NBA's 24 Under 24 Rankings: Who Follows Luka, Tatum in Next-Gen Rankings?

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistOctober 24, 2021

NBA's 24 Under 24 Rankings: Who Follows Luka, Tatum in Next-Gen Rankings?

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    Nikki Boertman/Associated Press

    The NBA has arguably never been loaded with as much promising young talent as it is right now. Between the college game, the international game and the increased viability of other avenues like the G League to bring young players into the league, there's a wider pipeline than there's ever been.

    Throughout the 2021-22 season, roughly once a month, B/R will be ranking the 24 best players under 24 years old and highlighting some of the league's most exciting newcomers.

    Rankings going into the season are decided based on a combination of past production and future projections. They will be adjusted and moved based on current production and best guess on how their overall standing in the league will evolve.

    A note: For the inaugural edition of this list, incoming rookies will not be included. We have no doubt the likes of Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Evan Mobley and others in the 2021 draft class will be in the mix throughout the year, but it's tough to place them without an existing body of work at the NBA level.

24. Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Age: 23

    Mitchell Robinson was limited to just 31 games in his third season because of injuries, but he’s still a key part of the Knicks’ youth movement, particularly on the defensive end. He’s going to start in the frontcourt alongside Julius Randle as long as he’s healthy and provide a nice complement to Randle’s scoring efforts.

    In the Knicks’ season-opening double-overtime win over the Boston Celtics, he showed just how good he’s capable of being, grabbing 17 rebounds along with 11 points, three assists and two blocks.

23. Darius Garland, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Nikki Boertman/Associated Press

    Age: 21

    Darius Garland displayed star potential at times in his first two seasons and improved dramatically as a shooter in his second year, averaging 17.4 points per game on 45.1 percent shooting from the field and 39.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc, along with 2.4 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.2 steals. He has to work on being more consistent, but his 12-assist performance in the Cleveland Cavaliers' season opener against the Memphis Grizzlies is promising for his development as a playmaker. 

    His role should become a lot clearer once Cleveland figures out whether guard Collin Sexton is in its plans going forward.

22. Talen Horton-Tucker, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Age: 20

    Any young player the Los Angeles Lakers draft—especially in the second round—who shows any kind of promise can quickly become overrated just because of the intense media focus on that team. Talen Horton-Tucker is a legitimate rotation player, though. He played in 65 of the Lakers’ 72 games in his second season and averaged 9.0 points in 20.1 minutes per game primarily off the bench along with solid defense.

    Unfortunately, he’s set to miss at least the first few weeks of the season while recovering from a right thumb injury.

21. Jarrett Allen, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Age: 23

    Jarrett Allen’s fit next to No. 3 overall pick Evan Mobley in the frontcourt is going to be worth monitoring throughout his first full season in Cleveland (he came over from the Brooklyn Nets in the four-team James Harden trade and inked a five-year, $100 million extension over the summer). In 51 games with the Cavs after the trade, he averaged 13.2 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game.

    His 25-point performance on a perfect 11-of-11 shooting in the Cavs’ season opener would suggest he’s in for a big year.

20. Kevin Huerter, Atlanta Hawks

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Age: 23

    Kevin Huerter is another young player outside of Trae Young who put himself on the map for most fans throughout the Atlanta Hawks’ 2021 Eastern Conference Finals run. He went off for 27 points in the decisive Game 7 of the second round against the Philadelphia 76ers and has successfully navigated being in and out of the starting lineup throughout his first three seasons. 

    A career 37.5 percent three-point shooter, the guard averaged 11.9 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.2 steals per game in his third season.

    After signing a four-year, $65 million extension with the Hawks earlier this week, he’s firmly entrenched as a core piece alongside Young, De'Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish.

19. Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Age: 22

    One of the most consistent presences in trade rumors throughout the last year amid his inability to agree on an extension with the Cavs, Collin Sexton nonetheless continues to develop into a promising scoring guard. 

    At points early last season, before Cleveland fell out of contention, he was even getting All-Star buzz with some scoring explosions. Overall on the year, he averaged career highs of 24.3 points, 3.1 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game while shooting 37.1 percent from three-point range.

    Whether he’s with the Cavs long-term or not, Sexton is a valuable and versatile scorer with a renowned work ethic and is going to have a long career.

18. De'Andre Hunter, Atlanta Hawks

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    Elsa/Associated Press

    Age: 23

    Injuries limited De'Andre Hunter to 23 games last year, as well as causing him to miss the last two rounds of the playoffs, but he showed in the first round against the Knicks how impactful he can be at both ends of the floor. He had 15 points in the closeout game of that series on the road and showed an ability to defend all five positions. 

    A player on the same age curve as Young with Hunter's defensive versatility is going to be crucial for the development of this Hawks team given Young’s liability on that end. Nobody saw their Eastern Conference Finals run coming—if Hunter can stay on the floor, Atlanta has a better chance than people realize of getting back there.

17. Jordan Poole, Golden State Warriors

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    Age: 22

    For all the ink spilled about last year’s No. 2 overall pick, James Wiseman, and this year’s intriguing rookies Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody, the most sure thing among the Warriors’ young role players is Jordan Poole. 

    As Golden State tries to maximize the final years of the Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson-Draymond Green core, the team is walking the always precarious tightrope of trying to contend and develop young players all at once. 

    Poole, who is in his third season, has taken advantage of the minutes he’s been given with Thompson out. He’s happy to shoot any shot at any time, and he’s slowly developed a better selection and more consistency. Last season, his outside shooting improved by more than seven points from 27.9 percent to 35.1 percent, while his scoring improved from 8.8 points per game to 12.0.

    Even when Thompson comes back, Poole is going to have a major role.

16. RJ Barrett, New York Knicks

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Age: 21

    RJ Barrett improved greatly in his second season, capitalizing on an increased role in the offense under new head coach Tom Thibodeau and taking a major step forward with his shooting. (He improved from 32.0 percent from beyond the arc in his rookie year to 40.1 percent in 2020-21 while starting all 72 games for a Knicks team that made the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons.) 

    Barrett scored 19 points in Wednesday's double-overtime win over the Celtics. 

    Next up: improving as a playmaker. The signs are already there—he isn't a full-time point guard, but at times last season Tom Thibodeau experimented with him as a primary ball-handler, and he held his own.

15. Tyrese Maxey, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Age: 20

    The Sixers have been in the news lately for all of the wrong reasons, but one thing they can feel good about is the development of Tyrese Maxey as a talented, versatile guard. In 61 games, mostly off the bench, he averaged 8.0 points, 1.7 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game during his 2020-21 rookie campaign.

    Maxey’s sophomore season is off to a promising start with a 20-point, seven-rebound, five-assist performance in a starting role during the Sixers’ season-opening blowout win over the New Orleans Pelicans.

14. Tyler Herro, Miami Heat

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Age: 21

    Tyler Herro had a breakout performance in the bubble at Disney World, where the paused 2019-20 season restarted amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and helped the Heat reach the NBA Finals. He followed that up with a disappointing sophomore season that slowed down a lot of the “future star” buzz coming off his rookie campaign. His outside shooting dipped slightly from 38.9 percent to a still-respectable 36.0 percent, although he averaged career highs in points (15.1), rebounds (5.0) and assists (3.4).

    The answer to how good he is probably lies somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, and he became a trendy Sixth Man of the Year pick going into his third season—a very attainable goal if his consistency catches up with his talent.

13. Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

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    Nikki Boertman/Associated Press

    Age: 22

    Jaren Jackson Jr. could be much higher or much lower on this list by season’s end depending on how a pivotal fourth season goes. His outside shooting ability is rare for a player his size. But foul trouble has hampered his effectiveness on defense, and a knee injury limited him to 11 games last season. He was inconsistent in the games he did play, but the previous season in which he shot 39.4 percent from three-point range on 6.5 attempts per game showed just how effective he can be at his best.

    The Grizzlies signed the 6'11", 242-pound big man to a four-year, $105 million extension, betting on the development that will come if he can stay healthy. 

    If that happens, he’s a perfect co-star for Ja Morant on a young and emerging Memphis team, but he has to show it on a consistent basis.

12. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Age: 21

    One of the surprises of last year’s draft lottery, guard Tyrese Haliburton worked his way into the Kings’ starting lineup alongside De'Aaron Fox with a combination of consistent outside shooting and playmaking. He shot 40.9 percent from beyond the arc while averaging 13.0 points, 5.3 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game, mostly in a reserve role before being inserted into the starting lineup toward the end of the season.

    Haliburton came in third in Rookie of the Year voting and entered his second season as a starter. 

    He could be the CJ McCollum to Fox’s Damian Lillard if all goes according to plan.

11. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    Age: 20

    Anthony Edwards’ game came around in the second half of his rookie season after he was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft. His numbers don’t look great—19.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game on just 41.7 percent shooting from the field and 32.9 percent from beyond the arc—but as the year progressed, and particularly after a midseason coaching change from Ryan Saunders to Chris Finch, the game began to open up for him.

    And one game into his second season, he’s already building on that—he went off for 29 points along with six rebounds, three assists and a steal and shot 6-for-12 from three-point range in the Minnesota Timberwolves' season-opening win over the Houston Rockets. 

    If he can continue to harness his physical gifts into being a winning player, the Timberwolves might finally break their streak of futility.

10. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Age: 23

    The only reason Shai Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t talked about more as a future star is because he missed half of his third season battling a foot injury (and his team’s tanking efforts). But he showed enough when he played—23.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game while shooting 41.8 percent from deep—that the Oklahoma City Thunder quickly moved to sign him to a five-year, $172 million max rookie extension.

    His offensive game is perfect for the modern NBA: He shoots threes at high efficiency and gets to the free-throw line. He’s also improved as a playmaker over his first three seasons.

    There’s no telling when Oklahoma City will try to be competitive again, but if Gilgeous-Alexander stays on the floor for more of this season, he will show why the Thunder value him so highly as part of their future.

9. Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Age: 23

    It’s been a long road to stardom for Michael Porter Jr., once a projected top-five pick who fell to Denver at No. 14 in the 2018 draft after suffering a back injury in college that kept him out his entire rookie season.

    After an uneven second campaign, he broke out in 2020-21, flashing legitimate superstar potential as a scorer and stepping into the role of first option on the perimeter after Jamal Murray went down with a left ACL tear. On the year, he averaged 19.0 points and 7.3 rebounds per game while shooting a stellar 44.5 percent from three-point range on 6.3 attempts per game.

    There’s a reason Porter has been widely reported to be untouchable in various trade discussions for stars. The Nuggets have one of the deepest, most balanced teams in the West, but they appear to see a fully realized version of Porter as the piece that will take them from a very good playoff team to a legitimate title contender.

8. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Age: 23

    Deandre Ayton has been in the news this week after he and the Phoenix Suns’ front office failed to agree on a contract extension ahead of Monday’s deadline. He’s going to get that money this summer, whether it’s from Phoenix or someone else in restricted free agency, and he’ll be worth it. In his third season, he averaged 14.4 points and 10.5 rebounds per game and became a much better defender and more efficient scorer around the basket.

    A rocky first two years that included a suspension for violating the league's drug policy in 2019-20 combined with the stigma of being drafted No. 1 overall ahead of 2018-19 Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic created many Ayton skeptics early on.

    Between his performance in the 2020 bubble and how integral he was to the Suns’ 2020-21 run to the Finals, those doubts have been more or less erased, and there’s no question that even with the way the center position has been trending toward three-point shooters, he brings enough in other areas at both ends of the floor that he’s a player to build around.

7. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Age: 20

    The combination of years of outsized hype as a teenager (because of his family) and unorthodox playing style as a 6'6" point guard made LaMelo Ball instantly one of the most scrutinized players in the NBA when the Charlotte Hornets took him with the No. 3 overall pick.

    And right away, he proved he was worthy of all the attention. His unselfishness and passing instincts are contagious, his three-point shot is better than expected and he immediately developed on-court connections with teammates like Miles Bridges and Gordon Hayward. He averaged 15.7 points, 6.1 assists, 5.9 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game in his rookie season while shooting 35.2 percent from deep, taking home 2020-21 Rookie of the Year honors despite missing roughly a month with a wrist injury.

    The Hornets are fun to watch and worth paying attention to for the first time in many years, and the arrival of Ball is the reason for that.

6. De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Age: 23

    DeAaron Fox’s speed makes him one of the most breathtaking players in the league to watch, especially in person. In that way, he’s reminiscent of a young, pre-injury John Wall. His finishing ability is more than enough to make up for an inconsistent three-point shot. In his fourth season, he averaged a career-high 25.2 points per game along with 7.2 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals.

    If the Kings were better, he’d be an All-Star by now. If they’re decent this year, he might make it for the first time. Either way, he’s going to be a staple on this list for a long time.

5. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Age: 21

    If it weren’t for injury concerns—and there’s still no word on when he’ll be back from a right foot fracture he suffered over the summer—Zion Williamson would have a legitimate case for the top spot on this list.

    When healthy, he’s the kind of player the NBA may have to make rule changes for to make him easier to guard. Defenders can't do anything against him in the paint, and he gets to the rim and to the foul line at will. The Pelicans have experimented with playing him as a point forward, and that could open up another dimension to his game.

    As it is, surrounding the 6'6", 284-pound Williamson with four shooters makes him one of the most unguardable forces of nature the league has seen in a long time.

    Hopefully, he can stay healthy enough to reach his full potential. For now, that unfortunately appears to be on hold.

4. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

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    Nikki Boertman/Associated Press

    Age: 22

    Ja Morant was already seen as one of the league’s top young guards after his 2019-20 Rookie of the Year campaign, but he cemented his status last season with a playoff performance in the Grizzlies’ first-round series against the top-seeded Utah Jazz that opened the eyes of a lot of fans who hadn’t spent the whole season watching Memphis games on League Pass.

    There may be no more exciting young player to watch on a night-to-night basis. His combination of speed and explosion hasn't been seen in a point guard since the younger versions of Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, and like those two, he’s been devastatingly effective even without a reliable outside shot. 

    If he ever develops that part of his game, there’s no telling how much better he’ll get. It will be a surprise if he doesn’t make his first career All-Star team this year.

3. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Age: 23

    Trae Young vaulted several levels in this discussion during last year’s playoffs—first by becoming one of the all-time Madison Square Garden villains and then by helping lead the Hawks to a surprise Eastern Conference Finals appearance. There is a tendency to write off young scorers early in their careers as just putting up good numbers on lottery teams, but when the games started to count for the Hawks, Young proved himself in a major way.

    The point guard combines his ability to score at all three levels with elite passing ability. If there’s one concern on that end going forward, it’s how he’ll navigate the NBA’s crackdown on some of the foul-hunting tactics he relied on to get to the line. But the best players always figure it out, and Young planted himself firmly in that group in his third season.

2. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Age: 23

    We've been hearing about how young Jayson Tatum is for so long now that it's become a running joke, but he is still young enough to make the list, at least until his 24th birthday in March.

    Tatum has already accomplished so much in his first four seasons in the league—two All-Star selections, an All-NBA appearance and helping lead the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals as a rookie in 2017-18—that it's easy to forget how much better he can become. He can still change up his shot selection and get to the line more, which could vault him from one of the league's brightest young stars into the MVP conversation.

    After a disappointing 2020-21 campaign with a first-round postseason exit against the second-seeded Nets, the Celtics are looking to get back into the top of the Eastern Conference playoff picture and have one of the league's best young duos in Tatum and Jaylen Brown (just a hair too old at 24 to be included here) to lead the way.

1. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

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    Matt Kelley/Associated Press

    Age: 22

    Luka Doncic has been an MVP candidate from practically the second he came into the league, and he opens the season as the betting favorite to win the award. It’s well within the realm of possibility that by the end of the season he’ll be not just the best player under 24 but also the best player in the NBA, period. The five-year, $207 million extension he signed with Dallas over the summer was a foregone conclusion—there are few surer players to build a franchise around for the next decade and beyond.

    His combination of size (6'7", 230 lbs), passing vision, shot-making ability and finishing has made him one of the most unguardable players in the league, and he’s only gotten better through each of his first three seasons. Doncic had some legendary playoff performances in the Mavericks’ back-to-back first-round series (2020, '21) against the Los Angeles Clippers. The only thing missing on his resume is a title, or at least a deeper playoff run.

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