By: Adam Chalifoux
The NBA has the most exciting young talent since the wake of the 1996 NBA draft class that featured icons such as Kober Bryant, Steve Nash, Ray Allen, Ben Wallace, and more. While it may be LeBron’s world still. Who has next is still very up in the air? Here is a brief look at the NBA’s best players under the age of 23.
5. Ja Morant
The easy comparison for Ja Morant is a healthy young Derrick Rose; a big athletic point guard with the quickness to get around the NBA’s best defender as he proved against Jimmy Butler a few weeks ago in game-winning fashion, or the bounce-ability to jump over just about anyone in the league on his way to the rim. Like Rose, the young guard has otherworldly body control but will need to continue to develop his 3-point shot which currently sits at .314 through the first 119 games of his career. While there are other players on this list who have more developed skills, there may not be a player on the list with more raw athleticism. As long as he stays healthy, Morant looks like he will be able to develop into one of the most dangerous players on one of the league’s most dangerous teams as long as Jaren Jackson, Grayson Allen, Brandon Clarke, and the rest of their young core continues to grow into their potential. The big picture is that Morant has the potential to be the best player in the Grizzlies’ young franchise history if he stays with the team and is eventually able to lead them on a few deep playoff runs.
4. Trae Young
Only Giannis Antetokounmpo attempts more free throws per game than Trae Young. The 22-year-old guard whose ball-handling, vision, and quick release make him one of the most dangerous assignments in the NBA has become even more annoying to defend with his ability to manipulate the defense into fouls. While Young’s scoring has dropped from .296 to .253 points per game he currently has the third-highest assist percentage in the NBA among players who have played at least 20 games. Only Russell Westbrook (.468) and James Harden (.439) hold better numbers than Young’s .428. While the young point guard has a long way to go defensively, he is already among the brightest playmakers in the NBA and is just as dangerous as a passer as he is a scorer. Young’s main concern comes on the defensive end as he has the worst defensive rating on the Atlanta Hawks. Do not let that take away from his offensive brilliance however as he represents the best chance the world has at the next Steph Curry.
3. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seemed to take huge leaps (no pun intended) while Chris Paul was his running mate last season in OKC’s backcourt. SGA has taken his shooting to new heights this past season bringing his percentage to .419 from the 3-point range. Although he has only played 35 games this season, Alexander’s Player Efficiency Rating of 21.7 is third among shooting guards in the NBA according to ESPN. The only shooting guards ahead of the 22-year-old rising star are Bradley Beal (23.31) and Paul George (21.84). For context, Zach LaVine is next in line at 21.64. Alexander boasts a true shooting percentage of .623 which is 7th best in the league among shooting guards. Just imagine where his game will be in 3 years when he begins to approach his prime. SGA has the potential to be the best player on a Thunder team that owns 34 draft picks through 2027. Don’t sleep on the rebuild and do not sleep on SGA as an MVP candidate in due time.
2. Zion Williamson
Imagine the basketball gods held some sort of meeting to discuss making the most fun and dominant player possible. The most fun players to this point would inevitably be brought up. Eventually, the discussion would get to a “Well what if we took Shaq and just merged him with Michael Jordan into a 6-foot-6, 285-pound super-human.” This is exactly what happened and the result was Zion Williamson. Earlier this month, Zion became the fastest player since Michael Jordan to reach 2,000 career points, reaching the benchmark in just 79 games despite minute restrictions and inconsistent rotations. After a strange rookie season that was plagued with limited usage and even a global pandemic, the basketball world is now finally able to witness Zion unleashed as the Pelicans have let him take more and more responsibility including extensive looks as the primary ball-handler. Despite being just 20-years-old, Zion is third in the NBA in Player Efficiency Rating, averages 26.9 points per game, has a true shooting percentage of 65.5, and gets the free throw line at will. Since he is almost always the strongest player on the floor this usually leads to an and-one opportunity. Like Jordan and Shaq, Zion will be the biggest matchup problem in the league for most of his career as his size, athleticism, and touch around the rim continue to improve with his basketball IQ. If he stays the same player he is, he will be a perennial all-star. If he continues to improve, we are talking about one of the best players to ever take the floor in about ten years.
1. Luka Doncic
Could there be anyone else at the top of this list? While it is not a foregone conclusion that Luka winds up being the best player of the five mentioned in this article, he is undoubtedly off to the best start in his career. Luka ran away with the rookie of the year race two seasons ago and followed it up by averaging 29 points, 9 assists, and 9 rebounds in his sophomore season. Now the 22-year-old Slovenian is bringing his 3-point shooting numbers up to a respectable .36 percent while hitting one-handed floaters at the buzzer to win games. Luka has the perfect positionless build and versatility that puts him in the same sentence with genius playmakers such as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and LeBron James. At 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, Luka is able to dominate as a scorer from anywhere on the floor. If you bring a double team he will make you regret it. If you don’t he will make you regret it. Luka’s numbers through his first three seasons are already good enough to make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer if he stays the same player. The scariest thing about him however is that he is still developing his jumper, still learning the NBA game, and the Mavericks are still building around him. There is a very real possibility that Luka Doncic retires with multiple championships and MVPs as his transformative abilities continue to develop and more talent is put around him. Give it ten year and the GOAT conversation won’t just be about MJ and LeBron. It will be about Luka.