Legends like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry are fast approaching the back-end of their careers. Reigning MVPs like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic are still in the prime of their basketball abilities.
However, it’s the young bulls still making a name for themselves that tend to spark the most interest and theories and potential “what-ifs.” That is the group of players we’ll be focusing on through the course of this article.
Keep in mind: this is not a current power ranking. The intent of this article is to consider each players’ performance to this point in their careers but to also focus heavily on their futures in the NBA. Will they be an All-Star five years from now? Can they potentially become a Top 10 player in the league if the cards fall right? Have they already reached their peak level of ability? These are all questions we asked ourselves when compiling this ranking.
So, let’s get to it.
Some of these players are already performing well above expectations, making it hard to predict that they’ll hit another gear later in their careers – not that it can’t happen, but it’s not reasonable to make that prediction. Others are still too young and haven’t gotten a big enough opportunity yet to truly show their career potential.
23) Jordan Poole | Age 22 | PG/SG | 6-4 | Golden State Warriors
Poole is in the midst of a breakout season with the Warriors. Klay Thompson’s absence opened a huge opportunity for the young guard to fully showcase his abilities, and he’s taking full advantage. He’s averaging 17.8 PPG on nearly three 3-pointers per game and 35% shooting from distance.
As a complement to Stephen Curry, he’s been fantastic all season. However, it’s his potential to be an electric 6th Man behind the healthy Splash Bro’s for years to come – and eventually, perhaps their point guard of the future – that lands him firmly on this list.
22) Collin Sexton | Age 22 | SG/PG | 6-1 | Cleveland Cavaliers
Sexton flashed his immense offensive upside last season when he averaged over 24 points and 4 assists per game on nearly 48% shooting from the field. However, in the 2021-22 season, he only played 11 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury, averaging only 16 PPG and under 3 APG for the first time in his young four-year career while shooting only 45% from the field.
There’s reason to be concerned about Sexton’s future in Cleveland, not only because of the injury but also because of his drop-off in production pre-injury and the emergence of fellow Cavaliers guard, Darius Garland, who is currently having a breakout season and holds a similar height and position as Sexton.
21) Jarrett Allen | Age 23 | C | 6-11 | Cleveland Cavaliers
Allen is flourishing in his first full season in Cleveland. He’s averaging career highs in PPG (17.3), RPG (11.1), FG% (71.4%), and FT% (72%) while maintaining his status as an elite rim protector on the other end of the court. Playing alongside a pair of young point guards, one of which has already been included on this list, has done wonders for Allen’s ability to produce offensively.
His potential is a rim-running, lob-catching, shot-blocking big man is elite. He’ll never have the offensive repertoire of Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid, but he doesn’t necessarily have to in order to be an imposing paint presence. See Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Jordan, and Clint Capela’s primes for reference on Allen’s role and potential.
20) Mo Bamba | Age 23 | PF/C | 7-0 | Orlando Magic
When Bamba didn’t immediately live up to the hit song written about him, some were quick to write him off as a bust. Now that he’s gotten a true opportunity without Nikola Vucevic in Orlando, however, Bamba has shown flashes of the potential that propelled him to the 6th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
The young big man is averaging career highs in the following major stat categories: MPG, PPG, RPG, APG, SPG, BPG, 3PM, and FT%. In fact, his 2.2 BPG is good enough for second in the league behind Myles Turner’s ridiculous 2.8 BPG. Bamba is showing his worth on both ends of the court, proving to Orlando that he could be a vital piece of their future.
19) Miles Bridges | Age 23 | SF/PF | 6-6 | Charlotte Hornets
After showing flashes of potential last season, Bridges has officially entered “Breakout” status in 2021-22. He’s averaging career-highs across the board including 19.8 PPG and 1.2 SPG while shooting nearly 47% from the field.
He’s also making a career-high two 3-pointers per game on nearly 33% shooting. This is an aspect of his game that didn’t look likely to develop after a poor rookie season, but it’s now a major factor in his recent success. Playing alongside LaMelo Ball for the foreseeable future makes it easy to see a pathway to a few fringe-All-Star level seasons from Miles Bridges as he continues to develop.
18) Jaren Jackson Jr. | Age 22 | PF/C | 6-11 | Memphis Grizzlies
Potential has never been something that Jaren Jackson Jr. (JJJ) lacked. He came into the league with ultra-high expectations, putting a lot of pressure on the young star. To this point, he hasn’t shown “league-best” potential yet, but his ability to stretch the floor on one end and defend the paint on the other end still makes him an elite prospect at age 22.
He’s currently averaging 16.7 PPG on 35% 3-point shooting while helping to lead the Grizzlies to the 4-seed out West. In fact, he’s led the Grizzlies to three straight wins without their superstar point guard, Ja Morant. Jackson Jr. has been riddled with injuries and inconsistent play over his young career, but the flashes of greatness he’s shown combined with his youth make him an easy addition to this list.
17) Michael Porter Jr. | Age 23 | SF/PF | 6-10 | Denver Nuggets
Perhaps the hardest player to position on this list, Porter Jr. comes in at #17 because his potential when healthy and given the opportunity would have him pushing our Top 5, but his reoccurring injuries and lack of consistent opportunity and production thus far in his career give him an argument to be left off this list entirely.
That being said, Porter put up an efficient 19 PPG last season on 54-45-79 shooting splits while playing over 31 minutes per contest. He’s never been known as a lockdown defender, but even his defensive stats have looked impressive to start his NBA career. However, he dropped to a puzzling 9.9 PPG on only 36% shooting before ultimately being shut down for the season due to injury. Again, MPJ is perhaps the most difficult player to rank on this list.
16) Tyrese Haliburton | Age 21 | PG/SG | 6-5 | Sacramento Kings
Haliburton’s combination of size and skills alone makes him an easy candidate to be on an NBA roster for a long time. Combine that with what’s turning into an impressive first two seasons in the league, and we have a potential fringe-All-Star on our hands down the line.
The excess of guards on the Kings roster was an area of concern when Haliburton was drafted, but he’s averaging nearly 33 minutes per game this season while putting up 11.7 PPG, 5.6 APG, 3.9 RPG, and 1.7 SPG on nearly 45% shooting and 42% from distance. Haliburton has essentially made it impossible to keep him off the floor with his all-around production and thrilling potential.
15) Cole Anthony | Age 21 | PG | 6-2 | Orlando Magic
This young guard is one of the frontrunners to win Most Improved Player of the Year if he continues to play the way he’s been playing. Given it’s only his second season, Anthony took a step forward in every single aspect of the game. He’s averaging over 20 PPG, 6.1 RPG, and 5.6 APG while shooting 43-38-87 shooting splits through 22 games played so far this season.
His upside was high coming into the draft, but few people foresaw this level of production so early on in his career. It will be interesting to see if he continues this level of play with the return of injured teammates Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac and the improvement of other young players like Jalen Suggs and Franz Wagner. Limited opportunities might be the only thing standing in between Anthony and a higher spot on this list.
14) Deandre Ayton | Age 23 | C | 6-11 | Phoenix Suns
After a notable Finals appearance in only his third NBA season last year, NBA fans everywhere had high hopes for Deandre Ayton to take another leap this season. It’s not so much that Ayton has been bad this year, but he’s not taken the step forward most anticipated. In fact, it can be argued that he’s taken a small step back.
Regardless, he’s still a top-tier center averaging 16.3 PPG and 11.1 RPG across nearly 31 minutes of action. His percentages have taken a dip this season, but 61% from the field and 62% Effective Field Goal Percentage are nothing to scoff at. He’s averaging a career-low in BPG and a negative Defensive Box Plus-Minus, though the DPM is trending in the right direction considering where he started as a rookie. We’ve seen glimpses of potential from the former #1 overall pick, but he’s not quite lived up to his hype in his fourth season in the league.
13) Tyler Herro | Age 21 | SG | 6-5 | Miami Heat
Being a fan favorite doesn’t automatically make you a good prospect – fortunately, Herro has the resume and skillset to back it up. He’s bumped his scoring average up to 20.3 PPG while also averaging a career-high rebounding and assist rate this season. His efficiency is also at an exceptional level for a young shooting guard, hovering right around 51.5% Effective Field Goal Percentage on his career.
Herro has gotten the opportunity to be a primary ball-handler in some lineups this season for the Heat, and he’s risen to the occasion. Though he may not be in the same breath as guys like Luka Doncic and Trae Young just yet, he’s a more-than-respectable young prospect that continually improves his game every season that he’s been in the league so far.
12) Darius Garland | Age 21 | PG/SG | 6-1 | Cleveland Cavaliers
Coming off a summer of training with and against the Tokyo Olympic Gold Medal-winning Team USA Basketball team, Garland has taken yet another step forward in his young career. The absence of Sexton due to an unfortunate injury has allowed Garland to be the primary ball-handler a majority of the time, occasionally sharing the court with fellow facilitator, Ricky Rubio.
Garland has once again bumped up all of his counting stats to career highs for the second straight season, including an impressive 18.9 PPG and 7.5 APG. Consistent improvement is key for young prospects. Perhaps most impressively, he’s the floor general of the most surprising team in the NBA so far this season. The Cavaliers are sitting at the 4-seed out East, thanks in large part to Garland’s continued improvement.
11) Cade Cunningham | Age 20 | PG | 6-6 | Detroit Pistons
The reigning #1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft got off to a rocky start to his career. Since his first couple of games, however, he’s shown everyone why he was drafted at the top of the draft. He’s currently averaging 15.8 PPG, 6.2 RPG, and 4.6 APG, including averages of 20.1 PPG, 6.3 RPG, and 1.8 SPG over his last eight appearances.
It’s a difficult task for anyone to live up to being selected #1 overall when such a pool of talent is available, but if anyone can do it, it’s Cade Cunningham. He’ll have to hope for a better team situation in the near future, whether that be a rebuilt Detroit squad or a new home altogether, but it’s clear to see that he can make the most of any situation judging by his first 21 career games.
10) De’Aaron Fox | Age 23 | PG | 6-3 | Sacramento Kings
Fox looked to be on his way to stardom based on his first four seasons in the league, seasons in which he improved his counting stats virtually every single season. Unfortunately, he appeared to regress slightly for unknown reasons to open the 2021-22 campaign, dropping back under 21 PPG for the first time in two seasons.
It doesn’t help that Fox is in a bad team situation in Sacramento. His head coach was recently fired, meaning he’s now playing for his 3rd head coach less than halfway through his 5th season with the same team. Regardless, Fox continues to show flashes of elite offense, playmaking, speed, and other vital attributes for young point guards. If he’s able to turn his season around and help the Kings out of their playoff drought soon, he still holds the potential to be a top point guard in the NBA over the next few seasons.
9) Anthony Edwards | Age 20 | SG/SF | 6-4 | Minnesota Timberwolves
The charming guard has won nearly as many fans during his post-game interviews as he has on the court, and that’s not a dig at his game on the court. The 20-year-old is already a 21.5 PPG player and getting seemingly right in front of our eyes. We knew he could put the ball in the basket when he was drafted, but an Effective Field Goal Percentage of over 50% is not something that even I expected. He’s hitting nearly 34% of his 3-point attempts and 79% of his free throws, both notable improvements over his rookie season.
Edwards is a polarizing figure on and off the court, but the most impressive part of his game is truly his youth. The efficiency and confidence that he has already demonstrated in his first season and a quarter goes beyond just stats. He’s been the sparkplug that has the Timberwolves in a legitimate position to make a playoff push this season for only the second time in the last 18 seasons.
8) Evan Mobley | Age 20 | PF/C | 7-0 | Cleveland Cavaliers
Mobley’s mobility for his size is one of the most dangerous weapons in the entire league. He defends the paint extremely well and can hold his own on the perimeter on both sides of the ball. As a rookie, he’s averaging 13.8 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 2.5 APG, and 1.8 BPG in roughly 34 minutes of action.
I’d like to draw your attention back to that 1.8 BPG as a rookie stat. That’s good for 7th in the league and ahead of players like Mitchell Robinson, Kristaps Porzingis, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Mobley is also hitting from behind the arc at a 33% clip. As he continues to polish his shooting touch and offensive arsenal, Mobley is one of the first players on this list with true Top 5 potential in the near future.
7) Zion Williamson | Age 21 | PF | 6-6 | New Orleans Pelicans
Williamson has only played 85 games so far in his three NBA seasons and has yet to appear in a game yet this season. He has become another incredibly difficult player to rank on lists such as this one. On one hand, he has the potential to be a Top 3 player in the NBA within five seasons if he stays fully healthy and progresses at a normal rate. On the other hand, he looks to be on an injury-riddled path that may leave us with more questions than answers.
That being said, he averaged 27 PPG last season, not an easy or common task, especially for 20-year-old players who only attempt 0.6 shots from 3-point range per game. His efficiency was on a historically good level during his sophomore campaign in which he played 61 of his team’s 72 games. This alone is enough to land him in our Top 10. Here’s to hoping we get to see much more of healthy Zion before his prime comes and goes.
6) Shai Gilgeous-Alexander | Age 23 | PG/SG | 6-6 | Oklahoma City Thunder
The players in this portion of the list don’t need much introduction. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (SGA) has already made quite the name for himself in the league. Last year with the Thunder was his best season to date – he averaged 23.7 PPG, 5.9 APG, and 4.7 APG while shooting over 50% from the field.
This season, his efficiency has regressed to a borderline worrisome level, but he’s still putting up fringe-All-Star numbers while being the spearhead of OKC’s full rebuild. Whether he remains the Thunder’s core guard or eventually gets shipped off for even more 1st Round Picks, the future is bright for SGA.
5) Ja Morant | Age 22 | PG | 6-3 | Memphis Grizzlies
Morant’s unearthly jump in his third season in the league is one of the biggest surprises in the NBA this season. We knew he would be an electric playmaker liable to put anything in front of him on a poster if you let him. We knew he had an incredibly high basketball IQ matched with creativity and passing ability to spare.
However, no one expected him to become a 36% 3-point shooter, nearly double his steals per game total, and bump his EFG% to a career-high as a 22-year-old guard. He’s led the Grizzlies to one of the best records in the NBA and has that something extra that fans, teammates, and coaches everywhere look for. He’s got a little “dawg” in him if you will. He’s virtually a lock to be a Top 5 point guard for the foreseeable future, especially once guys like Chris Paul, Steph Curry, and Damian Lillard call it quits.
4) LaMelo Ball | Age 20 | PG | 6-7 | Charlotte Hornets
For the record, 20-8-8 on 42-39-90 shooting splits is an elite stat line for players in their prime. Now apply that to a 20-year-old 6-7 point guard who only has room to improve and a young team to grow with and you get Hornets point guard, LaMelo Ball.
His creativity and fluid style of play alone make him must-see-TV. The fact that he has a young core of players around him in Charlotte makes his future all the more exciting as well. LaMelo Ball has been playing against players older than him since before he was a teenager – I can’t imagine the level of confidence and efficiency he’ll play with 5-6 years down the road when he’s entering his prime.
3) Trae Young | Age 23 | PG | 6-1 | Atlanta Hawks
Young has already solidified himself as one of the top playmakers in the league, drawing comparisons to arguably the best player in the league – Steph Curry – for his ability to hit long-range triples. The high praise shouldn’t end there, however. Young has improved his assist totals to 9.4 APG and is shooting a career-high FG% for the third consecutive season.
It should also be noted that Young is shooting 39% from long range on a respectable 7.1 attempts per game, helping him to average 27 PPG through 27 games played so far this season. He’s playing like a Top 10 player in the NBA currently, albeit with potentially unsustainable efficiency. Still, the talent is evident and the potential is still inside the 23-year-old guard.
2) Jayson Tatum | Age 23 | SF/PF | 6-8 | Boston Celtics
He’s only 23! With two All-Star appearances under his belt and a third likely on the way, it feels like Tatum has been around forever. It’s easy to forget that he’s still not even to the age that most consider to be an NBA athlete’s prime, yet he continues to improve his game every single season.
This season, Tatum is once again scoring over 26 PPG despite a drop in efficiency early in the season. He’s also been more active on the glass than he has at any point in his career so far, bumping his RPG up by 1.2 from last season, jumping from 7.4 to 8.6 in one offseason. The Celtics are struggling as a whole with new core rotation pieces, but Tatum looks to be getting back to form in preparation for leading his team on another playoff run.
1) Luka Doncic | Age 22 | PG/SG | 6-7 | Dallas Mavericks
There are few players in the league each season who truly have a chance to be crowned regular-season MVP. Doncic has already been in that conversation twice through his first four seasons in the league, and he’s still not even 23 years old yet. Each of the last two seasons he ran into a title-hopeful Clippers team in the playoffs, but make no mistake – we will see Doncic make a Finals appearance before his career is over.
The Slovenian guard is averaging upwards of 25 PPG, 8 RPG, and 8 APG for the third consecutive season, first doing so when he was only 20 years old. Doncic is another player that makes it easy to forget how young he is with the level of poise and efficiency he plays with. Basically, his only weaknesses are free throw shooting and defensive consistency, both things that he could still feasible get better at in time.
Doncic is already pushing his way into the Top 10 players in the NBA today, and he has the potential to be the best player in the league for at least one season at some point in his career.
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