20. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Young core: Montrezl Harrell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Tyrone Wallace, Jerome Robinson, Sindarius Thornwell, Johnathan Motley, Angel Delgado
This group is mostly buoyed by just two players: Montrezl Harrell and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. If not for those two, the Los Angeles Clippers’ young core would rank among the bottom of the league.
Regardless, Harrell has been an absolute monster this season, averaging 15.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game in just 25.3 minutes of action. The Louisville product will undoubtedly be in the running for Most Improved Player if he maintains this level of play.
Meanwhile, Gilgeous-Alexander’s numbers – 9.9 points and 2.9 assists per game – may not be as gaudy, but as a 20-year-old, he’s displayed a confident skill level, both on and off the ball, that leads one to believe he’ll have a long, productive career in the NBA.
19. NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
Young core: Julius Randle, Elfrid Payton, Frank Jackson, Jahlil Okafor, Cheick Diallo, Kenrich Williams, Trevon Bluiett
Headlined by Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton, the New Orleans Pelicans’ young core is still in pretty good shape despite it being their first year without Anthony Davis as a member.
Randle, especially, has had a fantastic start to 2018-19. The Kentucky product is averaging a career-high 19.9 points per contest, to go with 9.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists nightly. This season, only five players can match Randle’s total points (834), rebounds (392) and assists (120) for the year, and they are five of the best players the league has to offer.
Payton, on the other hand, has missed a good chunk of the season due to injury, but when he has played, he’s had an important role as a lead guard, which has allowed Jrue Holiday to move off the ball, where he’s more effective. On the year, Payton is putting up 11.0 points and 5.6 assists per contest, and the Pelicans have an absurd +13.2 swing rating when he’s on the floor. So although his numbers may not be that impressive, he clearly makes New Orleans a better team when he’s out there.
The other player in this group to keep an eye on is Frank Jackson, who missed his entire rookie year with injury, but he’s bounced back nicely this season. Jackson is knocking down 41.2 percent of his threes on the year, and his two-way abilities as a point guard provide a lot of value for New Orleans.
18. TORONTO RAPTORS
Young core: Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Malachi Richardson, Patrick McCaw
If Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet weren’t on the cusp of turning 25, thus aging them out of this ranking, the Toronto Raptors would surely place higher on this list.
And that’s because those two are really, really good.
Siakam has blossomed into a do-it-all swingman, who destroys opponents in transition, cuts to the basket at an elite level and even knocks down the open three at an acceptable rate. The 24-year-old is putting up 15.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.0 steals per contest, filling up the stat sheet in just about every way possible.
VanVleet is averaging career-highs in points (10.5), assists (4.5) and rebounds (2.7) while providing the Raptors with very consistent backup-point-guard play. In fact, there are multiple teams VanVleet could start on and be a legitimate difference maker as a lead ball-handler.
Finally, although OG Anunoby’s development may have hit a bit of a snag due to the team’s acquisition of Kawhi Leonard, the second-year forward is still a big plus defensively on the perimeter, and he’s knocking down a decent 35.8 percent of his triples since reaching the NBA, a mark healthy enough to put him firmly in the 3-and-D archetype.
17. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
Young core: Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks, Ivan Rabb, Yuta Watanabe, Jevon Carter
Jaren Jackson Jr. headlines this group, and if it weren’t for him, they likely wouldn’t crack the Top 25 of this list.
Nevertheless, Jackson is so good that it vaults the Memphis Grizzlies’ young core to another level. The Michigan State rookie is averaging 13.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 0.8 triples this season, displaying a ridiculous all-around game that should have Grizzlies fans extremely excited about his future.
On Nov. 30, Jackson became the second-youngest player in league history to score at least 36 points in a game, when he accomplished the feat at 19 years and 76 days old.
Despite most of the talk of the 2018 draft class being centered around the No. 1 and No. 3 picks, Jackson has proven to have special potential in his own right, with his ability to space the floor effectively from three, use a solid ball-handle to dribble by opposing bigs, all while protecting the paint at an elite level.
Jackson is a freakishly well-rounded talent.
16. ORLANDO MAGIC
Young core: Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba, Wesley Iwundu, Isaiah Briscoe, Jarell Martin, Melvin Frazier
Although he’s already in his fifth NBA season, Aaron Gordon is still just 23 years old, which gives the Orlando Magic’s core a huge boost in young talent. Gordon is currently putting up 15.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game while shooting a career-high 35.8 percent from beyond the arc. Gordon’s +13.3 swing rating speaks volumes on his importance to Orlando’s system, as not many big men around the league can match his quickness, ball-handling on the open floor and athleticism in the paint.
Occasionally sharing the frontcourt with him is 2017 lottery pick Jonathan Isaac, who has struggled offensively since getting drafted by the Magic sixth overall. Defensively, however, Isaac has shown flashes of being a menace, capable of defending athletic wings on the perimeter, having the instincts to jump passing lanes and the hops and length to protect the rim. The Magic will need Isaac to get (much) better at putting the ball through the hoop, but considering he’s still just 21, there’s reason to believe he can improve on that end sooner rather than later.
Also rounding out the Magic’s crew of 24-and-under players, Mo Bamba has had an up-and-down rookie season (6.3 ppg and 5.0 rpg), but has displayed promise as a rim-protecting floor-spacer, an all-important-but-still-unique modern archetype.
15. UTAH JAZZ
Young core: Donovan Mitchell, Dante Exum, Grayson Allen, Tony Bradley, Tyler Cavanaugh
When your young core is headlined by a potential superstar, you know your future is in pretty good shape. And that’s exactly what the Utah Jazz have going with Donovan Mitchell.
Though the second-year guard may not have hit the ground running this season like many (including us) expected, Mitchell is still pouring in 21.3 points and 2.2 triples per game in 2018-19, helping Utah fight for a playoff spot in the loaded West. What’s more, Mitchell is on a five-game stretch at the moment where he’s averaging 30.4 points and 5.6 assists per game, so it’s possible he’s beginning to turn the corner after a relatively (by his standards) slow start.
Nevertheless, what’s unquestionable is how talented and driven the 22-year-old is, and how lucky the Jazz are to have him.
14. NEW YORK KNICKS
Young core: Kristaps Porzingis, Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Emmanuel Mudiay, Noah Vonleh, Allonzo Trier, Mitchell Robinson, Luke Kornet, Damyean Dotson, Isaiah Hicks
Quantity over quality is the name of the game when it comes to the New York Knicks’ young core, especially as Kristaps Porzingis is looking more and more likely to miss the entirety of 2018-19 season while he rehabs from a torn ACL.
With a healthy Porzingis in his fourth season, it’s possible the Knicks could have cracked the Top 10 of this list. Without him, the 14th spot just feels right.
Kevin Knox is shooting 38.3 percent from the floor as a rookie, averaging an inefficient 12.7 points per game while not chipping in much else on the stat sheet. Frank Ntilikina has things even worse, even falling out of the rotation for the Knicks for multiple games this season. Not great for the former No. 8 overall pick, who may or may not already have been on the trade block at some point over the past few months.
Of the young guys, Emmanuel Mudiay (14.5 ppg and 4.1 apg) and Noah Vonleh (8.6 ppg and 8.5 rpg) – two castoffs from Western Conference playoff teams – are probably having the most encouraging years, with both flashing some of the skill that made them Top 10 picks in their respective drafts.
Besides those five players, the 23-year-old Luke Kornet can at least block some shots while knocking down 42.1 percent of his threes, and the 20-year-old Mitchell Robinson has displayed elite shot-blocking talent, but is still a ways away from being a consistent defensive player due to his high propensity to foul opponents.
Even with the struggles of their young guys, at least New York is taking the right approach by letting them take their bumps and bruises this season, with the year lost before it began due to Porzingis’ injury.
As opposed to trading for or signing help-now veterans, the Knicks might as well see what they have in their young core.
13. ATLANTA HAWKS
Young core: John Collins, Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, Taurean Prince, DeAndre Bembry, Omari Spellman, Daniel Hamilton, Tyler Dorsey, Jaylen Adams
With a year of seasoning, there’s a chance the Atlanta Hawks will rank even higher on this list when we do the 2019-20 edition, because Trae Young and Kevin Huerter, the team’s sharpshooting backcourt, are already really starting to blossom as they gain more confidence through experience.
Since Jan. 1, Young is averaging 16.7 points and 5.9 assists per game, and, more importantly, hitting 36.1 percent of his threes. In that same stretch, Huerter is putting up 14.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists nightly, proving that even if his outside shot isn’t falling (and it hasn’t been recently), he still has the overall game to make up for it.
This young core, though, is carried by second-year big man John Collins, who has been outstanding as a sophomore. Collins is putting up 18.9 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists per contest this season, and shooting 33.3 percent from beyond the arc. He’s athletic, has a strong face-up game and can feast on the glass, and as his three-point stroke continues to improve, Collins will only grow harder to slow down.
The one disappointment is Taurean Prince, who, due to injury, hasn’t been able to find a rhythm in his third season. Prince’s numbers are hovering right around his marks from last year (14.1 ppg and 4.7 rpg), and when you consider he’s already 24 years old, it might be time to temper our expectations for the former Baylor swingman. Regardless, at worst, Prince should be a good role player for years to come.
12. INDIANA PACERS
Young core: Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner, Aaron Holiday, TJ Leaf, Alize Johnson, Ike Anigbogu, Edmond Sumner, Davon Reed
Headlined by two outstanding young big men, the Indiana Pacers’ 24-and-under core is one of the more underrated the league has to offer.
Domantas Sabonis has become one of the best young centers in the NBA this season, averaging 15.2 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game, and shooting 62.2 percent from the floor. There may not be a better non-dunking finisher in the league right now than Sabonis; his feathery touch around the basket is second to none.
And Myles Turner, despite not blowing up as was expected, is still putting up 12.9 points and 7.1 rebounds nightly, while leading the league in blocks at 2.8 per game. He needs to get braver with his outside shot (just 1.9 attempts per contest), but Turner’s 39.1 percent three-point stroke gives us a glimpse of his huge potential.
11. CHICAGO BULLS
Young core: Zach LaVine, Jabari Parker, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Kris Dunn, Bobby Portis, Ryan Arcidiacono, Antonio Blakeney, Wayne Selden, Chandler Hutchinson, Rawle Atkins, Brandon Sampson
One of the trickiest selections of this list was deciding which team should crack the Top 10: the Brooklyn Nets or the Chicago Bulls.
Both young cores are similarly talented, with an equal share of promising young big men and ball-handlers. But the fact that the Nets are 22-23 while the Bulls sit at 10-33 made the decision just a bit easier.
Despite the team’s record, multiple members of Chicago’s young core are playing quite well.
For starters, Zach LaVine is putting up 23.6 points per game, to go with 4.3 rebounds and 4.1 assists, while shooting an efficient 45.7 percent from the floor; Lauri Markkanen, after returning from an elbow injury, is putting up 16.5 points and 7.1 rebounds nightly and shooting 36.9 percent from three; Kris Dunn is scoring 13.2 points nightly and dishing out a career-high 6.8 assists per game; Wendell Carter Jr. is putting up 10.4 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks, flashing dominance as a defender in the paint; Bobby Portis, despite being in and out of the lineup, is averaging 12.9 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 37.1 percent from the floor; and Jabari Parker’s (14.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg) problems staying healthy and in-shape enough to see game action have been well-documented, as are the rumors regarding a potential trade.
The makings are there for an exciting young team, the Bulls just have to put it all together and start winning some games. Perhaps better injury luck will help. Probably, though, the addition of another Top-5 pick in the 2019 draft will do the trick.