Ranking the NBA's Top 10 Duos Under 25

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 15, 2021

Ranking the NBA's Top 10 Duos Under 25

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    It's funny how old truisms gain new profundity when applied to NBA roster-building. 

    Today's example: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

    A young star, on his own, can pile up numbers and kindle a little hope for his franchise. But there's a reason every team with such a player spends all its energy seeking a second one. When a franchise has two potential pillars, things get interesting. That's when observers start mapping out championship tracks and forecasting title windows.

    Here, we'll run down the best under-25 pairs in the NBA. These are the duos that—based on past production, present fit and future potential—give their teams the brightest futures. 

10. Collin Sexton (22) and Darius Garland (20), Cleveland Cavaliers

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    It turns out a healthy Darius Garland can really spread the floor with his deep shooting while also taking the playmaking burden off Collin Sexton, who we now know is best utilized as a pure scorer.

    Sexton is all the way up to 39.9 percent on treys for his career, thanks in part to a blistering 51.6 percent clip this season, and he's become an increasingly aggressive driver.

    As backcourt duos go, Sexton (6'1", 190 lbs) and Garland (6'1", 192 lbs) are collectively undersized. That seems likely to present defensive issues against top competition, but the presence of Isaac Okoro will theoretically give the Cavs an option against opponents' most dangerous ball-handlers. So far this season, Cleveland's moderate success has been a product of its defense. That's a promising sign.

    These two have plenty to prove, and injuries to both interrupted an encouraging start. But it's been a while since the Cavaliers had a complementary young pair like this.

9. De'Aaron Fox (23) and Tyrese Haliburton (20), Sacramento Kings

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Sorry, Marvin Bagley III, but you've been overtaken by a player with three weeks of NBA experience. Cue the "life comes at you fast" memes.

    Rookie Tyrese Haliburton already plays with the poise and feel of a vet on both ends. His elite vision and shooting have quickly made him a mainstay in closing lineups (often at Bagley's expense), and he's generally been the headiest player on the floor for the Sacramento Kings.

    While he may not have true superstar upside, it's already abundantly clear that Haliburton, comfortable on or off the rock, is hardwired to play winning basketball. You can't watch him without marveling at his anticipation and smarts.

    De'Aaron Fox is a nuclear athlete with wicked foul-drawing craft, but he's still a reliable jumper away from serious All-Star consideration. Paradoxical as it sounds, Fox is probably the better NBA player today, but he might have more to learn from his rookie teammate than the other way around.

8. Trae Young (22) and John Collins (23), Atlanta Hawks

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    Todd Kirkland/Associated Press

    Luka Doncic, LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal have the three highest offensive box plus/minus figures over the first two years of their careers. 

    Trae Young is fourth.

    Young's willingness to fire from long range off the dribble, genius in-between craft, keen passing eye and highly developed foul-baiting make him an offense unto himself. John Collins is also a nightmare to cover for opposing bigs, few of whom have the quickness to stick with him on the perimeter and the heft to keep him from finishing inside.

    He and Karl-Anthony Towns were the only players to average over 20 points and 10 rebounds while shooting at least 40 percent from deep in 2019-20.

    Atlanta Hawks lineups featuring both Young and Collins have absolutely obliterated opponents this year, running up a blistering plus-20.0 net rating in the early going.

    Defense is a concern for both players, more so for Collins, a classic 4-5 tweener who has yet to prove he's capable of surviving on the perimeter or as a primary rim protector. It's also worrisome that these two may not be on the best terms.

    Collins, who could leave in restricted free agency after failing to agree on an extension, might make this a short-lived pairing. Enjoy it while it lasts.

7. Domantas Sabonis (24) and Myles Turner (24), Indiana Pacers

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    We've got some awkward positional overlap here with a couple of players best suited to playing center. But who cares if Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis are both 5s? Their divergent and complementary skill sets are a major reason the Indiana Pacers are a threat to finish in the East's top four this year.

    Turner is swatting shots at historic rates while continuing to add volume to his three-point game. He's benefitted from Indy's tactical overhaul, which has him attempting a higher share of shots from inside three feet and beyond the arc than ever.

    He's a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate in the early going, and he adds stretch on offense. Few players can pull off that two-step.

    Sabonis is a bullying interior scorer on pace to average over five assists per game for the second straight year. He has the ball skills Turner lacks, while Turner helps offset his defensive shortcomings.

    Neither of these players projects as a superstar, and they form the oldest duo on the list. There's no arguing with their productivity, though.

6. Jamal Murray (23) and Michael Porter Jr. (22), Denver Nuggets

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Jamal Murray already has a reputation as a big-game player, and the Denver Nuggets wouldn't have engineered either of their 3-1 series comebacks in last year's playoffs without him leveling up.

    For his career, the combo guard is averaging 24.3 points on a 47.3/40.9/90.0 shooting split in 33 postseason contests. It'd be nice if he could summon his best self more consistently in regular-season games, but the Nuggets won't complain as long as he continues his annual postseason eruptions.

    Michael Porter Jr. was no slouch in his 2020 playoff minutes either, and he projects as one of the league's purest, smoothest scorers going forward. The Kevin Durant comparisons are unfair, but there aren't many other forwards with MPJ's combination of size and touch—and even fewer who supplement that finesse with such ruggedness on the glass.

    Porter is often a checked-out shadow on defense, and we should also mention that neither of these two carries the load of a true No. 1 option. Nikola Jokic, Denver's megastar, makes both of them (and everyone else on the floor and, really, all of us) better.

    Still, Murray and Porter have immense offensive potential and have already proved they're not afraid of the bright lights. Only two other duos on this list have helped lead teams on playoff runs as deep as 2020's surge to the conference finals.

5. Brandon Ingram (23) and Zion Williamson (20), New Orleans Pelicans

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    In terms of pure offensive upside, it's tough to do better than Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. The former made his first All-Star team last year and is now following 2019-20's leap in off-the-bounce shooting with improved passing that's seen him average a career-high 5.5 assists.

    Williamson remains something of a mystery box, though there's nothing uncertain about his physical tools. Trimmed down this season, he's looking much more like the cannonball rim-attacker he was in college. We have yet to see the Duke-era flashes of defensive impact and facilitation at the pro level, but they're in there somewhere.

    Williamson is the least experienced non-rookie in this exercise, and his inclusion leans on future potential over past production. But when a 20-year-old who's still just trying to find his way manages to average 27.8 points per 36 minutes on 57.6 percent shooting through his first 33 NBA games, betting on potential feels pretty safe.

    These two would rank higher if both weren't significant negatives on defense.

4. Bam Adebayo (23) and Tyler Herro (20), Miami Heat

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    This is the only under-25 duo on the list with a Finals appearance, and anyone who watched the Miami Heat's bubble run last year knows Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro weren't just a couple of youngsters along for the ride.

    They were integral pieces of a team that fell just a couple of wins short of a championship.

    Adebayo is already an All-NBA defender at 23, capable of guarding five positions, controlling the boards and protecting the basket. Ask Jayson Tatum about that last part. That Adebayo's vision and skill as a passer also make him a viable offensive hub only adds to his value. He got a max contract this past offseason for a reason.

    Herro's three-point shot hasn't climbed to last year's levels just yet, but he's making up for his 29.4 percent shooting from deep by expanding his finishing package at the rim. Few young players are longer on confidence than Miami's blossoming star, and we already know his self-assuredness doesn't waver in big playoff moments.

    If Adebayo adds some range to his jumper and Herro shores up his defense and facilitation (safe bets on both accounts), these two could wind up anchoring a contender without the veteran help they had last season.

3. Devin Booker (24) and Deandre Ayton (22), Phoenix Suns

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Devin Booker's numbers are down a touch compared to last season, in which he made his first All-Star team. That's expected during his early days adjusting to Chris Paul's presence, and when statistical slippage leaves you averaging 23.0 points on 59.9 percent true shooting, it's a good indication of serious talent.

    Booker is a smooth operator at all three levels, can facilitate like a point guard when necessary and has one of the nastiest post-up games of any wing in the league. He competed on defense for the first time last season, and you'd assume Paul's presence will make two-way play a staple of his career for at least as long as the Point God is around to enforce the rules.

    Deandre Ayton has No. 1 pick pedigree, and he, like Booker, took a significant step forward on D last year. Paul's presence has also impacted Ayton, whose usage rate this season represents a career low. His 12.5 points per game are also well below the averages he posted in his first two years.

    Still, Ayton can be a dominant finisher inside, and he's got the stroke (and demonstrated mid-range accuracy) to project as a useful three-point shooter in time. He's excellent on the glass and still improving in all facets, so it's only a matter of time before his numbers pick up and his role expands. 

    And if that doesn't happen, Mikal Bridges, shooting 45.3 percent from deep and playing some of the best wing defense in the league at age 24, could step in as Booker's best young running mate.

    In related news: Watch out for these Suns.

2. Ja Morant (21) and Jaren Jackson Jr. (21), Memphis Grizzlies

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Jet-fueled rim-attacker with preternatural vision and a penchant for dunking on anything in his way? Ja Morant has that covered.

    High-volume floor-spacer with excellent feel and mobility who can also protect the rim? That's Jaren Jackson Jr. in a nutshell.

    Combined, these two give the Memphis Grizzlies the most purely complementary pair on this list. Both are singular talents with distinct skills, and both excel in areas that actively make the game easier for one another.

    Jackson, who's actually a month younger than Morant despite debuting a year earlier, shot 39.4 percent on 6.5 triple tries per game last season. No other player his size, 6'11", has ever done that kind of damage from deep. And when opponents have to account for a true center who's willing to fire away with abandon, it naturally clears the paint of large humans.

    While that may upset Morant, who very much seems to enjoy posterizing said large humans, we can all acknowledge how much more dangerous an athlete of his caliber can be when he has a runway.

    Suck in extra bodies to keep Morant from tearing down the rim and he'll find whoever was left unaccounted for on the perimeter. If the man the defense ignored happens to be Jackson, just go ahead and put three more points on the board. Oh, and don't forget Jackson's effectiveness at closer range.

    We haven't seen Morant and Jackson together yet this season, and they actually played to a negative differential in their shared minutes last year. But this is the youngest pairing in this exercise, and their games have a symbiotic purity that's hard to match.

    Even with limited evidence, this duo can't possibly rank any lower.

1. Jayson Tatum (22) and Jaylen Brown (24), Boston Celtics

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    No drama here. No intrigue. No suspense. No uncertainty.

    Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are the best under-25 duo by an absurd, entirely uncompetitive margin.

    Tatum is an All-NBA standout at 22—a complete offensive alpha with the length, size and drive to make multiple All-Defensive teams a realistic possibility in his future. He was the best player on a conference finalist last season and has already reached the penultimate postseason round twice.

    Jaylen Brown has played in three conference finals, and though he's rightly regarded as 1B to Tatum's 1A, his growth as a shooter and playmaker is narrowing that gap. His conversion rate on jumpers, currently over 60.0 percent on long twos, will dip. But his scoring average will still hover around 25.0 points per game because of his continued improvement from deep (with added volume) and his ever-developing off-the-dribble game.

    Defensively, Brown is already among the best wings in the league, capable of sticking with point guards and even holding up fairly well against larger forwards underneath. He and Tatum can score on the other team's best wings...and shut them down on the other end.

    Brown and Tatum play the most valuable position in the league, have an overabundance of big-game experience at very early ages and just keep getting better.

    They're No. 1 with a bullet.

           

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through games played Thursday, Jan. 14.