The NBA has so many young and talented players and it is important to know which ones will go on to have successful careers. This list consists of the top 22 players that are 22 years of age and under. I based my rankings on predicting their careers, and not just in the present moment. In this article, I only mention 22 players, but you can easily make a case that more than 22 players deserved to be on this list. This speaks volumes to how much young talent there is in the NBA.
1.) PG Trae Young (Atlanta Hawks):
Young had a rough start to his rookie year and was very inefficient, but throughout the year, it was evident how much he improved. Post-all-star break, Young averaged 24.7 ppg and 9.2 APG. The Hawks rookie showed signs that he can be a star in this league and has changed the culture of the Hawks. Just looking at all the NBA teams’ rosters in the 2018-2019 season, they should have been at the bottom of the standings. Instead, the Hawks were the 5th worst team in the NBA. This sounds bad, but Young helped build a culture that played fast and played hard. Trae Young was the engine and teammates bought into it. This is a trait that Steph Curry has. In terms of value, Kevin Durant may have been the best player, but Curry was the most valuable Warriors. Both Curry and Young are great at controlling the pace of the game and are both unselfish. Furthermore, Young has great handles as I’d rank him in the top 5 in the NBA right now. We also know Young can shoot from so deep, his defender has to step up and when they do, Young can break them down off the dribble. Players will want to play with Trae Young and expect him to have a lot of success in the NBA.
2.) SF Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks):
The two top players on this list were traded for each other on draft day, and both teams came out as winners. Luka Doncic has a very high IQ for someone who’s only 20 years but knows how to play. Luka is a very willing passer as he averaged 6.0 APG and has a unique playing style. Doncic can play on the post, in isolation, or as a pick and roll ball handler. He has a variety of moves around the rim and any big man that plays with him is going to have the time of their life as he is great at sucking the center in on drives and will dump it off for an easy basket. Doncic is fairly limited athletically but knows how to score despite that as he averaged 21.2 ppg. Luka should improve in efficiency as he shot only 32.7% from 3 in his rookie year. As mentioned before, Doncic is not a great athlete, so his ceiling is somewhat limited. Luka’s playing style will not change too much throughout his career. However, we have seen James Harden is one of the NBA’s best scorers and he is below average athletically as well. With this in mind, Doncic should age better than others, because his game is heavily driven on his IQ. Luka Doncic is going to have a long and great career.
3.) PF Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans):
I am a huge fan of Williamson on and off the court. I think he would be a great addition to any organization. He has crazy gifts athletically and will instantly be a force around the rim. Williamson will have the versatility to switch defensively and create mismatches offensively. Williamson is only about 6’7 while weighing 280 lbs. Zion will have the ability to bully wings while being quicker than most bigs. Zion is a great finisher around the rim and the additional spacing in the NBA should make the game easier for him. Williamson is different than most stars as his motor is always high. He wants to play both ends of the floor and will make hustle plays. This trait could be key, because when your team’s best player is your hardest worker, then that sets a positive culture. My doubts about Zion primarily consist of if he can stay healthy. Zion doesn’t have a bad history of injuries, but he might be too overweight and it worries me that he could get injured with the combination of that and his aggressive playing style. Williamson may not age as gracefully as one may hope as he relies on his athleticism. Zion is incredibly mature for someone his age and if he can take care of his body, then it would not surprise me if he ends up being the best player on this list.
4.) PG De’Aaron Fox (Sacramento kings):
Coming out of college, I wasn’t a huge fan of Fox because I wasn’t sure if he could be a reliable shooter from 3. So far, he has proved me wrong. In his sophomore season, he shot 37.1% from behind the arc. With this, he can become an even more dangerous player. Fox is already great at leading the fast break as he might be the fastest player in the NBA. Also, he averaged 7.3 APG in his second year which was 8th in the NBA. He’s 6’3 with a 6’6 wingspan and has impressive lateral quickness to be a great on-ball defender especially when it comes time for the playoffs. Fox improved in his sophomore season in every category. He shows the traits of a hard worker and is going to reshape the organization from the disfunction they have had for so many years.
5.) PF Marvin Bagley (Sacramento Kings):
Bagley had limited playing time in his rookie season, but we forget how good he was coming out of college. For starters, he has good size for a 4 at 6’11 with a 7’1 wingspan. Bagley is very athletic as he is either too quick or too long for most defenders. He is comfortable playing on the perimeter as he can put the ball on the floor or be a threat from 3. He shot only 31.3% from 3, but gets good lift and should become at least average from 3. One of Bagley’s best traits is his motor around the rim as he is a great rebounder. His offensive rebound percentage was 17th in the NBA, but he is better than the numbers show. If you look at his per 36-minute stats, Bagley put up 21.2 points and 10.8 rebounds. Bagley is so talented and he is going to be a great player in this league. He is only 20 years old and It wouldn’t surprise me if he became an all-star at some point during his rookie contract even in a loaded western conference.
6.) PF Lauri Markkanen (Chicago Bulls):
The product from Finland is best known for his ability to shoot from 3 and for good reason. Although Markkanen has only shot 36.1% from 3 in his 2-year career, he is capable of being much better from there as he has very good mechanics. Lauri is 7’0 tall as a 4, but moves very well for someone is his size. He can grab and go and start the fast break himself and that’s when his game opens up. Markkanen isn’t someone who can create his shot consistently, but he can be a very solid player nonetheless. He stands out much better on the offensive than the defensive end of the floor as he has solid lateral quickness to switch, but will most likely never be a great rim protector. Markkanen still holds so much value though with his potential of shooting and scoring for someone who is 7’0 tall.
7.) PG Jamal Murray (Denver Nuggets):
Jamal Murray does deserve some criticism for not showing up in some of Denver’s playoff games. I get that. However, he is only 21 years old. Murray is still developing as a player and expecting him to go out and compete in the Western Conference is not an easy task. In the 2017 playoffs, Mike Malone (Nuggets head coach) took Jamal Murray to a game and told him that if he works hard enough, they can be here next year. Then this past year, we saw the Nuggets have the second-best record in the west. For those who don’t remember, Murray and Jokic carried their team as the Nuggets struggled to stay healthy. Murray is not a true point guard. The thing is though, he doesn’t have to be. As long as he and Jokic stay together, Murray can stick to his strengths. Murray is a great 3 point shooter even though he only shot 36.7% from there, he attempted 5.5 per game and has been an 85-90% free throw shooter throughout his career. Murray has a poise to him that you can’t teach. This is only the start for Murray as he has a bright future ahead of him.
8.) SG Devin Booker (Pheonix Suns):
Last season, Booker had to play a role that doesn’t match his strengths. Booker was essentially the point guard for this team. That’s not who he is. Devin Booker is a volume scorer and a great shooter. Last year he did not have nearly enough catch and shoot opportunities as he only shot 32.6% from 3. Devin Booker has a great jump shot, but the Suns had no one to put him in positions to score. Now Booker can create his own shot as he still scored 26.6 ppg, but he shouldn’t always have to. Booker will now have Rubio for a few years to be the facilitator so that should help his efficiency. It’d help a lot for Booker’s resume if the Suns can be a playoff contender sometime soon as he has never even played in a playoff game. The thing to know for Booker is that he is not going to stop anyone on defense. He just doesn’t give any effort on that end of the floor. Now maybe part of it is because the Suns have never been close to reaching the playoffs since he got drafted, so they play a lot of “unimportant” games. I don’t know his DNA, but he probably will always be a below-average defender, but the fact he can put up 25 ppg at 22 years old is still impressive nonetheless.
9.) PF Jaren Jackson Jr. (Memphis Grizzlies):
Coming into the draft, I liked Jaren Jackson, but I didn’t see star potential. I projected him as a 4 or 5 that will be a threat from 3, but never great. His release isn’t natural and doesn’t always get great rotation. I thought he would be able to come in and be a very good rim protector and switchable defender. I didn’t see a ton of upside offensively. My assessment of him then is pretty similar now except there is one thing I didn’t see coming. Jackson has an alpha quality to him though that is unique. No moment is too big for him. He is also expecting himself to be a leader for this young Memphis team. I like the mindset he has shown in interviews and I like how he went to Summer League to show support for his organization and get familiarized with his new teammates. Jackson is going to have a great career, but I see him as more of a role player unlike many.
10) SF Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics):
Many are probably surprised I have Tatum this low. I am not going to deny the fact that he is talented. He knows how to score. He has great footwork for someone his age. I do think though He falls in a strange category that consists of wings like Tatum, Carmelo Anthony, and Tobias Harris. These players need touches. They can’t just be a spot-up shooter. They are below average defenders. Now Tatum has not been a liability on defense, but a lot of the credit should go to Brad Stevens. Another trait of these players is that they are most comfortable in the mid-range. I think these traits would be much more problematic if he had ended up elsewhere. Tatum caught a break with landing on the Celtics and he will put up a lot of points in his career, but he just falls in a class where it doesn’t exactly translate to winning at a high level.
11.) SG R.J. Barrett (New York Knicks):
Barrett was the 3rd pick in this past year’s draft and he is going to score a lot of points in the NBA. Barrett averaged 22.6 ppg at Duke and it was evident he has a natural feel to score. He knew how to read angles to exploit his matchup and drive to the rim. Barrett has good size for a guard at 6’7 so he should be able to still score over his opponents. The jump shot needs work though as he shot a well below average 30.8% from 3. This is going to be key for him to develop. His shot should progress if he puts in the work. Another area you would like to see improvement is on the defensive end as elite two-way wings are so valuable in today’s game. He has the physical tools to do it if he wants to. Barrett is very humble for a 19-year-old and it would surprise me if he didn’t improve on his decision making and jump shot especially. He is all about winning and expect him to become a very talented wing down the road.
13.) C Mohamed Bamba (Orlando Magic):
Coming into the draft last year, I was very high on Bamba. I saw him as a player that could transform a defense with his 7’10 wingspan. He is a team-first guy and has no ego. He also showed signs of a potential jump shot. There was a lot to like with Bamba coming into last year. Unfortunately for his career, Bamba was drafted by the Magic. They already have a center named Nikola Vucevic and extended him for another 4 years. Mo Bamba is also coming off of a stress fracture in his left tibia that kept him sidelined for most of the second half of the season. He is expected to be fully healthy heading into the season, but he is very thin for a center so there are questions if he is injury prone. Before the injury, Bamba showed real signs of being an all-around center. Now the situation with the Magic is confusing, but Bamba is talented enough to overcome it and show how transformative of a center he can be.
14.) PG Lonzo Ball (New Orleans Pelicans):
Lonzo Ball has had a difficult time staying healthy throughout his career. The thing is though, his playstyle doesn’t lead to injury. It is hard to figure out if he is injury prone or just unlucky. When healthy, Lonzo Ball is capable of becoming one of the best floor generals in today’s game. The numbers don’t tell the whole story. Lonzo’s IQ is the highest I have seen from a prospect in the last 5 years. He is great at manipulating the defense and finds teammates to put them in positions to succeed. Lonzo is not going to lead the league in assists, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a great passer. Ball is going to make the right play. Last season, LeBron and he couldn’t coexist next to each other. The blame should be more on LeBron though, as we learned he can’t play off the ball. He can only play one way. He wants the ball to drive and kick to shooters. Ball is not meant to be a standstill shooter. Additionally, Ball’s mechanics have improved as a shooter as he keeps his elbow in, but still a fairly low release point. Despite this, he just has to be capable of hitting open 3s as he should be shooting less than the 4.9 attempts per game he attempted last year. In college, he shot 41.2% from 3 so he can be respectable from there. Ball is one of those players that has phenomenal instincts. With this in mind, Lonzo is a little overrated defensively, because he doesn’t give a ton of effort on that end, but with his length and great anticipation in the passing lanes, the stats show he is a great defender. When healthy, Lonzo is the type of point guard that could lead a good team. He has the poise, maturity, and leadership qualities that speaks volumes for an organization. I could care less about the big baller brand and LaVar Ball. Lonzo is a heck of a player and you just have to hope he can stay healthy.
14.) PG Ja Morant (Memphis Grizzlies):
Ja Morant is a talented player. He is a quick-twitch athlete with a quick first step. Morant can finish with either hand around the rim. His driving ability is going to translate and score a lot of points. With this aggressive playstyle he has though, it is concerning with his risk of injury. We have seen point guards like John Wall and Derek Rose have a lot of trouble staying on the court due to their aggressive playstyle. Now we have seen Westbrook’s ability to stay healthy, but Westbrook is built. Morant is 175 lbs. Ja will not last if he can’t change his play style. Additionally, Morant did lead the nation with 10.0 APG, but he would have tunnel vision in most of his team’s biggest games. Morant also goes for the home-run pass rather than the simple pass most times. Ja also tends to have tunnel vision in big moments. Now Ja should still be a solid facilitator and make a lot of highlight plays. Ja Morant shows impressive vision at times that will directly lead to an open jump shot or easy dunk. A difference that could separate him from the John Wall and Derrick Rose types of players is that he shot 36.6% from 3 in his second year. He has a clean and quick release; similar to D’Angelo Russell. Although there is a lot to like about Morant on offense, one concern I have is his defense. He showed no effort on defense even in big games. That is concerning, but this could change over time. I am aware there are many bad defenders in the NBA, but Ja Morant couldn’t get through a screen even if it was Nate Robinson. I would understand more if this was against select teams, but he was doing this in the OVC and NCAA tournaments in the biggest moments. He is still young so there is time to improve his effort on that end of the floor.
15.) C DeAndre Ayton (Pheonix Suns):
DeAndre Ayton is a very talented big man. He has great size at 7’1 with a 7’6 wingspan. He is a physical specimen on the block and knows how to use his body to his advantage. Ayton averaged an impressive 16.3 ppg with 10.3 RPG. DeAndre is a very talented player even at 21 years old now. The problem for him though, is that it is hard to win in the NBA when playing through your big man. We have seen players like Karl Anthony-Towns who has only 5 playoff games of experience in 4 years. It is simply too easy for teams to score from 3 with all the rule changes and having a talented post player can stagnate an offense when you play through him. This placement is not a knock on his talent, but with the way the game is today, it is hard to win this way. Ayton can be a great rim runner and lob threat as he has great hands. DeAndre is also a capable shooter as his free throw percentage is in the mid-70s and can hit mid-range jumpers. In the NBA he has only attempted 4 3’s in his career, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see if he expands his game. Now with a 7’6 wingspan, it is upsetting that he only averaged 0.9 BPG last season. He is still very young, but I don’t think he can anchor a defense so when it’s time to get paid, he will be making as much as a Joel Embiid without the ability to protect the rim even at an above-average rate. It is very difficult for a team to play through its center and win at a high rate. Last season, we saw the Denver Nuggets play through Nikola Jokic, but he is such a good passer that it is hard to stop the Nuggets on offense. Now we haven’t seen a center like Ayton be surrounded by shooters in the 3 ball era yet, but the Suns are making sure Ayton will have the room to operate this upcoming season, so that will be interesting to see.
16.) PF John Collins (Atlanta Hawks):
John Collins is a great athlete and one of the best lob threats in the NBA. Coming out of Wake Forest, he was labeled as a player who can score and rebound but is a liability on defense. That label is still just as accurate as today. Collins is an all-star caliber talent on offense with his elite athleticism that allows him to be a great roll man and he has proven to be able to space the floor just well enough at 34.6%. Collins has a good motor around the rim as he averaged 3.6 offensive RPG. With this all in mind, he can’t create his own shot offensively. Having a PG like Trey Young will certainly allow him to just play his role. On defense, Collins is a below-average player. He is versatile enough to switch on occasion. A big drawback is that he has the athleticism to be a rim protector, but doesn’t have the instincts. This limits the roles he can play for a team as it would be best to put a center next to him that can shoot 3s as well as protect the rim. Overall though, he should be a great 2nd option for an offense and will be a 20 ppg and 10 RPG type of player.
17.) PG Darius Garland (Cleveland Caviliers):
Darius Garland suffered a meniscus injury that resulted in him only participating in 5 games in his lone college season. Garland was able to showcase his potential against the inferior competition by averaging 16.2 ppg and shooting 47.8% from 3. Garland’s two biggest strengths are his handles and his jump shot. Darius has a variety of moves and knows how to change speeds and beat his man. This will allow Garland to create his own shot at the NBA level. Garland has great mechanics on his jump shot so the combination of his handles and jump shot will make him a threat against any defense. Additionally, Garland is athletic enough to finish at the rim despite being 6’2. His defense will suffer though as he will have trouble stopping his opponents with his smaller frame. Overall though, he has the potential to be a Kemba Walker type of scorer.
18.) SF Brandon Ingram (New Orleans Pelicans):
Brandon Ingram hasn’t had a great start to his career, but the Pelicans are allowing him to be the player many thought he was going to be coming into the NBA. He has good handles for someone who is 6’9. He has a clean jump shot with a high release point. This allows him to get his shot off consistently. He is very comfortable in the mid-range and he is capable of becoming an average to above-average 3 point shooter. Brandon Ingram can finish with either hand and is improving on finishing through contact. He is an average defender at this point in his career, but he has the tools to be better. Ingram has a 7’3 wingspan, which makes you believe he can improve and become a weak-side rim protector. Ingram’s overall game has improved every year and he is on a team now that values his talent and will have the opportunity to showcase it.
19.) PG/SG Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Oklahoma City Thunder):
Shai Gilgeous has had a very solid career thus far as he was the starting point guard on a playoff team in his rookie year. He has appealing size for a guard at 6’6 with a 6’11 wingspan that allows him to defend 1-3. Alexander shows a lot of potential as a driver as he is only 21, but has added many different moves to his portfolio to get his shot off. He is much better finishing with his right hand, but he still attempts shots with his left. This leaves me to believe this is something he will improve on over time. Shai is a solid passer as a combo guard, but there is room for him to improve. Alexander will be a fine defender, but he won’t be an all-defensive caliber player despite his intriguing length. Overall, Shai is going to have a very good career, because he can shoot at a respectable rate and offers great upside attacking the rim. He is a player that has such a high floor that it is impossible to not have him on this list.
20.) C Thomas Bryant (Washington Wizards):
Thomas Bryant came out of nowhere last season and really surprised many including me. Bryant is 6’11 with a 7’6 wingspan, which allows him to be a solid rim protector as he averaged 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes in only his second season. It is also worth mentioning that in his first season, he only played 72 minutes so last year was his first season being in the rotation. On the offensive end, he has the ability to stretch the floor as he shot 33.3% from 3 last season. Thomas Bryant plays with a high motor as well as he would play hard every game. He runs the floor hard which leads to easy buckets. Bryant’s game really fits today’s game and could have a role on any team in the NBA and will do his part. He will be a great role player for a long time.
21.) SF/PF De’Andre Hunter (Atlanta Hawks):
De’Andre is a role player. He has very little ego and finds ways to contribute whether it be his shooting, rebounding, or defense. I also see hints of playmaking potential that he is starting to add to his game. In college, Hunter was most comfortable in the mid-range, but I don’t think this will be too concerning. He was still a great catch and shoot threat from 3 and will get a lot of opportunities playing with Trey Young. Hunter does not have great lateral quickness, but he is a high IQ player. He will improve over time as he learns how to beat your opponent to the spot and has great size at 6’7 and 225 lbs. His 7’3 wingspan will most certainly help him as well. As he keeps learning, his defensive impact will grow. He does have a limited ceiling, but that won’t stop him from being an impact player for whatever team he’s on.
22.) C Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat):
Bam Adebayo has shown positive signs in his 2-year career thus far but was never able to really flourish. Now the Heat has gotten rid of former starting center Hassan Whiteside to give Adebayo the opportunity he has been waiting for. Bam is a great lob threat and rim runner, which will give him a lot of easy buckets. Bam has a decent looking shooting stroke as well. He has shown he can be a threat in the mid-range, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he eventually became a capable 3 point shooter. On defense, Adebayo has good lateral quickness that allows him to switch onto guards if he has to. An area that you would like to see keep improving is his rim protection. He averaged only 1.2 blocks per 36 minutes last year. For someone in his role, you would like to see more signs of improvement with almost a 7’3 wingspan. Bam is going to be able to contribute in this league though as a pick and roll threat, his ability to crash the glass, and the versatility he provides defensively.
Article written by Bradley Patten
Photograph of Luka Doncic and Trey Young was taken by Richard W. Rodriguez. (https://www.newyorker.com/sports/sporting-scene/the-atlanta-hawks-most-famous-bust-considers-trae-young-and-luka-doncic)
All player stats found on Basketball Reference (https://www.basketball-reference.com/)
All physical measurements provided by NBAdraft.net (https://www.nbadraft.net)