It seems like the tides are starting to change in the NBA. While today’s icons like Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James are still dominating as they progress through the latter stage of their careers, many other longtime household names have been struggling this season. James Harden hasn’t been playing to his normal standards while Damian Lillard and Kawhi Leonard are both out for the foreseeable future with major injuries. With all of them on the wrong side of 30, it’s not crazy to begin to wonder if this is a sign of decline for these players.
Today, we’re going to take a look at those in line to fill the shoes of those who are on their way out.
There are currently two tiers of young stars in the league. The first includes the up-and-coming players who have shown they have what it takes to develop into All-NBA talents, but still need a few more years of development and experience before they’re truly considered one of the best in the league. The next tier includes the players who have proven they are franchise cornerstones, and are without a doubt going to be among the new faces of basketball. Let’s see who’s got next.
In order to be included on this list, eligible players must be both under the age of 25 and have no more than four years of experience.
The Up and Coming
After making a splash during an incredible bubble-playoff run during his rookie season, Tyler Herro struggled during his sophomore year, failing to develop into the player Miami needed him to be in order to have success. This reasonably raised questions about how good herro truly was. He only poured gasoline on the fire prior to the start of this season where he said he was on the same level as established young stars like Luka Doncic and Trae Young.
Thankfully for Heat fans, Herro has proven that he’s one of the best young players in the league this season as he’s thriving in the role of sixth man with the Heat. He’s currently leading the league in scoring off the bench (20.7 ppg), while improving his 3-point shooting to nearly 40%. Although he’ll have to take a leap as a playmaker before truly being on the level of Luka and Trae, there is no doubt that Herro is going to be lighting it up for many years to come.
On top of already being one of the funniest players in the league, the 2020 number one pick has shown flashes of greatness throughout the first two years of his career. Anthony Edwards is an athletic specimen who can both put defenders on a poster and light it up from three-point range. His 47-point outburst against the Warriors earlier this year was a prime example of his potential to be a truly unstoppable force on the offensive end.
After an exciting but inefficient rookie campaign, Edwards has taken strides in the right direction across the board this season, upping his field goal percentage from 41 to 44%, while shooting a respectable 37% from downtown on high volume (8.7 attempts per game). While he still has lapses on defense that surely make a coach pull their hair out, he seems to have unlocked his scoring potential in the NBA. If he can clean up his defensive mistakes, Minnesota may have a chance at finally becoming a true force in the West for the first time since the Kevin Garnett days.
With sky-high expectations heading into the league thanks to being a viral sensation since age 13, LaMelo Ball has more than lived up to the hype. Like his brother Lonzo, he has unparalleled court vision that very few others in the league possess. His elite playmaking is a match made in heaven with his high-flying teammate Miles Bridges, as the two have connected on some incredible highlights through Ball’s first two seasons.
What separates LaMelo from his big brother is his scoring ability, as he has already emerged as a guy who can score 20 a night. With a unique bag of unorthodox floaters, scoop layups, and off the dribble threes, LaMelo’s ability to create his own shot is superior to Lonzo’s, which is why he is already approaching all-star level production in just his second season.
The area that has the biggest room for improvement in LaMelo’s game is his efficiency, as he shoots just 42% from the field. Already an elite free throw and 3 point shooter, this will surely get better with time. And when it does, the youngest ball brother is going to be scary-good.
Honorable Mention: Zion Williamson
When healthy, Zion is as good as any player on this list, but that’s the biggest issue. Through 2 full seasons and the beginning of this year, he’s only played in 85 career games, as he can’t seem to stay healthy. He missed the majority of his first season with a torn meniscus, and underwent a foot surgery over the summer that has kept him from suiting up this season as well. And for someone carrying as much weight as him, the foot injury is especially concerning.
But when he is on the floor, there is simply no stopping him. Last season he averaged 27 points a game on an absurdly efficient 61% from the field, bullying anybody in his way to the basket. He did all of this on a team that had poor spacing, making the paint even more clogged. On top of that, he is still yet to scratch the surface of his full potential, as he has plenty of room to improve both his outside shot and playmaking, which could make him truly unstoppable.
If Zion can get healthy and the Pelicans can surround him with competent shooters to let him freely dominate the inside, he can reach the sky-high expectations set on him when he entered the NBA. But until then, he remains one of the biggest question marks in the entire league.
#4: Ja Morant
An absolute athletic freak who isn’t afraid of the big moment, Ja Morant has taken a massive leap to superstardom in the 2021-22 season. During the preseason he claimed he was a top 5 point guard which led to some raised eyebrows across the league. But he’s backed it up and then some this season, as he’s firmly inserted himself in the conversation for the league’s best floor general.
What sets him apart
Slashing point guards aren’t unheard of in the NBA, but Ja Morant is taking it to another level. While he was seemingly able to get by almost any defender during his first two years, it now appears he can finish over any rim protector as well. Morant is currently shooting 68.8 percent on layups this season, which is astonishing considering his size and volume of shots at the rim.
Player comparison: Derrick Rose
While much of the NBA media pegs Russell Westbrook as the one Ja Morant is most similar to due to his mentality on the floor, he plays more like Derrick Rose pre-ACL injury. During the early years of D Rose’s career, we simply had never seen someone that size slither around rim protectors and dominate the paint like him. Today, Morant is following in Rose’s footsteps. With his incredible quickness and bounce, Morant is finishing with a similar flashiness and efficiency we saw from the youngest MVP of all time.
Best Career Moment (So Far): The Clutch Shot to Send Memphis to the Playoffs
In a winner-take-all game to secure the final playoff spot last season, Morant came up clutch, scoring 35 points. With the season on the line, he iced the game by knocking down a tough floater with just 4.5 seconds remaining to grab the road win and send his team to the postseason.
It’s undeniable that Ja Morant has all of the talent in the world. Unfortunately, he’s playing for a small-market team that only has one Conference Finals appearance to its name, so it’s highly unlikely they’ll ever land a marquee free agent. But Memphis’ roster does have serviceable pieces that can serve as great complementary pieces to him and fellow big man Jaren Jackson Jr. If they continue to draft smart and develop the rest of their young talent, the Grizzlies will be ascending towards the top of the Western Conference very soon.
#3: Jayson Tatum
With two trips to the Eastern Conference Finals under his belt at just 23 years old, it’s clear that Jayson Tatum has the potential to be the next Celtics-great and bring banner 18 to Boston. The biggest question is if Boston can put the right pieces around him to make it happen,
What sets him apart
With a strong 6’8 frame, impeccable footwork, and a tight handle, there is simply no shot on the floor that Jayson Tatum can’t make, which makes him the most well-rounded scorer on this list, already among the NBA’s best. Just ask Kevin Durant, who called him one of the toughest covers in the league after Tatum hung 50 on him in the playoffs last season.
Player comparison: Paul Pierce
We didn’t have to look very far to find who Tatum’s game resembles. “The Truth ”, like Tatum, was a well-rounded scoring machine for Boston who could get to his spots whenever he wanted. While they have a similar skill set and build, Tatum’s ceiling might in fact be higher than Pierce as he is more athletic and has more defensive potential.
Best Career Moment (So Far): Dunking on LeBron
The 2018 playoffs marked Jayson Tatum’s arrival as a star as his Celtics came one win shy of reaching the NBA Finals. Although Boston came up short against Cleveland in game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, nobody will ever forget Tatum’s legendary poster dunk and chest bump over prime-Lebron, showing he feared nobody, not even the King.
Jayson Tatum is going to average around 25 points per game for the next decade or so. But like his player comparison, the biggest question is going to be whether he will be doing it for a contender or a fringe playoff team. Much of the first 10 years of Paul Pierce’s career were wasted on subpar Boston teams. And unfortunately for Tatum, today’s Celtics seem to be stuck in the same position Pierce’s C’s were in almost 20 years ago. After losing valuable pieces like Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier, and Gordon Hayward in recent years their roster is as hollow as ever, which raises the question about if Boston is the best place for Tatum long-term.
#2: Trae Young
Trae Young has been doubted ever since he arrived in the NBA. Coming out of college, critics doubted his slender frame would translate to the NBA, and he proved them wrong by putting up almost 20 points a game in his rookie year. Next, they said it would be impossible to win with his ball-dominant playstyle, and he proved them wrong again by leading his Hawks to the Conference Finals in his first playoff appearance. This year, they said he would be less effective due to the officiating changes. And of course, he proved them wrong yet again, as he’s currently having his most efficient season yet.
What Sets Him Apart
Despite being greatly undersized, Trae more than makes up for his physical disadvantage by being one of the most well-rounded offensive players in the league. With an array of 30-foot bombs and crafty floaters combined with elite ball handling abilities, he can score 25 points in his sleep. On top of that, he’s one of the best playmakers in the league, as he always seems to make the correct pass to set his teammates up for easy buckets.
Player Comparison: Steve Nash
Trae is like a modern-day Steve Nash with a fluorescent green light. The Suns pace-and-space offensive system revolutionized modern offense in the mid 2000s thanks to Nash who was the best passer in the league while being a sniper from downtown. The 2000s were a different era though, which resulted in Nash never averaging more than 5 three-point attempts per game. But since today’s NBA values three-point shooting more than ever, Trae is able to maximize his shooting and ball handling abilities, as he can both shoot and run the pick and roll from 30 feet away from the basket, opening up tons of opportunities for him and his teammates.
Greatest Moment (So far): Becoming the most hated man in New York
It didn’t take long for Trae Young to become the most hated player by Knicks fans since Reggie Miller. In his first playoff game, Young hit his patented floater with just 0.9 seconds left to win the game for Atlanta, and then told the Madison Square Garden crowd to quiet down. This has made him public enemy number one in New York ever since, and set the stage for what should be a legendary rivalry in the future.
Despite all of the doubt and criticism surrounding him, one thing is clear- Trae Young is a superstar. Unfortunately, Young’s Hawks have suffered from a major regression after making it to the Conference Finals last year. With a recent report that everyone but Trae Young and Clint Capela are available in trade talks, expect Atlanta to shake things up for him at the deadline and try to creep back into the playoff picture.
#1: Luka Doncic
Despite getting off to a slow start this season due to conditioning issues and injuries, the best young player in the league is still without a doubt Luka Doncic. The 22 year old is the youngest player in NBA history to earn multiple All-NBA First Team selections, is already 11th in all time triple-doubles with 41, and currently has the highest scoring average in playoff history at 33.5 PPG (granted, only 13 games played). It’s clear that Luka is more than special, he has the potential to go down as one of the greatest players the game has ever seen.
What Sets Him Apart
Luka’s instincts and feel for the game are second to none. Since he began playing professionally in Europe at the age of 16, he is years ahead of his peers in terms of experience and uses it to his advantage every night. Unlike other young players, he already knows how to use his size like a veteran to create space and get the looks he wants. This combined with his incredible court vision from seeing so many coverages over the years makes him the offensive juggernaut he is today.
Player Comparison: Larry Bird
Cedric Maxwell, a former teammate of Larry Legend, was quoted saying that Luka Doncic is “Larry Bird reincarnated”, and he isn’t wrong. The two have similar playstyles, as they’re both small forwards who control the offense with their elite scoring and playmaking despite not being high-level athletes. Luka and Larry both seem to be a step ahead of everyone else, which has resulted in similar basketball magic from them.
Best Career Moment (So Far): The Playoff Buzzer Beater Against the Clippers
Heading into game 4 of the 2020 first round series between the Mavericks and Clippers, Dallas was missing Kristaps Porzingis due to injury and Luka was nursing a sprained ankle of his own, all while going against Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, two of the best defenders in the league. Miraculously, Doncic responded with a 47 point, 17 rebound and 13 assist masterpiece, while hitting a step back buzzer beating three pointer to cap off one of the greatest performances in playoff history.
It’s hard to believe Luka will get much better than he is right now, and that’s perfectly okay, as he’s already one of the best players in the league. Over the course of his short career, he’s averaging about 25 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists a night, which are already MVP-level numbers. With his playstyle not predicated on athleticism, Luka will continue to put up these numbers for many years to come and will likely be taking home multiple MVPs in the process. Like Young and Tatum, the only question is if the Mavericks front office can finally put the right pieces around him to begin competing for championships. One of the hardest things to do in basketball is to find a player who can be the best player on a championship-winning team, and it’s clear that the Mavs have that. Now it’s on them to fill out the rest of the roster with supporting players who can help Luka add an NBA title to his already stellar resume.
Photo: Justin Ford / Stringer