(USA Today Sports)
Two weeks ago, ESPN released their list of the top 25 players under the age of 25 based on their future potential, created by analysts: Bobby Marks, Kevin Pelton, and Mike Schmitz. Deservingly so, the list received plenty of judgment and debate on some of the “hot takes” of the featured analysts. Standing out the most, was the decision to place LaMelo Ball at number three on the list. While Ball is already a great player, it can be argued that he hasn’t yet shown that he deserves the nod of having more potential than some of the players on this list, who are already superstars in the league. With that being said, I present to you my list of the top 25 players under the age of 25 based on future potential in the NBA.
1. Luka Doncic G/F, Dallas Mavericks
Doncic shined in the bubble last year and has carried that momentum right over into the new NBA season. The now two-time NBA All-Star Starter, Luka Doncic is shooting a career-high this year from the three-point line and the floor overall, while also being top five in the league in points and assists per game. Doncic has already developed into a consistent All-NBA player and someone who deserves to be in the MVP conversation every year. Doncic is only in his third season, once he hits his full potential, he will become even more of a nightmare for opposing teams.
2. Zion Williamson F, New Orleans Pelicans
Missing most of his rookie year after being plagued by injuries, Williamson has had a breakout season which led him to be a first-time all-star selection. Shooting an efficient 61% from the field, Zion has been a consistent bright spot to what has been an up-and-down season for New Orleans. Zion’s tremendous strength compiled with his athleticism makes it nearly impossible to stop him from finishing around the rim. Combine that with his aggression on the boards and his quickness, he’s already a handful every time on the floor. The next step for Zion is improving his abilities as a shooter from outside the paint, and the free-throw line.
3. Jayson Tatum F, Boston Celtics
One of the most versatile offensive threats in the league already, Jayson Tatum has mastered how to get to his spots on the floor and score with ease. Averaging a career-high in points per game with 26.0 to go along with career highs in both rebounds and assists. What is probably most impressive about Tatum’s current season, is the fact that he is still shooting at an efficient clip (46.2%) while containing a career-high usage rate (30%). After notching his second straight all-star selection, Tatum has continued to try and carry the Celtics closer to the top of the Eastern Conference, where most expected them to be before the season started.
4. Donovan Mitchell G, Utah Jazz
The best player on the team that currently has the best record in the NBA, Mitchell has continued to improve his offensive game and has become a more efficient scorer than the previous years of his career. Shooting a career-high from behind the arc (38.6%) and averaging a career-high in assists per game (5.2), it’s clear why Mitchell was chosen to be an all-star yet again, and could potentially be selected to an All-NBA team for the first time in his young career. Hopefully, for Mitchell and the Jazz, he’s not sidelined too long with an ankle sprain that he suffered against the Pacers a few days ago.
5. Devin Booker G, Phoenix Suns
It’s hard to believe that Devin Booker is already in his sixth season in the NBA and he’s only 24 years old. The addition of Chris Paul to the Phoenix Suns has benefited the team, obviously, but it has also benefited Booker. Still averaging just over twenty-five points per game (25.5) the load that Booker has had to carry for so many years on a less than mediocre Suns team has decreased due to Chris Paul joining the team. Booker is still an offensive juggernaut that can score on you in any way, but now he doesn’t have to focus as much on getting others involved in the offense as he has in the past. One thing to credit Booker for so far this year is his improvement on the defensive end. Booker is currently averaging a career-high in steals and a career-high defensive rating of 109.2 (via ESPN’s Bobby Marks). Fans will be eager to see if Booker and the Suns can make a deep playoff run.
6. Trae Young G, Atlanta Hawks
One of the most entertaining offensive players in the league already, Trae Young just misses the top five of this list. Young has had a great season so far, even with the mid-season slump he had earlier in the year. One of the more notable all-star slumps, Trae Young is currently 3rd in the league in assists per game (9.5) while averaging 25.2 points per game on top of that. Young can do it all from an offensive standpoint but has struggled on the defensive end so far in his short career. Stepping up his defensive consistency and abilities will be the next step in Trae Young’s game that could put him in the conversation for the league’s best Point Guard.
7. Ben Simmons G/F, Philadelphia 76ers
Arguably the best defensive player on this list, Ben Simmons is currently ranked fourth in total deflections this season (ESPN’s Bobby Marks). Simmons receives plenty of criticism and hate from fans and analysts for his offensive struggles and refusal to even attempt shots outside the paint, which sometimes hurts the offense of the 76ers. However, if you put his lack of shooting abilities to the side, Simmons is still an all-star for a reason. Simmons has the playmaking and passing ability that has only been seen so often from players of his size. Combine that with the defensive ability of Simmons, who is the current frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year, and the effect that Simmons has on the floor at all times is evident. Simmons has been the catalyst for the 76ers, who currently have the number two ranked defense in the NBA (ESPN).
8. Bam Adebayo F/C, Miami Heat
One of the more notable all-star snubs, Bam Adebayo is currently having potentially the best season yet in year four of his career. After having a breakout season last year in which Adebayo helped lead the Heat to the finals, Adebayo has continued to improve this season. Averaging a career-high nineteen points per game, just over nine rebounds per game (9.3), and about five assists per game (5.2), Adebayo has stepped up this year for the Heat who have been continuously plagued by injuries. Although, what stands out about Bam Adebayo the most is his defensive versatility. Adebayo is the premier defensive big man in today’s game, as he can guard positions one through five, and can switch in pick and roll situations with no concerns. Adebayo is looking now to continue to stay healthy and help lead the Heat into a secure playoff seed.
9. Jaylen Brown G/F, Boston Celtics
A first-time all-star selection, the Marietta, Georgia native has burst onto the scene this season and is having a breakout year. Averaging career-highs in nearly every statistical category, Jaylen Brown is a dark-horse candidate for this year’s Most Improved Player award. Brown has been Robin to Jayson Tatum’s Batman this season so far for the Celtics, even with a somewhat disappointing record thus far. With both Brown and Jayson Tatum playing at the elite they are both at currently, the future looks bright for Boston.
10. Domantas Sabonis F/C, Indiana Pacers
Potentially the most underrated player on this list, Sabonis is now a two-time all-star after being selected this year. Sabonis is one of the bright young Power Forwards in today’s NBA but is often overlooked, but I’m not sure as to why. Sabonis is top five in double-doubles this season and is currently averaging a career-high in both points, and assists per game. Although Sabonis could improve on the defensive end, especially on the interior, he does so many things well for the Pacers, that you can look past the defensive inconsistencies. You can look past them, even more, when you have Myles Turner on the floor with Sabonis, as Turner is leading the league in blocks per game with 3.4.
11. Jamal Murray G, Denver Nuggets
After exploding in the bubble last year and carrying the Nuggets back from multiple 3-1 deficits in the playoffs, Murray has continued to have the hot hand this season. Murray is currently having the best three-point shooting year of his young career, at 40.8% from beyond the arc this season, even on a high volume of threes attempted per game. Murray continues to improve defensively, currently recording a career-high in steals per game (1.3). The next step for Murray would be improving his playmaking ability and assist numbers, but unfortunately, his main concern, for now, is rehabbing from a torn ACL that he suffered just over a week ago against the Warriors. NBA fans everywhere will be looking forward to seeing Murray return to the floor healthy next season.
12. LaMelo Ball G, Charlotte Hornets
The clear favorite for Rookie of the Year, LaMelo Ball has come in and produced at a rate that only some saw coming, many people are now starting to say that LaMelo is what we thought his older brother, Lonzo would be. Before suffering a fractured wrist, LaMelo was running away with the Rookie of the Year award and had just been moved into the starting lineup for a bigger role with the Hornets. Ball has silenced most of the doubters when it comes to the questions that were asked about his offensive efficiency by shooting 37.5% from the three-point line, and 45.1% from the field to this point in his rookie year. However, Ball has not been great defensively, which was one of his criticisms during the draft process. Once LaMelo improves on that end of the floor, he has the potential to be a future MVP candidate. It was also announced on Monday that Ball had been cleared for “individual basketball activity” (ESPN) and could return to the lineup in 7-10 days.
13. De’Aaron Fox G, Sacramento Kings
Arguably the fastest and quickest player in the league, De’Aaron Fox is another young, talented player that is often overlooked. Fox is currently averaging a career-high 25.2 points per game, to go along with 7.2 assists per game. Fox deserves credit for improving his shooting ability since he’s entered the league, shooting 32.3% from three, which leaves room for improvement compared to his career-high three-point percentage of 37.1%. However, his current percentage also forces defenses to respect his jumper which gives Fox an even better chance of beating his man off the dribble with his quickness and finishing at the rim which is already so good at doing. For most of his career, Fox has been the only real bright spot for a struggling Sacramento Kings franchise, and it looks like that could continue to be the case if the Kings don’t surround Fox with more talent soon.
14. Ja Morant G, Memphis Grizzlies
Augusta, Georgia’s Ja Morant hasn’t had an explosion this season like many anticipated, but with that said, he hasn't had a “Sophomore slump” as some players do. Morant is one of the most entertaining and explosive athletes in the league and he’s only in year two. Morant is excellent at getting to the rim and finishing as well as setting up his teammates, which is shown by his 7.3 assists per game average. Thus said, Morant has to take the next step in becoming a better shooter. Morant’s percentages have dropped when comparing where they were a season ago, showing Morant’s weakness and need for improvement. But when having the confidence that Morant has, percentages won’t deter him from pulling the trigger from outside if he’s comfortable.
15. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander G, Oklahoma City Thunder
Gilgeous-Alexander has stepped into the role as the face of the franchise for the Oklahoma City Thunder and is deserving of it when judging his career so far. Gilgeous-Alexander has continued to improve as a passer and shooter since entering the NBA. Considering he has carried the load for the Thunder this year with a 28.2% usage rate, it is remarkable that he is having the most efficient season of his career right now with a 21.8% player efficiency rating. Gilgeous-Alexander will hope that Oklahoma City General Manager, Sam Presti, will continue to load up on draft picks to surround Gilgeous-Alexander with as much young talent as possible.
16. Brandon Ingram F, New Orleans Pelicans
Although Zion Williamson has largely taken most of the media from other players on the Pelicans, and deservingly so, Brandon Ingram has had an excellent season. His numbers are very similar to what he posted last year, but considering the number of touches Zion Williamson is getting now that he is fully healthy, it is something to note. Ingram is tallying the best assist-to-turnover ratio of his career of 1..98 (ESPN). Ingram has to improve defensively, and adding some size to his frame would also go a long way in boosting Brandon Ingram’s game and potential.
17. Anthony Edwards G/F, Minnesota Timberwolves
Much of Edwards’s production this season has been overshadowed by the incredible season fellow rookie LaMelo Ball has had thus far. Although Edwards has still had himself quite the rookie campaign. Leading all rookies in scoring with 18.1 points per game, Edwards has shown why he was the number one pick in this past NBA Draft. Edwards has put all of his offensive abilities on display so far this season, showcasing his quickness and ability to finish at the rim while also knocking down the three-ball at a decent rate for a rookie (32%). It is early into the former Georgia Bulldogs’ career, but he’s shown flashes that make sense as to why many have compared him to Dwayne Wade.
18. Michael Porter Jr. F, Denver Nuggets
Michael Porter Jr. was another young player that came alive in the bubble and showed off his skill and potential. Despite battling different injuries this year and missing time due to the NBA’s Covid-19 health and safety protocols, Porter Jr. has had a great Sophomore season. MPJ has increased his numbers in nearly every category, but the most notable is his increase in minutes, points, and rebounds per game. Nearly doubling his minutes per game this season going from sixteen to thirty minutes per game, MPJ has also had the production to exemplify why he’s deserving of those minutes. Increasing his points per game from 9.3 to 17.7 and his rebounds per game from 4.7 to 7.7 MPJ has been a key part of the Nugget's success thus far. MPJ will have to improve defensively though, as we saw him miss out on late-game minutes in the bubble last year due to teams targeting him because of his lack of defensive ability.
19. John Collins F/C, Atlanta Hawks
Collins has seen his numbers dip slightly compared to last season, but that tends to happen when your team adds a player like Clint Capela, who plays a similar role as Collins. Because of the plethora of scorers on the Hawks, Collins doesn’t average a heavy amount of field goal attempts per game, but Collins still affects the game every time he’s on the floor. One of the best young players in pick and roll situations, Collins is always a threat to catch the lob off the pick and roll or finish in a more traditional style. Along with his athleticism and finishing ability, Collins can also step outside and punish teams with his perimeter jump shot (37.2% from three this year) and is a force on the boards with just over seven and a half rebounds per game this season. Collins is in search of a max contract which the Hawks did not offer him at the extension deadline, but Atlanta better be careful, because he most likely will get that max deal from someone come free agency.
20. Deandre Ayton C, Phoenix Suns
Another former number one overall pick, Ayton has also seen his numbers drop with the addition of Chris Paul, and the evolution of some of his teammates. Thus said, Ayton is also having the most efficient season of his young career with a PER (Player efficiency rating) of 20.72. Ayton is still averaging a double-double and is shooting at an efficient 62.5% from the field this season. Ayton will continue to look to make strides on the defensive end as a rim protector to better his all-around game. Ayton is eligible for an extension this offseason, so a big payday could be coming his way when the offseason arrives.
21. Collin Sexton G, Cleveland Cavaliers
One of the best young combo guards in the league, Sexton has continued to improve his scoring numbers every year, while maintaining a defensive intensity that is unmatched by any other player on this list. Sexton is averaging career-highs in both points and assists per game to go along with a career-high shooting percentage from the field (48.2%). I love the fiery passion and confidence that Sexton plays with, he’s the perfect guy to be the face of the Cavaliers franchise for years to come. If Sexton can continue to improve as a playmaker, he will no doubt become an all-star soon.
22. Lonzo Ball G, New Orleans Pelicans
The second ball brother on the list, Lonzo has changed his form on his jump shot slightly, which has boosted his percentage and number of makes from the three-point line in the last two seasons. Many have credited Lonzo Ball for his passing ability as well as his IQ, including the great Magic Johnson, who has always raved about Lonzo’s IQ since he has entered the league. Now that his younger brother LaMelo is in the league and is showing out, fans and analysts will compare the two for years and years, which could take away from the production and talent of Lonzo Ball. Yet, Lonzo has a clear advantage over his little brother with his strong abilities on the defensive end of the floor.
23. Mikal Bridges F/G, Phoenix Suns
Mikal Bridges has made an impressive leap this season as well as last, as he has now etched himself as a starter for the Suns. Bridges is having the best season of his career in year three with career-highs in points, field goal percentage, and three-point percentage. But Bridges is best known for his defensive ability, as he is already one of the best young perimeter defenders in the NBA. The evolution of Mikal Bridges this season has been a big factor as to why the Phoenix Suns are the number two team in the Western Conference.
24. Jarrett Allen C, Cleveland Cavaliers
The best rim protector on this list, Jarrett Allen has been well known for his highlight reel of blocks when meeting the NBA’s best at the rim. Defensive talent aside, Allen has also progressed into a pick and roll threat for the young Cavaliers. Allen’s next step for his game is continuing to improve his offensive versatility. Nonetheless, there is no questioning Allen’s defensive and rebounding ability. After being traded to Cleveland earlier this year, it appears Allen will be the starting center and defensive anchor of the future for the Cavs.
25. RJ Barrett F/G, New York Knicks
One of the cornerstones of the future for the Knicks, RJ Barrett is starting to improve his game and show his ability to be a premier point forward in the future. The playmaking ability Barrett possesses flashed in his one season at Duke but has not completely translated over to the NBA game just yet. Thus said, Barrett still has shown his ability as a scorer, and has improved as a shooter since his rookie year. Posting career-highs in a field goal, three-point, and free throw percentage, Barrett is making the strides he needs to be an offensive threat. Barrett will have to continue to work towards becoming a more efficient player as his PER (player efficiency rating) of 13.74 ranks 127th in the NBA.
*All stats recorded from ESPN Stats & Info. department