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Young Core Rankings

Who has the brightest future in the NBA? Ahead of the 2022-23 season, we ranked each team’s collection of under-25 players based on their statistical projections through the next half decade, plus an analysis from our young-player expert.

Harrison Freeman

Even as a couple of outliers excel into their late 30s—looking at you, LeBron and Chris Paul—the NBA, on the whole, is as young as it’s ever been. The league’s average age, weighted by minutes played, has been tied for the lowest figure ever three seasons running.

So with the 2022-23 season tipping off next week, let’s zoom in on the cream of the NBA’s young crop, with our annual Young Core Rankings. As usual, only players under the age of 25 are considered. But this time around, we’re blending two different sources to produce a composite score: a “stat ranking,” which uses FiveThirtyEight’s wins above replacement (WAR) projections over the next half decade, and an “expert ranking,” based on the subjective analysis of J. Kyle Mann, our resident young-player guru. We averaged the two scores together, broke ties in favor of the young core judged to possess more upside, and ordered the final list from the worst young core in the league at no. 30 to the best at no. 1. —Zach Kram

30. Milwaukee Bucks

Stat ranking: 30th
Expert ranking: 30th
Last year: 30th

Zach Kram: There’s no shame in ranking at or near the bottom of this list, as long as the team in question has enough veterans to win now. The Bucks fit the bill, as they rank last for the second season in a row. All 10 of their rotation players last postseason were already older than 25, and they’re not adding much youth because they’ve traded so many first-round picks for proven vets such as Jrue Holiday and P.J. Tucker. But they also won a title with this older core and rank among the favorites to win again this season. That’s a trade-off they’re surely willing to make.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Jeff Bottari/NBAE via Getty Images

29. Los Angeles Lakers

Stat ranking: 28th
Expert ranking: 29th
Last year: 27th

J. Kyle Mann: The Lakers have as much youth as a Facebook comment section. In fact, their under-25 players make up just 0.07 percent of their payroll.

This is an odd handful of players. Are they a group that can be built upon? I’d argue they are not. Are they going to bolster the glaring needs for this Lakers roster? Again, I’d argue probably not.

I loved Lonnie Walker IV’s game in high school and during his brief time in college at Miami. He’s a supremely confident herky-jerky-dribble shooter who plays primarily off the catch, with a gradual increase as the handler in ball screens. He’s the type of player who could thrive with LeBron’s decision-making—a classic template at this point. That said, it’s hard to justify Walker being much more than a microwave offensive tool without any kind of consistent efficiency. It could be entertaining at times, but when it comes to meaningful basketball, I’m not holding my breath.

28. Los Angeles Clippers

Stat ranking: 29th
Expert ranking: 28th
Last year: 22nd

Mann: The Clippers are not young, but I do think they’ve taken a couple of notably intriguing boom-or-bust upside swings, each of which could legitimately go either way.

The first was on Moussa Diabate, which might be a name you’re hearing for the first time. Diabate is a physically gifted 6-foot-10 forward who was snagged in this year’s second round. He’s a hypothetical shooter at this point, but he has the size, ranginess, and activity to potentially become a switchable nuisance defensively.

The other is Brandon Boston Jr., who had some tantalizing outbursts during his rookie year, but was unable to shed the brutal inefficiency that has plagued him over the years. Among players who averaged at least 10 minutes and five shot attempts per game, he posted one of the worst rookie shooting seasons since the turn of the century, at 38.5 percent from the field.

27. Brooklyn Nets

Stat ranking: 26th
Expert ranking: 25th
Last year: 25th

Kram: Like the Bucks, Lakers, and Clippers, the Nets are firmly in win-now mode. But at least their youth squad has a bit more juice. Day’Ron Sharpe and Cam Thomas showed flashes in limited playing time as rookies and Nic Claxton still profiles as a mobile, defensively versatile center. Claxton switched on 15.9 picks per 100 possessions last regular season, according to Second Spectrum; among rotation players, only Bam Adebayo (17.7 per 100) switched more often. Claxton won’t ever be an offensive hub like Adebayo, but as long as he can defend across the positional spectrum, he’ll retain value in the modern NBA.

26. Washington Wizards

Stat ranking: 19th
Expert ranking: 27th
Last year: 18th

Kram: Deni Avdija posted very good advanced defensive stats last season. That’s the best we can say about the Wizards’ youngsters, after five drafts in a row with a top-15 pick and not much to show for it. Washington is the lowest-ranked team on this list that doesn’t have a chance to win the title this season.

25. Portland Trail Blazers

Stat ranking: 25th
Expert ranking: 21st
Last year: 29th

Mann: The depth of the Blazers’ youth movement is impressive, although it’s hard to know just how substantial each piece within that core happens to be. Jabari Walker, the 57th pick, could become a sleeper prize of the 2022 draft. But the shimmering jewel of the group is Anfernee Simons, still only 23 years old and coming off a season in which he made a clear and inarguable leap in the absence of Damian Lillard (injury) and CJ McCollum (midseason trade). Simons took on a significantly bigger offensive role, with a massive uptick in ball screen per-100 possessions while hitting the highest efficiency of his four-year career. We’ve always known that he could score, but most impressive for me is the fact that he grew in this area while also tilting his decision-making toward playmaking.

Simons’s Playmaking Growth

Season Picks Per 100 Possessions Points Per Possession Ball Handler FGA Per Direct Pick Ball Handler Pass Per Direct Pick
Season Picks Per 100 Possessions Points Per Possession Ball Handler FGA Per Direct Pick Ball Handler Pass Per Direct Pick
2018-19 20.69 1.132 0.471 0.314
2019-20 16.026 1.146 0.593 0.288
2020-21 18.103 1.099 0.555 0.387
2021-22 36.59 1.203 0.486 0.416

The real question is whether Simons and Shaedon Sharpe, the seventh pick in 2022, can morph into some facsimile of Dame and CJ—shot creators who can operate in motion off a connective playmaker and also create their own offense at a high level. Simons has done a lot to prove himself in this sense, but Sharpe might be even more naturally gifted and physically equipped as a three-level scorer. Most importantly, dude just needs to play. If Sharpe does, and that talent bubbles to the surface, this could become one of the more entertaining young scoring duos in the league. It’s “wait and see,” but the seeing is going to be very fun when and if it happens.

NBA 2022 Playoffs - Chicago Bulls v Milwaukee Bucks

24. Chicago Bulls

Stat ranking: 22nd
Expert ranking: 23rd
Last year: 11th

Kram: Here are the Bulls’ first-round picks since 2016: Denzel Valentine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Coby White, Patrick Williams, and Dalen Terry. Thus far, Carter is the best NBA player of that group—and he plays for Orlando now, after a trade that also gave the Magic the pick they used to select Franz Wagner. Williams still has upside, but lost almost all of last season to injuries and now might be a reserve rather than a starter. If not him, it’s unclear whether any young Bull will be able to provide meaningful support for the team’s veteran core.

23. Utah Jazz

Stat ranking: 18th
Expert ranking: 26th
Last year: 26th

Kram: In theory, the Jazz added a decent amount of young talent during their summer teardown, with U25s Jarred Vanderbilt, Collin Sexton, Talen Horton-Tucker, Walker Kessler, and Ochai Agbaji all joining the roster. But other than Kessler and Agbaji, both first-round picks in 2022, how many of them will stick around for the long term? With the most future draft equity of any team in the league, it’s not hard to imagine Utah embracing a full, Thunder-style tank that renders those players transitory rather than part of a core.

22. Phoenix Suns

Stat ranking: 24th
Expert ranking: 20th
Last year: 23rd

Mann: Remember when the Suns were that scrappy upstart? That crew of chirpy, easygoing Valley Boyz who were just one piece away from sitting at the adult table? These days, the U25 crowd is thin in Phoenix. There’s Josh Okogie, every analytics hipster’s favorite perimeter defender; Duane Washington Jr.; and of course, the enigmatic Deandre Ayton.

Ayton had all but packed his bags this summer for another life, where he and Tyrese Haliburton would clink umbrella-clad cocktails and high-five, miles away from the piercing anxiety of CP3’s voice and Monty Williams’s corrective words. Unfortunately, that fantasy was interrupted by Phoenix’s decision to pony up and match Indiana’s $133 million offer sheet.

Expectations drive everything. If Ayton had been a mid-first-rounder or even a late lottery pick, we’d probably be falling over ourselves to praise him. But Ayton was the no. 1 pick in a loaded draft, which means he can’t establish his value on his own terms. At this point, he lives in most people’s minds somewhere between satisfaction and wishing he was something a little bit more. He’s a terrific containing, positionally-sound big on defense, but not the nimble, switchable, three-level defender who can single-handedly disrupt an offense

The NBA’s Most Versatile Bigs

Player Positional Versatility % PG % SG % SF % PF % C Picks Per 100 Possessions Points Per Possession
Player Positional Versatility % PG % SG % SF % PF % C Picks Per 100 Possessions Points Per Possession
Deandre Ayton 54.6 9.4 7.8 6.5 18.2 58 47.737 1.079
Rudy Gobert 62 8.8 9.5 11.3 18.8 51.6 48.387 1.015
Evan Mobley 70.4 8.7 8.6 16.9 31.6 34.2 25.503 1.157
Anthony Davis 67.8 10.4 9.9 10.4 27.9 41.4 31.389 1.042
Jaren Jackson Jr. 71.3 8.9 11 14.7 35.1 30.4 24.612 1.055
Giannis Antetokounmpo 70.8 8.9 9.8 14.4 33 33.9 27.549 1.12
Robert Williams III 73.2 10.4 11.1 16.1 26.1 36.3 28.091 1.018
Joel Embiid 54.3 7.2 7.1 7.4 20.9 57.4 49.972 1.032
Jarrett Allen 57.9 9.5 7.8 9 17.8 56 40.087 1.065

For now, Ayton’s offerings are great, but we’re tapping our toes and hoping that he breaks the seal on further avenues of production.

21. Miami Heat

Stat ranking: 27th
Expert ranking: 15th
Last year: 19th

Mann: The Heat have slipped a couple of spots since their no. 19 ranking a year ago, and that’s understandable: Bam Adebayo turned 25, which leaves the Miami “young core” looking like an extremely challenging segment of “Who He Play For?”—spare Tyler Herro and Nikola Jovic. But Miami also has one of the better developmental systems in the league, and will likely find more contributors to add to this group soon.

Jovic, only 19 years old, will be a competent spacer and pick-and-pop presence with tremendous size in the near future. But the prevailing question is a simple one: Is Herro the real deal or not? I can already hear the faint roar of an angry mob marching over the hills in my direction, shaking their pitchforks and claiming that I am too high on Tyler Herro—overrating his playoff pedigree at 22 years old and overestimating his upside. The angry mob might be right, but they should know that they’re coming after Pat Riley, too. We’ll be sitting side-by-side in this pose, waiting for you. I’ll probably wear a darker color and avoid any of Pat’s questions about my body fat percentage.

The Heat have not rolled their eyes at Herro’s ambition to be in the starting lineup. Their trust in him has grown each season, but Riley specifically noted Herro’s defense and strength as areas for improvement. His on-ball responsibilities increased in 2021-22, and he (justifiably) became one of the most prolific dribble pull-up shooters from 3 in the NBA. His playmaking upside and the extent to which he can limit being defensively targeted will be the major story lines for where he goes from here.

2022-23 Denver Nuggets Training Camp Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

20. Denver Nuggets

Stat ranking: 20th
Expert ranking: 18th
Last year: 14th

Kram: Bones Hyland impressed as a fearless rookie, but Denver fell in this ranking for two reasons. First, Jamal Murray celebrated his 25th birthday, and thus no longer qualifies; second, Michael Porter Jr. played only nine ineffective games last season before undergoing back surgery. That’s a huge concern for a player with a robust injury history, because it’s hard to trust that Porter will stay healthy enough to harness his prodigious offensive talents in the seasons to come. Before last season, the FiveThirtyEight projections ranked Porter fifth among all U25 players; now he’s only 29th.

19. San Antonio Spurs

Stat ranking: 13th
Expert ranking: 24th
Last year: 24th

Mann: San Antonio probably stayed between eras a bit longer than it should have. In fact, it’s been hard to put your finger on what exactly the Spurs have been aiming to accomplish the past few years. Since their veteran-heavy 2017-18 squad bowed out in the first round to the Warriors and Kawhi was shipped to Canada, it’s been a slow changing of the guard. The Spurs were bad, but not nearly bad enough to get the jolt of talent that was needed—predictable for a prideful and decorated organization.

This season the aim is far less ambiguous. San Antonio lost four of its most experienced players, all of whom were among its most effective 3-point shooters. Its preseason meeting probably looked something like this:

Might it be a glorious capstone on Gregg Popovich’s legacy if he’s able to coach this roster in earnest while also putting them in position to land Victor Wembanyama? Return your coaching energy back to the earth so it might get recycled as fertile ground for the next generation? Spin the wheel of time so that it falls exactly back where it started, with a supreme talent kicking off an exciting new era?

Posturing for the future aside, I do think that Jeremy Sochan, Josh Primo, Devin Vassell, and Keldon Johnson are keeper pieces, and that Malaki Branham and Blake Wesley could join that company soon.

18. Philadelphia 76ers

Stat ranking: 15th
Expert ranking: 22nd
Last year: 15th

Kram: The 76ers have only two U25s worth much, but there’s reason to be enamored of both of them. Tyrese Maxey enjoyed a breakout sophomore season, scoring 17.5 points per game on 43 percent shooting from distance. As a bolt of lightning next to Joel Embiid and James Harden’s thunder, Maxey offers stylistic diversity and could elevate his game even higher this season: He leads the league in points per minute this preseason (minimum two games played).

De’Anthony Melton, meanwhile, brings his all-around impact to Philadelphia after a draft-night trade. Once a poor 3-point shooter, Melton’s at 39 percent from distance over the past two seasons, but he boosts his team with far more than scoring. During his three seasons in Memphis, Melton’s RAPM (an advanced stat that measures a player’s impact after adjusting for his teammates and opponents) ranked 21st in the NBA.

17. Sacramento Kings

Stat ranking: 21st
Expert ranking: 16th
Last year: 7th

Mann: I’d imagine Kings fans are excited for this season, while also suffering from some fatigue. Their optimism for the future in the past five years has been as steady as Michael Scott’s vasectomy history. Their young core ranking is down significantly from a year ago. That’s likely because Marvin Bagley III and (more importantly) Tyrese Haliburton were both shipped away last season, and that the numbers are now leaning on projections for a lottery pick with a skill set that’s difficult to fully quantify (Keegan Murray), and a player who has spent his career in an odd-fitting situation for his talents (Kevin Huerter). I expect both players to interface splendidly with Sacramento’s existing personnel.

It’s a spindly group that will probably struggle to defend, but overall I think this team is going to be fun as hell to watch at times, with their numerous fluidly skilled perimeter athletes (who can also shoot) and Domantas Sabonis propping it all up.

I should also mention the euphoria I feel because of the reunion of De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. In that sense, we’re all winners.

Dallas Mavericks v Golden State Warriors - Game Five Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

16. Golden State Warriors

Stat ranking: 23rd
Expert ranking: 11th
Last year: 28th

Mann: This young core is icing on the cake for a title team, but how would we feel about Jonathan Kuminga (no. 7 pick in 2021), James Wiseman (no. 2 in 2020), Moses Moody (no. 14 in 2021), Patrick Baldwin Jr. (no. 28 in 2022), and Jordan Poole (no. 28 in 2019) if they were the sole focus of this organization? What if they weren’t waiting in the wings for their opportunity to carry the baton for the most successful franchise of the past 10 years? Would they, as assets, be valued higher, or would their issues be more visibly exposed? Are they themselves the building blocks for a new era, or candidates for the trading block to extend this championship window? Is there a true centerpiece for the future among them? How many questions can I ask in a row?

In the midst of being led on a guided tour of Fist City and bugging Klay Thompson with his shot selection, Poole looked like an All-Star during the last quarter of the season and then played brilliantly on the biggest stage. Wiseman was less than stellar as a rookie, but has looked healthy and active for the first time in a while; he could give Steph Curry his first bona fide lob threat at center since … well, ever? Kuminga was breathtaking at times last season, roaming within the gravity of Golden State’s offense, but saw his minutes dwindle to 8.6 per game in the playoffs. Moody was phenomenal in summer league and seems like a shoo-in candidate to make a leap and fill the Gary Payton II-shaped void: He’s a clever player with prototypical physical perimeter tools and a potentially more dynamic offensive threat.

One wild card is Baldwin, who has actually shot it well in the preseason. Baldwin was a heralded prospect at the prep level, but poor play during his bizarre and injury-laden freshman year of college, and eye-poppingly bad measurements at the combine, created a worrisome stink that drove teams away. The Warriors’ established culture and system are a perfect setting for him to course-correct the trajectory of his development.

15. Houston Rockets

Stat ranking: 16th
Expert ranking: 13th
Last year: 20th

Mann: The Rockets are in a glorious paint-slinging phase. Make a mess, be bad, accrue some immensely valuable low-stakes reps, see what works. In that sense, Houston should be pretty entertaining, albeit chaotic.

I’m always dubious of leaning heavily on “after the All-Star break” stats, but through the last 22 games of the season, Jalen Green looked increasingly comfy. He upped his scoring average to 22.6 points on nearly 60 percent true shooting and over seven 3-point attempts per game. He should build on that.

The Rockets have also amassed an entertaining young cast of characters, with Alperen Sengun at times looking like one of the most skilled young bigs in the league, and Kevin Porter Jr. being his baffling self. The rookies should up the defensive integrity of the unit. In addition to the varied shooting pluses, Jabari Smith Jr. should be a good team defender from Day 1, and TyTy Washington Jr. probably deserves a bit more credit in that area. I’ll be most fascinated by how quickly the whispers about Tari Eason’s reputation grow to an impassioned murmur this season.

14. Indiana Pacers

Stat ranking: 8th
Expert ranking: 17th
Last year: 21st

Kram: Here’s a comforting fun fact for Indiana fans, coming off the team’s worst season since the 1980s: The FiveThirtyEight rankings give new Pacer Tyrese Haliburton a top-10 projection among all U25 players. He checks almost every box for a lead guard on a good team, at least on offense. He shoots with accuracy (41 percent on 3s in his career). He’s a willing and capable distributor (8.2 assists per game last season, including 9.6 after his trade to Indiana). He rarely commits unforced errors (2.6 turnovers per game, tied for the second lowest of players in the top 10 in assists).

Compared to the other players with a top-10 projection, Haliburton perhaps exudes less star potential. His usage rate is slightly below the league average, which suggests he isn’t completely comfortable creating his own shot yet, and he doesn’t often make his way to the free throw line. But he’s still only 22, so it seems premature to place a ceiling on top of his talented head.

Elsewhere on the roster, rookie big Isaiah Jackson authored some robust stat lines down the stretch last season, and no. 6 pick Bennedict Mathurin offers, well, the promise that any no. 6 pick does before his rookie campaign. If Chris Duarte—already 25 years old despite entering only his second season—still qualified for this exercise, the Pacers would rank even higher.

2022-23 NBA Abu Dhabi Games - Atlanta Hawks v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

13. Atlanta Hawks

Stat ranking: 17th
Expert ranking: 6th
Last year: 1st

Mann: Coming off an incredible and unexpected playoff run in 2021, the Hawks—a team at the time buoyed by some key veterans but largely driven by youngsters—entered last season no. 1 on this list. It seemed foolish to underestimate them at that point, given what we’d seen. They decimated the Knicks in Round 1, shocked the Sixers in the conference semis, and then annoyed the eventual champion Bucks. They were ahead of schedule, and most prognosticators assumed they’d come in and pick up where they left off.

Didn’t exactly happen! They sputtered out of the gate and proceeded to win only two more games than the previous season, eventually flaming out in five games in the first round against Miami. Retooling led to some departures—they shipped away Cam Reddish and Kevin Huerter—but this young core is still firmly among the best in the league, with the likes of Trae Young and De’Andre Hunter. (John Collins turned 25, so we’re not technically counting him.)

Health will be the diciest variable. If Onyeka Okongwu can piece together a complete season, I expect him to become one of the league’s most promising young defensive bigs. AJ Griffin was arguably the best shooting prospect in the 2022 draft (and has the widest base on his shot I think I’ve ever seen), but has an alarming injury history, including the “right foot discomfort” that kept him out of summer league and an ankle injury that bugged him in September.

12. Charlotte Hornets

Stat ranking: 7th
Expert ranking: 14th
Last year: 8th

Kram: Did LaMelo Ball’s sophomore season fly under the radar? It seems like it. After cruising to a Rookie of the Year trophy in 2020-21, Ball was even better last season: He boosted his points and assists averages, shot better from 3 (up to 39 percent), and became just the seventh player in league history—along with Bob Cousy, Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Grant Hill, LeBron James, and Luka Doncic—to average a 20-6-6 in his second season.

But Charlotte still finished 10th in the East, sputtered to another blowout loss in the play-in round, and fired coach James Borrego. Now the franchise’s arrow seems pointed down once again. Beyond Ball, there’s little young talent on this roster; 2021 lottery pick James Bouknight barely played as a rookie. But Ball alone is sufficient to buoy his team’s ranking here: There are only so many future MVP candidates, and at age 21, he’s on that list.

11. New York Knicks

Stat ranking: 2nd
Expert ranking: 19th
Last year: 13th

Kram: Most teams around this portion of the rankings are powered by one transcendent youngster, like Haliburton, Young, and Ball. The Knicks don’t have anyone near that level. But what they do have is more young depth than almost any other team, with five U25 players projected to accumulate double-digit WAR over the next half decade. That’s tied for the most of any franchise, along with the team that ranks no. 1 on our list.

The Knicks, to use the old analogy, don’t have any dollar-bill players; instead, their young core consists of a handful of quarters: Immanuel Quickley (whom advanced stats absolutely adore) and Quentin Grimes in the backcourt, RJ Barrett on the wing, Mitchell Robinson and underrated backup Isaiah Hartenstein in the middle. Whether the group—particularly Quickley and Barrett, the highest-ceiling members of the quintet—can take a collective step forward this season will go a long way toward determining the Knicks’ future.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies - Game One Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

10. Minnesota Timberwolves

Stat ranking: 9th
Expert ranking: 12th
Last year: 3rd

Kram: The Wolves shed some of their young depth in the Rudy Gobert trade, but they still have Anthony Edwards, who’s good enough by himself to sit in a similar tier with Young and Ball. At this time last year, Edwards tentatively projected as a future All-Star, after showing great strides toward the end of his rookie season; now, he looks like a bona fide superstar in waiting, with the fourth-best WAR projection among all U25 players.

Edwards’s surface stats don’t look all that different from his rookie to sophomore seasons, but he improved a little bit in just about every statistical category; moreover, he looked the part, at times taking over games that mattered and evincing the kind of alpha bravado that characterizes so many of the NBA’s best. Among the U25 crew, Jaden McDaniels is a solid second player for Minnesota, but make no mistake: This top-10 ranking is about Edwards, whose immense potential rivals that of anybody else his age. The Timberwolves’ placement so close to the Hornets here demonstrates just how special the top of the 2020 draft, which saw Edwards go no. 1 and Ball no. 3, might prove in the long run.

9. Toronto Raptors

Stat ranking: 10th
Expert ranking: 10th
Last year: 10th

Mann: This is also one of the few instances on this list where I am in lockstep with what the analytics predict. It’s hard to overstate just how well Toronto curates a certain brand of player and then wrings the most out of them. It’s downright Spursian.

As much as I love Scottie Barnes (does anyone dislike Barnes at this point?), it’s hard to know just how good he can be. Does he have a mode of offense that will give teams anxiety when they scheme, or is he more of an Iguodala type—an elite supportive star who really bolsters every aspect of winning?

The rest of this young group contributes to an attack that never seems to relent or phone it in, which must annoy the piss out of the rest of the league. Big picture, the Raps likely need another big piece, but they’ve laid a lot of the groundwork already. Gary Trent Jr. and Precious Achiuwa look like playoff-starter-level players, and Dalano Banton and Malachi Flynn are capable in spurts, unlikely to be central pieces.

8. Boston Celtics

Stat ranking: 14th
Expert ranking: 5th
Last year: 6th

Mann: Much like another team in the top 10 that we’ll discuss shortly, pedigree and upside are carrying a lot of water here for me. Despite eventually hitting the wall in the Finals, Jayson Tatum is likely the second-best player in the world under the age of 25, and yet there are still levels he could climb to and areas where he could expand. His experience should prove to be invaluable for where he wants to go: He’s already logged 2,836 playoff minutes, which is the third-highest total ever for a player who hasn’t hit their 25th birthday. Only Kobe Bryant and Tony Parker hit higher marks.

Since Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams III both have aged out of this discussion, the amount of high-level talent does take a bit of a dip from there. Grant Williams has shown signs that he can be an infuriatingly pesky small-ball 5 when needed, and with Time Lord struggling to stay healthy and Al Horford ideally pacing himself before the playoffs, that need will arise more frequently than you’d think.

Because their young core of the past few years has been such a success, this will likely be the last year for quite some time that the C’s will be prominent in this discussion.

7. Detroit Pistons

Stat ranking: 12th
Expert ranking: 7th
Last year: 12th

Mann: When was the last time there was this much optimism about the Detroit Pistons? Talk about an aimless, soul-crushing famine for meaningful basketball—since the 2009-10 season, they’ve reached the playoffs twice, losing in the first round both times. It’s been an astonishingly swift shift of momentum by GM Troy Weaver, who in two years’ time has turned this franchise into one of the league’s more promising teams.

Cade Cunningham has given this roster a road map. What a luxury to have someone who can mesh with other creators. That means that the addition of Jaden Ivey should work. Ivey, the no. 5 pick, gives them another ball handler who will always stress teams in transition and scorch closeouts when he’s playing off the catch. I really hope we get to see Ivey, Cunningham, and Saddiq Bey (whose regression last season seems a bit overblown once you dig into the numbers) on the floor together.

Detroit was 29th last season in points generated by attacking closeouts, largely because teams didn’t respect its lob game (23rd overall) or its shooters (29th overall at 32.6 percent). Jalen Duren should eventually become an ultra-athletic interior presence, but he’s still only 18 years old. Isaiah Stewart will likely still play a ton, but I don’t think he’s the answer for the future. Marvin Bagley III should be icing on the cake, but he’s battling injury yet again.

The average age on this roster is still only 24.8, up from 23.6 last season, and the move to sprinkle in key veterans like Bojan Bogdanovic and Nerlens Noel makes sense for Detroit’s cumulative development, but my gut says that this will likely be another slog of a year for this group—which, to be clear, is fine. Be messy, learn lessons. Cross your fingers for Vic.

6. Oklahoma City Thunder

Stat ranking: 6th
Expert ranking: 9th
Last year: 17th

Kram: The Thunder unsurprisingly tie for the most young players of any team, and their volume definitely helps. They have so many idiomatic bites at the apple that some of their young players are bound to succeed. But the Thunder aren’t solely relying on raffle tickets: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort would fit in any playoff rotation right now, with Gilgeous-Alexander in particular offering more untapped potential, if only the Thunder would let him play a full season with competent NBA players around him.

But since last season, two key developments have improved the outlook for the Thunder’s young core. First, Josh Giddey proved his worth as a rookie, compensating for atrocious shooting numbers (42 percent from the field, 26 percent from distance) with high-level passing chops and a deft feel for the game. He’s a sure keeper as OKC slowly plots its future. And second, the Thunder finally landed some lottery luck and took Chet Holmgren with the no. 2 pick. The Gonzaga big man is out for the season after suffering a Lisfranc injury in August, but he still projects as one of the top players from the 2022 draft.

That quartet forms a strong base, and with all those aforementioned raffle tickets—the Thunder will still play three of the top 34 picks from the 2022 draft even without Holmgren—added in, this is the most talented OKC roster in years. They’ll still probably tank again this season, but at long last, the Thunder’s hazy future might finally be taking shape.

New Orleans Pelicans v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

5. New Orleans Pelicans

Stat ranking: 11th
Expert ranking: 4th
Last year: 2nd

Mann: When a team is ahead of schedule, it can be a mistake to assume that their success will continue in an uninterrupted linear progression. But how often does a team like the Pelicans put it all together at the end of the season, compete tooth-and-nail with the overall no. 1 seed in the playoffs, and then turn around and add a player as dominant and as young as Zion Williamson? Very seldomly.

Maybe we’ve all suffered amnesia on who this guy is. During the 2020-21 season, Zion was more or less unstoppable in every offensive facet, aside from 3-point shooting. Though 6-foot-6, he was a beast in the post, eviscerating bigs in isolation and on the offensive glass. In the 61 games he played during the 2020-21 season, Williamson averaged 27 points on nearly 65 percent true shooting, 3.7 assists, and 8.7 free throws. Truly one of the “throw your hands up and look at the bench in disbelief” players in the sport.

It’s also important to not discount the potential progressions within this deep collection of players. Trey Murphy III, Jose Alvarado, Jaxson Hayes, Kira Lewis Jr., and the legend Herb Jones each could expand their games once opposing scouting reports have to think more seriously about the dynamic between NOLA’s stars. I am also a big fan of Dyson Daniels, the no. 8 pick.

History tells us that NOLA could very likely regress, that we shouldn’t expect too much from them, but the gravitational pull of Zion is that strong. I’m inclined to believe.

4. Orlando Magic

Stat ranking: 5th
Expert ranking: 8th
Last year: 5th

Kram: Paolo Banchero was the no. 1 pick in June, and he doesn’t even have the best WAR projection for a U25 player on his team. That’s how impressive Franz Wagner was as a rookie, and the German forward only raised his stock further with a magnificent EuroBasket performance this summer.

The Magic’s young core isn’t foolproof: They really need at least one of the Jalen Suggs–Markelle Fultz–Cole Anthony trio to emerge as a strong lead guard. In particular, Suggs—who is currently out with a knee injury—suffered a dismal rookie season, shooting 36 percent from the field and 21 percent from distance, to give him the worst effective field goal percentage for any rookie since 1999-00 (minimum 500 attempts).

But the young front line of Wagner, Banchero, and Wendell Carter Jr. is versatile and supremely skilled, with complementary abilities. If the young guards aren’t ready to helm an offense, maybe Banchero can assume the lead creator role, or maybe Wagner can become a heavier pick-and-roll presence. They exude two-way promise, giving the Magic their most exciting team since Dwight Howard roamed the paint. That isn’t a high bar to clear—but at least Banchero and Wagner might help the Magic post their best offensive season in more than a decade.

Dallas Maverics Live Practice Photo by Cooper Neill/NBAE via Getty Images

3. Dallas Mavericks

Stat ranking: 4th
Expert ranking: 2nd
Last year: 9th

Mann: You might say, “Kyle, you tremendous ass—the Dallas young core is made up of two disappointing wing prospects who’ve had ample time to show something, a talented but unproven wild card, and Luka Doncic.” I grant you 75 percent of that. The clock is ticking louder and louder for the remaining Frankie zealots (KOC), and Josh Green seems like a much more tentative offensive player than the one I became enamored of a few years ago. Jaden Hardy is house money, and he’ll be in a liberating setting for his sensibilities. But any young core on earth that features a player who:

  • Is a legitimate top-five player in the world
  • Has been in MVP conversations since he was 21
  • Has already spearheaded five playoff series with career averages of 32.5 points, 9.3 total rebounds, and 7.9 assists
  • Is one of the true floor-raising offensive players in the NBA
  • Is on track to be a top-25 player all time

yeah, I’m ranking that at or near the top. Four quarters do not always equal a dollar in the NBA. I’d rather have Luka than most any other combination of young players you could throw at me. The upside is still immense—seriously, God only knows what Luka’s going to look like when he’s in the 26-to-29 age range, the playoff functionality is proven, and I find it pretty goddamn fun to watch.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers

Stat ranking: 3rd
Expert ranking: 3rd
Last year: 16th

Kram: Cleveland has only four U25 players with guaranteed contracts—but what a quartet they form. The Cavaliers’ youngsters aren’t just talented, but they fit perfectly together as well, with Darius Garland at point guard, Isaac Okoro as a rugged wing defender, and a prototypical pair of Twin Towers bigs in Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen.

While Okoro—particularly his rickety 3-point stroke—remains a question mark, and an important one for a team in need of wing defense, the other three are just about unimpeachable at this stage of their careers. The Cavaliers boasted the league’s best rim defense last season, thanks to their two U25 centers, and as long as Mobley expands his offensive range as his game matures, the duo should be able to coexist going forward without any problems on either end.

But the biggest revelation of last season wasn’t Mobley, who was the Rookie of the Year favorite until a late-season injury, but Garland; from last preseason to now, no player improved his WAR projection more than the Cavaliers guard. Dealt a massive offensive burden last season as injuries ransacked the roster, Garland posted decent efficiency numbers, averaged 22 points and nine assists per game, and handled the ball more than almost any player in the league.

Thanks to the Donovan Mitchell and Caris LeVert trades, the Cavaliers will have few opportunities to add meaningful young talent for the next half decade. So it’s a good thing that the young players already in place are among the best, and most balanced, in the league.

1. Memphis Grizzlies

Stat ranking: 1st
Expert ranking: 1st
Last year: 4th

Kram: Frankly, the top of this leaderboard wasn’t even close. In the statistical ranking, second place was closer to 12th place than it was to first. The Grizzlies blew everyone else away.

It’s not hard to see why. Ja Morant is one of the best U25 point guards in the league. Desmond Bane might be the very best U25 shooting guard. Jaren Jackson Jr. is one of the best U25 bigs. With that trio, the Grizzlies boast three of the top 15 U25 WAR projections, and the giant, mostly untested group of Ziaire Williams, Kennedy Chandler, Xavier Tillman, Jake LaRavia, David Roddy, and Santi Aldama all have positive projections as well. Few teams are better at identifying useful role players who can slot seamlessly into a system than Memphis.

Elevate that depth with legitimate stars, and the Grizzlies have a recipe for the best young core in the NBA. Morant, of course, grabs the spotlight, after winning the league’s Most Improved Player award and earning his first of presumably many All-NBA nods. The only real concern is his health—to give one counterexample, Morant missed as many games last season as Jayson Tatum has missed in his career—but he’s on the short list of young players most likely to lead a Finals team.

Bane and Jackson also took giant leaps forward last season. Bane was once a no. 30 pick; now he’s a two-way presence who gives Memphis by far its best long-range threat (44 percent on 3s). And Jackson fouls too much and is injured to start the 2022-23 campaign, but he made the All-Defensive first team last season and remains an ideal big man for the modern game.

The five youngest teams last season were the Thunder, Magic, Pistons, Rockets, and Grizzlies. The first four averaged 22 wins, while the Grizzlies won 56 games and reached the second round of the playoffs, before a Morant injury and the Warriors conspired to send them home. Very few teams in league history have been so good and so young as the 2021-22 Grizzlies. The whole core is still in place this season, and should stick together for years of contention to come.

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Brian Robb Previews the Celtics Offseason. Plus, Are the Pats About to Make a Big Move?

The Ryen Russillo Podcast

Kyrie Recruiting LeBron and Jaylen, Harden and Dame’s Futures With Shams Charania. Plus the NIL Wild West in CFB With Bruce Feldman.

NBA Finals

Six Degrees of Jeff Green

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