10. BROOKLYN NETS
Young core: D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Rodions Kurucs, Theo Pinson, Dzanan Musa
The upstart Nets have seemingly turned the corner as a team, sitting No. 7 in the East through 45 games, and a lot of that has to do with their excellent group of young players.
D’Angelo Russell looks like he’s finally reaching his potential as a bonafide stud of a combo guard, putting up a tidy 18.3 points and 6.3 assists per game, and having his best season according to multiple advanced metrics. Before going down with an ankle injury, Caris LeVert was playing at a similarly high level, putting up 18.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists, and using his unconventional style of play to get buckets and distribute the ball with aplomb. Jarrett Allen, despite not yet hitting his massive ceiling, is averaging 11.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks, and he has provided the team with strong inside play and plus shot-blocking. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has missed a good chunk of the year due to injury, but is still a strong two-way wing who’s most comfortable near the basket. And Rodions Kurucs, a 2018 second-round pick, has surprised just about everyone with his efficient scoring and decent outside jumper.
The strength of Brooklyn’s young core will undoubtedly make the Nets look more appealing as a free-agent destination this summer, when the team will have enough cap space to chase at least one max-level player.
9. SACRAMENTO KINGS
Young core: De’Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley, Harry Giles, Justin Jackson, Frank Mason, Troy Williams, Skal Labissiere, Wenyen Gabriel
Like Brooklyn, the Sacramento Kings have also surprised with their play this season, sitting 10th in the West despite having a 23-21 record. Also like the Nets, the Kings can thank their young core for having them in this position past the midway mark of the campaign.
De’Aaron Fox is one of just six players averaging at least 17.2 points and 7.2 assists this season, with the other five all being either All-Star or All-NBA-caliber talents. His explosiveness as a lead ball-handler and improved pull-up jumper (Fox is shooting a healthy 37.6 percent from three this year) has made him a load to handle for opponents, and he’s been the primary reason for Sacramento’s more-than-solid play this year.
Of course, Fox isn’t the only young player performing well for Sacramento.
Despite being a reserve all year, Marvin Bagley is still putting up 12.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per contest, giving the Kings solid big-man play off the bench. He may not be at the level of the other Top-3 picks from the 2018 draft, but he’s still just 19 years old and has done well in his role, without complaining about wanting to be a starter. Justin Jackson is another young King producing this year, averaging 7.3 points off the bench and shooting 37.4 percent from three. As he gets more comfortable, Jackson’s smooth offensive game will continue to get more consistent.
8. DALLAS MAVERICKS
Young core: Luka Doncic, Dennis Smith Jr., Jalen Brunson, Kostas Antetokounmpo, Daryl Macon, Raymond Spalding
Currently on one of the nastiest tears for a rookie in recent league history, Luka Doncic is making the three teams that passed on him look awfully silly early in his career.
The Slovenian ball-handler is presently averaging 20.2 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game, and shooting 37.3 percent from three, making him one of just three players ever to post a 20/6/5 stat-line in their first year. The other two? Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson.
Decent company there for Doncic.
Doncic has a special flair for the dramatic, as the 19-year-old guard ranks fourth among qualified players in effective field-goal percentage (60.9) during clutch time (when the score is within five points with under five minutes left in a game), outpacing the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Blake Griffin among others. And his step-back prowess this year ranks second to just a certain reigning league MVP with a beard.
Dallas hit a home run when they traded for Doncic on draft night, as it appears they have their franchise centerpiece for the next 15 years already in the fold.
The Mavs would rank higher on this list if not for the drama currently unfolding with their other most promising young piece: Dennis Smith Jr. It appears he may be on the way out of Dallas already, in just his second year.
Wherever Smith lands, and it appears it’ll be on another rebuilding team, his acquisition will bolster that team’s young core, as his newfound commitment to defense and solid scoring touch has made him a more well-rounded player as a sophomore.
7. LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Young core: Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Ivica Zubac, Johnathan Williams, Moritz Wagner, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Isaac Bonga, Alex Caruso
The Los Angeles Lakers’ young core had their chance to prove their worth following LeBron James’ absence due to a groin injury. Unfortunately, they have failed to impress, at least relative to expectations.
Lonzo Ball still can’t shoot worth a lick (32.7 percent from three, 41.7 percent from the free-throw stripe this year), Brandon Ingram still struggles with bouts of inconsistency, especially in fourth quarters, and Josh Hart has taken a step back after a strong rookie campaign (hitting just 41 percent from the floor, 34.6 percent from three).
The only member of Los Angeles’ 24-and-under group who has improved upon last season is Kyle Kuzma, who is averaging 18.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game, even without his three-point shot falling (as he’s shooting 29.9 percent from deep this season).
The Lakers’ young core still has all the talent in the world, but it’s disappointing they haven’t shown to be further along in their development in 2018-19.
6. PHOENIX SUNS
Young core: Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Kelly Oubre, Mikal Bridges, Josh Jackson, De’Anthony Melton, Elie Okobo, Jawun Evans, Dragan Bender, George King
Nagging injuries have prevented Devin Booker from finding a good rhythm this season, and even so, he’s still proving to be worth every penny of that five-year, $158 million extension he signed last summer. Booker is averaging 24.8 points, a career-high 6.9 assists and 3.7 rebounds, showing that he’s far from just a volume scorer, but also a pretty good playmaker in his own right.
What’s more, according to more than one advanced stat, Booker has been even better this year than he was in his breakout 2017-18 season, which means he might not be done developing just yet. And considering he just turned 22, why would he be?
Besides Booker, the Phoenix Suns also added the impressive Deandre Ayton to their young nucleus in the 2018 draft. He may not get the buzz Doncic does, but Ayton has had a great start to his career thus far – at least on the offensive end. Ayton is putting up 16.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game this season, and shooting 59.7 percent from the floor. He still needs to get better defensively, as Phoenix gets lit up in the paint with Ayton on the floor, but he has all the tools to be a special big man.
Besides the two main pieces, Phoenix’s trade for Kelly Oubre looks like a savvy move, with the Kansas product averaging 13.2 points and 3.5 rebounds as a Sun. Oubre’s two-way play has proven to be a good fit for what Phoenix lacked on the perimeter, and it’ll be interesting to see what the two sides come up with when Oubre hits restricted free agency this offseason.
The other former Kansas wing on the roster, Josh Jackson (9.6 ppg and 4.0 rpg) has been a disappointment in his second season, as he has seemingly regressed after what was already a pretty weak rookie debut.
5. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
Young core: Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Dario Saric, Tyus Jones, Josh Okogie, Keita Bates-Diop, Jared Terrell
The early season drama regarding Jimmy Butler and the firing of Tom Thibodeau have seemingly clouded how talented the Minnesota Timberwolves’ young core is, which is a shame.
Karl-Anthony Towns has blossomed into one of the best big men the league has to offer, averaging 22.4 points and 12.6 rebounds, while providing the team with plus rim protection and outside shooting. Towns’ play has gotten even better recently, with the big man currently on a 10-game tear putting up 27.5 points, 16.6 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.8 blocks per contest.
Andrew Wiggins still isn’t consistent enough, and he may never live up to his huge contract (worth $147.7 million over four years). But at worst, when he’s giving full effort, he’s a difference-maker thanks to his ridiculous length and athleticism on the wing.
Dario Saric remains underrated and quite possibly underused, as he should be allowed to play with the ball in his hands more in order to unlock his distribution skills, as opposed to being just a spot-up shooter. Perhaps under new head coach Ryan Saunders, the Wolves will be able to do just that.
And Tyus Jones remains a steady backup point guard, capable of running an offense and knocking down open shots.
Minnesota has a solid young core, but really, Towns is the one who elevates this group from just decent to one of the best in the NBA.
4. MILWAUKEE BUCKS
Young core: Giannis Antetokounmpo, DJ Wilson, Sterling Brown, Thon Maker, Christian Wood, Donte DiVincenzo, Jaylen Morris, Trevon Duval
Outside of one player, this young core would likely rank among the bottom five in the NBA.
But when that one player is an MVP candidate like Giannis Antetokounmpo, that’s enough to catapult a group up the rankings.
Here’s what our own Alex Kennedy had to say about Antetokounmpo in our most recent MVP rankings:
“Antetokounmpo has the combination of team success and dominant statistics that voters love to see when determining the MVP. He’s also had a number of trademark games under his belt. His most recent was the Bucks’ win over the Rockets on Wednesday (which was nationally televised on ESPN). Giannis finished with 27 points, 21 rebounds, 5 assists and 1 steal to defeat one of the hottest teams in the league and James Harden, who’s widely recognized as his biggest competition for the MVP award. No player in NBA history has averaged Giannis’ current stat-line (26.0 points, 12.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.5 blocks) over the course of a season. The closest is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who hit all the averages except assists per game in 1975-76 (and he was named the MVP that season).”
Needless to say: Antetokounmpo is a monster. Even as one of the worst three-point shooters in the league this season (17.2 percent), he’s still imprinted an otherworldly dominance in every game he’s hit the hardwood, a fact best displayed by Milwaukee’s 30-12 record.
3. BOSTON CELTICS
Young core: Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Robert Williams, Semi Ojeleye, PJ Dozier, Guerschon Yabusele
Both deep and talented, the Boston Celtics have managed to amass one of the best young cores league-wide.
Jayson Tatum is averaging career-highs in points (16.6), rebounds (6.3) and assists (1.8), as he has adapted well to having a bigger part of the offense. He hasn’t made an enormous leap this season (yet), but he’s still providing the Celtics with an efficient scoring punch on the perimeter, and considering he’s still just 20, there’s no reason to think he can’t reach another level eventually.
Jaylen Brown isn’t hitting three-pointers at the same rate he was last season (30.4 percent), but his toughness defensively is an important part of Boston’s Top-5 defense. Marcus Smart is only averaging 7.7 points per game, but he’s shooting a career-high 35.4 percent from three while boasting a +4.1 swing rating. And Terry Rozier hasn’t been able to translate his postseason success to this year, but he’s still a more-than-capable guard, who can defend and score in bunches.
The newcomer to the group, Robert Williams, hasn’t been able to carve out a consistent role (which is understandable on such a deep team), but he is averaging 5.6 blocks per 36 minutes, displaying a freakish ability to swat away shots.
Boston will need the young core to be even better if they want to make a run at the Finals this season, but there’s no questioning their talent level and ability to improve on their current production.
2. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
Young core: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Landry Shamet, Furkan Korkmaz, Haywood Highsmith, Shake Milton, Jonah Bolden, Justin Patton, Zhaire Smith
If the Philadelphia 76ers were able to get anything out of Markelle Fultz or Zhaire Smith, there’s a chance they could have jumped to the top spot in this ranking.
Nevertheless, how many other young cores could get absolutely zero out of two first-rounders, including a former No. 1 draft pick, and still place this highly on this list?
And that’s because Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are just that freakishly talented.
Embiid does it all, averaging 26.9 points, 13.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.1 threes per game, and thanks to his insane level of production, he’s put himself in the conversation as the league’s best center. And Simmons, despite his complete lack of an outside shot, is still able to put up 16.6 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.2 assists nightly while shooting 58.1 percent from the floor.
Their fit might not be perfect, but a tandem of players as talented as Embiid and Simmons should be able to figure things out, and help the Sixers eventually reach their championship-level potential.
1. DENVER NUGGETS
Young core: Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Monte Morris, Juancho Hernangomez, Malik Beasley, Trey Lyles, Tyler Lydon, Thomas Welsh, Brandon Goodwin, Michael Porter Jr., Jarred Vanderbilt
With an MVP candidate of their own, as well as really talented depth, the Denver Nuggets currently boast what we believe to be the best young core in the NBA.
The 23-year-old Nikola Jokic – averaging 19.7 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game this season – would be good enough in his own right to have this group in the Top 5. But by surrounding him with studs like Gary Harris and Jamal Murray, as well as productive role players like Monte Morris, Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, the Nuggets have created the most well-rounded 24-and-under group league-wide.
At this time last year, we ranked the Nuggets’ young core No. 6 overall, but thanks to Jokic somehow getting even better (and ditto for Harris and Murray), as well as the developments of Morris and Beasley – who are both now very consistent in their secondary roles – Denver has catapulted to the top spot.
And that’s without even mentioning Michael Porter Jr., a player who was in the running for a Top-5 selection in the 2018 draft before succumbing to a back injury. He may not play this season, but he’s got great upside as a 6-foot-10 scorer on the wing.
If he does suit up by the time we rank young cores again next season and resembles the prospect he was in high school, there’s a strong chance Denver will retain their top spot in this ranking.
After all, Jokic is just 23.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.