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The Young Core Rankings

The future is now for franchises across the NBA map. Which one has put together the best group of players under the age of 25? We rank every team’s collection of young’uns.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

New York basketball fans miffed after Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving picked the Nets instead of the Knicks in free agency could try to console themselves with the thought that the long-disastrous franchise is still in solid position for the future. The Knicks possess extra first-round picks in the coming years, thanks to January’s Kristaps Porzingis trade, and the (perhaps quixotic) dream of signing Giannis Antetokounmpo in two summers. And they boast an ostensibly talented young core that, the optimistic thinking goes, can mature into the next Knicks playoff team. The Knicks were even favored in Las Vegas to win the summer league title. (They did not.)

I wasn’t convinced about that optimism. In a recent staff survey, I noted that “maybe half the league has a better foundation of under-25 players” than the Knicks. Conceivably, every team that consistently picks near the top of the draft should have at least one or two promising young players. Where does New York’s young core stand among them? We can try to quantify an answer to that question.

Using FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO player projections, which develop a multiseason future forecast based on a player’s history, we determined the number of wins above replacement over the next five seasons for every player on each team’s roster. Then we filtered out players so that only the under-25 players remained (specifically, the players who won’t turn 25 until halfway through the 2019-20 season or later) and ordered the teams by the resulting WAR totals. (WAR compares a player’s output to a baseline level that estimates what a minimum contract or two-way player would produce in the same situation.)

This isn’t a perfect exercise. Basketball is a tricky sport to quantify completely, and particularly with young players, projections come with sizable error bars; that uncertainty only compounds over multiple years and across the multiple players who make up a roster. So focus not on a team’s specific ranking here, but on its general placement; the 25th-place team might end up closer to 30th or 20th than exactly 25th, for instance, but it’s probably not going to look like a top-10 group of young players going forward. With that caveat in mind, here are the franchises ranked by under-25 talent, from least to most.

30. Houston Rockets

WAR: 2.5 | Best Under-25 Player: Isaiah Hartenstein (2.5 WAR)

Houston’s last-place ranking makes sense given Daryl Morey’s veteran-focused team-building strategy: The Rockets were the league’s oldest team last season. The good news is the Rockets have the most projected WAR for players 25 or older over the next five seasons, as well as the overall individual leader in James Harden.

29. Cleveland Cavaliers

WAR: 4.1 | Best Under-25 Player: Darius Garland (9.5)

Cleveland’s problem is Collin Sexton, last year’s lottery pick, who projects for minus-7.1 WAR over the next five seasons. That’s not a typo—it really is a negative. Sexton looks like a sub-replacement player, and he has the second-worst long-term projection of any player in the NBA. Why?

He looks like a respectable offensive player. A late-season shooting surge pushed his 3-point percentage up to 40 percent, and his poor assist totals are an eyesore but not disastrously bad. On defense, though, Sexton was almost reprehensibly awful as a rookie. By real plus-minus, Sexton figured as the second-worst defender in the NBA last season, ahead of only Trae Young. By FiveThirtyEight’s new defensive stat DRAYMOND, which assesses a player’s ability to affect an opponent’s shot, Sexton was the league’s worst defender. So even taking age-based improvements into account, CARMELO thinks Sexton will be worth something like negative four points per 100 possessions on defense over the next half-decade—this after he looked like an impact defender in the positive direction as a prospect.

And unlike the Rockets, the Cavaliers can’t blame a veteran focus for this low ranking. While Houston can point to its lofty veteran WAR projection, Cleveland ranks 29th in projected WAR for 25-and-older players. With the Cavaliers projecting poorly in both the short and long term, it’s worth a reminder that in their last 10 seasons without LeBron James, dating back to 1998-99, their best single-season result was 33-49.

28. Charlotte Hornets

WAR: 4.5 | Best Under-25 Player: Miles Bridges (3.9)

Hmm, maybe Charlotte should have explored a Kemba Walker trade last season, or accepted four first-rounders from Boston in exchange for the draft pick that became the since-departed Frank Kaminsky.

27. Portland Trail Blazers

WAR: 5.4 | Best Under-25 Player: Zach Collins (3.5)

The Blazers picked Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in the top 10 of consecutive drafts and have made the playoffs every season since. Now Portland is in the position of being committed to its core group and hoping to uncover diamonds later in the draft. That’s an area where optimism about future performance and objective computer analysis clash: CARMELO thinks poorly of Anfernee Simons, for instance, after 2018’s no. 24 pick barely played as a rookie. Historically, that’s not an indicator of success. But the Blazers think a player like Simons has much better days ahead.

26. Los Angeles Lakers

WAR: 6.0 | Best Under-25 Player: Kyle Kuzma (4.0)

The CARMELO system doesn’t love Kuzma, the only young Laker of note after L.A.’s trade for Anthony Davis and subsequent trade to clear cap space. The Lakers do love Kuzma—they refused to include him in the Davis deal—but in two seasons thus far, he’s profiled as an inefficient scorer and poor defender. At least for now, that combination pushes him closer to a back-end rotation player than future core contributor.

25. Milwaukee Bucks

WAR: 6.4 | Best Under-25 Player: Donte DiVincenzo (4.9)

Milwaukee fits the Houston model of veering toward a veteran focus: The Bucks rank second to Houston in projected 25-and-over team WAR, and Giannis ranks second to Harden individually.

24. Toronto Raptors

WAR: 6.6 | Best Under-25 Player: OG Anunoby (4.1)

Pascal Siakam, 25, just misses the cutoff, and Toronto’s ranking underscores just how much work Masai Ujiri has to do to rebuild after Kawhi Leonard’s departure. Stanley Johnson (3.1), signed this summer, is the only other under-25 Raptor who projects above replacement level over the next five seasons.

23. Washington Wizards

WAR: 16.5 | Best Under-25 Player: Thomas Bryant (7.1)

The results of Washington’s five first-round draft selections after picking Bradley Beal no. 3 overall in 2012:

2013: Used on Otto Porter Jr., who was traded last trade deadline for two expiring contracts and a future second-round pick

2014: Traded for Marcin Gortat

2015: Used on Jerian Grant, who was traded on draft night for Kelly Oubre Jr., who was traded last season for half a season of Trevor Ariza

2016: Traded for Markieff Morris

2017: Traded for Bojan Bogdanovic

And that’s how a team turns half a decade of first-round picks into precisely zero players on a present-day roster in dire need of some young talent.

22. Brooklyn Nets

WAR: 17.9 | Best Under-25 Player: Jarrett Allen (9.9)

Meanwhile, the first-round pick Washington traded for Bogdanovic gave the Nets Allen, Brooklyn’s player with the best projection after Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Brooklyn’s success over the coming seasons will depend on that duo—and Durant’s recovery from injury—but the Nets aren’t only a star vehicle, with supporting depth from the likes of Allen, Dzanan Musa, and Rodions Kurucs on the young end.

21. Los Angeles Clippers

WAR: 22.6 | Best Under-25 Player: Landry Shamet (16.0)

L.A. ranked much higher a couple of weeks ago, when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander topped the Clippers’ list. I suspect they’re just fine with a little less youth and a little more Kawhi and Paul George.

20. New York Knicks

WAR: 23.5 | Best Under-25 Player: Mitchell Robinson (19.7)

The Knicks do indeed possess a bottom-half youth foundation. There are plenty of reasons for that. RJ Barrett went no. 3 in this summer’s draft but is tied for 10th-best in CARMELO’s five-year projection because of shaky shooting in college and dreadful defensive numbers. (That’s a better showing for Barrett than in other stat-based systems. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton listed him 31st before the draft.)

Besides Barrett, the only Knicks first-rounders still with the team are Frank Ntilikina, who has the worst career shooting percentage among active players (minimum 750 attempts), and Kevin Knox, who has the second-worst career shooting percentage among active players. Knox in particular stands out in a negative way: He projects as the worst NBA player over the next five seasons, with a befuddling minus-11.6 WAR. That assessment might seem harsh, but among 120 qualifying players last season, Knox had the worst true-shooting percentage. He also ranked as the league’s third-worst defender, per RPM; tallied 39 percent more turnovers than assists; and rated near the bottom of basically every advanced statistical leaderboard on Basketball-Reference.

On the bright side, Robinson looks like a statistical stud, with a better five-year projection than, among others, Deandre Ayton and John Collins. Even if that order feels a bit extreme, the general placement—which rests largely on his elite defensive projections—is encouraging, and helps lessen the sting of those other forecasts. Still, the overall outlook at Madison Square Garden is less rosy than some proclamations about the youth suggest: Even if CARMELO’s too negative on Barrett, for instance, it loves Robinson and still doesn’t think the Knicks’ young players fit anywhere near the top tier.

19. Oklahoma City Thunder

WAR: 24.0 | Best Under-25 Player: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (17.6)

The fact that Oklahoma City still ranks closer to the bottom of the league than the top, even with Gilgeous-Alexander, shows how barren the Thunder’s youth cupboard was just two weeks ago. OKC now has a wealth of young players on the way after its trades with the Clippers and Rockets—most just happen to be in middle school at the moment.

18. Detroit Pistons

WAR: 24.9 | Best Under-25 Player: Sekou Doumbouya (6.3)

Doumbouya, the 18-year-old Guinean-born Frenchman, was the youngest player taken in the first round of this year’s draft, and is therefore still plenty raw. But he offers tantalizing upside and thus boasts one of the top five-year projections for a rookie. Detroit had better hope he pans out, because the Pistons’ last five first-round picks before him were:

• Traded to dump Ben Gordon’s contract
• Stanley Johnson (no longer with the team)
• Henry Ellenson (no longer with the team)
• Luke Kennard
• Traded for Blake Griffin

17. Sacramento Kings

WAR: 26.8 | Best Under-25 Player: De’Aaron Fox (21.3)

Outside Fox and Marvin Bagley III (4.3), no young King looks like a long-term rotation piece—but Fox represents quite the starting point after a much-improved sophomore season. Just as encouraging, the Kings finally have all their future first-round picks—plus a bunch of other teams’ future second-rounders—to add to their budding young core over the next few years.

16. Utah Jazz

WAR: 30.5 | Best Under-25 Player: Donovan Mitchell (26.0)

Utah’s U25 depth behind Mitchell is nearly nonexistent, but he’s strong enough by himself to vault the Jazz into the middle of these rankings. And in the NBA, where star power is paramount, it’s to Utah’s advantage to roster one stud versus a handful of semidecent players whose combined long-term value adds up to Mitchell’s alone.

15. San Antonio Spurs

WAR: 32.0 | Best Under-25 Player: Jakob Poeltl (10.9)

Poeltl and Dejounte Murray (10.5) are the best young Spurs but rank just 32nd and 35th, respectively, among all young players in five-year projected WAR. The Spurs could really use a breakout from the likes of Murray or Lonnie Walker IV or Derrick White (who doesn’t qualify because he’s already 25 years old) to pass the franchise’s competitive torch.

14. Chicago Bulls

WAR: 33.1 | Best Under-25 Player: Lauri Markkanen (10.8)

Like a few teams in this range, the Bulls have a voluminous group of talented young players but no definite leader among the bunch. Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Coby White, and Wendell Carter Jr. could all make a leap; at the very least, the Bulls roster features a reasonably complementary set of young players around which to build.

13. Miami Heat

WAR: 38.2 | Best Under-25 Player: Justise Winslow (15.2)

Bam Adebayo (13.1) joins Winslow to give Miami the best young one-two punch thus far on the list, and first-round pick Tyler Herro and Derrick Jones Jr. give Miami fairly impressive young depth. The question now is how many of those young’uns might be traded later this summer as the Heat angle to add another star alongside offseason acquisition Jimmy Butler.

12. Indiana Pacers

WAR: 38.9 | Best Under-25 Player: Myles Turner (14.4)

After Victor Oladipo, Turner profiles as Indiana’s second-best player and Domantas Sabonis (11.0) as its third-best. That means the Pacers’ ability to play the two young bigs together could decide the team’s future; if they can coexist, a starting five of that trio plus offseason additions Malcolm Brogdon and Jeremy Lamb makes all sorts of sense as a two-way force. Though Turner and Sabonis didn’t play much together last season, with the latter anchoring the Pacers’ second unit, the team’s net rating with both on the court improved from minus-8.7 in 2017-18 to plus-2.8 last season, with a defensive rating that would have led the league by a huge margin. Turner is already on his second contract, but Sabonis is a restricted free agent next summer—will it be worth Indiana’s investment to lock up both of its promising young bigs for the long term?

11. Orlando Magic

WAR: 43.0 | Best Under-25 Player: Aaron Gordon (16.2)

Most players discussed in this exercise are unproven, with large error bars in their future projections. But the Magic seem to take that uncertainty to another level. Beyond Gordon, young Orlando players include Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz, injured 2019 first-rounder Chuma Okeke, and Mo Bamba—all of whom could conceivably develop into starters on a playoff team or flunk out of the league within a few years.

10. Golden State Warriors

WAR: 44.1 | Best Under-25 Players: D’Angelo Russell (21.0), Kevon Looney (16.9), Omari Spellman and Jordan Poole (2.4 each)

We’ll show the top three players from here onward. For Golden State, all the best young players either joined the team this offseason or, in Looney’s case, re-joined the team with a surprisingly cheap free-agent deal. Russell’s fit on the Warriors roster is still something of a puzzle, and scuttlebutt around the time of his sign-and-trade suggested he might not even be on the team for long; at least for now, he looks to help stabilize the franchise in its post-dynasty period. Steph Curry’s still here, and Draymond Green, and (once he returns from injury) Klay Thompson, but Golden State will need to reorient its roster-building focus to the younger side if it wants to continue to prove a championship threat.

9. Atlanta Hawks

WAR: 51.5 | Best Under-25 Players: John Collins (18.6), Trae Young (13.6), Kevin Huerter (12.2)

CARMELO isn’t enamored of either of Atlanta’s lottery picks from this year, ranking De’Andre Hunter 20th and Cam Reddish 35th among rookies. That caution makes sense given their college numbers, particularly Reddish’s, but it also undersells their potential. Atlanta’s future five, moreover—the three players listed above, plus Hunter and Reddish—makes sense playing together, with an organic structure of one ball handler, three wings, and one big.

The main question is which player will be the star. Collins has been everything Atlanta could have wanted from him through two seasons, but he might not have another level as an individual shot creator. Young’s projection lags behind his reputation because of his defensive shortcomings, which might never go away given his size. Huerter, a Ringer favorite, flashed a modern NBA game as a rookie but is also likely more of a supplementary player at his peak. At least Atlanta has time to figure out its core’s fit and hierarchy, and a clear sense of direction for the franchise: A whopping 95 percent of the projected future production from players currently on the Hawks’ roster is concentrated among under-25-year-olds, by far the highest proportion in the NBA.

8. Boston Celtics

WAR: 52.0 | Best Under-25 Players: Jayson Tatum (29.1), Jaylen Brown (15.4), Robert Williams (2.7)

In some respects, Tatum turned in a disappointing sophomore season: He shot worse, got to the rim less, and mostly failed to build on the momentum from his strong rookie campaign. Still, in his age-20 season, Tatum averaged more than 15 points per game and stuffed the stat sheet with a healthy number of rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals. Most previous players with that profile amounted to perennial All-Stars. Boston appears to be entering a pseudo-rebuilding season, having lost Al Horford and replaced Irving with Kemba Walker, but Tatum and Brown—and the last of Danny Ainge’s collection of juicy future first-round picks, this one a Grizzlies selection that is top-six protected in 2020 or else becomes unprotected in 2021—offer a solid starting point for Boston’s next realistic period of contention.

7. Philadelphia 76ers

WAR: 54.7 | Best Under-25 Players: Ben Simmons (42.4), Matisse Thybulle (5.7), Jonah Bolden (3.2)

The 76ers are a veteran team with possibly the best starting five in the NBA, so after Simmons—who projects as the best U25 player in the whole league—they’re really just hoping that a couple of their untested young players stick as useful bench pieces. There isn’t a definite contributor among the group of Thybulle (a sneakily enticing rookie), Bolden, Zhaire Smith, and Shake Milton, but Philadelphia, a team built to win now, doesn’t need them to be.

6. Phoenix Suns

WAR: 60.0 | Best Under-25 Players: Devin Booker (19.5), Deandre Ayton (17.3), Mikal Bridges (12.4)

The Suns’ framework for a future is finally showing some promise, with a guard, wing, and big man all projecting as part of the team’s long-term core. If only Phoenix hadn’t whiffed on Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, and Josh Jackson after picking Booker in 2015; if only Phoenix hadn’t traded down in this year’s first round to take Cameron Johnson, who is older than Booker and projects to produce well below a player of his draft slot should.

5. Minnesota Timberwolves

WAR: 64.3 | Best Under-25 Players: Karl-Anthony Towns (37.6), Jarrett Culver (10.8), Josh Okogie (8.6)

Let’s appreciate Towns as much as his play deserves. Only 14 previous players have averaged at least 20 points and 11 rebounds per game through their age-23 seasons (Towns is at 22.3 and 11.9); 12 are in the Hall of Fame and a 13th is Tim Duncan, who will be inducted as soon as he’s eligible. Moreover, the previous players to accomplish that feat combined to make just four 3-pointers through age 23; Towns has made hundreds of 3s at a 39 percent clip. (To be somewhat fair, 10 of those players debuted before the introduction of the 3-point line, but that disparity also shows just how rare Towns is in the modern game.)

Players With 20-Plus Points and 11-Plus Rebounds Per Game Through Age 23

Player PPG RPG 3-Pointers
Player PPG RPG 3-Pointers
Karl-Anthony Towns 22.3 11.9 393
Tim Duncan 22.0 12.0 2
Shaquille O'Neal 27.2 12.5 1
Ralph Sampson 21.0 11.1 1
Wilt Chamberlain 37.6 27.0 0
Oscar Robertson 30.6 11.3 0
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 30.2 15.3 0
Walt Bellamy 29.7 17.7 0
Elvin Hayes 28.4 17.1 0
Bob McAdoo 27.7 12.7 0
Spencer Haywood 26.5 12.7 0
Sidney Wicks 24.2 11.2 0
Bob Pettit 23.0 15.0 0
Hakeem Olajuwon 21.9 11.7 0
Bob Lanier 20.6 11.1 0

So with their star center entering the first season covered by a max extension, the Timberwolves are set with one foundational piece. The question is who will join him: Culver projects well for a rookie—CARMELO ranks him third in the class, behind Zion Williamson and Ja Morant—but is naturally unproven; Okogie is probably a depth piece rather than a no. 2 option; and Andrew Wiggins (6.8), worst of all, doesn’t even qualify as one of the three best young players on his own team.

4. Dallas Mavericks

WAR: 66.0 | Best Under-25 Players: Luka Doncic (41.6), Kristaps Porzingis (17.8), Jalen Brunson (3.6)

In the entire NBA, only three players project for more WAR over the next five seasons than Doncic. Here’s the overall top 10:

Best 5-Year CARMELO Projections, All Ages

Player Team Age in 2019-20 5-Year Projected WAR
Player Team Age in 2019-20 5-Year Projected WAR
James Harden Rockets 30 59.5
Giannis Antetokounmpo Bucks 25 52.9
Ben Simmons 76ers 23 42.4
Luka Doncic Mavericks 20 41.6
Nikola Jokic Nuggets 24 41
Karl-Anthony Towns Timberwolves 24 37.6
Anthony Davis Lakers 26 37.4
Joel Embiid 76ers 25 36.1
Damian Lillard Trail Blazers 29 33.6
Stephen Curry Warriors 31 33.2

The top of the leaderboard is populated by younger players, which makes sense given aging curves—based on historical data, just one player currently in his 30s will still be an All-Star five years from now. And Doncic is the youngest of the bunch, after posting the highest-scoring season for a teenager in NBA history (21.2 points per game, just edging out Carmelo, LeBron, and Durant) and becoming just the fifth rookie of any age—along with Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Tyreke Evans—to average a 20-5-5 line. Doncic is going to be a star.

He’s still waiting for a cohort to serve as his supporting cast. Beyond Porzingis, who is under investigation for rape and hasn’t played an NBA game since tearing his ACL in February 2018, the Dallas roster is mostly populated with veteran players. Unlike the young squads below, the Mavericks’ young stars don’t have as much leeway to grow and develop together.

3. Memphis Grizzlies

WAR: 68.1 | Best Under-25 Players: Jaren Jackson Jr. (21.4), Ja Morant (18.2), Tyus Jones (13.5)

Besides Doncic, Jackson boasts the best five-year projection of any rising second-year player—better than Ayton, better than Young, better than Bagley and Carter and Bamba combined. It’s not difficult to see why: Jackson displayed NBA range and tremendous defensive ability as the second-youngest player in the league last season, so even a worst-case scenario still pegs him as a valuable, switchable starter for the modern game.

Jackson and no. 2 overall pick Morant form the dream inside-out combination to start a team, and the summer league champion Grizzlies—who won without either Jackson or Morant—should spend the season as League Pass darlings for NBA fans eager to see the future now. Memphis was the NBA’s fourth-oldest team last season, but 30-somethings Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, and Garrett Temple—the team’s three leaders in minutes played—are all gone now, leaving plenty of available playing time for the Grizzly cubs.

2. New Orleans Pelicans

WAR: 77.5 | Best Under-25 Players: Lonzo Ball (29.4), Zion Williamson (22.0), Josh Hart (9.5)

Unsurprisingly, Williamson projects as far and away the best rookie; he more than doubles every other 2019 draft pick except Morant in expected production over the next five seasons. But New Orleans isn’t just the Zion Show: The Pelicans have more young depth than any other team in the NBA. Beyond the trio listed above, Brandon Ingram, Jaxson Hayes, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker all project as rotation players, and more players will join them in the coming years thanks to New Orleans’s numerous future first-round picks.

Ball’s projection is among the most curious on this list; CARMELO thinks he’s a future All-Star. While his first two seasons offer some evidence to push back against this prediction, the drama surrounding the former Laker might have masked his more positive traits: Ball is an excellent distributor with impressive defensive numbers, so even if he’s not shooting well he can still contribute in multiple facets of the game. For New Orleans, Ball and Jrue Holiday could form the league’s best defensive backcourt duo from Day 1.

The only reason New Orleans doesn’t rank no. 1 on this list is because Williamson and Ball might look like future All-Stars, but they aren’t there just yet. That’s not the case in Denver, where the Nuggets already know the value of their leading man.

1. Denver Nuggets

WAR: 85.1 | Best Under-25 Players: Nikola Jokic (41.0), Jamal Murray (21.2), Monte Morris (10.3)

Five NBA teams had an average age (weighted by production) below 25 last season:

• Knicks, 17 wins
• Suns, 19 wins
• Bulls, 22 wins
• Kings, 39 wins
• Nuggets, 54 wins

Denver’s 2018-19 season was an aberration. Teams that young typically win about 30 games or fewer, but the Nuggets—who earned the no. 2 seed in the West—stand apart from their youthful brethren. Denver’s second-round playoff loss registered as a disappointment in the moment, but for a group of players who had never even reached the playoffs before, last season’s result was bounds better than the preseason expectation.

The Nuggets still have work to do if they want to build on that success—particularly given their relative inaction this summer as other Western Conference teams loaded up with multiple stars. Jokic must prove that last season was not the peak, but rather just the breakout for a perennial All-NBA player. Murray must consolidate his early-career gains to become a more consistent second banana. Fellow young guards like Morris and Malik Beasley must do the same, on a more secondary level.

Yet, as befits a good young team, Denver won’t hope just for continued incremental improvements from last season’s key players. The Nuggets have spent the past two drafts embracing risk with high-ceiling, low-floor players in Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol. Neither player projects to do much per CARMELO—but if just one overcomes his injury risks to reach his full basketball-playing potential, Denver’s crop of young players will rise even higher. The Nuggets have an established leader, supporting players who make sense given Jokic’s playing style and timeline, and additional talent waiting in the wings. Denver’s a worthy winner of the best young team designation.

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