Top 28 NBA players under 25
From Luka and Zion to a couple of divisive guards, here's a look at the best young talent in the league.
Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan, Diego de Velazquez, 1629
A new NBA season starts in a month. Let’s prepare by assessing the best young players in the league.
A few ground rules:
No NBA rookies. Sorry Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green.
I’m accounting for potential to a degree. Most of these players have performed at a high level in the NBA already. To me, production counts more than potential for an exercise like this. We’re giving credence to performance over hype. So that’s why you won’t see James Wiseman on here yet. We need to see it, and for more than a couple minutes at a time.
Players born in 1996 or earlier are ineligible. For example, Jaylen Brown is currently 24, but will turn 25 a week into the NBA season. So we’ve eliminated anyone who will turn 25 before New Year’s from the list. For the record, Brown would have been a very difficult placement in the 4-7 range. By the way, Mikal Bridges falls into this category (born in ‘96) if you’re hunting for him. It surprised me, too. Donovan Mitchell is already 25 too, so stand down Jazz fans.
Without further adieu, the top 28 players under the age of 25 heading into the 2021-22 NBA season.
28. Jaxson Hayes
I expanded this list from the traditional 25-under-25 for three reasons: to discuss a pair of players that comes up soon on this list, to get my favorite Hawk on here, and to dig into Jaxson Hayes’ basketball impact. I should note here that Hayes was arrested on charges of resisting arrest earlier this summer stemming from a call regarding a potential domestic violence incident. Body cam footage has sparked controversy about use of force in the arrest. There do not appear to be domestic violence charges in play at this time.
Looking just at on-court impact, Hayes has been surprisingly effective in his minutes for the Pelicans over two years. He plays relatively limited minutes but averages 17-10 per 36 minutes on very efficient shooting, fitting since about 90% of his shots come within 10 feet of the rim. That’s the Zion zone so I understand why it’d be hard to play them together (though it’s not like the Pelicans have brought in any stretch fives to balance the floor with Williamson). But it speaks to a player that could be really effective in the NBA, especially if he figures out how to play high-level defense.
27. De’Andre Hunter
Insomuch as I am unclear on whether the Hawks will be a top-tier East team this season or fall a bit closer to Earth, it’s about how much De’Andre Hunter will play (and also whether Cam Reddish will continue his rise). Hunter averaged 18/6 per 36 minutes in an injury-shortened campaign last season with some too-good-to-be-true shooting from the mid-range. Defense is where he truly shines. I don’t think he’ll be the next Jaylen Brown — Brown’s offense was more developed at this point — but he’s of that vogue.
He had surgery to repair a torn meniscus during the playoffs, and it sounds like he should be ready for camp. That said, I suspect the deep Hawks will be cautious, which could depress early season production. If Hunter stays healthy, he could be top-10 on this list next year.
26. Tyler Herro
Had we stuck to 25 players on this list, Herro would have been the last man out on account of an odd sophomore season after a blazing star turn in the bubble. Perhaps it’s not fair to Herro, T.J. Warren or the pre-CP3 Phoenix Suns, but I do judge hot bubble runs harsher than other hot streaks. That was such a particular, non-replicable environment that I take performances there with a certain grain of salt. (I’m not talking about the Lakers. They would have won the title outside the bubble, too.)
That said, Herro is a good scorer who improved his playmaking last season. To reach the next level, he needs to either increase his shooting efficiency a good clip, learn how to get to the line reliably or become an even better playmaker. Improving on defense would be good, too.
25. Darius Garland
How you rate Garland depends on whether you think he figured it out last season in Cleveland or whether you think he’s just starting to figure it out. In other words, is this the best case version of Garland, or can he improve all aspects of his game further given the players around him?
He shot threes much better last season (almost 40%) but takes few, so we need to see if that’s real. He doesn’t get to the line despite being a smaller, fast point guard. But he does get into the paint at a good clip and overall he shoots well. It’s going to be really interesting to see how his shot profile continues to develop. I’m bullish and think he’ll make a major jump up this list next year.
24. Ivica Zubac
You might flinch at having Zubac this high, or be stunned (like I am every time I’m reminded) that Zubac is under 25. But the dude produces. For his career he averages 16/12 per 36 minutes (on par with some other centers on this list), he rarely takes shots he can’t make, he’s a good defender, he doesn’t turn the ball over because he doesn’t try to do things he’s not capable of doing, his foul rate is reasonable for his role and size.
Just about every other player on this list is capable of being an NBA All-Star. Probably not Zubac. He’s just a super solid player who is going to have a long NBA career and make every team he’s on better.
23. Robert Williams
Time Lord’s per-game numbers:
Time Lord’s per-minute numbers:
Call him DeJuan Blair or Ian Mahinmi. Robert Williams doesn’t get a ton of minutes — he’s yet to play 1,000 in a season, though he came close in 2020-21 and will get lots of opportunity in 2021-22 — but he sure fills them up. He’s also shot better than 70% from the field in each of his three seasons, which shouldn’t be possible.
In fact, there really isn’t an advanced metric out there that doesn’t love Time Lord: BPM, WinShares, PER, VORP. It all checks out. He should start from Day 1 this season and get a chance to show it all year.
22. R.J. Barrett
I think Barrett could explode into an All-Star (or better) within the next three years. Why? He shot 40% from three last season on a moderate diet of deep shots, and as a rookie (and only slightly less so as a sophomore) he showed an ability to get to the line at a good clip. He’s also already a quality defender. He plays a ton of minutes under Tom Thibodeau, so what did you expect?
What held Barrett back from more notoriety as a rising star last season is rather iffy playmaking and a distinct inability to finish in what we’ll call the Ja Morant Zone from 3 to 16 feet. If Barrett can improve his court vision and develop a floater, he could end up as a top- or second-tier shooting guard in this league.
21. Miles Bridges
The perfect co-star for LaMelo Ball. Incredible efficient Year 3 for Bridges coming off of Charlotte’s bench: 16/7 per 36 minutes on 62% True Shooting. I’d like to see Bridges on the floor with Ball as much as possible, assuming that allows the defense to hold up, because Bridges is absolutely the type of player who benefits most from creative passing. Bridges’ willingness to cut and run the floor gets him those high-percentage shots he thrives off of.
Similar to Zubac, I don’t think Bridges has an All-Star nod in his future. But a few improvements to his game could get him to that David West zone of having a super solid long NBA career. And though it was a different era, West did make a couple of All-Star teams.
20. Lonzo Ball
The case for Lonzo as the No. 21 best player under 25:
Maybe, possibly a decent outside shooter
If that third bullet is real and the Bulls thrive with Lonzo next to Zach LaVine, Ball might this rank look mighty wrong.
19. Jarrett Allen
Another center a la Zubac and Time Lord (to a degree), throwback types who don’t stretch the floor but finish inside and play excellent defense. Per 36 minutes, Allen averages about 15/12. The scoring is super efficient — there’s a Tyson Chandler vibe to his offense. The defense is not quite Chandlerian, but it’s quite good. It’s going to have to be on a Cavaliers team now without Larry Nance Jr. (though Isaac Okoro, with already excellent instincts as a rookie, will be a nice partner in crime).
Unsolved mysteries, NBA edition: How Did The Houston Rockets Trade James Harden And Get Neither Jarrett Allen Or Caris LeVert, Who Were Both Included In The Deal But Went To Other Teams?
18. OG Anunoby
That’s two straight seasons with Anunoby shooting 39% or better from three, and this last year he took six attempts per game. That’s legit. The defense is ultra-legit. He finishes at the rim really well and quite frequently. With Kyle Lowry gone more offense might slide to OG, and that might get some All-Star attention depending on how Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and the Raptors more generally are performing. I’m a Siakam fan, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility that OG could be considered the best Raptor by the end of the season.
17. Tyrese Haliburton
Top three things to absolutely love about Tyrese Haliburton:
Really good defensive instincts
Excellent court vision with the ball with minimal mistakes made
Really efficient shooting from all over the floor (including 41% on threes)
Haliburton isn’t built to be a 25-point scorer in the NBA, but you could absolutely see him carve out an All-Star career as a super solid two-way 19/7 floor general who leads the league in steals multiple times. It’s really hard to find a good comparison for what he brings.
16. Anthony Edwards
Ant-Man’s offense got better and better as his rookie season went along, and that’s a great sign for his long-term outlook. There’s lots of room for improvement, but he’s already a legitimately NBA-level shot creator and scorer. His game is built to take a ton of threes and his body is built to earn a ton of free throws. If he improves on one of those areas, he’s going to be really, really good. If he gets both, look out.
I’d consider Edwards one of the two biggest potential risers on this list (the other is at No. 14). As in, in two years he could be No. 1 on a Top XX Under 25 list.
15. Collin Sexton
Consider me flummoxed as to why folks are talking about the Cavaliers trading Collin Sexton. A 24-point scorer at above league average efficiency who is 22 years old? What’s the issue here? The offensive fit with Garland is absolutely fine. The defensive fit is a major problem. That hasn’t stopped teams like, say, the Blazers or Hawks. Atlanta damn near made the NBA Finals starting Trae Young and Kevin Huerter. If J.A. and Okoro are the real deal and J.B. Bickerstaff puts together a workable scheme, issues can be resolved.
But you can’t find scorers like Sexton just lounging around everywhere. He’s a special scorer and Cleveland should pay him or get a lot for him.
14. Michael Porter Jr.
This is the second player in the Biggest Potential Riser boat with Ant-Man. Porter’s leap from highly unreliable shooter/scorer in 2019-20 to No. 2 scorer on a potential title team in 2020-21 was magical. We need to see if he continues in that direction, if his back cooperates and if he accepts his role going forward.
Having this season without Jamal Murray and with the highly genial Nikola Jokic as the face of the team should help. Basically, there’s no better situation in the entire league for MPJ than to be Jokic’s sidekick. Another excellent season and MPJ enters the top 10 of the under-25 crowd, and maybe even higher.
13. Deandre Ayton
The best traditional center on our list, and one who took a huge leap during the last regular season and another enormous leap (in our collective eyes, at least) in the playoffs. Ayton could deserve to be higher up this list — he’s proven his value in a deep postseason run, his defense has improved leaps and bounds and he could still very well become a 20/12 guy on 60% shooting. I’m hesitant to give him extra credit, though, for proving old-time archetypes are still valid in the NBA.
12. John Collins
Here’s the thing about John Collins: he’s scored more than 20 points per 36 minutes in each of the last three seasons, meaning that he’s a high-frequency scorer. He’s also finished each of the last three seasons with a True Shooting percentage above 62%, which means he’s hella efficient with the shot.
He’s one of the best offensive second options in the entire league, and while his defense continues to leave much to be desired, you really can’t underestimate how important it is to have such an efficient supplement scorer.
He’s now at two seasons with 39% or better deep shooting to go with his 60% shooting on twos. The combination of him plus Trae Young is basically unstoppable. A nice development from when they were reportedly feuding early last season.
11. Brandon Ingram
The 24-year-old Ingram had basically the same season in 2020-21 as he did as an All-Star in 2019-20. Which is to say he’s had two straight really, really strong seasons: about 24-5-5 with high usage and high efficiency, and not nearly enough defense, a teamwide curse. Ingram, like Collins, is one of the best secondary scorers in the NBA — slightly less efficient but more prolific. He can get his shot against any defense in the NBA, which helps the Pelicans a ton given how light they are on creators outside of him and Zion Williamson.
Ingram needs to pick up the rebounding and defense to help carry the Pels forward. The offense is 100% there, though.
10. LaMelo Ball
LaMelo is one of the few on this list where I’m putting a bunch of chips in potential. It’s just so obvious with LaMelo: the vision, the confidence, how his teammates respond to him. The numbers will follow. And as a rookie, the numbers were also pretty good: about 20/6/8 per 36 minutes on just below average efficiency. Increasing the shooting efficiency, cutting down on turnovers and going to grow as a passer, decision-maker and scorer are next.
9. Jamal Murray
Murray’s big advantage over the next two players on this list is that he’s achieved what he’s achieved a) with an MVP co-star and b) in the playoffs. But he is a step down from both as a scorer, a step down from No. 8 as a playmaker and a step down from No. 7 in efficiency.
But enough about what he isn’t: Murray is the perfect guard complement for Nikola Jokic, a bold and mistake-light gunner who usually takes exactly what the defense gives him and no more. If the 40% three-point shooting is real, that’s a huge plus since he doesn’t really get to the line much and is below-average as a set-up man at the point guard position. When you have Jokic, that’s OK.
Here’s to hoping Murray can make an appearance in time for the playoffs. If not, here’s to coming out of the gate bold as ever in 2021-22.
8. De’Aaron Fox
I’m not sure folks understand how good a season De’Aaron Fox just had: 26 points and 7 assists per 36 minutes, shooting 54% on twos with good efficiency overall due to his ability to get to the line. Fox gets a quarter of his shots at the rim, and shoots 75% there. The next step is to bump up that usage rate a touch more: there’s a path to being a 28/29 ppg scorer with 9 assists per game here. A little more night-to-night aggression can do it. I mean, who’s going to stop him from getting to the rim?
The defense isn’t great (are you sensing a trend on this list?), but that shouldn’t be a huge issue with Haliburton and Davion Mitchell joining him on the floor.
Anyways, here’s 20 minutes of De’Aaron Fox highlights from last season. There are few better ways to spend 20 minutes of your day. Consider it a part of your mental health routine.
7. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
I’m going to get angry if the tanking Thunder keep Shai from playing 50-plus games this season with phantom injuries or rest or whatever. This is a player we need to see lots and lots of. He gets better every year, finishing with 25/5/6 per 36 minutes on top-notch efficiency last season in 35 games. His foul-drawing and three-point conversion were improved, and those are the recipe for All-Star nods for guards like him. I don’t think he’s much different than Devin Booker, to be honest. And I love Devin Booker!
I find it impossible to gauge his defense at all given the state of his team. He has the body and athleticism to be good, though. I hope we get to see him put that into practice soon.
6. Ja Morant
Morant isn’t the scorer that Fox, Shai or Murray are. But he’s the second best passer on this entire list, behind only the No. 1 player. And also, the dude can score: he landed at 21 points per 36 minutes last season, a good rate for the type of player he is at this stage of his career. The next stages offensively are to get much more efficient (both in shooting percentages and turnover reduction) and a little more prolific.
He’s already effective at drawing fouls owing to his supreme ability to get to the rim and in the line (60% of his FGAs were within 10 feet last season). He can be even better at drawing whistles. He could also get a little better at converting attempts at the rim, which is easy money in terms of stat accumulation.
As a leader, there’s no question Ja has it. Just watch that team and you see it. There’s a reason a team that should have been tanking has been in the play-in mix both of Morant’s seasons. He definitely has that special something.
5. Bam Adebayo
The best defender anywhere on this list, with apologies to Anunoby and Ayton. And along with that all-league versatile defense: 20 points and 6 assists per 36 minutes with very high scoring efficiency. Absurd. Just absurd. The perfect post-modern NBA big man in almost every way. (The “almost” is about Bam’s inability/unwillingness to shoot threes.)
I swore I wasn’t going to make this list about ineligible 25-year-old Ben Simmons but let’s drop the “become the next Draymond Green” wishful thinking and tell him to watch nothing but Bam Adebayo tape for the next three weeks and come to camp as Joel Embiid’s frontcourt sidekick!
4. Trae Young
I’m a longtime Trae Young believer and his run during the back half of the regular season and the playoffs surprised even me. How could it not? 27/10 per 36 minutes on above average efficiency, too many turnovers and not enough defense but just a magical, irrepressible impact on every game and amazing court presence. A legitimate now and future NBA superstar.
3. Jayson Tatum
I almost put him No. 2. Watching Tatum play basketball is astounding. And then you look at the numbers, the body of work and it’s also astounding. Just an incredible young player who gets better every year. You keep getting better and you’re going to be an MVP, man!
Last season: 27/7/4 on above average scoring efficiency with a really low turnover rate and quite good defense. His playmaking and scoring have improved every year as he’s taken a bigger role running the offense. It’s him, now. Him and Jaylen Brown. The next step, I think, is to become an All-Defense contender. Which should not be possible for an offensive player this damn good. But here we are.
2. Zion Williamson
If Bam is the perfect post-modern NBA big man, what does that make Zion? Just an entirely different art form, I guess. One incomprehensible by the human brain.
Dude’s a 6’7 big man who finished No. 8 in per-game scoring with elite efficiency. He barely played 2,000 minutes and finished No. 4 in total free throw attempts. He played for a 31-41 team and finished No. 11 in Win Shares. He’s Shaq except he’s only as tall as Devean George. What the everloving hell.
The defense could use some improvement, especially the defensive rebounding. That’s why I almost slipped Tatum here above Zion. But sheesh. What a player. Must-watch T.V. every time he’s on. 100% worth the hype.
1. Luka Doncic
Speaking of being worth the hype, I can’t get mad at 22-year-old Luka Doncic becoming a perennial preseason MVP favorite because the guy is absolutely going to win some MVPs. He Is Not LeBron but the vibe from mid-Aughts LeBron isn’t all that different: Luka is just at a different level of performance and potential than his peers.
And it’s not like Zion, where the production and visual presentation is completely foreign and outrageous. Or like Tatum, where the improvement is unbelievably persistent and surprising. Luka is just really damn good at all offensive facets of the game. He has been since he entered the league. He proves how good he is over and over again: in big games, in run-of-the-mill games, in playoff games against the best wing defenders in the league.
Broken record for a lot of these young offensive superstars, but the defense could definitely improve. Also, it’s a bit of an eyebrow-raiser that the partnership with Rick Carlisle didn’t work. But yeah. This guy is now a perennial preseason MVP favorite for a reason. Incredible player. 22 years old. Unreal.
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