Ranking the NBA's Top 10 Young Cores Ahead of 2021-22 Season

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 24, 2021

Ranking the NBA's Top 10 Young Cores Ahead of 2021-22 Season

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    Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

    They got next.

    Well, actually, some of them got right now, too.

    The NBA's future is in such a tremendous place that several of its ascending stars have already...well, ascended. They're still climbing, too, which is a terrifying thought given how deep their bags already are.

    This discussion is all about the Association's youth—more specifically, only players who are under the age of 25 and still will be as of the regular season's opening night (Oct. 19).

    That portion of the league's population is headed under the microscope as we analyze everything from current production to growth potential. From there, clubs are weighed by their collections of young talent, which accounts for both quality and quantity. Having one star youngster who lacks support won't cut it (sorry, Bam Adebayo), and neither will having a bunch of young players with no star power (sorry, Orlando Magic).

    With those parameters in place, let's get to the top 10.

10. Houston Rockets

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    Michael J. LeBrecht II/Getty Images

    The Core: Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr., KJ Martin, Alperen Sengun, Usman Garuba and Josh Christopher

    Run this exercise again after the upcoming season, and there's almost zero chance Houston still sits in the No. 10 spot. Either its young players will have punched well above this weight class, or they'll be exposed as less than the Rockets were hoping they'd become (at least for now).

    Green is the crown jewel as a 19-year-old with a deep enough offensive skill set to snag a scoring title (or three) over the course of his career. Sengun boasts throwback skills on the interior with great playmaking and the ability to space. Garuba might be the best defender in the rookie class. Christopher is a wild card as a former McDonald's All-American whose production hasn't measured up to his pedigree or physical skills.

    The issue is none of the four has any NBA experience, and it's not like Porter or Martin are super-proven at this level, either. Each has some good NBA tape, but they've also shown the inefficiencies you'd expect from a pair with a combined 121 big-league appearances under their belts.

    The intrigue is enormous here, and the potential is even higher, but this is as high as Houston can rank without seeing these players on the floor.

9. New York Knicks

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    The Core: RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin, Quentin Grimes, Miles McBride

    Critics might hold this as a quantity-over-quality selection, since there isn't an established star in the group and it may never produce one. But strength in numbers matters, and you don't need to squint too hard to see several possible pathways to stardom (or, at the least, really good-dom).

    Barrett is a relentless attacker who could get tons of mileage from the 2020-21 strides he made as a shooter (40.1 percent from range) and table-setter (3.0 assists against 1.9 turnovers). A healthy Robinson could force his way into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. Quickley hit the ground sprinting as a rookie, flashing a reliable three-ball and one of the league's best floaters.

    The swing factors are Toppin, Grimes and McBride. The latter two are rookies, and the former kind of feels like one after struggling to see much floor time in relief of NBA minutes-leader—per-game and total—Julius Randle. But Grimes is a shot-maker who competes defensively, McBride is a hard worker who does a lot of things well and Toppin offers explosion and shooting touch.

8. Charlotte Hornets

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    The Core: LaMelo Ball, Miles Bridges, P.J. Washington, James Bouknight, Kai Jones, JT Thor

    There were many draft pundits who argued Ball should've been the first pick of the 2020 draft. Those people get paid for a reason, folks.

    Ball's first NBA go-round was electric. He dished and dimed as expected, but he also dropped in buckets from all over and even defended a bit. He worked his way around a fractured wrist and still became just the 14th freshman to ever average at least 15 points, five rebounds and five assists.

    Ball is the headliner, but Bridges and Washington give this group some depth. After filling the highlight reel his first two seasons, Bridges spent his third adding substance to all the sizzle and nearly made a surprise entry into the 50/40/90 shooting club with a 50.3/40.0/86.7 slash line. Washington serves as connective tissue in Charlotte, filling any cracks with two-way versatility and the ability to man both the 4 and 5 spots.

    The rest of the core are unproven rookies, who could make this ranking look severely low if they prove to be quick learners. Bouknight is a walking bucket, Jones is an explosive rim-runner who holds his own away from the basket and Thor has steal-of-the-draft potential with athleticism, do-it-all defense and outside shooting potential.

7. Dallas Mavericks

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The Core: Luka Doncic, Moses Brown, Tyrell Terry and Josh Green

    Like most things Mavericks-related, this is all about Luka. And why wouldn't it be?

    He was either shot out of a cannon or dropped from the basketball heavens. Either way, he's a 22-year-old who is—health permitting—unquestionably on his way to becoming an all-time great. Across his first three seasons (two of which were shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic), he tallied at least 5,000 points, 1,500 rebounds and 1,500 assists. The only other players to achieve those marks are Oscar Robertson and LeBron James.

    "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," Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, per ESPN's Nick Friedell. "... 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."

    Kerr said that, by the way, in Jan. 2020—when Doncic wasn't even halfway through his sophomore season. This is special.

    Of course, it needs to be, since there isn't much worth talking about beyond Doncic here. Brown posted some huge numbers on a brutal Oklahoma City Thunder team, so make of that what you will. Green and Terry barely broke a sweat as rookies in Dallas this past season. The lack of support keeps the Mavs from ranking any higher, but rostering a 22-year-old superstar nevertheless secures their spot.

6. Denver Nuggets

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    Barry Gossage/Getty Images

    The Core: Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Zeke Nnaji, Bol Bol, Nah'Shon Hyland

    While Murray and Porter do their best work in support of MVP Nikola Jokic, both are more than capable net-shredders in their own right.

    When Murray is healthy—he tore his left ACL in April—he pairs slippery handles with deep shooting range and soft touch around the basket. He might be over his skis as a primary playmaker, but as a secondary distributor, he can get the ball zipping around when defenses crowd him.

    When Porter is healthy—he had multiple back surgeries prior to his NBA debut—he looks like a future scoring champ. He can get tunnel vision and doesn't always give great effort defensively, but he can make every shot in the book, and as a 6'10" shot-creator, he's more or less always open.

    That's the heart of the Nuggets' young nucleus, but it could expand in a big way this season. Nnaji and Bol have flashed intriguing skill sets featuring both paint protection and outside shooting, while Hyland enters scoring range as soon as he steps inside an arena.

5. Phoenix Suns

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    The Core: Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Jalen Smith

    This feels like the kind of ranking that will rile up the comments section with an almost even mix of "Way too high!" and "Way too low!" critiques. From our perspective, landing in the middle feels just right, then.

    The limitation here is obvious: Only three players qualify, and Smith is here by default. He has the pedigree of being last year's No. 10 pick, but he did nothing as a rookie and followed that up by shooting 36.5 percent in summer league.

    And yet, how do Booker and Ayton not crack the top five after playing such pivotal roles in the Suns' run to the 2021 NBA Finals? Booker is already a two-time All-Star with one of the league's best scoring, shooting and passing skill sets. Ayton is still solving the puzzle of consistency, but if he gets it done, he has centerpiece potential.

    In the aftermath of their Finals loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, Ayton told Booker, "This is just the beginning." Maybe that's an optimistic message, but it's also a reminder that as good as they've been so far, their best basketball is still ahead of them.

4. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    The Core: Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Desmond Bane, De'Anthony Melton, Xavier Tillman Sr., Ziaire Williams

    We should all be as good at anything as the Grizzlies have been at drafting.

    Just because Morant (second in 2019) and Jackson (fourth in 2018) were top-five picks doesn't diminish how great those picks were. Top-five selections get botched all the time. These happened to bring back a dynamic floor general in Morant and a shot-blocking, three-point sniping big man in Jackson. Just like that, Memphis had the foundation laid for its post-Grit-n-Grind era.

    "They can be a lethal duo," Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins told The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears in Nov. 2019. "... It's going to be fun to watch them grow because they are so dynamic on both sides of the floor."

    Memphis has helped foster that growth by continuing to ace the drafts since. They used the 2020 draft to acquire an ace three-and-D wing in Bane and a versatile, polished frontcourt piece in Tillman. They climbed the ladder in the most recent talent grab for Williams, a raw 19-year-old with feature-scorer potential. They also thieved Melton in a 2019 offseason trade, getting a lockdown defender who since blossomed into a 41.2 percent three-point shooter.

    All arrows are pointing up on Beale Street, though the Grizzlies don't quite have the star power to move up from here yet.

3. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    The Core: Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Kira Lewis Jr., Jaxson Hayes

    It's hard to see this ranking and not be a little bummed by the what-could-have-been possibilities. Had the Pelicans just covered the restricted free agency costs of 23-year-old Lonzo Ball—four years, $80 million; a reasonable rate for his production and pedigree—they could have commanded serious consideration for a top-two spot.

    Instead, they'll settle for No. 3, a ranking drawing from Williamson's superstar credentials, Ingram's All-Star ability and, to a much lesser extent, the unrealized potential of the rest.

    Williamson might still be carving out as his NBA niche, and he's already devouring most every defender he encounters. New Orleans found success leaning on him more for playmaking later in the year, meaning this 27-point-per-game scorer could rank as a high-level distributor sooner than later. Ingram is an effortlessly smooth three-level scorer, and he could blow the top off his ceiling by better utilizing his length and athleticism on defense.

    The other three are (far) less proven, but each offers a reason for optimism. Alexander-Walker can create shots for himself and his teammates. Lewis is a blur in the open court who could really open up the floor for himself by finding consistency from range. Hayes plays above the rim at both ends with impressive bounce for a 6'11" center.

2. Boston Celtics

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    The Core: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Robert Williams III, Payton Pritchard, Aaron Nesmith

    The Celtics might pack the heaviest two-man punch of any young nucleus so far with Tatum and Brown. They also have legitimate depth behind that duo—and honestly might have more young players than they can use. If you wanted, you could certainly expand this core to include the likes of Grant Williams, Romeo Langford and Carsen Edwards.

    That's a long-winded way of saying Boston finished closer to first than third and has multiple arguments for No. 1.

    Most revolve around Tatum and Brown, both of whom have established themselves as All-Star wings who play both ends of the floor. Brown is the lesser regarded of the two, and all he did last season was average 24.7 points on 48.4/39.7/76.4 shooting, 6.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists while also collecting a vote for All-Defensive first team.

    But Tatum holds top billing for a reason. He can score in his sleep and keeps improving as a passer, rebounder and defender. He's also younger (23) than Brown (25 on Oct. 24), so he should still have room to grow—scary as that sounds for every other fanbase.

    "That boy is destined for greatness," Brown said in April, per ESPN's Tim Bontemps.

    Boston shouldn't count on another star emerging from this core, but Williams locks down the defensive end inside and out, Pritchard packs a steady scoring punch and Nesmith can be a flamethrower from three.

    The Celtics might have more top-level talent than the team at No. 1, but they lose the depth category by a wide enough margin to take silver.

1. Atlanta Hawks

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    The Core: Trae Young, John Collins, De'Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish, Onyeka Okongwu, Jalen Johnson

    Are we putting too much stock in Atlanta's run to the Eastern Conference Finals? Some might say that. But it's hard not to get excited about what's in front of this core after such a magical season.

    If Young had any doubters before the campaign tipped, they didn't survive the season. He finished 14th in scoring (25.3) and second in assists (9.4), then found nearly an extra four points per outing in the playoffs (28.8). For a third-year player in his postseason debut, it was the kind of performance that made superstardom feel inevitable.

    "He is an amazing player," Giannis Antetokounmpo said of Young, per ESPN's Malika Andrews. "What he can do for his size ... it's unbelievable. What he's done in a three-year span is unbelievable. He's got to keep getting better, keep believing in himself and the sky is the limit for him."

    Beyond Young, the Hawks have a near-All-Star in Collins, a 23-year-old averaging 19.3 points and 9.0 rebounds since the start of 2018-19. Hunter was busy turning heads before right knee injuries derailed his season, but he still hinted at a leap from a three-and-D wing to a three-level scorer who defends multiple spots. Huerter is a three-point sniper who also functions as a secondary playmaker and capable team defender.

    That quartet alone might get the Hawks this spot, but their chance for core expansion cements it.

    Reddish had his sophomore season thrown off course by injuries but remains an interesting source of defensive versatility and support scoring. Okongwu can defend from the paint to the perimeter and gets interesting in a hurry if he finds a three-ball. Johnson stampeded through Summer League and already proved he fell too far as the 20th pick.

    Atlanta can thank this young core for delivering both its impressive present and blindingly bright future.


    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Contract information via Spotrac.

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


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