Metrics 101: Ranking NBA's Top 25 Players Under 25
The amount of young talent in today's NBA is nothing short of staggering.
Youthful players are entering the league immediately ready to contribute, as we saw throughout the 2017-18 season while Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum provided strong Rookie of the Year challenges but ultimately fell short of the redshirted Ben Simmons. Standouts like Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns are quickly rising up the center hierarchy, while plenty of wings, guards and forwards are proving their merits at the sport's highest level.
These up-and-comers (some of whom are already established figures) make up a significant portion of the Association's present. More importantly, they also guarantee a highly entertaining future once they've all taken over as the league's marquee stars.
The 25 young men featured in this article, all of whom will still be shy of their 25th birthdays when the 2018-19 season tips off on Oct. 16, are the best and brightest. For now. We're only concerned with what should come to pass during the upcoming campaign rather than throughout the distant future. But as time passes, they'll be the ones receiving challenges, both from youngsters yet to enter the NBA's ranks and the many, many candidates relegated to the honorable mentions at this point in time.
25-21: Ayton, Markkanen, Doncic, VanVleet, Prince
25. Deandre Ayton, C, Phoenix Suns
Date of 25th Birthday: July 23, 2023
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 20.1 points, 11.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.9 blocks
As Deandre Ayton displayed during his brief foray into summer-league action, he's ready to hang with the big boys. Shortly after finishing behind only five NCAA players (Jevon Carter, Mikal Bridges, Gary Clark, Trae Young and Wendell Carter Jr.) in TPA throughout his lone go-round with the Arizona Wildcats, the big man averaged a stellar 14.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks through his four exhibition appearances, per RealGM.com.
Defense will be an uphill battle for Ayton, and he hasn't yet displayed the range that made him such an intriguing candidate with the first overall selection. But he belongs. That much is already clear.
24. Lauri Markkanen, PF, Chicago Bulls
Date of 25th Birthday: May 22, 2022
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.6 blocks
The advanced metrics aren't particularly kind to Lauri Markkanen, but that's understandable while he's learning the ropes defensively and carving out an oversized offensive role for a bottom-feeding team incapable of surrounding him with counterparts capable of drawing away significant defensive attention. The pure shooting numbers still offer hints at his immense potential.
During his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls, Markkanen posted enough volume (5.9 deep shots per game) and efficiency (36.2 percent from downtown) that only 24 qualified players could match the combination. Expand the temporal range to include all of NBA history while isolating men whose heights start with the digit seven, and you're looking at a club that includes the Finnish forward and no one else.
23. Luka Doncic, PG/SG, Dallas Mavericks
Date of 25th Birthday: February 28, 2024
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.4 blocks
2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 22.8 PER, 59.2 TS%, 0.276 WS/48
Becoming the youngest MVP in EuroLeague history (then backing it up with a title and a Final Four MVP) speaks for itself. But this incoming rookie also has the numbers necessary to prove his accolades weren't merely handed to him because of his youthful stature and some anecdotal evidence.
Here's what ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton penned before the draft, which saw Luka Doncic join the Dallas Mavericks and a situation that will allow him to get immediate run alongside an experienced mentor in Dirk Nowitzki:
"Doncic is naturally No. 1, and his 5.8 projected wins above replacement player (WARP)—what we'd expect him to average over his first five seasons, discounting more distant ones to reward immediate returns—are in fact the most for any of the 800-plus players I've projected dating back to 2003. Doncic tops Anthony Davis (5.5) for that honor, though it's worth noting that I don't have a projection for LeBron James out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School or Dwight Howard the following year."
Enough said? Enough said.
22. Fred VanVleet, PG, Toronto Raptors
Date of 25th Birthday: February 25, 2019
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 8.6 points, 2.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.3 blocks
Fred VanVleet's per-game numbers might not be enough to blow you away, but he was part of some remarkable lineup combinations for the Toronto Raptors and thrived enough as an individual to feature rather prominently on the RPM leaderboard. Only nine point guards proved his superior, thanks largely to the remarkable offensive efficiency that allowed him to minimize his turnovers while slashing 42.6/41.4/83.2.
But the most telling number of all? Even with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan comprising an All-Star backcourt, ex-head coach Dwane Casey still had enough confidence in VanVleet to hand him more clutch minutes than all but three players on the Canadian roster.
21. Taurean Prince, SF, Atlanta Hawks
Date of 25th Birthday: March 22, 2019
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks
Forget about Taurean Prince's season-long numbers. Clear your head of his advanced metrics. They apply to his efforts throughout the 2017-18 campaign, but the second half of his year is the impetus behind his rise up the rankings.
Ascribing much validity to the tail end of the season is sometimes difficult for tanking organizations, as we can't be sure whether success is the result of legitimate growth or opportunities that will never again manifest. But Prince looked the part of a burgeoning star after taking control of the Peach State offense following the All-Star break, averaging 19.0 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.5 blocks while shooting 44.3 percent from the field, 41.2 percent from downtown and 89.2 percent at the stripe.
Also Receiving Consideration: Bam Adebayo, OG Anunoby, Marvin Bagley III, Mohamed Bamba, Wendell Carter Jr., John Collins, Buddy Hield, Jaren Jackson Jr., Josh Jackson, Stanley Johnson, Kyle Kuzma, Zach LaVine, Dejounte Murray, Frank Ntilikina, Jusuf Nurkic, Jabari Parker, Jakob Poeltl, Bobby Portis, D'Angelo Russell, Terry Rozier, Dennis Smith Jr., Andrew Wiggins, Justise Winslow
20-16: Randle, Smart, Ingram, Turner, Gordon
20. Julius Randle, PF, New Orleans Pelicans
Date of 25th Birthday: November 29, 2019
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.1 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.5 blocks
No longer content to settle for mid-range jumpers and capable of occasionally driving with his off hand, Julius Randle made up for his defensive inconsistency and lack of shooting acumen by thriving as a basket-attacking forward. Among the 38 players who shot at least 300 times from within three feet in 2017-18 (Randle was No. 9 at 492), this new addition to the New Orleans Pelicans was one of only 16 to connect on at least a 70 percent clip. Only 10 were more accurate, already allowing for a remarkable volume-efficiency combination.
It gets better.
Along with LaMarcus Aldridge, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Ben Simmons, Randle was one of just five players who required assists on less than 60 percent of his close-range makes. He was capable of creating his own looks with aplomb, thereby adding a whole new offensive dynamic.
19. Marcus Smart, PG/SG, Boston Celtics
Date of 25th Birthday: March 6, 2019
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.4 blocks
- Lonzo Ball: 1.12 RPM and 44.4 TS%
- Dejounte Murray: 1.74 RPM and 48.5 TS%
- Marcus Smart: 0.96 RPM and 47.9 TS%
Though he seems to knock down the occasional crunch-time triple, Smart has major shooting struggles. That still doesn't prevent him from using his indefatigable motor to make a positive impact all over the floor.
18. Brandon Ingram, SF, Los Angeles Lakers
Date of 25th Birthday: September 2, 2022
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.7 blocks
This requires a leap of faith now that Brandon Ingram will either be starting alongside LeBron James or coming off the pine in relief—both forcing him away from his former job description as one of the Los Angeles Lakers' go-to scorers. But that could also be viewed positively, as Ingram will no longer be tasked with a role that overextends him and can instead focus on continuing to make shot-selection strides while blossoming into a suffocating perimeter stopper.
We've already seen tantalizing teases of the Duke product's all-around potential, and his career trajectory looks positive. In FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO forecast, for example, he went from minus-3.9 wins above replacement in 2016-17 to minus-0.1 in 2017-18, and he's projected to climb all the way to 0.8, 1.4 and 2.3 over the next three seasons, respectively.
17. Myles Turner, C, Indiana Pacers
Date of 25th Birthday: March 24, 2021
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.8 blocks
Hindered by injuries and a changing role with the Indiana Pacers after the Victor Oladipo breakout, Myles Turner has seen his stock decline over the last calendar year. But let's not forget about the big man's ginormous potential as a two-way center capable of drilling treys and protecting the rim on alternating sides.
Even on the most basic level, Turner joined Brook Lopez and Joel Embiid as one of only three qualified players to average at least a three-pointer and two blocks per 36 minutes. He has some enduring unicorn skills, even if the wave of national recognition and excitement seems to have passed him by.
16. Aaron Gordon, PF, Orlando Magic
Date of 25th Birthday: September 16, 2020
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.8 blocks
Before the calendars flipped to 2018, Aaron Gordon looked the part of a developing stud, averaging 18.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.9 blocks while slashing 49.9/41.3/75.0. But once the year changed, he could only post 16.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.7 blocks per game while slashing 38.4/27.3/63.8.
So, which do we believe?
The exciting new-age forward who could do everything on the offensive end during the first half of the year, or the declined version who appeared to serve as a liability by jacking up too many deep shots and failing to make advantageous decisions? We're splitting the difference here but leaning slightly toward the negative side, given Gordon's longstanding and, thus far, futile search for consistency.
15-11: Ball, Saric, Murray, Harris, Capela
- Clint Capela: 75.03 points added
- Dwight Powell: 51.86
- Montrezl Harrell: 35.86
- Steven Adams: 34.92
- Rudy Gobert: 33.2
- Karl-Anthony Towns: 27.91
- DeAndre Jordan: 27.71
- Anthony Davis: 27.5
- Jerami Grant: 26.9
- Al Horford: 24.92
15. Lonzo Ball, PG, Los Angeles Lakers
Date of 25th Birthday: October 27, 2022
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.8 blocks
If you focus only on Lonzo Ball's shooting numbers and the ugly mechanics that made it so hard for him to find twine, you'll get the wrong impression of this future star. Even as a rookie for the Los Angeles Lakers, he thrived as a dynamic facilitator, rebounding threat out of the backcourt and defensive stalwart who knew how to make the most of his quick hands.
Should his shot never develop, he'll remain a valuable 1-guard who can generate easy opportunities for his teammates and make life difficult for adversaries. If the shot develops, though...
14. Dario Saric, SF/PF, Philadelphia 76ers
Date of 25th Birthday: April 8, 2019
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.3 blocks
Take a gander at the advanced metrics you can see listed above. Then, feast your eyes upon the following numbers, which Dario Saric earned for his rookie-year efforts with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2016-17: 12.8 PER, 50.8 true shooting percentage, 0.023 win shares per 48 minutes, minus-1.87 RPM and minus-96.12 TPA.
As a sophomore, the Croatian forward made remarkable strides as a shooter while showing far more efficacy on the defensive end and growing as a passer. Every facet of his game improved, even if voters snubbed him by leaving him behind 19 other men in the balloting for Most Improved Player.
13. Jamal Murray, PG/SG, Denver Nuggets
Date of 25th Birthday: February 23, 2022
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks
Jamal Murray is tantalizingly close to putting it all together. Defense, particularly in the form of allowed dribble penetration, will continue to be problematic, but his developments as a facilitator and off-ball scorer have already allowed him to become an integral piece of the rip-roaring Denver Nuggets offense. If his pull-up jumpers begin falling, he'll ascend into the top tiers of backcourt members.
This former Kentucky standout looks the part of a confident off-the-dribble scorer, displaying good form and decision-making while occasionally catching fire and punishing a defense for lengthy stretches. The numbers, however, don't yet support the visual observations—38.7 percent from the field and 32.0 percent from downtown on pull-up attempts. Should that change, expect even more offensive explosiveness.
12. Gary Harris, SG, Denver Nuggets
Date of 25th Birthday: September 14, 2019
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.5 points, 2.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.2 blocks
Gary Harris is better than the initial numbers might indicate because of the role into which he's been thrust. He doesn't grade out as a defensive ace, but that's largely because head coach Mike Malone has consistently assigned him to the opponent's best wing with little support around and behind him—a job description that speaks highly of Harris in and of itself.
Of course, we can still find numbers that make him shine. For example, he's the perfect off-ball partner for the NBA's best passing center, displaying a level of extrasensory perception that allows him to score 1.42 points per possession on cuts (83.4 percentile) and 1.12 points per possession in spot-up situations (80.5 percentile).
11. Clint Capela, C, Houston Rockets
Date of 25th Birthday: May 18, 2019
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.9 blocks
Clint Capela, as evidenced by the Houston Rockets compromising and handing him a five-year pact worth $90 million, is so much more than a rolling threat. He's developed into a top-notch interior defender who accepts his role and focuses on doing all the little things well.
But he's also the most dominant roller in the NBA, based on how many more points he added with his rim-running possessions than what an average player would've produced with those same attempts:
10. Jaylen Brown, SG/SF, Boston Celtics
Date of 25th Birthday: October 24, 2021
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.5 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.4 blocks
Jaylen Brown was good throughout the 2017-18 season, given his ability to contribute in across-the-board fashion. But it was during the Boston Celtics' run to the Eastern Conference Finals and an eventual Game 7 loss against LeBron James the Cleveland Cavaliers that he truly strutted his stuff.
With the C's forced to operate sans Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, Brown showed that he could also function as a primary offensive threat. He handled the ball more, called his own number with increased frequency and battled against extra defensive attention that never seemed to hinder him.
By the time his second foray into the postseason had ended, he was averaging 18.0 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.8 steals and 0.6 blocks while shooting 46.6 percent from the field, 39.3 percent from downtown and 64.0 percent from the stripe. Perhaps just as impressively, his additional responsibilities didn't prevent him from assuming tough defensive assignments and fully engaging in Boston's switch-happy schemes.
Brown, even at his current level, is threatening to earn some All-Star recognition in the Eastern Conference. He also possesses a well-rounded game and enough all-around upside that his stock could skyrocket in the coming season, establishing him as one of the league's brightest young stars.
The 2017-18 season was about setting his floor at a rather lofty level. The 2018-19 season is about seeing how high the ceiling can rise.
9. Devin Booker, SG, Phoenix Suns
Date of 25th Birthday: October 30, 2021
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 24.9 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.3 blocks
Plenty of numbers indicate that the Phoenix Suns were a bit aggressive in handing Devin Booker a five-year max extension that will eventually pay him $35.9 million in guaranteed cash during the 2023-24 season.
His RPM remains negative, dragged down by putrid scores on the defensive end. The Suns actually fared worse when he was on the floor, as their net rating dropped from minus-9.4 without him to minus-10.1 with him. FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO forecasting system pegged him at only 1.4 wins above replacement for his 2017-18 efforts, and that number is only projected to rise up to 1.8 in 2018-19 and 2.4 in 2019-20—solid numbers that land him in the "up-and-comer" tier but leave him worth far less than he's earning.
However, context helps explain all this away (and not just the context that indicates Phoenix should indeed have offered him a max extension if only because it had no palatable alternative). As Danny Chau concluded for The Ringer, his situation is about to change drastically:
"For the first time in his career, Booker has a team with a functioning roster that more or less makes sense at each position. For once, after dealing with three coaches in three seasons, he’ll have one who has the front office’s full support in Igor Kokoskov. He has the outline of the ideal modern basketball player: a 6-foot-6 initiating wing with limitless range on his jump shot and the ability to run the pick-and-roll and spot up in a second’s notice. These are the tools that every team needs to build around. That outline will be easier to spot and embrace once the shock of his $158 million contract subsides."
The eye test and eye-popping scoring figures are right on this one.
8. Jayson Tatum, SF/PF, Boston Celtics
Date of 25th Birthday: March 3, 2023
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.7 blocks
NBA players aren't supposed to be this well-rounded during their rookie campaigns. Jayson Tatum, in particular, wasn't supposed to be this good in this many different areas, considering he entered the Association with questionable shot selection and a penchant for taking possessions off defensively.
But the Duke product blossomed under the supervision of head coach Brad Stevens, parlaying his prodigious work ethic into all-around production.
Tatum, even with numbers dragged down by his attempts to play through a midseason finger injury that threw off his shooting rhythm, connected on 43.4 percent of his three attempts per game from beyond the rainbow—numbers only seven qualified players could match or exceed during the 2017-18 campaign. He used the playoffs to showcase his shot-creation skills, which allowed him to break down bigger and smaller defenders alike. He consistently made the right decisions as a passer, proved capable of switching onto foes at myriad positions and thrived whether he was shouldering hefty or light scoring burdens.
The effectiveness of Stevens' schemes and the opportunity to play on a talent-laden roster that never overextended him did assist with this remarkable development, but Tatum legitimately looks the part of a star—not just a future one, but one who's already prepared to compete for the right to represent the Eastern Conference at the midseason festivities.
7. Kristaps Porzingis, PF/C, New York Knicks
Date of 25th Birthday: August 2, 2020
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 22.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.8 steals, 2.4 blocks
Whenever Kristaps Porzingis returns from the ACL tear that ended his 2017-18 efforts, he'll look to continue building up his unicorn stature, operating as the rare 7-footer who can knock down shots from beyond the arc with seamless form while dominating as an interior defender.
That said, the Latvian big man's stock should have fallen slightly. He's been overtaken by a number of youngsters due not just to their rises, but also his own injury concerns, poor shot quality that sometimes seems modeled after Carmelo Anthony's jab-step-until-lofting-a-contest-jumper approach and lack of passing ability/willingness/discipline.
Just don't mistake that slight erosion on Porzingis Island as an indictment of his enduring skills.
Even if this member of the New York Knicks couldn't connect on his triples at a 39.5 percent clip or shoot over the outstretched arms of nearly any defender with his 7'3" frame and high release, even if he weren't a reliable go-to scorer capable of posting a 30-spot on any given night, he'd be just fine because of his interior defense. He might not control an entire scheme quite like Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert or Al Horford, but challenging him around the basket makes for a foolhardy endeavor.
Though his season was unexpectedly shortened to just 48 appearances, Porzingis functioned as one of only 18 defenders who faced no fewer than five shots per game at the hoop while suiting up at least 40 times. He was the only player to hold the opposition below 50 percent shooting (49.2), with Joel Embiid (52.4), Jakob Poeltl (53.8) and Anthony Davis (53.8) coming closest to matching his stinginess.
6. Donovan Mitchell, SG, Utah Jazz
Date of 25th Birthday: September 7, 2021
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 20.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.3 blocks
Donovan Mitchell proved he could score throughout his rookie season, but his performance during the Utah Jazz's two-round playoff run (a victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder and a loss to the Houston Rockets) was even more impressive.
Because Utah didn't feature any go-to scorers capable of drawing away defensive attention, he was greeted by hordes of stoppers intent on making his life as difficult as possible. Beyond that, he spent part of his postseason experience fighting through a left ankle injury. Neither hurdle prevented him from averaging 24.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.2 assists.
Sure, the percentages are somewhat lacking (42.0/31.3/90.7). But his ability to shoulder such heavy scoring burdens while continuing to minimize his turnovers (2.9 per game) and acquit himself defensively (0.8 defensive box plus/minus to go along with his 0.4 offensive box plus/minus) points to an undeniably promising future.
That two-way ability already pushes him ahead of more established figures (see: Booker, Devin), and the pure volume of his box-score contributions gives him a line matched by only one rookie in postseason history: 1987 Chuck Person, who averaged 27.0/8.3/5.0 over the course of four games (seven fewer than Mitchell's two-round run).
This draft gem has already been polished.
5. Ben Simmons, PG, Philadelphia 76ers
Date of 25th Birthday: July 20, 2021
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 8.2 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.9 blocks
Ben Simmons' shooting limitations prevent him from challenging for a top-10 spot throughout the entire NBA (for now, at least), but the rest of his game is so far ahead of schedule. A constant triple-double threat because of his size and aggressiveness on the glass, he's a brilliant passer and preternatural defender who gives head coach Brett Brown the luxury of switchability between any two positions caught in a pick-and-roll.
Just read as Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes waxes poetic about his immense upside:
"Simmons' defensive potential is almost unlimited. A 6'10" guard, Simmons has enough room on his frame to comfortably carry 250 pounds without losing mobility. This makes him the switching scheme's prototype. If Simmons commits to playing D, he'll be too fast for guards to blow by and too strong for centers to bully on the block. Instinctive, quick and intelligent, Simmons has the tools to be a DPOY candidate for the next decade.
"We're doing some speculating here, but if Simmons reaches his ceiling, he'll be a true five-position defender who'll average a casual 20 points per game while maintaining a pass-first mentality. Unstoppable with the ball in his hands and arguably the league's most dangerous transition threat, it's difficult to overstate his potential to dominate a game.
"Something to keep in mind alongside the concession Simmons' shot must improve: In his first year of action, he finished right between Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis in Basketball Reference's Value Over Replacement Player metric. So he's doing pretty well without a jumper so far."
Also worth noting: Simmons isn't just some player with a pass-first mentality. He's coming off a rookie season in which he trailed only Russell Westbrook, John Wall and LeBron James in potential assists per game and still finished No. 5 in secondary dimes per contest.
4. Karl-Anthony Towns, C, Minnesota Timberwolves
Date of 25th Birthday: November 15, 2020
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 21.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.4 blocks
No single number should ever be used as the ultimate evaluation of a basketball player, but let's not allow that to stop us from sharing Karl-Anthony Towns' scores in defensive real plus/minus (DRPM) throughout his career with the Minnesota Timberwolves:
That, in a nutshell, is progress.
Towns isn't yet a defensive stalwart. He may never be, given his lack of anticipatory skills and energy exertion on the scoring side. But he still bounced back nicely from a disastrous campaign on the preventing end in 2016-17, to the point that he was no longer serving as a total liability during his junior go-round. Given his offensive dominance, that's enough for him to move into the realm of elites, guaranteeing All-Star and All-NBA consideration year in and year out.
After all, this center is already one of only four qualified players in the NBA averaging at least 21 points without turning the ball over even twice per contest—a club populated by only himself, LaMarcus Aldridge, Jimmy Butler and CJ McCollum. If we look beyond 2017-18 and include all of the Association's history, just 30 men have ever joined the exclusive fraternity.
And that's before we factor in shooting efficiency.
By slashing 54.5/42.1/85.8, Towns posted a 64.6 true shooting percentage last year, which was rather easily the best mark among the four who matched his scoring and turnover figures. And of those 30 men who have met the criteria throughout NBA history, just 1990-91 Reggie Miller was as efficient.
3. Nikola Jokic, C, Denver Nuggets
Date of 25th Birthday: February 19, 2020
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 18.5 points, 10.7 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.8 blocks
If you're laboring away under the faulty assumption that Nikola Jokic is a horrid defender, please change the approach with which you study defensive basketball. Do more than watch the point of attack when he gets switched onto smaller players, and don't focus solely on his struggles protecting the rim as the last line of the Denver Nuggets' schemes. Only then will you realize that while Jokic might never become a defensive stud, he's at least a serviceable player who works within the Mile High City's strategems.
With a nose for rebounding that allows him to prevent second-chance opportunities, quick hands that can wreak havoc in passing lanes and an instinct for positioning, he's useful in those hidden defensive scenarios that may not result in possession-ending plays. That's why the Nuggets have consistently been better on defense when he's logging minutes—a trend validated by three consecutive years of positive scores in DRPM.
Of course, his offensive contributions are easier to recognize.
An all-time passer out of the frontcourt who serves as the engine behind Denver's high-powered scoring unit, Jokic is a machine on the more glamorous end. He can create highlights with his no-look feeds and precision dimes into tight spaces, both of which make life easier for the Nuggets' many cutters. He can capably drill triples, thrives in mid-range zones and displays nearly unmatched touch around the restricted area. Unless you're looking for dunks, he's the total package.
And yes, that includes defense—some areas of defense, at least.
2. Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers
Date of 25th Birthday: March 16, 2019
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 22.9 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.8 blocks
To all fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves or Denver Nuggets: Please rest assured that the three big men appearing next to each other in this countdown are entirely fungible. Minor defensive improvements on defense could send Karl-Anthony Towns or Nikola Jokic into the No. 2 spot, while health remains a concern for Joel Embiid after he improved to 63 appearances in 2017-18.
You can justify any shuffling of the three.
However, we're operating under the assumption that Embiid is healthy. After all, we have no reason to believe otherwise at the moment, and the Philadelphia 76ers have let him spend more and more time on the court each year of his career. And when this center is in working order, his oversized impact allows him to push marginally ahead of the other two contenders at the 5.
Turnovers continue to plague the former Jayhawk, who gets careless with the rock and doesn't yet have the court awareness to spot weakside defenders doubling down against him on the blocks. He's not a consistent spot-up marksman and can, at times, be left alone on the perimeter. But those enduring flaws are canceled out by the seeming inevitability of his offensive performances—a surety that stems from his ability to devastate defenses with an inside-outside game comprised of jump-shooting swishes, thunderous jams and post moves straight out of the Hakeem Olajuwon/Kevin McHale playbook.
Defensively, he's even better. Few players are capable of disrupting entire offensive schemes all on their lonesomes, but Embiid's terrifying presence in the paint actively deters opponents from even entering his domain.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, PG/SG/SF/PF, Milwaukee Bucks
Date of 25th Birthday: December 6, 2019
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.9 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.4 blocks
Giannis Antetokounmpo is on a different tier than everyone else.
The Milwaukee Bucks superstar is coming off a season in which he finished sixth in the MVP voting, narrowly missing out on a top-five finish by landing a hair behind Russell Westbrook. He's established himself as one of the deadliest scorers in the NBA, capable of dismantling defenses even as they sag back in a futile attempt to capitalize upon his jump-shooting weakness. He's able to run the show as a point forward or play off the ball, and neither role prevents him from engaging in a havoc-wreaking defensive style with total positional malleability.
The NBA boasts so many promising players who haven't yet celebrated their 25th birthdays, but Antetokounmpo is the only one who's prepared to legitimately challenge LeBron James for the league's individual crown. He may not be there quite yet and has to fend off Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis and a handful of other contenders, but he's at least played well enough for long enough to enter the discussion.
Milwaukee would probably agree, as the entire coaching staff has seen (some from afar) what an impact he has on the squad. Its net rating soared up nine points per 100 possessions when he played during this past regular season—a far cry from the 3.6-point swing he created while still breaking out in 2016-17.
Antetokounmpo is no longer just an up-and-comer. He's brushing shoulders with the best this sport has to offer.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.