The NBA is a young man’s league. Forget LeBron James and the title-winning Lakers—according to FiveThirtyEight’s player projections, half of the whole league’s production through the next five seasons will come from players currently under the age of 25. As soon as next season, they’ll be the dominant cohort.
NBA decision-makers know this, too. They target rookie-scale contracts and hoard draft picks, and just last week, 43 percent of GMs said they’d pick 21-year-old Luka Doncic first if they were starting a team from scratch.
But which actual teams are best positioned for the future based on the quality and quantity of their young players? Like last season, we’re ranking each team’s young core one through 30, using FiveThirtyEight’s projections for the next half-decade based on every player’s age, biographical information, and statistical history. Only under-25 players are included—specifically, the players who won’t turn 25 until halfway through the 2020-21 season or later.
Also like last season, a caveat before we begin: Remember that error bars in projections are particularly wide for young players, who have less of a statistical track record to orient predictions. So focus less on a team’s specific ordinal ranking than its general placement here. A fractional gap in projected wins above replacement (WAR) spread over multiple players and seasons doesn’t mean much, but there are large differences in future outlook between the no. 5, 15, and 25 teams.
30. Los Angeles Lakers
Wins above replacement: 9.6
Best under-25 player: Talen Horton-Tucker (9.7 WAR)
Last year’s rank: 26th
Most teams at the bottom of this list have made the conscious choice to focus on the present, rather than the future, with veteran production rather than youngsters who aren’t quite ready to contribute to a team with championship aspirations. The Lakers clearly fall into the former group. The reigning champs lead the league in projected production from players 25 and older.
29. Houston Rockets
Best under-25 player: Chris Clemons (3.8)
Last year’s rank: 30th
The Rockets have been one of the league’s most veteran-oriented teams in recent seasons, and Daryl Morey’s departure hasn’t changed that skew. They’re even more reliant on older players than they look here, as this projection came before Clemons tore his Achilles in a preseason game. After Clemons, the top-rated U25 player in Houston is undrafted two-way rookie Mason Jones.
28. Cleveland Cavaliers
Best under-25 player: Dylan Windler (8.1)
Last year’s rank: 29th
Collin Sexton scored 21 points per game in his second year, but a rough rookie campaign for Darius Garland, combined with both guards’ drastic defensive concerns—they ranked 249th and 250th out of 250 qualifying players in FiveThirtyEight’s advanced defensive metric last season—keeps the team’s hopes on a dimmer.
The moribund Cavaliers don’t belong with their neighbors on this list. The Lakers and Rockets are the bottom two teams in projected U25 production, but they rank first and second, respectively, in projected production from everyone 25 and older. The Cavs? They’re 28th in youth production—and 23rd for everyone older.
27. Los Angeles Clippers
Best under-25 player: Ivica Zubac (10.0)
Last year’s rank: 21st
Although the Clippers are almost as dependent on veterans as their Staples Center roommates, the pairing of Zubac and Luke Kennard gives the Clippers some youth among the reserves. Kennard in particular could play a key role, as the team lacks high-caliber playmakers in the backcourt; the front office seems to believe he’ll beat his projection of 7.8 WAR in the next half-decade, as it traded for him on draft night and signed him to a four-year extension before he played a single regular-season game for the team.
26. Milwaukee Bucks
Best under-25 player: Donte DiVincenzo (25.2)
Last year’s rank: 25th
The Bogdan Bogdanovic boondoggle embarrassed the Bucks and cost the franchise a second-round pick—but it might have helped the team long term, at least if the FiveThirtyEight projections are any indication. Bogdanovic is projected for less WAR than DiVincenzo, who would have gone to the Kings in that aborted sign-and-trade, but now slots next to Jrue Holiday in the Bucks’ starting backcourt. The third-year guard isn’t going to be a star, but he’s average or better at just about everything, especially on defense, which makes him a valuable all-around player. All that’s left is an improved 3-point stroke, with DiVincenzo dipping from 38 percent in college to 32 percent so far in the NBA.
25. Golden State Warriors
Best under-25 player: James Wiseman (17.7)
Last year’s rank: 10th
The Warriors plummeted in these rankings after trading D’Angelo Russell for the older Andrew Wiggins and a future draft selection. So for now, until they can use the top-three-protected 2021 pick from the Wolves, their youth reinforcements are basically just Wiseman, the no. 2 pick in the draft. A return to form from Kevon Looney (just 2.8 projected WAR over five seasons) after an injury-ravaged campaign would help.
24. Charlotte Hornets
Best under-25 player: LaMelo Ball (16.1)
Last year’s rank: 28th
Like the Cavaliers, the Hornets don’t have much in the way of either present or future production, ranking 24th in both U25 and 25-and-older projected WAR. P.J. Washington (7.2 projected WAR) turned in an encouraging rookie season, but the Hornets’ chances depend on Ball, a divisive prospect, and whether his supporters or skeptics are saying “I told you so” a few years from now. Given his inexperience and lack of a statistical record, the error bars on Ball’s projections are extraordinarily wide. Note, too, that last year’s breakout guard, Devonte’ Graham, is already 25.
23. Utah Jazz
Best under-25 player: Donovan Mitchell (23.7)
Last year’s rank: 16th
Utah has a rock-solid eight-man rotation, of which Mitchell is the only U25 player. No other young Jazz man is projected for more than 5.9 wins in the next half-decade—but Utah has been Mitchell and the vets for a while, and that dynamic isn’t changing anytime soon.
22. Portland Trail Blazers
Best under-25 player: Derrick Jones Jr. (13.9)
Last year’s rank: 27th
Portland’s top three U25 players show three different ways that young players can enter the league. Jones was undrafted in a league with more undrafted success stories than ever before. He arrived in free agency this offseason as a raw but improving player who showed flashes in Miami, especially as a long-armed menace at the top of Erik Spoelstra’s zone. Gary Trent Jr. (11.4 projected WAR) was a second-round pick who went to Portland in a draft-night trade in 2018, then worked his way through the G League before breaking out in the bubble, where he shot 48 percent on 6.7 3-point attempts per game. And Zach Collins (7.5 projected WAR) was a top-10 pick who played for Portland right away, but now profiles as the worst of the three, as injuries have stalled his growth as a stretch big. Plying all three levels of the draft—top, bottom, and outside entirely—has given Portland perhaps its deepest roster in the Lillard era.
21. Toronto Raptors
Best under-25 player: OG Anunoby (18.0)
Last year’s rank: 24th
Two countervailing trends influence this Raptors ranking. On the one hand, few teams are better at player development, with Anunoby (no. 23 pick), Pascal Siakam (no. 27 pick), and Fred VanVleet (undrafted) turning into core pieces, even if Siakam and VanVleet are now 26 years old and don’t qualify for this exercise. On the other hand, the Raptors have very little young depth to work with after trading their first-round picks in 2018 (in the DeMarre Carroll salary dump) and 2019 (for Kawhi Leonard—worth it!), as well as their second-rounders in 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. The Raptors hold all their future firsts now, which should help restock the cupboard.
20. New York Knicks
Best under-25 player: Mitchell Robinson (19.1)
Last year’s rank: 20th
The Knicks’ rebuild is still in its infancy, despite the team picking in the top 10 four drafts in a row. Robinson is a per-minute star—when he’s able to avoid fouls and stay on the floor—and 20-year-old RJ Barrett (8.4 projected WAR) is young enough that he still has ample room to improve.
But the Knicks’ young players still rank closer to the bottom of the league than the top because other recent high draft picks and trade targets don’t look nearly as promising as their pedigrees would suggest. Among all active players with at least 1,000 career shot attempts, Frank Ntilikina is last in true shooting percentage, Kevin Knox is third worst, and Dennis Smith Jr. is fourth worst. At negative-2.1 WAR in the next half-decade, Knox—who combines that inefficient offense with poor defense—has the worst long-term projection for any young player in the league.
19. Detroit Pistons
Best under-25 player: Killian Hayes (13.1)
Last year’s rank: 18th
Hayes was Ringer draft guru Kevin O’Connor’s top player in the 2020 draft, and if he plays up to that billing, he’ll blow past this projection and position the Pistons well for the future. If not, Detroit is heavy on youth quantity but not quality—prospects like Svi Mykhailiuk (8.2) and Deividas Sirvydis (7.9) have decent projections, but more as depth pieces than anything greater.
18. Miami Heat
Best under-25 player: Bam Adebayo (24.4)
Last year’s rank: 13th
Given their tremendous success with player development, the Heat seem like they should rank higher here. Adebayo is already an All-Star, and Tyler Herro, at 23.2 projected WAR, is close behind; FiveThirtyEight’s model also generates historical comps for every player, and Herro’s most similar players at the same age are Jamal Murray and Bradley Beal. The Heat rank in the top 10 in best-projected young duo.
But Miami doesn’t have the youth bulk of other teams, as most of the team’s supporting cast is made up of veterans, and other newer members of the roster are older than their inexperience might suggest: Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn are already 26 and 25 years old, respectively. Check back next year to see if KZ Okpala’s projection pops; the 21-year-old spent almost all of last season in the G League, but spent the preseason dropping jaws in Miami.
17. Indiana Pacers
Best under-25 player: Domantas Sabonis (22.3)
Last year’s rank: 12th
Sabonis has steadily improved throughout his career, from an out-of-position rookie in Oklahoma City to an All-Star in Indiana supplanting Myles Turner as the team’s center of the future. Turner’s still here, and still young, too, albeit with a reduced projection (12.3 WAR), and Aaron Holiday (16.2) looks like a rotation mainstay for years to come. As befits their middling status, the Pacers rank 17th in U25 and 18th in 25-and-older projected WAR.
16. Brooklyn Nets
Best under-25 player: Jarrett Allen (18.8)
Last year’s rank: 22nd
Assuming DeAndre Jordan retains the starting center spot, the Nets won’t start any U25 players this season. But it speaks to this roster’s incredible depth that the likes of Allen, Bruce Brown (10.6 projected WAR), and Landry Shamet (8.6) are promising young players who can provide defense and shooting off the bench—and don’t need to play like stars, given their teammates’ scoring ability. Keep an eye on Reggie Perry (4.5), the 57th pick in the draft, who has drawn rave reviews from teammates and coaches.
15. Chicago Bulls
Best under-25 player: Patrick Williams (13.1)
Last year’s rank: 14th
The good news for Chicago is that Williams might be a perfect fit for the modern NBA, and Coby White (12.7 projected WAR) came on strong before last season shut down. The bad news for Chicago is that big men Lauri Markkanen—who will reach restricted free agency next summer, after the team failed to sign him to an extension Monday—and Wendell Carter Jr. have seen their development stall, and thus their projections regress. If all the Bulls’ pieces come together, there’s a framework for a winning team—but they’d certainly hope to be higher than the middle of the pack here, given all the young, highly drafted players on the roster. This is a crucial season for a franchise with a new coach and front office.
14. San Antonio Spurs
Best under-25 player: Dejounte Murray (16.9)
Last year’s rank: 15th
The Spurs haven’t budged much since last season, either on these rankings or as a general organization caught between the Aldridge-DeRozan old guard and the Murray-Walker youth brigade. One potential bright spot amid that identity crisis: no. 11 pick Devin Vassell, whose 16.5 WAR projection is one of the best for any incoming rookie.
13. Oklahoma City Thunder
Best under-25 player: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (28.7)
Last year’s rank: 19th
The Thunder’s ranking still feels a bit like a shrug because so much of their future rests in draft picks rather than players on the current roster. Still, this is an important developmental campaign for the team because the four starters next to Al Horford are all in the U25 bracket, ready for vastly increased responsibilities this season compared to last. Gilgeous-Alexander remains OKC’s clear best young player; joining him with a double-digit WAR projection is cult playoff hero Luguentz Dort (12.1).
12. Sacramento Kings
Best under-25 player: De’Aaron Fox (27.3)
Last year’s rank: 17th
The section on the Mavericks and Doncic later on in this piece will bring only pain and anguish, so Kings fans should turn their attention instead to Tyrese Haliburton’s projection, which should cheer them up considerably. With the no. 12 pick last month, the Kings nabbed the best-projected rookie in the whole draft—right ahead of the top two picks.
Best-Projected Rookies Over the Next Half-Decade
11. Washington Wizards
Best under-25 player: Isaac Bonga (20.5)
Last year’s rank: 23rd
This is a frankly astonishing projection for Bonga, a former second-round pick who averaged five points per game last season. Do the Wizards have a secret gem on their bench? In Bonga’s favor is that he was very young for his draft class (he’s entering his third season and just turned 21), meaning there’s time for much more growth; he’s made encouraging strides as a shooter, reaching 35 percent from 3 and 81 percent from the line last season; and his per-possession defensive metrics are extraordinary. ESPN’s real plus-minus rated Bonga as the sixth-best defender in the whole NBA last season; FiveThirtyEight was less extreme but still enthusiastic, placing the Wizards reserve in the top 50.
This projection seems high even with those advantages. But Bonga’s top comps are Nicolas Batum, OG Anunoby, Julian Wright, and—this isn’t a typo—Kawhi Leonard. Huh.
10. Orlando Magic
Best under-25 players: Jonathan Isaac (26.2), Markelle Fultz (17.7), Chuma Okeke (16.2)
Last year’s rank: 11th
Isaac and Fultz project well despite obvious red flags in their games: health for Isaac, who will miss the entire 2020-21 season with a torn ACL, and shooting for Fultz, who has recovered somewhat since his lost years in Philadelphia but still can’t crack 30 percent from distance. Both players signed extensions this week, meaning Orlando is optimistic about their futures. Okeke, the no. 16 pick in 2019, is a wild card after missing all of last season with a torn ACL.
9. Minnesota Timberwolves
Best under-25 players: D’Angelo Russell (17.4), Anthony Edwards (16.9), Naz Reid (12.7)
Last year’s rank: 5th
With Karl-Anthony Towns celebrating his 25th birthday in November, the Timberwolves naturally fell in these rankings—but not too far, because they traded for Russell and drafted Edwards first. And after the top three come another set of potential rotation wings, in Josh Okogie (11.7 projected WAR), Jarrett Culver (8.9), and Malik Beasley (7.3). Because Towns and Russell—the top two picks in the 2015 draft—have already spent five seasons in the league with two total playoff wins between them, it feels like they’ve spent a long time waiting to take the next step. But the Timberwolves still have a lot of youth and a lot of room to grow, and they can take some time developing as a group. Given the depth of the Western Conference and the ensuing challenge of contending for a playoff spot this season, they’ll probably have to.
8. Denver Nuggets
Best under-25 players: Jamal Murray (35.9), Michael Porter Jr. (23.2), RJ Hampton (9.5)
Last year’s rank: 1st
With Nikola Jokic aging out of the U25 class, the Nuggets vacated the top spot—but that drop doesn’t mean their long-term outlook has grown any worse. Jokic is still fairly young, and Murray and the ascendant Porter even younger. Following a breakout postseason, Murray has the fifth-best projection among all U25 players, and with he and Jokic straddling opposite sides of the age-25 line, the Nuggets are one of two teams, along with the Mavericks, to rank in the top 10 in both U25 WAR and 25-and-older WAR.
7. Phoenix Suns
Best under-25 players: Deandre Ayton (29.2), Devin Booker (25.7), Mikal Bridges (23.0)
Last year’s rank: 6th
The greatest surprise with Phoenix’s projection isn’t the team’s shiny rank, but that Ayton is ahead of the more established Booker. There appear to be two main reasons for that difference: First, Ayton is younger by two years, so while Booker has a better projection for the 2020-21 season, Ayton still has more room to grow. And second, Ayton profiles as a much better defender: He exhibited remarkable improvement last season, jumping from negative-1.7 points per 100 possessions as a rookie (per FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric) to plus-3.0 per 100 last season. Booker, conversely, has been a sizable net negative on defense every season so far.
That disagreement over which young star will be better is a rather good problem to have. Add in Bridges and his efficient two-way play, and the Suns are one of just two teams with three young players projected for 20-plus WAR in the next half-decade.
6. Dallas Mavericks
Best under-25 players: Luka Doncic (64.1), Jalen Brunson (12.3), Josh Green (7.8)
Last year’s rank: 4th
Let’s cut right to the chase: Doncic isn’t just the best-projected U25 player over the next five seasons; he’s no. 1 in the whole NBA.
Best-Projected NBA Players Over the Next Half-Decade
He just became the only 20-year-old ever to make the All-NBA first team, and the third to make an All-NBA team at any level, joining LeBron James (second team) and Kobe Bryant (third) in that exclusive club. He’s the betting MVP favorite this season, which would make him the youngest winner in league history. And for all his talents, he has an obvious area to improve, as he is a career 32 percent 3-point shooter; what unholy statistics might he produce if he raises that figure even to league average?
It’s also worth noting that Doncic will still be in the U25 cohort for three more seasons after this one. Dallas will remain near the top of this list for a while.
5. New Orleans Pelicans
Best under-25 players: Lonzo Ball (28.4), Zion Williamson (26.3), Brandon Ingram (22.9)
Last year’s rank: 2nd
Can Zion stay healthy? And will he become the world-consuming defensive force he looked in college after his shaky rookie campaign on that end? Those two questions linger after Williamson’s abbreviated rookie campaign, and explain why a recent no. 1 pick with elite offensive numbers isn’t projected at the superstar level just yet.
In fact, in these projections he’s slightly behind Ball, who will reach restricted free agency next summer. The former no. 2 pick’s career averages (10.7 points, 6.6 assists, 6.1 rebounds) are solid but unspectacular; advanced statistics love his all-around on-court impact, however, and his 37.5 percent 3-point stroke last season is a potential difference-maker. He, Zion, and Ingram—last season’s Most Improved Player—form the second trio of U25 teammates with 20-plus projected WAR, as New Orleans is flush with both young talent already on the roster and oodles of future draft picks still to arrive.
4. Atlanta Hawks
Best under-25 players: Trae Young (42.9), John Collins (15.8), Onyeka Okongwu (13.5)
Last year’s rank: 9th
Here is the list of U25 players projected for more value over the next five seasons than Young: Doncic and Jayson Tatum. That’s the whole list. Because even though the slight 6-foot-1 guard registers as one of the worst defenders in the league, he is also a transcendent offensive talent. It’s not just that Young averaged 29.6 points and 9.3 assists last season, or that he boosted his 3-point accuracy to league average while taking so many challenging shots. It’s that Young did all that even before the Hawks surrounded him with legitimate NBA scorers. Last season, Atlanta scored 111.2 points per 100 possessions with Young on the court and a ghastly 95.7 per 100 with him off.
While Atlanta attempted to jump-start its rebuild by adding veterans Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Clint Capela, the team still has plenty of long-term promise behind Young. Collins and Okongwu are athletic bigs, and at least one member of the wing trio of Cam Reddish (12.2 projected WAR), Kevin Huerter (10.3), and De’Andre Hunter (7.7) should pop. The overarching question is how well those players can all fit together once they mature, and what kinds of players fit best next to Young.
3. Philadelphia 76ers
Best under-25 players: Ben Simmons (41.3), Matisse Thybulle (20.1), Furkan Korkmaz (16.5)
Last year’s rank: 7th
If the 76ers don’t want to trade Simmons for James Harden, this ranking is why: Already in good position to win now, they’re also set up for the future, with a youth contingent consisting of one star and a bunch of role players. Simmons is the most important member of that cohort, of course; even if he never learns to shoot, he should still be a perennial All-NBA player because of his size, passing, and defense. But because the 76ers are contenders in 2020-21, their other young players don’t have the luxury of developing slowly; Thybulle—whose lofty projection stems from nearly off-the-charts defensive figures—and the rest need to step up this season. Philadelphia has very little proven depth outside its starting five, so it’s counting on youth at all positions, from guards Shake Milton and Tyrese Maxey to wings Thybulle and Korkmaz to big man Tony Bradley.
2. Memphis Grizzlies
Best under-25 players: Ja Morant (21.2), Jaren Jackson Jr. (20.8), De’Anthony Melton (18.6)
Last year’s rank: 3rd
Morant didn’t have a perfect debut season. Like most rookies, he turned the ball over too much and didn’t defend well; he also made less than one 3-pointer per game, a scary figure for a modern point guard. But those are minor quibbles for the Rookie of the Year; he also averaged 18 points and seven assists as a 20-year-old, a feat previously accomplished by only Trae Young, LeBron James, Stephon Marbury, and Magic Johnson. And his closest comps per FiveThirtyEight are Young, Derrick Rose, John Wall, and Russell Westbrook. If his trajectory follows their paths, he could be an All-Star as soon as this year.
And Morant is far from alone in Memphis, where a league-best six U25 players are projected for at least 10 WAR over the next half-decade. Jackson could be the NBA’s best stretch big in a few years, after he made 39 percent of his 6.5 triples per game last season; Melton is a plus-minus fiend off the bench; Brandon Clarke (10.2 projected WAR) has less room for growth at 24 years old, but he’s already one of the most efficient scorers in the league. With improvement from teams like the Trail Blazers, Suns, and Warriors, the Grizzlies could be hard-pressed to replicate their near-playoff showing from last season, but they’re only looking up over the long term.
1. Boston Celtics
Best under-25 players: Jayson Tatum (53.4), Jaylen Brown (27.4), Robert Williams (10.3)
Last year’s rank: 8th
There are two components of the Celtics’ league-best youth ranking. The first is the supporting cast, which is better than Luka’s in Dallas or Young’s in Atlanta. If Tatum didn’t exist, the Celtics’ U25 group would still rank in the top half of the league, with Brown the best young player on most teams.
The second is Tatum himself. Although not quite at Doncic’s level, he’s in mighty fine historical company nonetheless after improving across the board in his third season. Besides Doncic and Tatum, 13 previous players were named to an All-NBA team at age 21 or younger. All 13 are either in the Hall of Fame already or locks to get there once they retire.
All-NBA Players by the Age of 21
|Player||Season(s)||Hall of Fame?|
|Player||Season(s)||Hall of Fame?|
|LeBron James||2005, 2006||100%|
|Kobe Bryant||1999, 2000||Yes|
As a scorer, Tatum evokes a young Bryant or McGrady, both among his top five comps; as a defender, he is comfortably above average both one-on-one and playing within a team concept. The Celtics have imported would-be no. 1 options for years: Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker. But the best candidate, and the main reason they have the best U25 group in the league, was internal all along. Tatum’s not 19 anymore, but he’s still young and poised for greatness.