Future Talent Rankings: NBA's 10 Best Young Teams

Which NBA teams have the best collection of players under the age of 25?

NBA training camps start this week. The traditional power rankings (like the ones Marc Stein and I compared in our podcast) are trying to gauge who has the best shot of winning a NBA championship this season.

Others, like my Race to the Lottery, are trying to rank which teams have the best chance of winning the NBA draft lottery next May.

Another way to compare teams is to look at their young cores. In this piece I’m defining a team’s young core as its stable of young players under the age of 25 at the start of the NBA regular season on October 19.

Rebuilding teams are trying to get to a championship level by building out a young core of talent that can either (1) continue to grow together into a contender or (2) become valuable trade capital to garner a superstar back in a trade.

Teams with the best young cores may or may not be winning basketball games this season, but they are building a very significant talent base for future success.

To get an accurate ranking, I combined three sources of information. 

First, I asked a handful of NBA GMs and scouts to rate each player under 25 into a 1-to-5 tier system. Second, I used two different analytics models (DARKO and LEBRON) to rate each player into five similar tiers. Third, for NBA rookies, I used the 2021 NBA Draft Tier system I employed just before the draft, but adjusted for likely impact in Years 1 and 2 of their careers. (For example, Cade Cunningham graded out as a Tier 1 originally, but I gave him him a Tier 1.5 designation here.) I used these three sources to assign a Tier grade to each player.

I then assigned a point total to each Tier as follows:

  • Top 10 player in the NBA = 15 points (Luka Dončić was the only player under 25 to achieve this designation)

  • Tier 1 (Superstar) = 10 (Jayson Tatum and Zion Williamson were the only two players to get this ranking)

  • Tier 1.5 (Potential superstar) = 8 (Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green and Evan Mobley received this ranking)

  • Tier 2 (All-Star) = 7 (Trae Young, Ja Morant, Jaylen Brown, et al.)

  • Tier 2.5 (Potential All-Star) = 6 (Jalen Suggs)

  • Tier 3 (Starter) = 4 (Brandon Ingram, Collin Sexton, Kevin Porter Jr., et al.)

  • Tier 3.5 (Potential starter) = 3 (Josh Giddey)

  • Tier 4 (Rotation player) = 2 (Cam Reddish, Desmond Bane, R.J. Hampton, et al.)

  • Tier 5 (Deep rotation player) = 1 (Mo Bamba, Jaxson Hayes, et al.)

I excluded some players under the age of 25 who were on two-way contracts or who do not have a history of making substantial contributions.

For each team, I added the average scores for each qualifying player together.

Using that methodology, here’s a look at the 10 best young cores in the NBA.

1. Atlanta Hawks

Total Score: 29 points

Player, Age, Tier Ranking (players listed youngest to oldest):

Jalen Johnson | 19 | T4
Sharife Cooper | 20 | T5
Onyeka Okongwu | 20 | T4
Cam Reddish | 22 | T4
Trae Young | 23 | T2
Kevin Huerter | 23 | T3
DeAndre Hunter | 23 | T3
John Collins | 24 | T2

Analysis: This young Hawks team made it all the way to the Eastern Conference finals last season, and its future still looks significantly brighter. Atlanta’s best player, Trae Young, just turned 23 and is flirting with Tier 1 status. His lack of defensive prowess is the only thing holding him back. John Collins is putting up All-Star numbers in the frontcourt at age 24. 

And the Hawks are absolutely loaded with young, talented players on the bench, each with the potential to move up at least one tier. Scouts are especially bullish about the futures of Cam Reddish, Onyeka Okongwu and Jalen Johnson, all three of whom have the talent to crack Tier 3 in the next two years with consistent playing time. 

The biggest question mark here is how the Hawks are going to find playing time for all of those young players with veterans Clint Capela, Bogdan Bogdanović and Danilo Gallinari on the roster. At some point the Hawks may have to seriously consider moving two or three young players for a star or potential star to team up with Young and Collins.

2. Boston Celtics

Total Score: 28 points

Player, Age, Tier Ranking:

Romeo Langford | 21 | Tier 5
Aaron Nesmith | 22 | Tier 4
Grant Williams | 22 | Tier 5
Bruno Fernando | 23 | Tier 5
Jayson Tatum | 23 | Tier 1
Payton Pritchard | 23 | Tier 4
Robert Williams | 23 | Tier 3
Jaylen Brown | 24 | Tier 2

Analysis: The Celtics feel like an older team than they actually are. That speaks volumes about the impact Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have made in their short careers. (Brown barely makes the cut here, as he will turn 25 just five days after the regular season starts.)

The big news for the Celtics was the progress they saw last season from Robert Williams III, who moved from Tier 5 to Tier 3 based on his LEBRON and DARKO scores. Whether he can maintain that level in a more full-time role will likely determine whether the Celtics are building around two or three young stars. 

We will also be watching Aaron Nesmith closely. He played much better in the second half of his rookie season and could work his way into Tier 3 with time.

3. (tie) Cleveland Cavaliers

Total Score: 26 points

Player, Age, Tier Ranking:

Evan Mobley | 20 | T1.5
Isaac Okoro | 20 | T4
Darius Garland | 21 | T3
Collin Sexton | 22 | T3
Jarrett Allen | 23 | T3
Lauri Markkanen | 24 | T4
Dean Wade | 24 | T5
Lamar Stevens | 24 | T5

Note: Isaiah Hartenstein was incorrectly listed in an earlier version of this piece. Lamar Stevens has replaced him.

Analysis: The Cavs and Magic are the first two teams on the list that are actively rebuilding. By next year, they’ll have a leg up, as both teams appear poised to add a Tier 1 or Tier 2 prospect in the 2022 NBA Draft.

Cleveland is a bit further along than Orlando in its rebuild and will be trying to transition into a playoff contender this season. Though I don’t think the Cavs are ready, that seems like a credible goal for the 2022-23 season.

Mobley has the most talent of any Cavalier, but he’s also a season or two away from impacting winning. Garland and Sexton made significant strides as Tier 3 players last season; Garland might be able to crack Tier 2 down the road. The Tier 4 rating for Okoro is generous considering he was pretty awful as a rookie, especially on the offensive end, but scouts and GMs are still bullish on his future. Markkanen looked like he was on his way to a Tier 3 designation as a rookie, but has regressed some. The Cavs are hoping he can reignite his career in Cleveland, though scouts have questions about how he, Allen and Mobley will fit together.

3. Orlando Magic (tie)

Total Score: 26 points

Player, Age, Tier Ranking:

Franz Wagner | 20 | T4
Jalen Suggs | 20 | T2.5
R.J. Hampton | 20 | T4
Cole Anthony | 21 | T5
Wendell Carter Jr. | 22 | T4
Chuma Okeke | 23 | T4
Markelle Fultz | 23 | T3
Mo Bamba | 23 | T5
Jonathan Issac | 24 | T3
Moritz Wagner | 24 | T4

Analysis: The Magic are actually in the second phase of their rebuild. Isaac, Fultz and Bamba were part of the first wave and have all been somewhat disappointing. Isaac has Tier 2 talent but has battled injuries. Fultz, also returning from injury, has shown signs of why he was a Tier 1 prospect but has more often looked like a Tier 4 player. Bamba has the raw physical tools to be a Tier 3 prospect but hasn’t been able to stay healthy or show much progress. 

The rest of the group was added in the 2020 and 2021 drafts or as part of a big trade deadline deal in March. Of that group the Magic are obviously highest on Suggs, who has the potential to be a Tier 1 prospect. His elite play in Summer League has some scouts believing he’ll be the alpha on this squad from Day 1. Expect the Magic to move to the top of this list if they continue to see progress from their young players and add another high lottery pick next summer.

5. Detroit Pistons (tie)

Total score: 24 points

Player, Age, Tier Ranking:

Cade Cunningham | 20 | T1.5
Killian Hayes | 20 | T4
Isaiah Stewart | 20 | T4
Saben Lee | 22 | T5
Saddiq Bey | 22 | T3
Luka Garza | 22 | T5
Hamidou Diallo | 23 | T4
Frank Jackson | 23 | T4
Josh Jackson | 24 | T4

Analysis: The Pistons started their rebuild in earnest during the 2020 NBA Draft, and the losing paid off with a chance to draft Cunningham No. 1 in 2021. This rating is a bet that Cunningham will live up to the hype and become a franchise player. He has his skeptics and it’s possible his Tier 1 designation was too generous, but based on his pre-draft scouting, he’s earned it for now. 

The talent level drops off pretty steeply from there. Bey was first-team All-Rookie, but his fit with Cunningham is a question. Stewart has the potential to be a Tier 3 player. And everyone in the NBA is watching Hayes closely. He was one of the worst players in the NBA last season and probably deserves a Tier 5 ranking, but given his draft position and better play in the second half of the season, scouts are somewhat optimistic he’ll show significant improvement this season. 

Either way, expect the Pistons to land another high lottery pick in 2022 and improve on their ranking next year.

5. Memphis Grizzlies (tie)

Total Score: 24 points

Player, Age, Tier Ranking

Ziaire Williams | 20 | T4
Santi Aldama | 20 | T5
Daniel Oturu | 22 | T5
Jaren Jackson Jr. | 22 | T3
Ja Morant | 22 | T2
Jarrett Culver | 22 | T5
Xavier Tillman | 22 | T4
Desmond Bane | 23 | T4
De’Anthony Melton | 23 | T4
Carsen Edwards | 23 | T5
Killian Tillie | 23 | T5

Analysis: The Grizzlies were a surprise playoff team last season, which bodes very well for their future given how young this roster is. The Grizzlies tied the Thunder for the most players (11) under the age of 25 on their roster, and there’s still significant time for these players to jump tiers and move Memphis up in the rankings. 

Morant looked like a potential Tier 1 performer in the playoffs versus the Jazz. He’s a consistent jump shot away from getting there. Scouts believe Jackson has the most talent on the team, but injuries have held him back. A healthy 2021-22 season could see him jump into Tier 2.

The Grizzlies also got excellent performances from Bane, Tillman and Melton last season. While the roster is a little crowded, one or more of them could move from Tier 4 to Tier 3 designation this season. 

And we will be keeping a close eye on Williams who, on pure talent, could be a Tier 2 player someday, but had a Tier 5-type freshman season at Stanford. He looks to be a couple of years away, but the Grizzlies took a good gamble: If he hits, Memphis will have championship aspirations.

5. New Orleans Pelicans (tie)

Total Score: 24 points

Player, Age, Tier Ranking:

Kira Lewis | 20 | T4
Zion Williamson | 21 | T1
Trey Murphy III | 21 | T4
Jaxson Hayes | 21 | T5
Herb Jones | 22 | T5
Nickeil Alexander-Walker | 23 | T4
Naji Marshall | 23 | T4
Brandon Ingram | 24 | T3

Analysis: How badly did the Pelicans mangle their summer? In an effort to retain Zion Williamson, they let go of Lonzo Ball, which significantly lowered their score (they would’ve been tied for second place) and yet put together a team that will likely miss the playoffs again this season. 

The problem for the Pelicans is that — while they have a Tier 1 talent in Williamson — they have a surrounding cast that inspires little confidence in their future. Ingram seems to have plateaued as a high-level Tier 3 guy. Murphy looked terrific in summer league, but Tier 3 is probably his upside. Alexander-Walker and Lewis have the talent to eventually get to Tier 3, but I think that’s their ceiling. 

At some point the Pelicans are going to have to pair Williamson with at least a Tier 2 talent — or his future in New Orleans will be highly in doubt.

8. Oklahoma City Thunder (tie)

Total Score: 21 points

Player, Age, Tier Ranking:

Josh Giddey | 19 | T3.5
Aleksej Pokuševski | 19 | T4
Théo Maledon | 20 | T5
Tre Mann | 20 | T5
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl | 21 | T5
Vít Krejčí | 21 | T5
Darius Bazley | 21 | T5
Luguentz Dort | 22 | T4
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander | 23 | T2
Isaiah Roby | 23 | T5
Ty Jerome | 24 | T5

Analysis: The Thunder went into full tank mode in the second half of the season, only to see Aleksej Pokuševski, in the last game of the season, play like a superstar. Problem is, that shot the Thunder in the foot when it came to lottery odds. The lottery gods then doubly punished them, and they fell to sixth in a draft that looked like it had five potential superstars in it. They shocked everyone by passing on Jonathan Kuminga to grab Giddey — a big point forward with elite passing skills but questionable shooting and defensive ability. We didn’t get to see Giddey for more than a few minutes in summer league before an ankle injury kept him out. But right now it looks like the Thunder are in for another very long season.

Gilgeous-Alexander is the star and one of the best young point guards in the league. After that, though, no one else under 25 looks like he’ll max out above Tier 3, with most probably staying in the Tier 4 range. Giddey is a possible exception, as is Poku, who looked one some nights like a Tier 2 prospect. But he and fellow rookie Théo Maledon finished dead last in the league in the LEBRON rankings.

In fact, after Gilgeous-Alexander, you could argue that the Thunder’s best assets are all the future draft picks they are stockpiling.

For Sam Presti’s plan to work, he needs to acquire a Tier 1 star, most likely through the draft. The hope is to land one in the 2022 draft or, with OKC’s slow rebuild, to get lucky and have a shot at Victor Wembanyama or Emoni Bates in 2023.

8. Minnesota Timberwolves (tie)

Total score: 21 points

Player, Age, Tier Ranking:

Anthony Edwards | 20 | T2
Jaden McDaniels | 20 | T4
Leandro Bolmaro | 20 | T4
Naz Reid | 22 | T4
Jaylen Nowell | 22 | T5
Jarred Vanderbilt | 22 | T5
Josh Okogie | 23 | T4
Malik Beasley | 24 | T3

Analysis: The disarray in Minnesota’s front office has made headlines lately, but the team’s young core is solid. If we had included Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell, both of whom just missed the age cutoff here, the Wolves would’ve ranked No. 2.

Of the eight prospects under 25, Edwards, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, is the great hope. If he shows the same kind of progress we saw in the second half of his rookie year, the Tier 2 designation will be justified.

McDaniels has the talent to crack Tier 3, as does Bolmaro, who should have a greater impact than the typical rookie given his strong play in Spain last season.

The Wolves have been active in trying to find a way to land Ben Simmons (age 25) via trade. If they can, it will likely cost them several players here — Edwards looks like the only untouchable player on this list. 

With a young Towns-Edwards-Simmons trio on the floor, the Wolves would have a chance to be special.

10. Houston Rockets

Total score: 20 points

Player, Age, Tier Ranking:

Alperen Şengün | 19 | T3.5
Usman Garuba | 19 | T4
Jalen Green | 19 | T1.5
Josh Christopher | 19 | T5
Kenyon Martin Jr. | 20 | T4
Kevin Porter Jr. | 21 | T3

Analysis: Five of these six players were acquired in the last year, via trade or the draft, as the Rockets really didn’t get going on their rebuild until after the start of the 2020-21 season. 

Green has all the tools to become a Tier 1 superstar and likely can average 20 ppg as a rookie. Porter Jr. was excellent in the second half of the season and will get the reins as the point guard, with the raw talent to move from Tier 3 to Tier 2 with more maturity. Şengün has the potential to blossom into a Tier 2 player as well. 

Look for the Rockets to keep moving up this ranking in the coming years. They are very young and have the most draft assets of any team other than the Thunder and the Pelicans. With another high lottery pick next year and the additional trade capital they have in Eric Gordon and Christian Wood, the Rockets are in line to develop an exciting young core over the next several seasons.

Read Future Talent Rankings for Teams 11-20 here!

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