By Dastan Haghnazari
For the definition of young, we’ll be examining players aged 22 years and younger. Some are rookies, but others have been in the league for a few years; however, all these players share one thing in common. Bright futures.
15 Lauri Markkanen – CHI 20 y/o
Markkanen is Chicago’s seven-footer, but his strengths lay in his wide-range of shooting capabilities and his average of almost 8 rebounds per game. Draft Express described Markkanen in his draft profile saying, “A fluid, coordinated athlete who… has a nice mix of tools to complement his advanced skill set his on the offensive end.” He, the third leading scorer on his team, currently maintaining an average of 14.9 ppg. Shooting an average of 42.3% from the field and 34.7% from three. With further development of Chicago’s young talent, the Bulls with Markkanen can expect success a couple of years down the road.
14 Tyus Jones – MIN 21 y/o
Tyus Jones is an interesting young prospect. So far, all other players on this list have had a negative +/-. Jones has a 2.7 +/- showing his positive court influence which provides great bench depth to the Timberwolves. His positive court influence comes from his ability to distribute the ball, play good defense, and follow the system that Coach Thibs implemented. Jones has shown a great trajectory in his past three years in the NBA steadily rising from a rookie slump. Jones will probably never reach all-star status, but will have an immense effect on the defensive side of the ball for a budding Minnesota team. He is most comparable to Patrick Beverly in terms of his defense, and is improving every season.
13 Lonzo Ball – LAL 20 y/o
If one were to ask Lavar, Lonzo is the best player of all time and transcends this list of best young players; however, Lonzo’s shooting percentages are both under 37% with his three-point percentage nearing the high twenties. Also, Ball’s 10.2 points per game is awful for how many shots he takes, and he plays the second most amount of time out of his teammates with 33.3 minutes per game. Zo’s game is capitalized in his size advantage and passing abilities. He is listed at 6’6” which provides Ball with a size advantage over most NBA point guards. This allows for a versatile defensive gameplay where he can perform switches well and cover a good amount of forwards. His size also provides fantastic rebounding abilities that players like Westbrook possess. Finally, Ball’s passing and strength is superior to many young players today in that he has fantastic vision and decision-making. This leads to his average of over 7 assists per game. He would need to improve his scoring and handling abilities to grow as great point guard, but with a fantastic young scoring core around him, he will be successful solely based on his passing abilities.
12 Kyle Kuzma – LAL 22 y/o
Kuzma is one of the supporting offensive players to provide Lonzo with young firepower that Lonzo’s game lacks. Kuzma is shooting 45% field goal and 36% three-point with 15.4 points per game. For Kuzma’s status on the Lakers team, his numbers are impressive. He is not the leading scorer, but he is an effective offensive threat and great supporting player. Kuzma’s success lays in his athletic ability as well as his size. If he improves his three-point shooting and overall defense, Kuzma would prove to be one of the better forwards in the league. The Lakers future is exciting with players like Lonzo and Kuzma leading the charge behind the Lakers best player, found later on this list.
11 De’Aaron Fox – SAC 20 y/o
Fox’s explosive play style, versatile skill set, and competitive drive are all fantastic facets of his game, but his defense lacks where it needs to be strong on a young Sacramento team. His offensive capabilities are unarguable with shooting averages around the same as Kuzma’s, but he lacks in scoring with 11.3 points per game. He shows good decision-making through this because his shot selection is impeccable. His team can thank him for not hogging the ball and spreading it around to other young talent on the team. If Fox were to improve his defense and score more than he currently does, I have no doubt that he will not only be one of the most exciting guards in the NBA but also one of the best.
10 D’Angelo Russell – BKN 22 y/o
Coming out of Ohio State as the top rated point guard in his draft class, Russell disappointed the Lakers with relatively poor offensive play on which he capitalized in his college days. But much like Lonzo Ball, D Loading’s abilities lay in his perfect court vision, passing capabilities, and defensive prowess. Although, he is not near leading the league in assists, Russell has proved that his passing game positively impacts teams that he is apart of and bolsters other players stats around him. An abysmal three-point percentage holds him back from being a great all-around point guard, but a steadily rising +/- shows much upside for years to come. If Russell could fix his shot and increase ball distribution among better shooters, he could become one of the better guards in the league. Sadly, D Loading is still loading, but will hopefully up his game soon.
9 Ben Simmons – PHI 21 y/o
Simmons shocked the world this offseason by switching to guard, despite the recent drafting of Washington stud Markelle Fultz. His surprising success at the position was unexpected, but he is proving that he is one of the best guards in the league. Many felt that he was snubbed by not receiving an all-star selection this season. Simmons shoots over 50% from the field not only due to his offensive capabilities, but also the mismatch that often comes from him playing guard. Teams struggle to find defenders because his speed requires a guard to defend him, but his size require forwards and centers that can not keep up. The skilled big man is a developing position that proves the most effective on teams. However, Simmons has a major pitfall that derails his entire point guard game. He can’t shoot threes. Simmons has only attempted 10 this season and has not hit any thus far. If he could shoot, Simmons would be one of the best players in the NBA, but Simmons will just be a big man bringing the ball down the court until he can do so.
8 Jamal Murray – DEN 21 y/o
Jamal Murray was the spark-plug the Nuggets needed to begin a threatening offense. Murray is up 7 more points per game from last year and has never had a negative +/-. With almost 50% shooting from the field and 38.6% from three, he has provided Denver with a great offensive player. Unlike other young guards, Murray has kept consistent with his college play style: his draft profile from DraftExpress states, “Murray’s skill-level and aggressiveness is what separates him from your average guard (particularly for a teenager), and that starts with his capacity as one of the most prolific shooter/scorers in the college ranks.” His shooting percentages are consistently rising not only from year to year, but also throughout the season. Murray’s developing game and can be compared to Steph Curry in the aspect of his shooting and competitive drive, but his edge on Curry is that he can play extremely well inside the paint. Murray is playing in a small market but is someone to watch for going forward.
7 Jayson Tatum- BOS 19 y/o
The third pick out of Duke, Tatum was a top forward coming out of the draft. With a vast array of offensive tools, he provides the Celtics with a much-needed offensive weapon to complement Kyrie Irving. Contributing fantastic shooting percentages and one of the higher +/- of the rookie class, Tatum has been a huge part of the Celtics success this season. He’s shooting 47% from the field and almost 43% from three, percentages that are tough to come by for a forward with his size. In a sense, Tatum can be compared to Carmelo Anthony. Sports Insider confirms this in their analysis of Tatum before the draft saying “He’s able to create space for himself and make difficult shots when necessary, a necessity for most elite scorers in the league.” Much like Melo, his ability to hit mid range shots and get to the basket is astonishing. Although he is a very good player that has been developing throughout the season, Tatum could improve his athleticism further and eventually reach all-star status.
6 Brandon Ingram – LAL 20 y/o
One of my personal favorite players from last year’s draft class is Brandon Ingram. His game is extremely similar to Kevin Durant. This year Ingram is averaging 46.7% field goal and 38.1% three point, only a few percentage points lower than Durant. This season, Ingram has had seven games where he did not miss a three while attempting to do so. Ingram is the leading scorer on his team leading the charge of young Lakers. His strengths reside in his superior athleticism and size.Without injuries, Ingram could be the future of the NBA and possibly one of the best forwards in the League.
5 Jaylen Brown – BOS 21 y/o
Brown has been a vital part of Boston’s success this year. Since last year, Brown has improved his volume scoring and has earned himself a starting spot. He shoots 45.6% from the field and 37.3% from three proving to be a proficient scorer. This year, he is up to 14.1 points per game which may not seem like too much, but he is limited in his touches per game by lethal offensive players like Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, and Gordon Hayward (soon?). With good size, strength, and ability, he shows many traits of a future all-star. His fantastic level of play brings him to top five on this list, and his only limiting factor is his lack of experience. Boston would be a top contender for the title this year, but their lack of experience from young players limits their chances. The future of Boston looks bright with players like Jaylen Brown at the helm. Only a devastating injury can stop him from being a top ten player in his league someday.
4 Donovan Mitchell – UTA 21 y/o
My favorite Rookie of the Year candidate, Donovan Mitchell, has quickly taken over a Jazz team that was thought to be dismantled by the leaving of Gordon Hayward during the previous off-season. With point guards that pass more than they shoot and players that are in the game solely for the purpose of locking down opponents, the Jazz allow Donovan Mitchell to lead the offense at the shooting guard position. The Jazz did not plan on this, but the team is quite literally built around him. With almost 20 points per game, a 44% and 35% field goal and three-point percentage (respectively), and a 1.3 +/-, Mitchell’s offense leaves little to question on his greatness, but most the most interesting part is not his success at his position. His ability to lead a team and closely follow the system set by the Jazz are some of his greatest traits. With bench depth being built through the draft, the Jazz will soon be a top team led by the young star. His spot as Rookie of the Year shouldn’t even be in question because as a guard that can actually shoot and lead a team, Mitchell is clearly a better player than Ben Simmons. Simmons is good, but he doesn’t come near Mitchell’s level of play.
3 Kristaps Porzingis – NYK 22 y/o
The second most skilled big man in the NBA, coming in at an astounding 7’3, the Unicorn is one of the best young players in basketball. Upon the drafting of Porzingis, one could hear the absolute disappointment of Knicks fans around the world. Booing, crying, screaming in dissatisfaction, Knicks fans were not impressed with their teams’ first round selection. Everything quickly changed when he became the savior of the franchise. Shooting at 40% from three this year, Porzingis’s skill level doesn’t match his size. Players around the league have trouble guarding the behemoth of a man. Two out of three seasons Porzingis has maintained a positive +/- on a dying Knicks team. The scary part about Kristaps is not his widespread skill set but rather that he has not improved to his greatest potential. His draft class revolutionized the NBA forward-center position forever, and he is one of the main reasons.
2 Devin Booker – PHX 21 y/o
Booker comes in as one of the best young guards the game has ever seen. Last year (his rookie year), Booker put up an exceptional 70 points during a game against a Celtics team that made it to the Easter Conference Finals. He is one of six players at the time to do so, a very exclusive club. His stat-line was heard around the league, media, and players alike. There is no cap to Booker’s skill set and he will always be known as the one who put up 70, and I have no doubt that Booker will break his 70 point record in the future. With fantastic shooting percentages and almost 25 points per game, Booker is possibly the best young guard to ever live. Only time will dictate when Booker will have a breakout game again, and Booker will hopefully match Kobe’s level of play. After his 70 point game, he credited the Mamba for his mentality of never setting a floor for himself. Booker has the second most upside out of all the young players in the NBA, and he will be an all-star starter very soon.
1 KAT – MIN 22 y/o
My current belief is that Karl-Anthony Towns is the absolute best center in the league. His rookie year stats were only matched by that of Shaq himself; the only difference is KAT’s shooting percentages were far superior. When a reporter asked him what he was going to improve on after his rookie season, Kat replied, “Everything.” A scary, scary thought for a player who was already at the top of his game. This season, KAT is shooting about 55% from the field and over 40% from three. These are absolutely unheard of numbers from a man in his position. During his rookie year, Towns took the skills competition by storm beating out all-star guards and big men alike. His talent is unmatched by any other big man in the league. He combines the defensive genius of Kawhi Leonard, fundamental big man skills of Cousins and Davis, and the offensive capabilities of Westbrook. With an all-star selection this year, Towns is performing as expected during his third year in the NBA.
The Celtics, Timberwolves, and Lakers show the most upside as young teams, but many young players around the league are changing the game of basketball as we know it.