Ranking the NBA's Top Duos Under 25 Right Now

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistDecember 2, 2021

Ranking the NBA's Top Duos Under 25 Right Now

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    It takes two.

    All right, actually, in the NBA, it takes way more than two players to do anything. But duos are all the rage, more so than even trios, if only because they're not as rare.

    And in the pantheon of the league's top one-two punches, there is a special, hope-honed place for younger doublets. They may not always headline immediate contenders, but they are, at least in theory, emblems for the future.

    For some, they are the light at the end of a rebuild. For others, they are harbingers of sustainability; they're young, so they aren't going anywhere, ya know? In other cases, they are just two really good players who happen to forge a dynamic worth waxing poetic.

    And ranking.

    This exercise will look at duos in which each member is playing out their age-24-or-younger season. Anyone like Jaylen Brown, who turned 25 in October, has graduated from the sub-25 discourse. Please don't ask about them.

    Only this season will matter when putting together a pecking order. And while everything that's happened to date will help shape where each coupling stands, the final product aims to answer the following question: Which duo should we want for the rest of this year?

Notable Exclusions

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    Chicago Bulls

    Would Lonzo Ball and Patrick Williams crack the top 10? Debatable. Lonzo is guarding well enough and sprinkling in enough triples, both off-the-catch looks and pull-up treys, to anchor a case.

    Their aggregate score would explode if Williams splashed in set threes and defended his butt off, but a dislocated left wrist is expected to sideline him for the rest of the season. Subbing in Coby White doesn't do enough to warrant top-10 consideration.

           

    Dallas Mavericks

    Luka Doncic can finagle a cameo on his own. But his partner in crime would need to be...Josh Green or Frank Ntilikina. That's too one-sided for this exercise.

            

    Denver Nuggets

    Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. would be top-10 shoo-ins if they weren't bitten so hard by the injury bug. Murray is still recovering from the torn left ACL he suffered last season, and MPJ may not play again this year after undergoing surgery to repair nerve damage in his back.

           

    New Orleans Pelicans

    Zion Williamson's fractured right foot derails what would likely be a top-five case with Brandon Ingram. Even when factoring in the latter's declining efficiency—mainly his plummeting mid-range clips—they have the juice at full strength to claim one of these spots.

             

    Orlando Magic

    Good luck pinning down the top duo for the Magic. Is it Jalen Suggs and Cole Anthony? Anthony and Wendell Carter Jr.? Anthony and Franz Wagner? How does Jonathan Isaac's absence (torn ACL) impact their standing? Are we obligated to include Suggs?

    Promising variety is nice. In the end, though, the absence of concrete selections is a disservice to Orlando.

10-6: Timberwolves, Thunder, Raptors, Kings, Celtics

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    Boston Globe/Getty Images

    10. Anthony Edwards and Jarred Vanderbilt, Minnesota Timberwolves

    Edwards' shot-making knows no limits, and he's partnering that allure with more consistent highs and better playmaking recognition. This placement really comes down to a not-so-flashy sidekick.

    Feel free to insert Jaden McDaniels. He's a defender possessed. But Vanderbilt is defending just as hard, if not harder—and arguably maniacally. He's like prescription ecstasy. He just doesn't have the starry unknownness of other second wheels.

           

    9. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder

    Sticking Oklahoma City's twosome above that from Minnesota was tough. Gilgeous-Alexander still deserves the nod over Edwards. Does Giddey trounce Vanderbilt?

    Better yet: Does Giddey usurp Lu Dort? Or Darius Bazley? Immediately, Dort might make more sense. But Giddey's passing, finishing and in-between touch give him a higher upside. The Thunder aren't climbing higher than No. 9, for now, either way.

          

    8. OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors

    Barnes' readiness is at once a surprise and license for ambition. Weirdos harp on the absence of a three-point shot. Smart people celebrate his 46.2 percent clip from mid-range. That he isn't averaging more assists is criminal. He has hesitation moves baked into his handle, and his floor awareness is divine.

    Anunoby, currently sidelined with a hip injury, has shown the ball skills and directionality necessary to make you wonder whether the No. 8 spot actually isn't ambitious enough. No duo on this list offers more collective defense. Barnes' inexperience and a finite amount of off-the-dribble jump-shot juice are all that's holding them back.

          

    7. De'Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings

    Benefit of the doubt is at play here. Fox has been one of the league's worst high-volume players to start the season. That shouldn't hold because, well, Fox isn't one of the league's worst high-volume players. For all his shot-selection woes, he can take over games with his raw speed and accelerated reads.

    Haliburton is, frankly, pretty to really good at just about everything. He is not hitting nearly as many of his in-between shots and suffers from the more-than-occasional case of settling, but he's a two-way presence.

             

    6. Jayson Tatum and Robert Williams III, Boston Celtics

    Between a shot selection that tends to stall out before the basket and a recent three-point slide, Tatum is going to have his detractors. Fine. It's still bonkers to bet against him for the rest of the year. He is an authentic offensive hub and doesn't get enough credit for his all-around defense.

    Williams is not some throwaway inclusion solely propped up by Tatum. He is more role player than star but hardly a specialist. His defense extends past the free-throw line when he's locked in, and few play-finishing bigs are so deft at spraying split-second passes to orbiting shooters.

    Also receiving consideration: RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks; Jalen Green and Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets; Cade Cunningham and Isaiah Stewart, Detroit Pistons; Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia 76ers; Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell, San Antonio Spurs.

5. Darius Garland and Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Quibble over the makeup of this duo if you must. Darius Garland can be yanked for Jarrett Allen, who has noticeably leveled up his offense beyond rim runs and hook shots with nifty passes and more downhill moves.

    Making that swap won't change the ranking. Also: Garland has more influence over the offense as a primary ball-handler. That has to matter.

    Said role has never looked better on him, either. He is more poised in the half court, someone who can manipulate defenses with his patience and by leveraging a workable outside shot and floater. His 18.6 points and 7.2 assists come while nailing a whopping 54.7 percent of his twos.

    Evan Mobley's inclusion is non-negotiable. Aspects of his offense are a work-in-progress, but he has nice touch off the dribble, 360-degree vision and clairvoyant anticipation. His three-point experimentation will pay dividends down the line.

    And then there's Mobley's defense. He is ubiquity, incarnate, without a position. The Cleveland Cavaliers have him hustling all around the perimeter, like a pseudo-wing, yet only five players have contested more total shots at the rim. This duo is already big-time, and it's not even a finished product.

4. LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges, Charlotte Hornets

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Where would this doublet be if not for Miles Bridges' dalliance with Most Improved Player honors? Likely outside the top 10 and definitely not inside the top five.

    Declining efficiency isn't reason enough to dismiss Bridges' statistical explosion. His 19.7 points and 3.2 assists per game aren't the byproducts of empty volume. They're coming amid a harder, more prominent role.

    Over 32 percent of his made baskets have gone unassisted this season. That's up from 24.6 percent in 2020-21. Pull-up jumpers now make up nearly 19 percent of his attempts, compared to 16.7 percent last year. The Charlotte Hornets have upped his volume in the post. And his effective field-goal percentage of 52, while substantially lower than 2020-21, still rates above the league average (51.8).

    LaMelo Ball can carry the lion's share of this stock through Bridges' developmental curve. He is what happens when flash marries substance.

    The overreactions he foments from the defense are beyond measure. His knack for capitalizing on those collapses and general disarray is almost unparalleled, and he works impossible angles to rack up dimes. League-pass enthusiasts should thank him for adding flourish to every pass, including should-be nondescript two-handed pitches.

    Finishing around the rim remains LaMelo's Achilles heel, and he needs to put up more of a fight when defending one-on-one. He should improve in both areas as he gets stronger. For now, he can subsist on swishing three-pointers of all types and a hang-time-drunk floater. Left alone, he and Bridges have a pretty firm hold on a top-five spot.

3. Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

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    Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. are a special duo, the kind already making waves but not yet near the peak of its powers.

    There is little else Morant can do to lift up this pairing. He remains the most electric player to watch after leaving his feet, a highlight reel of passes, dunk attempts and actual dunks. But he is also now a viable scoring threat from every level.

    Defenses can no longer go under screens and count on him missing threes. He's dropped down to 35.6 percent from beyond the arc following a hot start, but his willingness to fire away is its own form of pressure. And he still has a menacing floater in his back pocket.

    Jackson's development will invariably swing this duo's ceiling, both now and later. It's at times an unnerving reality—just not right now.

    He has settled into a more consistent existence after a spotty start. Through his past 15 games, he's averaging 16.5 points and 2.3 blocks while converting 38.6 percent of his threes. His self-created attacks can be coin tosses, but he looks more comfortable and under control dribbling and spinning through traffic.

    This says nothing of his defensive improvement. He doesn't foul as much, the past few games notwithstanding, and is seamlessly toggling between both ends of pick-and-rolls and composing himself in space. Morant made his star turn long ago. Jackson may now be making his.

2. Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro, Miami Heat

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    Though Bam Adebayo ferries the star-power element of the Miami Heat's sub-25 duo, it's Tyler Herro's mega leap that vaults it into best-of-the-league territory. Its case for the top spot would be even stronger if Adebayo wasn't set to miss four to six weeks with thumb surgery on the horizon.

    Herro has improved upon what was actually a solid 2020-21 campaign, entering "the favorite to win Sixth Man of the Year" realm and the fringe stardom that comes with it. He's averaging 21.7 points and 3.7 assists per game while draining 49.2 percent of his twos and 39.8 percent of his triples.

    His capacity to knock down difficult looks is genuine and offsets ebbing volume around the hoop. He's hitting more than 51 percent of his mid-range jumpers and 37 percent of his pull-up triples—a top-five mark among everyone averaging at least four off-the-dribble treys per game. Now feels like a good time to note he's still just 21.

    Adebayo's stardom is more entrenched. The 24-year-old now pairs his intuitive interior game with an operable touch from mid-range and remains an otherworldly playmaker. His assists are down, but he still passes guys open from a standstill and while on the move.

    Those who scoff at his lack of traditional rim protection should take a chill pill. He spends too much time guarding away from the basket to read into it, and his All-Defense case is perpetual. Between him and Herro, the Heat have a young core fit to contend now and thrive into the beyond.

1. Trae Young and John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

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    John Collins and Trae Young grab the top spot without much resistance. Theirs is a dynamic that has already fueled an Eastern Conference Finals appearance and, more importantly, isn't the least bit one-sided.

    Young no doubt fortifies their standing as someone who is inarguably best-player-on-a-title-team material. His superstardom is only further solidified through its endurance of adjusted officiating.

    The emphasis on unnatural offensive movements has not harshed his impact. Dead-eye accuracy from beyond the arc and mid-range float his 26 points per game, and he remains one of the league's premier passers, with a doctorate in throwing lobs and threading needles.

    Collins' utility, meanwhile, is more comprehensive than ever. He remains an effective screener, a lethal floor-runner who has improved his passing on the roll. But he needn't be the primary pick-setter to leave his mark. He can dot the arc, duck in for catches around the basket, establish position in the post, even put the ball on the floor.

    Cynicism used to define Collins' defense. It doesn't anymore. He is better in almost every way imaginable. Slotting him at the 5 can still be an overextension, but he holds his own away from the basket and is a pretty reliable helper and rim protector. Opponents are shooting 56 percent against him at the hoop—nearly eight points below the league average of 63.7.

    No other duo strikes this balance of immediate stardom. Neither is a something-in-waiting. Young can headline a contender right now. Collins has an All-Star case right now. And so, they are here, at No. 1, right now.

           

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering Wednesday's games. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math's Adam Fromal.

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