Ranking the Top 15 teenagers in NBA history

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Ranking the Top 15 teenagers in NBA history


Ranking the Top 15 teenagers in NBA history

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Dominating NBA-level basketball isn’t easy. Heck, even playing in the NBA is an insanely impressive feat in its own right. But doing both so a teenager – and performing well at that age – is a historic accomplishment. Only 175 teenagers have seen action in an NBA game before, and when looking for players of that age who were actually consistent rotational players, that number gets even smaller. And when we try to narrow it down to guys who could make an argument to be their team’s best player before turning 20, that figure becomes microscopic.

Below, we voted on and ranked the 15 greatest teenagers the NBA has ever seen.

Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Stats: 11.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.4 bpg, 45.7 FG% in 63 games

After being selected fourth overall in the vaunted 2003 NBA draft, Chris Bosh posted a promising rookie campaign for the Toronto Raptors in what was his age-19 season. That year, he earned a starting job for Toronto before December even arrived, except he did so at center despite being a more natural power forward.

Nonetheless, a slender, out-of-position Bosh in 2003-04 acquitted himself nicely, earning 1st Team All-Rookie honors and proving why the Raptors used such a valued draft pick to acquire him. Bosh’s contributions helped Toronto make a nine-win improvement his rookie season, up to 33 victories from 24 the year prior to the big man’s arrival.

Bosh would go on to win two championships in his career (neither with the Raptors, though), before blood-clotting issues ended his career prematurely in 2015-16.

Stats: 13.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 1.4 apg, 46.9 FG% in 70 games

His resume may not be littered with accolades despite being a career 17.2-point-per-game scorer, but Cliff Robinson – not to be confused with Clifford Robinson, the one-time Sixth Man of the Year and All-Star who came around about a decade after Cliff – was of a rare breed for his time, leaving college after just two years at USC to join the professional ranks of the NBA, where he was drafted 11th overall in 1979 by the then-New Jersey Nets.

Robinson would make an immediate impact as a rookie (not an easy feat to accomplish at that time for a player who didn’t spend four years in college), averaging 13.6 points and 7.2 rebounds, albeit for a pretty weak Nets team in 1979-80 that won just 34 games.

At one point, the athletic forward even owned a few records for teenage production in the NBA, including being the only player to score 800-plus points before turning 20 (the player who finishes seventh on this list would go on to surpass that record), as well as being the only teenager to average at least 13 points and seven rebounds (before a big man who ranks eighth on this list matched that).

What’s more, to this day, Robinson still owns the record for most points scored in a game by a teenager with 45.

Stats: 8.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.9 apg, 44.3 FG% in 113 games

Tracy McGrady’s raw statistics during his two seasons in the NBA as a teenager may not look all that impressive, but it must be noted that the advanced metrics loved him, as, according to Box Plus/Minus (BPM), McGrady actually boasts the second-most impactful production for a player under 20 ever, behind just the guy coming at No. 5 on this list.

That probably has to do with the fact that McGrady made a big impact in his short stints averaging just north over 20 minutes nightly over his first two campaigns. Per 36 minutes, the Hall-of-Fame small forward averaged 14.3 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.6 steals and 2.0 blocks as a teenager, ridiculous marks that spoke to the huge potential McGrady would eventually realize.

It should come as no surprise, then, that by the time McGrady was in his age-21 season, he was already a full-blown All-Star producing nearly 27 points per game.

Stats: 13.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.4 apg, 47.3 FG% in 63 games

Age-related memes aside, Jayson Tatum produced a fantastic rookie season, most of which occurred while he was still just 19 years old.

Following the loss of Gordon Hayward on the first night of the campaign due to a horrific leg injury, Tatum stepped up in a major way for the Boston Celtics the rest of the year, playing a pivotal part for a team that won 55 games despite losing a lot of star power to injury throughout the season.

And although it technically happened once he was already 20 years old, we’d be remiss not to mention the even higher level Tatum reached once the playoffs of his rookie season rolled around, where he averaged 18.5 points and 4.4 rebounds over 19 games and came within one victory of helping lead the Celtics to an extremely unexpected trip to the Finals.

For his efforts, Tatum was named to the 2018 All-Rookie 1st Team while finishing third in the Rookie of the Year race.

Stats: 15.6 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 7.4 apg, 40.3 FG% in 38 games

An explosive scorer and playmaker off the jump, Stephon Marbury was extremely productive for the Minnesota Timberwolves as a 19-year-old, dropping 30 or more points multiple times in his first season in the NBA.

He did so for a solid Timberwolves team, too, as Minnesota went 40-42 that season and even made the playoffs, though Marbury can’t get full credit for that, as he did share the floor with a future league MVP and a player who will find himself on this list a bit further up.

Marbury received strong Rookie of the Year consideration for his 1996-97 contributions, getting 35 first-place votes, just nine fewer than the eventual winner of the award, Allen Iverson.

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Stats: 23.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2.2 apg, 58.9 FG% in 19 games

We don’t have a great sample size on Zion Williamson’s teenage career – and depending on when the league returns from the coronavirus-related suspension of play, we likely never will since Williamson will probably be 20 by the time his rookie campaign resumes – but from what we’ve seen so far… good God.

Williamson’s blend of athleticism, pure power and tenacity probably haven’t been seen since the days of Charles Barkley, but even then, Williamson is truly as one of a kind as anyone we’ve seen in league history.

Prior to the NBA’s hiatus, Williamson was on his way to becoming the highest-scoring teenage rookie ever at 23.6 points per game. In fact, the last rookie to average more points nightly than the freakish forward was David Robinson, who was 24 in his first season.

Had we gotten a larger sample size of Williamson’s time in the NBA as a teenager, he’d rank far higher up this list.

Stats: 11.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.9 apg, 42.5 FG% over 150 games

As a rookie straight out of high school, Kobe Bryant understandably didn’t dominate off the bat in his rookie year, averaging just 7.6 points and 1.9 rebounds over 71 games in his first campaign.

However, as an NBA sophomore, the legendary 2-guard began to show glimpses of his eventual potential, averaging 15.4 points and 3.1 boards – and becoming such a fan favorite that he was even named an All-Star in his age-19 season. To this day, Bryant remains the youngest player ever to start an All-Star Game and the youngest to start an NBA game, period. Bryant also has the second-most points scored as a teenager in league history with 1,759.

In his first two seasons, both of which came when he was still a teenager, Bryant merely started seven total games, coming off the bench behind the more experienced Eddie Jones, but he made a big impact for elite Los Angeles Lakers teams anyway. In Bryant’s rookie season, L.A. won 56 games while in his sophomore year, they won 61, while eventually falling both years in the playoffs to back-to-back finalists, the Utah Jazz.

Not to fret, though, as Bryant and his Lakers would go on to experience plenty of success after that, once Bryant really came into his own.

Stats: 12.9 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 1.8 bpg, 50.8 FG% in 49 games

Anthony Davis arrived to the NBA with a ton of hype after being the No. 1 ranked recruit coming out of high school and then winning a national title his freshman year at Kentucky, and even despite all that, he didn’t disappoint.

He may not have won Rookie of the Year for his first-season contributions (that honor went to Damian Lillard, who was 22 his rookie year), but Davis still managed to be a force on the defensive end right away, even as a teenager, swatting away 1.8 shots per night before turning 20, a mark that ranked in the league’s Top 10 that season.

Additionally, Davis is one of just two players (along with the big man coming in at No. 6 in just a bit on these rankings) to average at least 12 points, seven rebounds and a block as a teenager, numbers that he would go on to build on exponentially as his body matured.

Davis finished second in Rookie of the Year voting in his age-19 season and was 1st Team All-Rookie, as well.

Stats: 10.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.6 bpg, 49.1 FG% in 80 games

Like Bryant, Kevin Garnett made the prep-to-pros jump, but in KG’s case, he was the first player to do so since Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby in 1975, meaning he set the stage for the last generation of high-school-to-pros stars. He wound up being so good, in fact, that it fooled a lot of teams into making the mistake of drafting high-schoolers too early in hopes that they’d become the next Garnett.

It took a while for Garnett to reach that ceiling, though, as, like Bryant, he understandably wasn’t a star right away, but he did flash a ton of potential in his debut campaign and was an excellent defender even as a teenager. Once Garnett won a starting job with the Minnesota Timberwolves in late January of his first season, he’d go on to average 14.1 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.3 blocks over the final 42 games of the year, proving why he was taken fifth overall in his draft class.

Garnett would go on to be named a 2nd Team All-Rookie member in his first year, missing out on the first team because he happened to debut in the same season as a 31-year-old Arvydas Sabonis.

Stats: 12.4 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 1.6 bpg, 51.1 FG% in 100 games

Dwight Howard, on the other hand, was a bit more pro-ready than Garnett or Bryant as a teenager, likely due to the freakish physical gifts he possessed even at a young age.

As a member of the Orlando Magic, Howard was an immediate starter off the bat – and a very productive one at that. Howard remains the only player in league history to average a double-double as a teenager, and he did so while also swatting away over a block-and-a-half nightly. Howard also helped Orlando make a 15-win jump in his rookie season, proving that his production was far from empty.

Howard earned Rookie of the Year for his performance as an 18-year-old and managed to build upon that until becoming the best center in basketball for a good stretch in the late-2000s.

Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Stats: 19.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 5.7 apg, 47.4 FG% in 40 games

Much like his career at Duke, Kyrie Irving’s time in the NBA as a teenager didn’t last long, but in the 40 games he did spend as a 19-year-old playing professional basketball, the creative point guard was spectacular.

Irving is the only teenager in league history to average at least 19 points and five assists while shooting over 40 percent from three, and one of just two teenagers ever to hit at least 40 percent of his outside looks (minimum: 50 attempts), along with Tatum.

Irving won Rookie of the Year and was 1st Team All-Rookie, and by his second season, as a 20-year-old, he made the first All-Star roster of his career. The Duke product truly hit the ground running as soon as he reached the NBA.

Stats: 20.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.4 apg, 43 FG% in 80 games

It was a rough season in Seattle for Kevin Durant’s rookie campaign, as the SuperSonics won merely 20 games in 2007-08, but that was no fault of the then-19-year-old.

Durant led his team in scoring that year by nearly seven full points, with Chris Wilcox coming in second for Seattle at 13.4 and Wally Szczerbiak at third at 13.1. With a roster like that, it’s no surprise the Sonics struggled for victories that campaign.

Durant also deserves commendation for excelling (to the point he won Rookie of the Year) despite his head coach at the time, PJ Carlesimo, inexplicably playing the future league MVP at shooting guard almost exclusively that entire season. Once Durant moved to his more natural position, small forward, the following year, his true shooting percentage exploded from 51.9 to 57.7 and his scoring average upped to over 25 points nightly.

Stats: 21.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.8 apg, 42.6 FG% in 82 games

A member of one of the best draft classes in league history in 2003, the Carmelo Anthony draft selection paid off immediately for the Denver Nuggets.

Anthony was Denver’s leading scorer in his rookie season as a 19-year-old, and, aided by awesome veterans like Andre MillerMarcus Camby and Nene, the Syracuse legend helped the Nuggets make the insane jump from 17 wins in 2002-03 to 43 wins and a playoff spot in Anthony’s debut campaign. That was with Anthony being the only player on the team averaging more than 15.4 points nightly.

Even so, Anthony didn’t win Rookie of the Year that season, as the player who tops this list would receive that honor despite the fact that Anthony enjoyed far more team success in 2002-03 and that he arguably could have been considered the better player early on in their careers.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Stats: 20.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 5.7 apg, 43.4 FG% in 57 games

The 2018-19 Rookie of the Year, Luka Doncic has been downright special since reaching the NBA and joining the Dallas Mavericks.

As a teenager, Doncic became the first player under 20 years old in league history to average at least 20 points and seven rebounds per game, and he did so in a loaded Western Conference as a team’s primary ball-handler/playmaker.

Additionally, as a 19-year-old, Doncic secured four triple-doubles. Every other teenager in NBA history has combined for one, and it belongs to Markelle Fultz.

Doncic made a strong case to finish these rankings in first place but got knocked down to second because he did have the advantage of playing professionally in the second-best basketball league in the world for years prior to reaching the NBA.

Had we gone solely based on the advanced metrics, though, Doncic actually outpaced our first-place finisher in every facet as a teenager.

Stats: 21.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 6.2 apg, 43.5 FG% in 108 games

One of the greatest players in league history, LeBron James was historically great immediately upon reaching the NBA and becoming a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2003-04 season.

James didn’t enjoy much team success as a rookie, winning just 35 games, but that was hardly his fault, as the future four-time MVP did just about everything for the team in his debut campaign, leading the Cavs in scoring and steals while ranking second in assists and fourth in rebounds.

James was so productive as a teenager, in fact, that to this day he’s the all-time leading scorer among under-20-year-olds in league history (2,362), the all-time leading assists man (673) and all-time leader in steals (202). Oh, and he has the second-most rebounds (634) for a teenager ever, too.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of James’ excellence at such a young age is the fact that he did so coming straight out of high school, unlike Doncic, who was a pro for years before becoming a Maverick. As we saw with Garnett and Kobe Bryant, excelling in your first season out of high school – especially to the extent to which James did – is far from an easy feat.

LeBron has been an otherworldly talent for a very long time.

You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.

HoopsHype’s Alberto de Roa contributed to this article.

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