With only four teams remaining in the playoff bubble, HoopsHype polled 15 NBA talent evaluators, including four general managers, six executives and five scouts, to learn which players under 25 they’d build around and why.
The top player to build around is not surprising, but the number of players picked over Zion Williamson is.
The talent evaluators ranked their five favorite players under 25 to build around. In our scoring system, the top player received five points, the second player received four points, etcetera. The results of the poll are listed below.
The numbers in parentheses show the percentage of points relative to the maximum amount possible for each player.
No. 1 : Luka Doncic (100 percent)
Doncic was the talent evaluators’ unanimous top choice.
“To me, Luka is the clear No. 1,” one scout told HoopsHype. “He’s a guy who can be a lead ballhandler. He’s good enough to score and create at a high level, has the right mental makeup and is incredibly smart. He’s been a winner everywhere and will probably be a winner in the league.”
Recently, Doncic became the first player selected to the All-NBA 1st Team in his first or second season since Tim Duncan in 1999. He’s also the sixth player named to the All-NBA 1st Team at age 21 or younger, joining Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Duncan, Rick Barry and Max Zaslofsky.
“He’s a do-it-all type of player who makes everyone better,” another scout told HoopsHype. “His production at his age is unreal. He scores like James Harden in a more team-oriented fashion. He’s one of the most fun players to watch. Dallas overachieved at a high level under his watch.”
After leading Dallas to a dramatically improved winning percentage (.402 to .573) in the regular season, Doncic and the Mavericks lost in six games to the Los Angeles Clippers in a thrilling first-round series.
“Doncic has that ‘it’ quality,” as one general manager summarized.
No. 2: Jayson Tatum (64.0 percent)
One executive left Tatum outside his five players to build around, which is surprising considering he’s the leading scorer on a Celtics team in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Despite the omission, he was the clear second-best player to build around after Doncic.
“He’s an up-and-coming superstar player,” one Eastern Conference executive told HoopsHype. “He’s getting better every game.”
After a scoring spike (15.7 to 23.4) in his third season, Tatum’s offensive game drew the most attention, but he also turned the corner as a defensive stopper on the wing. Tatum finished sixth overall in defensive win shares (3.7) and 18th overall in defensive rating (105.6).
“He’s a two-way player who’s better than Paul George,” a Western Conference executive told HoopsHype. “He can get to the basket, shoot three-pointers off the dribble, and he guards the best perimeter player.”
The ceiling remains high for Tatum looking ahead as a rebounder and passer too. He’s increased his rebounding by one board per game through each of his first three seasons and nearly doubled his assists from his rookie season (1.6 to 3.0).
“Tatum’s size and offensive skills are what appeals me to him,” one scout told HoopsHype. “He has the ability to be someone you play through and can have a high-level offense. He can get his shot off against anyone and still be efficient. He needs to improve his passing a little bit, but considering the gains that he’s made with his game year to year, he’s going to get there. Also, his improvements on the defensive end show his competitive spirit, and I would imagine that he’s going to continue to improve on that end.”
No. 3: Devin Booker (25.3 percent)
Booker was the hottest player in the league during the seeding games in the bubble leading the Suns to an 8-0 record while averaging 30.5 points on 50.3 percent shooting, 6.0 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game.
The first-time All-Star showed his durability by playing the second-most minutes in the league (2,512) while getting to the line for the third-most free throws (468).
The 6-foot-5 guard can become one of the league’s top players if he works on the other end of the court, according to the executives and scouts polled.
“He’s more of a pure scorer and shooter, but he doesn’t defend much,” as one executive noted.
No. 4: Ja Morant (18.7 percent)
The Rookie of the Year flashed athleticism similar to a young Russell Westbrook with many highlight dunks and acrobatic layups around the rim while leading the Grizzlies to the brink of the playoffs as the ninth seed in a loaded Western Conference.
“He has high-level speed and explosiveness at the point guard position,” one scout told HoopsHype. “He led Memphis to probably the most surprising team performance this year.”
In Jaren Jackson Jr. and Morant, the Grizzlies hope to have a better version of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. In Gasol and Conley’s tenure, the Grizzlies made seven consecutive playoff appearances, including a trip to the Western Conference Finals. One general manager sees a similar future for Memphis thanks to Morant’s playmaking ability.
“I think his skillset fits today’s NBA, and his future is bright,” the general manager told HoopsHype. “He’s probably not there currently, but if you’re building around him, he’ll be there eventually.”
No. 5: Donovan Mitchell (16.0 percent)
Mitchell earned All-Star honors for the first time this season but elevated his game to star status in an epic seven-game series against the Denver Nuggets, where he averaged 36.3 points on 52.9 percent from the field and 51.6 percent from 3-point range while averaging five assists and rebounds too.
“He can score at will,” one executive told HoopsHype. “He has defensive potential. I just think he’s a really good all-around player.”
Mitchell proved he could handle the load as Utah’s go-to player down the stretch of games, nailing several big shots when isolated at the top of the key for Utah. Despite acquiring Mike Conley to take the load off Mitchell as a primary ballhandler, the 24-year-old guard ranked 13th in the league with a 30.8 usage percentage.
After seeing Mitchell and Murray dual in the first round with the playoff lights shining bright, one scout was blown away.
“Booker and Murray were both really close to Mitchell, but I think Mitchell is the more complete player on the offensive end, and I just think he’s got the mentality to reach his full potential,” an NBA scout told HoopsHype. “You have the ability to play him at the point guard spot next to a good shooting guard or play him off of the ball next to a good point guard. That versatility is something I value when looking to build out a team.”
No. 5: Bam Adebayo (16.0 percent)
After trading Hassan Whiteside last summer, Miami gave Adebayo his first opportunity to be a full-time starter, and he turned it into an All-Star campaign.
“He’s the future of what the center position is going to be,” one scout told HoopsHype. “He has a combination of skill, toughness and strength. You can play through him on offense because of his ballhandling and passing, and he can also pair very well with a good ballhandler in the pick-and-roll. Defensively, he has the strength to hang with bigger centers, but also the quickness to switch and keep guards in front. He allows you to do a lot of different things on both offense and defense and to be flexible when building the team out around him.”
Adebayo averaged a double-double for the season, but what sets him apart from other centers in the league is his ability to pass out of the high post. He trailed only Nikola Jokic for the most assists per game for a center.
“Bam is better defensively than Jokic,” one executive told HoopsHype. “He’s a great rim protector and in pick-and-roll action. He can defend different coverages, and he’s a great passer on top of his great finishing ability.”
As the executive alluded, Miami’s trip to the Eastern Conference Finals was paved largely by Adebayo’s effect on the defensive end as he ranked fifth in defensive win shares (3.9).
“He’s the most improved player in my opinion,” another scout told HoopsHype. “He came in raw offensively. Now, the offense runs through him. He can bring the ball up court, pass out of the high post, jump above the square, score all the energy baskets. He’s a high-level rebounder on both ends, and has a toughness and energy that’s unmatched at the five. He defends one through five, makes tough plays on the ball and blocks shots. He does more things that help you win games than Towns for me.”
No. 7: Zion Williamson (13.3 percent)
Williamson looks like a man among boys in the NBA, and he just turned 20 years old only a few months ago. His player efficiency rating (24.1) ranked 12th, and his usage percentage (30.5) ranked 14th overall.
“He’s just a special player inside the arc who’s an elite finisher,” one executive told HoopsHype. “Offensively, he can finish at an elite rate. He’s one of the best finishers behind Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and LeBron (James). He can hit the open man. He’s so physically dominant. His shooting shouldn’t be a problem, but we’ll see. I think he’s always going to be hurt, though.”
Williamson tore his right lateral meniscus and had arthroscopic right knee surgery before the season. The former No. 1 overall pick only played 24 games this season, leaving some to wonder if he can sustain his 285-pound frame.
“I think Zion is a superstar unless he suffers injuries, which is possible,” one general manager said. “I didn’t like how he moved in the bubble.”
Despite the long-term weight and injury concerns noted by some of the talent evaluators who left Williamson off their five players to build around, his upside was too good to pass up for others.
“Zion’s injury history dropped him behind Tatum and Bam for me,” one scout said. “But I still think that even when considering his injuries, he’s just such a unique player that if you build around him correctly, he’s got the potential to be a really special player.”
No. 7: Jamal Murray (13.3 percent)
Murray has yet to make an All-Star team, but the Canadian guard has broken out as a star in the bubble. In 15 playoff games thus far, Murray is averaging 26.7 points on 50.5 percent shooting from the field and 49.6 percent from downtown.
“I like the way he’s carried himself in playoff pressure,” one executive told HoopsHype. “He’s doing it with the lights shining bright.”
It’s not the first time Murray has raised his game against the best of his peers. In 2013, Murray became the second Canadian to win MVP of the Jordan Brand Classic International Game. In 2015, Murray scored a game-high 30 points and was named MVP of the Nike Hoop Summit.
“Whatever level he’s played against, he’s always been one of the best and has a killer mentality,” another executive said. “This playoff run has shown that.”
No. 9: Ben Simmons (12.0 percent)
Simmons led the league in steals (2.1) while earning 1st Team All-Defensive and 3rd Team All-NBA honors.
“Simmons is 6-foot-10, has the second-best vision of the list, maybe best,” one executive told HoopsHype. “He’s fast as s— with the ball.”
Coming into the league, some compared Simmons to Magic Johnson, which was deemed “f—— blasphemous,” by one Eastern Conference executive. Through his first three seasons, Simmons has averaged 16-8-8. Not too shabby for a player who is still working on developing a consistent mid-range and 3-point jumper.
No. 9: Brandon Ingram (12.0 percent)
Ingram, the league’s Most Improved Player, made a strong case for a max contract as a restricted free agent this offseason and currently is second overall in our rankings.
“He’s a rare 6-foot-11 talent who can play the two through four positions, including some on the ball,” one scout told HoopsHype. “He’s a high-level scorer who has taken huge steps in the last two years.”
Ingram’s biggest strides included becoming a consistent go-to scorer (23.8) while setting other career-highs across the board in rebounds (6.1), assists (4.2) and steals (1.0).
Others polled viewed Ingram as an All-Star caliber player that needs to be a No. 2 star on a title contender.
“I think he is a DeMar DeRozan type of player,” one executive said. “He’s a great player, but his game isn’t conducive to winning at a high level.”
No. 11: Jaylen Brown (4.0 percent)
One executive voted Brown as the third player overall he’d build his team around and admitted he’s higher on the Celtics forward than others.
Brown has become a more efficient shooter (.481) and a consistent scorer (20.3) in his fourth season in Boston as the Robin to Tatum’s Batman.
No. 11: De'Aaron Fox (4.0 percent)
Fox showed up on the back end of a handful of ballots among those polled. The former Kentucky Wildcat entered the league with questions surrounding his jumper but quelled those concerns by shooting a career-high 48 percent this season.
“His speed and ability to create and make shots will get much better,” one executive told HoopsHype. “He also has a chance to be an outstanding defender with his athleticism.”
Fox led the Kings in scoring (21.1), assists (6.8) and steals (1.5), but Sacramento finished 12th in the West.
No. 13: Karl-Anthony Towns (1.3 percent)
Towns received one executive’s vote as his fifth choice to build a team around.
The former No. 1 overall pick had a 26.5 player efficiency rating, which ranked seventh overall. His true shooting percentage (.642), effective field goal percentage (.600), and defensive rebound percentage (26.1) all rank within the top 15 across the league.
However, it’s his perception defensively that almost kept him off this list entirely according to those polled.
“Towns I think is very good, but he’s sort of like Dirk Nowitzki where you need all these elite perimeter defenders to protect him,” the executive told HoopsHypoe. “He’s a complete offensive player. He can shoot, post up, pass, and finish. The question is, how bad is he defensively?”
You can follow Michael Scotto on Twitter: @MikeAScotto