With NBA training camps launching this week, there’s no better time to celebrate the league’s most scintillating young talent.
There’s a truckload of top-tier players who are still in their early 20s, but who are the absolute best? We assessed the most impactful and valuable competitors who are under 25-years old and plucked the best baller at each position.
The selections are based on recent productivity and efficiency as well as a projection of their 2015-16 impact. Only players who will be 24 years old or younger on opening night are eligible for nomination.
Point Guard: Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
Age/Height: 23 years old, 6’3″
2014-15 Stats: 36.4 MPG, 21.7 PPG, 5.2 APG, 1.5 SPG, .468 FG%, .415 3FG%
Studs such as John Wall and Damian Lillard recently turned 25, so Irving sits comfortably atop the under-25 food chain.
He’s still nursing the fractured kneecap he suffered during the Finals, but we expect Irving to eventually return to stardom midway through the 2015-16 campaign. When healthy, he’s one of the most dynamic creators in the entire league, let alone the under-25 crowd.
Irving’s assist rate has dipped since the return of LeBron James, but he remains an elusive slasher who finds angles and plays that most players dream of. While his ingenuity has been constant, his sloppiness has decreased, as he averaged a career-best 2.8 turnovers per 100 possessions in 2015-16.
We’ll never know whether the Cavs would have upended the Golden State Warriors if Irving wasn’t sidelined, but the fact that it’s up for debate shows how impactful he is.
Shooting Guard: Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Age/Height: 22 years old, 6’5″
2014-15 Stats: 33.4 MPG, 15.3 PPG, 3.1 APG, 1.2 SPG, .427 FG%, .409 3FG%
The 2-guard spot was a much closer call than the point guard race. Victor Oladipo is a worthy candidate, but Beal edges him out due to his shooting and defensive efficiency, as well as his role on a playoff squad.
Still just 22 years old, Beal may be primed for a career year if he stays healthy (he played just 63 games in 2014-15). Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated explained that the fourth-year sharpshooter could make the leap from good to great with better shot selection:
Betting on meaningful improvement from Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal makes all the sense in the world. The 2012 lottery pick is young for his class, his total impact has been muted by injuries during his first three seasons, he’s proven himself to be a lethal three-point shooter and, at some point, he will learn to read a shot chart and adjust his shot selection accordingly. Although he did trim some of the fat in 2014–15, Beal still hit an abysmal 33.1% of his long twos, which made up 27.7% of his total attempts.
Beal is already a top-tier shooting guard when he’s clicking, so it’s exciting to think of what he’ll look like during the apex of his career.
Small Forward: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Age/Height: 24 years old, 6’7″
2014-15 Stats: 31.8 MPG, 16.5 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 2.3 SPG, .479 FG%, .349 3FG%
It’s remarkable to see how much Leonard has transformed since he left San Diego State four years ago.
Not only has he drastically upgraded his shooting motion, but his handle is tighter and more fluid. And most importantly, Leonard’s ability to create offense for teammates has climbed as well.
Leonard has also made massive strides (literally and figuratively) on the defensive side. He’s learned how to maximize his athleticism as a disruptive turnover machine while remaining an efficient catalyst of the Spurs system. His condor-like wingspan, cat-like quickness and exceptional instincts are an overwhelming blend for opponents.
Most players his age are still trying to cement their roles in the league or make some noise in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Leonard already has some universally enviable pelts on his wall, namely 2014 Finals MVP and 2015 Defensive Player of the Year.
Power Forward: Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz
Age/Height: 24 years old, 6’10”
2014-15 Stats: 30.8 MPG, 16.0 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 1.7 BPG, .525 FG%
Favors is one of the most valuable and under-appreciated assets on the fast-rising Jazz. Once Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap left town in 2013, the 6’10” bruiser emerged as a productive cog in the paint over the past couple of years.
When he gets his paws on the rock via pick-and-rolls or dump-offs, there are few challengers who can derail his path to the rim. His mix of agility and power yield a seismic field-goal conversion rate near the bucket: Favors shot 75 percent from within three feet of the rim during 2014-15.
Favors entered the league as a hustle player, a strong rebounder and promising defender. He’s blossomed into so much more by making notable progress in every key offensive area. Adi Joseph of the Sporting News explains:
Favors’ improvement seemed more gradual, from the outside. Here’s the secret that those who expect big things from the Jazz this season know: Behind the box score, Favors is developing his game in very obvious and important ways. His field goal percentage has risen each of the past three seasons, to a career-best 52.5 percent last year. His assists per game have increased every year. He nearly doubled his long 2-pointer attempts last season, doing more at the top of the key than ever before.
Favors’ constant presence as a board-getter, finisher and stout defender played a huge factor in Utah’s late-season surge last spring. He’s now poised to help hoist this young Jazz outfit into the playoff picture in 2015-16.
Center: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Age/Height: 22 years old, 6’10”
2014-15 Stats: 36.1 MPG, 24.4 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 2.9 BPG, .535 FG%
The Brow might be more of a power forward than anything else at this stage, but his 5-man skills and rim protection still make him the clear-cut top center under 25.
Davis followed up his breakout sophomore season—which featured a 20/10 stat line—with an even more dominating 20/10 campaign in 2014-15. The 6’10” combo big man showcased a machine-like mid-range jumper to go along with his ever-improving interior scoring.
Adversaries have an equally difficult time solving Davis, the defender. He’s become an imposing shot eraser, shot alterer and (most importantly) shot preventer. Whether it’s an outside jumper or post encounter, Davis’ length and instincts regularly cause rushed shots or poor shooting angles. Consequently, his opponents shot 39.8 percent against him last season, which is 6.2 percentage points worse than they fared against the rest of the league.
If you think Davis was scary last year, imagine a more muscular version who’s also getting closer to three-point effectiveness. That’s a bone-chilling thought for Western Conference big men.