The Greatest All-Time Accomplishments from NBA Stars Under 23

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 3, 2020

The Greatest All-Time Accomplishments from NBA Stars Under 23

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    Nine years ago, when he was just 22, Derrick Rose became the youngest MVP in NBA history.

    With athletic ferocity and outsized confidence, Rose achieved the highest individual honor in the league, flipping the adage about how youth must be served.

    Served? No, not for a 22-year-old Rose. He did the serving—dishing out lessons to his older competitors while leading the 2010-11 Chicago Bulls to 62 wins and the East's top seed.

    In appreciation of D-Rose's accomplishment, we're recognizing some other milestones achieved by young players. This will be a bit of a grab bag, featuring full-season performances, single-game feats and other statistical exploits.

    The only commonality: the player has to be under the age of 23. For one-off instances, like single-game scoring records, the player has to be 22 or younger on the day of the milestone. For full-year entries, like All-NBA, the player has to be 22 or younger on Feb. 1 of the season in question.

    Easy enough, right? Time to celebrate the kids.

Magic Johnson's 1980 Finals MVP

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    Magic Johnson won three Finals MVPs in his career, but the one we're lauding here, his first, stands above the rest.

    In 1980, Johnson, still three months shy of his 21st birthday, won Finals MVP after the Los Angeles Lakers dispatched the Philadelphia 76ers in six games. He averaged 21.5 points, 11.2 rebounds, 8.7 assists and 2.7 steals in 42.7 minutes per game, hitting 57.3 percent of his shots from the field.

    Kicking things off with a triple-double in Game 1, the 20-year-old Johnson waited until Game 6 to produce one of the league's all-time enduring images. Kareem Abdul-Jabber led the Lakers in scoring for the series and almost certainly had the inside track on Finals MVP through five games, but the sprained ankle he suffered in Game 5 kept him on the bench for what would be the decisive contest of the series.

    Johnson, a 6'9" point guard, jumped center to open the game and went on to post 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and a block in 47 minutes of playing time.

    Though we've since seen three under-23 players win a Finals MVP (including Johnson, again, at age 22), none of them did it as rookies, at 20, on the road, taking over for one of the greatest centers in history in a title-clinching game.

    At the risk of getting too far out on this limb, we're probably not going to see anything like that again.

Devin Booker Goes for 70

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    Call shenanigans on the Phoenix Suns if you like; it was obvious they were hunting points for Devin Booker in a meaningless game against the Boston Celtics on March 24, 2017. But 70 points is still 70 points, and when Booker's evening was finished (after just under 45 minutes of playing time and 40 field-goal attempts), he had the highest single-game point total by an under-23 player in NBA history.

    Down 23 at the half and 17 at the end of the third, Phoenix left its 20-year-old guard out there to keep firing. To be fair, he was the only reliable source of offense for a thin Suns team that night. But Booker's teammates clearly gave him the rock and got out of the way down the stretch, which allowed Booker to score 28 of his 70 points in the fourth quarter.

    Head coach Earl Watson even burned a pair of late timeouts so the Suns could squeeze a couple more offensive possessions out of the contest.

    The game was played in Boston, and the home fans actually cheered for Booker as his total climbed. But the dubious practices Phoenix used to get him his points didn't sit well with several Celtics players, including Isaiah Thomas.

    Booker's big night also resulted in the highest game score by an under-23 player in Basketball Reference's database.

Kevin Durant's All-NBA First-Team Selections

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    Seventeen players have made the All-NBA first team before their age-23 seasons, but only three of them earned multiple first-team nods before surpassing our age cutoff.

    So while Rick Barry and Tim Duncan also deserve praise for ranking among the five best players in the league so quickly, Kevin Durant separated himself from those two for a couple of key reasons.

    Durant was five months younger than Duncan and six months younger than Barry when he collected his second straight All-NBA honor (in 2011). In addition, he also became the youngest player to ever win a scoring title, averaging 30.1 points per game in 2009-10, his first All-NBA first-team season.

    For the record, KD was also the only guy to make at least 2,000 free throws through his age-22 season. 

Rick Barry Shoots and Scores...A Lot

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    Rick Barry's 2,275 total points have stood as the single-season record in an under-23 campaign for five decades.

    In that 1966-67 season, Barry's age-22 year, he was an All-NBA first-teamer, a scoring champ (obviously) and, surprisingly, only the fifth-place finisher in MVP voting.

    Wilt Chamberlain averaging 24.1 points, 24.2 rebounds and 7.8 assists probably meant Barry never had a chance at MVP that year, but it's also possible his trigger-happy chucking turned voters off. Barry attempted 2,240 shots in 1966-67. Oscar Robertson finished second in that category with 1,699 attempts, a whopping 541 fewer than Barry.

    Barry's San Francisco Warriors went 44-37 and reached the NBA Finals that year, falling to Chamberlain's 76ers. So it's hard to argue his high-volume approach failed to produce results.

Shaq's Block Party

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    On Nov. 20, 1993, a 21-year-old Shaquille O'Neal swatted away 15 shots in an 87-85 win over the New Jersey Nets. Nobody under 23 has come close to matching that total.

    This was a road game, which should ease concerns about favorable home-court scoring decisions. That said, there were a handful of questionable non-calls when O'Neal rejected shots that appeared to be on the way down—not to mention a couple of strips that were scored as blocks.

    But looking back over the tape, O'Neal's sheer dominance makes it hard to care about minor discrepancies.

    O'Neal wouldn't win an MVP until his tenure with the Lakers, and he was more statistically productive in his mid and late 20s. But this version of Shaq was the one that seemed most physically destructive. Quick, unfathomably powerful and often appearing like the only adult on a floor full of frightened children, O'Neal collected his 15 swats in every way imaginable.

    The guy was out there blocking floaters.

    The NBA only started counting blocked shots in 1973-74, which means Wil Chamberlain, Bill Russell and plenty of others are getting shortchanged here. But we can only use the information available, and according to the data we've got, O'Neal's 15 blocks are tied for the second-most by a player of any age.

Kevin Love Hoards Boards

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    There are four historical instances of a sub-23 player grabbing more than the 31 rebounds a 22-year-old Kevin Love collected Nov. 12, 2010. Bill Russell had games with 32, 34 and 34 boards in the 1956-57 season, and Maurice Stokes set the all-time record (for players under 23) with 38 rebounds the prior year.

    Love gets the recognition here because the era in which Russell and Stokes played was more favorable to rebound totals by an absurd degree.

    The league-average field-goal percentage in 1955-56 was 38.7 percent. It dipped to 38.0 percent in 1956-57. The average team took about 93 shots per game over those two seasons. In 2010-11, teams took 81.2 attempts per contest and shot 45.9 percent from the field. Because teams shot and missed less often, rebounds were just harder to come by when Love secured 31 of them almost a decade ago.

    Added bonus: Love also had 31 points on his big night, making him the second-youngest player in league history with a 30-30 game.

Andrei Kirilenko Does It All

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    Though he played as recently as 2015, it already feels like Andrei Kirilenko belongs high on the list of forgotten stars.

    He never averaged more than 16.5 points in a season and made just one All-Star team, but AK-47 had a multiyear stretch early in his career that featured exceptional stat lines. The most jaw-dropping of those was a pair of 5-by-5 games in the span of a single week during his age-22 season.

    It's a little strange to fixate on this particular kind of game, but fans love numerical consistency (triple-doubles!), and the five categories—points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks—are accessible box-score basics that everyone understands.

    On top of that, it illustrates a versatility of skill that most players simply don't have. Five assists isn't so tough, but how many players in position to facilitate like that also have the ability to reject five shots? Not many.

    That's really the crux. The 5-by-5 is rare.

    There have only been 20 such games recorded since the league started tracking blocks and steals in 1973-74, which works out to less than one every two years. That's about four times less common than a no-hitter in baseball.

    Kirilenko put up 19 points, seven assists, five rebounds, eight steals and five blocks Dec. 3, 2003, and then went off for 10 points, 12 boards, six assists, six steals and five swats Dec. 10. He's the only sub-23 player to have a single 5-by-5. That he doubled up within a week only makes his stat-stuffing more ridiculous.


    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise indicated.