junkie habits. As Fred Katz described for the Norman Transcript last season, he's "a film buff, Oklahoma City basketball's IMDB."
It's one thing to watch plenty of tape and learn opponents' tendencies; it's another to apply them in the flow of the action. But Roberson's ability to do so—seriously, just watch how he keeps his hands up and anticipates James Harden's movements—helped him finish No. 2 among shooting guards in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus for his 2016-17 efforts.
Adams "only" sat at No. 23 at his position, though that's to be expected. His defensive impact comes from his intimidation factor and relentless physicality more so than the numbers he produces. Teams don't enjoy entering the paint when he's there, and he can wear down an opponent over 48 minutes.
Offense might depress the Thunder duo's overall ranking, but no qualified pair has this much inside-outside defensive ability.
8. Boston Celtics: Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart: 17.89
Not only are Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart great individual players, but they're complementary members of the same backcourt.
The former is the ball-handling wizard, capable of putting any defender on skates with his dazzling dribbles before finishing a tough shot around the basket. He's able to generate a tremendous amount of his own offense (just 23.4 percent of his career twos have come off assists), but he's also a deadly spot-up shooter who requires constant attention whenever he's on the floor.
The latter is a defensive menace who plays with relentless physicality and has the combination of size (6'4", 220 lbs) and strength necessary to guard multiple positions. It's not a rare occurrence for Smart to shut down a guard on the perimeter one possession, then switch to a big the next and hold his own in a post-up setting.
Pair those two elements, and you have a cohesive set of guards who can elevate the ceiling of the Boston Celtics dramatically. It's only their distinct flaws that keep them from ascending toward the top of these rankings, despite what Irving's reputation and 21.6 career points-per-game average might lead you to believe.
Smart's inability to hit jumpers matters. His 2016-17 true shooting percentage (48.6 percent) was worse than the numbers submitted by all but 18 qualified players, and it's somehow gotten far worse (36.4 percent) through his first two 2017-18 appearances. That last percentage will inevitably swell as the sample grows larger, but it's clear Smart still can't shoot.
Meanwhile, Irving remains an atrocious defensive player who still hasn't demonstrated an ability to function as the unquestioned alpha and lead his troops to victories, as covered here in more detail. He and Smart might function in complementary fashion, but their glaring deficiencies are still easy to exploit.
Fortunately for the Celtics, they can take solace in their many other options. Don't be surprised when Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier or Jaylen Brown eventually supplants Smart as the second member of this duo.
7. Detroit Pistons: Andre Drummond and Tobias Harris: 18.39
Don't both of these players feel like they're too old to qualify?
Andre Drummond, despite the 2017-18 campaign's being his sixth professional go-around, is only 24 years old. Meanwhile, this is Tobias Harris' seventh season, but he turned 25 back in July, allowing him to qualify with room to spare.
Experience works in their favor, because it's allowed both players to establish themselves as positive contributors in a few areas.
Drummond remains one of the league's most dominant rebounders, and his proficiency extends to both ends. Not only is he able to prevent second-chance opportunities, but he also creates them for himself with his relentless work on the offensive glass. His shooting range might be limited, but he provides the Detroit Pistons with a different type of gravity by forcing defenders to stick a body on him and attempt to box out prematurely.
Sure, the big man remains a paint-bound scorer and a liability at the charity stripe (important note: That may be changing after he went 10-of-12 from the stripe in his first four games of 2017-18), but his rebounding and knack for disrupting plays on the defensive end make him an advantageous presence. More discipline as an interior stopper is still needed, but his athleticism and the quickness of his hands let him provide two-way positivity.
That "two-way" statement doesn't quite apply to Tobias Harris during the latest campaign, but his versatility still makes him valuable. He's been on a scoring mission in 2017-18, putting up points in myriad situations and never hesitating to let it fly.
Though 21.0 points per game on a slash line of 50.0/39.1/77.8 might seem unsustainable, Harris could prove otherwise if the three-point stroke isn't fluky. Lest we forget, he averaged an efficient 15.7 points after last All-Star break as the Pistons made him into more of a featured option. This could just be the next step of his evolution, though it's not enough to take the No. 6 spot.
6. Utah Jazz: Rudy Gobert and Rodney Hood: 19.56
Dante Exum won't be taking over for Rodney Hood as the second fiddle to Rudy Gobert anytime soon after suffering another season-ending injury (shoulder), but that doesn't mean the Utah Jazz are devoid of alternative options. Alec Burks, 26, is barely too old to qualify, but Donovan Mitchell's fantastic exhibition season offered plenty of promise as he matures into a legitimate NBA contributor.
But for now, this is all about Hood and Gobert.
And really, it's all about Gobert.
Hood is a fine player. He's even a breakout candidate, given his steady approach to scoring and the void left behind by Gordon Hayward after his free-agency departure to the Boston Celtics. But even if the 25-year-old shooting guard asserts himself as Utah's go-to scorer in crunch time, he'll pale in comparison to the big man who cleans up any and all mistakes behind him.
Gobert is—with no ifs, ands or buts—the NBA's best defensive player.
Draymond Green might have won Defensive Player of the Year last season and Kawhi Leonard before that, but that's largely because of their versatility and the ability to fit into any scheme. Gobert, aptly nicknamed the Stifle Tower or the French Rejection, doesn't have that type of fluid style, but he's so good in his role around the basket that his impact is unmatched.
Opponents are hesitant to drive into the paint against him, and Utah's schemes force them to do exactly that against their will. Then he's there, ready to swat shots into oblivion while altering the ones he can't quite reach.
Oh, and he's pretty darn good at offense. Gobert's shooting range might be limited, but his growing levels of patience still allowed the 2016-17 version to become one of only two qualified players in league history to average at least 14 points per game with a true shooting percentage north of 68 percent. The other? Hall of Famer Artis Gilmore.
Maybe you want to bash this 7'1" center for his dependence on entry passes and pick-and-roll feeds, and that's fine. But if more players were capable of finishing so effectively and frequently around the hoop, you'd see more players producing similar numbers.
And you don't. That's a fact.
5. Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons: 19.76
Sorry, Markelle Fultz. You might get there when your shoulder heals up and allows you to become the player who once served as the runaway favorite to go No. 1 in the impressive 2017 NBA draft. But not yet.
Sorry to Justin Anderson, Richaun Holmes, Furkan Korkmaz, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, James Michael McAdoo, T.J. McConnell, Jahlil Okafor, Dario Saric and Nik Stauskas, as well. Few of them have a legitimate argument to be one of the present members of the duo, but the Philadelphia 76ers' roster is so overwhelmingly youthful that we might as well highlight all the up-and-comers who technically could qualify.
They all fade away in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons's elongated shadows, though.
When healthy, Embiid might already be the NBA's most dominant center. No one has the same two-way impact he's displayed during his few appearances on a professional court, as only injuries (and turnovers) have been capable of slowing him. Whether he's protecting the interior of Philadelphia's schemes, showing off his face-up game, drilling triples or finding open teammates, he can do everything and—at the risk of sounding hyperbolic—sometimes feels like an upgraded version of Hakeem Olajuwon.
Simmons, meanwhile, already appears to be another generational talent. His feel for the game goes well beyond his years, allowing him to use his 6'10" frame to create matchup nightmares. Players this big aren't supposed to be so quick and skilled, and those bursts of speed and pinpoint passing accuracy allow him to compensate for the dearth of a working jumper.
Look, I could tell you that with Embiid on the court, Philadelphia's net rating rocketed up by 11.2 points per 100 possessions in 2016-17 and 32.8 during his first three appearances this year. I could explain that Simmons joined Dikembe Mutombo, Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson and Ralph Sampson as one of only five players since 1983 with double-doubles in each of their first four career games—and threw in a triple-double, just for good measure.
But honestly, numbers don't do these two justice.
Watch some Sixers games, then try to avoid thinking we might have ranked this pair erroneously. They might already deserve loftier placement, though they can't quite match the established production of the four duos they're still chasing.
4. Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr.: 21.38
At this point, we can consider the Washington Wizards' core a "Big Three." John Wall isn't eligible for this countdown since the top-five point guard is already 27 years old, but Bradley Beal (24) and Otto Porter Jr. (also 24) are.
Neither should function as the unquestioned No. 1 option on any given team. They're complementary pieces to Wall's overall excellence, but they're some of the NBA's best supporting-cast members, each worth every last penny of their gargantuan contracts.
Beal can sometimes take over as the Wizards' top scorer, probing a defense off the dribble or looking for a spot-up attempt, but his willingness to stop taking ill-advised shots facilitated his growth. He's at his best when he's avoiding those pesky long twos and instead looking to attack the hoop, step back for a triple or involve one of his talented teammates.
Porter, meanwhile, seems able to do everything—with one notable exception—in small doses.
He can create his own offense as a face-up player, find open running mates on the perimeter, rebound with aplomb while in traffic or play steady defense against a number of positions. But it's that exception that makes him special, since it's a positive one: He can shoot the ball with the best of 'em.
Last year, the Georgetown product chipped in with 1.31 points per spot-up possession, which left him in the 97th percentile. Among the 210 players who lofted up at least 100 relevant attempts, only C.J. Miles and Stephen Curry were more efficient. As an encore, he's adding 1.23 points per spot-up possession in his first three appearances of 2017-18.
Neither of these players has the star power of Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert, Kyrie Irving or many of the other youthful figures they've collectively toppled. But their reputations should soon catch up to their productions; Bleacher Report's Dan Favale, for example, had Beal and Porter ranked Nos. 30 and 37, respectively, heading into this latest campaign.
Two top-40 players still moving toward their athletic primes is nothing to sniff at.
3. Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris: 21.5
Synergy can be a beautiful thing.
Gary Harris' ability to thrive on offense as either a cutter or spot-up shooter was the subject of much attention while he was in the process of signing a massive contract extension with the Denver Nuggets (four years, $84 million). Nikola Jokic has ascended toward near-undisputed status as a top-25 player, thanks to his visionary passing and impeccable accuracy from anywhere closer than the free-throw stripe.
But talented as each man may be as an individual, what they do in harmony is even more special—and we're not just referring to Harris' ability to prevent dribble penetration and ease Jokic's defensive responsibilities.
Few duos display quarterback-receiver aptitude on a more frequent basis. Whether in transition after pulling down a defensive rebound or in the half-court set as Harris bursts toward the basket off a backcourt cut, Jokic knows where to find his running mate. And more often than not, he hits him right in stride, setting the stage for an easy bucket.
Last year, Jokic found Harris for 1.1 assists per game, and the 2-guard shot a staggering 54.5 percent from the field and 44.0 percent from downtown on the big man's feeds. No one else saw more than 0.8 assists per contest (Wilson Chandler) leave his hands, which is even more impressive when a lower percentage of Jokic's passes went to Harris than to either Jameer Nelson or Emmanuel Mudiay.
The reverse held true, as well. Five players accounted for a higher percentage of passes to Jokic (Nelson, Mudiay, Danilo Gallinari, Jamal Murray and Chandler), but only Nelson generated more assists per contest on those feeds.
Now, it should become even more clear why the Nuggets posted the league's best offensive rating once Jokic re-entered the starting lineup and Harris returned to health December 15.
2. Minnesota Timberwolves: Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins: 21.88
If only Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins could play defense...
According to ESPN.com's DRPM, exactly zero of the 59 qualified centers were worse than Towns on the preventing end last year. Meanwhile, Wiggins sat at No. 84 among the 85 listed shooting guards. That probably oversells how porous they both are since they're better in on-ball situations and showed flashes of growth, but it still goes a long way toward explaining why the Minnesota Timberwolves posted a defensive rating superior to only four other squads.
They should get better in 2017-18.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau's defensive schemes are notoriously complicated, and they're likely one of the main reasons he's historically been so hesitant to dedicate major minutes to youthful contributors. Operating in those stratagems for another year will do wonders for these youngsters, if only through sheer familiarity and muscle memory.
But even if the 21-year-old center and 22-year-old wing stagnate, they're so devastatingly effective on offense that they can still justify lofty placement. The former is a natural getter of buckets who can attack in a number of different ways, while the latter is a prototypical volume scorer who's learning how to take the right shots and involve his teammates when the situation demands doing so.
Wiggins already has a buzzer-beater under his belt in 2017-18, and he's taken advantage of the Jimmy Butler addition. By sloughing off some defensive responsibilities and no longer needing to function as the go-to scorer on every possession, he's starting to pick the right shots, knock down threes and crash the boards far better than before.
Given his age, the growth should be sustainable. Given his talent, we still may not be seeing a fully actualized version of Wiggins.
And when he's teaming up with a center in Towns who should be a perennial All-NBA threat, that makes for quite the terrific tandem.
1. Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker: 22.56
This might seem like a strange choice, since Jabari Parker is still working his way back from an ACL tear that ended his 2016-17 efforts prematurely. But we've seen plenty of players recover from what used to be a far more detrimental injury, and some of them even seem to gain additional explosiveness.
"It's very impressive," Khris Middleton said in late September about his teammate's rehabilitation process, per Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "He's a freak athlete. I joke around with him all the time saying, 'I can barely dunk now and you're already dunking off your ACL surgery.' He's a worker; he wants to be great, he wants to be one of the best players ever and he's showing you can't get that without working. He puts the work in."
But even if Parker isn't quite able to pick up where he left off as a serious threat to challenge for Most Improved Player, Giannis Antetokounmpo is still capable of carrying this duo to the top of the heap. He's been on a mission early in 2017-18, intent on proving himself a legitimate superstar who can compete for MVP and carry the Milwaukee Bucks to Eastern Conference supremacy.
Antetokounmpo hasn't just been great during the opening salvo; he's been otherworldly, averaging 36.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.0 blocks while shooting 65.9 percent from the field. According to NBA Math's total points added, he's nearly lapping the field through four games, doubling the output of all but three other players.
At this point, you'd have trouble finding five contributors who will assuredly play better basketball throughout 2017-18. Finding five who haven't yet turned 26 is an impossible feat, not just some troublesome task. Why? Because Antetokounmpo is the leader of the entire pack of relevant players.
Parker may lag behind Andrew Wiggins, Ben Simmons, Otto Porter Jr. and Gary Harris, putting him on the same tier as someone like Tobias Harris. But pair a top-notch second fiddle with an MVP candidate, and you have the top youthful duo.