The NBA could not be in a better place as far as the level of young talent filling its ranks.
As such, for the second year in a row, we decided to rank the best players the league has to offer – ages 24 and under. Some of the names on our list are talented complementary options, others are deadly specialists and a few will cap the 2018-19 season receiving MVP consideration.
Also noteworthy is the fact that a lot of the players atop this ranking come from the international ranks, which could show an interesting trend as far as where the future of the sport is headed.
Nevertheless, without further ado, let’s get into breaking down the Top-25 players under 25.
25. DEANDRE AYTON, PHOENIX SUNS
His defense remains very much a work in progress, but Deandre Ayton’s touch on offense has been quite impressive midway through his rookie campaign, a season in which the Bahamian big man has put up 16.4 points nightly on 59.4 percent shooting, to go with 10.6 boards and 2.0 assists.
According to Synergy Sports, Ayton ranks in the “very good” range as both a post-up threat and out of the pick-and-roll, while putting up “excellent” value on put-backs – three areas the modern big man has to dominate in order to excel.
Luckily for Phoenix Suns fans, Ayton – at least on the point-producing end of the floor – looks like the real deal, and a potential building block next to the team’s studly 2-guard.
24. DOMANTAS SABONIS, INDIANA PACERS
Once thought of as a mere throw-in as part of the Paul George trade, Domantas Sabonis has proved just about every naysayer wrong since joining the Indiana Pacers. Not only did Sabonis have an eye-opening first year with Indiana, he’s been even better this season.
In 2018-19, the southpaw big man is averaging 14.9 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game, shooting an absurd 61.9 percent from the floor and doing it all as a reserve, playing right around 25 minutes nightly.
That’s wild production for a player coming off the bench.
Although Sabonis ranks as just an average finisher out of the pick-and-roll, per Synergy, he rates in the excellent range when posting up and on put-backs. What’s more, Sabonis’ +7.3 net rating is the highest clip on the team among rotational players.
Sabonis has been so good this season, in fact, that even though it’s usually hard for a big man to receive much pub for the award, if he keeps this up, he will absolutely warrant heavy consideration for Sixth Man of the Year.
23. GARY HARRIS, DENVER NUGGETS
Gary Harris’ spot on this list was negatively affected by how much time he’s missed with injury. Due to how long he’s been forced to sit out, Harris, an underrated 2-guard league-wide, has been unable to find a good rhythm this season.
The Michigan State product is averaging 15.5 points and 3.1 rebounds per contest in 2018-19, shooting a paltry 43.8 percent from the floor and 33.1 percent from three. Those marks are a far cry from the tidy 17.5 points nightly Harris was putting up last year, on efficient 48.5/39.6/82.7 shooting splits.
Regardless, the Denver Nuggets will be glad to have their shooting guard healthy for the remainder of the year, as Harris’ play should really begin to hit peak form come playoff time.
22. AARON GORDON, ORLANDO MAGIC
Although some of his numbers have taken a dip this season, Aaron Gordon currently has the highest swing rating of his career at +11.2, proving how valuable he remains to the Orlando Magic.
His athleticism, dexterity as a ball-handler, underrated distribution skills and finishing prowess all make him a load to handle offensively. And on the less glamorous side of things, Gordon has the physical traits to defend multiple positions at a passable level.
Gordon is averaging 15.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per contest in 2018-19, numbers that can only be matched by 16 other players this year, all of whom are All-Star level talents. Gordon may not be quite on the same plane as those other guys, but he’s certainly proven himself as one of the better young wings around the Association.
21. ZACH LAVINE, CHICAGO BULLS
Past the midway point of the season, Chicago Bulls 2-guard Zach LaVine ranks 16th league-wide in scoring at 23.0 points per contest. Additionally, he’s chipping in a career-best 4.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game, showing a more well-rounded element to his game than ever before. The 22/4/4 stat line puts LaVine in pretty special company this season.
Not bad for a guy approaching the two-year anniversary of a scary knee injury.
LaVine deserves to be commended for the way he battled back from the major career speed bump, and for how he’s managed to come back as an improved version of himself rather than remaining the same player.
If LaVine can just continue to get better as a ball-stopper on defense and cut back on turnovers, the Bulls could have a pretty special player on their hands.
20. JOHN COLLINS, ATLANTA HAWKS
How good has second-year big man John Collins been for the Atlanta Hawks this season?
According to NBA Math’s FATS Calculator, which uses historical four factors data to surmise how a team would perform over a full season with a certain player on the floor versus how they do when he’s on the bench, Atlanta plays like a 39.5-win team with Collins on the floor. (Not great, but a far better rate than the actual 26-win pace they’re presently at.) On the other hand, when Collins sits on the bench, the Hawks perform at the level of a 19.2-win team.
So, yeah. Safe to say, Collins is a game-changer for Atlanta this season.
The Wake Forest product is currently posting 19.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game while shooting 59.1 percent from the floor and a healthy 37.5 percent from three.
His defense needs to get markedly better as Collins doesn’t protect the paint and struggles staying in front of quicker opponents on the perimeter, but his offensive production as a 21-year-old has been extremely noteworthy. As Collins continues to get more comfortable as an outside shooter, his ceiling on offense will only continue to rise.
19. D’ANGELO RUSSELL, BROOKLYN NETS
After an injury-induced false start last season, D’Angelo Russell appears to have fully and convincingly turned the corner in 2018-19.
The left-handed ball-handler is averaging 19.2 points, 6.4 assists and 2.7 triples per contest, shooting a career-high 43.8 percent from the floor and career-best 37.6 percent from deep. According to Synergy, Russell ranks in the 71st percentile as a scorer out of the pick-and-roll, putting him in the upper echelon of the league. And for the first time in his NBA career, Russell has a positive swing rating (+0.2), which shows just how much he’s really grown as a player.
What’s most surprising, however, is the fact that the Brooklyn Nets sit at 27-23 and in the East’s No. 6 seed, even after losing Most Improved Player candidate Caris LeVert to injury. Russell stepped up admirably in his absence, playing winning basketball and helping the Nets make an unexpected playoff push this season.
If Brooklyn does qualify for the postseason this year, which would be their first time making it since 2014-15, Russell will deserve a lot of the credit for the impressive feat.
18. MYLES TURNER, INDIANA PACERS
This season, the list of players to average at least 2.5 blocks and shoot 40-plus percent from three is one person long: Myles Turner. In fact, if he maintains this pace, Turner will become the only player in league history to hit both benchmarks in a single campaign.
So although to the naked eye, it may not appear as if Turner is improving (the raw averages certainly don’t bear that out), if we take a closer look at the advanced stats, we see definite signs of refinement. Per Box Plus/Minus (BPM), Turner is posting the most efficient season of his career with a +3.0 (previous high: +2.4), and according to NBA Math’s historical Total Points Added data, Turner is on pace for his best career campaign.
Turner may never become a volume scorer or big-time rebounder, but as long as he continues to space the floor and protect the paint, he’ll maintain his status as one of the more unique players in the Association.
17. KYLE KUZMA, LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Despite most of the Los Angeles Lakers’ lauded young core not making the jump this season that many believed they would, the one member of the group who hasn’t disappointed is Kyle Kuzma.
The second-year forward is averaging 19.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists per contest in 2018-19, becoming a more well-rounded player offensively this year. He’s also been the only young Laker to step up his game in the extended injury-related absence of LeBron James, upping his marks to a 21.5/6.5/3.0 stat line in the 13 games sans the four-time league MVP.
Kuzma is far from a finished product, as the advanced analytics, which aren’t kind to him, show. What’s more, his three-point percentage this year has plummeted to 30.3 percent after he shot 36.6 percent as a rookie. So, clearly, he has work to do.
But the archetype Kuzma is blossoming into, that of a confident bucket-getter on the wing, is an important one, and every game, he seems to be getting more and more comfortable. And that should excite followers of the Lakers.
16. JULIUS RANDLE, NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
After a breakout third-year campaign in 2017-18, Julius Randle is performing at an even higher level this season.
According to BPM, Win Shares per 48 (WS/48) and Player Efficiency Rating (PER), 2018-19 has been the best year of Randle’s career. His raw averages – 19.9 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game – aren’t too shabby in their own right. (The only other players – all eight of them – putting up similar averages are All-NBA level talents.)
Additionally, per Synergy, Randle ranks in the good range on post-ups and spot-up attempts, in the very good range as a cutter and on offensive rebounds, and in the excellent range scoring out of the pick-and-roll.
His defense still may be problematic, but on offense, Randle can do a bit of everything, and it’s that unique skill set that helps set him apart from other young big men league-wide.
15. JUSUF NURKIC, PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
After ranking at the bottom of this list around this time last season, Jusuf Nurkic has answered a lot of the questions that surrounded him early on in his career.
For starters, Nurkic absolutely fills the stat sheet on a nightly basis. The big man is averaging an absurd 15.2 points, 10.4 boards, 3.2 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.1 steals per contest. They’re not empty stats, either, as Nurkic’s swing rating – an insane +16.6 – is one of the best marks in the NBA among starters.
The most important thing that has helped Nurkic improve this year is his elevated level of assertiveness on both ends of the floor, but especially on offense. Last season, Nurkic was attempting 13.1 percent of his field-goal attempts from between 16 feet of the basket and the three-point line, a.k.a. from the dreaded long two-point range, and just 46.6 percent from within three of the bucket. This year, only 9.1 percent of his shots are long twos, and 55.7 percent come from within three feet of the basket.
Cutting out the bad shots and being more aggressive in the paint helped Nurkic morph into the Bosnian beast many expected him to be coming out of the draft, and, in turn, his metamorphosis has helped the Portland Trail Blazers establish themselves as one of the top 10 teams in the league this year by net rating (+2.5).
14. PASCAL SIAKAM, TORONTO RAPTORS
The way Pascal Siakam’s game has exploded since his quiet rookie year has been nothing short of extraordinary.
As a first-year player, Siakam put up 4.2 points, 3.4 rebounds and 0.3 assists per contest in just under 16 minutes of nightly action. This season, the Most Improved Player candidate is averaging 15.2 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists nightly while shooting 56.4 percent from the floor – an awesome mark for a player who spends most of his time on the wing.
With Siakam on the floor, the Toronto Raptors are 15.5 points per 100 possessions better than when he sits, and in transition, as well as out of the pick-and-roll, he ranks in the excellent range, per Synergy Sports.
Siakam is a Swiss Army knife, capable of filling multiple roles for Toronto, both on offense and defense, and it’s partially thanks to his elevation in play that the Raptors sit second in the East right before the All-Star break.
13. JAYSON TATUM, BOSTON CELTICS
If asked to estimate where Jayson Tatum would rank on this list after coming in 17th as a rookie last year, one would have guessed comfortably in the Top 10, if not higher.
Tatum hasn’t quite been able to build on the success of his inaugural campaign, though. Every one of the Duke product’s most important raw averages – 16.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists per contest – are higher than they were in his rookie season. But he’s also shooting roughly three more shots nightly to account for the difference, while also playing more nightly minutes than he was last year.
Tatum’s field-goal percentage (44.9) and three-point percentage (37.8) are both lower now than his first-year marks. Also concerning is that the 20-year-old Boston Celtic is shooting just 22.4 percent of his shots from near the rim this year compared to 32 percent as a rookie, while taking more midrange jumpers to account for the lower rate of rim attacks (12.3 percent of his shots this year come from between 10-to-16-feet of the basket versus 9.6 percent last year).
All of those marks could partially explain why Tatum’s efficiency has seen a notable downturn as a sophomore. The good news is that the young Celtic isn’t even 21 years old yet, so he has plenty of time to get back on the exciting trajectory he was on in his first season.
12. JAMAL MURRAY, DENVER NUGGETS
Cold shooting to start the year hurt Jamal Murray’s overall marks, but his averages for the season – 18.5 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.9 assists per contest – are still quite impressive. And when you consider it’s still merely Murray’s age-21 season, the feat gets even more noteworthy.
The Kentucky product is one of just 13 players in league history to post an 18/4/4 season as a 21-year-old, putting him alongside select names such as Isiah Thomas, Allen Iverson and Gilbert Arenas.
Also important is the fact that Murray has improved as a playmaker every year since joining the Denver Nuggets, which can be backed up by his assist rate jumping from 14.0 percent to 16.4 percent from Year-1 to Year-2, and to the 21.8 percent it’s currently at.
Overall, though, Murray’s biggest strength is his ability to get buckets. But as the rest of his game continues to catch up to his scoring prowess, the more impactful the young Canadian ball-handler will be on a nightly basis.
As is, though, Murray is already a very underrated, young floor general.
11. DE’AARON FOX, SACRAMENTO KINGS
The Sacramento Kings’ surprising season, which has them at 25-24 just before the 50-game mark, is largely thanks to the growth of their young core, and primarily their 21-year-old floor general De’Aaron Fox.
Fox is averaging 17.5 points and 7.3 assists per game this season, joining an impressive list of just seven players with a 17/7 stat line in 2018-19.
The biggest change in Fox’s game is the confidence he’s gained in his jump shot. The Kentucky product has always been a terror in transition and at getting to the hole in the halfcourt, but his swing skill – his outside jumper – was always a question mark.
Fox is shooting a healthy 36.8 percent from three this year while boasting a 42.2 effective field-goal percentage on pull-up jumpers, a better rate than Tatum, DeMar DeRozan and Russell Westbrook. Out of the pick-and-roll, not only can Fox now use the screen to either get to the basket for easy buckets or set up teammates, he also has the ability to pull up from deep and beat defenses that way as well.
That blend of skills makes Fox awfully hard to stop, and has the Kings playing the best basketball they’ve played in years.
10. DONOVAN MITCHELL, UTAH JAZZ
As was the case with Tatum, more was expected out of Donovan Mitchell in his second season. But a slow start, partially due to an offseason injury, prevented Mitchell from beginning 2018-19 in peak form.
Now, he’s doing his best to play catch up, and, well, he’s doing a fantastic job of it.
For the season, Mitchell is averaging 22.3 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game – good numbers, but not much a jump from his first-year marks (20.5/3.7/3.7). However, over his last 15 games, the 22-year-old lead guard has hit another level, putting up 26.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists per contest on pristine 45.3/40.5/80.5 shooting splits.
If that latter version of Mitchell is the one we were supposed to get all year, then the lofty preseason expectations the Louisville product had may have been fully warranted.
We’ll see if Mitchell can keep it up, but if he does maintain this recent level of play, this ranking may be underrating the explosive ball-handler.
9. CLINT CAPELA, HOUSTON ROCKETS
Houston Rockets big man Clint Capela took the career season he had in 2017-18 and managed to get even better this year. The Swiss center is putting up a career-high 17.6 points and 12.6 rebounds per game in 2018-19, playing over 34 minutes nightly on the season – a feat that would have been impossible for him in his first few campaigns.
Capela currently ranks in the 66th percentile as the roll man on pick-and-rolls, and, even more impressively, in the 89th percentile in transition scoring. In fact, among players with at least 100 transition opportunities on the year, Capela’s 1.36 points per possession (PPP) ranks first among all players. For a traditional big man like Capela, that’s a ridiculous accomplishment.
With Capela on the floor, the Rockets are a better team than when he’s on the bench, and the stats prove that. It’s crazy to see how much the former late first-rounder has developed over recent seasons, and if he continues on this trajectory, we can’t wait to find out his ultimate ceiling.
8. DEVIN BOOKER, PHOENIX SUNS
Despite shooting a career-low 32 percent from three and missing time with different lingering injuries, Devin Booker has still been able to prove he’s one of the best young talents the league has to offer.
Booker is currently averaging 24.6 points and 3.6 rebounds per contest, to go with a career-best 6.7 assists nightly, proving that the 6-foot-6 guard is far from just a shoot-first gunner. Rather, Booker, who ranks 14th in points per game, can also do an apt job of creating for teammates, as evidenced by his Synergy rankings in isolation (“very good”, 65th percentile) and pick-and-roll opportunities (“good”, 61st percentile) with passes included.
Obviously, even Booker’s excellence hasn’t been enough to prevent another Suns season from going down the drain by the first week of January, but in the 2-guard and his pick-and-roll partner Ayton, the team has legitimate building blocks and players who should be the franchise’s cornerstones for years to come.
Now go sign a point guard, Phoenix. We’re way past due with that.
7. KRISTAPS PORZINGIS, DALLAS MAVERICKS
Figuring out where to rank Kristaps Porzingis on this list was a tough exercise due to uncertainty surrounding his ACL injury, but considering most recent reports on his recovery are glowing, we decided on No. 7.
Had he been healthy, there’s a good chance Porzingis would have finished this ranking in the top five; his play before going down was that good.
Over 48 games in 2017-18, the Latvian sharpshooter was putting up 22.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game while knocking down nearly 40 percent of his three-point looks. A legitimate floor-spacing rim-protector, Porzingis fills one of the rarest – and most impactful – modern archetypes in basketball.
Here’s hoping his recovery goes smoothly so he can get back to doing amazing things like this…
…on a nightly basis.
6. LUKA DONCIC, DALLAS MAVERICKS
One of the most entertaining rookies in recent league history, Luka Doncic has proven that yes, dominating in Europe as an 18-year-old can translate to immediate NBA success – an argument many foolishly tried to have when Doncic was going through the pre-draft process.
The Slovenian ball-handler, still in just his age-19 season, is averaging 20.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists on the year, joining a list featuring just Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson for rookies to put up a 20/6/5 stat line.
That’s decent company to be in.
Doncic has a flair for the dramatic…
…along with arguably the second-prettiest step-back jumper in the Association.
And though Dallas’ season may not be going as planned, at least the Mavericks can console themselves with the fact they have the future of the franchise already in the fold.
5. BEN SIMMONS, PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
No, he still can’t shoot jumpers. No, the three-pointer still isn’t close to being part of his repertoire. Nevertheless, Ben Simmons is still one of the nastiest young talents the league has to offer.
In his second season, Simmons is averaging 16.6 points, 9.5 rebounds and 8.2 assists per contest while shooting 57.1 percent from the floor. Per Synergy, out of the pick-and-roll (with passes included), Simmons ranks in the 86th percentile, and among players with at least 150 such opportunities, the LSU product ranks ninth in production with 1.05 PPP.
There may be question marks regarding Simmons’ fit with the upcoming No. 3 player on this list, and those aren’t helped by the fact that with Simmons on the floor this year, the Sixers are 2.1 points per 100 possessions worse than when he sits.
But at the end of the day, with a player as supremely talented as Simmons is, Philadelphia may not have much of a choice other than: Figure it out.
4. KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS, MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
Despite the early season ugliness with Jimmy Butler, coupled with his slow start, Karl-Anthony Towns is yet again proving to be not just one of the best young big men in the league, but one of the top centers in basketball. Period.
In his age-23 season, Towns is averaging 22.8 points, 12.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.0 steals per contest, shooting 49.9 percent from the floor and 37.9 percent from three. In league history, only Towns and Kevin Love have ever put up a 22/12/3 stat line while shooting at least 37 percent from three, showing the rarity of the former Kentucky Wildcat’s skill set.
Over the course of his career, the Minnesota Timberwolves have been 6.0 points per 100 possessions better with Towns on the floor, which shows that unquestionably, the 7-footer is a legitimately impactful player and not just a stat-chasing chucker.
With Butler gone, Towns now has the chance to establish himself as someone who can be the top dog on a playoff-caliber team out West. It’s probably too late for that to happen this season, but in 2019-20, all eyes will be on the floor-spacing big man to do just that.
Regardless, Towns is still just 23, so, scary as it may be to admit, there’s an even higher level he could come to hit, and it may very well happen soon.
3. JOEL EMBIID, PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
Sixers big man Joel Embiid just barely made the cut for our ranking, with his 25th birthday merely a couple of months away.
Nevertheless, his play thus far this season, and over the past three years in fact, has every bit earned his place on our list. In 2018-19, Embiid ranks seventh league-wide in scoring at 27.2 points per game, fourth in rebounding at 13.3 boards nightly, sixth among centers in assists per contest at 3.5 and seventh among all players in blocks with 2.0.
Not just that, Embiid’s ability to draw fouls is downright James Harden-esque, with the big man getting to the foul stripe nearly 10 times per game while draining over 80 percent of his attempts once there. That prowess helps make Embiid one of the most efficient players in the league.
However, it’s not just Embiid’s offense that should be talked about; his defense is also near the top of the Association in terms of impact.
Embiid finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting in 2017-18, as his propensity for defending the paint and exceptional agility (for a big man) on the perimeter makes the 24-year-old special on the point-stopping end of the floor.
Basically, Embiid is the entire package. And though it may not happen this year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him eventually make a serious run at league MVP. He’s that talented.
2. NIKOLA JOKIC, DENVER NUGGETS
Though he can’t quite be labeled underrated anymore, Nikola Jokic probably still doesn’t get enough credit for how spectacular he is on the hardwood.
After an awesome 2017-18 season, the Serbian center has been considerably better this year, averaging 20.1 points, 10.4 rebounds and 7.7 assists per contest on fiery 50.5/32.2/84.8 shooting splits. The list of players – ever – to put up a similar 20/10/7 campaign? Russell Westbrook, Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain.
So, yeah. Special group there.
He may not look the part, but Jokic can do absolutely anything on the court, be it run a pick-and-roll, serve as the screen-and-roller, spot up for outside jumpers, post up opponents or attack the glass and stuff the stat sheet with put-backs, all while being one of the most entertaining, and productive, distributors in the league:
Even his defense, once a sore spot in his game, has gotten to the point that it’s usually passable, and sometimes even impactful.
With his 24th birthday still months away, it’s legitimately fascinating to think about how much better Jokic can get. As is, he’s knocking on the door of MVP candidacy.
Like Embiid, Jokic could very well get there over the coming years.
1. GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO, MILWAUKEE BUCKS
What can be written about Giannis Antetokounmpo that hasn’t already been stated countless times?
Even without much of a jump shot, Antetokounmpo ranks ninth in the league in scoring at 26.6 points per game. The Greek Freak also pulls down 12.6 rebounds nightly, the seventh-highest rate among all players. What’s more, the only two players with as many steals (61) and blocks (64) as him thus far this season are Anthony Davis and Andre Drummond, two big men who protect the paint for a living while Antetokounmpo spends much more of his time on the perimeter.
Among players with at least 100 chances out of the pick-and-roll, the 24-year-old ranks fourth league-wide in points per possession at (1.06), merely trailing names such as Paul George and Damian Lillard. Antetokounmpo also ranks in the “excellent” range on put-backs and scoring as the pick-and-roll roll man, proving his dominance in very different aspects of basketball.
Overall, Antetokounmpo’s freakish physical tools, and his mastery of them, make him one of the most unstoppable players in recent league history. For proof, just look at the list of names to put up 22/12/5 seasons like Antetokounmpo is doing this year.
If he could ever just become an acceptable outside shooter, it’s terrifying to envision what he could become.
Regardless, as is, Antetokounmpo is a monster.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.
Analytics, Top, Ben Simmons, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Philadelphia 76ers