The NBA is flush with young talent right now. As many as ten players under the age of 25 could become superstars over the next few years. Several other players already made All-Star appearances and will inconsistently appear in future games. However, the group of young players entering the critical stages of their development also offers intriguing prospects for the future.
Come, meet the future of the NBA.
Marvin Bagley III, PF Sacramento Kings
Bagley only appeared in 13 games this past season and never got in a rhythm. We’ll see if he’s for real in Year 3.
Aaron Gordon, PF Orlando Magic
Two years ago, it looked like Gordon could become an All-Star. Then, just like his dunk contest title, it all faded away.
Jonathan Isaac, PF/SF Orlando Magic
He boasts incredible fluidity and defensive upside that gets canceled out by injuries and questionable offensive contributions. He could become Orlando’s best player in the next two years.
Lauri Markkanen, PF Chicago Bulls
He’s injury-prone. Also, after taking a step forward in 2018, Markkanen took two steps back this season.
Collin Sexton, PG Cleveland Cavaliers
Sexton quietly averaged 20.8 points per game this season. However, he’s paper-thin on defense and could statistically benefit from playing on a bad team.
Myles Turner, C Indiana Pacers
Turner makes a significant impact on the defensive end of the court, but Domantas Sabonis’s recent rise only shows how little he does on offense.
Unproven but Great Upside
25. Michael Porter Jr., PF Denver Nuggets
After missing the entire 2019 season with a back injury, Porter flashed the potential that initially had him projected as a high lottery pick in college. Porter appeared in 48 games for the Nuggets, earning one start. While his numbers and limited playing time don’t hint at Porter becoming a star player, he certainly still possesses the potential and could elevate the Nuggets in future seasons.
24. Kendrick Nunn, PG/SG Miami Heat
An undrafted free agent in 2018, Nunn joined the Heat for the 2019 season. In a surprising twist, he won a starting role and scored the third-most points on the team before the league suspended the season. While his 6-2 frame limits Nunn’s options, he flashed game-changing athleticism during his first NBA season.
23. Tyler Herro, SG Miami Heat
The Heat drafted Herro with the 13th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. While he came off of the bench for most of the season and missed a significant amount of time with injuries recently, Herro looks excellent. His confidence is undeniable, and he plays with a strange mixture of poise and reckless abandon. As he gains more playing time over the years, Herro could become an All-Star.
Critical Development Stage
The players in this stage could develop into All-Stars, but they could just as easily fall off and become average players, like Aaron Gordon or Myles Turner.
22. Deandre Ayton, C Phoenix Suns
Between missing 25 games because of a failed drug test and COVID-19 pausing the season, we only saw Ayton for 30 games this year. The big man certainly makes an impact at the rim and pulls down an impressive number of offensive rebounds, but his offensive game lacks diversity. He might put up good scoring numbers, but not much separates Ayton from a player like Clint Capela. He’ll become a decent starter, but he can’t become an All-Star with his current game.
21. John Collins, PF Atlanta Hawks
Collins also suffered from a 25-game suspension for a failed drug test. At 6-9, Collins sits somewhere between playing the traditional power forward position and center, but the Hawks seem to know how to use him. Unlike Ayton, Collins developed a viable three-point shot since entering the league. He made over 40% of his shots from range this season. However, Collins must prove he can take his game one notch higher and become an All-Star on a winning basketball team.
20. Lonzo Ball, PG New Orleans Pelicans
I never liked Ball in Los Angeles. While his defense is praiseworthy, he never served as an explosive, viable offensive threat. However, Ball’s current fit in New Orleans removed some of his limitations. With some offensive-orientated players around him and several lob connections, Ball’s facilitation and defense are raising their limits. He’s also developed a viable three-point shot, nailing 38.3% of his threes this season. Unfortunately, there’s only so far the fourth or fifth scoring option on a team can go. I acknowledge Ball’s high ceiling, but he’s still years away from playing at an All-Star level.
19. Jamal Murray, PG Denver Nuggets
At this point, Murray is beginning to plateau. He posted similar numbers over the past two seasons, and it looks like this is his celling for the near future. While he’s still one of the better guards in the league, Murray could still develop as a facilitator and defender. If this is his ceiling, Murray could see all of the other players in this category surpass him in the coming years.
18. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, SG/SF Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder saw something in Gilgeous-Alexander when the team traded for him this past summer. The second-year player became OKC’s top scorer, netting more points than fellow guards Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder. While he’s a qualified offensive threat with a developing bag of tricks, Gilgeous-Alexander must take advantage of his length on the defensive end of the court and expand his court vision. With better defensive and facilitation skills, SGA should develop into an All-Star.
17. Jaren Jackson Jr., PF Memphis Grizzlies
At 6-11, JJJ possesses a rare combination of athleticism, size, handles, and range. This season, he made 39.7% of his three-pointers while attempting 6.3 shots from distance per game. At 20 years old, Jackson Jr. is trending toward becoming an elite offensive player. He could become one of the versatile big men that teams just don’t know how to cover. On the other hand, Jackson Jr. lacks body control and technique on the defensive end of the court. His defense will likely never match his offense.
16. Domantas Sabonis, C Indiana Pacers
While not a standout player defensively, Sabonis fills a unique role for the Indiana Pacers. In his fourth season, the Gonzaga product made his first All-Star appearance, averaging 18-12-5. For his size, Sabonis flashes above-average distribution skills and can become Indiana’s primary option offensively on any given night. The 23-year-old still needs to develop a reliable three-point shot if he wants to continue making All-Star appearances.
15. Jaylen Brown, SG/SF Boston Celtics
Defense separates Brown from the other guards in this category. While Brown likely possesses a lower ceiling than both Ja Morant and D’Angelo Russell, he put together a stellar season with the Celtics. Returning to his role as a full-time starter, Brown averaged 20 points per game while making 49.0% of his field goal attempts. Brown’s ceiling remains deceptive because of the drastic changes Boston underwent within the past year.
14. Ja Morant, PG Memphis Grizzlies
Some people compared Morant to Russell Westbrook when he came out of college because of his explosive game. The future Rookie of the Year (I said it) isn’t afraid to challenge big men at the rim. He’s also got the foundation of a creative passer and is willing to accept challenges on defense. He still needs greater defensive awareness, but Morant’s foundation is strong enough that he shouldn’t suffer in the long run.
13. Bam Adebayo, C Miami Heat
Compared to Jackson Jr., Adebayo possesses significantly better defensive fundamentals and plays a larger role as a facilitator. Unfortunately, he lacks a three-point shot to pair with his developing handles and post game. At 6-9, Adebayo averaged a double-double for Miami this season and thrived alongside other developing players. He doesn’t strike me as the type of player who will average 25 points per game, but he could easily get to 20 with a viable three-pointer. No one will complain about an athletic big man who can put up 20-10-5 a night.
12. D’Angelo Russell, PG Minnesota Timberwolves
Unlike Morant, there’s almost no hope of Russell developing an average to above-average defensive game. The 24-year-old’s focus is on putting up numbers on the offensive end, which he does consistently at a borderline All-Star level. Overlooking Russell’s time with Golden State, because he played with a bunch of G-League players, the former 2nd overall pick led the Brooklyn Nets to the playoffs last season. Russell’s passing could use some fine-tuning. Otherwise, he’s probably almost a finished product. He may never become a superstar, but Russell should battle for All-Star bids in the future.
11. Brandon Ingram, SF New Orleans Pelicans
As one of his team’s top two scoring options this season, Ingram finally put everything together offensively. He made 38.7% of his three-pointers and made his first All-Star appearance. While Ingram can go off in any given game, his defense still leaves something to be desired. With his lengthy 6-7 frame, Ingram should be a more impactful defender. Nevertheless, we saw him grow from a controversial talent to an established borderline All-Star this season.
10. Kristaps Porzingis, C/PF Dallas Mavericks
While Porzingis primarily played power forward with the New York Knicks, he saw more time as a center in Dallas. The Latvian big man remains highly underrated in basketball circles because his game isn’t very flashy or eye-catching. Porzingis is one of the best three-point shooting bigs in the league, and he’s an overlooked rim protector. However, he’ll likely never be the top player on a championship team. Even now, Porzingis plays a subordinate role to Luka Doncic in Dallas.
9. De’Aaron Fox, PG Sacramento Kings
Fox flies around the court with elite speed and agility. He gets lost in the guard-heavy Western Conference, but Fox will become a perennial All-Star within the next three years. While his upside is widely acknowledged, some holes remain in Fox’s game. First, he’s shot the three ball inconsistently through his first three NBA seasons. While his overall field goal percentage continues increasing, Fox should focus on refining his three-point shot. Despite his quick hands and athleticism, Fox also has room to grow on defense. He’s shown positive signs early on but needs to continue pushing for consistent play on both sides of the ball.
8. Trae Young, PG Atlanta Hawks
After performing poorly during the first half of his rookie season, Young transformed into one of the better point guards in the NBA. He earned an All-Star starting spot this season and averaged 29.6 points per game (fourth in the league). His 9.3 assists per game rank second in the league as well. By all means, the fifth pick in the 2018 draft is already one of the best offensive point guards in the game today. However, Young is a clear liability on defense and lacks all sense of direction on that side of the court. Nothing he’s done so far suggests he’ll ever develop into even a neutral player defensively. Also, his incredible production came on one of the worst teams in the NBA. We need to see if Young can play at an elite level on a winning squad or if he’s just producing flashy numbers on a garbage team.
7. Devin Booker, SG Phoenix Suns
Booker is currently averaging 26 points per game for the second straight season. If the NBA season ended today, it would be his fourth consecutive year with at least 22 points per game. While Booker is a scoring machine, his Suns teams never go anywhere. Fans wonder if Booker is just a guy putting up killer numbers on a bad team. The eye test says Booker possesses legitimate top-shelf scoring potential and passable facilitation skills, but his defense is lacking at best. We’ll see how history remembers the flashy Kentucky product.
6. Donovan Mitchell, SG Utah Jazz
Among the guards in this section, Mitchell is one of the most dedicated to playing defense. While Young and Booker either get clobbered or merely idle on that side of the ball, Mitchell actively engages in elevating his team. While his defense and playmaking still need some work, Mitchell looks like one of the most well-rounded young guards in the NBA. His teams also regularly experience success while many other young guards perform for lottery level clubs. If we’re greedy, I’d like to see him improve his shooting efficiency as well.
5. Jayson Tatum, SF Boston Celtics
By ranking Tatum at five, I’m trying to avoid becoming a prisoner of the moment. Before the NBA suspended the season, Tatum began torching the competition. He took the step forward we expected him to make last season. While taking almost six more shots per game this year than last season, Tatum increased his effective field goal percentage. He’s playing defense too, which was a big question I had about his development coming into the season. Even with Kemba Walker on the roster, Tatum emerged as Boston’s alpha dog in 2019.
Witness the Future
4. Zion Williamson, PF New Orleans Pelicans
Nineteen games is a large enough sample size to tell that if Williamson stays healthy, he will become a perennial All-Star. At 285 lbs. Williamson lumbers down the court before displaying unworldly athleticism for someone with his frame. He and Ball already have a special lob connection, which should only grow in the future. Williamson also gets a surprising number of offensive rebounds, despite only being 6-6. Frankly, he bullies larger, more experienced forwards and centers. After taking the NBA by storm this season, Williamson deserves this ranking.
3. Ben Simmons, PG Philadelphia 76ers
Simmons plays defense at an All-NBA level and can guard almost any player because of his unique size and athleticism. While he’s already a star, Simmons could become a superstar if he paired his passing, physical dominance, and handles with a three-point shot. Nobody cares about Simmons on the perimeter right now because, unlike Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James, Simmons rarely attempts a three-pointer. While he’s still a great player, Simmons could become underwhelming in the long-term considering his Hall of Fame-caliber potential.
2. Karl-Anthony Towns, C Minnesota Timberwolves
Speaking of potentially underwhelming stars, Towns possesses all of the physical traits a basketball player could ask for. He’s a center with handles and an above 40% three-point shot. However, Towns lacks motivation, body control, and footwork on the defensive side of the ball. Jimmy Butler commented on the lack of motivation in Minnesota several times since leaving the team. If Towns doesn’t start adding new pieces to his game, he’ll get left behind by other developing players.
1. Luka Doncic, PG Dallas Mavericks
He may not play defense at an elite level, but Doncic already looks like a seasoned NBA veteran. He’s an upside passer with a never-ending bag of offensive tricks. Despite his capped athleticism, Doncic continually finds ways to get rebounds and embarrass more physically gifted players. He’s almost too polished for a 21-year-old. At this rate, Doncic will compete for MVPs in the near future.