Young talent has been spewing into the NBA for quite some time now. Most teams continue to get younger as the players are getting bigger, faster and stronger at a lower age. More recently, young players have been able to shoulder the load and play like seasoned veterans. With all of this young talent, it is a tough debate in finding out which team has it best. So here’s my list for the top five 22-and-under duos in the league.
5. Kristaps Porzingis and Frank Ntilikina
The New York Knicks are not currently in the playoff hunt. They have somewhat underachieved but their future is starting to look pretty bright. Kristaps Porzingis is one of the best players in the league, no matter what age.
The Latvian stretch-five is averaging 23.6 points per game this season. He has shouldered the void left by Carmelo Anthony. His rebounding is lower than expected (6.8) but a lot of that goes more to the credit of teammate Enes Kanter. Kristaps is still learning new moves and new strengths. He has shown a unique ability to impact the game in a variety of ways on both sides of the court. He is such a fun player to watch due to his size and skill.
Frank Ntilikina is very, very raw. The 19-year-old rookie is only averaging 5.6 points per game on less than impressive shooting splits (35.6/31.9/69.4). A lot of people believe his offense will come around, but that isn’t the part of his game that excites the most. His defensive upside is tremendous. He has great length and quick feet that he can use to stay in front of defenders and contest shots. Take a look at what he was able to do to John Wall, who is one of the best point guards in the league.
There wasn't much positive for the Knicks tonight, except, once again, Frank Ntilikina on defense. John Wall had 25 points on 9-18 shooting, but he didn't score when Frank was on him. My breakdown for @TheKnicksWall pic.twitter.com/wHMNmuUkRM
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) January 4, 2018
It’s obvious that he has special ability on the defensive end. If he can develop a jumper and slash using his length, Ntilikina will make this duo look a lot better. The Knicks are in excellent shape with these two Euro-stars. Plus, Phil Jackson isn’t there to trade them!
4. Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram
This was one of the harder in-house debates, as Kyle Kuzma has every right to make this list. But I had to go with Ball and Ingram due to owning higher ceilings and being younger. Kuzma will be 23 this offseason.
I love picking on Ball as much as the next guy, but his jumper is slowly coming around. He’s becoming more confident on both ends. His slashing is much improved and he’s been more inclined to show off his athleticism. The 3-point shot is coming around, and that has done a lot for his game. Take a look at the numbers.
With his 3rd triple tonight, Lonzo Ball has hit at least 3 3-pointers in 6 of his previous 8 games, and dropped 2 in the other 2. He’s converted a total of 24 in 55 attempts (43.6%) since Dec. 12.
— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) January 8, 2018
Lonzo Ball’s last 10 games:
44% FG, 40% 3P
— Ry (@JustRyCole) January 8, 2018
One thing that really stands out about Ball is his ability to make his teammates better. He delivers the perfect pass almost every time and his teammates trust him. One teammate who has benefit a ton from playing with Ball is Ingram.
The second-year wing out of Duke has upped his scoring to 16.4 points per game while also increasing all of his shooting percentages. Ingram is still very thin. He’s going to fill out and become stronger and more athletic.
— NBA (@NBA) January 8, 2018
He still reminds me a lot of Kevin Durant, though it is hard to give someone that praise. Ingram will need to continue being aggressive. His length and handle give him great separation, and he has a nice high release. As long as someone is feeding this young man a lot of carbs and protein, Ingram is looking like a future star. The Lakers are not very good right now, but their youth movement is in full effect.
3. Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons
The young guns from Philly would probably be higher on this list if the former, well, actually played. Markelle Fultz is the weirdest story in basketball this year. Is it his shoulder? Is it his mental capacity or just a lack of confidence?
Fultz was by far my favorite player to watch in college basketball last season. He was one of the best freshmen to ever play. With the Washington Huskies, he averaged 23.2 points, 5.7 boards and 5.9 assists. He shot 47 percent from the field and over 41 percent from deep, and literally looked like a can’t-miss prospect. Fultz bulked up noticeably this summer. He gained a lot of mass and ended up hurting his shoulder. Ever since then, nothing has been the same. I truly do not understand it. Look at his shooting form now versus when he was in college.
I don't get it, Markelle Fultz gets to the NBA and all of a sudden forgets how to shoot? pic.twitter.com/Oofz8gF0RF
— FlightMike (@TheFlightMike) January 11, 2018
Look at Markelle Fultz's jumper last year at Washington. High release, good elevation. Nothing like it looked today pic.twitter.com/bYm0gjoxqN
— Mike Zavagno (@MZavagno11) January 11, 2018
Fultz was recently cleared in 5-on-5 drills and went full contact, so his return is apparently close. His jumper? That may never return at this rate. I hope it does, because Fultz could shoot this tandem all the way up to the top
The other side of this duo is doing just fine. In his rookie season, Ben Simmons is averaging 17/8/7 for the 76ers and is helping generate monumental excitement in Philly. At 6’10” Simmons is the closest thing to Magic Johnson we have seen in a while. The point-forward is excellent with both hands. He is crafty and knows how to get to the rim, and he uses his ambidextrousness to create. He is one of the better passers in the league and he has a nearly unguardable shot. Here he is against one of the better defenders in the league in Jaylen Brown.
Well hello, Ben Simmons. pic.twitter.com/5qk5n2wDPn
— Jon Johnson (@jonjohnsonwip) January 11, 2018
If Simmons can get this shot down, there will be no stopping him. The 76ers already have a great future with Simmons and 23-year-old star Joel Embiid and the helm. If Fultz can up his play and become even 75 percent of what he is supposed to be, Philadelphia will be able to contend for championships.
2. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum
When Gordon Hayward went down, so did the expectations for the Boston Celtics. It was a tough injury to watch, and a tougher pill to swallow. A lot of people thought the Celtics would use this year to just develop and then come back and try to contend next year.
But a couple interesting things started to happen. They started winning, and then they kept winning. The Celtics stand at 34-10 and have been the best team in the Eastern Conference. A lot of that can be contributed to established stars Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. They have both been superb this season in getting the Celtics to where they are.
Another reason the Celtics have been so good is the young tandem of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. The 21-year-old Brown has upped his scoring to 14.2 points per game and has increased his highlight plays to infinity. He is the definition of an exciting basketball player, and he is really coming into his own. Brown has noticeably added to his arsenal in his second campaign. He has a mid-range jumper that he’s been knocking down and his confidence is clearly improved. He has shown a great ability to get to the rim and let his finesse and strength do the rest. The league should be on notice, because the Celtics might have the next Kawhi Leonard.
— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) January 10, 2018
Oh yeah, they also might have the next big thing. Jayson Tatum is not an ordinary rookie. Rookies do not usually step in Day 1 and start for a contending team. They do not get this comfortable this fast. Apparently someone should have told Tatum that.
All the 19-year-old has done is average 13.9 points and 5.5 boards with 49.9/45.9/82.2 splits. Tatum is an enormous reason the Celtics are where they are.
He has received praise from everyone this side of the Mississippi and continues to get better. He is already developing new skills and tendencies that could make him an elite player. Take a look at his film during the month of December.
— NBA (@NBA) January 4, 2018
Tatum and Brown are giving the Celtics everything they want and more. The Celtics future and present is in great shape. They are for real, and they want everyone to know that. At 34-10, people are getting the message.
1. Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns
Jimmy Butler is a huge reason the Minnesota Timberwolves are currently 28-16 and fourth in a crowded Western Conference. He is the veteran that this team needed. Butler’s play has garnered a lot of attention for the team, but two youngsters also deserve a ton of credit. Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns are both 22 years old, but have been impacting the league for a while.
In his fourth season, Wiggins has seen a drop in numbers. Some may call this a decline, but Jimmy Butler has taken some points away and the Wolves are winning. After owning a minus-0.2 net rating last season, Wiggins now owns a positive 5.4 mark He has sacrificed production for winning, which is something impressive in its own right. If the Timberwolves are able to make a run in the playoffs, Wiggins is going to be a big reason why.
Karl-Anthony Towns is one of the best bigs in the league and would surely be the choice for a lot of teams if they had to start with one player. Towns’ numbers have also dropped slightly, but his percentages are up. More importantly, his defense is on the rise. People use to critique the star’s effort and ability on the defensive side, but Towns is slowly coming into his own. The increase in defense has also upped his overall play.
Wolves' best single-season plus/minus per 100 possessions:
+10.4 Kevin Garnett, 2003-04
+10.2 Sam Cassell, 2003-04
+8.7 Jimmy Butler, 2017-18
+8.4 Taj Gibson, 2017-18
+7.7 Latrell Sprewell, 2003-04
+7.3 Karl-Anthony Towns, 2017-18
— Aaron Gleeman (@AaronGleeman) January 13, 2018
With Towns and Wiggins being so young, they still have a lot of room for improvement. They should be able to contend now and down the road. They have All-NBA talent, and Butler is helping unlock these two players. As their chemistry builds and players around them develop, they should only become better. Watch out for Minnesota in the years to come, because it currently employs the best young duo in basketball.