April 19, 2024

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The Sports Fanatics

NBA Top 10 under 25: Trae Young, Zion Williamson looking up at Luka Doncic; De’Aaron Fox barely misses cut

With the opening of NBA training camps less than two weeks away, you’re going to start seeing everyone’s Top 100 lists. Sports Illustrated just put its out, and our CBS Sports Top 100 rankings are on the way shortly. Until then, here’s a little appetizer for you: The top 10 players under 25 years old. 

Usually when you see these age-adjusted rankings, potential, or ceiling, or however you want to phrase it, factors in heavily. I’m not going that route. For me, I’m ranking these guys as they stand right now. In other words, if I had to win a playoff series starting today, how would my depth chart shake out? Through that lens, and assuming full health for all, here are my top 10 players under 25 years old (with a couple of notable names who just missed the cut).

The only no-brainer on this list, Doncic is arguably a top-five player in the world and already clearly a 1A superstar capable of leading a team to a championship. From here on out, it’s all about what the Mavericks put around him. Doncic can get any shot, or make any pass, he desires. 

Methodical more than explosive, Doncic is deceptively quick with an innate feel for driving angles. He gets you off balance or on his hip and has the size, strength and craftiness to finish with only the slightest of spatial advantages. His 3-point shot can still improve considerably from an efficiency standpoint, but his step-back is indefensible and the threat he poses far outweighs his on-paper shooting numbers. 

Doncic picked up his defense last season, and he once again tortured the Clippers in the playoffs to the tune of 35 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds per game on 40-percent 3-point shooting as Dallas took L.A. to seven games. Over 13 career playoff games, Doncic is averaging 33.5 points, 9.5 assists and 8.8 rebounds. This is a once-in-a-generation, perhaps even a once-in-a-lifetime talent. Right there with the likes of a young LeBron James. 

Only a player as great as Young can make you at least question whether the Atlanta Hawks actually won a trade in which they gave up the aforementioned Doncic. Remember, the Hawks also got Cam Reddish out of that deal. If he blossoms, this will be a difficult trade to evaluate down the road, the rare win-win in such a high-profile swap, as Young has already established himself as a point guard not too far from Doncic’s equal. 

Start with the traditional numbers: Young was the only player in the league last season to average at least 25 points and nine assists. In the playoffs, he was one of only three players to average at least 28 points and nine assists, and the other two, Damian Lillard and Doncic, were eliminated in the first round. 

Young, on the other hand, captained the Hawks to within two wins of the NBA Finals. He was magical against the Knicks, Sixers and Bucks, completely dominating games and series with a level of comfort and confidence that belied his postseason inexperience. 

With more talent around him, Young curbed some of his impulsive 3-point shooting last season (he’s still just a 34 percent 3-point shooter for his career, the same mark he logged in last year’s postseason), trimming his triple attempts by over three per game. 

Instead, Young dialed in on his sublime ability to get into the paint, where he’s an equal threat to hit his floater, find a lob partner or shooter vs. collapsing defenses or get to the free-throw line, which he did 546 times last season, third-most in the league behind only Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

Young’s 3-point attempts went back up in the playoffs, where, as mentioned, he still shot just 34 percent, but he proved that his shooting, like Doncic, impacts the game far beyond the raw numbers, and there is no denying the knack he has for making huge shots in huge moments, whether it be in clutch minutes or just at particularly crucial junctures of a run or game. The Game 7 dagger against Philly was a monster shot. 

Bottom line, Young is a winner. His defense, at least with Atlanta’s current parts supporting him, isn’t nearly as detrimental as many presumed it would be in a playoff setting (there is still some question as to how much he might be targeted defensively in a playoff series that doesn’t involve the Knicks, who were woefully short on playmaking, or the Sixers, who fell into the same category last season). But even if Young can be exploited more than he was in last year’s playoffs depending on the matchup, his offense is so great that I’m still putting him No. 2 on this list. 

Reasonable minds have every right to argue Tatum ahead of Young on this list; it’s a classic hair-splitting separation. Ultimately, I give the edge to Young’s superior creation and the flammable effect he has on his teammates, but Tatum is probably the more gifted scorer. To the latter claim, you can go down the list of the biggest names in the league and Tatum, from a skillset and smoothness standpoint, is right there with anyone not named Kevin Durant, and he’s a rapidly developing facilitator as he makes proper use of the leverage he creates and attention he draws. 

If there is a slight gripe as it pertains to Tatum’s offensive repertoire, he relies a bit too much on jumpers — tough, contested ones in particular, which is certainly understandable given his ability to create and make any one-on-one shot in the book (he’s very prime Carmelo Anthony/Kobe Bryant in this way). But he’s a less efficient jump shooter than you might think, yet to crack a 40-percent mid-range conversion rate over his four-year career, per Cleaning the Glass. You’d love to see Tatum work his way to the free-throw line more often, and his at-rim frequency, despite a marked improvement in finishing ability, has decreased every year of his career, per CTG. 

Defensively, Tatum is a growing beast. He can switch anything on the perimeter and his instincts, particularly off the ball, are bordering on elite. Tatum has proven to be a big-stage performer, but as a No. 1 option, Jaylen Brown’s absence notwithstanding this past postseason, he has not yet proved he can carry a team to deep playoff success like Young, who in my opinion, for all of Tatum’s tangible talent, simply has a larger dose of the “it” factor. 

If I knew a team was designed specifically in support of Williamson, which is to say a team that is full of shooting with a stretch five (who can preferably protect the rim), I would take Zion over Tatum and maybe over Young. Without that guarantee, I give Tatum the edge for defensive reasons and the 3-point factor. 

But I don’t like doing it. To me, Zion is a more dominant player than Tatum when both are operating at max levels, which is nearly a nightly occurrence for Williamson. He’s virtually impossible to stop in the post. His footwork is tremendous for a man his size. This shows up particularly in his ability to get to his left despite everyone knowing that’s where he’s going. He anticipates passes and his subtle shift in energy gets him going downhill and left before the catch, at which point it’s game over. His offensive rebounding and put-backs off his own misses is man-against-boys stuff. 

It was well-chronicled how Stan Van Gundy used Zion as an offensive initiator last season, and I would expect new Pelicans coach Willie Green to do more of the same. Zion’s handle and change of direction make him equally dominant as a perimeter-based force. And there’s so much room for growth. I know this particular list is based on the idea of having to win one playoff series today, but just think about Zion two or three years from now with a reliable jump shot and a defensive clue. It’s the makings of the best player in the world at some point in his career … if Luka Doncic didn’t exist, that is. 

5. Jaylen Brown

Brown won’t be eligible for this list as of Oct. 25, when he’ll turn 25, but until then he’s worthy of a top-five spot. Through the early part of last season, Brown was playing at an MVP level. He wound up as one of just seven players to average at least 24 points, six rebounds, three assists and one steal per game. Filter for a shooting percentage of at least 48, and the list gets trimmed to five — Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James and Brown. Not exactly bad company.

Brown has gone from an athletic defender with offensive upside to a legit go-to scoring option and a 40-percent 3-point shooter on high volume. That kind of two-way impact qualifies as elite, particularly through the lens of winning a playoff series tomorrow. Three of the four postseason runs for which Brown has been active have ended in a conference finals berth for the Celtics. That is not a coincidence. 

For my money, Brown is a better player than the next guy on this list, Devin Booker. He might not be quite as good offensively, but he’s a better 3-point shooter and a vastly superior defender who has improved significantly every season he’s been in the league. 

6. Devin Booker

Booker sits below Tatum and Brown, in particular, because of the defensive end, where they both simply outclass Booker, though I’d be remiss if I didn’t recognize the legit competitiveness Booker displays on the less-glamorous end.

Offensively, Booker and Tatum are remarkably similar players. Tatum is a better 3-point shooter. Booker is significantly better in the mid-range, where he had a career season last year (50 percent overall, ranking in the 97th percentile per CTG) and will likely continue to do the bulk of his damage. 

Why does Booker sit below Zion, who would likely be a defensive target in a postseason setting, despite proven playoff success? It’s a gut call, to be honest. If I had one game to win, I feel slightly better about Williamson dominating that game than I do Booker, who can have a 6-for-17 night more easily than Zion can be sustainably denied. 

With a legit team around him, Booker, who will turn 25 in the first month of next season, is a shining example of how foolish it can be to dismiss a player this talented as a “good-stats-bad-team” guy simply because he hasn’t been provided proper support early in his career. Zach LaVine could be in for a similar narrative change this season if the Bulls can manage to play halfway-decent defense. 

Murray has, relatively speaking, lacked regular-season consistency, but he was having career season last year before he went down with a torn ACL and has long proven to be one of the more dangerous postseason performers on this list. Murray, who is one of the few lead guards of his caliber who doesn’t enjoy control of his own offense, can flat out win a playoff series for you. We’ve seen it on more than one occasion. 

Personally, I find Murray, who turns 25 next February, and Booker to be almost impossible to separate assuming health for both. They’re both electric scorers who, at least to this point, have proven to need someone else to lift the unit as a whole (Nikola Jokic and Chris Paul, respectively). Murray is also as tough as they come. So is Booker. Murray can, at times, get lost in Jokic’s orbit and forget to dominate. For that reason, I put him slightly below Booker. It’s just a consistency thing. But I believe Murray’s peak is, and has been, higher. 

Morant averaged over 30 points and eight assists in his first playoff series. He’s a video-game athlete and a nightmare to keep out of the lane, where his push shot — sort of a half pull-up, half floater — is virtually impossible to stop. His finishing percentages aren’t all that great in the restricted area, around 60 percent depending on which stats site you go off, and he drops to 38 percent in the paint but outside the restricted area, which registers him well below the 50th percentile at his position league-wide, per CTG. 

Morant can create just about any shot he wants, whether for himself or a teammate, but he’s just not an efficient scorer over the long haul yet — his 106.5 points per 100 shots attempts last season ranked in the 36th percentile, a number influenced heavily by his 30-percent mark from 3. 

There is a “throw the numbers out” element to Morant’s game. When it’s on the line, you just feel good about having the ball in his hands because he controls his own destiny, which is to say there are very few defenders who can keep him from where he wants to go. But at this point, the poor shooting is too big an obstacle to rank him any higher on a list this elite. 

We know Adebayo is a top-flight defender. He can drop on pick and rolls and change and block shots at the rim, and he can switch out onto the perimeter and stay with even the league’s best playmakers off the dribble. We also know Adebayo is a legit offensive hub; precise backdoor passes from the elbow are the norm, and he rolls into dribble handoffs in perfect rhythm. Adebayo has also become an 18-point-per-game scorer, but that scoring is still circumstantial. 

That’s where Adebayo’s value drops on a list like this: Yes, he’s added a short-to-mid-range jumper to his arsenal, and the numbers look pretty decent from those ranges, but it’s not a dependable source of scoring. The Bucks’ bigs sagged deep into the paint in last year’s playoffs and Bam couldn’t make them pay and was hesitant to even pull up confidently. His post game is stiff and lacks touch and counter moves. Adebayo is just not a refined enough scorer to give me more confidence going into a playoff series, his defense notwithstanding, than I would have with a guy like Morant, or certainly the guys above Morant on this list. 

I was this close to ranking SGA ahead of Bam, but I just couldn’t do it. Bam earned the edge with his play in Miami’s run to the 2020 Finals. That said, Gilgeous-Alexander does have two playoff series under his belt. He more than acquitted himself in that setting as a rookie with the Clippers vs. Golden State in 2019 (before Kevin Durant was hurt the Clippers honestly tested the Warriors, and SGA was a legit part of it), and he put up 16 points per game in OKC’s seven-game loss to Houston in 2020. SGA shot 40 percent from 3 in that Houston series on five attempts per game. 

You’ll see below that De’Aaron Fix didn’t quite crack the top 10 of this list, which feels wrong, and SGA’s 3-point shooting is the difference. He shot 42 percent from beyond the arc last season while averaging 23-6-4. Only Pascal Siakam can match Gilgeous-Alexander’s Gumby finishes; he uses his length to scoop shots, getting them on the glass quicker than the defender can react, and his wrong-footed coordination is masterful. 

The problem with SGA is the defense. It can be downright bad. He has the attributes to be not just a passable defender, but a good one. If that happens, he’ll shoot up this list. Until then, he rounds out the top 10. 

Just missed the cut

Only in a point guard era this rich can a guy like Fox, who averaged 25 points and seven assists last season, not even sniff an All-Star nod, and here I am leaving him out of the top 10 players under 25. The second Jamal Murray, Jaylen Brown and Devin Booker age out of this list, Fox shoots up. But for the next month or so, the 32-percent 3-point shooting mark holds him back. He’s just not a good enough defender to jump a guy like Gilgeous-Alexander, who is roughly an equivalent scorer but a bigger playoff threat because of his shooting. 

Anunoby is arguably the best defender on this list. Specifically, he’s an isolation nightmare; strong with great feet and recovery range. He contests everything. I don’t have the stats on blocked jump shots, but Anunoby has to be among the per-minute leaders.

Through the lens of winning playoff series right now, Anunoby’s defense is a legit weapon. He’s one of the few players who can go heads up with the best scorers in the league and actually make life difficult on them. But don’t make the mistake of sticking Anunoby in the defensive-specialist file. He averaged over 15 points per game last season on just under 40-percent 3-point shooting (over six attempts per game). He’s a corner-3-and-D stud. 

Anunoby can put the ball on the floor, too, and Nick Nurse has slowly put the ball in his hands more and more. His 18.3 usage rate last season, per CTG, was by far a career-high, and with Kyle Lowry gone, look for Anunoby to take on more offensive responsibilities this year. 

Porter Jr. is already one of the best shooters in the league. He hit over 44 percent of his 3-pointers last season, up from 42 percent as a rookie, and he kept that number right at the 40-percent mark on over seven attempts per game in last year’s postseason. Porter is a flat-out game-changer when his shot is going, which is often. 

But right now, he doesn’t bring a ton else to the table. He’s a decent rebounder, but he has a hard time creating off the dribble. He’s incredibly stiff (perhaps he always will be with his back) when he puts the ball on the floor and his handle will make you hold your breath. His defense (also affected by his stiffness) ranges from airhead to passable in stretches, but for the most part, he’s still a player who’s going to get picked on. 

Honorable mentions