Ranking the NBA's Best 23 Under 23

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistAugust 1, 2019

Ranking the NBA's Best 23 Under 23

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    The NBA's kids are all right.

    Actually, they're better than that. The most cursory scan of the league's rosters will show that it's in great Kawhi-sized hands over the coming decade and beyond. 

    Let's count the top 23 under-23 reasons why.

    This exercise is not an exact science. Every possible factor is on the table. Past performances are chief among them, but pro samples are not everything. Inbound rookies will be selected. So many of the other inclusions are soon-to-be sophomores. Ignoring this season's first-timers isn't an option.

    Players must be under 23 as of opening night 2019-20 to receive consideration. Donovan Mitchell's birthday is in September, so he's a no-go. Jaylen Brown was born Oct. 24, so he skates in under the deadline.

    Treat this as a balance between immediate expectations and big-picture outlook. These kiddies are being ranked as if we're trying to acquire them for the long haul entering the 2019-20 campaign. Contract values have no bearing on selections, but injuries and team situations do.

    Prepare for these rankings to change in the months to come. Youth is unpredictable, which means we're in fluid territory. For now, these under-23 talents appear to have the brightest careers in front of them.


    *Please note this wasn't a one-person show. Bleacher Report's Andrew BaileyAdam Fromal and Grant Hughes served as consults throughout the rankings process. They deserve equal blame for the finished product.

23-21: Robinson, Shamet, Bridges

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    23. Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 21

    Anfernee Simons almost claimed the final spot. He may yet prove to deserve it. The minutes should be there for him in Portland this season following the departures of Seth Curry and Evan Turner, and he's no longer an offensive secret after his summer league performance.

    But cracking the rotation of a postseason hopeful in Year 2 isn't easy, and a Kent Bazemore-CJ McCollum backcourt pairing may make more sense in lineups that don't feature Damian Lillard. Simons' opportunity could wax and wane both next season and in the years to come.

    Mitchell Robinson doesn't have to worry about playing time. The Knicks signed a bunch of bigs over the summer, but he's far and away their best defender. The 7'1", 240-pounder has the length to corral two opponents in space at once, and the ground he covers more than makes up for his lack of discipline.

    Finding Robinson's offensive niche won't be a problem. He is already tough to cover on dives to the basket and doesn't need to branch out. Controlling his impulses to chase blocks and abandon assignments off the ball are more pressing matters. If he reins himself in, the Knicks will have one of the league's most impactful defenders.


    22. Landry Shamet, Los Angeles Clippers

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 22 

    Landry Shamet is every contender's dream: a lights-out shooter who can get looks off in a hurry coming around picks and on one-dribble pull-ups. He ranked inside the 88th percentile of efficiency off screens last season during his time with both the Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers.

    Playing for a contender holds him back from more ambitious placement. He has the handle to navigate traffic and break down set defenses, but from-scratch opportunities won't happen often when he's complementing Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Lou Williams. 

    (This take is subject to self-destruct and move Shamet higher if the Clippers are gutsy enough to use him as a de facto ball-handler in certain bench-heavy lineups.)


    21. Miles Bridges, Charlotte Hornets

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 21

    Miles Bridges is already one of the Association's most portable defenders. According to data from Nylon Calculus' Krishna Narsu, only 27 players guarded a wider range of positions last season. And the last non-center to match his defensive rebound, steal and block rates as a rookie was Markieff Morris in 2011-12. 

    Charlotte needs Bridges to find his offensive wheelhouse. He's serviceable when loading up for power dunks and diving off the ball, but he'll ideally set stronger screens, hit a higher percentage of his above-the-break three-pointers and do a better job of changing directions off the dribble when he doesn't have a beeline to the basket.    

    Next year will be the perfect time for baptism by fire. Bridges expects to enter the season in better shape, and the Hornets don't have an equivocal No. 1 after losing Kemba Walker, no matter how much they're paying Terry Rozier. Turn him loose, Charlotte.

    Just missed the cut: Anfernee Simons, Portland Trail Blazers; Jarrett Allen, Brooklyn Nets; Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat; Jarrett Culver, Minnesota Timberwolves; Zach Collins, Portland Trail Blazers; Malik Beasley, Denver Nuggets; OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors

20-16: Huerter, Carter Jr., Barrett, Markkanen, Morant

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    20. Kevin Huerter, Atlanta Hawks

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 21

    Kevin Huerter's case is similar to Shamet's in some ways. Both are renowned for their shooting, and both are capable of so much more. The difference is Huerter will have more leeway to broaden his offensive horizons.

    Atlanta started the process last season. Nearly one-quarter of Huerter's possessions came as the pick-and-roll ball-handler. He wasn't particularly effective in these situations but appeared more under control over time and got in the habit of flinging slick passes on the move to orbiting shooters.

    Evan Turner is slated as the Hawks' backup point guard, so Huerter will have no trouble sponging up reps as a secondary creator. If he gets more comfortable with tossing inside passes against NBA length, he'll have the offensive peak of a bona fide playmaking wing.


    19. Wendell Carter Jr., Chicago Bulls

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 20

    This is what stepping out on a limb looks like.

    Wendell Carter Jr. has the talent—specifically IQ—to obliterate this finish, but he didn't play like it during his rookie season. And though it was a left thumb injury that limited Carter to 44 appearances, Jim Boylen's December elevation to head coach served as more of a turning point for his game. As The Athletic's Stephen Noh said on the Hardwood Knocks podcast (26:25 mark): 

    "The idea of him was that he's this big man who could spread the floor. He shot 41 percent on threes at Duke, and he shot 40 percent [on threes] in summer league. And then he comes to the Bulls, and he only hits 19 percent of his threes as a rookie, so that's a big part of his game that was just gone. It seemed like Boylen had some sort of instruction to not let him shoot. He only shot eight three-pointers in 19 games after Boylen took over.

    "And what you saw teams doing was sagging way off him. They were sagging like 10 feet off of him, and he just wouldn't shoot the ball. He would do these dribble hand-offs and stuff. He was a player where Boylen would just instruct his point guards to throw it into him in the post and isolate him there. He's [an] undersized center. He would be going up against much bigger guys. That's not really his game either. And he did not really do well in that role."

    Coby White's arrival should help the 6'10", 255-pound Carter. The Bulls are looking to play faster after drafting White in June, and Carter has said he'll be more aggressive at the offensive end, per The Scoop B Radio podcast (via Heavy.com). For where he already is on defense—stout on the inside, sneakily switchable on the outside—a little more variety would go a long way. Here's to him shooting more threes or, at the very least, starting to look at the basket when he catches the ball.


    18. RJ Barrett, New York Knicks

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 19

    RJ Barrett's inclusion will receive pushback from anyone who watched him labor through summer league. Let's move past it. He settled down toward the end of the schedule, and a crummy exhibition showing doesn't negate a skill set that has drawn comparisons to everyone from James Harden and DeMar DeRozan to Lamar Odom and Jalen Rose.

    Questionable handles and a shaky jumper mess with his ceiling. Is he actually a star prospect or just a bigger Tim Hardaway Jr. who might wingspan (6'10") his way into better defense? 

    Catering to the 6'7", 202-pound Barrett's upside is a must for now. First-option scorers who can double as primary playmakers are franchise cornerstones. If we're operating under the assumption a handful of rookies belong in this group, he deserves a nod.


    17. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 22 

    Lauri Markkanen is coming off a weird sophomore season. Don't call it a down year.

    A sprained right elbow kept him out of the lineup until December. After struggling upon return, he found his groove for weeks at a time. Over a 31-game span that started just before Christmas, he averaged 21.2 points and 9.9 rebounds while slashing 46.2/38.4/88.9.

    But then came Chicago's four-overtime extravaganza against the Atlanta Hawks at the beginning of March in which Markkanen logged nearly 54 minutes. He lost a few beats after that and was shut down for the season with fatigue before April.

    Better point guard play should help him more than anyone. In the absence of a true floor general, Boylen loved dumping the ball off to the post. Too many of Markkanen's possessions were spent toiling in bad spots with little time left on the shot clock. That he played as well as he did for stretches is a minor miracle.

    The additions of White and Tomas Satoransky should help restore Markkanen's offensive role to normal. He is at his best launching on the catch and cooking slower defenders off the dribble. Some shot creation for others would be nice but is no longer essential.


    16. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 20

    Ja Morant pretty much defaults his way into a borderline top-15 spot before ever playing an NBA game. The Grizzlies need someone to run the offense, to leverage jumpers off the dribble and to just flat-out score. Who else on the roster other than Morant fits that bill? That would be no one.

    Kyle Anderson and Tyus Jones can pitch in on the playmaking front, but Jonas Valanciunas or Jaren Jackson Jr. is probably their best scoring option aside from Morant. That's less than ideal. Neither of them is catching bodies off explosive dribbles.

    Morant will have to round out his game if he's to enter the future-superstar discussion. He needs to be more plug-and-play off the ball and doesn't begin his career with a sterling defensive reputation. Expect his shot selection to be rough too.

    The Grizzlies will let him go through the motions because he's worth it. And because they don't have a viable alternative for what he can do. But mostly because he's worth it. Potential offensive lifelines always are. 

15-11: Ball, Collins, Bagley III, Ayton, Brown

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    15. Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 21

    Injuries are a genuine concern for Lonzo Ball. Shoulder, knee and ankle issues have kept him out of a combined 65 games through his first two seasons—or almost 40 percent of his career.

    Putting him any lower still takes the caution too far. He is a long, pesky defender and an excellent rebounder for his position, and his vision on the move has not been oversold. 

    Ball's three-point shooting is even somewhat tolerable. His 32.9 percent clip from last season on 5.8 attempts per 36 minutes is manageable, and he hit 35.7 percent after Dec. 15 (19 games).

    Scoring at large is Ball's biggest issue. He needs to do a better job of finishing around the rim but should start with looking for his own shot more often. Last season, he scored on just 26.1 percent of his drives—dead last among 171 players who burned through more than 200 downhill attacks.

    New Orleans is built to get up and down the floor in a hurry. Ball needs to capitalize on that—not just as a playmaker but also as a willing finisher.


    14. John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 22

    John Collins is the same human trampoline he's always been, but with a more extensive offensive armory. 

    Atlanta asked him to do more with the ball last season, and he mostly delivered. He isn't yet a face-up nuisance, and he might never get there, but he looks more sure of himself when taking dribbles from the perimeter and dropping passes in motion.

    Teams officially have to respect Collins' outside shot. He's not swishing super-deep missiles, but he converted 49 percent of his threes from the corners last season and isn't shy about letting them rip from above the break.

    Collins will have to shore up his defense to creep past fringe All-Star territory. The Hawks' all-in play for De'Andre Hunter on draft night, coupled with Dewayne Dedmon's departure, suggests he'll have to soak up significant time at the 5. 

    Lineups with Collins in the middle couldn't hack it last season. Atlanta allowed 120.6 points per 100 possessions, and a whopping 41.7 percent of opponent shots came at the rim.


    13. Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento Kings

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 20

    Count me among those surprised by Marvin Bagley III's defensive motor. His help around the rim was reliable by rookie standards, and he cut down on the overzealous fouling by the end of the season.

    Bagley has a ways to go before he's a trustworthy off-the-dribble threat from the perimeter, but his offense is otherwise polished. Feed him the ball down low, and he can cook. He's a willing a passer who's smart enough to let cuts and rotations develop around him, and his comfort level on turnaround jumpers is off the charts.

    Defenses will be in trouble if Bagley's outside shooting holds. He drained 40 percent of his threes after the Feb. 8 trade deadline (2.1 attempts per game) and even looked more at home when fielding catch-and-fire opportunities inside the arc.


    12. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 21

    Deandre Ayton's offense is better than described. His footwork on rim runs and cuts is divine, and he makes quick decisions off the catch. The league has craftier post operators, but Ayton doesn't need bells and whistles to emphasize his touch. He is just as happy to swish fades and hook shots. 

    Phoenix could stand to test his range a little more. If he's not going to shoot threes, he should at least have the license to dig deeper into his face-up floor game. His passing probably wound up being overstated, but he's a good decision-maker out of double-teams and tight spaces, and he'll find people from standstill positions.

    Grooming Ayton into a defensive anchor will be a challenge. His progression isn't assured. He also isn't hopeless. He tightened up around the rim after the All-Star break and can make some plays in space.


    11. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 22

    Jaylen Brown is still riding that "smart defender who can hit threes and might have something deeper to offer on offense" wave. Next year will be the last time he gets away with it unless he delivers.

    His post-Christmas kick suggests he's up to the task. He averaged 14.0 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.0 steals while splashing in 39.1 percent of his threes after Dec. 25—a 46-game stretch in which he mostly came off the bench and was one of Boston's most consistent players.

    Brown must unleash an operable pull-up jumper or pick his head up and table set for others on drives if he's going to make serious headway. Hitting more of his free throws would be nice too.

    Additional opportunities should be available to him next year. The Celtics' pecking order isn't exactly wide-open with Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker in tow, but the absence of Kyrie Irving and an experienced backup point guard opens the door for both Brown and Tatum to rediscover some of their 2018 postseason mojo.

10. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

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    Age at Start of 2019-20: 21

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 10.8 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.5 blocks, 55.4 true shooting percentage

    Advanced Metrics: 13.4 PER, minus-18.43 TPA, minus-1.51 RPM

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander takes are flying all over the place following the Paul George trade to the Clippers. He didn't share the same cachet as some of his fellow All-Rookies last year, but Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti acquired him, so he must be good. 

    And he is good. Really good. Like, All-Star material.

    This trajectory isn't sudden. The 6'6", 181-pound Gilgeous-Alexander made meaningful contributions for a playoff team—especially on defense. His length is ultra-disruptive in a responsible, measured sort of way. And though he predominantly covered guards, he spent more than 11 percent of his time covering small forwards and even dabbled in power forward duty, according to data from Nylon Calculus' Krishna Narsu.

    Robert Flom from Clips Nation provided a nice snapshot of his defensive impact:

    "He was a positive defensive player as a rookie point guard, which is incredibly rare. His size, wingspan, quickness, and smarts enabled him to be both solid in man to man coverage (on all but the quickest or strongest of opponents) as well as a useful help defender. He reads passing lanes well, is swift at snatching the ball out of player's hands, and was even able to protect the rim on occasion with some timely blocks. As Shai gets more reps against NBA players, and understands coverage and scouting reports better, he will continue to improve as a defender. And that's not even counting what some muscle could do. Shai already flashed the ability to guard multiple positions this season, and could be someone who guards four positions well in his prime." 

    Expanding his offensive portfolio is all that separates Gilgeous-Alexander from conventional stardom. He is a nifty finisher around the rim but needs additional reps as the chief orchestrator and a longer leash to explore his off-the-bounce jumper.

    Oklahoma City will eventually have the bandwidth to let him plumb the depths of his skill set. It may not be next season—not while Danilo Gallinari, Dennis Schroder and Chris Paul are all in town. But it will happen.

    Gilgeous-Alexander has already earned the opportunity. He looked more comfortable making decisions out of the pick-and-roll and firing off the dribble as the season soldiered on, even if the shooting percentages didn't always follow suit. Throwing up some off-the-bounce threes shouldn't be an overextension of his offensive bag. He broke out the occasional step-back jumper as a rookie and hit them at a 64.3 percent clip (18-of-28).

8(T). Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Age at Start of 2019-20: 22

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 18.3 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.6 blocks, 55.5 true shooting percentage

    Advanced Metrics: 13.4 PER, minus-105.95 TPA, minus-1.77 RPM

    Full disclosure: All three Bleacher Report coworkers who were consulted for a rankings sanity check needed to dissuade me from slotting Brandon Ingram any higher.

    Please continue to bang the "Future All-Star" drum if you please. I sure will. In the end, though, his transition to the New Orleans Pelicans is peppered with too many question marks to make the ultimate leap of faith.

    Blood-clot issues in Ingram's right arm prematurely ended his 2018-19. He's fairly close to resuming business as usual, but these issues can become long-term concerns

    Move beyond that, and we still have to reconcile Ingram's role with the Pelicans. They have so many on-ball operators, from Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday to Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Zion Williamson. Even JJ Redick warrants reps from the point of attack.

    It bodes well for Ingram that so many of his running mates can also play off him. Holiday has worked in more of an off-guard capacity for two-plus years, Alexander-Walker wasn't a high-usage player at Virginia Tech and Zion forecasts as one of the league's most devastating rim- and floor-runners. 

    Staggering Ingram's minutes with the other starters—or even bringing him off the bench—would help ensure he gets an adequate chance to run his own lineups. And he deserves that opportunity. He was once again on pace to finish the season strong before undergoing surgery for his deep vein thrombosis.

    Over his final 20 games, Ingram averaged 21.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists while drilling 36.8 percent of his three-pointers. He needs to increase his volume and become more of an off-the-dribble threat from beyond the arc, but his feel for the game is apparent when he's working on the ball. He's even shown his length is disruptive enough on defense to hold up at power forward in certain lineups.

8(T). Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

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    Age at Start of 2019-20: 20

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 13.8 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.4 blocks, 59.1 true shooting percentage

    Advanced Metrics: 16.4 PER, 0.00 TPA, minus-0.22 RPM

    Drawing a line in the sand between Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Ingram ended up being too hard. So, I stopped trying. If it comes as any consolation to Memphis Grizzlies fans (you shouldn't need it), Jackson is the reflexive answer.

    Sticklers are quick to find fault in his foul binges and rebounding numbers, but he is coming off one of the most well-rounded rookie seasons in recent memory. His offensive game is ahead of schedule. He downed threes in moderation (.359), showcased nice touch around the basket and busted out occasional dribble drives and face-ups from the perimeter. 

    Even his defensive activity is tough to kill. His foul trouble was more about his doing too much than it was low IQ or laziness. Learning curves are part of the rookie experience, and he has put in the work behind the scenes to address them.

    Right quad issues ended Jackson's season after just 58 appearances, but he left little doubt that he's a franchise cornerstone. The only other qualified rookie (minimum 10 games) to match his defensive rebound, steal and block rates while averaging one made three-pointer per 36 minutes was Joel Embiid in 2016-17. He was 22 at the time. Jackson doesn't turn 20 until September.

    Good luck if you're trying to find reasons to be lower on him. His rebounding is a problem; he didn't do much better when playing without Marc Gasol. But the 6'11", 242-pound Jackson has the length to be a presence on the glass if he plays with more physicality.

    Pinpointing his place in the offense is the taller task. First options have an inherently bigger impact on the game, and Ja Morant should ease into the leading role. Jackson has the moves to invite more post work, but he'll need to be a higher-volume three-point shooter and face-up scorer if he's going to exceed the status of the primary initiators ranked ahead of him.

7. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

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    Age at Start of 2019-20: 21

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 19.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 8.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.2 blocks, 53.9 true shooting percentage

    Advanced Metrics: 17.0 PER, minus-54.18 TPA, minus-2.74 RPM

    Trae Young will always be battling a shoddy defensive resume. He doesn't have the physical profile of a replacement-level stopper. He's 6'2" with a 6'3" wingspan. Opponents moved him around almost at will last season.

    This issue isn't necessarily going away. Rookies are seldom defensive aces, but he cannot make himself longer or stronger. He'll need to become a next-level read-and-reactor to have a non-negative influence.

    That does little, if anything, to derail what looks like an All-Star arc. Young came alive after a freezing-cold start to last season, eventually emerging as one of the most dangerous shot creators and makers.

    Through 23 appearances after the All-Star break, he averaged 24.7 points and 9.2 assists while slashing 44.2/34.8/87.8. His three-point shooting oozes disappointment at first glance, but he actually canned 35.9 percent of his triples for more than half the season.

    Close to average efficiency from beyond the arc is a big deal when looking at the types of shots he trafficked in. He placed ninth in pull-up three-point attempts per game, and just 43 percent of his made triples came off assists.

    Finishing plays against NBA size and length hasn't been an issue. He doesn't need too much room to get off his jumper, and while his success around the rim cooled later in the season, he's been comfortable making plays in the lane. He ranked 16th in free-throw-attempt rate among all guards and shot 49.3 percent on floaters for the year.

    This says nothing of his vision. He throws all sorts of ridiculous passes. Some risks blow up in his face, but his control for someone with his creative license and usage belies his age. Don't be surprised if he has the Atlanta Hawks near the top 10 of offensive efficiency as early as next season.

6. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

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    Age at Start of 2019-20: 22

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 18.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.4 blocks, 53.8 true shooting percentage 

    Advance Metrics: 16.0 PER, 4.98 TPA, 1.18 RPM

    The Denver Nuggets can feel good about their five-year, $169.7 million investment in Jamal Murray if he ends up being the fifth-best player from this group. The perception changes if he starts to drop closer to 10 or below, which would put him on the outskirts of that surefire-star tier.

    It is hard to figure out where Murray stands relative to his direct peers. The first part of his career has been inoculated against too much responsibility thanks to Nikola Jokic and a deeper supporting cast, but he's not just another tagalong.

    Murray is Denver's second-in-command and will ferry a larger share of the offensive burden. Jokic may be the unchallenged No. 1, but his post-ups and vision will only get the Nuggets so far down the stretch of close games. It is no surprise Murray led the team in crunch-time usage rate during the playoffs.

    Projecting him is extremely difficult. On the one hand, his highs are a trip. Following his 4-of-19 clunker in a Dec. 26 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, Murray averaged 18.9 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists while drilling 38.1 percent of his pull-up threes over his final 43 games. His brand of shot-making is capable of more than the Nuggets ask him to do wire to wire. He can carry an offense by himself.

    On the flip side, he's still figuring out how his star quality meshes with a Jokic-first approach. He has the takeover gene but doesn't always know when to use it. He is not immune to overapplying his attack mode, but he's just as likely to take way too many steps back. As Denver Stiffs' Adam Mares explained during the Locked On Nuggets podcast (11:10 mark):

    "Here's the hard part about Jamal Murray: He is the guy that scored 35 points in that big Game 4 that extended the series back to Denver against Portland. He was the guy that had that fourth quarter in Game 2 to save what would've been an 0-2 start against the Spurs. But he's also the guy that got completely shut down by Derrick White. He's both guys. He's the good one and the bad one."

    So far, the good noticeably outstrips the bad. Murray's postseason debut is proof. His inconsistencies dogged the Nuggets, particularly by the end of the Western Conference semifinals, but he had a fair many stretches in which he seemed ready to be the second-best player on a genuine contender.

5. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

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    Age at Start of 2019-20: 22

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 26.6 points, 4.1 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.2 blocks, 58.4 true shooting percentage

    Advanced Metrics: 20.2 PER, 37.55 TPA, 0.58 RPM

    Devin Booker naysayers don't have much runway to work with anymore. The Phoenix Suns have overextended his offensive utility in each of the past three seasons, and he's responded by turning in three consecutive career years.

    Other players are more efficient, but the context of Booker's role matters. He hasn't enjoyed an offensive safety net. The Suns cast him as their primary scorer and playmaker. No more than 43.7 percent of his made buckets have come off assists since 2016-17, and he ranked third in contested shot attempts per game last season (defender between two and four feet away), trailing only Donovan Mitchell and James Harden.

    That Booker's three-point success rate didn't dip below 33 percent sooner is sort of surprising. And even with his 32.6 percent clip from downtown, his true shooting still sniffed the league average of 56.

    What Booker has done amid his workload is relatively new. Only three other players have matched his scoring and assist output per 36 minutes, true shooting percentage and total court time through their first four seasons: Walter Davis, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson. Of those three, only Jordan owned a usage rate higher than Booker's 29. (Usage data isn't available for Robertson).

    Defense will probably always be Booker's Achilles' heel. Ricky Rubio's arrival will spare Booker from covering smaller and quicker guards, but his off-ball lapses haven't exactly dwindled.

    Disengaged defenders can still be stars. Booker has to stumble under better offensive circumstances if he's going to be genuinely discredited. Next season figures to be a career marker for him. The Suns finally have another primary ball-handler to alleviate his burden.

    Rubio isn't a quintessential fit; he's too possession-dominant. But considering the lack of help Booker has enjoyed to this point, and that he still banged in 37.6 percent of his spot-up threes last season, his life is about to get easier. 

    How well he responds will say a great deal about whether this is a reach.

4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

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    Age at Start of 2019-20: 21

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 15.7 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.7 blocks, 54.7 true shooting percentage

    Advanced Metrics: 15.1 PER, minus-40.76 TPA, 1.39 RPM

    Most of the shine from Jayson Tatum's rookie season wore off during his sophomore go-round. The cause for said drop-off is still being rooted out.

    Is Tatum overrated? Was he a casualty of Boston's overcrowded and under-organized hierarchy? Did head coach Brad Stevens play favorites? Did Kyrie Irving break his spirit? Should we just blame Kobe Bryant?

    Some combination of a jumbled pecking order and "LOL, Kobe" feels about right. As Marcus Smart, ever the voice of reason, said during an appearance on ESPN's The Jump (h/t MassLive.com's Tom Westerholm):

    "Off the court, we actually hung out with each other. Things got on the court, it was just everybody was put in a situation trying to help the team any way they knew how. We got guys scoring the ball, that’s what they do. They don’t know anything else, that’s what they do, that’s how they made their name. And you’re asking guys to take a step back and not be themselves, and that was hard for a lot of guys. It’s hard for guys to look at themselves in the mirror and sacrifice something, and that’s just what it was for us. Everybody was trying so hard to help the team, but they didn’t know what exactly to do.”

    Tatum will play in a friendlier environment next season. Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Kemba Walker all need their touches, but the Celtics are lighter on playmakers. He should have more of an opportunity to significantly up his usage and jump-start the offense.

    Preliminary concern is fine. Tatum is not yet a consistent pull-up shooter, and he bails out on too many drives. He'll need to stop settling in the half court before he lives down the mid-range spree he went on at the beginning of last season.

    Still, the current version of Tatum is a really good player: a reliable three-point marksman and No. 2 scorer who can be shifted around on the defensive end. Even if his secondary initiating never reaches its expected peak, he's only going to get better.

3. De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings

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    Tim Warner/Getty Images

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 21

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 17.3 points, 3.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.6 blocks, 54.4 true shooting percentage

    Advanced Metrics: 18.1 PER, 60.15 TPA, 1.82 RPM

    Default leg-ups are usually given to young wings, and by that measure, Jayson Tatum has De'Aaron Fox beat. He can guard more positions and, at 6'8", is just generally considered the ideal player archetype.

    Perception changes quickly when evaluating kiddies. Both Fox and Tatum will be only 21 and in their third season when the 2019-20 campaign tips off. Whether the former holds his place in front is at the same time a matter of splitting hairs and relatively unknowable. 

    For now, Fox is the safer of the two. Maybe that's an overreaction to how both players fared last year. It doesn't feel like it.

    Playmaking wings are the NBA's kingpin cornerstones, and Tatum fits that bill only in theory. He needs to establish himself as more of a table-setter, and while he should get that opportunity independent of Al Horford and Kyrie Irving, his role and usage might still be complicated, if diluted, by Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Kemba Walker.

    Fox's place in the Sacramento Kings' pecking order knows no such ambiguity. He is The Guy. He will have more control over the outcome of possessions than most others on this list for as long as he remains in Sacramento.

    That's fantastic news for the Kings. Fox's blend of speed and control is basketball contraband, and he cuts it with a budding IQ. Sacramento aims to run opponents off the floor, but he is methodically surgical when entering the lane in half court. That measured patience allows opportunities to develop around him, and it can wreak havoc on a defense more prepared to guard against sheer force and haste.

    Facing Fox won't get any easier if his scoring profile stays the course. He posted a higher free-throw-attempt rate than Kawhi Leonard last season, and his three-point clip not only jumped by 6.4 percentage points, but he drilled 35.2 percent of his pull-up treys.

    Baking in more volume will be key if he's going to leverage his jumper as more than an incidental threat, but the monumental leap he made between his rookie and sophomore seasons suggests he's more of a multilevel scorer than initially advertised.

2. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 19

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats (college): 22.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.1 steals, 1.8 blocks, 70.2 true shooting percentage

    Advanced Metrics: 40.8 PER, 331.29 TPA, N/A RPM

    Placing rookies so high in any rankings exercise is typically met with aversion. Zion Williamson hasn't played in the NBA yet. He is still carrying the burden of proof.

    Hedging against the unknown is safe and acceptable. That doesn't make it accurate.

    Every year, without fail, a new kid on the block stakes his claim in this discussion. The best rookie might not always rank first or second among under-23 players, but he figures prominently into the conversation. Luka Doncic is a perfect example. Other than Ben Simmons, who among players younger than 23 at the end of last season would have belonged in front him?

    Giving Zion the No. 2 spot now is not without risk. Once more: He doesn't have NBA reps under his belt. But he's a database-breaking prospect. As ESPN's Kevin Pelton wrote:

    "In February, I posed the question of who was the most recent college prospect who was as promising statistically as Williamson. According to my consensus NBA draft projections, which utilized both the player's statistics translated to their NBA equivalents and where the player ranks in [Jonathan] Givony's top 100, I found only Anthony Davis in 2012 ahead of Williamson in my database, which includes most top college prospects going back to 2003.

    At that point, I speculated that Williamson might be able to pass Davis if he were able to play at the same level through Duke's remaining games. His knee injury prevented that possibility, and because Williamson's numbers were down a bit—most notably on defense, on which he averaged just 1.8 steals and 1.0 blocks after returning, compared to 2.2 and 1.8 before his injury—his projection slipped a small amount. Nonetheless, Williamson will enter the draft as the best collegiate prospect since Davis by my projections.

    No college player since at least 2010-11 (minimum 50 total minutes) matched Williamson's box plus-minus or PER. Since 2009-10, only two other players have matched his defensive rebound (18.0), assist (14.9), steal (3.9) and block (5.8) percentages in comparable court time. And among everyone who has attempted more than 250 field goals and 200 free throws in a single season since 1992-93, Zion's 70.2 true shooting percentage ranks first.

    Real questions can be asked about his game. Will he ever be a consistent jump shooter? Can he be the No. 1 playmaker for a really good offense? His apparent growth spurt should do wonders for his positional flexibility, but what will his defensive motor look like in the NBA?

    Zion doesn't have to invalidate every doubt to make it big. He has room to spare. He could fall a peg or three short of his best-case scenario, and he'd still be the type of player worth building around. 

1. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

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    Glenn James/Getty Images

    Age at Start of 2019-20: 20

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.3 blocks, 54.5 true shooting percentage

    Advanced Metrics: 19.6 PER, 196.02 TPA, 1.29 RPM

    Others might cape for Zion Williamson to claim the top spot if they're looking far enough down the line. That's not an egregious argument to make. We got to see him test his chops in an early December tilt against the Stetson Hatters. Having not played college basketball, Luka Doncic made no such gamble.

    Choosing between the two is a real division. Doncic may be working off a fringe All-Star rookie campaign, but it is fair to wonder how much better he'll get. That's less of a knock against him and more a nod to his debut detonation. He averaged 20-plus points and six assists while drilling 168 threes for crying out loud. Only 14 other players have ever done the same at least once.

    Even a more efficient version of Doncic may not be worlds better. Step-back threes won't suddenly be worth four points (I think). Can he flirt with double-digit assists? Scoring 30 points per game? Will (not-so-)swole Luka be an above-average defender?

    Williamson feels like he has the higher ceiling. A could-be primary initiator who should one day be an All-Defensive staple is no joke. Superstar arguments are made for lesser players. 

    This isn't an anti-Doncic stance. He's getting the No. 1 spot for a reason.

    Last year is his floor, and that's an absurdly high baseline. He's already a primary playmaker with an affinity for draining bonkers shots, some of them in high-stakes situations. He petered out over the second half of last season, but rookie walls happen.

    Stardom is not a height he has to reach. He's already hit the threshold. There is unique value in that certainty, even when pitting it against a more prolific unknown.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball InsidersRealGM and Spotrac.

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