Age is nothing but a number in the NBA.
Just ask LeBron James, who looks as spry as ever as he embarks upon Year 18 just days before his 36th birthday as the league standard.
We all know that LeBron is the exception to the rule, and that Father Time, if not necessarily undefeated, wins far more than he ever comes close to losing.
That’s why it makes sense to appreciate the longevity of the league’s aging superstars while simultaneously keeping the focus on the next generation, those up and coming superstars poised to take control of the league in the near future.
With the start of the 2020-21 season just days away, it’s time to shine the light on the next wave of superstars, all 25 or younger.
(Note: Players below are listed by age, so feel free to argue amongst yourselves about the pecking order)
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
2019-20 Season Stats: 19.9 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 7.0 apg
The buzz on Jokic: If there was an All-Orlando playoff bubble team, Jokic would have been the first team center. (There was an All-Bubble first and second team for the eight seeding games that Jokic didn’t make.) The Nuggets’ big man has established himself as the most effective center in the league. Whatever he lacks in explosive athleticism he more than makes up for everywhere else. Jokic scores from anywhere on the floor and he’s a great passer and excellent rebounder. The Nuggets have built their entire roster around the versatile Joker, who should play his way into the Kia MVP conversation this season. The continued development of the pieces around him (Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol come to mind) will determine just how impactful a player Jokic becomes long-term, if he’s the sort of player a championship team can be crafted around.Best of Nikola Jokic from the 2019-20 season
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
2019-20 Season Stats: 26.5 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 4.4 apg
The buzz on Towns: Towns is playing with a heavy heart this season, having lost his mother to COVID-19 in April. Executives around the league have praised Towns as the most talented young big man in the league since his rookie season … and for good reason. His skill set and ability to operate at a high level on both ends of the floor puts him in that elite category of two-way stars, regardless of age. The Timberwolves have bet the franchise on building a consistent winner on the leadership, work ethic and talent of Towns and his good friend and point guard D’Angelo Russell. (Minnesota also has the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft, Anthony Edwards, in the fold now as well.) Towns is aging out of the list, so the expectations for him will change dramatically in the next few seasons. But this campaign serves as a critical one in his career, if only because it comes with a sense of purpose and an air of redemption for one of the league’s best pure talents.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
2019-20 Season Stats: 16.4 ppg, 8.0 apg, 7.8 rpg
The buzz on Simmons: Simmons has inspired spirited debates from the moment he entered the league. Some love his versatility and defensive prowess and consider him a jumbo point guard with transcendent talent. Others lament his lack of 3-point shooting and seemingly indifferent attitude about improving that aspect of his game. What can’t be disputed is the fact that he’s developing into one of the NBA’s premier defensive players. And now we’ll get to see what coach Doc Rivers can do to unlock the rest of his game. The legion of believers in Simmons insist we haven’t seen the best of what he brings, which makes sense when you consider how much work he has to do on his offensive game. It’s fair, though, to wonder if Simmons will get the chance to continue his development in Philadelphia or somewhere else (there’s no sense in acting like those James Harden trade rumors don’t exist).
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
2019-20 Season Stats: 24.0 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 4.3 apg
The buzz on Mitchell: The Jazz didn’t hesitate to lock Mitchell up with a max extension, not after the way he’s put on for the franchise. His playoff performance in the Orlando bubble (he and Denver’s Jamal Murray put on a show for the ages) showed off all facets of his game. He shot a blistering 52% on 3-pointers, averaging 36.3 ppg all while elevating his game in the most competitive environment possible. He’s blossomed into a legitimate superstar scorer and the face of the franchise for the foreseeable future, which is great news for new Jazz owner Ryan Smith. What the Jazz put around him long-term remains a bit of a mystery. Rudy Gobert has been stellar, a three-time All-NBA pick and two-time Kia Defensive Player of the Year to date. But the question lingers, can Mitchell play at the highest level with another superstar wing/perimeter player? That’s probably the only way the Jazz climb into that upper echelon in the West on a consistent basis.Best of Donovan Mitchell from the 2019-20 season
Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
2019-20 Season Stats: 26.6 ppg, 6.5 apg, 4.2 rpg
The buzz on Booker: Another young star who lit up the Orlando bubble with his play, Booker had to settle for the eight seeding games the Suns played in the restart. He led them to eight straight wins to finish their season, one of three players (along with Damian Lillard and Luka Doncic) to earn unanimous All-Bubble first-team honors, showing off a polish to his game that suggests he’s much more than just an elite shooter/scorer. The addition of Chris Paul will add a few new wrinkles to Booker’s game and the Suns’ attack as defenses must pick their poison against one of the NBA’s best backcourts. It should be noted, however, that with or without the addition of CP3, Booker’s star was on an upward trajectory heading into 2020-21. He showed enough in those eight seeding games to make that clear.
Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
2019-20 Season Stats: 20.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.1 apg
The buzz on Brown: Brown’s evolution as one of the NBA’s best two-way players was on display in Boston’s run to the 2020 Eastern Conference finals. Brown posted career highs in his fourth season and cemented his status as one of the staples of Boston’s new-era Big 3 along with All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker. Brown can score 20 points a night and take on the responsibility of locking down the opposition’s best perimeter player. Brown’s value as a leader for the Celtics and throughout the league might be of even greater value. He’s one of the brightest and most conscientious athletes you’ll find. If there’s a player in this group most likely to one day be head of the NBA Players’ Association, it’s Brown.
Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
2019-20 Season Stats: 15.9 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 5.1 apg
The buzz on Adebayo: The Heat’s do-it-all forward/center proved his worth with standout performances during an All-Star season and then punctuated it with a stellar 2020 playoffs. He had one of the signature plays from the playoffs (see his rim rejection of a Jayson Tatum dunk) and cemented his status as one of the best big men in the league with his effort in Orlando. The Heat wouldn’t have made The Finals without Aedebayo’s emergence as both an offensive conduit and defensive backbone in his first full season as a starter. The scary part for the rest of the league is he’s still improving and hasn’t fully filled out his frame. Adebayo is in a program that won’t allow him to rest on what he’s done, not with Heat culture experts like Udonis Haslem in the locker room and new assistant coach Caron Butler on the bench.
Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
2019-20 Season Stats: 18.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 4.8 bpg
The buzz on Murray: No single player saw his stock rise based on his play in the Orlando bubble more than Murray, who was battling back from injury when the restart kicked off. If playoff Murray (26.5 ppg, 45% on 3-pointers) shows up during the regular season, he’ll push for space in a crowded field for All-Star honors in the Western Conference. Murray was that good in the playoffs, where he shredded the Jazz and Clippers in back-to-back comebacks from 3-1 series deficits. He gave the Lakers all they could handle in the Western Conference finals, earning the highest praise from LeBron James when it was all over. His college coach, John Calipari, warned that Murray was being underestimated in the lead up to the 2016 draft. Calipari was spot on there about Murray … and several other ex-Wildcats on this list.Best of Jamal Murray from the 2019-20 season
Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
2017-18 Season Stats: 23.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 4.2 apg
The buzz on Ingram: While Zion Williamson garnered most of the buzz last season, it was the lanky and lethal Ingram who was the Pelicans’ best player. The winner of the Kia Most Improved Player award for his efforts, Ingram shouldered the nightly go-to guy burden on a team that harbored playoff aspirations from the start of the season through the seeding games in the restart. The Pelicans came up short, of course, but not because Ingram wasn’t up to the task. Those Kevin Durant comparisons that seemed a bit far-fetched early in his career don’t seem so out of line now. The All-Star could, in the next few seasons, form a potentially dynamic duo with Williamson. Either way, Ingram has established himself as as a legitimate star with All-NBA potential on his own.
Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
2017-18 Season Stats: 29.3 ppg, 9.3 apg, 4.3 rpg
The buzz on Young: HIs critics will suggest that Young’s spectacular numbers have been empty calories, given the Hawks’ brutal 49-100 record in his two seasons. Those critics clearly don’t appreciate the offensive brilliance that is obvious to the rest of the world. Young joined Luka Doncic as an All-Star starter in his sophomore season for a reason. He’s the face of the franchise in Atlanta for good reason. There’s no mistake here, Young is already an elite scorer and playmaker just two seasons into his career. A stellar offseason and free-agent haul has the Hawks talking playoffs, which is the single biggest motivator for Young, who says the narrative that he can’t win is a myth he’s eager to put to rest. This season holds huge ramifications for Young’s viability as the catalyst of an elite, playoff outfit.How can Trae Young up his game this season?
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
2017-18 Season Stats: 23.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 3.0 apg
The buzz on Tatum: Tatum would be an easy No. 1 pick if we could get a do-over on the 2017 Draft. Danny Ainge got it right in selecting the versatile Tatum, who fully stepped into his own as an All-Star last season. While most players his age are just now figuring out who and what they are in the league, Tatum is already a seasoned veteran, complete with 45 playoff games and two trips to the Eastern Conference finals. The growth and development he’s put on full display guaranteed his status for the 5-year, $195 million max contract extension he signed last month. The Celtics have long-term keepers in both Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who have a chance to be the best forward duo in the league before they are done in Boston. And that’s before we see what Tatum’s ceiling really is, which includes the potential to be in the Kia MVP mix one day.
De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
2017-18 Season Stats: 21.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 6.8 apg
The buzz on Fox: He doesn’t get nearly as much attention as some of his peers. Yet Fox is probably the best young player in the game that no one talks about when the discussion turns to the top players at his position. The Kings know what they are working with, though, having rewarded Fox’s early efforts with a 5-year, $163 million contract extension last month. That’s perhaps the best indicator of a young player’s market value. The Kings are banking on Fox’s considerable talent; he’s the fastest player with the ball in his hands and already a 20-point scorer without the aid of a reliable 3-point shot. Fox still has so much room to improve that it’s hard to forecast where he might fit in the pecking order in a couple of seasons. There’s so much to work with here, if the Kings are truly committed to the blueprint of building around Fox.
Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
2017-18 Season Stats: 17.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 7.3 apg
The buzz on Morant: The Grizzlies might not have realized it at the time, but the 2019 draft lottery yielded two future superstars in Williamson and Morant, who was a runaway winner in the 2020 Kia Rookie of the Year race. Morant’s fearlessness, creativity as a scorer and facilitator and next-level athleticism set him apart from the crowd. He makes the spectacular look routine, no matter who is on the court with him. He gives the Grizzlies star power on the court and provided an immediate face of the franchise off it. It’ll be easier to sell free agents on a bright future in Memphis with a talent like Morant already in place and ready to ascend. You simply don’t find players with his scintillating combination of skill and style on a regular basis. And that’s a mouthful in a league filled with next-level physical specimens. The more proficient he becomes as a shooter, the deadlier his game will be in the future.What is Ja Morant’s ceiling in 2020-21?
Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
2017-18 Season Stats: 28.8 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 8.8 apg
The buzz on Doncic: A strong case can be made for Luka as the very best of this under-25 group of stars. He’s the only one who has finished in the top five of the Kia MVP balloting. The pilot of the most efficient offense in league history last season, his coming-out party extended to the first round of the playoffs. In Orlando, he both earned unanimous All-Bubble first team honors and staked his claim to the throne by destroying the LA Clippers’ attempts to slow him down. What he did to elite defenders Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in that series was just more of what he unleashed on the entire league. A jumbo point guard with every part of his offensive game already at an elite level, it’s up to Doncic (and continued good health) to determine where he ultimately lands on the league’s list of the best of the very best. He’s already top five just two years in. The next decade … it’s all on the table.Best of Luka Doncic from the 2019-20 season
Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
2017-18 Season Stats: 22.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.1 apg
The buzz on Williamson: Judging strictly on the smile he’s walking around with during this preseason, it’s obvious that Zion is loving every bit of being freed up to play big minutes after his injury-related limitations of 2019-20. The reason he’s considered a generational talent has been on full display early on with coach Stan Van Gundy at the helm in the New Orleans. For those who remember that Van Gundy got the best out of a transcendent young big man in Dwight Howard during his Orlando days, this is a welcome sight. Zion’s unique combination of size and skill make him one of the most intriguing physical beings to hit an NBA floor. To be as impactful as he’s been in such a limited amount of time on the court is nothing short of staggering, particularly for a player who’s still clearly so early in his development. And the immense star power he generates now will only increase as he continues to round out his game. It’ll be fascinating to see who, between he and Doncic or perhaps someone else, captures the title as the global face of the game over the course of the next decade.
The Next Five: Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers; Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks; Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder; Michael Porter Jr.; Tyler Herro, Miami Heat
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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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