Ranking the Top 10 NBA Stars 21 and Under

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJuly 26, 2020

Ranking the Top 10 NBA Stars 21 and Under

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Sometimes, it feels like he'll play forever, but we may well be nearing the twilight of LeBron James' career.

    There's little need to worry about a dearth of talent when he leaves, however, as the NBA is loaded with players who've exhibited superstar potential in the first couple of years of their careers.

    The rising generation is so intriguing that you can lower the maximum age for a list like this all the way to 21 and still come up with 10 names with relative ease.

    The top 10 at 21 and under features point guards putting up unprecedented numbers for their age, a physical marvel whose feel for the game is way ahead of schedule, a three-and-D center who evokes memories of Kevin Garnett and more.

    But first, a couple of quick words about how we arrived at these 10.

    For one, the age qualification was based simply on whatever the player is at the time of publishing.

    Second, this article is an endeavor to list the players who are the best right now. One could reasonably argue that RJ Barrett has a higher ceiling than some of the players you'll see detailed here, but he was statistically dreadful in 2019-20. He could very well be featured among the top 10 players aged 23 and under in a couple of years.

    And finally, contrary to my typical practice for rankings, advanced numbers like box plus/minus were not heavily relied upon. They certainly have their place in evaluating youngsters, but they deserve leeway. The learning curve in the NBA is steep, so while analytics were certainly consulted here, they aren't the end-all, be-all.


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    Paul Beaty/Associated Press

    10. Cam Reddish

    Cam Reddish's season-long numbers aren't likely to blow many away, but that's an indicator of the aforementioned learning curve. Once he settled into his role with the Atlanta Hawks, Reddish found a nice rhythm.

    Since the calendar turned to 2020 (27 games), he has averaged 13.3 points, 1.9 threes and 1.1 steals while shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 39.7 percent from three.

    In the same stretch, Atlanta's net rating is 6.2 points better with the budding three-and-D wing on the floor.


    9. Wendell Carter Jr.

    His NBA production hasn't been quite as wide-ranging as his college numbers suggested it might, but Wendell Carter Jr. has still shown the potential to be an effective modern 5.

    There's plenty of time for the playmaking and outside shooting to come along. In the meantime, he may actually be a bit ahead of schedule in terms of traditional big-man skills.

    For his career, Carter is averaging 1.4 blocks per 75 possessions. And this season alone, he's shooting 69.4 percent on shots within three feet of the rim and 17-of-33 (51.5 percent) on mid-rangers in the 10- to 16-foot range.


    8. Kevin Huerter

    His career 38.3 three-point percentage may be the most exciting number on the stat sheet, but Kevin Huerter is more than just a shooter.

    He's averaging 4.2 assists per 75 possessions this season, and he's second among Hawks in possessions used as a pick-and-roll ball-handler.

    He may never be a lockdown defender, but he's big enough (6'7") to cause some problems. His emerging point forward game should help him be a net positive.


    7. PJ Washington

    There aren't a lot of bright spots on a Charlotte Hornets roster that seems bound for mediocrity over the next several years. In fact, PJ Washington might be it.

    This season, he's averaging 12.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.5 threes, 0.9 steals and 0.8 blocks in 30.3 minutes per game.

    And they aren't just empty-calorie numbers for a bad team. Charlotte's net rating is 2.8 points better when Washington is on the floor.


    6. Collin Sexton

    He has a long way to go as a playmaker for others—a lead guard should average more than 3.0 assists per game—but Collin Sexton's shooting and competitiveness are for real.

    For his career, he is shooting 39.2 percent from three. And his scoring average is up to 20.8 this season.

    The Cleveland Cavaliers need to find more intriguing talent to develop alongside him, but Sexton appears to be a sturdy building block.

5. Jaren Jackson Jr.

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Jaren Jackson Jr.'s individual production seems to have plateaued a bit this season.

    If there are margins for error in basketball statistics, his changes from 2018-19 to 2019-20 in box plus/minus, true shooting percentage, usage percentage and a handful of other numbers would likely fall within them.

    It's too early to think that's some kind of warning sign, though. Jackson is still just 20 years old, and the diversity of his on-court contribution suggests he has the potential to be a thoroughly modern 5.

    Prior to this season, Kevin Durant was the only player in league history to average at least as many threes (2.5) and blocks (1.6) per game as Jackson in 2019-20 (Kristaps Porzingis is also on pace to join the club).

    For years, we thought mostly of wings when it came to the "three-and-D" distinction. JJJ is leading the charge for big men to join that group.

    If he can reduce his foul rate (5.1 fouls per 75 possessions) and increase his production on the glass (5.9 rebounds per 75 possessions), Jackson will go a long way toward establishing himself as one of the game's top big men.

4. Ja Morant

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    NBA basketball can be a tough thing to figure out. For a point guard, it's like a jigsaw puzzle that's constantly in motion. It's no wonder that it takes years for most 1s to get a grasp on their role and strengths within the league.

    Ja Morant, though, is way ahead of schedule.

    He's on track to become just the 10th guard in NBA history to post a 25-plus usage percentage and an above-average box plus/minus as a rookie.

    If you throw in a 30-plus assist percentage, that list shrinks down to these four: Steve Francis, Kyrie Irving, Allen Iverson and Morant.

    Morant plays with a maturity possessed by few 20-year olds across history. He seems to embody the old John Wooden axiom: "Be quick but don't hurry." He's willing to give the ball up to get it back. And he averages nearly as many potential assists (12.3) as field-goal attempts (13.6).

    The unselfish, steady approach is far from an indication that Morant lacks competitive fire, though. When games get tight, he's not afraid to take over.

    Among players who appeared in at least 15 games that entered clutch time (game within five points in the final five minutes), Morant's 40.4 usage percentage in the clutch ranks sixth in the NBA. His 59.8 true shooting percentage in the clutch tops everyone ahead of him in usage (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Zach LaVine, Trae Young, Derrick Rose and Bradley Beal).

    This is a superstar in the making, and as the rest of the talent in Memphis develops alongside him, the Grizzlies are going to be a problem before long.

3. Zion Williamson

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

    Zion Williamson likely didn't play enough to garner serious consideration for Rookie of the Year, but he showed more than enough to confirm his superstar potential.

    He's averaging 27.5 points (the second-highest mark ever for a rookie) and 7.9 rebounds per 75 possessions while posting a 62.4 true shooting percentage (this season's average is 56.4).

    The explosive vertical athleticism and lightning-fast second jump that lead to much of that production have been covered in most corners of the sports media internet. What's a little less celebrated, though perhaps every bit as important, is his feel for the game.

    Zion has a veteran's understanding of spacing, angles, the positioning of defenders and knowing when to cut. He rarely makes dives to the rim that clog things up for teammates. When he goes, it's because there's an opportunity to score or grab an offensive rebound, and his success rate on those fronts is high.

    The attention that his game commands has a massively positive impact on the team too. When he's on the floor, the New Orleans Pelicans are plus-10.2 points per 100 possessions, compared to minus-2.0 when he's off.

    The team's points and points allowed per 100 possessions, effective field-goal percentage, offensive rebounding percentage and free-throw rate all go up when he's in.

    He is a sun around which defenses orbit. And as defenders are heavily influenced by him, players like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Jrue Holiday and anyone else who's on the floor with Zion enjoy exponentially more freedom.

2. Trae Young

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    Trae Young is already an offensive superstar.

    He's averaging 29.6 points, 9.3 assists and 3.4 threes per game. His 6.3 offensive box plus/minus is tied for the sixth-highest ever for a player in an age-21 (or younger) season. And the Atlanta Hawks offense goes from just above average to abysmal when he leaves the floor.

    The criticisms of his defense are fair, but his deficiencies there come nowhere near outweighing what he brings on the other end of the floor.

    Young is already at or near the top of the league in terms of his vision. He seems to know exactly where each of his four teammates is at all times, and he has a willingness to move the ball that has led to 17.3 potential assists per game (second to LeBron James).

    It's a small thing, but the little hop you'll notice from Young when his receivers finish off a dime with a dunk says a lot too. This is a player who genuinely enjoys getting his teammates easy looks.

    That, of course, is a stylistic touch. Logistically, his range as both a shooter and passer opens up the floor for Atlanta.

    He's second in the league in shots made from 30 feet and out, and he's not just putting up field-goal attempts from out there. If a teammate is open, Young is able to hit him from well beyond the three-point line.

    If he ever becomes even average as a defender, Young will be a staple on All-NBA teams.

1. Luka Doncic

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Even the staunchest predraft believers in Luka Doncic have to be a little surprised by his first two seasons in the NBA. His production and influence on a playoff-bound team are mind-blowing.

    Russell Westbrook is the only player in league history who has averaged at least as many points (31.3), rebounds (10.1) and assists (9.5) per 75 possessions in a single season as Doncic is now. And Luka's true shooting percentage (58.4) is three points higher than Westbrook's from that MVP season (55.4).

    Of course, Doncic isn't just stat-padding on a bad team (nor was Westbrook). The Dallas Mavericks' winning percentage in 2017-18 (the last season pre-Doncic) was 29.3. It jumped up to 40.2 in Luka's rookie year. And with eight games to go in 2019-20, it's 59.7.

    "Awarding Doncic top-five-player status is not an overreaction to his sophomore climb," Dan Favale wrote for Bleacher Report. "He has amplified his game to the distress of opposing defenses. His step-back gather is more nonchalant than that of Harden, and he's gotten better at leveraging it into opportunities inside the arc. He's more effective at keeping defenders on his back hip, and he mixes changes in direction with shifts in pace to keep helpers on tilt."

    That he's already reached this level as a 21-year-old should be terrifying for opposing defenses. There's still room for him to grow. His 31.8 three-point percentage is well below average. His defense could use some work. And he'll occasionally use possessions for himself that may have been better spent elsewhere.

    If he's already a top 5-10 player (he is), just imagine what marginal (or significant) improvements in those areas would mean.


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