Top 23 NBA Players 23 or Under
The future is in good hands.
Quick programming note: the Women’s World Cup begins at 8:20 PM Eastern tonight. Time zones, am I right? Team USA tips off the group phase at 9:20 PM Eastern against Belgium (Emma Meesseman and Julie Allemand), which is actually a big match. Games are available on ESPN+. The full schedule is here.
Boy Blowing Bubbles, Edouard Manet, 1867
We have something a little different today: a list celebrating the youth of the league. I pulled together data on all NBA players born in 1999 or later and made a ranked assessment of them. The main takeaway is that there is a lot of superb young talent in the league. The greatness of the generation hitting their primes now — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, even Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns — has been thoroughly discussed in recent years. Right behind them is a bumper crop of stardom.
Because the NBA season does not follow the calendar year, there is some weirdness around saying that these are the best 23 players 23 or under. After January 1 of this coming NBA season, the older of these players will turn 24. In addition, there are some players who are currently 23 but who will turn 24 before the end of the calendar year. Herb Jones, for example, turns 24 on October 6. He’s not on the list because the list is just those players born in 1999 or later. Sorry Herb! For the record, no current Celtics are eligible for this list on account of being old. The only Laker eligible is Troy Brown Jr. and, uh, spoiler alert he is not on the list.
Final preamble note: no rookies here. We need to see something first.
Here we go.
23. Onyeka Okongwu
Okongwu is still wrapped up in potential more than reality as a rotation player for the Hawks behind Clint Capela and John Collins. His defense and activity are as advertised, and he’s been focused on not trying to do what he doesn’t know will be successful. To wit: his usage rate is an extremely low 14%. But he’s proven to be such a promising defender (more than 2 blocks per 36 minutes at 6’8), rebounder (he annoys opponents on the offensive glass so much) and finisher (69% from the floor, shooting almost entirely in the paint) that I have him here above my top honorable mention, Wendell Carter Jr.23.
22. Lu Dort
[“Lu-guentz Dort! doot doot-doot-doot” sung to the tune of “Ja-mie Tartt! doot doot-doot-doot” which is sung to the tune of “Baby Shark”]
The main conversation around Lu Dort right now is about how much he got paid by the Thunder this summer. Here are my full thoughts on Lu Dort:
Hard-working, gritty success story who should be celebrated
Incredible name whether you fashion it “Lu Dort” or “Luguentz Dort”
Excellent wing defender
The offense reeks of “good player, bad team” and on a better team he wouldn’t take 10 shots a game
We’ll see if eventually OKC can be that better team or if some other squad in need of wing defense (a very marketable skill in the NBA) will accept the whole package. In the interim, he’s at worst the Thunder’s No. 3 player. Good for him.
21. Saddiq Bey
Bey’s shooting efficiency quietly dipped as he became more of a featured player alongside Cade Cunningham in Year 2. Defenses were also keyed up to him with Christian Wood out of the picture. One presumes that as defenses refocus their efforts on containing Cunningham, Bey will find freedom. In any case, confident and reliable three-point shooters don’t grow on trees. I’m eager to see how Bey’s game fills out and whether he can become a plus defender for a competive Detroit team.
20. Isaac Okoro
Lost in most of the Donovan Mitchell conversation is the impactful Isaac Okoro, who has started 128 of his 134 games as a Cavalier at the wing positions. Given that both Collin Sexton and Lauri Markannen left in the Mitchell deal, one presumes that you could pencil in Okoro as the starting three with Darius Garland, Mitchell, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. That line-up puts a ton of defensive pressure on Okoro. He appears, based on his first two seasons, to be ready for the assignment. He won’t be asked to do much other than hit open shots on offense, and maybe get out on the break. On defense, he’s going to be asked to do everything that JA and Mobley don’t.
19. Keldon Johnson
It’ll be interesting to see how Johnson performs as the clear No. 1 option on a tanking Spurs team this season. He’s a pretty efficient scorer but compares unfavorably to, say, Christian Wood in that category. I struggled to judge his individual defense considering he played between Jakob Poeltl and Dejounte Murray. The shooting is the draw here: 38% career from three, and almost 40% of his shots came from there last season. I’d like to see more volume all around from him. Big season to determine his path.
18. Franz Wagner
I’ll admit that I moved Wagner up this list over the course of EuroBasket. He has it, including some surprising playmaking that his rookie numbers bear out. He’s very clearly going to be a 20-point scorer soon, though I’m interested to see how much of his growth comes from bumping the three-point frequency — 37% of his shots last year were in the 3-10 foot range, which is probably too many. Defense will also be something to watch with Wagner. He’s really young, so we’ll see. The overall upside is certainly there.
17. RJ Barrett
RJ Barrett is only 22. Oldest 22-year-old I’ve ever seen. Every Knicks season feels like seven so the math checks out. Barrett became a 20-point scorer last season in Year 3, but was pretty inefficient in doing so. There hasn’t been much growth on the playmaking (stuck on 3 assists per 36 minutes in his career) and it’s wildly unclear whether he’s going to be a reliable three-point shooter over his career. But shot creation is a skill and he has it. Defense is a skill and he has it. And foul-drawing is a skill: Barrett definitely has it. Definite All-Star potential here, and he could make his placement on this list look way too low very soon.
16. Jordan Poole
As readers know, I’m in the tank for Poole. Extreme late 2000s vibes from him. The most “We Believe!” of the current Warriors (Jonathan Kuminga runner up). The dude averaged 22 points per 36 minutes ON THE WARRIORS the last two seasons. If Dort’s scoring is discounted because it’s coming on a team littered with G League talent, shouldn’t Poole’s be more valuable because it’s coming in the context of one of the greatest collections of scorers (at least after Klay Thompson’s return) in a generation? This guy plays a lot of minutes with STEPH CURRY and his usage rate is 26%. Confidence meter through the roof. Defense is obviously an issue (one opponents tried desperately to exploit in the playoffs) but the offense is such a boon and he’s improved as a playmaker as well. Love this player.
15. Anfernee Simons
Big red flag is that Simons experienced a huge jump in per-minute production in Year 4, which was also contextually the Blazers’ worst season, with Damian Lillard getting injured and C.J. McCollum getting traded. But the counterpoint to that is that nothing about Simons’ 2021-22 season seems fake. He’s now shot better than 40% from three on good volume two straight seasons, he made a lot of self-created threes in the process, he showed some great playmaking upside and he’s playing with co-stars in 2022-23 who are known to be unselfish offensive players, including Lillard. I’m loving where this is headed for Simons.
14. Jalen Green
I’m doing my best to stay out of the Jalen Green content warz. I’ll just say that if his post All-Star splits are real (22 points on 59% True Shooting including 39% on threes with threes making up about half his shots), this guy’s career is a literal rocket. This placement might look really silly really soon. Rockets fans: please know that I will absolutely edit this post to put him higher if he’s averaging 24-7 before Christmas, and I will claim that all your screenshot receipts are deepfakes.
13. Cade Cunningham
It took a month or two for me to see it, but yeah: Cade Cunningham has it, that preternatural presence with the ball to conduct a full offense with his eyes. I’m not saying he’ll be anything close to either of them — he’s No. 13 on this list, not No. 3 or 4 — but he’s like LeBron or Luka in that sense. Floor control, calm, vision, orchestration. He’s in control of the ball, the offense and the opposing defense. I like what I see. We need more scoring efficiency, defense and fewer turnovers.
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12. Tyler Herro
A$AP Kapono took a major leap last season in per-minute production in a new role as Manu The Second. He’s obviously a legitimate top-tier deep shooter, even creating a lot of his own looks. He still doesn’t get to the rim enough for my taste given that he’s reasonably athletic and has the deep gravity. That limits his free throws, and given his enormous offensive role, he ends up with too many two-pointers for my taste. Still an incredible scorer and prospect overall.
11. Tyrese Maxey
Some folks will probably be cross that I have Maxey above the prior three players on the list. I don’t care I don’t care I don’t care. The per-minute production was there in a limited role as a rookie; Maxey proved that in a major role last season. He proved it alongside Seth Curry and Danny Green early in the season. He proved it alongside freaking James Harden late in the season. He had 38 in a playoff game! He’s extremely efficient on offense (59% True Shooting, sub 8% turnover rate despite an assist rate near 20%), gets into the paint on about half his shots and is an excellent shooter of long twos.
Who do you want playing with Harden and Joel Embiid? A dude who makes the absolute most of his possessions, can pop in a big way when you need him to, and doesn’t waste possessions. That’s Tyrese Maxey.
Maxey has already had his breakout. He’s heading for the next level beyond that.
10. Tyrese Haliburton
9. LaMelo Ball
We’re entering the All-Star zone. And given that there are eight more to go, that shows the great depth among the youth of the league.
LaMelo is a legitimate star. The three-point shot is real (39% on 7.5 attempts per game), the court vision is undeniable and the flair is basically unrivaled. I’m significantly worried about his team and I’m on alert regarding his poor finishing ability in the paint. I hope he was taking 250 floaters a day this offseason. But he has a certain magnetism, defensive upside (if not defensive reality) and, again, some really incredible court vision. That plus range gets you really far in the NBA.
LaMelo Ball highlights? LaMelo Ball highlights. Always a good idea.
8. Darius Garland
Garland’s true potential was evident from late in his rookie season and only bolstered by what happened in his sophomore year. Last year, the potential became reality: 21-8 with efficiency as the best offensive player for a winning team. The three-point shot is real (39% on volume), the shot diet is excellent (paint plus arc is around 76% of his attempts). On offense, you just want to see a few more free throws and one less turnover per game.
Of course, the context of Garland’s role is changing dramatically with the arrival of Mitchell, who should a) take some pressure off of Garland [good] and b) take the ball out of Garland’s hands a bit [bad]. I’m eager to see how this shakes out. In a more comprehensive player ranking, I … might have Garland above Mitchell. Do they see it that way? Does it matter?
7. Jaren Jackson Jr.
JJJ is going to miss some time, and I wrote about him some in Tuesday’s paean to the Grizzlies.
JJJ is in that top tier of big man defenders with Rudy Gobert, Bam Adebayo, Draymond Green, Robert Williams III and Joel Embiid. And he’s waaaay younger than all of them. (Today I learned: Timelord is almost 25.) Elite rim protectors are incredibly valuable (for proof go check out the vault where the Timberwolves keep their draft picks; that’s right, it’s empty) and JJJ is tippy top tier already. What hasn’t been there reliably: three-point shooting (he shoots them but they are not consistently going in) and rebounding. And yet! Last year Memphis was No. 5 in offense, No. 1 in offense rebounding and No. 10 in defensive rebounding, so JJJ’s skills-in-development aren’t hurting one of the best teams in the league, whose No. 4 defense he anchored.
6. Anthony Edwards
Edwards has and has had a huge offensive role on the Timberwolves since Day 1. No training wheels. In that context, that he’s got close to league average efficiency on massive usage already at age 20 is a great sign. (Ant recently turned 21, so he’s a good bit younger than most players on this list.) The playmaking is a work in progress complicated by the presence (sometimes) of D’Angelo Russell. Adding a lob partner in Rudy Gobert should actually help clarify matters, assuming Edwards and Gobert develop some chemistry. I’m a poor judge of Ant Man’s defensive performance to date because I still don’t quite believe that Minnesota had a decent defense last year. But on offense: the shot creation is there, the finishing is there, the explosive scoring is there, the performance under pressure is there, the shot diet is there. You want to see a few more fouls drawn and you want to see that three-point percentage continue to climb.
For what it’s worth, Edwards topped my recent list of top All-Star debut candidates, and I noted that he’s a future All-Star MVP. I’m in on Ant Man.
5. Evan Mobley
Mobley is or will soon be in the conversation on top-tier paint defenders. He doesn’t have stretch and doesn’t really project to be a step-out shooter — he didn’t do it in college, and his free throw percentage is below average. Everything else on the court, though? Literally everything else? He’s a revelation. Passing, on-ball defense, off-ball defense, dribble penetration, rim running, cutting, transition, some post moves. He’s so damn good already, and he’s 21. Legend in the making.
4. Scottie Barnes
I come not to resume the Barnes-Mobley War of 2022. I hope they enter the Hall of Fame together, holding hands. But readers know I am a *long-time* mark for Kawhi Leonard and players of that ilk. Except there are no players of that ilk: Kawhi is One of One. Except maybe he’s One of Two?
Desert island, you can only watch a single current player’s career as long as it lasts? I think I’m watching the next 19 years of Scottie Barnes.
3. Zion Williamson
I still don’t quite believe what we saw from Zion in 2020-21. A bulldozer and a ballerina, all in one. A demigod and a demogorgon. At age 20 he was a top-10 scorer on elite efficiency. Defense is a work in progress, but this is a Trae Young situation: the offense is so damn good that I just need below-average defense and we can work with it.
Of course, the only thing holding Zion back — and it’s a huge thing — is health. Because when he’s on the court? DAMN.
2. Ja Morant
Not much needs to be said here. He’s a one-time All-Star who already feels like a perennial All-Star. He’s a face of the league already, he’s a top scorer and a top creator, he’s a highlight reel, he’s a quote, he’s a team leader, he’s a vibes machine, he finished No. 7 in MVP voting and would probably have been higher had the Grizzlies not went on an improbable run when he was injured, he’s a must-watch every night. All hail Ja.
1. Luka Doncic
No surprise here: Luka, a perennial preseason MVP favorite1 who has finished top-6 in MVP voting three times in four years. That's really, really crazy when you think about it: he's 23 years old, he's been in the NBA for four years, and he's been voted as one of the six best players in the 450-player league -- the best league in the world -- three times. That's absolutely crazy.
I don't think Luka is on the same tier as Giannis in conversation for best player in the world. To me, Giannis is in a tier all his own. But Luka's not too many spots off that conversation, you know? The Mavericks get off to a hot start, the Bucks don't, the T.V. and podcast and radio segments shall commence.
I hope no one suffers from Luka exhaustion now or any time soon, because lord this dude is amazing to watch.
Also receiving consideration: Onyeka Okongwu, Jaden McDaniels, Jaxson Hayes, Wendell Carter Jr., Jarred Vanderbilt, Kevin Porter Jr., Jonathan Kuminga, Josh Giddey, Cam Thomas, Cole Anthony, Nassir Little, Isaiah Stewart.
What did I miss?
Get after it in the comments. If you’re a paid GMIB subscriber, we’re going to be talking about this in the Discord.
I mean this perjoratively, but not toward Luka. I’m insulting whoever is betting Luka as MVP in the preseason every single year! Find a new slant.