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Stat of the Week: ranking every NBA team by young talent

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The question every NBA fan wants to know: which teams have the brightest future?

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Denver Nuggets Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

There are a variety of ways to test the overall health of an NBA franchise. Is the team winning? Is the attendance booming? Is the team making money?

Another common factor that NBA fans and pundits tend to take seriously is the amount of young capital a team possesses, specifically quality young players and quality draft picks. Teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder have developed quickly from a bottom of the barrel franchise to a championship contender because of the draft picks they made. Many franchises have attempted to model the draft strategy of the Thunder in recent years by making a top end selection across multiple drafts, which has changed the tone drastically in terms of accumulating young talent.

Some teams have been more successful than others at accomplishing this, and while it hasn’t translated to wins for every franchise, the general consensus on these teams is that the overall health of the team is strong now and stronger in the future. But which teams can brag about this?

I used NBA Math’s Total Points Added metric (TPA), a way of generating a single number to factor in a player’s box score contributions on offense and defense, to assist with this ranking. I sorted through every player on an NBA roster under 25 years old and graphed their combined minutes next to their combined TPA. The following is a graph of the young players for all 30 teams:

The further up and the further right a team is on this graph represents the volume of positive contribution generated by a team’s young players. There is a distinct group of six teams formed through this exercise:

The most effective team among the group of six teams was clearly the Bucks, while the team with the most volume of contribution was provided by the Timberwolves. Both have their merits, but this is merely a guide to the real ranking.


Young players can and should be given a slight pass if they aren’t as effective early in their careers. A number of current stars in the NBA started off struggling just as much as other high quality prospects, but what really matters is where they ended up.

That being said, early returns factor into a prospect’s floor and ceiling as well, to the point where players can be confidently put into tiers where they will most likely end up. For example, Kyrie Irving has shown that he has a star ceiling because he is playing like a star currently. On the flip side, Myles Turner isn’t currently playing like a star, but due to what he has shown already combined with his age (20) and future role, it’s safe to put him in a similar tier.

The goal of putting prospects into tiers is to place them where they will confidently be at the age of 27. This is the artificial number that I am considering the prime ceiling due to excellent seasons this year from James Harden (27), Russell Westbrook (28), Jimmy Butler (27), Isaiah Thomas (27), Stephen Curry last season (27), and Kevin Durant (28). 27 seems to be the sweet spot for players to show the best elements of their game at this current point in time.

Which leads us to younger players. Over 180 players under the age of 25 were considered for this ranking, and all 30 teams have been ranked based on their young talent. These rankings take into account TPA divided by minutes played as a way to estimate per minute contributions, but ultimately, age, total minutes playing at a certain level, and future role were all indicators as well. These players were ultimately classified under seven different tiers, which is the assumed position of a player by age 27:

  • Superstar (100 points)
  • Star (75)
  • Above average starter (50)
  • Average starter (30)
  • Below average starter (10)
  • Above average bench player (5)
  • Average bench player (0)

Here are the rankings in reverse order:

30. Los Angeles Clippers - 5 points

With only Austin Rivers, Diamond Stone, and Brice Johnson on the roster as young players, only Rivers generates points for being an average reserve at this point. The other two players combined for 33 minutes, and neither seeing the court over Marreese Speights is very endearing.

29. Golden State Warriors - 15 points

The Warriors have four young players: Patrick McCaw, Kevon Looney, James Michael McAdoo, and Damian Jones. Only McCaw and Looney receive points for their contributions, and while McCaw profiles as a future low-end starter at his ceiling, it’s hard to see any other young Warriors reaching that level.

28. San Antonio Spurs - 25 points

Only Kyle Anderson, Dejounte Murray, Davis Bertans, and Bryn Forbes qualify, but the first three could be lower end contributors. Murray has a higher ceiling than his ranking, but the confidence interval is low for him at this point due to low minutes.

27. Memphis Grizzlies - 30 points

A variety of Grizzles have shown tools at the NBA level. Andrew Harrison and Wayne Selden are current contributors, though not valuable ones, while Deyonta Davis and Wade Baldwin show promise. That being said, it says a lot that neither played more than 500 minutes on an injury-riddled team.

26. Chicago Bulls - 40 points

The Bulls played their young guys a reasonable amount, but the effectiveness just wasn’t there. All of Christiano Felicio, Jerian Grant, Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis, and Paul Zipser eclipsed 800 minutes on the year, but there were only flashes. Any of the five could break out, but none looks to be more than a below average starter at this point in time. Cameron Payne is...well...payne-ful to watch.

25. Brooklyn Nets - 65 points

The Brooklyn Nets dedicated nearly 7,000 minutes of total time to players under 25, and it may have paid off with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert. Both look like they could be average starters in the future with proper seasoning, especially RHJ due to his defensive contributions.

24. Houston Rockets - 70 points

The Rockets are headlined by Clint Capela, Sam Dekker, and Montrezl Harrell. Capela is already filling a role as a starter, one which I would rank around 18th-20 at center currently. He doesn’t have the same defensive impact as a DeAndre Jordan, but his offensive game is similar. Dekker is a player I am high on, and Harrell could eventually fill a starting role if given an opportunity around the NBA. Capela may make me regret this ranking.

23. Cleveland Cavaliers - 75 points

Kyrie Irving is the entire reason for this ranking. Only him, Kay Felder, and Edy Taveres qualify, and Irving will graduate from this category next season. The Cavs will fall to the 28-30 range if they don’t add young pieces, which seems unlikely given their championship aspirations.

22. Boston Celtics - 75 points

This ranking will go up if the Celtics don’t trade their draft pick via the Nets. Adding Markelle Fultz or a player like that to a group that includes Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown increases the viability of a young Celtics core. At the present time, Smart’s weak offensive game and Brown’s ineffectiveness keep both in tier 4, but both could rise in an instant if things click the right way. A high draft pick in next year’s class is automatically a tier 2 or tier 3 player in my book, so Boston will be just fine.

21. Indiana Pacers - 85 points

Similar to the Cleveland Cavaliers, this ranking is more or less entirely on the shoulders of one player: Myles Turner. He’s a stud, playing over 2,500 minutes and maintaining good efficiency, posting the 10th best TPA/min of players with over 1,000 minutes. Of the other prospects, Glenn Robinson III has shown some skills on both ends, but he still has a long way to go. Joe Young and Georges Niang aren’t on the radar.

20. Miami Heat - 90 points

With three players that project as average starters, the Miami Heat have done a surprising job of rebuilding on the fly. Justise Winslow could exceed that mark if he ever learns to shoot competently, while Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson are both nearly there already. Miami lacks a star caliber prospect, which would have been great to add during this draft, but they nearly made the playoffs anyway.

19. New Orleans Pelicans - 105 points

Hello, Anthony Davis.

18. Sacramento Kings - 110 points

The trio of Buddy Hield, Skal Labissiere, and Willie Cauley-Stein are each nice prospects for Sacramento to begin their rebuild post-DeMarcus Cousins. If Hield continues to improve his shooting and ball handling past expected levels, he could exceed his ranking here. If Labissiere or Cauley-Stein provide more consistent impact defensively, either player could rise above this ranking. I have all three as average starters at this point, and adding two more lottery selections in this year’s draft will only help.

17. New York Knicks - 110 points

Kristaps Porzingis has shown star potential. I’m not sure if it’s quite superstar potential, but he’s really close. Willy Hernangomez looks like a keeper, and he will continue to develop as a potential starter next to Porzingis. Ron Baker has also shown promise as a bench piece. The Knicks need to continue accumulating talent though, because for a team with the sixth worst record, having the 17th best young collection of assets is really bad.

16. Charlotte Hornets - 115 points

The ranking for the Hornets is probably surprising to some, but the foursome of Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Frank Kaminsky, and Jeremy Lamb are all eligible and earn points based on contributions to this point. Zeller’s on/off numbers are ridiculous, and his impact on the Hornets is sound. MKG actually has a higher ceiling based on his age and missed time to develop. Kaminsky also showed why he is still a viable candidate as a future starter based on his impressive second half.

15. Atlanta Hawks - 115 points

The Hawks possess one candidate to be an above-average starter in Dennis Schroder, who showed his potential in the playoffs this year. I said during last offseason that Schroder has potential to be better than John Wall, and I meant it. Here are their per game numbers against each other this year:

Player Points Assists Rebounds Field Goal % 3-point %
John Wall 29.5 10.3 4.0 52.5 47.4
Dennis Schroder 24.7 7.7 2.3 45.5 42.5

Clearly, John Wall played better in all facets as he’s supposed to, but Schroder put up some incredible numbers of his own. Throw in Taurean Prince, Tim Hardaway Jr., and DeAndre Bembry, and the Hawks have the makings of a solid young core if Paul Millsap decides to leave in free agency.

14. Los Angeles Lakers - 120 points

In my estimation, the Lakers have three tier 4 stars at this point: D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, and Brandon Ingram. All three have major strides still to make, but each player is young and possesses skills that should translate with more seasoning. Projecting how players like Russell and Ingram will look in seven years is ridiculous, but for now, they fall into tier 4. Both used to be tier 2 guys, at least nationally, and they could return to that point. It’s just much less certain.

13. Dallas Mavericks - 120 points

Dallas has a surprising placement on this list, but it’s much less surprising if Nerlens Noel continues to be effective. Next year will be his age 23 season, and if the Mavericks commit to him as the full time center, he could be in line for a huge breakout. Harrison Barnes has his faults, but he’s shown he can be a capable starter. Yogi Ferrell is also on the list of contributors, and while it’s less certain he performs, he posted 11.3 points, 4.3 assists, and shot 40.3% from the 3-point line. He’s still 23.

12. Toronto Raptors - 125 points

The Raptors just have a BUNCH of dudes, though all of them contribute in complementary roles right now. Nine players on Toronto qualified, and while most aren’t a part of the regular proceedings, Jonas Valanciunas, Lucas Nogueira, and Norman Powell have all made an impact, Valanciunas as a starter. Other guys that could break out are Jakob Poeltl, the ninth overall selection in last year’s draft, Bruno Caboclo, who is now “one year away” after being selected in the 2013 NBA Draft, and Pascal Siakam, who was the D-League MVP and started on the senior squad early in the year.

11. Orlando Magic - 125 points

Some will be surprised by my ranking of Orlando, but I still believe in their talent, specifically Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton. It also helped that Evan Fournier qualified for this ranking, as he’s still 24. Gordon though could still be an above average starter in my book. Post All-Star break, Gordon posted 16.4 points and 6.1 rebounds with True Shooting of 58.1%. He played mostly power forward during this stretch, which is his natural position. If he continues to play there, I wouldn’t be surprised if those were his regular numbers.

10. Oklahoma City Thunder - 130 points

The Oklahoma City Thunder may just be Russell Westbrook to the national media, but part of the reason for that was the youth on the squad. OKC played 24-and-under guys over 11,000 minutes, 4th most in the NBA behind Philly, the Lakers, and the T’Wolves, AKA teams that are terrible. With Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo looking like above average starters and guys like Domantas Sabonis and Alex Abrines with more potential to unlock, the Thunder have a bright future with the current group. It may not be championship caliber bright, but it’s still solid.

9. Portland Trail Blazers - 145 points

The Blazers receive a huge boost from Jusuf Nurkic, who adds 50 points as a tier 3 guy. I don’t buy him being a future star, but that could also happen. His value is very volatile at this point. Other players to consider are Maurice Harkless, Allen Crabbe, and Noah Vonleh. All three have shown capable tools, and Harkless has been a weak starter for them. He could easily develop into more, as could the others, given positive development.

8. Washington Wizards - 160 points

This ranking for the Wizards is carried by Bradley Beal and Otto Porter. Both players came in as tier 2 guys, AKA stars, due to the progression Beal has made and the efficiency Porter possesses already. Among players to play 2,000 minutes, Porter ranks 5th overall in TPA/min, behind only tier 1 stars. Beal has made excellent progress and figures to get even better. His TPA/min puts him just behind Myles Turner, but due to previous injuries, Beal gets the benefit of the doubt from me. The only other player to score positively for me is Kelly Oubre, who is still very young with potential to be unlocked.

7. Utah Jazz - 170 points

The Jazz are anchored in this ranking and in real life by Rudy Gobert. He’s a perennial defensive player of the year candidate and still has time to grow offensively. Rodney Hood is the other player who has shown potential, though this season he has regressed a bit. I have him in tier 3, but he could just slide to tier 4 quickly if he can’t replicate his success from the year before. Other than those two, Dante Exum and Trey Lyles still hold potential, though it fades if they cannot get on the floor more consistently next season.

6. Phoenix Suns - 170 points

The Suns dedicated over 11,000 minutes to young players as well, but they are reaping the benefits with a variety of pieces. Devin Booker is a stud, though he falls in tier 3 for me until he can improve his defense, his efficiency, or both. T.J. Warren, Marquese Chriss, and Dragan Bender still project as average starters based on age and current effectiveness, though Bender barely played this season. If those three guys can develop quickly, the Suns will be back in playoff contention. Add in Tyler Ulis and Alex Len as potential fringe starters, and the Suns simply have a ton of young talent, though not much of it is refined.

5. Detroit Pistons - 190 points

The Pistons have three high quality players that push them to top five status: Andre Drummond, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Tobias Harris. Drummond is tier 2, while KCP and Harris are tier 3. Among the players who played 1,000 minutes, all three ranked in the top 25 in TPA/min. Drummond had a down year, but people forget how young he is and how disastrous the point guard situation was in Detroit. Exchange Reggie Jackson for a quality distributor, and each of those guys looks even better. Throw in Stanley Johnson’s defense, and the Pistons still have a bright future.

4. Philadelphia 76ers - 205 points

The Sixers played their young players the most of any team and had 10 players qualify. Joel Embiid is considered a tier 2 player for this ranking, though he has clear tier 1 potential if he can stay healthy. Ben Simmons is classified as a tier 3 player without even playing a minute, and he could go way up. Dario Saric, Richaun Holmes, Justin Anderson, Nik Stauskas, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, and others also factor into the point totals, showing the Sixers to have a plethora of young talent. They are anchored by Embiid and (hopefully) Simmons, and if they add another (or two) lottery selections, their ranking will rise even higher.

3. Milwaukee Bucks - 215 points

Giannis Antetokounmpo aside, the Bucks have some strong talent. Khris Middleton doesn’t qualify, but Jabari Parker is still a tier 3 guy if he can continue to improve at the rate he has. Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon make the list as average starters, though one is a contender for rookie of the year, and the other is just 19 with length, athleticism, and a jump shot. These four guys will anchor the Bucks for many years, and even if they don’t change anything, natural development will have Milwaukee as one of the perennial powers in the Eastern Conference in three years.

2. Minnesota Timberwolves - 245 points

Having Karl-Anthony Towns helps. He’s a clear tier 1 player, showcasing his world class skills in the second half of the season: 28+ points and 13+ rebounds per game was last accomplished by Shaquille O’Neal in 1999-00, and no player can match Towns’ absurd 66.8% true shooting during that stretch. It’s possible it’s just a hot streak, but it’s also possible that Towns is a generational talent, and I’m going with the latter. Add in tier 3 guys in Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, along with a tier 4 guy in Kris Dunn, and the Wolves have a gaggle of talent. They aren’t number one though.

1. Denver Nuggets - 270 points

The best collection of young talent belongs to the Denver Nuggets. They have the player that posted the best TPA/min in Nikola Jokic of 0.167. The next closest was Giannis at .150, so Jokic is putting up some serious efficiency in his minutes. He’s tier 1, and he’s joined by two tier 3 guys in Gary Harris and Jamal Murray, two tier 4 guys in Juancho Hernangomez and Emmanuel Mudiay, and a tier 5 player in Malik Beasley. None of the players are above 22, meaning that they still have a lot of time to get better. Harris was 15th overall in TPA/min as well, so it’s not like Jokic is the only proven player. With Murray and Hernangomez expected to take larger roles, Jokic and Harris expected to play more minutes, and Mudiay and Beasley waiting in the wings, the Nuggets have the most enviable collection of young talent in the NBA. All they need is a time machine.