For the past three seasons the Nuggets have dwindled in the cellar of the NBA and while for fans it has been an often brutal stretch, being in the lottery for so long is finally paying off. Thanks to shrewd drafting by Tim Connelly (with an appropriate nod to the entire Nuggets' scouting department), Denver has quietly amassed a fine young core of players.
Before the draft this summer the roster already contained three Rookie of the Year finalists from the past two seasons in Nikola Jokic, Emmanuel Mudiay and Jusuf Nurkic, as well as a vastly improved Gary Harris. Then came the addition of Jamal Murray, Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley. That's seven guys, all drafted in the past three years, all 22 and younger, and almost all will get playing time this year.
The Nuggets are certainly not in position to contend for a title this season, but it's not unrealistic to see this group of players turning heads three or four years from now.
Around the NBA though, the Nuggets are far from being alone in the youth movement. There are several teams who have also done an incredible job at making sound draft decisions and trades for young talent, and all look to be playoff teams within the next few years. There's even a good chance that one of these teams will eventually contend for a title.
But what teams with a youth movement have the most upside and talent? And how does the Nuggets young core of players stack up against them?
For this purpose and to avoid confusion, "young core" will be strictly defined as players under 22 years of age who are most likely to be contributors to their team. This will unfortunately remove some teams from contention such as the Utah Jazz, Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic who also have solid young talent but whose future core players are already over 22.
With that, here's the list of the teams and players for which I think can be argued as having the best young core, in alphabetical order:
I'm biased, but I love this team and am excited to see what these guys can do. The one caveat is that this roster lacks the star power that is needed to win, something that only Minnesota can for sure claim with Towns. Jokic and Mudiay could likely develop in to All-Stars, but as-is this group will need some outside help if the Nuggets are ever to make it all the way. There is no arguing, though, that the Nuggets have the deepest group of youth from anyone else on this list, which will only help out in the long run.
It will be weird seeing the Lakers play without Kobe Bryant, but that also means that the torch has been passed on to D'Angelo Russell. Russell had an impressive campaign, finishing ninth in Rookie of the Year voting and making a name for himself as a potential future star in a big market. It almost isn't fair that the Lakers are able to pair Brandon Ingram with him, who also looks to be a future star. Randle had a rough go last season but has potential for improvement and will have a fruitful career. These three make a great start for the Lakers post-Kobe, but the rest of the roster still has some major work to do.
If this were looking at players under 26 the Bucks would be near the top of the list with Khris Middleton, Greg Monroe, Michael Carter-Williams and John Henson also in their actual core. For our purposes, though, these three still make a good trio. The Greek Freak is, well, a freak who can play any position and is as good of an athlete as there is today, and Parker has yet to live up to the hype as a number two pick but still has potential. It will be very interesting to see how Thon Maker pans out. He's very raw but at just 19 (if that is his real age), he could be a solid player for an up-and-coming Bucks team.
No doubt this is an impressive group. Towns alone makes the easiest case for the Timberwolves as the strongest, but playing alongside other Rookie of the Year winner Andrew Wiggins helps too. Kris Dunn should pan out to be a solid long term replacement of Ricky Rubio at the point, but even if Rubio sticks around Dunn could contend for the starting job with time. This team is going to be good, but not as quickly as some people think. That doesn't take anything away from the talent on the roster, though.
When can we say that "the process" worked? If you have low standards and consider it winning the first overall pick, give yourself a pat on the back. If it isn't until the Sixers win a title, then you're probably a long way out from praising Sam Hinkie for his sacrifice. Philadelphia has accrued some serious talent no doubt, but it's not likely this group remains intact even in the near future considering the logjam in the front court. Still, at some point soon Philadelphia will be good enough to not be among the worst teams in the league.
The Suns had a phenomenal draft this summer, netting Bender and Chriss in the first round and Ulis early in the second to go with Devin Booker who will look to improve on a successful rookie year. Phoenix has a lot of upside for sure, but they are also have the youngest average age of the six teams listed here. There is no doubt in my mind that the Suns will be a threat in the Western Conference for years to come.
So where do the Nuggets compare for under-22 talent? In my opinion, they fall right behind Minnesota, and both Denver and the Timberwolves are far and away more talented than the rest. Minnesota has a future superstar in Towns, who had one of the best rookie seasons in a long time and will only get better, and I'm admittedly infatuated with the amount of talent the Nuggets have accrued.
Sure, none of the Nuggets will be as good as Towns and there are likely players on other teams that will be better than most of Denver's seven, but Jokic, Mudiay, Harris and Nurkic have already shown they can succeed in the NBA, which is more than any of the other teams can claim just yet.
In addition, Murray has all the makings of an elite scorer and Hernangomez can be a sneaky good draft pick in retrospect as well. Even the athletic Malik Beasley, who Tim Connelly considered a steal at 19, has a pretty high ceiling. Make no mistake, the Nuggets are set for years ahead.
The rest of my rankings would go as follows: Philadelphia, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Milwaukee.
Of course, this is just one man's opinion based on player potential, and can't be factual until a few years from now when we can look back at how each of these teams performed. Ultimately the same argument for any of these teams can be made, have been made, and will undoubtedly be made by fans everywhere.
But even among the disagreement on which team has the best future ahead, the underlying takeaway is something on which we all can agree: the future for all of these teams is very, very bright.