They Got Next: Luka Doncic, Zion Williamson and the NBA's Top 25 Under 25

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 27, 2020

They Got Next: Luka Doncic, Zion Williamson and the NBA's Top 25 Under 25

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    The NBA is in a good place.

    At least, it will be once this indefinite pause is lifted and some normalcy returns to the world.

    While so much of the 2019-20 season has been defined by established elites like LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard, perhaps the more intriguing element emerges from basketball's next in line. From Luka Doncic to Zion Williamson, Jayson Tatum to Ja Morant, Devin Booker to Bam Adebayo, it seems this campaign has launched one rising star after another.

    So, someone has to sort out this sudden celestial congestion, right? That's where this article comes in, as a way to both celebrate the Association's emerging under-25 talent (as of March 27) and rank it on by a combination of proven production and realistic potential.


    Gersson Rosas, President of Basketball Operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves, returns to “The Full 48 with Howard Beck” to discuss COVID19 and the Timberwolves preparation for and response to the outbreak, how Karl-Anthony Towns and his family are holding up through their personal battle against the coronavirus, Timberwolves Dr. Robby Sikka’s invaluable expertise and preparedness, his hopes to finish the season, and the D’Angelo Russell trade.

25. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

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    Surprisingly, this was one of the toughest calls on the board.

    Had Myles Turner maintained his play from last season—when he paced the Association in blocks, splashed 38.8 percent of his triples and finished fifth in Defensive Player of the Year voting—he may have secured the spot with ease. Then again, if Lauri Markkanen takes his anticipated leap and becomes a 7-foot mismatch, maybe he walks away with it.

    Instead, Turner regressed across the board, Markkanen ranked among the campaign's biggest disappointments, and we're left with plenty to think about. And not just with them, but also a finally unleashed Markelle Fultz, a suddenly very relevant Christian Wood and the always intriguing (but too infrequently dominant) Aaron Gordon.

    This didn't come down to a coin flip, but the margin wasn't much bigger. Ultimately, Turner's combination of shot-blocking, three-point shooting and proven production earned him this tightly contested spot.

24. Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Lonzo Ball brought preternatural passing and malleable defense with him to the NBA. But his growth as a willing and able scorer this season has elevated his ceiling and earned this selection.

    His shooting mechanics look cleaner, and they're bringing better results. After converting just 31.5 percent of his perimeter looks his first two seasons, he's bumped that number up to 38.3. His 56.7 free-throw percentage remains a drag, but at least it's trending up. He doesn't have much of an in-between game, but that mostly just means he only takes point-blank shots and triples—an analytically approved combo.

    He sees the game quicker than most, and he's all of 22 years old. Open teammates are rarely (if ever) missed, no matter if they're a few feet to his side or across the entire court. His passing alone nets the New Orleans Pelicans 18.4 points a night, the 11th-highest average in the league. On defense, he functions as both a versatile ball-stopper and a disruptive, instinctual off-ball defender.

    There just aren't many players who impact the game this many ways. He's one of only four players averaging 12 points, six assists, six rebounds and two three-pointers; James Harden, LeBron James and Luka Doncic are the others.

23. Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    This is either an aggressive ranking for a player averaging fewer than 15 minutes in his freshman season, or it's an undersell of what we know (or are pretty sure we know, at least) of Michael Porter Jr.'s talents. Using a bit of Goldilocks logic here, that means it might be just right for now.

    Porter is better in theory than in practice. He has big-man size and the skills of a scoring wing. He should be a walking mismatch, and in limited action, he has flashed that ability. He's already averaging 19.2 points per 36 minutes and piecing together a pristine 49.5/42.2/76.7 shooting slash.

    But he's also an enigma, considering he lost all but three games of the previous two seasons combined to a back injury. The Denver Nuggets are handling him with kid gloves—understandable given their impressive depth—as he has yet to top 30 minutes and only cleared 25 minutes six different times. That makes it tough to tell how he'd handle a featured role or whether he can iron out some weaknesses (playmaking and defense).

    Still, his future is fascinating enough to get him on this list. His ceiling features annual All-Star appearances, and opportunity's knock could help him realize that potential.

22. Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers

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    Domantas Sabonis not only rocketed past Myles Turner as the Indiana Pacers' best big man, but statistically speaking, he established himself as the Circle City's most important player.

    He's a 6'11", 240-pound package of basketball smarts, and he uses his razor-sharp instincts to stay a few steps ahead of the defense. He masterfully blends brute force and finesse to punish defenders on the low block. He utilizes his next-level court vision to spot open teammates anywhere. Or if they're not open, he dislodges their defenders with a firmly planted and perfectly angled screen.

    All of it greases Indiana's offensive gears, and the team averages an extra 6.1 points per 100 possessions when he plays. Sabonis ranks second in screen assist points and third among centers in points created by an assist. Tack on his individual scoring, and he's contributing 46.9 points per game.

    That's an enormous number, and it helps explain how Sabonis has found his way to stardom without the aid of shooting or shot-blocking.

21. Jonathan Isaac, Orlando Magic

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    No matter the offensive problem posed by the Orlando Magic's opponents, Jonathan Isaac is probably the defensive solution. He has enough size to bother bigs and enough mobility to move with guards. In an era defined by versatility, he's as malleable as it gets.

    "He's a special defender," Aaron Gordon said, per Magic.com's John Denton. "He's gotta be in contention for Defensive Player of the Year or (All) Defensive first team. He can guard (point guards) through (centers)."

    Isaac's DPOY candidacy was derailed by a knee injury that has sidelined him since January, but his numbers highlight how strong it could have been. His matchups shot 4.3 percentage points worse than they did on average and 10.2 points worse on attempts within six feet. He was on pace to become just the sixth player ever to post a 12-plus rebounding percentage, seven-plus block percentage and 2.5-plus steal percentage.

    The 22-year-old could have a slew of defensive accolades in his future. If he finds a more consistent plan of attack on offense, he could prove this ranking egregiously low.

20. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    It's possible to pick holes in Jamal Murray's game—offensive consistency, defensive anything—especially when you factor in that he's already netted a max-money extension.

    But then you remember he only 23 and in his fourth NBA season, and the nitpicking seems a little silly. He can be an absolute net-shredder off the dribble or the catch, and when he catches fire, opposing defenses are helpless against him.

    He's an offensive leap away from full-fledged stardom, but each 30-point outing—he had six this season, seven last year—gets him closer to the launching pad. He isn't super explosive, but he's slippery enough off the bounce that he can usually get to where he wants. And if that doesn't work, he'll just conjure up some two-man magic with Nikola Jokic, who helps mask Murray's weaknesses and enhances his strengths.

    Murray's flaws are too glaring to slot him any higher, and some of them might stick around for the duration of his career. But there's a universe in which he starts pumping in 25 points and five-plus dimes a night, and maybe it'll prove to be ours.

19. John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    John Collins has established himself as a 20-point, 10-rebound machine, explosive finisher and elite rim-runner. But, as he told The Athletic's Chris Kirschner, his game has more layers than people think:

    "I feel like if more people watch the game, they would understand that I'm not just a pick-and-roll player. I have an ability to swing the ball, run the floor, shoot, create offense for myself, post up, take advantage of mismatches. I feel like my ability to play within the team’s offense and not need the basketball and just play a role and be effective at it—I feel like that adds another layer to my game that I feel like some people don't respect."

    Creating offense might be a stretch, since nearly 75 percent of his two-point baskets come off an assist. But he is displaying growth in critical areas. He got dinged for not being much of a defender, but now he's swatting 1.6 shots a game. He didn't have the widest offensive arsenal, but now he's hitting 40.1 percent of his threes and 52.4 percent of his long twos.

    The fact he's making strides in those areas shows that his game still has ample room for development, especially considering he's already a 20-10 supplier as a 22-year-old.

18. Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks

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    Kristaps Porzingis went 20 months without logging NBA minutes due to an ACL tear in February 2018. This is only his first season back, and in it, he's worked around both load management and knee soreness.

    It's safe to assume, then, the 7'3" unicorn still doesn't have his legs underneath him. That's a terrifying thought for other teams given what he's doing without them.

    If this campaign never resumes—knocking on wood—he'd be the first player ever to average 19 points, two blocks and two triples. He's such a unique talent, and that's with the acknowledgement we probably haven't even seen his best basketball yet. Beyond the health discussion, he's only spent 24 percent of his career minutes at the 5, where he can do the most damage.

    He's long, he's bouncy and he's a marksman from distance. That's a superstar skill set, even if it hasn't quite yielded superstar production just yet.

17. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

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    Some fans may forever focus on what (or who) Deandre Ayton isn't: namely, Luka Doncic, the player taken two spots after the Phoenix Suns selected Ayton first overall in 2018. But that's a mental exercise for Phoenix fans to wrestle with.

    Take Ayton for the player he's become, and he looks an awful lot like a budding All-Star.

    Remember, he's had his sophomore season upended by a 25-game suspension and ankle injuries. Through it all, he's putting up 19.0 points, 12.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. The only other players to clear those marks in their first or second seasons were Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson and Bob McAdoo.

    Ayton's offensive game is nowhere near fully formed. He needs to get bigger, stronger and more aggressive in the low post. His 75.3 career free-throw percentage suggests he could also expand his scoring range. His defense is still developing, too, but it's been rapidly accelerating this year. Last season, his matchups shot the same against him they always did; this year, he's shaving 6.2 points off their conversion rates.

16. D'Angelo Russell, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    D'Angelo Russell isn't for everyone. He dominates the ball on offense and doesn't do enough to stop it on defense. There's a reason the Golden State Warriors could only find one future first and Andrew Wiggins' colossal contract when they shipped out Russell at the deadline.

    But there's also a reason that two teams—first the Warriors, then the Minnesota Timberwolves—were comfortable paying Russell a max-contract rate. Scoring is second nature to him, and he can do things with the basketball few others can.

    He has good size for the point guard spot (6'4"), which helps him see over defenders and spot open teammates. Or if he's going to call his own number, he can generate (and more importantly, convert) shots at every level off the bounce. This is his second straight season averaging better than 21 points and six assists; only six other players can say the same.

    Russell's game could soon launch into a new orbit in Minnesota, where he'll work alongside Karl-Anthony Towns and possibly another top-five pick. The defense might be disastrous, but the offense could be so explosive that it doesn't really matter.

15. Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    If this was strictly a statistical discussion, Jaren Jackson Jr. wouldn't land nearly this high. There's nothing glaringly wrong with his numbers or anything, but 16.9 points and 4.7 rebounds aren't exactly eye-openers.

    In terms of potential, though, Jackson has an argument for top-10 consideration. He's a 6'11", 242-pounder who moves and shoots like a perimeter player. He's less of a stretch 5 than he is just a natural marksman. He's one of only 13 players averaging at least 2.5 triples and shooting 39-plus percent from range (minimum 30 games).

    Defensively, he has the side-to-side quickness to keep pace with perimeter players and the length to protect the interior (7'5.25" wingspan). He has averaged 2.0 blocks per 36 minutes in his career, and if that number doesn't blow you away, then consider he's logged the majority of his floor time at the 4, not the 5.

    He's the ultimate pick partner for Ja Morant since Jackson can explode to the basket, pop out beyond the arc or finish most anywhere in between. Tack on the defensive versatility, and you're looking at an impact two-way player who won't turn 21 until September.

14. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    If Bam Adebayo isn't on your list of the NBA's best passing bigs, you're overdue for a revision. Freed from behind Hassan Whiteside's massive shadow and thrust into the Miami Heat's starting five, Adebayo has thrived as a jumbo-initiator. The 6'9" center has shattered his previous best with 5.1 assists per game, the second-highest average among 5s this season.

    If Adebayo isn't on your list of the Association's stingiest stoppers, you might as well toss it in the nearest recycling bin. He's a legitimate five-position defender. While other bigs get exposed on perimeter switches, when Adebayo takes on a guard, it's advantage Heat.

    His versatility has fueled his rise as a top-shelf center, even though he's not a great rim protector and has all of four career triples in 216 games. He's so good at everything else—the only player other than Giannis Antetokounmpo averaging 16 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and one block—that any shortcomings are easy to stomach.

    Jimmy Butler might get the most credit for Miami's turnaround, but Adebayo is most responsible for brightening the organization's long-term outlook.

    "He's the Zo [Alonzo Mourning]," Heat president Pat Riley told ESPN's Zach Lowe. "He's the UD [Udonis Haslem]. He's the Dwyane [Wade]. They were standard-bearers. Bam is that person. He is the real deal."

13. De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    De'Aaron Fox plays with blink-and-you'll-miss-him burst. It's only natural, then, that his NBA career has progressed at such a speedy pace.

    He didn't blow the doors off anyone as a rookie, but for a freshman floor general, he was fine: 11.6 points, 4.4 assists per game. As a sophomore, though, he rocketed up the point guard ranks (17.3 points, 7.3 dimes) and helped add a dozen notches to the Sacramento Kings' win column (from 27 to 39).

    A severe ankle sprain cost him more than a month of this, his third NBA campaign, but he's still trending up. Since the calendar flipped, his production has jumped to 22.3 points, 6.8 assists and 1.6 steals per game. His three-point shooting has flatlined (30.7 percent), but he's still converting 48 percent of his field goals in this stretch. For context, the last player to post a 22.3/6.8/1.6 slash line while shooting 48 percent was Stephen Curry in his first MVP season.

    Fox's blazing speed is first to catch your eye, but as the 22-year-old gets more experienced, he's gaining a better understanding of how to keep defenses off balance. He doesn't always need to go zero to 60 in a hurry, but leveraging the fact his motor has that kind of horsepower against defenders only simplifies the game for this rising star.

12. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Two years back, Jaylen Brown seemed on the precipice of stardom. The Boston Celtics were scrambling to replace leading scorer Kyrie Irving on the fly, and Brown, then a sophomore, was tasked with replacing some of the All-Star's production, whether he was ready or not.

    Brown, of course, dazzled, scoring 20 points in the playoff opener and averaging 18 on 46.6/39.3/64.0 shooting for the postseason. A third-year leap seemed inevitable, but with the return of Irving and a healthy Gordon Hayward, Brown got a bit lost in the shuffle. His minutes tailed off and so did a pinch of his efficiency. But luckily for Boston, his ascension wasn't derailed, only merely delayed.

    With Irving out of the picture and a starting spot secured, Brown has used the 2019-20 season as his personal launching pad. An All-Star selection didn't come his way—though it arguably should have—but almost everything else fell in place. His career-high 20.4 points were further boosted by a sizzling 49.0/38.1/73.6 shooting slash. His offensive breakout was mirrored by All-NBA-level defense the other way.

    He's already a special talent. ESPN's real plus-minus views him as a top-40 player (36th overall, to be precise). But it still feels like he's just getting started. If he adds a touch more shot-creation to his arsenal, he could be making regular All-Star appearances for years to come.

11. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    The NBA is in a very, very good place if there are really 10 more exciting young players than Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. I'm the one who made the list, and even I'm having a hard time buying it.

    This is only the 21-year-old's second NBA season, and he's already the leading scorer of a playoff team—that also features Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari. If Gilgeous-Alexander's 19.3 points per game weren't enough, he's also snaring 6.1 rebounds, dishing 3.3 assists, swiping 1.1 steals and shooting 47.3 percent (35.1 from deep).

    "His first step is unbelievable," Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse said, per ESPN's Royce Young. "It's really hard for anybody to keep him in front of him and then he blows by you, and then again he slows it all down to sidestep people or use his athleticism or make the right play at the end of it."

    The wild part of all of that is you wouldn't label Gilgeous-Alexander as a scorer. You wouldn't label him as anything. He doesn't have an area of greatness, but there's a good-to-really-goodness with everything he brings inside the line. If he hits his peak, he'll be a multipositional defender who can score, shoot, lead an offense and rebound. How many players are bringing that much to the table?

10. Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Brandon Ingram had long hinted at high-level ability, but it seemed like the basketball gods would never let us witness his peak. There were flashes here and there, but injuries and inconsistency clouded his three seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers.

    Once he linked up with the Pelicans, though, the cloud lifted. He stuffed the stat sheet with 22 points, five assists, five boards, two blocks and a steal in his Big Easy debut, and he hasn't let up since.

    He earned his first All-Star nod in February, and if this is a foundation-laying season, that should be the first of many. With his size (6'9"), length (7'3" wingspan) and shot-creation, he has all the makings of a star.

    His point production is up by six per game (18.3 to 24.3). He is taking more than three times as many triples as last season and adding nearly six percentage points to his conversion rate (33 to 38.7). Even his puzzling free-throw woes are a thing of the past (66.2 percent his first three seasons, 85.8 now). He almost certainly has max money headed his way this offseason.

9. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Devin Booker's Phoenix Suns have lost a league-high 280 games since his 2015 arrival. Unfortunately, that has soured his reputation among some as a shot-chucking, offense-only, empty-stat provider.

    Maybe he had some bad habits earlier in his career, but his All-Star emergence is as authentic as it gets. Efficiency wasn't always a strength, but who's complaining now about 26.1 points on 48.7/36.0/91.6 shooting? The shot-chucking narrative is harder to push when he's one of only 17 players to average six-plus assists both this season and last.

    Oh, and the empty-stat slander lost all of its steam once the Suns started showing signs of life. A .400 winning percentage wouldn't mean much most places, but it's Phoenix's best mark since 2014-15. Booker's fingerprints are all over this (relative) success, too, as the Suns have fared 6.6 points better per 100 possessions when he's on the floor.

    He's a legitimate three-level scorer, a solid secondary playmaker and a more effective defender than ever. He's also just 23 years old. So, the sun over Phoenix is just as bright as you'd expect in the desert.

8. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

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    Donovan Mitchell is one of three players under 25 to score 4,000-plus points since the start of 2017-18. The others are Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker.

    If this season resumes at some point, Mitchell's Utah Jazz will secure their third straight playoff trip—all following his lead as the team's top scorer. Booker has never been to the postseason. Towns went once, but he played second fiddle on that squad to Jimmy Butler.

    It's rare to see a young player be this effective as a scorer. Mitchell entered the league—as the 13th overall pick, mind you—and immediately poured in more than 20 points a night. It's even rarer to see a young player scoring at this rate for a perennial playoff time. Granted, that doesn't all have to do with Mitchell, but he still might be the best player on a club that could contend for a title.

    He's not a dominant defender, and he's still an erratic enough shooter that he'll lay an egg every now and then. But he's a nightmare matchup for opponents—sixth-most pull-up points this season—and a major reason why the Jazz are built to compete in the Western Conference for years to come.

7. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

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    The Memphis Grizzlies surely had expectations for Ja Morant this season. They probably had a different, more elevated set of hopes for him. And while they never would have voiced them publicly, surely there was a set of wildest dreams somewhere in the mix, too.

    No matter where the Grizzlies' imagination went, Morant's reality surpassed it. Individually, he was en route to becoming only the ninth freshman ever to average 17 points and six assists. Collectively, they were on pace to secure the Association's least likely playoff berth. B/R's Andy Bailey pegged them for 28 wins, and ESPN set the bar at 27; they had 28 wins before the All-Star break.

    Morant has been a godsend for the Grizzlies, and he's just as aesthetically pleasing as he is productive. One minute, he'll explode to the basket like a younger Russell Westbrook. The next, Morant will unleash some handles-creativity-vision combination that reads like it came straight out of Stephen Curry's book on basketball.

    Morant is electric and efficient. He's also 20 years old and nowhere near his ceiling. He still has ample room to grow as a defender, shooter and half-court finisher. If this ranking seems aggressive at all, just know he has the talent to prove it wasn't high enough.

6. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    This is probably a polarizing pick, but Trae Young is a polarizing player.

    He is a wizard on offense and a soaking-wet paper bag on defense. Maybe that sounds hyperbolic, but that's straight from the stat sheet: fifth overall in offensive real plus-minus, 503rd (out of 503) in defensive real plus-minus. Since he's undersized and limited athletically, there's only so much Young can do to improve his defense.

    But obviously, we're here to talk offense. Using ORPM, the only more effective players at that end are: James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Stephen Curry. In case you've forgotten, that quartet has captured eight of the last 11 MVP awards. That's Young's statistical company on offense.

    With slick handles, uncanny vision, next-level creativity and in-the-arena shooting range, he's an offensive force who can pile up points and simplify the game for his teammates. He's only the fifth player ever to average 29 points and nine assists. Atlanta's offense goes from elite (111.2 offensive rating) to non-functional (95.7) when he takes a seat.

    The overly generous defense can't be completely ignored, but the offensive genius gets him one spot shy of the top five.

5. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Let's just get it out of the way: Ben Simmons can't shoot. Or doesn't want to shoot. Either way, based on everything we've seen to date, there's no good reason to expect outside shooting from him at any point. (He has two career triples in 214 games; it's not happening.)

    Maybe that seems a strange place to start our discussion of why Simmons is the sixth-best player under 25, but for some reason, that's where every Simmons discussion starts. Sure, it would help if he added a reliable jumper at some point, but can we stop using the absence of it as rationale for regarding him as anything less than a star?

    He's a 6'10", 230-pound point guard and every bit as interesting as that description sounds. How many other point guards are averaging 16.7 points on 58.5 percent shooting? Or tracking down 7.8 rebounds per night? Or shooting a blistering 61.8 percent on transition attacks? Or forming a compelling argument for Defensive Player of the Year honors?

    "Simply watching Simmons should be enough to make [the DPOY] case," NBC Sports' Paul Hudrick wrote. "There may not be a player that can switch so seamlessly 1 through 5 in the league right now. We've seen Simmons defend All-Star guard Kemba Walker, who stands at 6'1", and then stand toe-to-toe with center Enes Kanter in the same game."

    Simmons is a top-shelf stopper on the ball and a disruptive presence away from it. He has more steals than anyone and ranks second in deflections. Tack on his playmaking, rebounding and downhill attacking, and he's on a short list of the NBA's brightest young stars.

4. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Craig Lassig/Associated Press

    It's been a frustrating season for Karl-Anthony Towns and the Minnesota Timberwolves, but the 24-year-old still stands as one of the league's premier offensive talents.

    He has raised the bar for the offensive output one can expect from an elite center. He shoots like a splash sibling (3.3 triples per game at a 41.2 percent clip), bullies defenders on the low block (seventh-most post-up points per game) and greases the offensive gears as a secondary table-setter.

    All told, his contributions add up to 26.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists. The 26/10/4 stat line has only been seen 29 times in NBA history. Among that group, Towns ranks first (by a mile) in threes per outing, and his 64.2 true shooting percentage is second-best.

    Without taking major strides on defense, it's tough to see much growth potential for the 24-year-old, but his ceiling already rests among the stars. Catch-all metrics like player efficiency rating (sixth) and box plus/minus (seventh) both regard him as a top-10 player, while RPM slots him 21st overall.

3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

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    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    Jayson Tatum punctuated his rookie season by going toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the 2018 playoffs. That was the first indication Boston's super-skilled swingman might be different.

    This year, that point has been hammered home early and often. Tatum obliterated virtually all of his previous bests while securing his first All-Star spot. His scoring spiked by nearly eight points per game (15.7 to 23.6). His three-point attempts nearly doubled (3.9 to 7.1), and his conversion rate jumped right along with them (37.3 to 39.8). He improved as a rebounder and defender, and he claimed the Shamrocks' best-player throne.

    "Tatum has reached a new height, man," Jaylen Brown said after Tatum torched LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers for 41 points in late February. "Superstar level."

    The thing is, Tatum might just be getting started. While the sample size is admittedly tiny (nine games), the 22-year-old's post-All-Star break numbers featured 29.9 points on 47.2/46.8/78.3 shooting, plus 7.9 rebounds, 4.0 triples, 3.1 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.0 blocks. RPM bumped him all the way to 18th, and honestly, that doesn't feel high enough.

2. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    Zion Williamson has played 19 games in his NBA career. Incredibly, that's not only enough time for him to claim the second spot, but he already earned serious consideration for No. 1.

    His production as a 19-year-old rookie is staggering. He's the first freshman and only the 17th player ever to average at least 23 points with a 62-plus true shooting percentage. His bounce for his size (6'6", 285 lbs) defies logic, and his elite second jumps power his thunderous putbacks. And these are all just baby steps of what could be a once-in-a-generation kind of career, as ESPN's Mike Schmitz observed:

    "The fact that he has been so productive this quickly while still having so many areas to improve is nothing short of remarkable. I'm still waiting for him to recapture the same defensive motor he showed at Duke, but if he's ever able to turn into a semi-reliable 3-point shooter and fully tap into the playmaking and mismatch shot creation he has shown glimpses of, we're talking about an MVP-caliber player down the line."

    In terms of ceiling, Williamson might be unrivaled on this list. But his injury outlook and the fact he isn't a primary shot-creator leave him just behind the player rewarded with the top spot.

1. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Season two of the Luka Doncic experience has been all statistical absurdity, all the time. The 21-year-old could make a fairly convincing NBA argument, as he's set to become just the third player ever to average 28 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. The others were Oscar Robertson, a Hall of Famer, and Russell Westbrook, a former MVP and nine-time All-Star.

    Doncic's 21 triple-doubles before his 21st birthday were three times as many as the previous record. He's only the fifth player to tally at least 3,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 800 assists in his first two NBA seasons, and he hit those marks in 126 games (no one else played fewer than 150). His 27.7 PER this season is fifth-highest all-time for a first- or second-year player, and the only superior marks were posted by Hall of Fame centers.

    As Steve Kerr gushed before his Golden State Warriors faced the Mavs in January, Doncic already looks like an all-timer, per ESPN's Nick Friedell:

    "He's got this incredible knack for seeing the floor and being a step ahead. He reminds me a little bit of Larry Bird in that regard. He's kind of one step ahead in the chess match. But he's got this James Harden skill set with crossovers and stepbacks.

    "He's a brilliant player, so young; he's going to be one of the cornerstones of this league for a long time. He's very important to the NBA."

    Can an established superstar keep improving? Normally, that'd be a tricky question to answer, but Doncic is 21 years old. He hasn't harnessed his outside shot yet (career 32.2 percent). He can get a little careless with the basketball, too. In other words, as awesome as he has been, it's hard to imagine we've witnessed his best.

                       

    All stats, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of NBA.com, ESPN.com and Basketball Reference.

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