Ranking the Best Young NBA Cores After Free Agency
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Youthful NBA cores often get lost in #TheDiscourse.
Fans and pundits naturally gravitate toward the league’s cream of the crop, and rosters stacked with kids (usually) aren’t threatening to upend the championship landscape. But there is necessary value in tracking and appreciating the youngest nuclei. If nothing else, it helps us understand which teams got next—definitively or potentially.
Ranking the best of the budding cores is always difficult and, to be honest, somewhat arbitrary. The cutoff this time around will be age-23 seasons. Nobody who turns 24 before Jan. 31 will factor into where a team lands.
Final spots will be determined by considering three primary factors: the number of notable 23-and-under players on the roster; the potential of these kiddies; and what everyone in this talent pool has already shown.
Pay special attention to that last part. Teams with a relatively small number of 23-and-under players can slingshot up the rankings if they’re spearheaded by an entrenched superstar.
This one’s for the kids. Let’s begin.
10-7: Blazers, Hornets, Timberwolves, Pacers
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10. Portland Trail Blazers
Notable Players Entering Age-23-or-Younger Season: Scoot Henderson (19), Keon Johnson (21), Nassir Little (23), Kris Murray (22), Rayan Rupert (19), Shadeon Sharpe (20), Jabari Walker (20)
This “final” spot essentially comes down to whether you prefer Evan Mobley and Isaac Okoro or Henderson and Sharpe. The collective upside of the latter two edged out the one-man stock in Cleveland. Rupert looms as a swing prospects if he pairs his rim pressure and defensive pressure with a reliable set jumper.
9. Charlotte Hornets
Notable Players Entering Age-23-or-Younger Season: LaMelo Ball (21), James Bouknight (22), Kai Jones (22), Bryce McGowens (20), Brandon Miller (20), JT Thor (20), Mark Williams (21)
LaMelo and Miller are doing a lion’s share of the heavy lifting here, though Williams did shore up his protection and explore his mid-range game to close last year. Some will insist Charlotte should be lower. It’s closer to being higher. LaMelo is already transcendent on offense and has another gear or five to hit if he improves his finishing/reaction to contact and defensive discipline.
8. Indiana Pacers
Notable Players Entering Age-23-or-Younger Season: Tyrese Haliburton (23), Isaiah Jackson (21), Bennedict Mathurin (21), Ben Sheppard (21), Jalen Smith (23), Jarace Walker (19)
Haliburton alone puts the Pacers in top-of-the-line contention. They could be nudged up a peg or two. Right now, though, I remain skeptical of Walker’s ability to provide high-level offensive impact in the NBA and Mathurin’s capacity to improve as a passer and defend higher-usage players.
7. Minnesota Timberwolves
Notable Players Entering Age-23-or-Younger Season: Anthony Edwards (21), Jaden McDaniels (22), Leonard Miller (19), Josh Minott (20), Wendell Moore Jr. (21)
It’s tempting to put the Timberwolves higher. Edwards is #ThatDude, in every way and shape and form. Jaden McDaniels partners relentless defense and dependable shooting with a disarming and burgeoning floor game. We need to see more from the rest before jacking up Minnesota’ collective ranking.
6. Detroit Pistons
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Notable Players Entering Age-23-or-Younger Season: Cade Cunningham (21), Jalen Duren (19), Killian Hayes (21), Jaden Ivey (21), Isaiah Stewart (22), Ausar Thompson (20), James Wiseman (22)
I seriously considered slotting the Detroit Pistons as high as 4.
Cunningham passes the “Future All-Star” eye test. The efficiency will catch up. Ivey really ratcheted up his offensive creativity as last season wore on. Duren’s defensive mobility will terrorize opposing offenses for a decade-plus if he ever decision-makes with more control.
Ausar Thompson finished higher on my personal draft big board than his brother, Amen Thompson. I believe in the former’s jumper more.
And yet, this core traffics in too much overlap—mainly ball-dominant talent with questionable shooting and big-man overkill—while relying too heavily on could-bes and might-bes. Another full season’s sample from Cunningham, Duren and Ivey could change everything, though.
5. Houston Rockets
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Notable Players Entering Age-23-or-Younger Season: Tari Eason (22), Jalen Green (21), Kevin Porter Jr. (23), Alperen Şengün (20), Jabari Smith Jr. (20), Amen Thompson (20), Cam Whitmore (19)
Houston’s core somehow feels underrated.
Green has to settle down, but he’s already a human flamethrower despite being woefully miscast at times. Smith doesn’t receive enough credit for the incremental offensive progress he showed to end his rookie season.
Şengün is among the most talented big men on offense right now. Will the Rockets ever feature him like one?
Both Whitmore and Amen Thompson give the Rockets fourth and fifth bites at the “Could they be an All-Star?” apple. Every team should already want someone like Tari Eason in their rotation. There’s a chance this nucleus takes a mega leap over the next year or two.
4. Orlando Magic
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Notable Players Entering Age-23-or-Younger Season: Cole Anthony (23), Paolo Banchero (20), Anthony Black (19), Caleb Houstan (20), Jett Howard (19), Jalen Suggs (22), Franz Wagner (21)
Where so much about the cores of the Pistons and Rockets are rooted in the theoretical, the Orlando Magic have merged concept with practice.
The incumbents of this nucleus all just contributed to a team that played above-.500 basketball and borderline elite defense for much of last season. And that’s not even close to their ceiling.
Trust that Banchero will become a lethal every-level scorer and no worse than this squad’s second-best playmaker. Wagner’s scalability knows no bounds. What he does both on and off the ball would leave a dent everywhere.
Suggs does more to move the future needle for me, personally, than Black or Howard. He amped up his three-point shooting for most of last year and has more feel on-ball than advertised. His defensive utility is in line with the assignments Orlando gives him.
This ranking could look foolish if Black’s offense gets stunted by spotty spacing. But the Magic added shooting in Howard and Joe Ingles this summer and can deploy more balances lineups that increase wiggle room for everyone. Their core rocks.
3. New Orleans Pelicans
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Notable Players Entering Age-23-or-Younger Season: Dyson Daniels (20), Jordan Hawkins (21), Kira Lewis Jr. (22), Trey Murphy III (23), Zion Williamson (23)
This is a friendly reminder that Zion just turned 23. It is also a friendly reminder, as well as a cathartic admission, that valuing him within this context verges on impossible.
Megastardom can float a top-five 23-and-under core. (See: What the now 24-year-old Luka Dončić used to do for the Dallas Mavericks.) Zion, at full strength, is a megastar. He’s just rarely at full strength.
Zion has missed 194 of a possible 308 regular-season games. Phrased another way: Zion has now been unavailable for more than 60 percent of his NBA career. That’s a detriment, and it puts the New Orleans Pelicans in a precarious situation, both now and later and possibly forever.
Still, after what we’ve seen from Peak Zion, durability concerns can rue only so much of the day. He is a downhill terror unlike any we’ve ever seen, equal parts unstoppable force and immovable object. His playmaking and, yes, defense are both on the come-up.
Never mind his ceiling, which very much remains limitless. For the first part of this season, Zion was the best player on what became, momentarily, the Western Conference’s best team.
Daniels and Murphy, meanwhile, help solidify the Pellies’ place within this discussion. Daniels is a crafty passer and, with apologies to Herb Jones, on course to be this squad’s best defender. Murphy is menacing motion, functional shooting, size and rock-solid defense neatly rolled into one package. New Orleans could party crash the title discussion next season—and both Daniels and Murphy could be major reasons why.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
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Notable Players Entering Age-23-or-Younger Season: Ousmane Dieng (20), Josh Giddey (20), Chet Holmgren (21), Keyontae Johnson (23), Tre Mann (22), Aleksej Pokuševski (21), Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (22), Cason Wallace (19), Jalen Williams (22), Jaylin Williams (21)
Cutting off the age eligibility in this exercise at 23 instead of 25 costs the Oklahoma City Thunder Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who turns 25 on Jul. 12.
And it almost doesn’t matter.
Oklahoma City is teeming with young talent, both proven and tantalizing. Jalen “Has Good Bones” Williams does more off the dribble than you think, is extremely malleable on defense and hits enough of his threes to stretch defenses. Giddey improved his outside shooting stroke and off-ball comfort last season, deepening an armory that already featured dribble-and-pass guile, gritty defense and strong rebounding. He and J-Dub offer possible-All-Star mystique.
The same goes for Chet Holmgren, a rim-protecting, floor-spacing, north-south attacking dream actualized, who should battle Victor Wembanyama for Rookie of the Year next season. Injuries limited Dieng during his rookie year, but he flashed enough two-way gap-filling and feel to leave yours truly smitten. Jaylin Williams is more than just “The Jaylin with a ‘y.'” Pokuševski looked more plug-and-play and defensively impactful for much of this season.
Wallace’s immediate place in a guard-heavy rotation is ambiguous. Ditto for his scoring acumen. But his spot-up shooting should translate, and his on-ball changes of pace bode well for his pick-and-roll initiation. This is someone who could one day be a regular in All-Defense discussions, too. Tre Mann may eventually become collateral damage of a backcourt logjam. For now, his shot-creation shiftiness is yet another worthwhile flier on which Oklahoma City sits.
Many like to focus, intently, on all the Thunder’s future draft picks. They do have a whooole lot. But their actual players are pretty damn good, and their trajectory is more about affirmations than a arrivals as a result.
1. San Antonio Spurs
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Notable Players Entering Age-23-or-Younger Season: Charles Bassey (22), Malaki Branham (20), Julian Champagnie (22), Jeremy Sochan (20), Devin Vassell (22), Victor Wembanyama (19), Blake Wesley (20)
To every single person farting out some variation of “Wembanyama is overrated/not good/looks like a bust-in-the-making” takes, and sincerely meaning them, following his NBA Summer League debut: With all (un)due respect, please sit down and shut up.
One-game exhibitions are telltale of, approximately, absolutely nothing. Wemby still looks the part of not just a star, not just a megastar, but a generational talent, a hybrid meld of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant and Evan Mobley and more, fated to establish himself as a face of the league sooner rather than later.
The tools are there. The IQ is there. The coordination is there. The understanding will come in time. Utter dominance will follow.
Mind you, this isn’t just about San Antonio’s iconic prospect. Vassell has expanded his on-ball chops each year, successfully mirroring both a plug-and-play complement and independent two-way force. If Sochan’s jumper progresses, he will be in the same boat—with more point guard chops and greater defensive oomph.
Don’t sleep on Branham, a bona fide scorer who shot 59.5 percent on runners and floaters (44-of-74) as a rookie. Wesley is raw but caps-lock FAST. Champagnie is more than a basketball-nerd novelty. He’s a real three-and-D prospect with size and some on-ball pizzazz. This Spurs core is going places—potentially, if not likely, at warp speed.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass. Salary information via Spotrac.