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Luka Doncic, Trae Young headline 10 best players still on rookie contracts

Taking a look at several young stars across the NBA.

Luka Doncic and Trae Young could be in line for big extensions this year.

What players are the best bang for the buck? Usually, it’s young players, some barely 20 years old, displaying the talent and skill and impact to help their teams right away.

And that’s what we’re listing here: The best players still on their rookie contracts.

These players are worth their weight in gold. Not only are they immediate contributors, but their long-term potential is so promising that their teams can use resources to improve other areas and positions. Some of these players, or maybe most of them, are staring at solid 10-year careers or longer. They’re one less worry for their teams, many of whom are in the process of rebuilding.

So: Here’s a top-10 list of such players, in no specific order, who are paying off now and will certainly cash in later when their contract is up:

Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Age: 21

2020-21 stats: 27.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, 9.3 assists

The buzz on Doncic: He is largely seen as the future of basketball, a global phenom whose skillset and smarts is so seasoned that you forget he’s only 21. In rapid time, Doncic has gained the respect of the NBA’s current and former greats, no easy feat, especially for Euros who enter the league with initial skepticism from folks who never saw them play. Doncic thrives because, in addition to his sharp basketball basics and instincts, he uses his body well. At a somewhat chunky 6-foot-7, Doncic can back his man down in the post to draw fouls or secure the three-point play. He brings a near-textbook shooting form, although his accuracy from deep this season is faltering. He already has the reputation for being a whiner, and there’s perhaps some truth in that, considering Doncic racks up the technical fouls and hard glares from opponents. But it’s also the competitive spirit, too, that separates him from most. His future contract negotiations will be quick. As in, give Luka whatever amount he wants.

Luka Doncic averaged a triple-double in January.

Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

Age: 22

2020-21 stats: 26.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 9.2 assists

The buzz on Young: He’s not exactly Stephen Curry, the player he was often (and unfairly) compared to once he arrived in the NBA. But Young is carving out an image of his own, and it’s mostly favorable. His shooting range is expansive and Young isn’t bashful about aiming from the midcourt logo, which can drive his defender nuts (and sometimes the Hawks, too, when he forces those shots, which is often). Perhaps more impressive than his range is his ability to draw fouls. Armed with a tricky dribble and a fearless attitude regarding attacking bigger defenders, Young drives to the hoop to draw contact and also get the sympathy of referees. In all, he’s a rising offensive force who also passes extremely well, even between the legs of defenders if necessary. His defense is, in a word, poor. It doesn’t help that Young is a light-weighted 6-foot-1. Yet in due time, he can patch up that flaw in his game as he gets stronger and wiser. He’s the centerpiece the Hawks need as they look to build around him and become a contender.

Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

Age: 20

2020-21 stats: 23.5 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists

The buzz on Williamson: Burly and ballistic, Zion is already a box-office draw because fans and TV executives are drawn to his unconventional style. He’s a 6-foot-7 forward who rarely takes 3-pointers yet generates offense anyway, mainly by bullying defenders near the rim. The power is awe-inspiring, for sure, and Zion uses his body well, leveraging it for points or trips to the free throw line. Is it too soon to suggest Zion is on his way to becoming a folk hero? Maybe. Thankfully for the Pelicans, that body has held up well this season after the Pelicans treated him with kid gloves in 2019-20 following knee issues. Of course, he’s not the perfect player, not at age 20, and there’s room to grow defensively, first and foremost. Eventually, he’ll also need to improve his shooting beyond 15 feet to keep the defense guessing and off-balance. And there are scattered intangibles that could use sharpening. In all, though, Zion is perhaps the league’s best player at his age, and with seasoning can be better in the very near future.

Zion Williamson put on a show against the Rockets on Feb. 9.

John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

Age: 23

2020-21 stats: 17.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.0 blocks

The buzz on Collins: Consistent and steady, Collins has made himself into a reliable 6-foot-9 combo forward who seems comfortable near the rim and at times beyond the arc. He rarely takes bad shots, as evident by his career 56.9% shooting (37.7% from deep) and doesn’t make many mistakes. He’s the most notable player of the 2017 draft class who hasn’t signed a rookie extension. Word is Collins wanted the rookie max last fall, and the Hawks, perhaps wisely, decided to wait until this summer to reevaluate. Atlanta might allow him to fetch an offer as a restricted free agent and simply match it. Strangely, the Hawks gave big money last offseason to free agent Danilo Gallinari, who plays the same position, yet Collins has outplayed Gallo since. Collins has a solid playing relationship with Young; the two are on the same page, especially with the pick and roll, and make for a promising one-two punch.

Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

Age: 21

2019-20 stats: 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.4 assists (in 2019-20)

The buzz on Jackson: Still looking to break a sweat this season while mending from offseason knee surgery, Jackson is the Robin to Ja Morant’s Batman in Memphis. Prior to his injury, he displayed plenty of promise as a stretch-4, shooting at a respectable 38.4% from deep in his two seasons. In quick time, Jackson and Morant clicked favorably and clearly they’re the foundation of the ongoing Grizzlies rebuilding plan. Jackson does bring a gentle touch around the rim, and at 6-foot-11 he perhaps should utilize that more often instead of falling in love with the 3-pointer. Also on the flipside, he’s a so-so rebounder for his size, and that’s probably due to him being positioned so far from the rim; his appetite for the boards seems low anyway. As a defender, though, Jackson is developing and brings agility and quickness to guard smaller players if necessary. His personality and attitude is solid, which means he’s easy to coach and will take the time to learn.

Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

Age: 22

2020-21 stats: 14.0 points, 12.8 rebounds, 1.1 blocks

The buzz on Ayton: Anyone taken with the No. 1 overall pick is always subject to lofty expectations and Ayton is no different. However, in his situation, this is amplified because the Suns passed on Doncic. Meanwhile, Ayton struggled to rise among the league’s better big men in his first few years, and the hefty suspension he earned in 2019-20 for using a banned substance didn’t help. The trick for Ayton is to become a useful low-post center in a league that places a higher value on perimeter players. It’s certainly possible — Joel Embiid is the best example — but it’s all up to Ayton and his desire. It would help if he doubles his aggression, which is merely passable right now. The Suns don’t want Ayton to be a pick-setter; they want him to command and demand the ball. The good news is this season, with the help of Chris Paul, Ayton is dropping positive hints. His rebounding is solid and when he’s not timid, he’s getting quality shots at the rim. What’s a bit more troublesome is he’s not yet a defensive force at the rim. Phoenix is being patient, though, and could be rewarded for that. Ayton seems to be on the upswing; question is, how high can he go?

Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

Age: 21

2020-21 stats: 18.5 points, 2.2 rebounds, 7.4 assists

The buzz on Morant: The reigning Kia Rookie of the Year brings most of the elements you want in a player, namely: desire, smarts, entertainment value. Morant is all that, and he’s on his way to being special. His vertical leap, impressive for someone who’s just 6-foot-3 and 174 pounds, allows him to get bigger in stature as he approaches the rim. His dunks are crowd-pleasing and often momentum-changing. His 3-point shooting is a work in progress and he’ll need to improve on his career 32.6% from there to take the next step as a player. Strange thing is, Morant will take that shot in big moments, evidence of the confidence he has in himself and his willingness to accept the consequences either way. In addition, he’s popular among his teammates and the coaching staff, which is necessary for someone who’s ready to step into a leadership role. He may need to get stronger if only to lower any fears of him being in the line of injury.

Ja Morant gets a wild 3-pointer to fall against Toronto.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

Age: 22

2020-21 stats: 22.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists

The buzz on Gilgeous-Alexander: There may not be room on the back of his jersey for any more letters, but SGA is starting to put space between himself and many of the other guards taken in his class. After acquiring him from the LA Clippers in the Paul George trade, the Thunder gave him the opportunity to become the primary option of the club and SGA is taking full advantage. After being schooled by Paul last season, he’s now the man and looks comfortable in that role and with more shots and responsibility. He’s shooting 50.6% overall and 38.2% on 3-pointers this seasons and brings quick hands for defense. What’ll be interesting is where he fits best: on the ball or off it? He’s showing an ability to do both and as the Thunder begin to search for his perfect backcourt mate, that gives OKC plenty of options when the time comes to make trades, sign free agents or use the plethora of picks it secured from the Clippers (and the Rockets for that matter).

Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets

Age: 22

2020-21 stats: 14.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 42.9% 3-pointers

The buzz on Porter: After dropping with speed following a collegiate career cut short by back surgery, Porter is making good with his improved health. His status was also upgraded when the Nuggets passed on re-signing Jerami Grant last offseason, which created more minutes in the rotation. Porter used the 2019-20 restart as a springboard to this season, where he’s a solid contributor and some nights a primary player for the Nuggets. His shooting from deep is among the best in the league, and at 6-foot-10, his size is utilized wisely near the rim. Porter needs to improve his ball-handling, and his body needs more hours in the weight room. He’s not a great passer and he could use more maturing. All told, the Nuggets are thrilled he fell to them in the Draft … it’s rare when a title-contender gets rich with a mid-first-round pick.

Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers

Age: 22

2020-21 stats: 23.6 points, 2.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists

The buzz on Sexton: There’s a reason why the Cavaliers, for the first time, could make the playoffs in the post-LeBron James era — and it’s primarily because of Sexton’s development. After going through the usual developmental gymnastics while learning the point guard position, Sexton has emerged as the Cavs’ go-to player. His ability to take his man off the dribble is improving, which is why the Cavs call plenty of isolation plays for him. Sexton seems fearless and never intimidated by the player or team he’s facing. That serves him well as he makes a solid attempt at becoming a franchise-type player, or at least the core piece in the Cavs’ rebuilding plan. He needs to be a better passer for a point guard, though that can be improved in time, and as his teammates get better.

Missing the cut: RJ Barrett, New York Knicks; LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets; Tyler Herro, Miami Heat; James Wiseman, Golden State Warriors; Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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