NBA Youngsters on the Edge of All-Star Status

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 17, 2019

NBA Youngsters on the Edge of All-Star Status

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    During the 2019 NBA All-Star Game, veterans will take center stage. Despite the wealth of young talent rostered by the league's 30 franchises, most of the men representing their conferences are at advanced stages of their careers.

    Based on their ages on Feb. 1, the average ages for LeBron James' and Giannis Antetokounmpo's squads are 27.5 and 27.1, respectively. That's even without taking Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki into account.

    But fresh faces will take over before too long.

    This year, D'Angelo Russell (22), Ben Simmons (22), Nikola Jokic (23), Karl-Anthony Towns (23), Antetokounmpo (24) and Joel Embiid (24) hold down the fort for players who haven't yet celebrated their 25th birthdays—our definition of "youngsters." More will join them before too long, given the myriad standouts who haven't yet come close to the quarter-century mark.

    Even featuring double-digit players who are on the cusp of All-Star status and can't be left out of the 2020 conversation, we have to omit so many notable up-and-comers like Jarrett Allen, Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Lonzo Ball, Clint Capela, Wendell Carter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Buddy Hield, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Zach LaVine, Jaren Jackson Jr., Caris LeVert, Lauri Markkanen, Jusuf Nurkic, Domantas Sabonis and Justise Winslow.

    Trust me when I say that many of those names—Ayton, Ingram and Sabonis, in particular—were painful exclusions. Fortunately, these 10 featured youngsters should provide enough optimism about the league's future to make up for any hurt feelings.

Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

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    Age: 22

    Per-Game Stats: 24.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.2 blocks

    The Phoenix Suns are slowly putting prominent pieces in place around Devin Booker, but they're still missing a few key elements.

    Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton, Josh Jackson, Elie Okobo and the other youngsters on the roster could eventually develop into the defensive stalwarts and secondary scorers needed to propel the desert-based organization out of the basement in both offensive and defensive rating—currently Nos. 28 and 29, respectively. A reliable point guard would go a long way, making life easier for everyone. 

    But Booker is already thriving as an offensive ace, excelling in spite of the extra attention to which he's routinely subjected. 

    Sure, he's shooting 46.0 percent from the field, 32.5 percent from downtown and 84.8 percent from the stripe, which adds up to a 57.1 true shooting percentage that's not too far above the league-average mark of 55.9 percent.

    Racking up 3.9 turnovers per game doesn't work in his favor, either. But both as a shooter and as a distributor, context matters for a young man who's forced to fill an unnatural role as a primary facilitator while taking shots with a remarkable degree of difficulty. 

    Booker is already putting up the raw offensive numbers necessary to earn All-Star consideration. With efficiency should come even more recognition, though that could be dependent on the progress of the team as a whole.

John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Age: 21

    Per-Game Stats: 19.1 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.4 blocks

    John Collins' delayed debut immediately sparked growth from the Atlanta Hawks. By giving them a dangerous off-ball threat who could knock down spot-up triples or cut to the rim and finish plays with thunderous slams, he drew defensive attention away from everyone else and facilitated rises to prominence from Trae Young and the other developing players. 

    With this 21-year-old on the bench, Atlanta has only mustered a minus-9.4 net rating. When he plays, that putrid mark skyrockets to minus-2.3—still unfortunate, but far more respectable and the best mark among all Hawks who consistently factor into the rotation employed by head coach Lloyd Pierce. 

    That impact shouldn't change as the Peach State representatives become even more competitive. Nor should Collins' sterling individual numbers, which are predicated upon remaining hyper-efficient within the flow of the offensive schemes.

    Whether he's tasked with hitting an open shooter on the short roll, finishing plays around the basket or knocking down jumpers, he rarely makes bad decisions en route to just 2.1 turnovers per game and a 63.6 true shooting percentage

    For perspective, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Stephen Curry are the only other qualified players throughout the NBA scoring at least 19 points per contest with a true shooting percentage no worse than 63 percent. Maintaining that level of play for more than a half-season should thrust Collins into the conversation, even if he remains a detrimental defender who doesn't create too much of his own offense.

Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

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    Darren Carroll/Getty Images

    Age: 19

    Per-Game Stats: 20.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks

    Luka Doncic had a serious All-Star case this year, even if he couldn't emerge from an overcrowded backcourt field in the Western Conference.

    He enters the All-Star break ranked No. 35 in ESPN.com's RPM Wins and No. 21 in NBA Math's total points added, despite filling an oversized role as the unquestioned offensive leader of the Dallas Mavericks right out of the gates.

    He's one of only five players averaging at least 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists, joining Giannis Antetokounmpo, Blake Griffin, Nikola Jokic and Russell Westbrook. His clutch numbers are off the charts; within the last five minutes of games separated by no more than five points, he's putting up 34.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.4 turnovers per 36 minutes while slashing 50.0/33.3/73.1. 

    And he's only going to keep getting better as he continues adjusting to the speed of the NBA. 

    Doncic's step-back jumper has already become one of the game's deadlier weapons, and he has a scoring arsenal that allows him to navigate traffic with creativity and the ability to stop on a dime. But he's only just figuring out how to make the most of his preternatural passing vision, which has recently let him start unleashing LeBron James-esque wraparound feeds and cross-court dishes to shooters in the corners with more frequency.

    His toolbox isn't nearly as complete as it will be down the road, but it's already brimming over with skills that let him make a monumental impact for the Dallas Mavericks. 

    Any doubts about his transition from EuroLeague play to the Association should now be firmly erased. He's the lock of all locks, establishing himself as an up-and-coming star sure to represent the Western Conference many times over the years.

De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Age: 21

    Per-Game Stats: 17.2 points, 3.7 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.5 blocks

    Sometimes the game just slows down for a young point guard. Everything clicks as he sees passing lanes developing one frame at a time, reading a defense with a complete understanding of what's already come to pass, what's happening in the present and what will unfold in the immediate future. 

    Such a development always helps up-and-coming 1-guards, but playing in slow-motion is particularly useful when the man in question is one of the NBA's true speedsters. Living up to the fleet-footed nature of his last name, De'Aaron Fox has been able to parlay his remarkable quickness and increased understanding of professional schemes into massive strides on the scoring end. 

    As a rookie, Fox could reasonably be called one of the league's least valuable players. He averaged only 11.6 points, 2.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists while shooting 41.2 percent from the field, 30.7 percent from downtown and 72.3 percent from the stripe—"good" for a putrid 47.8 true shooting percentage. Just Frank Ntilikina (minus-0.9), Dennis Smith Jr. (minus-0.7) and Josh Jackson (minus-0.7) earned fewer win shares than his tally of minus-0.6.

    This go-round, he's upped every element of his game. Now averaging 17.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 7.2 assists while slashing 46.1/36.6/72.6 (54.8 true shooting percentage), he's leading the Sacramento Kings on a prolonged playoff push while ranking No. 76 in the win-share competition (3.8 and counting).

    Fox must continue making progress to emerge from the crowded field and represent the Kings during the midseason festivities. For all the progress he's made as a jump-shooter, he must keep honing his three-point stroke and shoring up his mid-range game. Further defensive strides wouldn't hurt, either.

    But while asserting himself as a Most Improved Candidate, this sophomore has already done enough to register as one of those youngsters we definitely shouldn't count out of the next All-Star conversation.

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

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    Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

    Age: 22

    Per-Game Stats: 22.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.3 blocks

    As Andy Larsen highlighted for the Salt Lake Tribune in early February, Donovan Mitchell is carrying a rather burdensome load for the Utah Jazz:

    "Watch the Jazz play, and you'll notice right away just how frequently coach Quin Snyder's offense asks Mitchell to run the show: using screens, making plays for himself and others. Does Mitchell feel the weight of that on his shoulders?

    "'Definitely. There are times when you feel like, "Man, I'm doing a lot." But it's part of the job. There's no need to sit there and think, "Man, I'm tired" or this or that; you don't have room for that,' Mitchell said."

    He has reason to feel a bit tired. 

    Mitchell has taken on tremendous responsibility for a Utah offense that's wholly dependent on his scoring prowess. Whether he's attacking the basket and finishing among the trees or pulling up from beyond the arc, he often has no choice but to serve as the focal point of the attack, even as doing so depresses his shooting percentages and makes him one of those players who's largely undersold by the vast majority of advanced metrics. 

    It's no coincidence that Utah's offensive rating improves by four points per 100 possessions when he plays, even as he shoots just 41.8 percent from the field and 32.2 percent from beyond the rainbow. He's doing his job, and that job asks him to maintain a 31.5 usage rate and 20.8 assist percentage—numbers only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Devin Booker, James Harden and Lou Williams have matched among all of 2018-19's qualified contributors. 

    Making an objective case for Mitchell as an All-Star is tough. But then you watch him play.

Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Age: 21

    Per-Game Stats: 18.3 points, 4.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.4 blocks

    Jamal Murray hasn't quite been at 100 percent for much of the 2018-19 season, dealing with a troublesome left ankle injury that's hindered his quickness and explosion around the basket. You can see that numerically just by looking at the career progression of his finishing rate within three feet of the hoop:

    • 2016-17: 61.2 percent
    • 2017-18: 62.1 percent
    • 2018-19: 54.8 percent

    If that number trends back toward its typical level—a strong possibility while he continues to enjoy a synergistic relationship with Nikola Jokic, who routinely passes him open in reverse pick-and-rolls that feature the big man handling the rock—Murray's overall numbers would look so much better.

    After all, he's demonstrated an ability to score in virtually every other situation.

    The combo guard is knocking down 41.4 percent of his mid-range jumpers from between 10 and 16 feet. He's drilling 47.0 percent of his twos from even further away, and he connects on his 5.3 triples per game at a 36.8 percent clip.

    Place him in a pull-up situation, and he demonstrates picture-perfect form while easily creating space against tight defense, even if he's only converting his 7.7 attempts per contest with a 45.6 effective field-goal percentage.

    The numbers should trend upward as he gets healthier and more comfortable in his role as an offensive generator for the Denver Nuggets, who he's helped to their featured placement near the top of the Western Conference standings. That he's also developing as a turnover-averse passer increasingly comfortable dribbling through traffic with his eyes up and searching for teammates just serves as more good news.

Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

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    Ron Turenne/Getty Images

    Age: 24

    Per-Game Stats: 16.1 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.7 blocks

    Let's turn the talking stick over to The Ringer's Dan Devine, who wrote about Pascal Siakam's ceaseless growth after the Toronto Raptors forward exploded for a career-high 44 points in a Feb. 13 contest against the Washington Wizards that featured MVP chants directed at him, not Kawhi Leonard or Kyle Lowry:

    "Yes, they got a little carried away. Siakam isn't his own team's Most Valuable Player, let alone the league's, but he's got a damn good case to be its Most Improved. We've sung Siakam's praises throughout the 2018-19 season, highlighting his value as a 6-foot-9, 230-pound uber-athlete who can guard every position and initiate the offense.

    "But after making the leap between his second and third seasons to establish himself as an integral role player on a Raptors team with championship aspirations, Siakam seems to have taken another major step forward of late—the kind that means his ceiling might be a hell of a lot higher than 'integral role player.'"

    We'll say this unequivocally: Siakam is no longer a role player. He's a rising star already brushing shoulders with other celestial players. 

    During our midseason rankings of the league's top 100 players, Bleacher Report's Dan Favale and I placed Siakam at No. 36. We sold him short. Since that article's publication date (Jan. 24), he's continued to improve, averaging 22.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.6 blocks and just 2.0 turnovers while shooting 51.1 percent from the field, 43.8 percent from downtown and 78.8 percent from the stripe

    His spin move remains spicily unstoppable. He's finding his stroke on corner threes, where he's connected at a 41.3 percent clip throughout the season. The Raptors are handing him more isolation possessions and letting him bring the ball up the floor, trusting him to take advantage of mismatches and make the right plays. Thing is, he almost always has a mismatch these days; he's too big for smaller defenders and too quick for, well, basically everyone.

    Siakam, who sits at No. 15 in ESPN.com's RPM Wins, sandwiched directly between Karl-Anthony Towns and LeBron James, should've been an All-Star this year. If you haven't already woken up, stop sleeping on him.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Age: 20

    Per-Game Stats: 16.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.8 blocks

    Jayson Tatum hasn't quite blossomed like expected during his sophomore season with the Boston Celtics, but that should change as he strikes a balance between his first two professional campaigns. He's finishing better than ever around the rim and creating more of his own offense for himself, but he's also settling for too many contested jumpers, thereby depressing his own shooting percentages. 

    Then again, what 20-year-old isn't going to endure growing pains?

    Fortunately for the C's, those growing pains may also be in the rearview mirror. Tatum seems to be making the proper adjustments and taking on a more beneficial role as injuries keep Kyrie Irving from functioning as a fixture in the rotation of head coach Brad Stevens. Over his last 20 games heading into the All-Star break, everything is clicking. 

    Dating back to a Jan. 7 victory over the Brooklyn Nets, the Duke product is averaging 17.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.1 blocks. He's rarely turning the ball over (just 1.3 times per game) and thriving on defense, whether he's bodying up against bigger players or switching onto smaller foes.

    The latter is another important change, since he unexpectedly served as a defensive asset during his inaugural campaign before struggling at the start of the follow-up season. This re-emergence is validation that the pre-draft assessments were wrong, not that his first go-round was fluky. 

    And yet, the shooting strides still function as the biggest plus. Over those last 20 games, he's connected on 46.9 percent of his field-goal attempts, 40.9 percent of his triples and 87.8 percent of his free-throw tries—more reminiscent of his rookie slash line (47.5/43.4/82.6) than his first 38 games of 2018-19 (44.5/36.7/84.8). 

    If he can maintain that type of accuracy and stay away from the bad shots he might have practiced in workouts with Kobe Bryant, All-Star festivities remain in his not-too-distant future.

Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

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    Michael Hickey/Getty Images

    Age: 22

    Per-Game Stats: 13.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.7 steals, 2.7 blocks

    Myles Turner is already a respectable offensive option with stretch-5 tendencies. He's averaging a sturdy 13.5 points while slashing 50.9/40.7/72.1, and he possesses enough passing skill to avoid racking up turnovers when defenses pressure him in the post with a second defender. But this isn't about his offense.

    The 22-year-old has emerged as a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate, improving the Indiana Pacers' preventing prowess by 1.9 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. Whether he's locking down smaller players with his lateral quickness or shutting down the interior with interminable length, he's a game-changing presence whose impact shows up in the numbers.

    ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus looks at him rather favorably, giving him a score of 3.8 that lags behind only Rudy Gobert (4.67), Hassan Whiteside (4.16) and Ed Davis (3.82). And if we isolate his specialty, he's no less impressive.

    Turner isn't just pacing the Association in blocks per game with a narrow edge over Anthony Davis and a more substantial one over everyone else. He's also blowing away the field in block percentage. Put up against the scores earned by all 502 players who have suited up in 2018-19, Turner's block percentage (8.7) gives him a Z-score of 3.75.

    To put that in perspective, a player averaging 32 points per game would have a 3.75 Z-score for his scoring average. That's the magnitude of what Turner is doing as a rejection artist, and that skill alone should put him firmly in contention for All-Star recognition once he's maintained this impact over a larger sample.

Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

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    Stephen Gosling/Getty Images

    Age: 20

    Per-Game Stats: 16.9 points, 3.3 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.2 blocks

    Trae Young didn't exactly begin his rookie season in sterling fashion. Just under two months into his inaugural efforts with the Atlanta Hawks, he was traveling down an ignominious path toward some of the worst numbers ever accrued in the NBA.

    But even during that rough opening, you could find flashes of positive production that indicated brighter days. You just had to look for them.

    Now, they're much more obvious and coming with far more frequency.

    During Young's last 20 appearances before the All-Star break, he averaged 20.0 points, 4.2 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 0.9 steals while shooting 42.8 percent from the field, 35.3 percent from beyond the arc and 81.1 percent at the stripe.

    He became a legitimate playmaker operating within the flow of the offensive schemes rather than forcing the action and seeking out shooting attempts just for the sake of firing away. That's tremendous growth for a 20-year-old point guard, especially when he already boasts plenty of inherent ability and extreme passing vision that could easily make him one of the league's deadliest distributors.

    Young will probably always function as a defensive anchor—not the kind who holds down the fort for a team, but the kind who drags down the entire unit with his inability to check his assignments. Turnovers continue to be an issue for this aggressive distributor, who can try to squeeze the ball into tight spaces a bit too frequently. His floater needs further development so it can serve as a reliable weapon.

    But the pieces are coming together quicker than expected after the lackluster beginning to his career, and that should have the Hawks excited about what they can do with him leading the charge for a young nucleus that will only trend in the upward direction.

                    

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats accurate heading into the All-Star break and courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com, PBPStats.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com.