The Post-Free Agency Ranking of Every NBA Young Core

With the Warriors dynasty coming to a definitive halt and the NBA champion Toronto Raptors’ future in tatters, for the first time in years the Finals didn’t beget the beginning of another dynastic run. Those power dynamics were thrown further into question after a shallow but talented draft class, headlined by the generational talent of Zion Williamson, strengthened mainly non-tanking teams, and a free agency where seemingly half of the NBA’s biggest stars changed teams.

For the first time since the Warriors exploded on the scene, the NBA is up for the taking.

While the initial power vacuum is sure to be filled by veteran-laden teams such as the Bucks, 76ers, Clippers, Rockets or Lakers, teams across the league are accumulating a stable of young talent to make a run at the next great dynasty.

Not all young teams are created equal, however. Many play like you’d expect a team of 20-somethings to play — immature, undisciplined and outmatched by the talent level in the NBA. With every passing year, the promise of their potential wanes until eventually it falters, as pundits regulate the once promising players to busts and disappointments.

*Criteria for the rankings:

  • The team’s best players must be 25 or under. Teams with promising cores lead by veteran stars don’t count. Ruling out teams like the Utah Jazz, Indiana Pacers and the San Antonio Spurs. I wouldn’t consider Kevin Love a star at this point but he’s paid like one, making the Cleveland Cavaliers not eligible either.
  • Teams who landed a big-name free agent this offseason won’t count either.  Sayonara, Clippers, Nets and Celtics.

Running in Place

Chicago Bulls

Notable U-25 Players: Laurie Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Wendell Carter Jr., Coby White, Kris Dunn

The 2018-19 Bulls were a delight to watch. Zach LaVine answered his critics with a high-flying breakout season where he averaged 23.7 PPG, with career high clips in FG % (46.7 %), TS % (57.4%), usage (30.0) and PER (18.79).

Assuming both can stay healthy and can continue to develop, Laurie Markkannen and Wendall Carter Jr. appear to be a viable frontcourt for years to come. Markkannen in particular has shined in his limited NBA career. In two seasons, he’s averaged the most threes per game among 7-footers, (2.2), by a wide margin. The next closest would be fellow unicorn KP, who only averages 1.5 per game.

Finally, Coby White, the jet-fueled point guard out of North Carolina, could be the missing piece in the puzzle by filling in the point guard hole left when Kris Dunn cemented his bust status last season.

That being said, even with the palpable potential there’s still plenty of issues in the Windy City.  The Bulls lost more games last year than 2017-18; LaVine’s breakout might prove to be nothing more than blank numbers racked up on a bad team; I’m not convinced drill sergeant Jim Boylen is the right man to cultivate the young talent — let’s not forget he survived a mid-season mutiny — and while White should be a massive upgrade from Dunn on the offensive end, he’s not exactly the facilitator the Bulls desperately need.

At this point, the Bulls are a lot closer to to the lottery for the foreseeable future than turning the corner.

Phoenix Suns

Notable U-25 Players: Devon Booker, DeAndre Ayton, Cam Johnson, Kelly Oubre Jr., Ty Jerome

Who knows what Devon Booker and DeAndre Ayton could do on a half-way decent team? Hell, what could they do on just a badly run team under normal circumstances? Phoenix isn’t just a poorly run team, that would be the understatement on the century. No, this iteration of the Phoenix Suns is a behemoth straight from hell, designed to suck out any hope the team boasts on a yearly basis.

They haven’t reached the 25-win threshold in five years, last year they couldn’t even get to 20. They’ve fired three coaches in as many years. One day they embrace the full tank, other days they inexplicably think they’re ready to compete and bring in win-now veterans (Tyson Chandler, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Aron Baynes, Jamal Crawford, Dario Saric, Ricky Rubio). They’re playing both sides and not doing either particularly well.

The 2019 draft was a microcosm of their dysfunction. Due to the new anti-tanking policy, the Suns slipped out of the top three all the way to six, well out of Zion territory. Not sensing there was enough impact players at six, the Suns traded down for Saric and the 11th pick, and subsequently missed out on Jarrett Culver who could have a nice fit in a weak wing rotation.

The deal was fine, but they decided to use the 11th pick on Cam Johnson, a fringe first-rounder who’s already 23 and has easily the lowest ceiling of any first rounder. Johnson can shoot, and…well, that’s about it. They also shed their second leading scorer, TJ Warren, and the 32nd overall pick for what amounts to cap relief, as well as dumping former 4th overall pick Josh Jackson and DeAnthony Melton and  two second rounders for Jevon Carter and Kyle Korver, who was waived. That additional cap space was used on limited 28-year-old point guard Ricky Rubio, who was handsomely paid despite having a career FG % of 38.8%.

An offseason haul of Cam Johnson, Ty Jerome, Ricky Rubio, Jevon Carter and Aron Baynes shouldn’t do much to move the needle. Barring an explosion from Ayton, the Suns are heading back to the basement next season.

Not Quite There

Orlando Magic

Notable U-25 Players: Mo Bamba, Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz, Chuma Okeke

The Magic were in a tricky position this offseason. They had to decide how much stock to place in 28-year-old center Nikola Vucevic’s breakout season. The first-time All-Star led the Magic to their first playoff appearance in eight years. The issue is when breakout seasons happen this late in a career they tend to be abnormalities rather than representing a new norm. A trip to the playoffs ultimately forced the Magic’s hand into giving Vooch near-max money with a $100 million contract. The other veteran standout Terrence Ross was also resigned to a $54 million deal.

For a playoff-starved franchise it might not seem so ridiculous. But the downside of Vooch’s long-term security is ultimately saying goodbye to one of their three talented young big men. In a crowded frontcourt, the All-Star veteran is sure to soak up minutes from Isaac and Bamba, while pushing Gordon to an uncomfortable fit at the 3. We’ve seen this frontcourt logjam in Orlando before, and only last year did it look somewhat manageable. Not to mention that they also landed Al Farouq-Aminu in free agency and drafted forward Chuma Okeke.

Letting Vooch walk was not necessarily a no-brainer either. Losing him would surely result in Orlando taking a step back from playoff contention, which would be a tough pill to swallow for a fanbase so desperate for a winning team. At this point we don’t know if any of their young assets can lead a team. Gordon has shown flashes, but at this point he may not much be more than an other-worldly athlete with limited upside. Injuries have cost much of Isaac and Bamba’s careers. And with Fultz, who knows?

However, going all in on a core who’s breakout was a 42-win-season and a first round playoff exit seems more than a tad bit shortsighted.

Dallas Mavericks

Notable U-25 Players: Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, Jalen Brunson, Justin Jackson

In a few years, this could be the best young core in all of basketball, or it could blow up spectacular fashion. It’s too soon to tell.

Trading for Kristaps Porzingis was bold and could go down as one of the all-time fleecings, but by no means is it a guaranteed success. Not only is KP beginning to look more and more injury-prone — an ACL tear on a 7’3, 240 lb man should terrify the Mavs — but a pending rape case is hanging over his head. Mark Cuban and the Mavericks, however, still have faith in their Latvian unicorn, signing him to a five-year $158 max extension.

The potential there is too mouthwatering; Porzingis and Luka Doncic each have All-NBA potential. If Luka can expand on a historical rookie year and KP can recover, the lanky duo will be unguardable. But after trading most of their assets in the KP deal and again missing out on stars in free agency, all of the eggs are in the KP/Luka basket, and the two have yet to spend a minute on the court together.

Even with Porzingis and Luka at full strength, Dallas shouldn’t be anything more than a fringe playoff contender next year, but watch out.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Notable U-25 Players: Karl Anthony-Towns, Jarrett Culver, Andrew Wiggins, Josh Okogie, Jordan Bell

Karl Anthony-Towns is one of the NBA’s best, most versatile young players, but, like many promising Minnesota big men before him, his team is stuck in neutral. In his five seasons, Towns has only one winning season and only managed to sneak into one playoff series with the help of Jimmy Butler. His supposed super-star compliment, Andrew Wiggins, is aggressively overpaid, inefficient and allergic to significant growth.

The Wolves are in a bad place right now. Without a star to place next to Towns, Minnesota isn’t good enough to contend for a playoff spot in a loaded west, but because of Towns the Wolves aren’t near the top of the lottery. However, this year has the potential to break that trend.

At the cost of Dario Saric, the Wolves may have landed a steal in Jarrett Culver. The Final Four standout exploded onto the national scene in his sophomore year. His large frame held up nicely against fellow lottery selection De’Andre Hunter in the National Championship. He has the size and speed to be a lockdown defender in the NBA, something the T-Wolves are desperately lacking. If his offensive game, particularly his 3-pt shot, continue to develop, Minnesota could have a solid two-way player who could serve as the secondary scorer that Wiggins was supposed to be.

However, unless Culver grows into more than a nice role player or Wiggins starts to figure it out, the Wolves still won’t have enough to make a dent in the playoffs. That hurts considering they were considered the front-runners for D’Angelo Russell before Golden State undercut them.

Future Contenders

Atlanta Hawks

Notable U-25 Players: Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish

The Hawks are one of the most exciting sub-30 win teams we’ve seen in a while.

After a rough start to his rookie year, Trae Young found some of his college magic. In his first three months, Young had a so-so statline of 16.3 PPG, 7.2 APG, 0.51 TS% and an Offensive Rating of 99. The last three months, however, Young looked like a blossoming young star at 23.3 PPG, 9.1 APG, 0.54 TS% and an ORating of 118.7. Paired next to fellow rookie sniper Kevin Huerter (38.5% 3pt shooter), the Hawks certainly have a fighting chance to produce something Warriors-esque in ATL.

John Collins is close to entering stardom in his own right. The bouncy power forward was top-20 in FG% (16th), RPG (15th), TS%  (17th), eFG% (13th), rebound % (18th) and Offensive Rating (13th). The guy is already a menace on both ends of the floor and at age-21 is closer to an All-Star game than either of his young counterparts.

Incoming rookie wing combo De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish have the potential to be the missing pieces to this young core. Hunter is the safer piece and more likely to have an instant impact next season. His developing range and UVA-tested defensive ability project him as a solid 3-and-D piece for years to come. Reddish is more of a wildcard. His ceiling is one of the highest in the draft class. A streaky shooter who occasionally provided lockdown defense at Duke, Reddish has an All-Star ceiling but a bust floor.

Also don’t overlook the low-risk flier on Jabari Parker. Only a few years ago Parker looked like a promising talent. Maybe surrounding himself with other former college phenoms could reignite that spark.

New Orleans Pelicans

Notable U-25 Players: Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Jaxson Hayes

After New Orleans pissed away yet another generational talent, they somehow landed another one. With only a 7.5 % chance of winning the lottery and only one first round pick at the end of the season, New Orleans was likely looking to rebuild solely on the back of a future Anthony Davis trade. But the Pels hopped over the tankers — who had a flattened percentage of winning the lottery in the first year of Adam Silver’s Anti-Tanking policy and landed the most anticipated college player since their disgruntled superstar came out of Kentucky in 2012.  Ironically, without Davis pouting and resting for most of the season after he demanded a trade mid-season, the odds for landing Zion would have been even slimmer.

Even with the #1 overall pick of the draft in tow, newly minted GM David Griffin created bigger news with the treasure chest acquired from Davis. For Davis’ departure, New Orleans landed two former #2 overall picks in Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and three first round picks, included the #4 overall pick that they used to flip into three additional 2019  picks.

While Zion will be the crown jewel of the new look Pels, the depth of assets takes them to the next level. Ingram wasn’t a natural fit next to LeBron James, but in a new system he may be able to continue to develop on his tantalizing potential. Ball at this point may never live up to the hype, but if he continues to stay healthy he’s one of the best frontcourt defenders in the league.

Hart has proven to be a serviceable rotation piece, while Nickeil Alexander Walker and Jaxson Hayes — both acquired in the draft-day trade that netted Atlanta De’Andre Hunter — have enough potential to become steals, particularly the former who destroyed the Summer League.

If Zion is anything like the player we’ve hailed him to be, they will be a contender in no time.

Memphis Grizzlies

Notable U-25 Players: Jaren Jackson Jr., Ja Morant, Brandon Clarke, Josh Jackson, Dillon Brooks

The transition from Mike Conley to Ja Morant not only signaled the official end of the “Grit and Grind” era, but the introduction of a new one with a significantly higher ceiling. The threesome of Ja Morant, Brandon Clarke and Jaren Jackson Jr. makes up one of the most promising young cores in the NBA.

Morant does have some bad habits. He has a dangerous tendency to be loose with the ball. He averaged well over five turnovers a game in 2018-19 and coughed the ball up a whopping seven times in his magical triple-double game against Marquette in the Round of 64. His slender frame also makes him a liability on defense. Despite all of that, he is the most polished offensive player coming out of the draft. He’s by far the draft’s best passer, has developed into a solid three point shooter and isn’t just a volume scorer.

A potentially dominant frontcourt in Jackson Jr. and Clarke can more than cover for Morant’s defensive woes. In his rookie year, Jackson Jr. flashed the potential to be an elite interior presence by finishing 14th in BPG (1.3) and 7th in block % (5.1), all in only 26.1 MPG. He also showed he can be a decent shooter with a 59.1 % TS% and 35.9% 3P%.

Clarke isn’t as versatile as his younger counterparts. He didn’t shoot the three in college — he only shot 15 threes (a career high) during his junior year at Gonzaga — and has an offense that is reliant on his physicality and athleticism. Against NBA talent he’ll need more than that. However, his defensive acumen and basketball IQ was near the top of his class. While he doesn’t project to have as high of a ceiling as Morant or Jackson, he’s the most NBA-ready prospect outside of Zion Williamson, and the Grizzlies stole him with the 21st overall pick.

The trio of young studs may also open a window for Josh Jackson, who floundered during his time in Phoenix. Swapping the lowly Suns for the level-headed Grizzlies could work wonders for his development.

Sacramento Kings

Notable U-25 Players: De’Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley III, Harry Giles III, Kyle Guy, Richaun Holmes

The Kings were the closest team so far to scratch the playoff surface. For most teams, a 39-43 record and nine games out of the 8th seed wouldn’t exactly be anything to write home about. The Kings aren’t most teams. Sacramento haven’t won at least 38 games in 11 years. While their 14-year playoff drought extended last year, the 9th-place finish was their best finish since 2005, and they’re primed to only get better.

De’Aaron Fox is arguably the best young point guard in basketball. After a shaky rookie year, he exploded in year two. His PPG and APG jumped to 17.3 and 7.3, respectively. More importantly, he found his three point stroke with a better 3 PT% (30.7 – 37.1), eFG% (44.1 – 49.7) and TS% (47.8 – 54.4). He’s also a pesky defender, finishing in the top 20 in both steals per game and steal percentage.

The latest of late bloomers, Buddy Hield finally looked like worthy of a lottery pick next to a rejuvenated Fox. Hield became every bit of the dynamic primary scorer he was at Oklahoma. He can create his own basket, is a lights out shooter (career 3 pt %: 41.9%) and even with Harrison Barnes locked up and other veteran free agents brought in, Hield projects to at least be a secondary scorer long-term.

However, let’s not forgot that despite just completing his third season Hield is already 26. It’s very likely that Hield is at or near his peak. With a limited ceiling, Sacramento is probably hoping Bagley will develop into the #2 guy. Despite having a season sidetracked by injuries and sitting behind veterans such as Nemanja Bjelica, Bagley showed some flashes of brilliance. His career will likely always be overshadowed by the success of the player who was taken after him, Luka Doncic, but Bagley has the physical and athletic tools to become an All-Star.

The Contender

Denver Nuggets

Notable U-25 Players: Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Malik Beasley, Michael Porter Jr.

The top front-runners for the West the next couple of years should be some combination of the Lakers, Clippers and Rockets; the Nuggets, however, may be in the conversation for the next 10.

With two of the top young players in the league, the Nuggets ascension will largely hinge on their growth. Nikola Jokic is already an MVP caliber player. The 7’0 Serbian is a unicorn in the truest sense of the word. He was 9th in assists and  7th in assist % last season, as a center. He’s in the conversation with Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis (if you consider him a 5) as the best centers in the NBA, at age 24. He was in the top 10 in Total Rebound %, Offensive Win Shares, PER, Offensive Box Plus Minus and Value over Replacement Player, and again he’s only 24 damn years old. As already one of the most versatile players the league has ever seen, the skies the limit for a kid who still doesn’t even realize how good he is.

His younger counterpart, Jamal Murray, is a little more of a wildcard. He’s the guy who pulled the Nuggets out of a dogfight in round 1 against the Spurs with huge games in game 2, 4, 5 and 7 (all wins), and the guy who announced his presence on the national stage with a series saving game 4 against Portland. But he’s also the guy who shot himself off the court in decisive game 6 and game 7 losses. As a 22-year-old with just three years of experience, you can give Murray the benefit of the doubt. But with the Nuggets escalated timeline, Denver may be relying on the guard before he’s fully ready.

With Jokic’s selfless playing style, Murray was called upon time and time again as the go-to scorer in crunch time, and more often than not he delivered. If he can continue to hone his shooting and consistency he’ll  live up to his $170 million extension. 

Behind their two fledgling stars the Nuggets boast an embarrassment of riches. Gary Harris is quickly becoming one of the league’s best 3-and-D players. Malik Beasley had such a strong season in 2018-19 he may eventually price himself out of Denver, but nevertheless is one of the most explosive role players in the league. 25-year-old Jerami Grant, who has the length and defensive versatility to guard anyone, provides a succession plan for veterans Will Barton and Paul Millsap. And Denver hasn’t even shown off their potential secret weapons in former #1 high school recruit Michael Porter Jr., or 7’2 Bol Bol.

A dynasty may be brewing in the Mile High City.

 

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