NBA 2020-21: With the start of the NBA 2020-21 season, it’s time to shine the light on the next wave of superstars, all 25 or younger.
LeBron James, who looks as spry as ever as he embarks upon Year 18 just days before his 36th birthday as the league standard.
We all know that LeBron’s the exception to the rule and that Father Time, if not necessarily undefeated, wins far more than he ever comes close to losing. These are in random order and are not ranked.
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
2019-20 Season Stats: 19.9 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 7.0 apg
The buzz on Jokic: If there was an All-Orlando playoff bubble team, Jokic would have been the first team center. (There was an All-Bubble first and second team for the eight seeding games that Jokic didn’t make.)
The Nuggets’ big man has established himself as the most effective center in the league. Whatever he lacks in explosive athleticism he more than makes up for everywhere else. Jokic scores from anywhere on the floor and he’s a great passer and excellent rebounder.
The Nuggets have built their entire roster around the versatile Joker, who should play his way into the Kia MVP conversation this season. The continued development of the pieces around him (Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol come to mind) will determine just how impactful a player Jokic becomes long-term if he’s the sort of player a championship team can be crafted around.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
2019-20 Season Stats: 26.5 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 4.4 apg
The buzz on Towns: Towns is playing with a heavy heart this season, having lost his mother to COVID-19 in April. Executives around the league have praised Towns as the most talented young big man in the league since his rookie season for good reason.
His skill set and ability to operate at a high level on both ends of the floor put him in that elite category of two-way stars, regardless of age. The Timberwolves have bet the franchise on building a consistent winner on the leadership, work ethic, and talent of Towns and his good friend and point guard D’Angelo Russell, who also have the No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards in the fold now as well.
Towns is aging out of the list, so the expectations for Towns will change dramatically in the next few seasons. But this campaign serves as a critical one in his career, if only because it comes with a sense of purpose and an air of redemption for one of the best pure talents in the league.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
2019-20 Season Stats: 16.4 ppg, 8.0 apg, 7.8 rpg
The buzz on Simmons: Simmons has inspired spirited debates from the moment he entered the league. Some love his versatility and defensive prowess and consider him a jumbo point guard with transcendent talent, while others lament his lack of 3-point shooting and seemingly indifferent attitude about improving that aspect of his game.
What can’t be disputed is the fact that he’s developing into one of the premier defensive players in the league. And now we’ll get to see what Doc Rivers can do to unlock the rest of his game.
The legion of believers in Simmons will insist that we haven’t seen the best of what he will ultimately bring, which makes sense when you consider how much work he has to do on his offensive game.
It’s fair, though, to wonder if Simmons will get the chance to continue his development in Philadelphia or somewhere else (there’s no sense in acting like those James Harden trade rumors don’t exist).
Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
2017-18 Season Stats: 28.8 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 8.8 apg
The buzz on Doncic: A strong case can be made for Luka as the very best of this under-25 group of stars.
The pilot of the most efficient offense in league history last season, his coming-out party extended to the first round of the playoffs in the Orlando bubble, where he earned unanimous All-Bubble first-team honors and staked his claim to the throne by destroying the Los Angeles Clippers’ attempts to slow him down.
What he did to elite defenders Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in that series was just more of what he unleashed on the entire league.
A jumbo point guard with every part of his offensive game already at an elite level, it’s up to Doncic (and continued good health) to determine where he ultimately lands on the league’s list of the best of the very best. He’s already top five just two years in.
Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
2017-18 Season Stats: 22.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.1 apg
The buzz on Williamson: Judging strictly on the smile he’s walking around with during this preseason, it’s obvious that Zion is loving every bit of being freed up to play big minutes after the injury-related limitations that smothered his rookie season.
The reason he’s considered a generational talent has been on full display early on with Stan Van Gundy at the helm in New Orleans. For those who remember that Van Gundy got the best out of a transcendent young big man in Dwight Howard during his Orlando days, this is a welcome sight.
Zion’s unique combination of size and skill make him one of the most intriguing physical beings to hit an NBA floor. To be as impactful as he’s been in such a limited amount of time on the court is nothing short of staggering, particularly for a player who’s still clearly so early in his development.
It’ll be fascinating to see who, between him and Luka Doncic or perhaps someone else, captures the title as the global face of the game over the course of the next decade.
Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
2017-18 Season Stats: 17.8 ppg, 7.3 apg, 3.9 rpg
The buzz on Morant: The Grizzlies might not have realized it at the time, but the 2019 Draft lottery yielded two future superstars in Zion Williamson and Morant, who was a runaway winner in the Kia Rookie of the Year race.
Morant’s fearlessness, creativity as a scorer and facilitator, and next-level athleticism set him apart from the crowd.
He makes the spectacular look routine, no matter who is on the court with him. He gives the Grizzlies star power on the court and provided an immediate face of the franchise off the court.
It’ll be easier to sell free agents on a bright future in Memphis with a talent like Morant already in place and ready to ascend. You simply don’t find players with his scintillating combination of skill and style on a regular basis.
De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
2017-18 Season Stats: 21.1 ppg, 6.8 apg, 3.8 rpg
The buzz on Fox: He doesn’t get nearly as much attention as some of his peers and is probably the best young player in the game that no one talks about when the discussion turns to the top players at his position.
The Kings know what they are working with, though, having rewarded Fox’s early efforts with a 5-year, 163 million contract extension last month. That’s perhaps the best indicator of a young player’s market value.
The Kings are banking on Fox’s considerable talent; he’s the fastest player with the ball in his hands in the league and already a 20-point scorer without the aid of a reliable 3-point stroke in his arsenal.
Fox still has so much room for improvement that it’s hard to forecast where he might fit in the pecking order of top point guards in a couple of seasons. There’s so much to work with here if the Kings are truly committed to the blueprint of building around Fox.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
2017-18 Season Stats: 23.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 3.0 apg
The buzz on Tatum: Tatum would be an easy No. 1 pick if we could get a do-over on the 2017 Draft. Danny Ainge got it right in selecting the versatile Tatum, who fully stepped into his own as an All-Star last season.
While most players his age are just now figuring out who and what they are in the league, Tatum is a seasoned veteran after just three seasons, complete with 45 playoff games and two trips to the Eastern Conference finals and his belt.
The growth and development he’s put on full display guaranteed his status for the 5-year, $195 million max contract extension he signed last month. The Celtics have long-term keepers in both Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who have a chance to be the best forward duo in the league before they are done in Boston.
Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
2017-18 Season Stats: 29.3 ppg, 9.3 apg, 4.3 rpg
The buzz on Young: His critics will suggest that Young’s spectacular numbers have been empty calories, given the Hawks’ brutal 49-100 record in his two seasons. Those critics clearly don’t appreciate the offensive brilliance that is obvious to the rest of the world.
Young joined Luka Doncic as an All-Star starter in his sophomore season for a reason. He’s the face of the franchise in Atlanta for good reason. There’s no mistake here, Young is already an elite scorer and playmaker just two seasons into his career.
A stellar offseason and free-agent haul have the Hawks talking playoffs, which is the single biggest motivator for Young, who says the narrative that he can’t win is a myth he’s eager to put to rest now that he’s got the supporting cast he needs to elevate the Hawks to another level.
This season holds huge ramifications for Young’s viability as the catalyst of an elite, playoff outfit.
Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
2019-20 Season Stats: 18.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 4.8 bpg
The buzz on Murray: No single player saw his stock rise based on his play in the Orlando bubble more than Murray, who was battling back from injury when the restart kicked off.
If playoff Murray (26.5 points, 45% 3-point shooter) shows up during the regular season, he’ll push for space in a crowded field for All-Star honors in the Western Conference. Murray was that good in the playoffs, where he shredded the Jazz and Clippers in back-to-back comebacks from 3-1 deficit in those series.
He gave the Lakers all they could handle in the Western Conference finals, earning the highest praise from LeBron James when it was all over.
His college coach, John Calipari, warned that Murray was being underestimated in the lead up to the 2016 Draft. Cal was spot on, about Murray and several other UK products on this list.