Kyrie Irving‘s 40-point game against Boston on Tuesday night started an internal debate last night: What’s the best performance by a player under 21 in recent NBA memory? Once you start looking, you’d be amazed at the numbers that seem like they were just yesterday.
It should be noted that the Basketball-Reference.com engine that aided in this search goes back to just 1984-85, so it’s been compiled with the knowledge that great players of the past, Moses Malone for one, very well had incredible performances before hitting 21 (Even if the majority of older-generation players were still in college at that age. Because high school players are only a recent phenomenon, this list skews toward players of the past two decades anyway). It shouldn’t dampen these games, though, because they’re truly incredible for players who are so young.
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10. AMAR’E STOUDEMIRE â€” Dec. 30, 2002
A young Stoudemire, at 20 years, 44 days old, with those young knees, dominated the Timberwolves and Kevin Garnett despite losing. Stoudemire shot 67 percent (66 percent true shooting) from the field to get 38 points and 14 rebounds. Saying he “held” Garnett to a bad game would be a misnomer â€” 22 points and 14 boards by KG is nothing to sniff at â€” but Stoudemire was physically superior in this matchup.
9. CHRIS WEBBER â€” Dec. 23, 1993
As a second-year player but still just 20 years, 297 days old, Webber pulled off one of the more impressive triple-doubles by a young player by doing it in just 32 minutes. Golden State blew out the Clippers, 141-95, which ended the necessity of having Webber play in the final quarter. He still recorded 22 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists despite shooting just 13 times â€” for 69 percent. Webber was great as a defender, too, with an 87 defensive rating â€” Avery Johnson‘s 80 led everybody. However, going against an L.A. starting lineup of Loy Vaught, Mark Jackson, Elmore Spencer, Ron Harper and Danny Manning likely contributed to both the defensive and offensive superiority Webber displayed in so little time.
8. STEPHON MARBURY â€” April 18, 1997
Once you wipe away the layers of nonsense that have piled on top of Stabury’s career â€” the UStream debacles, the China tour, the latter half of his time as a Knick â€” you get to the heart of just how good he was. Scary good, really. At just 20 years and 57 days old Marbury took apart Milwaukee in a 10-point Timberwolves win like a kid taking apart and putting back together a toy with 17 points, 17 assists and four turnovers while shooting 75 percent from the field (he took just eight shots). Fifty-three percent of the T-Wolves’ buckets were assisted by Marbury in this game, enabling faceless players such as Dean Garrett to get an offensive rating of 160 and Doug West one of 140. Don’t remember them? I don’t either, though this game should be.
7. KYRIE IRVING â€” Jan. 22, 2013
Film review should be a real treat for the Celtics this week as they see what they could have done differently to keep Irving from getting 40 points, five assists and shooting 67 percent. In reality, what could they have switched? Against a combo of Rajon Rondo and ballhawk Avery Bradley, Irving did whatever he pleased against Boston’s defense. Just check the highlight tape, which is filled with drives, fadeaways, steals and one memorable dismembering of Paul Pierce in the open court.
Irving won’t turn 21 until March 23.
6. CHRIS PAUL â€” April 2, 2006
In a year where the Hornets bounced around between Oklahoma City and New Orleans, the team’s true identity was CP3. At 20 years and 331 days old, he sprung a triple-double in a double-OT loss to Toronto of 24 points, 12 boards and 12 assists. Paul assisted on nearly 39 percent of all the Hornets’ buckets while carrying a usage percentage of just 22 percent â€” three teammates used higher rates than that in this game. The loss shouldn’t dismiss how clutch Paul was, though, scoring seven points in the second OT period. His three pointer gave the Hornets an eight-point lead with three minutes remaining in the game.
5. BRANDON JENNINGS â€” Nov. 14, 2009
You can’t hate on a double-nickel game, and that’s why Jennings’ 55 points against Golden State ranks as one of the best ever by an under-21-year-old player of the last 25 years. Jennings shot a ton â€” 34 shots on 41 percent usage â€” but his accuracy enabled a four-point win for the Bucks. Jennings’ was 7-for-8 from three and had a true shooting percentage of .733. Just let that percentage sink in for a second. He also had five rebounds and five assists to continue to double-nickel theme, while turning the ball over just four times in nearly 41 minutes.
But what is most impressive? Not that he did it at 20 years old, 52 days. It’s that he did it in just the seventh game of his professional career.
4. KEVIN DURANT â€” April 16, 2008
True shooting: 76 percent. Effective field-goal percentage: 74 percent. Regular old shooting percentage: 72 percent. There are dozens of metrics to judge a performance by and this 126-121 win over Golden State is a masterpiece by any one of them. He was just 19 years and 200 days old.
Durant had 42 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and five turnovers while still a Seattle SuperSonic in 42 minutes, but what makes the game stand out is how he got his 42 while shooting only two threes and making one and making just 5-of-6 free throws. Durant was an animal in the mid-range, making eight shots between nine and 17 feet. He wasn’t as polished or as lethal in getting to the basket as he is now, yet took what the defense gave him â€” one of the toughest shots in basketball â€” and drained it with regularity.
3. LEBRON JAMES, March 20, 2005
Spoiler alert: James would eventually one-up himself with regard to his monumental performance in this loss to Toronto (That “better” game comes later in this countdown). Yet the way James decimated the Raptors for 56 points, 10 boards, five assists, six three-pointers and 50 percent shooting was reminiscent of Kobe Bryant‘s 81-point game against Toronto where his personal tear almost didn’t bring the Lakers all the way back for a win.
No one will remember the loss, however, only what James did. His bank shot, while going to his weak hand and over two defenders, to pull Cleveland within 97-92 late in the fourth quarter is a perfect example of the kind of no-holds barred night he enjoyed.
2. SHAQUILLE O’NEAL â€” Feb. 16, 1993
The Magic actually lost against the Pistons in this game, just nine days before Shaq was able to drink legally. The four-point loss should give an indication into how dominant Shaq was and how relied upon he was for the Magic’s production. No one man can beat five others by himself, though Shaq tried his best with 46 points, 21 rebounds, five blocks, six turnovers and 76 percent shooting against Olden Polynice, among other helpless defenders.
The Magic lost because they let Joe Dumars score 39 points with an inferior lineup around him. There’s little blame to stick on the team for constantly feeding O’Neal, though, because he hardly missed all night.
1. LEBRON JAMES â€” April 9, 2005
This wasn’t James’ first triple-double (it was his third), but it was the most impressive feat by a not-quite 21-year-old in NBA history.
James shot 57 percent (15-of-26), made more than half of this threes to finish with seven, and even held a defensive rating of 93 that tied for second-lowest of any player on the court that night. At 20 years and 100 days, James had 40 points, 10 boards and 10 assists and just three turnovers despite playing 47 minutes. He pulled off wild alley-oops, threes off curl screens with his body still floating to the right, all while doing it in front of an adoring Cleveland crowd. If you look at it that way, it’s almost hard to watch knowing The Decision looms. And then you watch the performance, and the plays he pulls off make it easy to watch again.
Who should be No. 1?
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