As much as I enjoy watching LeBron James at the peak of his NBA powers, as much as I enjoy watching the veteran Celtics come together since Rajon Rondo went down, as fun as it is to watch Carmelo Anthony drop 35-plus night after night en-route to his first scoring title, and Chris Paul continuing to be the best point guard of this generation, what makes the NBA so great night in and night out is everyone else. Namely, the young guns.
NBA League Pass has never been a more relieving investment, so much so that shelling out the money for it is a priority for NBA junkies. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve come across a random Cleveland Cavaliers – Golden State Warriors type of game on a Tuesday night, and had the opportunity to watch two of the best young guards in the league go at it like young boxers trying to make a name for themselves. It wasn’t that long ago when the idea of watching any team(s) you desired on any given night wasn’t feasible. Now it’s a nightly event. The NBA, where every team has at least one player worth watching on a nightly basis happens.
The league does an excellent job of making their product easily accessible. I’ve watched and re-watched countless NBA games on screens as small as my iPhone or iPad. It’s not the most viable option, but it is an option nonetheless, and it’s fantastic. There hasn’t been a better professional sports league when it comes to taking advantage of technology. There are countless YouTube videos of complete games from teams and highlight reels of the most exciting players. The NBA is a player’s league, make no mistake about it. Thankful for us, the quality of players is at an all time high.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the NBA’s best young talent. ESPN tried it, but I’m finishing it. The cutoff is 25 years old, so let’s call this The Under 26 List.
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Terrence Ross for his performance in the 2013 NBA Slam Dunk Contest.
Maurice Harkless for being one of four players of which the Sixers gave up last offseason and got nothing in return as far as on the court production is concerned. Rob Hennigan, we salute you.
TIER 1: Career Role Players
Al-Farouq Aminu, Iman Shumpert and Avery Bradley
All great defensive-minded players who have shown offensive capabilities as well. Three of my favorite young defensive players to watch. Bonus to Iman Shumpert for his hair and shoe game.
Ed Davis, Amir Johnson, Patrick Patterson, Earl Clark and Jonas Valanciunas
With the exception of the latter, I think we know what type of players these guys will be. More importantly, they know who they are, which can be the toughest part for young players to figure out. Know this, they’ll give you 15-25 minutes of 100 percent effort basketball on a nightly basis. The jury is still out on where Valanciunas’ career will lead.
Derrick Williams and Enes Kanter
Both have shown the ability to play well when supplied minutes. Both play on teams who are deep at the forward spots. Both are yet to find their niche and I’d be willing to bet that when they do, they’ll both be wearing different uniforms.
Gordon Hayward and Nicolas Batum
One of these guys averages 14.3 points per game while putting up 42/37/85 shooting splits. The other averages 14.3 while putting up 43/41/83 splits. With neither player needing many touches (both attempt fewer than 12 shots per outing), many general managers would love these guys on their roster. They spread the floor, they knock down shots and they’re efficient. What more do you want out of your (role-playing) wing?
The best reserve point guard in the NBA. He passes the table test in every conceivable way; he brings a ton to it, while taking next to nothing off.
Since being dealt to the Orlando Magic, Harris is averaging 17.1 points per game and ripping down an average of 8.7 rebounds per. Is there even anyone, other than Rob Hennigan, on the General Manager of the Year ballet? More on this later on.
TIER 2: NBA Starters, But They Have A Ceiling
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Kemba Walker
MKG is an Andre Iguodala type player in terms of selflessness and Kemba is fearless. These are two very good building blocks moving forward but the Bobcats are still in search of their star.
DeMar DeRozan and Bradley Beal
Their games couldn’t be more different while their ceilings are about the same. Both players are destined to be 15-19 point scorers a night. DeMar does it more with his athleticism where as Beal relies more on his shooting stroke. Beal has the gift and the curse of John Wall, who is capable of getting him looks, but also dominates the ball. DeRozan is closer to his ceiling than the rookie, but we expect them both to be about the same in terms of scoring.
Mike Conley, Jeff Teague and Isaiah Thomas
These are the point, assist and turnover numbers per game for the aforementioned point guards:
Mike Conley: 14.6/6.1/2.4
Jeff Teague: 14.7/7.2/2.9
Isaiah Thomas: 13.9/3.9/1.8
Mike Conley has the best group of players around him and one of the most underrated coaches in the league. Jeff Teague has played the point guard position very efficiently for Atlanta and the vastly undersized Isaiah Thomas’ assist and turnover numbers are lower due to the fact that he plays with a team of balldominating guards. None of their teams would make significant improvements nor have significant drop offs if the three were shuffled.
Lavoy Allen, Jodie Meeks and Boris Diaw each average more minutes per game than Bledsoe. This tells us four things; the Los Angeles Clippers are extremely deep, have the best starting point guard in the NBA, Bledsoe is far underutilized for being in such great physical shape and we still don’t quite know Bled’s full potential and won’t until we get bigger serving sizes of it. He gives you 15.2/5.4/5.2 splits per 36 minutes. He is a premier perimeter defender and an incredible athlete. Whoever snags him in the offseason is going to hit a home run in doing so. It’s only in his jump shooting that I really give him a ceiling. If he can vastly improve his stroke, the sky’s the limit.
TIER 3: Will Play A Significant Role On A Championship Team
Serge Ibaka, Jimmy Butler, O.J. Mayo, DeAndre Jordan, Ryan Anderson, Thaddeus Young and Kawhi Leonard
All of these guys possess one or a combination of the following:
A) Are already on a team that is right on the fringe of winning a championship.
B) Posess a specific talent which has the potential to one day contribute to a championship team.
C) Are selfless, team-first basketball players.
D) Hustle, hustle and more hustle.
You can never have enough of these type of players.
TIER 4: Wild Cards
Jeremy Lin, Michael Beasley, Tyreke Evans and Derrick Favors
The thing that these four players have in common? They’re all multitalented. Jeremy Lin is a big man away from becoming a top tier point guard (queue Dwight Howard). I watched a lot of Michael Beasley when he was in his younger years in Miami and am still convinced he can become an efficient, mature player with the proper coaching. Evans and Favors either need a few players to leave their respective teams to open up the door for themselves or need a change of scenery themselves. We all seem quick to forget that Tyreke put up a 20-5-5 his rookie season (joining LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson as the only rookies to accomplish the feat). Favors possesses a ton of talent and he’ll have the opportunity to showcase it next season with Al Jefferson and/or Paul Millsap more than likely on the move.
TIER 5: Great Role Players
Chandler Parsons, Marcus Thornton and Dion Waiters
The common denominator in all three of these guys is that they can all score the basketball, and don’t need many touches to do so. Parsons and Waiters have the luxury of playing off of young All-Stars, but they shouldn’t be penalized for that either. Sometimes it can hard for players as talented as these two to take a lesser scoring role, yet do it efficiently. They have thrived. Marcus Thornton has been phenomenal everywhere he’s played. He shoots the ball with consistency and is never afraid of the moment.
Danny Green and DeJuan Blair
Two words: Gregg Popovich.
Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson
These two have been a huge part of the Golden State Warriors success this season. With their ages combined, Mark Jackson still has five years on them. They’ve combined to average almost 26 points per game and shoot 36 and 40 percent from three, respectively.
TIER 6: Denver Nuggets
Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari and Ty Lawson
The Nuggets are second in the NBA in scoring, third in the league in assists and if there was a stat for it, they would be first in the league in hustle. These four combine for 54 percent of Denver’s scoring when healthy and as this column will tell you, they’re all under 25 years old. Losing Gallinari for the season is obviously a huge blow, but if anyone can plug guys in to make up for his 16 points and five rebounds per game it’s George Karl. If the Nuggets were in the Eastern Conference, they would be the No. 2 seed, ahead of Carmelo Anthony‘s New York Knicks. I think it’s safe to say they’re doing just fine without him.
TIER 7: Overrated
Brandon Jennings, Eric Gordon and Evan Turner
These three players combine to attempt 11.8 threes per game. Not one of them shoots over 41 percent from the field. They have the capacity to fill stat sheets but none of them do it efficiently or on a consistent basis. It’s going to be interesting to see who offers Jennings a max deal this summer (he’s a restricted free agent and you can bet someone will). It’s going to be even more interesting to see if the Bucks let him walk or match it. If they let him walk (and they should for max money), it’ll tell you everything you need to know about Jennings. He’s a shoot-first point guard who isn’t a great shooter. In a small market like Milwaukee, you can’t afford to tie up your salary cap for five years with a player like that. Not if you want to win.
TIER 8: Best Kept Secrets
I’m basing this one purely on potential. He’s a 6-10 center who is only 19 years old, who will have the benefit of playing next to Greg Monroe for a long time. He’s averaging just a shade under a 14 and 14 per 36 minutes. I loved this pick in last year’s draft for Detroit.
Nikola Vucevic and J.J. Hickson
There are eight players in the NBA who average 10-plus rebounds per game. Here are two of them. There are eight players in the NBA who average a double-double, one of which hasn’t played since before Black History Month (Rajon Rondo). Here are two of them.
Quick tangent: Vucevic averaged just three minutes in last year’s playoffs. THREE MINUTES!!! He scored one point. ONE. For Rob Hennigan to see this kid’s potential, which he did show flashes of last season, is simply incredible. We always feel that when a star gets traded, the team who acquires the star wins the trade. We all know what we thought when New York acquired Carmelo, and you read what I just wrote about the Nuggets. We all assume the Lakers won the Dwight Howard trade, and they may have, but I wouldn’t give them the belt just yet. There’s still a few rounds left to determine the winner. And thus far, Hennigan has demonstrated exactly how you maintain a competitive team when your star wants out. He followed the exact blueprint laid out by Masai Ujiri (Denver’s Vice President of Basketball Operations). As a Sixers fan, I will follow Vucevic and Harkless’ careers very closely. And more than likely, I’m going to hate what I watch, simply because of how good they’re both going to be.
TIER 9: Have The Potential To Be Franchise Guys
Andrew Bynum and DeMarcus Cousins
For these two, it really depends on how much they want it and their maturity levels. I have no doubt in my mind they they’re both talented enough to be the centerpiece of a franchise, but as the old saying goes, hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. These guys need to work if they want it, and at this point in their careers, I’m not sure they do.
Larry Sanders and Anthony Davis
Larry Sanders is second in the NBA in blocks, trailing only Serge Ibaka in that category. He averages a shade under 10 rebounds per game and alters the way teams run their interior offense. When the 2013 NBA Playoffs start, a lot more people will know who he is when he gives the Miami Heat trouble inside. He can without a doubt be a franchise big man, catering a team on defense. He does everything you want your bigs to do, and does them well. Anthony Davis has had an injury-ridden rookie season but we all know what he is capable of. He could have a career very similar to Larry Sanders and has the athletic ability to take it even further.
Paul George and Greg Monroe
George is already leading the Pacers into the playoffs on a yearly basis and Monroe is putting up 16 and 10s nightly on his way to becoming the best offensive center in basketball. The future is bright for both of these guys and both of their teams.
Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio
It’s an absolute shame that basketball fans have yet to see a full season of these two playing together. We all know about Kevin Love’s ability to rebound and knock down threes. He was the consensus best power forward in the NBA last season and was only stripped of that title this year because of his injuries. Ricky Rubio is eighth in the league in assists and second in the league in steals. He’s fourth and first in those categories post All-Stat break. He seems to be gaining confidence in his left knee after struggling early in the year (you’ll remember him missing badly on a wide open layup on national television as the prime moment displaying that). Minnesota, like Detroit and Cleveland, have a lot of young pieces who have a ton of potential. As a hoops fan I can’t wait until I get to watch these two mesh together on a basketball court.
We all know about the highlight reel dunks, the athletic alley-oops and the beef with Z-Bo. What doesn’t get talked about enough with Blake is how he has continued to develop his game. Everyone wants to harp on a guy when they think there’s a part of his game that needs to be improved, as many did with Blake’s midrange game, yet when said player works on it, we tend to fail to credit them with that. Blake has developed a more than respectable midrange jumper, he has a ton of post moves (most of which are based on athleticism, but still). He uses both hands well and has become much more efficient in the half-court. It’s also a bonus that he’s on the most exciting team in the NBA.
The consensus Rookie Of The Year has a bright future. He recently became the fastest player to score 1,200 points and record 400 assists since Allen Iverson in 1996-97. He’s terrific with the ball in hands, averaging 19 points and 6.5 assists per game.
How great has Wall been since his return? That’s rhetorical. He’s been absolutely phenomenal to watch, to the point that he emphatically stole Kyrie Irving‘s League Pass MVP Award for the second half of the season. He’s made the Washington Wizards must watch television for NBA junkies. Read that last sentence again. Yea, that good. He started off slow, as expected, averaging 13.8 points per during the month of January. In February his scoring dipped to 13.3 per game before erupting since then. He averaged 22-plus in March and an even 24 in April with one game remaining. Since March 9, he’s averaged 24.4 points per game, with only one real stinker, a 14-point performance in just 23 minutes in a loss at Golden State. He’s delivered two of the six or seven best performances in the NBA this season and I put his 47-8-7 game versus Memphis in my top two along with Kevin Durant‘s career-high 52 point game in Dallas earlier in the year. Sorry Stephen Curry, but you have to win, otherwise the performance doesn’t matter. The Wizards have a real gem in Wall and he has yet to hint that he doesn’t want to be there. If he can stay healthy moving forward there’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll be among the NBA’s elite in no time.
TIER 10: Franchise Guys, No Questions Asked
My only beef with Brook Lopez is that there is zero reason for a seven-footer to average under seven rebounds per game. That said, he’s the best offensive center in basketball and easily has the biggest pat diverse offensive arsenal. It also won’t be long before Greg Monroe steals this title from him, but for now, it’s his to lose. I put him here because of how good of a center he is, and with how few there are in the NBA, it makes him that much more important. Brooklyn would be a much worse team without him, bank on that.
There was no one, outside of Chicago, who was more torn by Derrick Rose’s injury than I. It happened versus my beloved 76ers at the point of the game in which he shouldn’t have even been in. I knew right away it was bad but also knew it meant the Sixers had a fighting chance in the series. As a basketball fan you never want to see someone go down the way Rose did. I absolutely admire his game and his humility. It’s a shame he missed a whole year of his prime. I personally cannot wait for #TheReturn.
Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Jrue Holiday
Outside of D-Rose and Westbrook, these are the three best point guards in the NBA right now who are 25 or younger. I’ll take arguments for John Wall but that’s it. Kyrie Irving is mature beyond his years, and if you ever talk to his father, like I had the opportunity to after Cleveland’s loss in Philadelphia on Sunday, you’d understand why. He’s never afraid to take big shots, yet is unselfish all at the same time. I imagine if you had polled young players and asked them which point guard they would most want to play with, the majority would say Kyrie Irving.
If anyone thinks Jrue Holiday doesn’t belong on this list, consider the fact that Jrue nearly carried a very mediocre 76ers team to the eighth seed of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. He’s the first player to play in the NBA who was born in the 1990s (demonstrating how young he is) and is the only NBA player who averages at least 18 points and eight assists per night. He’s done it all without complaining once (save for the recent interview in which he admitted he was tired from all the minutes), and performed under the pressure of signing a new contract at the beginning of the season. He’s one of the few bright lights in Philadelphia.
Stephen Curry is a 50-40-90 shooter who, if we could do the 2009 NBA Draft over again, would go much higher. We all saw the 54-point performance at Madison Square Garden and with his offensive ability, I wouldn’t be the least bit shocked if we saw him erupt for 60-plus in the future. He’s an offensive savant who is absolutely dazzling to watch.
Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kevin Durant
Now that they no longer all play on the same team, when you bunch their names together like this, it’s sort of hard to imagine they once did.
The trade that brought James Harden to Houston will be analyzed every which way repeatedly like an early 2000s Eminem track. Just know this:
I just spent the last 3,000-plus words breaking down the top 70 players in the NBA who are 25 years of age or younger. The top three were all on the same team at this point in time last season. That’s an incredible statement and what’s even more incredible is the fact that we probably won’t ever see it again.
I like the new CBA, I really do, it’s good for the NBA from a parity standpoint. It has, however, inadvertently destroyed one the most exciting days during the course of the season, the trade deadline, and broke up what was going to be the most exciting young core in the NBA in decades.
As far as Harden and Westbrook go, only time will tell if OKC traded the right guy. Currently, Harden is averaging over two points more per game while attempting nearly two fewer shots per game. Harden also shoots five percentage points better from three and from the charity stripe. Westbrook’s team, albeit a lot more talented from top to bottom, has 15 more wins. He also averages more rebounds and assists and hasn’t missed a game. There’s something to be said for how Westbrook performed in last year’s Finals as well, when James Harden all but failed to show up. I write all the time about players who were the go-to-guys at previous points of their careers and how hard it is to take a lesser role for the benefit of the team. Usually it happens with older players as they age past their prime. With Harden it happened early. I don’t think anyone knew Harden was this good, but I’m sure Harden knew. Not once did he complain about his coming off the bench in OKC, or his playing time in general and you know what? It was absolutely the best thing for that team. He never demanded the trade, nor hinted that he wanted one. I don’t think James Harden is credited for this nearly enough.
As for Kevin Durant — he continues to be the best player in the NBA whose name is not LeBron James. He’s the best all-around offensive player by far. He shoots 50/40/90 splits and posts averages of 28.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. He’s the most efficient player in the game and doesn’t even lead his own team in shot attempts. He is also only 24 years old and has yet to reach his prime. It’s almost impossible to imagine KD as a better basketball player, but one day he will be, count on it.
I, like many NBA fans, will always wonder what these three could have done together. And we would have rooted for them because they didn’t premeditate their situation. They are all extremely likable players. That whole OKC team was built from the front office, from the ground up. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see it play out.
Of the 24 NBA players who participated in the 2013 NBA All-Star Game, eight of them are 25 years or younger. One third of the NBA All-Star Teams are on this list. Yeah… I think the league is in good shape.
Did we get it right?
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