The 10 Most Promising Young NBA Players

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 12, 2020

The 10 Most Promising Young NBA Players

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    It's never easy to time the NBA's changing of the guard, especially when LeBron James continues dropping jaws in his 17th season.

    But regardless of when the reigning stars are ready to hand over the baton, there's already a batch of young ballers eager to snatch it away.

    The amount of promise and potential in the Association is overwhelming—so much so that even while laying out strict guidelines for qualification and leaving 10 spots, we still needed honorable mentions to highlight all the young hoopers.

    As for those guidelines, we're only considering players who are both under the age of 25 and in one of their first three NBA seasons. No disrespect to late-bloomers or early arrivals, but it's tough to talk potential with someone 25 and up or four-plus seasons into their career.

    With the playing field set, we're ranking the top 10 players in that group based on production, growth potential and the likelihood of realizing that promise. Since upside can be unpredictable, though, we are giving bonuses to established track records, especially ones that demonstrate the ability to contribute to team success.

Honorable Mentions

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    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, G, Oklahoma City Thunder

    While Gilgeous-Alexander may not have the top gear of some positional peers, he gets wherever he wants through masterful manipulation of opposing defenders. His arsenal is full of herky-jerky dribble moves, and his understanding of how and when to change speeds goes well beyond his 21 years of age.

    He's more of an adequate spacer than a good one (career 35.5 percent from three on low volume), and he still hasn't assumed complete control of an offense. That's enough to deny him a top-10 spot, but his poise and potential are too rich to let him go unmentioned.

                       

    Jonathan Isaac, F, Orlando Magic

    Isaac looks like the creation of a defensive-minded coach with access to a basketball laboratory. The modern game is all about versatility, and he's the ultimate Swiss Army knife on defense. Only Giannis Antetokounmpo owns a better defensive box plus/minus, and before Isaac lost the remainder of the season to a knee injury suffered Jan. 1, he was busy shaving 4.3 points off his opponents' field-goal percentages.

    But there are two ends to a basketball court, and Isaac is very much a work in progress at the other one. He's not even a double-digit scorer for his career (9.3 points per game), and his 43.2/32.8/79.4 shooting slash fails to impress from any level.

                     

    Jaren Jackson Jr., F, Memphis Grizzlies

    Jackson won't always wow on the stat sheet, but he's perfect for this increasingly positionless league. He fits every definition of a basketball unicorn. He can shoot, protect the rim, defend the perimeter, find scoring chances off the dribble and set up his teammates. He's 20 years old, and it's hard to find a weak spot in his game.

    But since this discussion revolves heavily around production, Jackson must be knocked for a lack of star-level output. No one should sneeze at 17.3 points, 2.5 threes or 1.6 blocks per game, but those are his best numbers, and none appear capable of anchoring a franchise.

                     

    Michael Porter Jr., F, Denver Nuggets

    Watching Porter play, you'd never believe he lasted until the 14th pick of the 2018 draft. He's such an effortless scorer, and he can pile up points from anywhere. There aren't many players capable of providing 20.1 points and 11.1 rebounds per 36 minutes while also shooting 50.8 percent from the field and 43.2 percent outside.

    But he did slip down the draft board because of a terrifying injury history, and his skill set needs diversification. We know he can score. The jury remains out on whether he can impact the game as a defender or distributor.

10. John Collins, F, Atlanta Hawks

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    John Collins wasted little time making his presence felt at this level, and he's looked like an NBA natural ever since.

    He debuted with 11 double-doubles en route to an All-Rookie second-team finish in 2017-18, and he's basically been a lock for 20 points and 10 boards per game since. His explosive athleticism makes him a premium close-range finisher, and he's getting more mileage from those springs on defense than ever before (1.7 blocks per game). He's also splashing better than one triple per night at a 35.2 percent clip.

    Even before adding elements to his game, he was a magnet for easy buckets with his hops and soft hands. Effort was always a strength, and it's maximized by his jet propulsion and understanding of where and when to attack. He could hustle his way to near-star production, even if some of the numbers have received a bad-team inflation bump.

    If Collins retains the gains he's made as a spacer and stopper, he might be a Chris Bosh 2.0 kind of building block. He won't be the best player on a great team, but he could costar for a good one and handle third-wheel duties for a juggernaut.

9. Bam Adebayo, F/C, Miami Heat

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    There are certain things Bam Adebayo can't do on a basketball court. He rarely puts huge numbers in the scoring column, he almost never lets one fly from three, and his 6'9" frame can only provide so much rim protection.

    But the positives he brings to the hardwood are almost too numerous to mention. He's an expert shot-creator for someone his size and at his position. Since 2017-18, he ranks seventh among centers in total assists. Narrow the focus to this season—his first as a full-time starter—and he trails only two-time All-Star Nikola Jokic.

    The Miami Heat run more dribble handoffs than anyone, and they score at the third-most efficient rate on those plays. That all ties back to their unique trigger man. Just last season, when Adebayo was often buried behind Hassan Whiteside, the Heat had the eighth-worst finishing rate on those plays.

    At the other end, Adebayo is a Defensive Player of the Year in training.

    His mobility makes him the perfect counter to modern perimeter players. While most guards want to draw a mismatched big man, Adebayo has weaponized the perimeter switch. As Jared Dubin noted in a recent FiveThirtyEight piece, he ranked second among centers for defensive switches onto guards and allowed the fourth-fewest points per possession on those plays.

    While Adebayo's scoring limitations might cap his growth potential, his versatility is nearly unparalleled. He's one of two players averaging 15.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.0 blocks; reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is the other.

8. De'Aaron Fox, G, Sacramento Kings

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Even in a league littered with world-class athletes, De'Aaron Fox's speed stands out from the rest. He has blink-and-you-missed-him burst, and he has only grown more dangerous as he's figured out how to use it.

    Players can't spend the entire game in top gear without turning into a shot-chucking, turnover-committing mess. Fox's ability to downshift has helped emphasize his strengths without putting his weaknesses on blast. His good is borderline great (19.8 points and 7.1 assists per game, 47.3 percent shooting), and his struggles aren't too detrimental (3.3 turnovers per contest, 31.3 percent from three).

    Despite having this season disjointed by ankle and back injuries, the growth he's shown from his rookie year in 2017-18 is staggering. His player efficiency rating has almost doubled (20.1, up from 11.2). His scoring has spiked by more than eight points (19.8, 11.6), and his field-goal percentage has climbed more than six points (47.3, 41.2). He's also sliced nearly a full point from his turnover percentage (15.6, down from 16.4).

    "My first year, I think I was just running fast with no purpose," Fox told CBS Sports' Jasmyn Wimbish. "Now I feel like my game is more methodical. I use my speed in bursts instead of using it the whole time. I've just learned how to pick my spots."

    Fox needs to prove he can lead his team to victory. But as the 22-year-old floor general of the Sacramento Kings, he's doing more than enough to snag a top-10 spot.

7. Zion Williamson, F, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Career arcs are tough to trace for youngsters because there's such a limited sample size. With Zion Williamson, it's next to impossible considering he's laced them up all of eight times so far.

    He could prove this ranking comically low. Some might even say that's his highest-probability outcome.

    He's such an absurd athlete for his size (6'6", 285 lbs), and he puts constant pressure on opponents. Over those eight outings (215 minutes total), he has attempted 81 shots inside three feet and finished 55 (67.9 percent). He regularly collapses defenses despite battling a loose handle and an inconsistent jumper.

    But even as he learns on the job, his upside is obviously immense. His per-100-possessions averages include 34.1 points and 12.9 rebounds. He owns a 60.6 true shooting percentage. Only three other players are clearing 34 and 12 per 100 possessions and posting a 60-plus true shooting percentage: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns (minimum 100 minutes).

    The problem is we're so early into Williamson's career that the range of possible outcomes is too wide to bump him any higher up the list. Presumably, he'll work to correct his few flaws and find better ways of emphasizing his strengths. Knock on wood, but let's hope he stays healthy, too.

    We'd love for this ranking to be too low, but we haven't seen enough to nudge him any higher.

6. Ja Morant, G, Memphis Grizzlies

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    Ja Morant looks old. His fashion and ferocity fit the modern league well enough, but watching him requires constant personal reminders that you're witnessing a 20-year-old rookie in action.

    "That guy is young, but he plays like a five-year All-Star," Washington Wizards head coach Scott Brooks recently told reporters. "He just controls the game. ... He's a problem."

    Morant's mastery shines through the Memphis Grizzlies' ahead-of-schedule success. The Association's youngest squad would be a playoff participant if the curtains closed today. That's not all about Morant, but as the team's leader and top scorer and distributor, he's the most obvious catalyst of Memphis' momentum.

    Rookie guards don't do this. In fact, he's on pace to have the highest true shooting percentage ever for a freshman guard averaging 25 minutes with a 25-plus usage percentage. Not bad for someone who supposedly counted shooting as one of his biggest question marks.

    Moving forward, he'll need to become more comfortable from distance and a bit more consistent with his decision-making. But we're picking nits here, which is the only way to keep him outside the top five.

5. Donovan Mitchell, G, Utah Jazz

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    Ever since Donovan Mitchell debuted as an All-Rookie first-teamer in 2017-18, his All-Star arrival seemed a matter of when not if.

    Well, the when is now. He'll soon be off to the Windy City to represent the Utah Jazz in the world's greatest pickup game. It's the result of challenging the notion that player development isn't linear. Each season, he comes back a bit more productive and a touch more efficient than the prior year.

    As a 23-year-old who seems like he's settled into the role of primary scorer and secondary distributor, he might be closer to his ceiling than others on this list. But when your floor reaches an All-Star level, that's not a bad thing.

    Let's also not gloss over the fact that he's still getting better. While most dynamic when attacking the rim, he's increasingly dangerous as a shooter. His free-throw (85.9) and true shooting (55.8) percentages are both personal bests, as are his connection rates from three-to-10 feet (42.9), 10-to-16 feet (50.7) and 16 feet to the three-point line (50.4).

    Over time, he might fall behind some of the previously listed players, but his body of work deserves top-five placement.

4. Trae Young, G, Atlanta Hawks

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    Trae Young evaluations are tricky. They almost force you into a discussion about what really matters in this sport.

    If ESPN's real plus-minus metric can be taken as gospel, then you're looking at this season's best offensive player and worst defender. What's a player like that even worth? Clearly, we think quite a bit.

    The name of the game is scoring, and Young is incredible at both converting scoring chances and finding them for his teammates. He's on course to become only the fifth player to average 29 points and nine assists and just the second to do so in one of his first two NBA seasons. He's also a unique sniper with the second-most makes on shots from 28-plus feet and an unbelievable 39.4 percent success rate on threes launched after at least seven dribbles.

    Granted, this production is occurring on a not-good Hawks team. But that same squad is 7.0 points better per 100 possessions with him than without. And one could make a convincing argument that even if he lost some volume with a superior supporting cast, he might make up the difference with mind-numbing efficiency.

    His handle and inside-the-gym shooting range remind you of Stephen Curry, and Young might edge the two-time MVP in playmaking (though Curry gets the nod in close-range finishing and all things defense). Young has more 40-point games before the age of 22 than anyone not named Kevin Durant or LeBron James.

    This doesn't completely forgive Young's turnstile defense, but he's certainly one of this league's five most promising youngsters.

3. Jayson Tatum, F, Boston Celtics

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    Boasting both a deep roster and a head coach who knows how to use it, the Boston Celtics can make just about every five-man combination become bad news for the opposition. But there's one thing the Shamrocks can't figure out: treading water without Jayson Tatum.

    Their third-year forward has snatched the title of Boston's best player, and there are zero reasons to think the 21-year-old will relinquish it. He's the only Celtic with an off-court net rating in the red (minus-0.8); the next closest is Gordon Hayward's plus-5.4.

    Tatum is surging through a breakout month. Over his last dozen outings, he's been good for 26.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.0 blocks per night. He's shooting 50 percent from the field and 47.3 percent from distance during this stretch.

    This only serves to spotlight what's been a dominant season as a whole. He owns a 5.16 RPM. If that sounds high, that's because it is. Only four players—each an All-Star starter—have better marks. Tatum is starring in a way that makes us wonder if this lofty ranking is actually high enough.

     As SB Nation's Michael Pina wrote. "His two-way contributions impact nearly every area of the modern game that relates to wins and losses; he's built to thrive in a playoff atmosphere, with an untouchable combination of size, feel, strength, aggression and pinpoint footwork that would make a Broadway choreographer blush."

2. Ben Simmons, G, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Don't let Ben Simmons' lack of a three-ball or his imperfect fit with Joel Embiid distort your view of his worth. Simmons is a walking triple-double threat who defends all five positions. He's on a short list of all-caps STARS, and he's clearly one of the league's elite young ballers.

    (Also, don't let the fact this is technically Simmons' fourth NBA season force you into thinking he has no place on this list. Much like the voters who awarded him Rookie of the Year honors in 2017-18, we're counting Simmons' debut campaign as the one in which he first suited up.)

    Inside the arc, he almost has no weaknesses.

    Sure, he could be more accurate from the charity stripe (career-high 62.7 percent), and maybe his turnovers could come down a touch (3.6 per game). But on any given night, he can go for some combination of 20 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Oh, and he'll do that while often locking up the other team's top scorer, too.

    His reluctance to even attempt triples is frustrating. Just ask head coach Brett Brown. But that shouldn't obfuscate the full picture with Simmons.

    He's a 6'10", 230-pound locomotive in the open court, as threatening as anyone this side of Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James when he gets a full head of steam. Simmons' boards, dimes, steals and deflections? Those are part of his NBA story, too.

    He's trickier to build around than others on this list, but he could be a superstar in the right situation. Only the top player on our list has consistently flashed a higher upside and the ability to reach it.

1. Luka Doncic, G, Dallas Mavericks

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    While this list is littered with current and future All-Stars, Luka Doncic is the only current MVP candidate. Others may eventually reach that level, but he's here now. And considering he's all of 20 years old, he should be nowhere near his full potential.

    "The only thing that surprises me [about Doncic's ascension] is that it's so quick," fellow Slovenian and national teammate Goran Dragic told NBA.com's Sekou Smith. "I was thinking third, fourth, fifth year [in the NBA]. But not in his second year. He's already showing he's one of the best and he's only 20 years old and he's putting up the numbers like, it seems crazy to say it, but the next Michael Jordan."

    That last part is probably hyperbolic, but can anything be qualified as such when it's attached to a shooting star like Doncic?

    He's been slowed by an ankle injury and nothing else this season. He's missed 11 games, but he's second in both PER (29.0) and box plus/minus (11.4). He's on course to become just the third player to average 28 points, nine rebounds and eight assists.

    We've written this already, but it bears repeating: He is 20 years old. He's younger than five of the lottery picks in last June's draft. It's not hard to imagine major improvements yet to come, especially when there's room to grow as a decision-maker and a scorer on every level.

    It's possible no one on the list reaches the level Doncic is already at, and he could actually widen his lead on everyone else moving forward.

                     

    All stats, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference and accurate through games played Feb. 10.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.