Which NBA Teams Have the Best Young Cores?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistFebruary 23, 2019

Which NBA Teams Have the Best Young Cores?

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    Youth is not paramount to keeping an NBA team in good big-picture standing. Ownership, front offices, cap space and, of course, incumbent stars all play pivotal roles in safeguarding the future.

    Still, youngsters offer a different brand of hope and opportunity. They're not nameless draft picks, but known and getting-to-be-known commodities.

    Some kiddies are already stars promising an open-ended window for playoff squads. Others are a tangible starting point for rebuilds. A bunch more are currently, or in line to become, critical complementary pieces.

    Ipso facto: Youth matters. It shapes both the present and future. And with that in mind, we've identified the teams with the most promising young cores.

    Every player in their age-23 season on down qualified for consideration—provided they're not on a two-way contract. (P.S. I heart you, Shake Milton.) This isn't an arbitrary limit; it ensures we're not ascribing prospect value to guys who've been in the league for more than a half-decade. From there, teams were selected and sorted into the following tiers:

    • Tier 6: Young cores anchored by single-star prospects or a collection of high-end role players.
    • Tier 5: Rosters with a few fringe-star possibilities, but no one with clear-cut megastar potential.
    • Tier 4: The complicated tier. These teams have a qualifying star or collection of fringe stars in place, but the rest of their youthful base lacks depth or upside.
    • Tier 3: Squads with numerous star prospects, at least one of which is already knocking at stardom's door.
    • Tier 2: Teams that either have a single All-NBA talent in tow without much else or one bona fide star accompanied by another star prospect and enviable depth.
    • Tier 1.5: You'll understand when you see it.
    • Tier 1: Reserved for the ideal setup—a mix of entrenched star power, prospects with All-Star ceilings and impactful role players.

    Sheer body counts were not heavily weighted. Established star power—i.e., quality over quantity—was the ultimate trump card. Finally, we looked at not only this season, but into the crystal ball. Career trajectories, injuries, team fits and contract statuses (but not salaries!) all matter.

Tier 6: Charlotte, Detroit, L.A. Clippers, Memphis, Miami, San Antonio

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    Charlotte Hornets

    Star Prospects: Miles Bridges 

    Other Notable Players: Dwayne Bacon; Devonte' Graham; Malik Monk

    Miles Bridges is holding down Charlotte's fort on his own. He's good enough for that not to be a death sentence. He's not a traditional star prospect, but a top-shelf gap-filler.

    Here's every rookie who has matched Bridges' defensive rebounding, steal and block percentages while making as many threes: Joel Embiid, Jamario Moon, Kristaps Porzingis and Arvydas Sabonis. Charlotte's situation still isn't great, but it'll look a lot better if Malik Monk perks up for more than two to four games at a time.


    Detroit Pistons

    Star Prospects: None

    Other Notable Players: Bruce Brown; Luke Kennard; Thon Maker; Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk; Khyri Thomas

    Role-player city! 

    Detroit doesn't have a star prospect. That ship has sailed for Thon Maker, and neither Bruce Brown nor Luke Kennard has that caps-lock IT quality. But the Pistons have put together some rock-solid nuts-and-bolts options.

    Kennard can really shoot and doesn't have the defensive baggage that accompanies spacing specialists at his position. Brown is a grinder. He defends like he's taller than 6'5" and is shooting over 36 percent from long range over his past 15 games. Khyri Thomas is a feel-good story waiting to happen if he can round out his bulldog defense and shooting form with some half-court initiation.

    Maker, meanwhile, is the floor-stretching center prospect the Pistons have never put behind Andre Drummond. Even Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk has the stroke to warrant a rotation opportunity. Again: Detroit's kids aren't giant-slayers. They're worthwhile projects. 


    Los Angeles Clippers

    Star Prospects: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

    Other Notable Players: Johnathan Motley; Jerome Robinson; Landry Shamet; Ivica Zubac

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander legitimizes the Clippers' case on his own. He is eventually going to make an All-Defensive team. A better pull-up jumper or more consistent minutes as the lead facilitator would catapult him to the cusp of stardom.

    Landry Shamet doesn't have the size to defend bigger wings, which complicates Los Angeles' lineup compositions. But he's the quintessential complement on offense. He'll put his man through the ringer pinballing his away around the half-court.

    Jerome Robinson lacks a happy medium. He'll either shoot himself out of the league or into the Hall of Fame for offensive firecrackers. The Clippers have the flexibility to float that risk. They've prioritized cap space over everything. Having this modest foundation in place is a small feat given their position.


    Memphis Grizzlies

    Star Prospects: Jaren Jackson Jr.

    Other Notable Players: Dillon Brooks; Bruno Caboclo; Jevon Carter; Tyler Dorsey

    Jaren Jackson Jr. will have a chance to be the best player from the 2018 draft class if Memphis ever hands him the keys to the offense. Luka Doncic is fantastic, but all-around superstars are equally coveted, even if they take longer to marinate.

    Triple-J is potentially that player (and needs a better primary nickname).


    Miami Heat

    Star Prospects: Justise Winslow 

    Other Notable Players: Bam Adebayo; Derrick Jones Jr.

    Justise Winslow is single-handedly preventing the Heat's young core from fading into obscurity. Bam Adebayo could be a fringe star, but he's not a wing who can jump-start the offense, stretch the floor and defend four positions.

    After a career's worth of hemming and hawing, Winslow might be. His shooting has cooled over the past few weeks, but he's still averaging 13.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.0 steals since being inserted into the starting lineup. Miami's half-court offense isn't as strained with him at the helm, and getting average-to-above-average outside shooting from him on modest volume is a huge win.

    Goran Dragic's return from right knee surgery looms as Winslow's defining test. The Heat's future will chart a vastly better course if he can both orchestrate the offense and leverage himself into a threat off the ball.


    San Antonio Spurs

    Star Prospects: Dejounte Murray

    Other Notable Players: Chimezie Metu; Jakob Poeltl; Lonnie Walker IV

    The Spurs think of Dejounte Murray as a capable cornerstone. They're not wrong. He earned All-Defensive honors as a sophomore, and this was supposed to be the season in which he branched out as a shot-taker and -maker.

    Murray's ACL injury has derailed that plan and obfuscated his standing relative to the league's top youngsters. The same can be said for Lonnie Walker IV's ankle issues. San Antonio's two most important prospects are, in some form or another, relative unknowns. 

    On the bright side, what the Spurs lack in volume, they make up for with quality. Murray is a building block if he makes a full recovery, Walker is a lottery talent they fell into at No. 18, and Jakob Poeltl remains a small-sample All-Star.

    Tier 7: Cleveland Cavaliers; Milwaukee Bucks; Portland Trail Blazers

Tier 5: New York, Orlando

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    New York Knicks

    Star Prospects: Kevin Knox; Mitchell Robinson; Dennis Smith Jr.

    Other Notable Players: Mario Hezonja; Luke Kornet; Emmanuel Mudiay; Frank Ntilikina; Allonzo Trier; Noah Vonleh

    Calling any of the Knicks' top kiddies more than a fringe-star prospect is generous.

    Kevin Knox's shot-making is a game-by-game roller coaster, and he still needs to make basic passing reads with a semblance of consistency. Dennis Smith Jr. has the raw totals, but his numbers have that empty-calories feeling. Better talent around him would help. Then again, he enjoyed that with the Dallas Mavericks, and the result wasn't any different.

    Mitchell Robinson may be the Knicks' most worthwhile project. Seriously. He's a shot-blocking thinktank. It's not that he's swatting everything within a mile radius, but he makes concerted efforts to retain possession on his rejections. He's having more games in which he doesn't foul everyone. 

    Big-man stereotypes are working against Mitchell more than anything. Centers need to stretch the floor and, preferably, create their own shots to crack the superstar tier. The Knicks traded one of those away. This spiel changes if Robinson turns into Defensive Player of the Year material.

    Drumming up excitement for the rest of New York's whippersnappers is difficult in a uniquely Knicksian way. They all feel like placeholders.

    Frank Ntilikina is an offensive disaster when healthy, but the team hasn't given him the freedom to discover himself on or off the ball. Allonzo Trier is a nice find, but perhaps temporary. He has a team option for next season and could become a casualty of New York's two-star pursuit.

    Ditto for Ntilkina and Emmanuel Mudiay, and for Noah Vonleh, who is a non-Bird free agent the Knicks probably only bring back if they strike out on Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and everyone else. Not even Knox and Smith are remotely safe. They could be fodder for an Anthony Davis trade depending on where New York's draft pick lands.


    Orlando Magic

    Star Prospects: Mo Bamba; Markelle Fultz; Aaron Gordon

    Other Notable Players: Isaiah Briscoe; Melvin Frazier Jr.; Jonathan Isaac

    Take stock of the Magic's youngsters in a vacuum, without accounting for injuries and on-court fits, and the resulting product intrigues. Bake in context, and it begins falling apart.

    Mo Bamba, 20, started to show something toward the end of January. But he's out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his left tibia, and his standing within the organization is tightly tethered to Nikola Vucevic's free agency.

    Aaron Gordon (still just 23!) and Jonathan Isaac (21) are defying the awkwardness of their partnership. Most of their playing time together has come with Vucevic, and Orlando is plus-3.4 points per 100 possessions when they're all on the court, according to Cleaning the Glass.

    At least one of Gordon or Isaac needs to show more shot creation off the bounce if Vucevic is sticking around long term. The offense will otherwise be doomed to the wild swings it suffers from now.

    On a not entirely random note: Filter out garbage time, and the Magic are third in defensive efficiency since just before Christmas, per Cleaning the Glass. Their schedule has been light on prolific offensive opponents during this stretch, but it supports the continued efforts of keeping the core together.

    Markelle Fultz has the potential to redefine everything in Orlando, for better and for worse. If he recovers from his thoracic outlet syndrome to become even 75 percent of the player who was the consensus No. 1 pick in 2017, the Magic will have their first surefire cornerstone since Dwight Howard.

Tier 4: Indiana, Utah

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    Indiana Pacers

    Current Stars: None

    Star Prospects: Domantas Sabonis; Myles Turner

    Other Notable Players: Aaron Holiday; Alize Johnson; TJ Leaf; Edmond Sumner

    Arguing in favor of a better finish for the Pacers isn't the teensiest bit hard. They're not overrun with 23-and-under studs, but the players they have are legit.

    Domantas Sabonis is simultaneously contending for Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player. His uber-efficient offense would encounter more roadblocks in a larger role, but he's a creator and finisher who can pilot an entire system for spurts. 

    Something has gone wrong if Myles Turner doesn't finish fifth or better in Defensive Player of the Year voting. He has reached a level of deterrence at the rim shared by Joel Embiid and Rudy Gobert, and his reaction time outside the restricted area is on the come-up. He's blocking almost as many short mid-range shots per 36 minutes as Gobert, according to PBPStats.com.

    And yet, Indiana's concentrated stash of potential loses a little something when reconciling the long haul. Sabonis and Turner are a net plus per 100 possessions when playing together on the season, but the Pacers are getting hammered since Oladipo went down when they share the court. Their marriage isn't sustainable on offense.

    This instead feels like an either-or situation, and Aaron Holiday's offensive flashes aren't enough to lift Indiana above it.


    Utah Jazz

    Current Stars: Donovan Mitchell

    Star Prospects: None

    Other Notable Players: Grayson Allen; Tony Bradley; Dante Exum

    Dante Exum groupies will make a case for the Jazz to jump up a tier. Donovan Mitchell skeptics will rail against his star classification. 

    And so, Utah ends up here, smack dab in the middle.

    At 22, Mitchell is a core unto himself. His rookie-year detonation was treated to a reality check at the beginning of this season, but he's tearing it up this side of Christmas. Through this 23-game stretch, he's averaging 25.3 points, 4.7 assists and 1.3 steals while shooting 36.5 percent from distance and getting to the foul line at a personal-best clip.

    The strides Mitchell is making as a floor general cannot be oversold. Utah still needs to give him a primary facilitator—or at least a point guard who can shoot—but his star is rising. If Exum ever works his way out from head coach Quin Snyder's dog house/get healthy, or should Grayson Allen show anything at all, Mitchell's own body of work puts the Jazz in contention to join not just the next tier, but the one after.

Tier 3: Atlanta, Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, L.A. Lakers

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    Atlanta Hawks

    Star Prospects: John Collins; Trae Young

    Other Notable Players: Kevin Huerter; Omari Spellman

    Schedule the Hawks for entry into the next tier in T-minus, oh, by-the-start-of-next-season. John Collins is coming for stardom in an Eastern Conference begging for new members, pre-Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis joining the Knicks, of course.

    Defense remains a struggle when Collins is on the floor, which for now, drags down his would-be peak. As Jeff Siegel wrote for Peachtree Hoops:

    "For the moment, Collins plays power forward in part because he's not good enough defensively to play the most important defensive position on the floor, which puts some limits on what the Hawks can do from a team-building and lineup construction perspective. The Hawks do have two rotation-quality NBA centers in Dewayne Demon and Alex Len, which further explains why Collins operates at the power forward spot for the vast majority of his court time. With that said, Collins currently has to be paired with a defensive center who is capable of spacing the floor offensively and, in turn, that allows the second-year big man to be the main dive threat in pick-and-roll."

    Collins' holes present real problems for Atlanta's lineup structure. But they're not damning enough to harsh his offensive progress and activity on the glass. Assuming his numbers hold, he'll join Karl-Anthony Towns as the second player to clear 20 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and one made three per 36 minutes before his age-22 season.

    View this in tandem with Trae Young's recent uptick, and the Hawks get real scary, real fast. The undersized point guard is a defensive pushover, but his finishing around the rim is better than advertised, he's a high-IQ table-setter, and the space he creates with his perimeter dribbles offsets his early shooting wrinkles.

    Besides which, Young is averaging 18.2 points and 8.1 assists while splashing in 38.2 percent of his triples over the past 30 games. Combined with the sweet-shooting Kevin Huerter, Atlanta is laying a gnarly offensive foundation that already needs to be reckoned with.


    Boston Celtics

    Star Prospects: Jaylen Brown; Jayson Tatum

    Other Notable Names: Robert Williams; Guerschon Yabusele

    Boston's failure to dominate the Eastern Conference stole some of the shine from its young nucleus. That might've been fair through the first couple months of the season. It isn't anymore.

    Jaylen Brown's numbers are down from last year, but he's recaptured his general form. He's averaging 14.2 points on 49.5 percent shooting, including a 37.1 percent knockdown rate from downtown, over his last 25 games—output that noticeably exceeds his 2017-18 performance given a decline in playing time.

    Jayson Tatum has received criticism for his shot selection. He's earned it. Lately, though, knocks against him have more to do with the absence of a superstar leap. Such is life when you're being propped up in the Anthony Davis sweepstakes at the expense of the Los Angeles Lakers' tots.

    This genre of shot-taking is unfair. The Celtics aren't built for Tatum to become a megastar. He's also just 20. And Brown is only 22. They have warts worth harping on—will they ever run an offense for long stretches?—but the star-potential sheen hasn't worn off either of them. 


    Brooklyn Nets

    Star Prospects: Jarrett Allen; D'Angelo Russell

    Other Notable Names: Rodions Kurucs; Dzanan Musa

    Caris LeVert's availability through his first two-plus seasons makes him seem younger. He's 24. So while he's a crucial part of the Nets' fast-brightening future, his progress doesn't help their case here.

    Brooklyn still comes off looking pretty damn good. D'Angelo Russell's play earned him a spot in the East's All-Star crop following Victor Oladipo's injury. We can quibble over whether that nod should've gone to Eric Bledsoe or Pascal Siakam, but his inclusion within the debate itself speaks to his overall ascent.

    This is someone who hasn't always closed tight games for the Nets. Head coach Kenny Atkinson used to opt for Spencer Dinwiddie over Russell. That's since changed—not just because of Dinwiddie's right thumb injury or LeVert's extended stay on the sidelines. Russell has emerged as Brooklyn's hub with smarter on-ball reads in the half-court and sustainable tough shot-making. He's putting down almost 36 percent of his pull-up threes.

    Anyone peeved by Jarrett Allen's classification needs to watch more of the 21-year-old. He hasn't morphed into a dependable outside shooter, but he's a fighter on the boards, an understated passer and hell on earth for those trying to finish at the rim. He even has some crafty interior moves and a hook shot to his game.

    Rodions Kurucs, 20, is a name you'll want to remember. He's going to ruin defenses from everywhere once his three-point shot stabilizes. And Dzanan Musa, though seldom used, is a name you should learn to pronounce (Jah-nen Moo-suh). The 19-year-old is somewhat quietly putting in work for the Long Island Nets, Brooklyn's G League affiliate.


    Chicago Bulls

    Star Prospects: Wendell Carter Jr.; Lauri Markkanen

    Other Notable Players: Antonio Blakeney; Chandler Hutchison; Zach LaVine; Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot

    Demanding Zach LaVine still be given the possible-star distinction doesn't impact the Bulls' placement. None of their best options are that close to fully formed.

    Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen are, for the time being, carrying Chicago's orbit. Their games fit beside one another; they should develop into one of the NBA's most balanced frontcourt combos.

    The pairing hasn't looked great at either end this year, but that's a rebuilding hazard. Carter is 19, Markkanen is 20, and the Bulls don't have the personnel on the wings to properly fiddle with defensive matchups. Playing with Otto Porter Jr. will help, as should a more polished Chandler Hutchison.

    Chicago's group needs time to come together. Injuries to Carter, Hutchison and Markkanen have capped their time alongside one another, and growing pains are unavoidable. Adding another mainstay in the draft or getting a breakout from WCJ or Markkanen next season would leave the Bulls in line to climb this ladder.


    Los Angeles Lakers

    Star Prospects: Lonzo Ball; Brandon Ingram

    Other Notable Players: Isaac Bonga; Josh Hart; Kyle Kuzma; Moritz Wagner

    LeBron James' arrival has foisted stark adjustments upon the Lakers' youngsters, and it shows. Not one of them has excelled—Kyle Kuzma comes closest—and neither Lonzo Ball's injury nor the Anthony Davis soap opera is helping matters.

    More than a few are completely out on the Lakers' four primary youngsters. That goes a touch too far. Brandon Ingram's per-36-minute splits without James are stardom-bound: 20.6 points, 4.1 assists, 51.1 percent shooting, 40.5 percent on threes.

    That's not so much a vote of confidence as an excuse. Ingram isn't ready to captain an offense. He doesn't have the three-point volume or general shot selection. But he, like Ball, is going through more of a wholesale shift. Their skill sets aren't made for accessory duty, and neither was a finished product in the first place. They deserve more time—and, in Ingram's case especially, brownie points for their defensive performance.

    Measure them as sidekicks for a 34-year-old James who needs to win now, and the Lakers' kids are a letdown. Treat them as assets for a Davis trade, and they can be beaten. But the aggregative upside in Ball, Ingram, Kuzma and Josh Hart shouldn't be written off. They're good starting points. They're just playing for a team that needs finishing touches.

Tier 2: Minnesota, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Sacramento

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    Minnesota Timberwolves

    Current Stars: Karl-Anthony Towns

    Star Prospects: None

    Other Notable Players: Keita Bates-Diop; Tyus Jones; Josh Okogie; Andrew Wiggins

    If you're looking for an uncomfortable, potentially soul-straining hypothetical to forfeit sleep over, here's a suggestion to munch on: Imagine where the Timberwolves' stable of youngsters would rank if Andrew Wiggins were even close to a replacement-level player.

    Don't twist his scoring average into something it's not. Wiggins is one of the league's most inefficient players. Out of the 73 players putting up at least 15 shots per 36 minutes, his effective field-goal percentage ranks 72nd, sandwiching him in between rookies Collin Sexton (71st) and Kevin Knox (73rd). 

    Minnesota's group is mostly getting by on the back of Karl-Anthony Towns. He is already one of the most valuable offensive big men in NBA history, and his defensive engagement in the half-court has improved following the additions of Robert Covington and Dario Saric.  

    Keep an eye on Josh Okogie. He's high energy, unafraid of attacking off the bounce and a good wing defender for a rookie. He'll be a problem if he ever shoots with league-average efficiency. Tyus Jones deserves a wee bit of love, too. He's among the most underrated defenders at the point guard spot, but he's headed for restricted free agency, and Minnesota's make-up isn't conducive to his offensive growth.


    Philadelphia 76ers

    Current Stars: Ben Simmons

    Star Prospects: Zhaire Smith

    Other Notable Names: Jonah Bolden; Furkan Korkmaz

    Philadelphia has quickly transitioned from one of the NBA's best tween-age hubs to a veteran-heavy championship seeker. Joel Embiid no longer qualifies as a youngin', and general manager Elton Brand shipped off the team's two highest-profile prospects, Markelle Fultz and Landry Shamet, before the trade deadline.

    Ben Simmons' superstar climb is enough for us not to care. He's a top-20, if top-15, player on the right side of 23 who hasn't yet sniffed his peak. His standalone defense could use some work, and everyone knows about the limitations on his jumper. If he hones even a floater or consistent mid-range game, he's assured of auto-entry into the top-10-and-higher discussion.

    Zhaire Smith is a swing prospect. He isn't expected to play this season as he recovers from left knee surgery, but his physical tools ensure he's more than just another name.

    "You know, he ran around a little bit," Brett Brown said of Smith, 19, practicing with the Sixers, per Philly.com's Keith Pompey. "He competed. It was great to see him. You are reminded of how athletic he is. He had a bounce today."

    Smith's raw offensive profile renders him a wild card. He's not considered an accomplished shooter after draining 45 percent of his threes on low volume at Texas Tech, and his experience as a shot-creator and pick-and-roll initiator is limited. But if he establishes himself in even one of those areas, his defensive activity will take care of the rest.


    Phoenix Suns

    Current Stars: Devin Booker

    Star Prospects: Deandre Ayton

    Other Notable Names: Dragan Bender; Mikal Bridges; Josh Jackson; De'Anthony Melton; Elie Okobo; Kelly Oubre Jr.

    Phoenix has an opportunity to upgrade from this tier faster than its three peers.

    Devin Booker has turned into less of a controversial figure and more of an accepted star. His efficiency continues to languish outside preferred territory, but he's not the low-quality gunner he was previously made out to be.

    Solid finishing at the rim and from the foul line helps his true shooting percentage hover above league average, and he'll convert his threes at a higher clip once he's surrounded by more reliable marksmen and another lead ball-handler. 

    Deandre Ayton is a star in waiting. His defense isn't the borderline train wreck it gets made out to be—he's making better decisions around the rim since the turn of the calendar—and he's played like an offensive stud from day one. He has the makings of an All-Star, and All-NBA caliber will be within reach if he's ever given the green light from three or expands his scoring arsenal to include face-up jumpers and more assists outside kick-out and hand-off situations.

    No one beyond Ayton and Booker is a sure thing, but the Suns have stacked the deck with options, particularly on the wings. Mikal Bridges is a defensive revelation even for a rookie who spent four years in college (red-shirt freshman season). Josh Jackson and Kelly Oubre Jr., a restricted free agent this summer, have more than their fair share of offensive fits and starts, but both can be disruptive defenders when they're not matched up with beefier wings.

    If one or two of their other prospects, including De'Anthony Melton and Elie Okobo, turn into net-positive role players or starters, Phoenix will be sitting pretty as early as next season.


    Sacramento Kings

    Current Stars: De'Aaron Fox

    Star Prospects: Marvin Bagley III

    Other Notable Names: Harry Giles; Caleb Swanigan

    Putting the Kings outside the upper-most tier comes across as oddly low at first blush. Chew on this for a moment, and it starts to fit.

    Many of Sacramento's standouts are on the older side. Buddy Hield is 26 (not 25). Bodgan Bogdanovic is also 26. Even Willie Cauley-Stein, who might be a goner in restricted free agency, is juuust closer to 26 than 25.

    This could be a problem when looking at the bigger picture. The Kings don't have a first-round pick this year, so their roster likely won't be restocked with a high-upside youngster. Step back, and this hardly registers as an issue.

    De'Aaron Fox's sophomore campaign has put him in the top-30 conversation. Russell Westbrook is the only player averaging as many points, assists and steals per 36 minutes, and Fox's output comes on significantly better three-point shooting. 

    Marvin Bagley III is not that guy you think the Kings should have drafted, but his peak needs to be recalculated. He has the toolbox of an offensive superstar. Harry Giles is also getting frisky. Sacramento may have its frontcourt of the next seven-plus years in him and Bagley. That neither they nor Fox are older than 21 bodes extremely well for a franchise already trying to scrap its way into the West's playoff bubble.

Tier 1.5: Dallas Mavericks

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    Current Stars: Luka Doncic; Kristaps Porzingis

    Star Prospects: None

    Other Notable Players: Jalen Brunson; Justin Jackson

    Told you that Tier 1.5 would make sense upon arrival. The Mavericks' young-player pool isn't drowning in depth, but it's dripping with All-NBA ceilings.

    Luka Doncic built a legitimate All-Star case...as a rookie...and a teenager...in the Western Conference. The NBA's last, and only, newbie to also clear 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists per game was Oscar Robertson in 1960-61, almost 60 years ago.

    Whatever holes exist and figure to persist in Doncic's defensive performance are neutralized by his offensive feel. He's already flinging one-handed cross-court passes, and his comfort level firing off step-back threes is rivaled only by James Harden, the favorite to win this year's MVP award. 

    And hey: Doncic's defense isn't that much of a problem. Rookies typically face a stark learning curve on the less-glamorous end, and the Mavericks have found serviceable solutions by putting him on forwards who don't thrive attacking off the dribble (Jae Crowder, Maurice Harkless, etc.) or won't blow by him when they do (Nicolas Batum, Kyle Kuzma, etc.)

    Pairing Doncic with Kristaps Porzingis, a semi-established All-Star, would easily vault Dallas into the next tier if not for the uncertainty surrounding the latter's return from a torn left ACL. These injuries aren't the dark omens they used to be, but the 23-year-old has an extensive history with issues on the left side of his body. 

    Porzingis' physical profile both tantalizes and concerns. Seven-foot-somethings aren't supposed to move with the ball in their hands like he can, firing up shots off the dribble like he can or hang defensively in and outside the paint like he can. He's either too good to be true, or so truly good it's unsettling.

    The rest of the Mavericks' prospect pool doesn't include much else. It's also not bare. Rookie Jalen Brunson (22) and sophomore Justin Jackson (23) are old for their experience, but they look like rotation players. Brunson checks almost every box for a Rick Carlisle point guard, and Jackson is a 6'8" wing who showed an improved outside touch before a January backslide.

    But the crux of Dallas' case isn't about them. Star power is the NBA's greatest commodity. As of now, the Mavericks appear to employ a perennial MVP candidate and top-25ish player for him to run alongside. Just one other core boasts this degree of pomp and promise.

Tier 1: Denver Nuggets

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    Current Stars: Nikola Jokic

    Star Prospects: Jamal Murray; Michael Porter Jr.

    Other Notable Players: Malik Beasley; Juan Hernangomez; Trey Lyles; Tyler Lydon; Monte Morris; Jarred Vanderbilt

    This is weird when reallying think about it. Terrifying, too.

    All five of the Denver Nuggets' total-minutes leaders have yet to reach their age-24 season. Injuries are part of that equation, but that's also the point.

    Breakouts from Monte Morris and Malik Beasley have allowed the Nuggets to navigate absences from Will Barton and Gary Harris. Morris is a low-turnover game manager, forever under control in his search to blend in, but fully capable of disarming defenders off the dribble with a floater that won't quit. Watching him is, at times, like taking in a taller, slightly more reserved Mike Conley.

    Beasley is filling in the gaps for what seemed to be an underwhelming wing rotation. Denver has him defending both guard spots, along with some forwards, and he is an ideal fit for a Nikola Jokic-powered offense. Most of his shots come without taking a dribble, though he has flashed a capacity to swish pull-up treys.

    Jamal Murray, who turns 22 on Feb. 23, retains his star-prospect quality. His season is again a tale of peaks of valleys, but he's playing more consistently than not in recent months. Since Denver's Dec. 8 loss to Atlanta, a stretch that spans 25 games, he's averaging 19.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 5.0 assists while downing nearly 40 percent of his pull-up triples. The Diet Damian Lillard comp is not without merit.

    It says everything about the Nuggets' youthful base that neither Juan Hernangomez nor Trey Lyles, a restricted free agent this summer, is one of their five best kiddos. Some will be more inclined to rank Jarred Vanderbilt ahead of one or both. He's just 19 and brings Marcus Smart-esque intensity to the frontcourt.

    Notice how we haven't yet reached the Nuggets' main course: Jokic. He is, inarguably, a superstar. Making the All-Star cut helped raise his profile, but he didn't need it. Catch-all metrics have fancied him a top-10 player for some time, and Denver's contention for second place in the West forcibly sways the remaining holdouts. 

    Not to be lost amid all of the Nuggets' active depth is Michael Porter Jr. He was touted as a potential No. 1 pick before back problems torpedoed his draft stock. Denver scooped him up at the end of last year's lottery. Whether he plays this season doesn't matter. He is very much a sleeping giant for the NBA's premier sleeping giant.  


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference and accurate leading into games Feb. 21. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by SLC Dunk's Andrew Bailey.


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