They Got Next: Luka Doncic, Zion Williamson and the NBA's Top 25 Under 25

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 17, 2021

They Got Next: Luka Doncic, Zion Williamson and the NBA's Top 25 Under 25

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Prepare for youth to be served!

    These 25 players are the top young talents in the league, though that's where their commonalities end. Some make the list largely on potential, while others have already piled up individual honors and enjoyed team success. Measuring those two categories against one another is tricky, so understand that room for improvement (tied directly to how young the player is) and established production (tends to skew older) are the main considerations.

    The field includes players who'll be 24 or younger on opening night of the 2021-22 season. There'll be some close calls, but we had to set a cutoff somewhere. Among those who've recently aged out and won't appear: Donovan Mitchell, Ben Simmons, Mikal Bridges, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, all of who are 25. We'll also exclude rookies from the 2021 draft; we need at least some sample of NBA minutes to make a fair judgment.

    They'll get their crack at the rankings next year.

25. Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Cleveland Cavaliers gunner Collin Sexton averaged 24.3 points per game last year, good for a top-10 ranking among players under 25. If you trim the data to include only those as young as Sexton, for whom 2020-21 was only his age-22 season, he slots fifth, trailing four stars who we'll see much later.

    Sexton is efficient for a high-volume offensive talent, clocking in right at the league average in true shooting percentage last season. He's a career 38.5 percent shooter from long range, and though he could stand to take a few more (4.4 attempts per game last season represented a career-high), he has also steadily improved his foul-drawing craft and floater game.

    Though there's no denying Sexton's potency as a scorer, he ranks this low because of his tendency to dominate the ball on offense, a trait that irked some veteran teammates. Add his defense that has long been more bark than bite, as evidenced by the fact that Cleveland has been markedly better with him off the floor in every year of his career, and a one-dimensional profile emerges.

    Sexton hasn't produced much success for the Cavs, and his high-usage scoring game isn't the kind that scales well on a winner. It's early for him, and the combo guard has improved every year, but Sexton feels like a high-end reserve on a decent team—not a key piece on a big-time winner or a cornerstone upon which to build.

24. Jarrett Allen, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The newly minted $100 million man in the middle for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Jarrett Allen is one of the best young throwback bigs around. Though he doesn't hold up on switches all that well, and though his three-point shooting remains entirely theoretical, Allen is a high-efficiency finisher inside and a rangy shot-deterrent on defense.

    Splitting time between the Brooklyn Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers last year, Allen averaged a double-double for the first time in his career, finishing with 12.8 points and 10.0 rebounds to go with 1.4 blocks per game and a 61.8 field-goal percentage.

    His contract is too rich for a player with his limitations, but the overpay matters a little less in Cleveland. Non-stretch, non-switch bigs tend to lose their effectiveness in the postseason, and the Cavs don't figure to participate in one of those for a while as they continue to rebuild.

    Allen will be a useful roll man and rim-protector all year long, and if he ever adds some shooting, he'll have a chance to climb way up this list.

23. Miles Bridges, Charlotte Hornets

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    Miles Bridges went from being a full-time starter in 2019-20 to primarily working as a reserve last season, which isn't the ideal playing-time trajectory for a 23-year-old. Fortunately for the Charlotte Hornets and Bridges' placement here, the forward with otherworldly springs didn't let a mild role reduction stop him from expanding his game.

    Bridges' athleticism is his defining characteristic, but he's more than a lob-finisher. Quietly, he ratcheted up his three-point accuracy to a career-best 40.0 percent to become one of the league's most efficient overall scorers last season. Though typically a dependent scorer, Bridges is also developing as a passer, ranking in the 68th percentile at his position in assist rate last season.

    Forceful, energetic and capable of recovering for spectacular help plays, Bridges thrived in a more significant defensive role during the 2020-21 campaign. His versatility is also an asset; there aren't many top-end wing defenders who can also moonlight as small-ball, roll-man centers when the situation calls for it.

    Bridges probably doesn't have an All-Star ceiling. However, he takes nothing off the table on either end, which is why he's a valuable support player you could imagine playing plenty of minutes for any winning team right now.

22. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Tabbed as the steal of the 2020 draft at No. 12 by several general managers, Sacramento Kings rookie Tyrese Haliburton validated that assessment immediately.

    Rail thin and a substandard run-and-jump athlete by NBA standards, Haliburton succeeded with efficient shooting, crunch-time nerve, and, above all, extremely advanced feel and anticipation. Too many times to count, Haliburton, just 20 years old last season, would display an understanding of the on-court proceedings many 10-year vets never cultivate. That's not to say he fell short in the conventional-numbers department. He and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are the only players on this list to average at least 13.0 points and 5.0 assists while hitting at least 40.0 percent of their threes in 2020-21.

    Whether reading an opponent and darting into a passing lane, making the unheralded pass before the assist or slithering into open space to make himself available for a teammate that needed bailing out, Haliburton's knack for making the right play was his best attribute.

    It's difficult to say whether Haliburton's other limitations will prevent him from becoming a top-line star; you hate to bet against a guy that's already way ahead of the curve mentally. If he adds bulk, speeds up his release and improves as an on-ball defender, this ranking will seem low in hindsight. 

21. Lonzo Ball, Chicago Bulls

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Say this for Lonzo Ball: He recognizes his weaknesses and works on them until they become strengths. That's not the worst trait for a 23-year-old to have.

    Once defined by his unreliable three-point shot, Ball re-tooled his form and hit 37.5 percent of his triples in 2019-20, followed by 37.8 percent on even higher volume last season. His free-throw shooting sat at an alarming 56.6 percent in his third year, only to reach 78.1 percent in 2020-21.

    Perhaps even more importantly, Ball was essentially useless as a pick-and-roll ball-handler until this past season, when he ranked in the 69th percentile in points per possession. Nobody'll be trumpeting praise for that level of proficiency in a pass-first guard, but considering Ball was in the 10th percentile in 2019-20, it counts as significant growth.

    He still never draws fouls, he still doesn't really have a reliable way to score inside the arc and he still provides more value as a team defender than a one-on-one stopper. Those are all part of an unusual makeup that would seem to cap Ball's ceiling, but he fits just about anywhere because he can shoot, pass and hold up defensively. However, he's not a central-figure type that teams build around.

20. RJ Barrett, New York Knicks

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    With the exception of his three-point accuracy—which improved dramatically, climbing from 32.0 to 40.1 percent—RJ Barrett enjoyed moderate growth across the board in 2020-21. 

    He shot slightly better at the rim and from the mid-range area, nudged his assist rate up and trimmed his turnovers. Barrett's small step forward mattered a little extra more, though, since it came as part of an organizational turnaround. Not all numbers are created equal; the ones that come on a winning team count for more.

    Barrett's shot profile still needs work, and he's a long way from reaching top-option wing status because he's not yet capable of creating his own looks from beyond the arc and isn't efficient enough as a finisher inside the arc. He's also just 21 years old and has the frame to compete with the best wings in the league. On a Knicks team that lacks a shutdown defender at that spot, he'll need to be ready for a lot of those marquee matchups this season.

    His first two seasons don't scream superstar upside, but Barrett comes closer to that designation than anyone we've covered so far.

19. Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Jaren Jackson Jr.'s age-20 season (2019-20) was a revelation, as the second-year prospect produced one of the best three-point shooting seasons any big man's ever had. He and Karl-Anthony Towns are the only players 6'11" or taller to fire off at least 6.5 treys per game and hit at least 39.0 percent of them.

    In a league where shooting is king, particularly from the frontcourt spots, that achievement had Jackson on a trajectory to be a franchise-altering star. His torn meniscus at the beginning of Aug. 2020, though, limited him to just 11 largely ineffective games this past season, dimming his shine...perhaps unfairly.

    It's true that Jackson's abbreviated season was rough. His flaws—an astronomical foul rate, dreadful defensive rebounding and an inability to defend the lane with force—were much harder to overlook when paired with a meager 28.3 percent from downtown.

    Nonetheless, Jackson will play the entire 2021-22 season as a 22-year-old. We're talking about a player still in his early formative years—one who has already demonstrated one elite skill. He's flawed and not assured of reaching his ceiling, but that combo of youth and performance in a key area gives Jackson immense potential.

18. John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    His ceiling might not be as high as Jackson's, but John Collins' superior health history, more versatile offensive game and recent willingness to embrace a dirty-work role earn him a higher ranking. And it's also worth noting that Jackson would have to improve dramatically over his 2020-21 levels to lock in an extension on the order of Collins' five-year, $125 million deal.

    An energy guy as a rookie and then something of an empty points-and-rebounds stat-stuffer in his second season, Collins was a difficult player to pin down. His 2019-20 campaign did feature averages of 21.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and 40.1 percent shooting from deep, but it wasn't until Atlanta's playoff run this past summer that Collins displayed the form that would ultimately get him paid.

    He buckled down, he hustled, he made second efforts and he defended with more commitment than ever. When a 20-10 forward with legitimate shooting range can do that, it means something.

    In the soon-to-be 24-year-old Collins' case, it means $125 million.

17. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Anthony Edwards played in all 72 games last season, but it's the last half of those (give or take) that matter most.

    Prior to the All-Star break, Edwards shot just 37.1 percent from the field and 30.2 percent from deep while scoring 14.9 points on 14.9 shots per game. Every concern about his inefficiency and lack of feel manifested itself, marking Edwards, perhaps, as an empty-stats bust.

    After the break, Edwards put those concerns to bed.

    With averages of 23.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists over his final 36 games, the brutally strong and terrifyingly explosive wing proved his earlier work was merely the product of inexperience. He adapted, grew more comfortable and learned to use his physical advantages to earn twice as many free throws as he did in his first 36. May, Edwards' final month of the season, was his best of all: 27.0 points on 65.4 percent true shooting—an elite volume-efficiency combo.

    At 20, just 17 days older than LaMelo Ball, Edwards has as much room to improve as anyone here. That he actually did improve so dramatically within a single season, even if it came during mostly meaningless stretch-run games, suggests his upward trajectory is far from finished.

    He still hasn't shown great decision-making feel, his defense is a major question mark, and we need to see Edwards perform in games that have actual stakes, but nobody's even half-jokingly talking about him being a bust anymore.

16. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Jamal Murray is unlikely to play before he turns 25 on Feb. 23. If you don't think he belongs on this list at all or believe his torn ACL means he won't reach the levels he hit before going down after 48 games in 2020-21, when he averaged a career-high 21.2 points and shot 40.8 percent on threes, you've got a case worth hearing.

    The argument that he shouldn't be here rests on his cloudy future. But based on what we know about Murray for certain—he's been an established No. 2 option on a contender, he saves his best work for the games that matter most and he possesses that vital ability to get his own shot from anywhere against any defender—he has to be here.

    Consider his drop to a position in the teens an acknowledgment that, yes, his status on this list is a bit in flux. But if it came down to winning a game tomorrow (or late this season when he returns to the floor), you'd take Murray over anyone else we've covered so far.

15. Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Brandon Ingram's star may have dimmed a bit this past year, but that has more to do with his circumstances than his play. He turned in a carbon copy of the 2019-20 campaign that earned him Most Improved Player and an All-Star nod, but Zion Williamson's emergence and uncertainty about where Ingram figures into a team that must now clearly be built around someone else made it seem like Ingram took a step backward.


    In just about every way that matters, Ingram was as good as his All-Star 2019-20 self. He scored an identical 23.8 points per game with a 58.4 percent true shooting percentage, down only three-tenths of a percentage point from the year before, and his Player Efficiency Rating went up a touch from 18.8 to 19.2. If we're giving equal time to his flaws, Ingram's shot profile remained too reliant on mid-rangers, just as it was in 2019-20.

    Ingram also isn't much of a defender; his willowy 6'8" frame makes him an easy screen target, and he's below average for his position in block and steal rate. Regardless, the guy can generate scoring chances on his own and put up points at high volume, two critical skills.

    Zion is a bigger deal, but Ingram, 24, remains a real talent worthy of this mid-pack placement.

14. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Deandre Ayton has posted a double-double average in each of his three NBA seasons while adapting to a changing role required by his improving team. Whether he can become a surefire top scoring option and organizational anchor hardly matters anymore because Devin Booker has both of those covered. What makes Ayton so valuable is his understanding that there are other ways to thrive.

    Once a clueless defender, Ayton was a critical piece of Phoenix's sixth-ranked defense last season. More importantly, his contributions on that end mattered even more in the playoffs, where Ayton's mobility allowed him to stay on the floor against varying schemes and matchups. The postseason exposes limited centers every year, but Ayton managed to dominate in conventional ways—on the glass, as a shot-blocker and as a lob threat—while also looking relatively scheme-proof against downsized opponents.

    It'd be nice if Ayton could get to the foul line more often, and a little more stretch as a shooter could really unlock some new dimensions. But considering the progress he's made as a defender, it'd be a mistake to rule out growth in other areas for the 23-year-old.

13. OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    This ranking prices in the chance, based at least in part on some gut feeling, that OG Anunoby has the ability to move beyond his status as one of the most important role-playing defenders and complementary scorers in the NBA.

    The 24-year-old forward is already on the shortest of short lists when it comes to lockdown individual defenders, and there aren't many who can credibly guard five positions at his size. Anunoby is exceptionally strong, has active hands and somehow seems to know in advance which direction the offensive player wants to go.

    The Kawhi Leonard comparison is almost too easy, particularly when paired with fourth-year stats that included 15.9 points, 5.5. rebounds and 1.5 steals on a 48.0/39.8/78.4 shooting split. Just for posterity, Leonard's fourth season featured 16.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.3 steals on 47.9/34.9/80.2 shooting. Pretty close, right?

    In his fifth season, Leonard made his first All-NBA team and won his second straight DPOY trophy. Anunoby may not be on quite that starry of a path, but it would hardly be a shock to see him make a leap in year five.

12. De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Last season, De'Aaron Fox continued to solidify his status as one of the most explosive downhill attackers in the league. Long defined by his blazing open-court speed, Fox has spent the first four seasons of his career learning to harness that gift in non-transition settings. 

    He's developed hesitation moves to complement his quick bursts and learned to seek and absorb contact near the basket. Players with Fox's straight-line velocity often struggle to operate in lower gears, but he's the exception. And when Fox lulls opponents to sleep with the slightest changeup in pace, it makes his fastball all but impossible to hit.

    He posted a 69.0 field-goal percentage at the rim this past season, an incredible figure for a guard while ranking in the 98th percentile at his position in shooting fouls drawn.

    It's hard to say how many demerits Fox deserves for being a heavy-minute player on the second-worst defense in league history, but his play on that end needs to be better. And though he's become a dominant scoring force inside the arc, he's still a 32.6 percent shooter from long range for his career—a figure propped up by 2018-19's outlier 37.1 percent.

    Still, with averages of 25.2 points and 7.2 assists in his age-23 season, Fox is poised for at least fringe All-Star consideration in 2021-22.

11. Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Opportunities are coming for Michael Porter Jr., who'll step into a clear No. 2 role behind Nikola Jokic with Jamal Murray sidelined for most or all of the 2021-22 season. Based on a 2020-21 campaign that saw MPJ average more points than any other player who attempted 14 or fewer shots per game, an opportunity might be all it takes for him to win a scoring title.

    Porter Jr.'s 6'10" height and quick release make his shot among the hardest in the NBA to contest, and he's always ready to fire. At 44.5 percent last season, MPJ's long-range accuracy trailed only Joe Harris and Joe Ingles among players who got off at least 6.0 attempts per game. Porter Jr. is a flat-out hungry scorer, a characteristic that shows up in how relentlessly he chases offensive boards and hunts down those found-money buckets around the rim.

    That his 62.8 field-goal percentage on two-point attempts was the best among all 60 players in that high-volume three-point-shooting class showed him to be among the most complete scoring threats in the NBA—mind you, at age 22.

    Now 23 and firmly established as a rising star—at least on offense—Porter Jr. need only continue taking small steps on defense to round out his game.

10. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Jaylen Brown would rank higher if he weren't the oldest player in the field. With his 25th birthday coming on Oct. 24, he slides under the "must start the season as a 24-year-old" cutoff by less than a week. That said, the reason we usually devalue older prospects is because they theoretically have less room to improve their games—a trend that might not apply to Brown.

    His age-24 season featured leaps in key areas, suggesting he's still on the upswing. Brown's usage rate and assist rate hit career highs, blowing past the ones he'd set in 2019-20. Those were indicators of a more developed on-ball game, and they gained further validation when paired with career lows in the percentage of field goals Brown scored via the assists of others.

    The shifty and explosive wing became much more of a self-sufficient creator last season, which is basically the final step in the transformation from role player to star. No surprise he earned his first All-Star nod and significantly narrowed the gap between himself and resident alpha Jayson Tatum in the Boston Celtics' pecking order.

9. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    The shooting is a problem. Point guards who aren't reliable threats from three simply can't impact an offense the same way as those that can. So even if Ja Morant is as ferocious an athlete as there is in the NBA, and even if he already has the competitiveness, vision and leadership aspects of the lead guard position locked down, it's impossible to overlook his career 31.7 percent accuracy rate from deep.

    Due largely to that notable hole in his game, Morant ranked in just the 36th percentile in points per shot attempt at his position last season.

    Framed more optimistically, Morant deserves credit for being as effective as he's been over his two NBA seasons while missing a critical skill. He's compensated for a mostly absent jumper by leveraging his supreme athleticism, getting to the rim, drawing fouls and attacking the offensive boards. Young enough at 22 to trust his speed and bounce will hold up for at least another handful of seasons, Morant has some time to smooth the rough edges of his game.

    Morant averaged a very respectable 19.1 points, 7.4 assists and 4.0 rebounds in his sophomore season, leading the Memphis Grizzlies to a playoff berth. Even with those feats on his resumé, Morant's high placement here is still based more on his potential than what he's done to this point. He's a year-and-a-half younger than Fox, and like his Sacramento counterpart, all he needs to become a superstar is a three-point shot.

8. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    No one on this list has played fewer career games than LaMelo Ball, and the 20-year-old only started 31 of the 51 contests in which he appeared for the Charlotte Hornets last year. While some will surely clamor for him to be ranked much higher, that just doesn't seem responsible with a sample this small.

    Granted, Ball flashed preternatural playmaking instincts, vision and feel as a 19-year-old rookie. That he also hit 35.2 percent on solid volume (5.1 attempts per game) from deep, answering the pre-draft question about the viability of his unorthodox shot, only made his debut more impressive.

    At 6'6", Ball also has elite size for a pure point guard. Due partly to his length and partly to his nose for the ball, he's already among the very best rebounders at his position on both the offensive and defensive glass. Add in his 95th percentile steal rate and 75th percentile block rate among point guards, and Ball's ability to contribute in several areas shines through all the clearer.

    Ball is in the rare position of not having to get any better to move up this list next year. All he has to do is prove those 51 games were for real by playing that well over a longer stretch.

7. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    As the self-appointed president of the Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Smoothness and Craft Appreciation Society, I looked hard for ways to rank the 23-year-old Oklahoma City Thunder guard higher than this. However, a top-five spot might only have been logically justifiable if the NBA awarded style points as a statistic, tacked onto the actual points a player scored.

    In that scenario, SGA would have averaged about 50 per game last season.

    Slick with the dribble, never sped up by the defense and gifted with that rare and unsettling (for the defender) knack for operating at an un-timeable tempo, Gilgeous-Alexander led the league in drives per game last season, piling up averages of 23.7 points, 5.9 assists and 4.7 rebounds on a glowing 50.8/41.8/80.8 shooting split. Had he sustained those numbers for more than the 35 games he logged last season and, perhaps, produced them on a non-tanking team, Gilgeous-Alexander would have deserved some fringe All-NBA consideration.

    There are better, more established players on this list. Most of the ones still to come have lengthier track records of star-level production and team success. Very few are as fun to watch as SGA.

6. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Devin Booker has a case to be ranked at least one spot higher, but with his 25th birthday less than two weeks into the upcoming season, it's fair to hold his relatively advanced age against him.

    That said, Booker doesn't seem like a player who's finished improving, and that's no small thing for a guy who just last season demonstrated he could be the top offensive option on a Finals team. That's rarefied air, particularly for 24-year-old.

    Booker's 9,395 total points through his age-24 season are the seventh-highest total in league history, but it's his growth in other areas that tell the real tale.

    An improved defender, Booker is no longer listed on the opposing scouting report as a liability. In fact, the same physical strength that creates separation for his patented in-between pull-up game is now paying dividends on D. He's difficult to dislodge near the basket and can subtly manhandle matchups on the perimeter. That he's become more willing to move his feet and compete consistently on defense makes all the difference.

    Add in genuine passing acumen, and Booker, once a one-way scorer, is now essentially weakness-free.

5. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Though a bit on the older side at 24, this is as low as we can possibly rank a player who's already been the defensive anchor (and a key facilitator) on a Finals team. An All-Defensive second-teamer two years running and an All-Star in 2020, Bam Adebayo offers just about everything you could ask for in a modern center.

    He can switch, pass, finish lobs and attack off the dribble against slower big-man opponents (which, compared to him, is essentially all of them). He's also making steady year-over-year progress as a mid-range shooter. If Adebayo's trajectory in that specific area continues, and he becomes a viable three-point threat, he could settle in as a perennial presence on All-NBA teams.

    If you had to pick a nit, it'd be that Adebayo isn't an elite rim-protector, but that may just be part of the bargain with a center who's quick enough to shuttle all over the floor and spends plenty of time checking guards and wings away from the basket.

    With 2020-21 averages of 18.7 points, 9.0 rebounds and 5.4 assists, plus more win shares than any other sub-25 player, Adebayo established himself as a genuine star with a strong likelihood of improving on that status. He's a two-way difference-maker and an integral piece on a big-time winner—a rarity for players young enough to make this list. 

4. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Projections are always harder without precedents.

    We've never seen a player with Zion Williamson's combination of bulk and athleticism, which makes it difficult to know how he'll age and what kind of player he might someday become. It's easy to forecast an early peak, a short prime and a quick decline when you think about the sheer strain his size puts on his joints. A torn meniscus that produced a 24-game rookie season didn't exactly push those worries aside, particularly with a handful of previous health issues hitting in both high school and college.

    Weigh all that against another unprecedented aspect of Zion—his early-career production—and the decision only gets more fraught. Why shouldn't the only 20-year-old to ever average at least 27.0 points per game with a true shooting percentage north of 60.0 percent be first on this list? And what to make of the fact that the concept of "Point Zion" was only implemented midway through last season? Maybe he'd been playing with one hand tied behind his back all along until the New Orleans Pelicans figured out how to use him.

    What if he becomes a reliable outside shooter?

    What's his future as a defender look like? 

    How long will it take for him to prove he can lead a winner?

    Williamson is one of one. His risks are unique, as are his skills and production. That confounding package of uncertainty still lands the 21-year-old very high on this list. There's a roughly equal chance that he belongs as high as second or as low as 10th, depending on whether you put more stock in his offensive production or his health and non-scoring shortcomings.

3. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    At 22, Trae Young was the central figure on an Atlanta Hawks team that took the eventual champion, Milwaukee Bucks, to six games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Playoff success isn't always a factor in these rankings, but when the player in question is so clearly the driver of what makes his team a postseason threat, it has to be.

    The single most valuable commodity in the NBA is offensive shot creation, and Young did that more effectively for the Hawks last season than almost anyone else in the NBA. He added 12.7 points per 100 possessions to their offensive rating when on the floor, a figure bettered only by Stephen Curry among lead guards. 

    A threat to heave from the logo at any time, a top-five passer in the league and already one of the most diabolical foul-drawers around, Young heads into his fourth NBA season with career averages of 24.1 points and 8.9 assists.

    Booker may have advanced a round deeper last year, and he's also the more impactful defender, but Young is an offense unto himself like few other players—of any age—in the NBA.

2. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    With four NBA seasons logged, Jayson Tatum is one of the old heads on this list. But he's still just 23, which makes his achievements to this point all the more impressive.

    Tatum is the only player on this list (the man at No. 1 excluded) with an All-NBA nod, and he's also distinguished by his role in a remarkably consistent high level of team success. The Boston Celtics forward is laps ahead of the sub-25 field with 50 career playoff games, and it's not like Tatum was a bit player in any of them. A starter in every game of his career—regular season and playoffs—Tatum owns career postseason averages of 21.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists. He's reached the conference finals twice, and 2021 was the first season his Celtics failed to advance past the first round.

    Tatum basically entered the league ready to compete at the highest level. Maybe that's why it feels like he's not on the same kind of upward trajectory as some of the other players on this list. It's telling when a 22-year-old averages 26.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists on a 45.9/38.6/86.8 shooting split, and it feels unsurprising.

    With ideal positional size and length, Tatum is perhaps the most complete player on this list. His teams consistently perform better on both ends with him in the game, he's a high-usage scoring threat who doesn't sacrifice efficiency and he's a weapon on D—whether on or off the ball.

    Maybe a few players ranked lower have marginally higher ceilings, but all of them have less experience than Tatum and would be lucky to sniff the level of reliable postseason success he's achieved.

1. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Luka Doncic and Oscar Robertson, who benefitted from the comically uptempo early 60s, are the only players to average at least 25.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists over their first three seasons in the NBA. You've got to go back a long way to find someone who was this good this young, in NBA history.

    The Dallas Mavericks superstar is also the only player on this list with multiple All-NBA nods, not to mention a pair of top-six finishes in MVP voting. 

    That he entered 2020-21, his age-21 season, as the betting favorite to win the league's highest individual honor and finished a "disappointing" sixth says everything about Doncic's stature among his sub-25 peers. Actually...peers? More like subordinates.

    Doncic's total offensive mastery—his feel, vision and control of every possession—are unmatched by virtually everyone in the NBA. Once, you could have pointed to his three-point shooting as a relative weakness, but he hit 35.0 percent overall from deep last season and an even more impressive 35.6 percent on pull-up treys.

    Guys in his age bracket aren't even in the same conversation; none of them piloted what was, at the time, the most efficient offense in league history as 20-year-olds.

    If you had to pick the player most likely to collect multiple MVP trophies over the next five years, you'd be a fool to go with anyone but Doncic, who'll probably win at least one before he ages himself off this list in 2024.


    Stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Salary info via Spotrac.