The Top 10 Young Cores
The NBA may be approaching a youth resurgence. As the current crop of heralded stars begin to exit the league or physically decline, the Association will need an influx of new talent and development of established young players. Luckily for the NBA and its fans, there is a dearth of talent chomping at the bit to get their chance to fill these shoes. Here are the teams with the core of young talent poised to take over the spotlight and dominate the league for year to come.
10.) New York Knicks
Kristaps Porzingis and Frank Ntilinkina
The Knicks look to be a one man show this season after Carmelo Anthony was shown just how green the grass is on the other side with Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Kristaps Porzingis, however, must tend to his own dead grass-ridden lawn in Anthony’s absence. Luckily, Porzingis has shown superstar level potential if he is afforded the opportunity to grow and develop into a first option role, much like he’ll be given this season. Yet, if not for Kristaps, this young core would find itself much (much) lower in the rankings. Although a lottery pick this season with great length and defensive potential, Frank Ntilinkina doesn’t inspire much as a star talent but more of a star in his role or high-level starter. The jury is still out on the rookie, but for now he leaves something to be desired in terms of young star level talent.
9.) Orlando Magic
Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Mario Hezonja
The Magic, oh boy, The Magic. At the time, the drafting of Aaron Gordon looked to be a move that the franchise could finally make in acquiring a true, star level talent. Gordon possesses elite athleticism and showed high defensive potential coupled with a strong handle for someone his size. The Orlando Magic, in their infinite wisdom decided to play Gordon exclusively at small forward, surrounding him with average to below average shooters. The lack of space put his most glaring weakness, shooting, on full display. This has stifled his development and disallowed him to accentuate his talents making his drafting by the team further from a mistake and closer to a total mishandling a potential standout talent. Yet after all of this, he, Jonathan Isaac and to a smaller extent Mario Hezonja still inspire hope. Isaac is highly touted as a multi-positional defender with a three-point stroke in the making. He could line up as the perfect three and D player, made for the modernized forward slots. Hezonja, although running out of time to justify his draft position, has tools in size and shooting that could make him a net plus at the shooting guard position.
8.) Phoenix Suns
Devin Booker, Josh Jackson and Marquese Chriss
Devin Booker has grown in each of his first two years as a scorer. He’s displayed a true semblance at handling in the pick and roll and shooting off the dribble that very few expected from him out of Kentucky. Booker’s scoring ability was on a bright stage as he scored 70 points in a loss against the Boston Celtics, allowing fans a glimpse at his potentially bright future. Josh Jackson, the third overall pick in the 2017 Draft displayed potentially elite defensive ability and a handle coupled with passing vision that had scouts wondering if they had found the second coming of Andre Iguodala. Marquese Chriss is a bouncy forward with true potential as a roll and pop man in the pick and roll providing Suns fans nostalgic comparisons to Amare Stoudemire. With all that said, how can they rank at only 8? Quite simply Devin Booker, their most promising prospect, is not very good. Although he scores well for his age, he’s only an adequate shooter, falling far short of his reputation of a sniper at a fair 35% for his career. On the other side of the ball, he’s nightmare. He struggles to match the offensive player’s lateral quickness and doesn’t have the size or length to bother anyone he’s guarding with less than a steal per game while playing big minutes. He’s closer to Monta Ellis than Kobe Bryant at this point in his career. The jury is still out on Josh Jackson, but I’ve been lower on him than most because of his questionable shot and Chriss seems like his basketball skill will likely not catch up to his athleticism making stardom hard for him to reach. Sorry to rain on the parade Suns fans.
7.) Sacramento Kings
De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Skal Labissiere
The Kings rank higher than most would expect and that has little to do with Buddy Hield (sorry, Buddy) and more to do with their rookie point guard and sophomore center. Hield showed promise as a scorer after being traded to the Kings by way of New Orleans but has the same glaring warts as Booker with less of the scoring potential. De'Aaron Fox and Skal Labissiere are where hope originates for this sullen franchise. Although his shot leaves much to be desired, Fox showed the ability to operate as a true floor general in college. His elite quickness with the ball made him a constant threat to attack the basket off a dribble hand off or out of the pick and roll. He and Labissiere should be the ideal pick and pop tandem as the Kings center started to come on towards the end of the year showing the potential that had him rivaling Ben Simmons for the number one pick before his college season. The light at the end of the tunnel is Kentucky Blue for Kings Fans.
6.) Boston Celtics
Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown could be the wing combination that ushers out the Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart era lead by the most untradeable player in league history in Terry Rozier. Tatum displayed a true knack for isolation scoring in college that many star players like Lebron and Durant fall back on in high stakes, playoff situations. Jaylen Brown was the lone bright spot in a series where the Cavaliers pummeled the Celtics as he found his way to the rim and showed reason for hope in his jump shot that still has some question. He and Tatum are long enough to give hope for a two-way wing combination that could have the Celtics experiencing sustained success. Yet, that plan may be foiled as Jayson Tatum’s somewhat archaic play style and Brown’s jumper may prevent this young core from assimilating into the modern era of the NBA. The promise is there for this duo but so are the pitfalls. Terry Rozier is bordering on wholly insignificant to this core but had to be included for the sake of the joke – bear with me.
5.) Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Jamaal Murray
The Denver Nuggets remain one of the criminally underrated teams and young cores in the league. I am lower on Jamaal Murray than most as his defensive and overrated creation ability may hamper his potential. But even then, his shooting ability and pick and roll feel are impossible to ignore for the potential microwave scoring guard. The real tantalizing duo is Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris. Harris is the ideal three and D shooting guard as he showed a true capability to guard the perimeter while shooting a blazing hot 42% from three.
Jokic, though, is the crown jewel. The league has not seen many centers, if any, with as complete of an offensive game as the Serbian center. The Nuggets star can step out and stroke the three and score handily in the post with an array of post moves and fakes. Where his brilliance truly shines is in his vision. Averaging 4.9 assists a game, Jokic showed in only his second year in the league he is one of the best passers in the Association leading the Nuggets to the 4th spot in the NBA’s best offenses. With all his offensive talent, Jokic athleticism is a true restriction on the defensive end as he can struggle to protect the rim and move quickly enough in rotations. For Denver, the preternatural offensive ability of their center makes his defensive shortcomings bearable.
4.) Los Angeles Lakers
Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle
Julius Randle has fallen to the way side in terms of elite young talent as his struggling teams have exemplified some of the warts of his game. He still lacks a jump shot or much of an ability to break down a defender other than dropping his head down and driving into his man or the basket. Yet Randle has displayed an apt ability to pass the ball and work as a facilitator in transition as a point forward. Where the Lakers true star potential radiates from are their back to back number 2 overall picks in Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball. Ingram, although struggling, showed an ability to handle the ball in transition and pick and roll and even functioned as the second unit’s primary initiator in several games. His new pick and roll handler game was able to mask his lackluster shooting and one on one shot creation that many expected from the Los Angeles forward. Ingram's physical tools and basketball talents should allow him to carve a role in this league and potentially approach an all-star level of play in the near future.
The Lakers alleged savior is none other than LaVar Ball. Excuse me, Lonzo Ball. Ball, simple and plain, is a passing savant. Whether in NCAA or Summer League competition, Ball was a constant ball mover finding cutters in the half court or spotting out leaking wing players in transition. He struggled to shoot the ball, though in the Las Vegas summer league and his wonky shot form may not be as effective when guarded by NBA players. Ball will likely struggle to create for himself in the NBA as he has a limited arsenal of dribble moves and lacks elite quickness to attack defenders one on one. But his vision alone may be enough to reinvigorate a Lakers attack and potent offense.
3.) Minnesota Timberwolves
Karl Anthony-Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Tyus Jones
The top 3 of the ranking is truly more a 1a 1b 1c scenario than a cemented 1-3 as the talent level here is truly staggering. Karl Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are the crowned jewels of the Wolves, yet Tyus Jones could serve as an effective backup point guard for the squad as quickly as this year. Andrew Wiggins may be the most polarizing young star on this list. To some he’s a gifted young scorer averaging 23.6 points per game at only 22 years old. He showed a post-up game that allowed him to create shots for himself while also showing progress in shooting the three in his third season. Yet to others, he’s inefficient and settles for mid-range jumpers as an alternative to shots at the rim or from three. He’s a poor playmaker who struggles to defend regardless of all his physical gifts which would suggest defensive greatness. The outstanding fact is that he is 22 with all the talent in the world. This is double edged sword though; continue to practice inefficient habits and sleep on defense and the bust label relative to his draft spot may ring true. If he capitalizes on those gifts, we may be seeing one of the most dynamic wings in the NBA.
The Timberwolves live or die by Karl Anthony-Towns and by that logic they have thrived. Towns is a revelation at the center position. He’s an efficient three level scorer who can step out for threes just as easily as he attacks the basket. He’s a gifted passer for his position who plays the game in a true flow on offense, nearly unrivaled by any other big in the NBA. To this point, though, Towns has been a poor defender and if the Wolves are to ever reach their sky-high potential he and his Canadian counterpart must improve on that end.
2.) Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and Thon Maker
The Bucks core could very easily be number one in this ranking but is just below for reasons that will be explained in the next rank. A notable exclusion from this core would be Malcolm Brogdon as he is incidentally 45 years old. The two players on their roster that offer all star, foundational pieces are Jabari Parker and Thon Maker. Parker is an elite isolation scorer who can attack out of the mid post and score at will in the mid range. He even extended his range out to the three for the games he played last season. The question for Parker is whether his multiple major knee injuries will derail his trajectory, but he has all the talent in the world. Maker is of the Serge Ibaka mold - a rim protector, floor stretcher who is the cheat code in today's NBA. Raw as he is now, there's a mold there for a top 10 center in this league today.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is unfortunately, for the rest of the league, not human. Giannis was one of the 5 most complete players in the NBA last season at only 22 years old. He stands at 6'11 with arms that stretch out of the gym, allowing him to finish above defenders or lock them up on the defensive end. Even if his shot never fully comes around, you can comfortably slot him in as one of the ten best players in the league. A near 7-foot point guard is essentially unfair, so how can the Bucks with all the above listed talent, not be the league's best core? The team ranked above has their own near 7-foot point guard and he won't even be their best player this season.
1.) Philadelphia 76ers
Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz
A mental exercise I used to measure the Sixers and ultimately rank them number 1 went as follows: is the second or third best player of this core capable of the being the best player in other listed cores? Markelle would likely be best young prospect for 6-7 of these teams Ben Simmons could plausibly be the best for 7-8. That makes the Sixers core too tantalizing not to rank number one and that’s without mentioned their Cameroonian savior. Markelle looks to be an elite three level scorer, built for the modern point guard era. His defensive issues can be masked throughout his career by his offensive arsenal. Ben Simmons will come into this league as one of the most unique players as a true pass first, 6'10 point guard. The questions of his shot and defense are legitimate but if he ever figures it out, we may be looking at one of the 5 best players in the league
Best rim protector in the league? Check. Capable three-point shooter? Check. Face up nightmare and 20 point a night threat? Check. These things are just a few of the aspects that make Joel Embiid an unsolvable nightmare. There is just nothing he cannot do on the offensive or defensive end of the floor and he does them all at a near elite level. The health questions are true and pressing as any more major injuries may place Joel in Greg Oden territory. But if he stays healthy, we may be looking at one the 7 best players in the league as immediately as next season.