NBA's best 25 under 25: Ranking young stars by future potential
Luka Doncic blows past the defense and drives it in for the two-handed finish. (0:17)
Bobby Marks, Kevin Pelton and Mike Schmitz rank their top 25 players under age 25 based on future potential, including LaMelo Ball, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Zion Williamson and Trae Young.
Note: Each writer's individual rankings are listed at the bottom of this story. These rankings are an average of those ballots. You can find the 2020 version of these rankings here.
Listen: Debating the rankings on the Hoop Collective podcast
1. Luka Doncic
Doncic joins Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant as the only players to sit in the top spot in back-to-back years.
Selected No. 3 in the 2018 NBA draft (don't remind Phoenix, Sacramento and Atlanta), Doncic is averaging 28.6 points, 8.1 rebounds and 8.8 assists this season. He is shooting a career-high 48.8% from the field and 37.1% from 3.
The 22-year old has been selected to start in two All-Star Games and will get named to the All-NBA team for a second consecutive season. Those All-NBA honors will make him eligible to sign a five-year, $200 million extension in the offseason. -- Marks
2. Zion Williamson
New Orleans Pelicans
Although Williamson already ranked second in our rankings a year ago, less than two months into his NBA career, he has solidified that spot with a breakthrough sophomore campaign. As Williamson expands his creation and playmaking off the dribble, he has improved his scoring every month this season without hampering his ultra-high shooting percentage.
The next step for Williamson is translating that individual brilliance into team success as the Pelicans battle for a spot in the play-in tournament. Building on the progress he has made defensively will help that cause. -- Pelton
3. LaMelo Ball
Prior to breaking his wrist, Ball was posting historic numbers for a 19-year-old, and the ease with which he was dissecting NBA defenses stood out even more than the production. Given his positional size, supernatural vision, elite instincts, creativity, touch and unwavering confidence, Ball has as much long-term upside as anyone in the NBA not named Zion or Luka.
What makes him special can't be taught, and the late-bloomer will likely become even more of a problem for defenses as he matures physically. -- Schmitz
4. Donovan Mitchell
The leading scorer on the NBA's best team, Mitchell continues to make progress in his development from a volume scorer early in his career into a well-rounded offensive force. This season, he has taken a step forward both as a 3-point shooter (making a career-high 40% while attempting a career-high 8.6 triples per game) and as a playmaker (his assist rate is up nearly a third on a per-minute basis).
A consistent presence in the top 10 of these rankings since debuting, Mitchell goes out with his highest position in his final year of eligibility. -- Pelton
5. Jayson Tatum
Exhibit A in the ironclad case that player development is not as linear as we'd like to think, Tatum hasn't taken nearly the step back this season that the Celtics' slide in the standings would suggest. He has increased his usage rate to a career-high 30% of Boston's plays without losing much in terms of efficiency and is handing out a career-high 4.3 assists per 36 minutes.
Also worth remembering: Tatum is a year and a half younger than Mitchell, who was also part of the loaded 2017 draft that produced four of the top nine players on this list. -- Pelton
6. De'Aaron Fox
Fox is one of only seven players in the NBA averaging at least 24 points and 7 assists per game as the leader of a Kings franchise that finally appears headed in the right direction.
As I outlined last year, the game has slowed down for Fox -- he's striking that balance between using his blazing speed and taking what the defense gives him. According to Second Spectrum data, Fox generates the fifth-most points per chance on drives. He's also posting a 70% effective field goal percentage on shots in the restricted area.
Once he can get his 3-ball above league average, Fox will be close to unguardable. -- Schmitz
7. Ben Simmons
Simmons falls out of the top five for the first time since 2018.
Despite the three-spot drop, Simmons is still considered one of the top defensive players in the NBA and likely will get named All-Defense for a second consecutive season. He ranks second in loose balls recovered and fourth in deflections, and is a big reason why the 76ers rank No. 2 in defensive efficiency. -- Marks
8. Devin Booker
Booker joins Simmons as the only players who have appeared on the 25-under-25 list in five consecutive years.
Booker has helped elevate a perennial lottery team into one with the second-best record in the Western Conference. This season, he has scored 30-plus points in 13 games, including dropping 45 on 17-for-24 from the field in a win against Chicago.
Often knocked as a one-dimensional scorer, Booker is averaging a career high in steals while posting a 109.2 defensive rating -- the second best in his career. -- Marks
9. Bam Adebayo
Future generations will be confused looking back at how Adebayo missed out on the All-Star Game despite improving across the board on a 2019-20 campaign that ended in the NBA Finals. With Miami's perimeter creators often unavailable due to injury, Adebayo has increased his scoring average by 3.4 points per game while continuing to hand out 5.3 assists per night.
One of the NBA's most versatile defenders, Adebayo anchors a top-10 defense that has been the Heat's reliable strength. -- Pelton
10. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Oklahoma City Thunder
It wouldn't surprise me if SGA lands in the top five of next year's list. Taking the torch from Chris Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander has produced like the face of the franchise, improving his efficiency despite shouldering a much larger load in his third season. He's one of only eight players to average at least 23 points and 5 assists on over 60% true shooting.
On top of his improved shooting stroke (42% from 3), the smooth 6-foot-6 guard is starting to show more of the court vision that led me to tab him as the best non-Doncic point guard in the 2018 draft. -- Schmitz
11. Brandon Ingram
New Orleans Pelicans
Even with Williamson in the midst of a breakout season, Ingram has maintained his production while showing continual growth as a facilitator with the best assist-to-turnover ratio (1.98) of his career. Although he's not the same caliber of defender and has still yet to prove himself in the playoffs, Ingram is just five months older than Tatum -- equally as productive offensively with quite a bit of upside to grow into on both ends.
Just like when I ranked him ahead of Ben Simmons back in 2016, I'm bullish on Ingram's long-term potential and ability to turn New Orleans into a winner alongside Williamson. -- Schmitz
12. Jaylen Brown
Despite a disappointing season so far, the Celtics have two players in the top 15 in Tatum and Brown.
Named to his first All-Star Game in March, Brown is averaging career highs in minutes (33.9), points (24.5), field goal percentage (48.4%), assists (3.6), steals (1.3) and free throw efficiency (75.6%).
Brown is in the first year of a four-year, $107 million rookie extension and will earn a $1.3 million bonus for his All-Star selection if he appears in at least 58 games this season. -- Marks
13. Jamal Murray
Even after moving up six spots from last season, Murray could be poised for another leap. Consider that Murray leads all players on this list with 6.8 wins produced, according to ESPN's real plus-minus.
While the other guards ahead of him may be more prolific scorers, Murray leads many of them in efficiency thanks to 41% 3-point shooting. That level of accuracy might not be sustainable on high volume (6.6 attempts per game), but Murray has always profiled as a better shooter than his middling 3-point percentage (36% career over his first four seasons). -- Pelton
14. Michael Porter Jr.
Porter looked like he belonged in the top 10 of these rankings last month. In his 14 games (all starts), Porter averaged 20.3 points on 59.4% shooting from the field and 53.2% from 3 while posting 9.1 rebounds and only one turnover per game. The Nuggets went 11-3 during that stretch.
The last pick in the 2018 lottery, Porter is eligible for a rookie extension this offseason. -- Marks
15. Ja Morant
No. 4 on my list last year, Morant hasn't yet made the superstar leap I expected as he's shooting just 25.4% from behind the arc and posting a 37.2 eFG% on above-the-break 3s. But the fact that Morant has the Grizzlies in the playoff hunt yet again speaks to his winning impact.
He remains a high-level passer and holds superstar potential with his unshakable confidence. Plus, it's important to remember that Morant was facing Ohio Valley Conference competition less than two years ago. Morant doesn't turn 22 until Aug. 10, and I would anticipate a De'Aaron Fox-like progression in Years 3 and 4. -- Schmitz
16. Trae Young
Young's career will be an interesting case study in the importance of defensive limitations. Because of his small stature, Young will always have a difficult time matching up with the league's best guards or playing a switch-heavy defense, forcing his coaches to get creative defensively.
Those concerns helped bump Young behind point guards who haven't been nearly as productive offensively at the same age. He has willingly taken a step back in the Hawks' offense this season with more weapons around him but remains nearly as indispensable to the team's ability to score as nearly any player in the league. -- Pelton
17. Mikal Bridges
Bridges is one of five newcomers to this list.
Acquired from Philadelphia as part of a 2018 draft trade, Bridges has been promoted from sixth man to now permanent starter. Known as one of the top perimeter defenders in the league, the forward is averaging a career high in points (13.2), field goal percentage (52.9%), 3-point efficiency (40.5%) and true shooting percentage (64.7%).
The 24-year-old is extension-eligible this offseason. -- Marks
18. Domantas Sabonis
One of just six players under 25 with multiple All-Star appearances to his credit, Sabonis has been metronomic in terms of putting up double-doubles (his 34 are tied for third most in the NBA this season) and handing out assists (his 6.0 per game rank 13th in league history among players 6-foot-11 or taller, per Stathead.com).
The issue holding Sabonis behind the other All-Stars on this list is whether he can successfully protect the rim defensively, a weakness when he doesn't play alongside NBA blocks leader Myles Turner. -- Pelton
19. Anthony Edwards
While LaMelo Ball is the headliner of this rookie class, Edwards has quietly put up huge scoring numbers over the past month, highlighted by a 42-point outburst in a win over the Suns. Built like a linebacker with elite change-of-direction burst and footwork resembling today's elite scorers, Edwards has the potential to lead the league in points someday, even if there's considerable room to improve his defensive consistency and decision-making.
His combination of power, quickness and shift is incredibly rare. I see Edwards as a future All-Star so long as he continues chipping away at some of his shortcomings. -- Schmitz
20. Deandre Ayton
Ayton rounds out the trio of Suns players named to this list.
Despite averaging a career-low 14.5 PPG (on only 10.2 field goal attempts) and falling two spots back from a year ago, Ayton is having his most efficient season to date. The former No. 1 pick has a career-high 115.8 offensive rating while shooting 60.8% from the field with a true shooting percentage of 63.7%.
Like Bridges, Ayton is eligible for a rookie extension this offseason. -- Marks