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Young Core Rankings

Who has the brightest future in the NBA? We ranked each team’s collection of under-25 players based on their projections through the next half-decade.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2021-22 Lakers experiment aside, the NBA belongs to the youth. Last season, the league’s average age, weighted by minutes played, was tied for the lowest ever. But which team is best positioned to build on its youth for the future? Which team has the best young core?

As we do at the start of every season, we’re ranking each team’s collection of young players one through 30, using FiveThirtyEight’s player projections over the next half-decade. Only under-25 players qualify—specifically, those who won’t turn 25 until halfway through the 2021-22 season or later.

And as always, a caveat before we begin: Don’t pay too much attention to minute, decimal-point differences between the wins above replacement (WAR) figures for players or teams. Advanced stats in basketball—especially forward-looking ones—aren’t nearly so precise. But larger gaps are meaningful, and teams’ relative placement here matters when thinking about the medium-term league landscape.

We start, for the second season in a row, with the defending champion, which has little need for youth.

30. Milwaukee Bucks

Wins above replacement: 17.2
Best under-25 player: Jordan Nwora (5.5 projected WAR)
Previous rankings: 26th in 2020-21, 25th in 2019-20

With Donte DiVincenzo now in his age-25 season, the Bucks don’t have any young players who figure into the core of this season’s squad. (Nwora probably won’t play much if everyone’s healthy, though he admittedly looked great against the Nets on opening night.) That’s OK: Over the next five seasons, the Bucks project for more wins above replacement among players 25 and older than any other team.

29. Portland Trail Blazers

Wins above replacement: 10.7
Best under-25 player: CJ Elleby (4.2)
Previous rankings: 22nd, 27th

As Portland’s previous rankings demonstrate, the team hasn’t really had any reason to be optimistic about its youth of late, as it chiefly pursued a Finals trip with Damian Lillard. Nor have the team’s late first-round draft picks panned out, despite lots of hype: Anfernee Simons (3.4 WAR) remains a project three years in, and Nassir Little (1.0) hasn’t showed anything more than brief flashes of potential.

28. Golden State Warriors

Wins above replacement: 19.2
Best under-25 player: Jonathan Kuminga (6.7)
Previous rankings: 25th, 10th

The Warriors wouldn’t expect to rank this low after picking three times in the lottery in the last two drafts. But compared to last preseason’s projections, James Wiseman experienced the largest loss for any U25 player. (The only player in the entire league with a bigger drop, regardless of age, was James Harden, who suffered his first real injury in years and is now firmly past his prime age range.)

Last preseason, Wiseman ranked in the top 60 among all players in projected five-year WAR (17.7), and he ranked second among rookies—fitting for the no. 2 pick in the draft. But the combination of Wiseman’s terrible advanced metrics as a rookie, his team’s superior play without him, and the high bar to add value as a center have caused his projections to crater: Now, the 20-year-old big man looks like a roughly replacement-level player over the next half-decade (0.4 WAR). His classification in the FiveThirtyEight system has shifted from “great prospect” to “project.”

If Jordan Poole (5.0) continues his strong play from the preseason, or if Wiseman improves in his second year after returning from injury—he is still young and plenty raw, after all, and has yet to enjoy a full training camp—or if rookies Kuminga and Moses Moody (6.4) impress, then the Warriors’ future positioning will look much better than this ranking indicates. But for now, the early returns on their dip back into the lottery are rather less than ideal.

27. Los Angeles Lakers

Wins above replacement: 19.5
Best under-25 player: Talen Horton-Tucker (16.2)
Previous rankings: 30th, 26th

As I outlined last week, these Lakers rank among the oldest teams in NBA history. That’s not a problem for their title chances this season—old teams are generally good—but it certainly won’t help them push up the Young Cores leaderboard. Horton-Tucker is currently out with a thumb injury, but his development could swing a title race or two in the coming years. A strong defender and passer in his age-21 season, THT has made just 28.5 percent of his 3-point tries in his career, complicating his fit next to other non-shooters in the Lakers’ rotation.

26. Utah Jazz

Wins above replacement: 22.5
Best under-25 player: Jared Butler (8.1)
Previous rankings: 23rd, 16th

Even with Donovan Mitchell still qualifying, the Jazz ranked just 23rd last season because the rest of the roster’s contributors were older veterans. Now, Mitchell has aged out of the U25 category, too, and Utah has slipped even further. Like their neighbors in the rankings, the Jazz need to capitalize on their current competitive window because the long-term future of this roster isn’t really here.

That said, Butler, the no. 40 pick in the 2021 draft, might be a steal. He led all rookies in scoring in the preseason, pouring in 18 points in just 24 minutes per game.

Nicolas Claxton #33 of the Brooklyn Nets dunks the ball against the Minnesota Timberwolves during a preseason game on October 14, 2021.
Nicolas Claxton
Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

25. Brooklyn Nets

Wins above replacement: 28.7
Best under-25 player: Nicolas Claxton (14.5)
Previous rankings: 16th, 22nd

The Nets rank second behind the Bucks in projected WAR among 25-and-over players, so they aren’t sweating a low ranking among U25s. But the one young player with a robust projection is vitally important to the Nets this season, not just in the future.

Claxton, now in his third season, adds an athletic element that none of the other 475 Nets big men possesses. The Nets like to switch on defense, and Claxton switched the most screens per game of any player last season despite playing just 18.6 minutes per contest. On a rate basis, his switchiness stands out even more. Claxton switched on two-thirds of screens he defended last season; in the tracking era (since 2013-14), no other center had switched on even half of screens defended over the course of a season. He probably won’t develop into a star, but the Nets don’t need him to—they just need him to fulfill his projection as a mobile, rangy big man who can help lift the team’s defense to average while the offense scores in buckets on the other end.

24. San Antonio Spurs

Wins above replacement: 30.2
Best under-25 player: Devin Vassell (12.6)
Previous rankings: 14th, 15th

Here are the preseason win projections, per Basketball-Reference, for the bottom nine teams in this ranking:

  • Nets: 56.5
  • Bucks: 54.5
  • Lakers: 52.5
  • Jazz: 52.5
  • Suns: 51.5
  • Clippers: 45.5 (thanks to Kawhi Leonard’s injury)
  • Trail Blazers: 44.5
  • Spurs: 28.5

One of these things is not like the others! Most teams at the bottom of this list have little in the way of youth production because they’re set to win now; the Spurs aren’t set to win now or, as this ranking suggests, later. They’re stuck in no-man’s-land, with no extra first-round picks headed their way. A sneaky tank job might be in order to reset the franchise’s future.

23. Phoenix Suns

Wins above replacement: 35.2
Best under-25 player: Deandre Ayton (25.9)
Previous rankings: 7th, 6th

The Suns plummeted down these rankings because Mikal Bridges celebrated his 25th birthday this summer and Devin Booker will turn 25 in a week. Phoenix now has fewer U25 players on its roster than any other team, with just Ayton, Landry Shamet, and Jalen Smith left. Does it really make a difference that Bridges and Booker will both be 25 this season instead of 24? No, but we have to draw a line somewhere.

At the very least, this placement underscores that the Suns’ window is open right now. They’re no longer in the process of building up to a contender, in the company of Minnesota and New Orleans in these rankings; they’re next to the Clippers and Nets, with a mandate to capitalize on last year’s surprise Finals run. Now, about Ayton’s long-term future with the franchise after he didn’t sign an extension this week

22. Los Angeles Clippers

Wins above replacement: 36.9
Best under-25 player: Ivica Zubac (15.2)
Previous rankings: 27th, 21st

The Clippers’ acquisition of Zubac in exchange for 17 games of Mike Muscala remains one of the great underrated thefts in recent years. Zubac isn’t a 30-minutes-a-game center and the Clippers were at their best last postseason with five perimeter players, but he provides solid two-way play in certain matchups. However, the Clippers don’t have any other U25s of note (Terance Mann just turned 25), and they don’t control any of their own first-round picks until 2027, so this might be their best Young Cores ranking for years.

21. Indiana Pacers

Wins above replacement: 41.1
Best under-25 player: Isaiah Jackson (11.0)
Previous rankings: 17th, 12th

In addition to the rookie Jackson, Oshae Brissett (9.9 WAR), Chris Duarte (9.4), and Goga Bitadze (7.7) give the Pacers a bunch of moderately interesting U25s, but no true standout—which sort of fits the whole team’s ethos at this point, as the Pacers’ veterans are also mostly good players who aren’t ever going to be the best (or maybe even second-best) player on a championship team.

Jalen Green #0 of the Houston Rockets poses for a portrait during the 2021 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot on August 14, 2021.
Jalen Green
Photo by Michael J. LeBrecht II/NBAE via Getty Images

20. Houston Rockets

Wins above replacement: 41.2
Best under-25 player: Jalen Green (14.3)
Previous rankings: 29th, 30th

In their last three seasons under Harden-Morey-D’Antoni leadership, the Rockets’ roster ranked, in order, second, first, and tied for second in age. They were old, but they were competitive (see: the Lakers section), so there was no reason to skew younger. But last season, the team’s age slipped to a tie for 13th in the league as the rebuild began in force.

That initial effort culminated in the worst record in the league and no. 2 pick, which brought the exciting Green to town. Joining him are a host of potentially interesting rookies, from Josh Christopher (5.6 WAR) to Usman Garuba (5.4) to Alperen Sengun (4.0). Houston still has a long way to go to make it back to relevance—but 20th is a meaningful step up from 29th and 30th, and at this point, the Rockets can only hope that the rookies show enough to push even higher up the list next year.

19. Miami Heat

Wins above replacement: 41.8
Best under-25 player: Bam Adebayo (22.1)
Previous rankings: 18th, 13th

Player development isn’t always linear, and the Heat are hoping that’s the case with Tyler Herro, who suffered a sophomore slump after a dazzling playoffs as a rookie. His five-year projection dropped from 23.2 wins before last season to just 14.3 now, but he’s a popular pick for both Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year this season, as analysts forecast a big bounce-back.

Adebayo is also garnering considerable preseason awards consideration, for Defensive Player of the Year, because the Heat’s best young player is an absolute destroyer at that end of the floor. Next up for Adebayo is a further expansion of his offensive game, which already includes incredible passing chops for a big man (5.4 assists per game last season). He’s become a better free throw shooter but still attempted just eight total 3-pointers, making two, last season.

18. Washington Wizards

Wins above replacement: 48.0
Best under-25 player: Daniel Gafford (16.9)
Previous rankings: 11th, 23rd

The good news for the Wizards is that Gafford excelled after joining Washington in midseason, and Deni Avdija (15.5 WAR) boasts a frankly better-than-expected projection after a quiet rookie season. The bad news is that Thomas Bryant (2.8) has lost much of his forecast luster after undergoing ACL surgery, and inefficient offense from Rui Hachimura (2.1) means he still classifies as a “project” upon entering his third year.

17. Oklahoma City Thunder

Wins above replacement: 58.6
Best under-25 player: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (20.4)
Previous rankings: 13th, 19th

As the Thunder search for a star or three, Gilgeous-Alexander looks the part (at least when the tanking Thunder let him play). Most impressive is that he averaged 25.2 drives per game last season, with second-place Luka Doncic all the way back at 20.3. Beyond SGA, defensive menace Luguentz Dort (18.6) is a promising U25, too.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, are Thunder sophomores Aleksej Pokusevski and Théo Maledon, who according to multiple advanced metrics rated as the two worst players in the league last season. Darius Bazley and Isaiah Roby weren’t far off. Most of the Thunder are still extraordinarily young—Pokusevski, Maledon, and Bazley would all qualify for a U22 team—with plenty of time to mature, but every data point matters, and those rookie stats are ugly. Odds are most of the core of the next winning Thunder team is still years away from even being drafted.

Darius Garland #10 and Jarrett Allen #31 of the Cleveland Cavaliers react after their 99-96 win over the Atlanta Hawks at State Farm Arena on October 06, 2021.
Jarrett Allen and Darius Garland
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

16. Cleveland Cavaliers

Wins above replacement: 65.4
Best under-25 player: Jarrett Allen (14.1)
Previous rankings: 28th, 29th

Look at the Cavaliers, springing up from the dead! Cleveland had the worst of both worlds the last few seasons: no shot at contention in the present and no real hope for the future. But in the last year, they traded for Allen, drafted Evan Mobley (who’s just behind Allen in the projections, with 13.9 WAR), and saw Darius Garland (12.0) take significant steps forward. Given the number of high picks the team has had in recent seasons, a middle-of-the-pack young core still isn’t extraordinary, and Collin Sexton (7.5) remains a divisive prospect on the verge of reaching restricted free agency—he has the worst defensive metrics of any player over the last half-decade. All that said, however, the team’s position is worlds better than before. Now, all eyes are on Mobley to see whether the rookie big man will get enough playing time in a crowded frontcourt, and how he’ll develop in year one in the NBA.

15. Philadelphia 76ers

Wins above replacement: 65.8
Best under-25 player: Matisse Thybulle (21.6)
Previous rankings: 3rd, 7th

After turning 25, Ben Simmons is no longer part of this exercise, which explains the 76ers’ drop here. But because Simmons has aged out, this might be the only place on the NBA internet that will eschew Simmons chat.

Instead, let’s gush over Thybulle because the third-year wing is the best perimeter defender in the league. How can we be so confident with this praise? Let us count the ways. First, he receives award recognition: Thybulle was named second team All-Defense despite averaging only 20 minutes per game. Second, the stats love him: estimated plus-minus ranked him as the second-best per-possession defender in the entire league, behind only Rudy Gobert. And third, he stands out historically as well.

In NBA history, there have been only six seasons in which a player posted block and steal rates of at least 3 percent each, while playing at least 1,200 minutes. Hall of Famers David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Bobby Jones did it once each. Gerald Wallace also did it once, 15 years ago. Matisse Thybulle has done it twice in two seasons. He might not be able to shoot, but he’s a winning NBA player all the same.

14. Denver Nuggets

Wins above replacement: 70.0
Best under-25 player: Michael Porter Jr. (31.8)
Previous rankings: 8th, 1st

After building a contender through savvy draft picks and player development, the Nuggets are now a mostly veteran squad, with only three U25 players projected for at least 2.0 WAR the next half-decade. However, two of those three are Porter and Jamal Murray (29.9), who both rank among the seven best U25 players in the league. (The third is rookie Bones Hyland, at 6.5.) Even with Murray currently lost to a torn ACL, the Nuggets will surely take the two definite All-Star-level talents, both locked up to long-term deals, over a broader bunch of more uncertain youngsters. Health willing, Porter, Murray, and Nikola Jokic could someday form the most potent offensive trio in the league.

RJ Barrett #9 of the New York Knicks celebrates a three point basket against the Boston Celtics on October 20, 2021.
RJ Barrett
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

13. New York Knicks

Wins above replacement: 70.1
Best under-25 player: RJ Barrett (24.8)
Previous rankings: 20th, 20th

No second-year player improved his long-term outlook last season more than Barrett, who displayed real offensive strides in boosting his 3-point percentage from 32 to 40 and his free throw percentage from 61 to 75. Add in a rookie surprise from Immanuel Quickley (14.9 projected WAR), whose closest rookie comp, numbers-wise, is Donovan Mitchell, and an injury return from Mitchell Robinson (11.8), and the Knicks’ future suddenly looks bright.

12. Detroit Pistons

Wins above replacement: 75.2
Best under-25 player: Cade Cunningham (21.6)
Previous rankings: 19th, 18th

Apparently winning the no. 1 pick in a loaded draft will help a team build a better young core. Cunningham is of course the prize here, with the best long-term projection for any rookie, and the Pistons hope that he will become the franchise’s first All-Star who’s not a big man since Allen Iverson in 2008-09.

But speaking of bigs, also take note of second-year center Isaiah Stewart, who checks in just behind Cunningham at 21.2 projected WAR. There wasn’t much reason to expect a lot out of the no. 16 pick, but he was the rare rookie big to play well on defense and now rides that showing to the second-largest boost to his projections, relative to last preseason, for any player in the league.

(Pay less attention, hopeful Pistons fans, to the projection for Killian Hayes, the higher pick in the 2020 draft. After a rough rookie season, Hayes’s forecast took a Wisemanesque fall from 13.1 WAR to just 0.2.)

11. Chicago Bulls

Wins above replacement: 78.6
Best under-25 player: Lonzo Ball (29.8)
Previous rankings: 15th, 14th

The Bulls haven’t reached the playoffs since trading Jimmy Butler, but they don’t have much to show for their rebuild. Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn are gone. Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison are gone. Coby White is still around with a decent projection (11.6 WAR), but it’s unclear where he will fit in the revamped rotation when he returns from shoulder surgery.

But the top two U25 Bulls provide much-needed hope for the franchise. Patrick Williams (12.4) was an offensive nonentity for large swaths of his rookie season, but he profiles as just the kind of wing stopper an offensively oriented team needs. And Ball is still somehow young enough to qualify for this exercise, even as he’s already changed teams twice, most recently this past offseason. As an all-around contributor with a seemingly stable jumper (37.6 percent on a high volume of 3s since leaving the Lakers), Ball rates as one of the best young players in the game—even if he’s only the second-best young player in his own family.

10. Toronto Raptors

Wins above replacement: 79.3
Best under-25 players: OG Anunoby (21.4), Scottie Barnes (15.1), Malachi Flynn (11.4)
Previous rankings: 21st, 24th

Are the Raptors rebuilding? It’s hard to tell. On the one hand, Kyle Lowry is gone after the team blatantly tanked down the stretch in its season away from home; on the other, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and Anunoby are still here from the 2019 title team. Among the young players on the roster, Anunoby is the star, with immense two-way potential and presumably ample room to showcase his creative abilities with Lowry in Miami and Siakam injured to start the season. If Barnes, a surprise pick at no. 4, fulfills his projection here, the Raptors could field one of the league’s stingiest and most switchable defensive teams.

Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks looks on during a preseason game against the Utah Jazz on October 6, 2021.
Luka Doncic
Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

9. Dallas Mavericks

Wins above replacement: 81.0
Best under-25 players: Luka Doncic (68.2), Frank Ntilikina (6.7), Josh Green (3.9)
Previous rankings: 6th, 4th

This chart shows the 10 U25 players with the best projections through the next half-decade:

Best-Projected Under-25 Players Over the Next Half-Decade

Player Team 5-Year WAR
Player Team 5-Year WAR
Luka Doncic Mavericks 68.2
Jayson Tatum Celtics 43.5
LaMelo Ball Hornets 41.0
Zion Williamson Pelicans 39.0
Michael Porter Jr. Nuggets 31.8
Trae Young Hawks 30.3
Jamal Murray Nuggets 29.9
Lonzo Ball Bulls 29.8
Deandre Ayton Suns 25.9
RJ Barrett Knicks 24.8
De'Aaron Fox Kings 24.8
According to FiveThirtyEight’s multiyear projections

Doncic is hilariously far ahead of every other young player. He’s projected to provide about as much value through the next five seasons as Zion Williamson and Trae Young combined; as Jayson Tatum and De’Aaron Fox combined; and as Deandre Ayton, Bam Adebayo, and Cade Cunningham combined.

He’s also projected as the best player in the entire league, regardless of age, during that span, and he’s still just 22 years old. Dallas will rank near the top of the young cores leaderboard for as long as Doncic is healthy.

It’s too bad the rest of the roster isn’t nearly as young or talented: The second-best youngster is Ntilikina, who never found a footing in New York and has by far the worst career true shooting percentage for any active player with at least 1,000 attempts.

8. Charlotte Hornets

Wins above replacement: 81.4
Best under-25 players: LaMelo Ball (41.0), Miles Bridges (10.0), P.J. Washington (9.5)
Previous rankings: 24th, 28th

Projections come with the widest error bars for young players, who arrive with less of a statistical foundation than veterans, and those error bars are especially wide for unorthodox players like Ball, who played in Australia rather than the NCAA. That’s why, say, the projections overestimated Wiseman, who played just three NCAA games, and why they underestimated Ball by a similar amount.

Entering last season, Ball was forecast for 16.1 WAR through five seasons—a solid projection, but not star level. A year later, after winning Rookie of the Year with 16-6-6 averages, Ball has the third-best projection for any U25 player in the league and by far the greatest year-over-year increase.

Biggest Projection Gainers Since Last Season

Player Team Previous Projection New Projection Increase
Player Team Previous Projection New Projection Increase
LaMelo Ball Hornets 16.1 41.0 24.9
Isaiah Stewart Pistons 3.7 21.2 17.5
RJ Barrett Knicks 8.4 24.8 16.4
Jarred Vanderbilt Timberwolves 1.9 16.0 14.1
Zion Williamson Pelicans 26.3 39.0 12.7
Daniel Gafford Wizards 4.5 16.9 12.4
Nicolas Claxton Nets 3.6 14.5 10.9
Immanuel Quickley Knicks 4.2 14.9 10.7
Jaden McDaniels Timberwolves 1.2 11.4 10.2
According to FiveThirtyEight’s multiyear projections. Only U25 players included.

Most amazing of all for Hornets fans: The projections peg Ball as a top-10, and even top-five player in the NBA in a few years. In other words, he has a realistic chance to become the first Charlotte player ever to be named first team All-NBA.

7. Sacramento Kings

Wins above replacement: 82.3
Best under-25 players: De’Aaron Fox (24.8), Tyrese Haliburton (18.4), Louis King (9.9)
Previous rankings: 12th, 17th

The Kings keep moving up this list, thanks mainly to the two young guards they’ve landed in recent drafts. Last preseason, Haliburton boasted the best statistical projection for any rookie, and though LaMelo Ball outshined him when the games began, Haliburton was a worthy All-Rookie first team member. He never should have fallen to Sacramento at no. 12, but the Kings were due for some extra draft fortune after so many whiffs.

Speaking of: Marvin Bagley III, picked one spot ahead of Doncic and now out of the Kings’ rotation, has seen his five-year projection tumble to just 5.7 WAR. The team’s latest lottery pick, Davion Mitchell, is an older rookie and thus projects for only 5.5 WAR.

Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics drives to the basket against the New York Knicks on October 20, 2021.
Jayson Tatum
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

6. Boston Celtics

Wins above replacement: 83.7
Best under-25 players: Jayson Tatum (43.5), Robert Williams III (11.2), Romeo Langford (8.4)
Previous rankings: 1st, 8th

The Celtics were never going to retain the top spot in the rankings with Jaylen Brown graduating to the 25-and-over camp. But Tatum is so accomplished, with the second-best projection among all U25 players, that Boston sticks near the top regardless.

As a reminder from last year’s list, Tatum and Doncic fit among a select class of just 15 players in league history to be named to an All-NBA team at age 21 or younger. The others are all either in the Hall of Fame already or locks to be inducted in the future. (As an aside, look at how many of them are 2020-21 Lakers! With Horton-Tucker injured, Rob Pelinka should give Tracy McGrady a call.)

All-NBA Players by the Age of 21

Player Season(s) Hall of Fame?
Player Season(s) Hall of Fame?
Luka Doncic 2020, 2021 TBD
Jayson Tatum 2020 TBD
Anthony Davis 2015 99.2%
Kevin Durant 2010 100%
Dwight Howard 2007 99.7%
LeBron James 2005, 2006 100%
Carmelo Anthony 2006 98.4%
Tracy McGrady 2001 Yes
Kobe Bryant 1999, 2000 Yes
Tim Duncan 1998 Yes
Shaquille O'Neal 1994 Yes
Michael Jordan 1985 Yes
Isiah Thomas 1983 Yes
Rick Barry 1966 Yes
Dolph Schayes 1950 Yes
Hall of Fame probabilities for active players are from Basketball-Reference

5. Orlando Magic

Wins above replacement: 86.9
Best under-25 players: Franz Wagner (16.3), Jalen Suggs (16.0), Jonathan Isaac (14.1)
Previous rankings: 10th, 11th

Do you believe in (the) Magic? Sorry, but it’s been a while since that was even a remotely interesting question. Now, the team has one of the five best young cores in the NBA. That lofty placement is largely thanks to the 2021 draft, as Suggs and Wagner, the no. 5 and 8 picks, respectively, look like two of the more promising rookies in the class.

Beyond that leading duo, the Magic have oodles of other intriguing names on their U25 list: Isaac and Markelle Fultz (3.5 WAR), who are both returning from injury; Chuma Okeke (11.0) and Cole Anthony (3.8), who are looking to take substantial steps forward in their second seasons; the recently extended Wendell Carter Jr. (8.8); the other Wagner brother, Moe (6.5); and the project, Mo Bamba (4.6).

Orlando has by far the least 25-and-over talent of any team in the league; the Magic’s best-projected player in that older group is Michael Carter-Williams. But looking at the full list of young’uns is enough to warrant real enthusiasm. The Magic could be fun again soon!

4. Memphis Grizzlies

Wins above replacement: 87.6
Best under-25 players: De’Anthony Melton (20.9), Ja Morant (19.0), Jaren Jackson Jr. (17.3)
Previous rankings: 2nd, 3rd

For the third consecutive season—a.k.a. ever since they drafted Morant—the Grizzlies rank among the top five young cores. They’re one of just two teams able to make that claim, and they might stay here for a while, as Morant and Jackson are only in their age-22 seasons, and Melton, Desmond Bane (10.3 WAR), and Xavier Tillman (7.9) in their age-23 campaigns.

Melton remains an advanced stats darling who does all the small, subtle things to make his team better when he’s on the floor; if last season’s 3-point improvement, from 28.6 percent to 41.2 percent, is real, he might be even better than a role player long term. Jackson is aiming for a strong return after what was essentially a lost season (just 11 regular-season games) due to injury.

Yet the greatest question mark surrounding the Grizzlies involves Morant: Can he be the best player on a true contender? His projection isn’t sure, in large part because his 3-point stroke hasn’t yet arrived (30.3 percent last season), and the metrics continue to sour on his defense. But Morant is so productive, so electric with the ball—especially in the postseason, when he led the Grizzlies to two victories in the play-in round and then averaged 30 points per game against Utah in Round 1—that it’s easy to dream of far greater accolades down the line. The Grizzlies are young enough to be patient with this core, but this is an important season for a lot of their players’ development.

3. Minnesota Timberwolves

Wins above replacement: 91.6
Best under-25 players: Anthony Edwards (24.1), Jarred Vanderbilt (16.0), Josh Okogie (11.8)
Previous rankings: 9th, 5th

The Timberwolves fell in these rankings last year as Karl-Anthony Towns aged out, but as one no. 1 pick leaves, another one enters the fray. Edwards excelled down the stretch after a shaky start to his NBA career and profiles as a potentially suitable understudy to Towns’s leading man. (Indeed, in his first game of the new season, he dropped 29 points to support Towns’s 30.)

Minnesota doesn’t rank this high just because of one player, though. Vanderbilt posted strong defensive stats last season—a rarity for Minnesota—and the team’s best on-off differential aside from Towns’s. And Okogie, Jaden McDaniels (11.4), and Naz Reid (10.7) all look like workable role players. That’s five different U25 Timberwolves projected for double-digit WAR in the next half-decade—the most for any team except the team ranked no. 1 overall.

Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans poses for photos during Media Day at Smoothie King Center on September 27, 2021.
Zion Williamson
Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

2. New Orleans Pelicans

Wins above replacement: 119.0
Best under-25 players: Zion Williamson (39.0), Brandon Ingram (21.7), Nickeil Alexander-Walker (13.9)
Previous rankings: 5th, 2nd

The Pelicans, like the Grizzlies, have ranked in the top five in every iteration of this exercise—which not so coincidentally began the same year as the Zion-Morant draft. But while the Grizzlies have pushed into the play-in round each of the past two seasons, and the actual playoffs once, the Pelicans haven’t advanced farther than the fringes of the race and are now on their third coach in three years.

Williamson’s projection shot up this year after he dominated as a sophomore with record-setting offense around the rim and 27 points per game, a historic number for a player so young. Look at the company he’s keeping here:

Highest Scorers at Age 20

Player Season Points Per Game
Player Season Points Per Game
Luka Doncic 2019-20 28.8
LeBron James 2004-05 27.2
Zion Williamson 2020-21 27.0
Kevin Durant 2008-09 25.3
Shaquille O'Neal 1992-93 23.4

But the projection doesn’t know that Williamson mysteriously broke his foot over the summer, or when he will return, or how his growing injury list will affect his long-term plans. The Pelicans have a bright future, but that’s entirely predicated on building around an MVP candidate; Ingram, for instance, profiles better as a secondary rather than primary option. Because of all this potential, but also all this risk, New Orleans might have the greatest gap between its ceiling and floor through the next few years.

1. Atlanta Hawks

Wins above replacement: 127.2
Best under-25 players: Trae Young (30.3), John Collins (23.0), Kevin Huerter (18.5)
Previous rankings: 4th, 9th

The Timberwolves haven’t won a playoff series since 2004, the Magic since 2010, the Grizzlies since 2015, and the Pelicans since 2018. Atlanta, meanwhile, lands the top spot fresh off a run to the conference finals.

The Hawks are wonderfully situated for both the present and future, not just with Young, the showstopper, or with Collins and Huerter—both recently extended—but with Onyeka Okongwu (13.2 WAR), De’Andre Hunter (13.0), and Cam Reddish (10.5) as well. That’s six different young Hawks with double-digit WAR projections through the next half-decade. They’d be in an enviable position even if they didn’t also have productive veterans like Clint Capela and Bogdan Bogdanovic.

The most pressing question for the franchise is whether it can afford to pay all the promising U25 wings when their entry-level contracts expire—but if they’re all worth extending at that time, then too many good players is a good problem to have. We have a new no. 1 young core and a new, potentially perennial contender in the East all in one.

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