Which NBA Teams Have the Best Young Cores Right Now?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 14, 2021

Which NBA Teams Have the Best Young Cores Right Now?

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    Wendell Cruz/Associated Press

    If an NBA team isn't any good right now, the next best thing is the assurance that it'll be competitive in the future. That's why young cores are so exciting. They're basically hope incarnate.

    The best young cores, which we'll limit to include players no older than 25, occupy the center sliver of that win-now, win-later Venn diagram. Those atop our list will have already driven major success while still retaining upside that suggests more is on the way.

    Balancing current potency against future growth prospects is an apples-and-oranges situation. It's tricky to compare a 20-year-old who oozes potential but hasn't done anything with a 24-year-old who's already factored in deep playoff runs.

    But that's the way this exercise is going to work. We have to figure out how to weigh those two qualities while also considering depth (cores with more players are better; we need at least two to even consider them) and balance. Ideally, a team's young pieces fit in a complementary way.

    Time to serve the youth.    

Honorable Mentions

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    New York Knicks

    RJ Barrett (21) will make a few All-Defensive teams before he's done, and he's eventually going to remember how to get to the foul line like he did as a rookie. That 40.1 percent knockdown rate from deep last year is tantalizing, as is the fact that Barrett, though less accurate in 2021-22, is hoisting even more treys.

    Mitchell Robinson (23) has been a regular starter, and he'll be a shot-stuffing double-double threat as long as he avoids foul trouble. Immanuel Quickley (22) and Obi Toppin (23) also give the Knicks a long-range scoring guard and a galloping transition finisher, respectively.

    New York doesn't quite crack the top 10 because Barrett isn't close to being assured of stardom, and the rest of the group lacks obvious upside.


    San Antonio Spurs

    Keldon Johnson (22) and Dejounte Murray (25) lead a San Antonio Spurs youth movement that includes Joshua Primo (18), Devin Vassell (21) and Lonnie Walker IV (22).

    Primo is a mystery box at this comically early juncture of his career, but he's got a chance to unseat Johnson or Murray (depending on whom you prefer) as the Spurs' top young piece if his toolsy game comes together. Primo has shown the ability to shoot on the move, attack off the dribble and use his 6'4" size to handle wings on defense.

    Vassell's high-volume three-point shooting could make him a top-notch three-and-D wing, and Walker's athleticism defines his run-and-gun game; he also deserves more credit than he gets for his passing vision.


    Detroit Pistons

    You can measure 20-year-old Cade Cunningham's career in quarters without having to count very high, and Isaiah Stewart (20) has started a grand total of 25 games since entering the league last year. Both project as at least above-average starters, with Cunningham's ceiling residing at superstar height.

    Saddiq Bey (22) earned All-Rookie honors last season, but Killian Hayes (20) has been a disappointment after coming off the board seventh in 2020. His draft pedigree at least earns him a mention.


    The "One 25-or-Younger Star Is Not a Core" Omissions

    Luka Doncic (22), Dallas Mavericks

    Anthony Edwards (20), Minnesota Timberwolves

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (23), Oklahoma City Thunder

10. Orlando Magic

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The Core: Cole Anthony (21), Wendell Carter Jr. (22), Mo Bamba (23), Jonathan Isaac (24), Jalen Suggs (20), Franz Wagner (20), Chuma Okeke (23), R.J. Hampton (20)


    What's to Like?

    This core is the volume shooter of the exercise, running more than a half-dozen deep but lacking a clear star. Cole Anthony has looked the part of an alpha to start his sophomore season, and Mo Bamba is fourth in the NBA in blocks.

    Wendell Carter Jr., Jalen Suggs, Franz Wagner, R.J. Hampton and Chuma Okeke all have the potential to be above-average rotation players, at worst. Carter is already there, thanks to his defensive versatility and three-point-shooting spike.

    Wagner looks like a do-it-all gap-filler who can hit a three, defend across a handful of positions and thrive in a lineup as long as he's not overburdened as a playmaker or scorer. There aren't a lot of 20-year-olds who can handle themselves on defense and put up double-digit points, but Wagner has managed it this season, starting every game for the Orlando Magic. 

    There's a real scenario in which Suggs improves as a shooter and combines with Anthony to form one of the best young backcourts in the league. The Gonzaga product wasn't a top-five pick for nothing.

    Isaac's promising career has been derailed by injuries. He had DPOY upside at one time, but he'll need to stay on the floor for a full season before we can emotionally invest in him again.


    What's Not to Like?

    The Magic haven't won anything with this group, and several of the pieces are barely getting their feet wet in the league. It's too early to slot Orlando's kids any higher than this, but there aren't many collections with more potential to climb when we revisit this next season.

9. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    The Core: Zion Williamson (21), Brandon Ingram (24), Nickeil Alexander-Walker (23), Trey Murphy III (21), Herb Jones (23), Kira Lewis Jr. (20), Jaxson Hayes (21), Naji Marshall (24)


    What's to Like?

    Zion Williamson set a record for efficient scoring last season, becoming the only player in league history to average at least 27.0 points per game while shooting over 60.0 percent from the field. He's a singular offensive force, theoretically capable of carrying a team's attack on his own.

    Brandon Ingram is a highly qualified second fiddle who's already made an All-Star appearance. He played well enough to get consideration for a second trip last year. On pace to average over 23 points per game for the third straight season, Ingram could take a huge step forward by becoming more of a factor defensively.


    What's Not to Like?

    There is no precedent for a player of Williamson's build (6'6", 284 lbs) in the NBA. His combination of size and explosiveness is also unique, and that's what makes his injury history so concerning. He has yet to play this season following surgery to repair a broken foot, and he's already had significant issues with both knees. 

    This is as high as we can rank the New Orleans Pelicans core because there's just no telling how healthy and productive Williamson is likely to be. His fit with Ingram, who tends to operate best on the ball, is also suboptimal. Neither defends at all yet.

    Finally, we were exhaustive in listing New Orleans' 25-and-under players, but we really could have stopped after Williamson and Ingram. The other members of the youth brigade have yet to establish themselves as winning players. The Pels' league-worst record reflects that.

8. Toronto Raptors

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    The Core: OG Anunoby (24), Scottie Barnes (20), Gary Trent Jr. (22), Precious Achiuwa (22), Dalano Banton (22)


    What's to Like?

    The Toronto Raptors might not have made the list at all if Scottie Barnes hadn't looked like a two-way difference-maker right away. The No. 4 pick in the 2021 draft already has a veteran's hoops IQ, as verified by none other than Kevin Durant, and the concerns about his jump shot were overblown. Barnes' ability to handle, hit mid-rangers and keep the rock moving offset his nonthreatening three-point stroke. Defensively, he projects as a fully switchable shutdown weapon.

    Speaking of which, you won't find a more fearsome on-ball smotherer than OG Anunoby. The Raptors' carved-from-granite forward has already seen action in four playoff series (though an appendectomy held him out during Toronto's 2019 title run), comporting himself just fine. For his postseason career, Annoby is shooting 49.3 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from deep.

    With major gains as an off-the-dribble creator this season, Anunoby is one of the most complete young players in the game.

    Gary Trent Jr. is a gunner without conscience whose energetic play also extends to the defensive end. No player in this exercise has collected more steals this season.

    Dalano Banton is intriguing, and head coach Nick Nurse knows he needs to give the second-rounder more minutes. But including him here on a tiny sample already feels like a reach.


    What's Not to Like?

    Anunoby is on the older side, which may mean he has limited room for improvement. In his defense, he's clearly still getting better every year. Ultimately, other than Barnes (whose track record is short) and OG, Toronto is a little light on prospects.

    Precious Achiuwa is wildly athletic and might become a high-volume switch defender who can also push the ball in transition, a rarity at the 5. But he's been inconsistent and made plenty of mental mistakes already this season. Trent has been effective, but he might top out as a spark-plug sixth man. 

7. Charlotte Hornets

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    The Core: LaMelo Ball (20), Miles Bridges (23), P.J. Washington (23), James Bouknight (21), Kai Jones (20)


    What's to Like?

    LaMelo Ball is a franchise-transforming player and personality, giving the Charlotte Hornets a dynamic leader on the floor while also imbuing them with a level of cool best represented by, say, a lime-green Lamborghini. He sees angles no one else does, flashes unparalleled creativity and shows no signs of validating predraft concerns that he wouldn't be able to shoot.

    He's hovering around 38 percent from distance this season and has been above the league average since entering the NBA, quite an achievement given how many ultra-deep attempts he takes off the dribble.

    Bridges has been Charlotte's best player this season. He's added ball-handling skill and dramatically improved his below-the-rim finishing, especially with what used to be his weak right hand. Supercharged athleticism is just part of a more complete offensive package now.

    It's difficult to focus on anything else when Bridges can do stuff like this, but he's not just a dunker anymore. He's arguably the front-runner for Most Improved Player and deserves All-Star consideration.

    Twenty-three isn't young by prospect standards, but Bridges' leap indicates a work ethic that should produce even more improvement.

    Ball and Bridges haven't seen any playoff action yet, but they've got the Hornets looking more like a postseason squad this year.


    What's Not to Like?

    P.J. Washington is a reliable three-point threat, but that skill plays best at center. Charlotte tends to get smoked defensively when Washington mans the 5, so his value as a stretch big is a little overstated. To rank higher, the Hornets need more from their third spot in the core.

    James Bouknight or Kai Jones could climb over Washington in that hierarchy eventually, but neither rookie has been good enough to earn rotation minutes yet.

6. Miami Heat

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    The Core: Bam Adebayo (24), Tyler Herro (21)


    What's to Like?

    Bam Adebayo is the type of modern big man to which every draft prospect with size and the faintest glimmer of guard skills is compared, which says everything about how valuable he is. An All-Star two years ago in his age-22 season, Adebayo has already made a pair of All-Defensive teams on the strength of his elite switchability.

    Though his facilitation numbers are down with Kyle Lowry aboard, Adebayo averaged over 5.0 assists per game last year and the one before. He can function as a hub at the elbows, blowing past conventional bigs off the dribble or picking out cutters. His developing mid-ranger portends three-point range at some point soon.

    Alongside Tyler Herro, who's busting out and would win Sixth Man of the Year if the voting happened today, Adebayo was a critical piece in the Miami Heat's 2020 run to the Finals. Herro set playoff rookie records, and Adebayo anchored one of the postseason's top defenses, turning in highlight plays of real consequence.

    These two have already won big games, and both are still on the upswing—with Herro's breakthrough proving he's just getting started.


    What's Not to Like?

    Unless you're a big fan of Max Strus (25), Gabe Vincent (25) or KZ Okpala (22), Herro and Adebayo are the only members of Miami's young core. This is as high as we can rank a pure two-man operation.

5. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    The Core: Evan Mobley (20), Darius Garland (21), Jarrett Allen (23), Collin Sexton (22), Isaac Okoro (20), Lauri Markkanen (24)


    What's to Like?

    Evan Mobley looks like a hybrid superstar big, combining elements from Chris Bosh, Anthony Davis and Kevin Garnett; and Darius Garland is making headway toward becoming a top-10 point guard in the league. The former can assure solid defense on his own, while the latter is showing signs of captaining a quality attack.

    Meanwhile, Jarrett Allen is a super-efficient finisher around the bucket whose ability to survive on perimeter switches makes his fit with Mobley and Garland seamless.

    Collin Sexton and Lauri Markkanen are proven scorers who can stretch the floor. Neither is known for defense, but Mobley and Allen are good enough to clean up mistakes. And if Isaac Okoro ever cobbles together an offensive game, he has the frame (6'5", 225 lbs) to wrangle opposing wings—which, again, Mobley can handle just fine on his own for now.

    What distinguishes Cleveland's deep core from the teams behind it is that all the pieces fit in a sensible way. Sexton and his ball dominance might be the squeaky wheel, but the Cavs may not even need him and shouldn't be quick to break the bank retaining him in free agency after this season.

    Cleveland has a winning record, and six of its top seven players in minutes per game are in this core. That's not the same thing as a young group that already has playoff experience, but it's as promising as a relatively unknown commodity gets.


    What's Not to Like?

    As the lone wing in the group, Okoro is a critical piece. That's why it's so concerning that he's shooting under 20 percent from deep and has been limited to a low-usage role. Sexton may not be around long, and Markkanen's contract is a bit weighty for someone who doesn't have a history of contributing in ways other than three-point shooting.

    Lastly, it's early for this bunch. Let's see the group make the playoffs and cause some trouble before we go overboard. The Cavs have sky-high potential, but that's all they have at this point.

4. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    The Core: Ja Morant (22), Jaren Jackson Jr. (22), Desmond Bane (23), De'Anthony Melton (23), Brandon Clarke (25), Xavier Tillman Sr. (22), Ziaire Williams (20), Tyus Jones (25)


    What's to Like?

    Ja Morant is the superstar show-runner, a highlight machine with the most creative handle this side of Kyrie Irving and a three-point shot that he's a) using more and b) seeing go through the net at near-career-best rates. If defenses have to stick close to Morant beyond the arc, it's officially over. There will be no staying in front of him.

    That's where Jaren Jackson Jr. comes in. He's among the game's most dangerous high-volume shooters from deep, and his game could hardly fit better with Morant's in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" pick-and-pop. Switching a big onto Morant is out of the question, and sending two defenders at him leaves Jackson open to stripe it from long range.

    Desmond Bane and De'Anthony Melton are high-end rotation wings who can orbit Morant and, increasingly, make plays on the second side. Bane profiles as the high-volume chucker (recent slump from deep aside), while Melton is more of a defense-first glue guy—one of those rare role-fillers who seems to always make the right read on either end. Both are averaging double-figures in starting roles.

    The Grizzlies were frisky in Morant's rookie season and then posted a winning record and made the playoffs last year. 


    What's Not to Like?

    The rest of Memphis' core is relatively low-ceilinged. Ziaire Williams has the best shot to be special, but he must prove he can shoot it and will struggle to finish through contact until he adds weight to a willowy 6'9", 185-pound frame. Brandon Clarke, Tyus Jones and Xavier Tillman Sr. don't feel like guys with new levels to hit, and those first two are already on the age borderline as 25-year-olds.

    For all of Memphis' potential and quality fit, this is one of the worst defensive teams in the league. Morant and Jackson have tons to prove on that end. Until they do, we need to manage expectations.

3. Boston Celtics

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The Core: Jayson Tatum (23), Jaylen Brown (25), Robert Williams III (24), Romeo Langford (22), Aaron Nesmith (22), Grant Williams (22), Payton Pritchard (23)


    What's to Like?

    Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are the type of two-way wing duo every organization covets. The latter makes strides every season that close the gap between himself and his All-NBA teammate, with 2020-21's improvement as an off-the-dribble shooter essentially filling the last hole in Brown's game.

    Tatum had won multiple playoff series every year since entering the league until the Boston Celtics exited in the first round last season. Brown has already appeared in the Eastern Conference Finals three times.

    You just can't do much better than a pair of reliable, efficient scorers who can get you an easy 20-30 points every night while holding up on defense against the most dangerous opposing wings and forwards. 

    Robert Williams III is being paid like a top-15 center on his new four-year, $54 million extension, and he's mostly played to that expectation in his first consistent work as a starter. The league leader in field-goal percentage, Williams is automatic around the basket. He's almost impossible for a lobber to overthrow, and his quick bounce off the floor makes him a quality shot-blocker—especially now that he's gotten better at staying ground-bound on fakes. He's dramatically cut his foul rate in year four.


    What's Not to Like?

    If you're the Heat, you probably don't like that Tatum and Brown are a handful of spots ahead of Adebayo and Herro. But Romeo Langford and Aaron Nesmith are good bets to be regular rotation options at some point, and Robert Williams is already a solid starter with room to be more than that.

    Even if the rest of Boston's core underwhelms, there's just more depth here. Plus, two No. 1 options on the wing are more valuable in the modern game than a center (Adebayo) and an offense-only guard (Herro).

    One might worry about Tatum's declining ability to get to the rim or Brown's nearly 1-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio for his career, but no other team on this list has two All-Stars who've won multiple playoff series spread across more than one postseason.

2. Atlanta Hawks

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    The Core: Trae Young (23), John Collins (24), De'Andre Hunter (23), Cam Reddish (22), Kevin Huerter (23), Jalen Johnson (19), Sharife Cooper (20), Onyeka Okongwu (20)


    What's to Like?

    Trae Young has been one of the most impactful offensive players in the league for over two years, the rare kind of orchestrator whose shooting and passing basically assure his team will score at elite rates whenever he's on the court. The Golden State Warriors, who happen to sport the NBA's best defensive rating, had to box-and-one him just last week.

    Young must be accounted for the moment he crosses half court, is one of the top-five passers in the league and has already guided his team to a conference finals. He's the only player with at least 5,000 points and 1,900 assists since the start of the 2018-19 season.

    John Collins is a legitimate $100 million big man, but he's embraced doing the little things. Meanwhile, De'Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Kevin Huerter give the Hawks three bites at the apple on the wing. Hunter is the most complete of the trio, and he was on a breakout trajectory before a knee injury last season. At worst, he's a two-way forward who'll belong on the floor at the end of postseason games.

    Reddish has the highest upside, particularly on D, and Huerter is more than capable as a secondary playmaker with a sweet stroke that seems like it should go through the net more often.

    Don't forget about Onyeka Okongwu, sidelined by a shoulder injury and stuck behind Clint Capela and Collins. He came off the board at No. 6 in 2020 because he projects as a switchable modern center. 

    Atlanta has a clear superstar and a bunch of quality starters with good chances to get better. There's depth here, and few teams have gone as far on the strength of their young talent as the Hawks have.

    This is almost as good as it gets.


    What's Not to Like?

    Jalen Johnson and Sharife Cooper are lottery tickets and a long way from cracking such an established rotation, and if you're skeptical about the injury-hit 2020 playoffs, you might look sideways at the Hawks as conference finalists.

    Off to a disappointing 4-9 start this season, Atlanta's youth isn't backing up what it accomplished a year ago.

1. Phoenix Suns

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    The Core: Devin Booker (25), Deandre Ayton (23), Mikal Bridges (25), Cameron Johnson (25), Landry Shamet (24), Jalen Smith (21)


    What's to Like?

    The Heat's core is the only other one with a Finals appearance, and the Suns have more than two entries—to Miami's Adebayo and Herro—on the list of 25-and-under players who made a real difference in a run of that depth.

    Devin Booker is the three-level scoring star every team has to have if it wants to win multiple playoff rounds. Fifteen players have scored at least 9,000 total points since 2015-16, Booker's first season. He's the only guy 25 or younger on that list, which is otherwise populated by MVPs and multi-time All-NBA first-teamers.

    Deandre Ayton proved his defensive worth on a playoff stage last year as well. He keyed Phoenix's defense by defending the rim, controlling the boards, bullying the smaller opponents and sticking with the quicker ones. He's a walking double-double with phenomenal hands, and it's unquestionably a positive that he's gone from being horrendous to very good on defense since entering the league. Players with the capacity to identify and improve weaknesses have the most growth potential.

    Mikal Bridges is the third key piece, a brilliant wing defender whose length and tenacity are ideal for countering top scoring threats. He takes the pressure off Booker by checking every team's most dangerous guard or wing, although Booker deserves credit for holding up on D during Phoenix's push to the 2021 Finals.

    Those are three distinct, non-overlapping roles that have already produced nearly the highest level of winning possible.


    What's Not to Like?

    This is an older core, which hurts a bit. And it's not like these guys—plus Cameron Johnson, a lights-out shooter at the 4 who can also defend a little—dragged Phoenix to the Finals on their own. Chris Paul and Jae Crowder had a little something to do with that.

    Ayton's contract impasse could pull this group apart after the 2021-22 season, and Booker needs to be just a touch better (career hit rate of 35.2 percent) from long range to move into the highest tier of the league's offensive pantheon.

    Landry Shamet is 24 and has hit 39.7 percent of his threes across four seasons, but he's bounced around the league a little too much to be a true core piece.

    Lastly, Jalen Smith is a pure courtesy mention. He's been a non-factor since Phoenix grabbed him at No. 10 in 2020.


    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through Nov. 12. Salary info via Spotrac.