NBA players usually peak between the ages of 25 and 30 years old. Teams that have a lot of key players in that age range tend to win the most.
However, if a squad also isn’t building up a nice collection of players younger than that, there is a good chance that it may struggle in the future.
So let’s look at which teams have the best core of young players in the NBA. For this exercise, we will focus on players who are still younger than 25 years old at the date of publication.
We’ll be factoring into this ranking both current impact level and potential for all players, as well as how the players’ skill sets mesh on the court.
1. Memphis Grizzlies
- Key players: Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, De’Anthony Melton, Dillon Brooks, Tyus Jones, Josh Jackson, Grayson Allen.
What separates the Grizzlies’ young core from the rest of the pack is the fact that it has two potential future superstar talents (Morant and Jackson Jr.) while also being insanely deep. The eight players listed above could combine to form a respectable NBA rotation right now.
What the Grizzlies must continue to work on is shooting. Jackson Jr. and Brooks are solid from behind the arc, but the rest of their teammates need to help them out as they prepare for an NBA where a well-spaced court is integral to winning basketball.
2. New Orleans Pelicans
- Key players: Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Jaxson Hayes, Frank Jackson, Nickeil Alexander-Walker.
The Pelicans were super close to the No. 1 spot. My questions about the health of Williamson and Ball, as well as whether Ingram’s jump is a slight fluke, were ultimately what caused me to leave them at a close second position. Also, the final two players on this list (Jackson and Alexander-Walker) have proved very little at the NBA level so far, while the Grizzlies have had more of their young core members actually produce for them.
This Pelicans team is still in fantastic position moving forward. New Orleans has a roster built to dominate opponents in transition with its passing, athleticism and basketball IQ. If they stay healthy and keep developing, I have a feeling the Williamson-Ingram-Ball Big Three will be discussed as one of the NBA’s best trios in the league within a few years.
3. Phoenix Suns
- Key players: Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Kelly Oubre Jr., Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Jevon Carter, Ellie Okobo, Ty Jerome, Cheick Diallo.
The Suns have a deep core of young players and they actually have a really solid future five-man lineup to work with of Booker, Ayton, Oubre, Bridges and Johnson. There is a clear pecking order there with shooters, scorers and defenders.
With the help of veterans Ricky Rubio, Dario Saric and Aron Baynes, the young Suns have taken a nice step forward from 19 wins last year to being on pace for 33 wins this year. Are they a future title contender? A lot of that depends on whether Booker continues to develop as a playmaker and defender and whether Ayton can turn into a more versatile big man who can fit the playing style of the modern NBA.
4. Boston Celtics
- Key players: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Robert Williams, Grant Williams, Romeo Langford, Carson Edwards.
Tatum and Brown are the future of the Celtics. The two long wings are strong on both ends of the floor and offer the team a lot of versatility and athleticism. Both guys are averaging at least 20 points, six rebounds, two assists and one steal per game this season.
After that, there aren’t any real sure-thing prospects for Boston, but at least a couple of them should pan out as long-term role players for the squad. Robert Williams is an explosive, strong big man. Grant Williams plays stellar defense and Langford and Edwards are strong scorers who could definitely bolster a bench unit someday.
5. Dallas Mavericks
- Key players: Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, Jalen Brunson.
With the Grizzlies, Pelicans and now the Mavericks, it is safe to say the future of the NBA’s Southwest Division is extremely bright.
Doncic, Porzingis and Brunson are the only Mavs players under 25 years old who have played more than one minute of playing time this season. Three players is not a very big core compared to most of the other teams on this list.
However, the fact that Doncic is clearly the best under-25 player in the league right now is the main reason Dallas is this high. At just 21 years old in his sophomore season, the Slovenian guard is averaging nearly a 30-point triple double. Add in the fact that Porzingis is also already a star and Brunson is an excellent backup, and you have the basis for a Mavs team that will be a major factor in the West for several years.
6. Atlanta Hawks
- Key players: Trae Young, John Collins, Cam Reddish, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, Damian Jones, Bruno Fernando.
“Potential” is the key word for this Hawks core. All of the players listed above are 22 years old or younger, except for Jones. If you are looking for current impact from these players, you might be a little bit disappointed. The Hawks are on a 24-win pace this year and are tied for second-last in the NBA in point differential (minus-7.9).
However, there are flashes of a really exciting, competitive team. Young is already a top-tier offensive player with his passing, ball-handling and three-point shooting, Collins is a threat as a rim runner and outside shooter and Reddish was really coming on as a prototypical two-way wing before the NBA suspended its season. The other guys look like capable role players for the future.
Moving forward, the Hawks’ key players need to commit themselves to learning the finer points of defense. Also, it would be nice if a quality second playmaker could step up alongside Young.
7. Minnesota Timberwolves
- Key players: Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, Jarrett Culver, Josh Okogie, Omari Spellman, Juancho Hernangomez, Naz Reid.
The Timberwolves have a lot of young talent. There is no denying that. I do have long-term questions about the fit of that talent and its collective weaknesses.
Towns is a potential superstar and Russell made the All-Star Game last year, which is a great start on paper. However, Towns and Russell both continue to struggle mightily on defense in their fifth seasons. Towns is a fantastic floor-spacer at the center position when he is healthy, but Russell doesn’t score at the rim well to take advantage of the spacing his star teammate gives him.
If those two youngsters figure their weaknesses out, this placing could look way too low in a couple years. The rest of the players on this list are also wild cards, especially Jarrett Culver, last summer’s No. 6 draft selection who has struggled to shoot the ball from pretty much everywhere this season.
8. Miami Heat
- Key players: Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn, Derrick Jones Jr., KZ Okpala.
The Heat are the only winning team in the NBA this season with at least four under-25 players registering at least 24 minutes per game. Adebayo, Herro, Nunn and Jones Jr. have all contributed significantly to Miami’s strong season so far. Adebayo was an All-Star and should develop into a perfect No. 2 option on a title contender someday, and Herro, Nunn and Jones Jr. each have defined skill sets that should keep them as starting-caliber players in the NBA for many years.
A lack of depth does hurt the Heat quite a bit here. If they had some more high-potential prospects in their pipeline (Okpala doesn’t really qualify), they would rank much higher.
9. Orlando Magic
- Key players: Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon, Mohamed Bamba, Markelle Fultz.
The Magic also don’t have a super deep crop of young players, but there is some definite quality present.
Isaac is the top prospect, as a 22-year-old 6’11” forward who will contend for All-Defensive Teams for years to come. If it weren’t for a knee injury this season, he probably would have made one of those teams.
Gordon’s lack of consistency is frustrating for a sixth-year player, but he has the tools to be a jack-of-all-trades forward if he ever puts everything together. Bamba’s appeal is still mostly his untapped potential (a 7’10” wingspan combined with his soft shooting touch is not fair). Fultz isn’t a superstar prospect anymore, but he has been solid as a starting point guard this season and is flashing the ball-handling, scoring and playmaking skills that made him the No. 1 overall draft pick three years ago.
10. Philadelphia 76ers
- Key players: Ben Simmons, Matisse Thybulle, Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz.
Simmons is very tough to evaluate because of his very clear weakness: shooting outside of about eight feet. However, because of his excellent athleticism, finishing, playmaking and defense, he is still a top-four player under 25 right now (along with Doncic, Tatum and Towns). The fact that the Sixers have a player who is very clearly already a star is what separates them from most of the teams on the honorable mentions list below.
His teammates under 25 years old are not star prospects, but they do fit nicely next to Simmons. Thybulle is already an elite defender as a rookie who doesn’t need the ball, Milton is a secondary playmaker and a great shooter and Korkmaz is also a major threat from behind the arc who thrives on getting open with his off-ball movement.
- Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, Denver Nuggets, New York Knicks, Sacramento Kings, Cleveland Cavaliers.