Which NBA Teams Have the Best Young Cores Right Now?
One of the most thrilling aspects of any NBA season is seeing young teams grow together.
Oftentimes, they suffer just as many setbacks as they do triumphs, but such is life early on in the league. It's the building of winning habits and interpersonal chemistry that matter most, and if tangible success comes in the process as well, it's found money.
Since the NBA is booming with young talent, we've ranked the best young cores around the league. All of the players featured are under 25, and we ranked these groups based on a combination of talent, age, potential for growth and number of players in the core.
10. Indiana Pacers
The Core: Domantas Sabonis (24), Myles Turner (24), Aaron Holiday (24)
Including the Indiana Pacers here feels tenuous. The fit between Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner has never been smooth, and they've become even tougher to play together this year due to Turner's inconsistent long-range shooting.
However, there's a reason general manager Kevin Pritchard has been reluctant to break up his frontcourt duo. Between Sabonis, Turner and Aaron Holiday, there's a ton of talent here.
Sabonis has gotten noticeably better every season with the Pacers, and he's now playing at an All-NBA level. He's the only player averaging at least current marks of 21.9 points, 12.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game, and he's taking a career-best 2.4 threes per game, making 36.4 percent of them.
Although Turner is shooting only 28.3 percent from deep, he's one of the league's best rim protectors. He's averaging 4.2 blocks in only 31.7 minutes, a mark which towers over the rest of the league—Rudy Gobert ranks second with 2.8 rejections per night—and he's anchoring Indiana's 13th-ranked defense.
Holiday has struggled this season, shooting just 35.6 percent overall. However, his 3.67 assist/turnover ratio ranks in the top 50 leaguewide.
This is an odd trio fit-wise, but their combined talents make them an easy selection at No. 10.
9. Philadelphia 76ers
The Core: Ben Simmons (24), Shake Milton (24), Tyrese Maxey (20), Matisse Thybulle (23)
Three of these four players were nearly traded for James Harden. However, the Philadelphia 76ers would prefer to compete both now and in the future, and keeping this team intact lets them do just that.
Though he has struggled offensively this season, Ben Simmons remains a dynamite playmaker and arguably the league's most versatile defender. His fit alongside Joel Embiid remains the preeminent talking point in Philadelphia, but if Embiid continues his career-best play and Simmons attempts more than one jumper per month, those concerns might dissipate.
The biggest hang-up in that Harden deal was reportedly Tyrese Maxey, according to Marc Stein of the New York Times. Given what he's displayed thus far, team president Daryl Morey's hesitation is well-founded.
Maxey had six straight double-figure scoring performances earlier this month, including a 39-point showing against the Denver Nuggets. He hasn't been efficient from deep thus far, but his outlook is generally positive. The same can also be said of Shake Milton, who's emerged as an early Sixth Man of the Year candidate with 16.8 points per game off the bench.
Matisse Thybulle is on the periphery of the rotation despite his standout defense. But if he can be a more consistent shooter, the Sixers could have the next Bruce Bowen on their hands.
Thanks in large part to this quartet, Philly has increased its postseason margin for error this year. The franchise has never been closer to a title in the Embiid-Simmons era.
8. Atlanta Hawks
The Core: Trae Young (22), John Collins (23), De'Andre Hunter (23), Cam Reddish (21), Kevin Huerter (22), Onyeka Okongwu (20)
On paper, the Atlanta Hawks should be much higher in these rankings.
All six of these players were first-round picks, and four were picked in the top 10. This core has all of the requisite pieces—a shot creator, three-and-D wings and a rim protector.
However, John Collins recently "shared his unfiltered and unhappy views about the way franchise centerpiece Trae Young was running the offense," according to Chris Kirschner and Sam Amick of The Athletic. That dispute doesn't affect their ranking here, but Collins may not be long for Atlanta.
Although Collins has made clear strides as a shooter, he's more threatening as a lob-catcher and finisher around the basket. That makes him hard to play alongside non-shooters like Clint Capela and Onyeka Okongwu and crimps the team's otherwise idyllic spacing. In addition, when combined with Young, his defensive shortcomings make the Hawks almost fatally flawed on that end, even though DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish are both good stoppers with room for growth.
Given that the Hawks are still figuring themselves out, it's unclear who they're betting on long term and who they'd be willing to move. But considering the amount of young talent here, they'll be one of the NBA's most fascinating teams to watch in the coming months and years.
7. Denver Nuggets
The Core: Jamal Murray (23), Michael Porter Jr. (22), Bol Bol (21), R.J. Hampton (19)
Jamal Murray emerged as an offensive supernova in the 2020 playoffs and is holding steady as Nikola Jokic's trusty first mate. But he isn't the only intriguing young player on the Denver Nuggets.
Over the past three drafts, the Nuggets have gambled on upside. They selected immensely talented but injury-plagued or raw players like Michael Porter Jr., Bol Bol and R.J. Hampton, whose situation in Australia rendered him a relative mystery heading into the draft.
Results have been fairly mixed so far. Porter is a roller coaster unto himself, posting 30-point double-doubles on one night and fading into the background on the next. He remains Denver's best trade chip for another star, but those questions plus a low defensive ceiling still make him a gamble.
Meanwhile, the jury is largely still out on Bol and Hampton. Bol has had moments of excellence but remains incredibly green, while Hampton is still waiting to break into the Nuggets' rotation.
With Jokic averaging a triple-double and Murray still lighting the hoop up, Denver should be right back in the playoff mix this season. But its future might be equally as bright as its present.
6. Miami Heat
The Core: Bam Adebayo (23), Tyler Herro (21), Precious Achiuwa (21)
The Miami Heat have gotten off to a slow start this season, but they deserve the benefit of the doubt after a grueling Finals run and a comically short offseason. Miami should return to form, and its trio of encouraging youngsters will be at the fore of its resurgence.
The current face of the Heat's future is Bam Adebayo, who's still getting better after making his first All-Star team last year. He's currently shooting 62.0 percent from the field and 85.5 percent from the charity stripe, both of which are marked improvements from previous career highs. He's also averaging a career-high 3.5 turnovers per game, but Miami has dealt with numerous injuries and COVID-19-related absences thus far, putting extra responsibility on Bam's shoulders.
Tyler Herro's stock has vacillated wildly, with the high coming after his 37-point outing against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. He isn't the second coming of Klay Thompson, but he'll also improve upon his slow 2020-21 start (he's shooting only 30.2 percent from three so far). Jamal Murray seems like his absolute ceiling.
Precious Achiuwa has surprised early on, garnering praise from head coach Erik Spoelstra and Jimmy Butler while playing nearly 20 minutes per game. It's hard to imagine him starting alongside Adebayo, as both are non-shooters, but if one or both extends their range to the three-point line, a whole range of possibilities would open up for Miami's future.
5. New Orleans Pelicans
The Core: Zion Williamson (20), Brandon Ingram (23), Lonzo Ball (23), Nickeil Alexander-Walker (22), Kira Lewis Jr. (19), Jaxson Hayes (20)
It wasn't long ago that time was seemingly the only obstacle between the New Orleans Pelicans and total dominance over the NBA. With a generational talent in Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram en route to his first All-Star Game appearance and a supporting cast that balanced youth and veteran leadership, the Big Easy felt primed for a brilliant stretch of basketball.
However, executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin complicated things last offseason by trading for Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe. While both players have good reputations, their fit with New Orleans' young core has been awful thus far.
Playing alongside Bledsoe has been so detrimental to Lonzo Ball that he's now on journeyman alert, while lineups featuring Adams and Williamson play at a glacial 97.8 pace. That's the exact opposite of how a team with this guy should be playing.
Had Griffin never made those trades, there'd probably be a lot more excitement around New Orleans. A lineup featuring Lonzo, speedy rookie Kira Lewis Jr., emerging scorer Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Ingram and Zion might be the most viscerally thrilling quintet this side of Brooklyn.
As the year progresses, let's hope head coach Stan Van Gundy figures out his rotation and marries it with the perfect playing style, because this team's potential remains sky-high.
4. Memphis Grizzlies
The Core: Ja Morant (21), Jaren Jackson Jr. (21), Brandon Clarke (24), Desmond Bane (22), De'Anthony Melton (22), Xavier Tillman (22)
Zion Williamson and Ja Morant are now forever linked as the top two picks of the 2019 draft. As such, the Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies have become similarly connected in their competitive ambitions.
While New Orleans has bigger names and might have a higher ceiling, Memphis has constructed a better young core thus far.
Much like the Pelicans, the Grizzlies are building around two stars: Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. In barely over a year's worth of games, Morant has rapidly become an All-Star-caliber point guard, while Jackson Jr. is emerging as a dangerous two-way big man when healthy.
But the Grizzlies' supporting cast fits like a glove as well.
Although Brandon Clarke's shooting form has regressed, he provides excellent defensive versatility and vertical spacing. De'Anthony Melton is establishing himself as Tony Allen's spiritual successor, while rookies Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman are garnering early rotation minutes with selfless, detail-oriented play.
A potential lineup featuring Morant, Jackson, Clarke, Tillman, and Bane or Melton has all the requisite features of a contender: high-level shot creation, spacing and multiple switchable defenders. Though injuries may have doomed Memphis' chances of sneaking into the playoffs this season, this sextet plus whomever the team adds in future drafts will make for a deadly opponent over the next half-decade or more.
3. Phoenix Suns
The Core: Devin Booker (24), Deandre Ayton (22), Mikal Bridges (24), Cameron Johnson (24), Jalen Smith (20)
These are not your older brother's Phoenix Suns.
Yes, veterans such as Chris Paul and Jae Crowder are pushing the Suns' promising youngsters into playoff contention faster than they'd get there on their own. But as we saw in the bubble, this group has a ton of promise in its own right.
Devin Booker made his first All-Star team last season and is primed to become an awards fixture going forward. Deandre Ayton is off to a slow start this year, but he remains a nightly double-double threat and is one of Paul's most important projects in Phoenix. Mikal Bridges is making his case as a Most Improved Player candidate early on, adding offensive breadth and depth to his already outstanding defensive talents.
Cameron Johnson has already overachieved, going from an old, one-dimensional reach in the draft to a rotation fixture in no time. And while rookie Jalen Smith has barely played because of an ankle injury and the league's health and safety protocol, the Suns' selection of him was also widely considered a reach. However, given Johnson's quick development, general manager James Jones deserves the benefit of the doubt for now on the stretchy big man. Smith's fit with Ayton might be cause for concern, but his talent is not.
Paul is 35 years old and won't be around forever. But considering his leadership capabilities and the talented young players at nearly every position on Phoenix's roster, the franchise will soon be ready to achieve postseason greatness without him.
2. Dallas Mavericks
The Core: Luka Doncic (21), Jalen Brunson (24), Josh Green (20), Tyrell Terry (20)
Kristaps Porzingis missed the cutoff here since he turned 25 in August, but he's a key part of the Dallas Mavericks' future. The team struggled to find a rhythm without him at the beginning of the season even though Luka Doncic was nearly averaging a triple-double.
But placing the Mavericks this high is purely a bet on Doncic.
Although he won't turn 22 until the end of February, he's a walking triple-double threat and a legitimate MVP candidate. No matter his supporting cast, Doncic will be a fixture in All-Star Games for years to come.
Meanwhile, Jalen Brunson is posting career-best numbers in his third season. Rookie Josh Green is already getting minutes thanks to his intense defense. And Tyrell Terry could soon be the Mavericks' version of Eddie House, a diminutive guard whose prodigious shooting makes him a perpetual X-factor.
However, Dallas will only go as far as Luka can take it. Thankfully, if two-plus seasons are any indication, he might lead the franchise back to the promised land.
1. Boston Celtics
The Core: Jayson Tatum (22), Jaylen Brown (24), Payton Pritchard (22), Grant Williams (22), Aaron Nesmith (21), Romeo Langford (21)
Early-season injuries and contact tracing protocols have exposed the Boston Celtics' lack of depth. Nevertheless, they were third in the Eastern Conference heading into Friday's action in large part due to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Tatum and Brown are averaging a combined 52.7 points per game while shooting 41.6 percent from three and have emerged as arguably the best perimeter defensive tandem in the NBA. They're no longer the future Kawhi Leonard and Paul George—they're a direct rival to that pair right now.
The rest of Boston's young core has had varying degrees of success. Payton Pritchard was always going to find a role in the NBA, but his success thus far has been especially surprising given how much the Celtics have needed him. Grant Williams is already a quality defender who can play small-ball center, although he needs work on offense. Romeo Langford and Aaron Nesmith have both struggled to start their careers, but it's far too early to give up on them.
Boston will likely need contributions from its ancillary young players to win a title in the next half-decade. But as long as Brown and Tatum stay healthy, the franchise has a higher floor than virtually any other team over that timeframe.