Gone are the days of unskilled Large Men carving out NBA careers solely based upon their ability to gobble up space. The true unicorn of today’s NBA would be a big in the lineage of Laker legend Frank Brickowski or the greatest worst player of all time, Kendrick Perkins:
Basketball’s skills revolution has democratized player development to the point of an overflowing talent pool, chock-full of equally Large Men with actual handles and shooting ability. There have never been more really good professionally employed basketball players than this exact moment in history, a status that will likely continue to confer to each successive day.
But even with a handful of current stars like Donovan Mitchell (25), Nikola Jokic (26), and Anthony Davis (28) having aged out of consideration for this particular list, at least a dozen budding stars under the age of 25 in the Western Conference alone have their sights set on breaking through into that inner-circle.
With the next generation of potential stars laid out in front of us, it becomes a bit easier to see where Talen Horton-Tucker might fit moving forwards. As the youngest player on the list, he’s got more prime years in front of him than any other player, but viewing him within the context of the league’s other budding studs serves as a solid reminder of how far he’ll have to go. With another four years of eligibility on an under-25 list, he has plenty of time to gain ground by the time the Lakers might hope he can become a centerpiece of the franchise.
To get a lay of the land, I’ve grouped the top players under 25 in the West into talent tiers. In my calculation, I’ve given more weight to ultimate potential than present-day performance, since a smaller chance at a really great player provides a more actionable boon to a team’s title chances than a stronger chance at a pretty good one.
Although at least a few of the West’s incoming rookie class have an excellent chance to enter this discussion come next year — especially Jalen Green — it’s impossible to state with genuine confidence as to what any rookie will definitively look like in the NBA game having yet to see them play a single regular-season minute. For that reason, I’ve only considered players with at least a full season of experience for this exercise.
Within tiers, players are listed in no particular order.
- Luka Doncic (22)
Luka is already a superstar and undoubtedly one of the 10 most valuable players in the league. He’s the preseason odds-on favorite to win the 2021-22 NBA MVP and an unimpeachable selection in his own tier atop this list.
- Zion Williamson (21)
Despite the Pelicans’ fraught roster construction around him, point-Zion proved to be a physically dominant paint force offensively approaching prime Shaquille O’Neal. While his disengaged defense remains a concern, Zion’s scoring prowess has transcended unstoppable to the point of inevitable, making him the other no-brainer superstar in the West under 25.
- Devin Booker (24)
- Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (23)
Given Booker’s string of clutch performances in the most recent playoffs, he has to be the next no-brainer on this list. Say what you will about his advanced playmaking upside and defensive limitations, but for better and worse Booker’s offensive package presents the closest facsimile of the archetypal score-first guard since the Mamba himself.
In Tyler R. Tynes’ profile of SGA for GQ during New York Fashion Week, he couldn’t have summed up Shai’s “Shai-ness” more precisely:
Shai believes that he’s more transparent than we give him credit for: his game is more elite than we think, his style is more audacious than we believe, and his cadence is bolder than we know. He just refuses to raise his voice for you to notice what should be obvious.
Shai doesn’t posterize opponents with rim-rattling jams like Anthony Edwards or Ja Morant. He doesn’t even pull from 30-plus, giving a crowd an extended chance to marvel at his brilliance during the ball’s flight like Trae Young or Steph Curry. Since Shai’s game lacks certain accents we’ve come to expect from a typical NBA superstar, it’s harder to recognize his otherwise “obvious” talent.
Shai deploys a uniquely awkward rhythm, calmly slithering around opponents on his frequent trips to the basket. In fact, he was actually the most frequent driver in the NBA last season on a rate basis, according to the Basketball Index ($$$). Even at Kentucky, SGA’s calling card was his ability to get to the rack. Now, complementing his interior scoring is his recently cultivated shooting stroke, boosting his 3-point percentage from 37% in his rookie season to 42% this past year. SGA’s grown his scoring average from 10 points per game as a rookie to almost 24 by molding himself into a scoring threat from all three levels; stretching defenses to their breaking point.
Despite putting up good stats on a bad team, it would be unfair to chalk up SGA’s success to the mere lack of talent around him. Shai’s efficiency allows him to be one of the rare players capable of putting up a “quiet” 30 points. Delivering a scaled-down experience of what it was like to watch Kevin Durant on the Thunder, Shai’s impact feels smaller than it actually is only because he gets his without needing to collect as many fruitless possessions in the process.
Unlike some famously empty-calorie producers of good stats on other bad teams like Josh Smith, Monta Ellis, and Al Jefferson, SGA was one of the most efficient scorers in the NBA. Along with his 25th-best in the NBA scoring average (23.7 ppg), Gilgeous-Alexander finished with the eighth-best True Shooting Percentage among players who played more than 30 minutes per game with a usage rate of more than 25%. Among guards, he was third, trailing only Stephen Curry and Zach LaVine. It’s almost as if we knock Shai for doing what he does with such ease, never playing outside of himself to force a shot or rush a pass.
Shai’s ability as an excellent decelerator should help him improve his foul-drawing — in the vein of a James Harden or Trae Young — as he beefs up his naturally lithe frame. Some more strength also should help bolster his mediocre on-ball defense. With improvements in these two areas of his game, SGA will become the perennial All-NBA-type talent the Thunder surely hope they can build a winner around.
- Michael Porter Jr. (23)
- Ja Morant (22)
- Deandre Ayton (23)
- Brandon Ingram (24)
These players have shown flashes of talent in line with the names listed above, but have yet to prove a level of consistency or well-roundedness to merit consideration in a higher tier.
MPJ has the bounce and stroke to follow in Klay Thompson’s footsteps as the next no-dribble mega-microwave scorer. He’s made huge strides on defense but he needs to continue improving his feel for the game to become a guy the Nuggets can rely on down the stretch instead of a source for blunders like the one he caused at the end of this game.
Of this group, Ja has the most direct path to the higher realms, though it might also be the steepest. Undermining some of the utility of his explosive athleticism and surreal vision is his Westbrookian shooting from distance (30.3% in ‘20-21). Ja’s awesomeness will be directly dampened by his shooting, limiting his opportunities to collapse the paint and create opportunities for his teammates out of thin air, from mid-air.
Deandre Ayton was a key cog in the Suns’ run to the 2021 Finals. He helped shore up their back-line defense and finished almost everything thrown at him around the rim on his way to 66% shooting from the field in the playoffs. He’s really good at almost everything asked of a modern inside-out big man, but he’s not yet elite at any one thing.
He’s can’t create efficient offense for himself or his teammates, nor is he one of the league’s premier rim protectors. Is the 2019-20 version of JaVale McGee (a minimum-salaried player) capable of providing 70% of what Ayton brought to the table last year? Probably. Is that a player worth the opportunity cost of a maximum rookie extension? Probably not. But given the Suns’ capped-out books and limited ability to improve their team elsewhere, the alternative of letting him walk was also entirely untenable.
However, the Suns have him locked down through the end of his rookie deal which ends after the 2022-23 season, plenty of time to find out if he can augment the improvements he already displayed between years one and two. If the defensive gains he showed — especially in the playoffs — are real, he can become one of the best two or three centers in the league, and more than worth a max deal.
Ingram is the other guy in this group whose strength is his lack of a glaring weakness — assuming he can re-establish the defensive prowess he displayed as a member of Luke Walton’s Lakers — but lacks a singular elite skill to distinguish himself above a talented league. With a more sensible, spaced-out roster surrounding Zion this season in NOLA, it could be a make-or-break kind of year for those hanging onto the idea of BI’s superstar potential.
- Jamal Murray (24)
- De’Aaron Fox (23)
- Anthony Edwards (20)
With unique half-court chemistry beside Denver’s reigning MVP and some playoff flamethrowing in the bubble, Jamal Murray has established himself as a veritable star. After a shortened offseason, Murray stumbled out of the gate, scoring less than 20 points per game on worse than 35% 3-point shooting during his first full month of the 2020-21 season. Then, seemingly just as he and his teammates had found their groove, an awkward landing and an ACL tear ended his season in early April. Considering his slow start and currently questionable health status, it’d be hard to rank him any higher, though he could have the highest ceiling of any Tier 3 player given his proven peaks.
De’Aaron Fox might be the toughest of the six to project moving forward, given his surroundings, distinct strengths, and weaknesses. After four seasons in Sacramento, he’s been given the keys to the franchise, flanked by a bunch of burnout bigs and two promising young guards in Davion Mitchell and Tyrese Haliburton. The three-guard core is strange, especially since the team’s last front office eschewed an opportunity to draft Luka Doncic for fear of overlapping with Fox’s strengths.
Fox is already one of the most dynamic downhill threats in basketball but has proven an inconsistent shooter at 32.6% for his career. It’s not easy to build around a point guard who can't shoot or play defense, a challenge only exacerbated by flanking him with another two pure guards.
Edwards struggled to adjust to the NBA game from the get-go, but found his stride around the All-Star break. After the break, his offensive rating jumped up 16 points as he improved his shot selection and ball security. During the season’s second half, he averaged 24-5-3 on 57% true shooting in over 35 minutes per game. However, as with most other young players, especially score-first guards, he’s a sieve on the defensive end. He’ll have to get better on D and as a playmaker for his teammates to establish himself as a Tier 1 or 2 superstar, but he’s already exceeded the lofty expectations of a No. 1 pick with one of the best scoring seasons from a rookie in recent memory.
- Jaren Jackson Jr. (22)
- Tyrese Haliburton (21)
- Talen Horton-Tucker (20)
Before selecting Ja Morant with the second pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, Jaren Jackson Jr. was the future of the franchise. Since the emergence of Ja’s explosive talent and Jackson’s meniscus tear, which caused him to miss almost the entirety of last season, the popular appreciation for the young big man has somewhat waned.
Standing 6’11 with a 7’4” wingspan, JJJ’s greatest potential utility is as a large “small-ball” five, capable of stretching the floor with his shooting while both protecting the rim and switching onto smaller players out on the perimeter on defense. While the latter half of that equation mostly persisted upon his return from injury last season, the shooting that makes him special almost entirely evaporated. In 11 games after returning from injury, his scoring average dropped more than three points, and his 3-point percentage fell from almost 40% to under 30%. If he’s to climb this ladder, he needs to regain the offensive dynamism that put him on the map in the first place this coming season.
Despite succeeding Talen Horton-Tucker as the next top prospect to come from Iowa State a full two years later, Tyrese Haliburton actually a year older than THT. Haliburton’s consistent long-range flick and wily smarts impressed scouts in his second year as a Cyclone despite concerns about his age and athleticism in comparison to some of the game’s top guard prospects. In his rookie year in Sacramento, Haliburton did plenty to dispel any concerns he wouldn’t be able to hang in the big leagues.
According to the Basketball Index ($$$), Haliburton finished his first NBA campaign with a perimeter shooting talent ranking in the league's 94th percentile (adjusted for shot difficulty), and was an outstanding passer, finishing in the 93rd percentile in both passing efficiency and passing versatility. As he grows into his body and expands his bag of tricks, he has the touch to become a great offensive guard. He’s a bit weak and slow-footed to ever be a ball-hawk on the other end, but his poor defensive metrics should improve as he begins to apply his elite IQ to the other end.
Younger and on a team better than any of the aforementioned players, Talen Horton-Tucker has the most breathing room to grow at his own pace. The Lakers don’t need him to be great right now, even if he can be in a couple of years. Any on-court value he brings to the 2021-22 Lakers is all gravy.
Already one of the game’s premier drivers, THT needs to develop his jumper to make use of his elite ability to create space for himself. Also, despite occasional mental lapses leading to glaring missed rotations, THT has the physical tools to grow into a tremendous on-ball defender.
If the Lakers have their way, THT will have established himself as the team’s starting two-guard by drilling threes and shoring up his defense, and up a tier or two before the start of the playoffs. And even though the Lakers are paying Horton-Tucker like a guy who can contribute now — $30 million over three years — their chances at contention are not especially dependent upon THT’s immediate improvement.
Instead, the extension makes sure he’s a Laker until his age-24 season, giving both parties plenty of time to figure out if he can make good on his potential. As the Lakers’ only route to internal improvement around this configuration of the current core, THT’s development into an All-Star caliber guard would give them a chance to contend when AD eclipses 30, and LeBron, 40.
- Keldon Johnson (21)
- Kevin Porter Jr. (21)
By the time he entered the league, Keldon Johnson had already earned the rare distinction usually afforded to all-timers of having three nicknames if you count “KJ,” with the other two being “Big Body” and “The Mustang.” If his numerous monikers alone can’t convince you of his potential, consider the fact that Coach Pop deemed him worthy of inclusion as an injury replacement on Team USA’s roster for the most recent Olympics.
At his most explosive, he’s like a mini-Zion, bulldozing defenders on his way to the rim. He’s also an impressive defender, capable of guarding four positions at an elite level and competing on every possession giving him an extremely high floor as a prospect. Although he began the season strong, averaging 15.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game on 58.8% true shooting, he contracted COVID in February, looked a step slower when he returned, and failed to replicate the consistency he showed in the early going.
While he’ll need to develop his on-ball creation, shooting, and understanding of when to attack or defer, but he’s already got the body of an NBA superstar at 21 years old and has shown flashes of the aforementioned traits in small doses.
After escaping Cleveland under suboptimal circumstances, Kevin Porter Jr. established himself in Houston as a young guard with legitimate scoring potential. In 26 games he averaged 16.6 points and 6.3 assists per game, including a 50-piece in a win over the Bucks and four outings with double-digit assists. As the starting point guard for the worst team in basketball, KPJ’s defense was predictably bad, and it’s also hard to project him as ever becoming particularly staunch on that end given his reputation and slender frame.
In the lineage of high volume, low-efficiency scoring guards, I fear Porter Jr.’s low 30s 3-point shooting and disengaged defense combine for more of a here today, gone tomorrow Brandon Jennings-type career than that of the always intensely competitive Allen Iverson. Jennings lasted eight seasons in the league, but he only got worse as he aged into what should have been his physical prime. Especially as he’s likely forced to cede primary scoring duties to the incoming Jalen Green, KPJ will need to match the work ethic and capability for self-critique proven by many of those above him if he hopes to transcend this station and vault his way up the list.
Plenty of pre-NBA prospects are already candidates to make this list as soon as they enter the league, as long as they end up with a Western Conference team. To name a few, Emoni Bates (17), Chet Holmgren (19), and Victor Wembanyama (17) have all shown the ability to blend the best of size and skill on this list at the lower levels, and are on track to become foundational pieces for any franchise lucky enough to draft them.
As the league’s talent pool continues to widen, I look forward to updating this list as the players on and off of it progress; adding in rookies as they establish themselves, removing the eldest when they age out, and seeing where THT ranks when it’s all said and done.