Potentially, the most exciting part of any new season is the development of a team’s young players. Even top-tier title contenders such as the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers or LA Clippers must cultivate young talent through the NBA Draft and/or undrafted G-League pipeline in order to either create a homegrown young core (like the Bucks did), or trade said core for superstar talents (like the two L.A. teams did).
With a surfeit of new, high-profile rookies and up-and-coming second- and third-year players across every team, now is the perfect time to take a gander at each’s young prospects.
For the sake of this exercise, each team’s prospects will be limited to players entering their third NBA season or younger: That means rookies, sophomores and third-year players for the start of the 2019-20 season.
At first glance, this list might look far different than other more vague rankings of “young cores.” Due to being a ranking of prospects, this piece is weighted towards players that have already contributed in the NBA or produced tremendous collegiate production that should translate to the NBA. Number of prospects is also taken into account, as a team with very few players that qualify (such as Houston) is likely to be lower on the list than a team with more. However, even if a team has many young prospects, they will not be ranked highly if they don’t have an established “go-to” young player (like Charlotte).
30. Milwaukee Bucks
Sophomore: Donte DiVincenzo, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Cameron Reynolds
Third-Year: D.J. Wilson, Sterling Brown, Frank Mason III
Not unexpectedly, the Milwaukee Bucks rank last on this list and feature only five players that qualify—including two of the teams’ Two-Way Contracts (Frank Mason III and Cameron Reynolds).
Because the Bucks are expected to be in the thick of the title race next season with Giannis Antetokounmpo already one of the best players in the world, Milwaukee does not have many young players on its roster. Instead, ring-chasing vets such as Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews joined up this offseason.
In terms of the present prospects, only Sterling Brown was reliable last season in Bucks Head Coach Mike Budenholzer’s system. His size, length, defensive smarts and steady three-point shooting make for a perfect fit. Brown even supplanted longtime veteran Tony Snell in Milwaukee’s rotation during 2018-19.
Going into his third season, D.J. Wilson was also exhumed after a lost rookie season in 2017-18 and became a bouncy forward option for Coach Bud with his burgeoning three-point stroke (36.2 percent on a 50.6 attempt rate last year).
Second-year guard Donte DiVincenzo did not impress in his injury-marred rookie year, and his minutes will likely be gobbled up by more qualified players in 2019-20.
29. Houston Rockets
Rookies: Chris Clemons
Sophomore: Isaiah Hartenstein, Gary Clark
Another team that has not particularly valued homegrown talent in recent years (save for Clint Capela), the Rockets have a dearth of young prospects to explore going into the 2019-20 season. Though proven collegiate bucket-getter Shamorie Ponds was signed to a Two-Way deal for a short time, the Rox waived the 21-year-old rookie a month after he was signed.
That leaves only Isaiah Hartenstein, Gary Clark and rookie Chris Clemons to qualify on this veteran-heavy, contending squad.
So why is this team ranked higher than the Bucks? Simply due to the presence of a rookie that can truly fill it up. Campbell University alum Clemons led the country in scoring last season at 30.1 points per game on a 61 percent true shooting percentage, which was the third-highest in the Big South Conference.
According to Bart Torvik, Clemons was one of only two players in the country last season to attempt at least 150 shots at the rim and 350 three-pointers. The other? Carsen Edwards of Purdue, who was drafted in the second round by the Celtics.
Clemons actually finished with a better percentage at the rim than Edwards (62.6 percent vs. 50 percent), despite his 5-foot-9 frame. Though Clemons will likely not play much with the Rockets, his presence alone scoots Houston up this list.
28. Toronto Raptors
Rookies: Terence Davis, Dewan Hernandez, Oshae Brissett, Matt Thomas
Third-Year: OG Anunoby, Chris Boucher, Malcolm Miller
As the reigning NBA Champions, one would expect the Toronto Raptors to not lean particularly heavily on young talent. Other than Pascal Siakam, who just signed his rookie extension this offseason, the team’s young players are limited to back-of-the-rotation guys, save for third-year OG Anunoby.
After being drafted 23rd overall in 2018 and playing quite well during his rookie season, Anunoby was injured most of last year as hi starting small forward role transitioned anyway to NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. With Leonard now gone and Siakam sliding in as the team’s nominal best player at the four, Anunoby has a chance to return to the impact of his rookie campaign.
That season (2017-18), Anunoby tied for the second-best efficiency differential per Cleaning the Glass on the team at +2.7 (tied with CJ Miles). Anunoby was a true defensive spark plug off the bench, and he helped spearhead those extremely effective “bench mob units” that featured Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Miles and Jakob Pöeltl.
Other than Anunoby, the Raps boast three rookies that will likely see some run throughout the season: No. 59 overall pick Dewan Hernandez out of Miami, undrafted rookies Oshae Brissett out of Syracuse and Terence Davis out of Ole Miss, who impressed during his final season with the Rebels to the tune of 15.2 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.6 SPG on a 27 percent usage rate per Sports Reference.
Davis was even a key cog in the Raptors’ opening night win against the New Orleans Pelicans, as he served as the 8th and final man off Nick Nurse’s bench.
27. Golden State Warriors
Rookies: Jordan Poole, Eric Paschall, Alen Smailagić, Ky Bowman
Sophomore: Omari Spellman, Jacob Evans
Third-Year: Damion Lee
The Warriors have a variety of interesting young players, including Two-Way guard Damion Lee. Beyond him, the Warriors boast four rookies, including Jordan Poole of Michigan and Eric Paschall of Villanova.
Golden State also invested in former Atlanta Hawks forward Omari Spellman by trading away Damian Jones and a future second-round pick. Spellman did not play a ton for the Hawks, as his fluctuating weight and various injuries kept him out of the lineup for much of the season. However, he produced a fairly interesting statistical profile per BBall Index.
According to their player grades, Spellman ranked in the 92nd percentile in roll gravity with an A as well as an A- in offensive rebounding, which was in the 87th percentile. However, his next-highest marks were off-ball movement (76th percentile, B+), interior defense (75th percentile, B+) and perimeter defense (70th percentile, B).
For a hulking center, Spellman showed himself to be fleet of foot, willing to move without the basketball and always ready to pop out for a three-pointer—all of which project to be traits embraced wholeheartedly in Steve Kerr’s “beautiful game” offensive system.
26. Indiana Pacers
Rookies: Goga Bitadze, Brian Bowen
Sophomore: Aaron Holiday, Alize Johnson
Third-Year: T.J. Leaf, Edmond Sumner, Naz Mitrou-Long
As expected of a team that places in the bottom five of this list, the Pacers do not possess a particularly impressive list of young prospects. For one thing, two of the team’s best “young” players just aged out of this story’s criterion: Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon are both entering their fourth seasons in the NBA.
Instead, the Pacers’ young prospects are highlighted by second-year point guard Aaron Holiday (brother of NBA veterans Jrue and Justin) and rookie big man Goga Bitadze—who received a fair bit of hype during the buildup to the 2019 NBA Draft.
His statistical profile showcases a modern big man with the ability to step out to the three-point line while serving as his team’s rim-protector on the other end (2.3 blocks per game with the EuroLeague’s Buducnost). The Pacers likely got a steal with Bitadze at No. 18 overall.
Holiday seems to be slotted in as the team’s opening day backup point guard after only one season, showcasing the team’s confidence in his abilities. He impressed in limited action last season, and this will likely be the year he proves himself to be a valuable rotation player in the NBA for years to come—much like his older brothers.
Lastly, the Pacers took a flyer on undrafted rookie Brian Bowen, who was embroiled in the Louisville recruiting scandal that cost Rick Pitino his job and Bowen his NCAA eligibility. Bowen played in Australia’s NBL last season, but the talented youngster was the 14th-ranked high school prospect in the class of 2017, so it will be interesting to see if he can contribute at all on his Two-Way contract this year.
25. Denver Nuggets
Rookies: Bol Bol, Michael Porter Jr.
Third-Year: Torrey Craig
The Denver Nuggets are easily the biggest wild card on this list. Featuring only three players that qualify, just one of those has actually played a minute of NBA basketball (Craig).
So why do the Nugs get the benefit of the doubt?
Because the two top-flight young players they have (Porter Jr. and Bol) define the entire “high-risk, high-reward” ethos of the NBA Draft.
Porter Jr. has been an injury risk for the past two seasons, as he missed almost all of his freshman season at Missouri as well as his what would have been his rookie season with the Nuggets last year. Seeing as the team didn’t really need him while they cruised to the No. 2 seed in the West, he was essentially redshirted—allowing for him to make his debut this year.
The preseason returns look fairly promising, but we will have to see how he looks in regular-season games before making any bold pronouncements.
Bol Bol also makes for a truly striking bet at a low cost: He fell all the way to No. 44 overall—where Denver simply had to swap some second-rounders with the Heat in order to select him. Sure, his wafer-thin frame might pose questions about his ability to stay on the court, but his length and shooting touch cannot be denied.
24. Portland Trail Blazers
Rookies: Nassir Little, Jaylen Hoard, Moses Brown
Sophomore: Anfernee Simons, Gary Trent Jr.
Third-Year: Zach Collins
Seeing the Blazers slotted here showcases the tremendous breadth of young talent currently on display in the NBA. This is a team that boasts a third-year player in Zach Collins who would likely start on many lesser teams, two talented second-year guards in Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr. as well as a vaunted rookie talent in Nassir Little—who fell to No. 24 in the 2019 NBA Draft, despite being a top-five recruit out of high school.
So, why so low for the Blazers? For one thing, the young talent they have is both unproven and not particularly flashy. Sure, Simons dropped 37 points while playing all 48 minutes in one of last season’s more bonkers games, but does that truly mean he’s a top-tier young player?
Beyond that, Little’s inexplicable drop in the draft might make one question what high-level skills he possesses at the NBA standard. Seemingly, North Carolina Head Coach Roy Williams had those same concerns last season, as Little never once cracked the starting lineup and only played 18.2 minutes per game during his freshman campaign.
Trent projects as a shooter on the wing, while less-heralded rookies Jaylen Hoard out of Wake Forest and Moses Brown out of UCLA provide mystery, but this team’s young group is solid rather than star-studded.
23. LA Clippers
Rookies: Mfiondu Kabengele, Terance Mann, Amir Coffey
Sophomore: Landry Shamet, Jerome Robinson
Third-Year: Jonathan Motley
This was another difficult decision. The LA Clippers are clearly in win-now mode after sending away their best prospect (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) to Oklahoma City as part of the Paul George trade. As an NBA Title favorite, the Clippers will not rely on their rookies as much as they did last season with one notable exception.
Landry Shamet was named to the All-Rookie Second Team last year and proved himself to be one of the best—if not the best—shooter in his draft class. He was particularly great once traded to the Clippers last season as part of the Tobias Harris deal. According to Cleaning the Glass, his efficiency differential of +9.1 ranked in the 93rd percentile among guards, and the team’s +4.0 offensive points per possession while he was on the court was in the 83rd percentile.
The Clippers will likely rely on Shamet’s low-usage floor-stretching even more now; Expect the 22-year-old to flourish with an amazing supporting cast around him.
However, the Clippers are not a one-man show in terms of young prospects. They also count second-year guard Jerome Robinson among their ranks as well as Florida State rookies Mfiondu Kabengele and Terance Mann.
Kabengele, who was drafted at No. 27 overall, boasts a scintillating profile as a stretch big with innate defensive skills (8.3 percent block rate, 9.4 defensive box plus/minus per Bart Torvik) as well as a smooth shooting stroke (36.9 percent from deep on 65 attempts last year).
22. Charlotte Hornets
Rookies: PJ Washington, Cody Martin, Caleb Martin, Jalen McDaniels, Robert Franks
Sophomore: Miles Bridges, Devonte’ Graham
Third-Year: Malik Monk, Dwayne Bacon, Kobi Simmons
Sadly, quantity does not equate to quality. Though this team certainly has some intriguing prospects among its ranks (Malik Monk, Miles Bridges, PJ Washington), it doesn’t boast that one “go-to” guy who projects to be the face of the franchise going forward.
Perhaps that could be Washington after he was drafted at No. 12 overall, as some of his numbers during his final season at Kentucky are hugely impressive. According to Bart Torvik, of the 93 players that attempted at least 125 shots at the rim, at least 100 non-rim two-pointers and at least 75 three-pointers, Washington was 7th in three-point percentage (42.3 percent), 10th in non-rim two-point percentage (45 percent) and 26th in at-rim percentage (65.7 percent).
That’s a fairly attractive profile, and when combined with Washington’s 25.8 percent usage rate, 13.1 percent assist rate and 4.8 percent block rate, you have the makings of a two-way force who plays with a certain “edge” that simply cannot be taught.
Monk, in his third season, is improving, and Bridges showcased some remarkable dunks during his first professional season last year—though his jumper is still a point of concern.
Beyond those three main names, the Hornets’ roster is replete with younger players, such as second-year guard Devonte’ Graham and third-year wing Dwayne Bacon as well as multiple non-lottery rookies such as the Martin twins (Cody and Caleb ) as well as San Diego State product Jalen McDaniels.
All of the team’s young players will likely play a ton of minutes next year, as the Hornets project to be one of the worst in the league after losing Kemba Walker in free agency.
21. Detroit Pistons
Rookies: Sekou Doumbouya, Jordan Bone, Louis King
Sophomore: Svi Mykhailiuk, Bruce Brown, Khyri Thomas
Third-Year: Luke Kennard
The Pistons have a low-key fascinating group around veterans like Reggie Jackson, Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin.
However, if/when those meaty veteran contracts come off the books, the team will hopefully have a steady young core headlined by dogged defender Bruce Brown, high-upside youngster Sekou Doumbouya, deadeye three-point marksman Svi Mykhailiuk, talented three-and-D prospect Khyri Thomas, speedy Two-Way guard Jordan Bone as well as lottery pick Luke Kennard.
Perhaps Kennard hasn’t lived up to that No. 12 overall selection in 2017 (famously, one spot ahead of Donovan Mitchell), but he is a clear positive on the offensive end. He posted an identical impact via offensive points per 100 possessions during his rookie and sophomore seasons in the 81st percentile: +3.6 in his rookie year and +3.7 last season per Cleaning the Glass.
He rarely turns the ball over (126 career turnovers vs. 238 career assists) and he is a career 40.3 percent three-point shooter on a 47.1 percent three-point attempt rate.
Sure, Kennard might never be able to shake the fact that Donovan Mitchell exploded out of the gate one pick after him, but this Pistons team has a sneaky-deep young roster that will hopefully get to test its mettle in the playoffs once again in 2019-20.
Read Part 2 here: