Ranking Each NBA Team’s Prospect Cores for 2019-20, Part 3
Our rankings of each team’s young prospects continue with teams 6-10.
We only consider players who are entering their third season or younger, and players with a proven NBA track record are weighted quite heavily along with those who have proven collegiate production. While some rankings might seem surprising on the surface, this list’s criteria are weighted heavily toward teams with a high volume of prospects that have projectable skill sets who also contributed big numbers in college.
Here’s Part 2 in case you missed it:
10. Brooklyn Nets
Rookies: Nicolas Claxton
Sophomores: Rodions Kurucs, Dzanan Musa, Theo Pinson
Third-Year: Jarrett Allen
While most of the changes the Brooklyn Nets made this offseason came via free agency, the team still holds a fascinating young core with a proven track record, headlined by third-year player Jarrett Allen, sophomores Rodions Kurucs and Dzanan Musa along with rookie Nicolas Claxton.
The most obvious young impact player is Allen, who has become known as a preeminent blocks man after catching a variety of superstar players at the rim over the course of his first two seasons.
According to Crafted NBA, Allen was 5th in the NBA with 6.86 rim attempts defended per game. On those attempts, opposing players shot 6.1 percent worse when he defended them. 2018-19 was Allen’s breakout year at age 20: He was 9th in the NBA with a 4.5 percent block rate, and his 120 total blocks last season ranked 11th.
Allen is not simply a one-way player, however. He graded out with an A in both finishing (92nd percentile) and roll gravity (91st percentile) per BBall Index’s player grades. Seeing as most of his damage was done around the rim via lobs and putbacks, he also finished with a 63.2 true shooting percentage, which was 12th in the NBA.
Second-round steal Rodions Kurucs thoroughly outplayed his no. 40 overall selection in the 2018 NBA draft. He started 46 games for Brooklyn during his rookie season, including 3 of the 4 games he appeared in during the playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers.
At 6’9” with a 7’2” wingspan, Kurucs has the requisite length needed for modern NBA wings, though his 228-pound frame still seems a bit slight compared to other frontcourt players. The 21-year-old Latvian leveraged his length, size and speed during his rookie year to tremendous effect, leading to a 99th percentile, A grade in one-on-one play, according to BBall Index.
Beyond his offensive talents, Kurucs seems to garner most of his value on the defensive end, where he produced a 0.7 defensive player impact plus/minus as well as 1.5 defensive win shares per Basketball Reference—both of which are higher than his efforts on the offensive end.
Lastly, rookie center Nicolas Claxton was a tantalizing selection for the Nets in the second round of the 2019 NBA Draft, especially considering his stock rose enough during the pre-draft process that he was invited to the green room. Though he fell to the second round (at no. 31 overall), Claxton’s speed, size, length and ability to perform with the ball in his hands (22.1 percent usage rate, 12.2 assist rate in his final college season, per Sports Reference), should fit in nicely with the Nets’ other young prospects.
9. Chicago Bulls
Rookies: Coby White, Daniel Gafford, Adam Mokoka, Max Strus
Sophomores: Wendell Carter Jr., Chandler Hutchison
Third-Year: Lauri Markkanen, Ryan Arcidiacano, Luke Kornet, Shaq Harrison, Denzel Valentine
While the Nets might be a shocking inclusion in the top 10 of this list, the rest of these teams should make for a far less surprising endeavor.
The Chicago Bulls boast high-profile young prospects in all three tiers, headlined by lottery picks Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and Coby White.
After being scoffed at in the 2017 NBA Draft, the Bulls’ selection of shooting big man Lauri Markkanen at No. 7 overall has certainly looked good over the course of his first two seasons. Markkanen had the second-highest efficiency differential on the Bulls last season at +5.0, behind only Robin Lopez. Most of that impact came on the offensive end, where he added 5.2 points per 100 possessions to the team’s offense, which was in the 89th percentile among big men, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Markkanen erupted out of the gate and showcased his shooting chops during his rookie year, leading to him making over two three-pointers in a game 45 times, which is tied for the 7th-most by a rookie in NBA history. Markkanen’s ability to step out beyond the three-point line at 7’0″ makes him a dangerous screener on the perimeter, which certainly bears out in his BBall Index grades.
His perimeter shot grade of A- is in the 83rd percentile of big men, and his 93rd percentile in roll gravity offers up an A as well.
Though Markkanen was the first piece of the puzzle for the Bulls, 2018’s No. 7 overall pick might actually be a better all-around prospect. Carter Jr. became one of only 7 rookies in NBA history to average 10 points and 7 rebounds while producing at least a 4.5 percent block rate and a 1.0 steal rate. Though the springy center only played 1,110 minutes in his rookie campaign, that list featured greats such as David Robinson, Anthony Davis, Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid.
If you switch up those parameters to include a higher than 10 percent assist rate, Carter is one of only three players, with Embiid and Shawn Bradley being the others.
Carter’s all-around steadiness should be a solid building block for Chicago, and his BBall Index player grades, which include a B- in perimeter defense, a clean A in interior defense and an A- in off-ball movement, convey a versatile skill set that should scale well with whatever talent is around him in Chicago, such as rookie Coby White out of North Carolina.
White, who quickly became a fan favorite for his response to his former teammate Cam Johnson getting drafted in the lottery (as well as his magnificent mane of hair), was an offensive dynamo in college—being one of only 15 players in the country to attempt at least 90 shots at the rim, 100 non-rim two-pointers and 220 triples.
Of those players, White’s looks at the rim were most impressive: Only 18.2 percent of his looks there were assisted, and he shot 66.7 percent on those 99 attempts, which was 3rd-best of that group of 15, behind only Justin Wright-Foreman and Max Strus.
That combination of rim-attacking mentality and finishing ability is a promising sign for the 6’4” guard, and his presence helps vault the Bulls comfortably into the Top 10.
This team is not just a three-man show in terms of prospects, however, as first-round pick Chandler Hutchison and second-round selection Daniel Gafford also provide depth while Luke Kornet (the Unikornet) and Ryan Arcidiacano offer up solid backup options at their respective center and point guard positions.
8. Phoenix Suns
Rookies: Cameron Johnson, Ty Jerome, Jared Harper, Jalen Lecque
Sophomores: Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Jevon Carter, Elie Okobo
This is where the decisions became exceedingly difficult in making this list, as arguments could be made for almost all of the teams from this point onward to be, not just in the top five, but the best collection of young prospects in the league.
A quick digression: The thing about young NBA prospects at large is that they are, by definition, young and unpolished when it comes to playing basketball at the highest level. As such, inconsistencies crop up in their games that can lead to them looking like Herculean world-beaters in one moment and hopelessly lost in the next. By extension, if things break right, all of these young cores can look like the best-of-the-bunch in one game, and then utterly befuddled after a day off.
The Suns feature a robust list of excellent prospects, many of whom were drafted quite high. Though Phoenix boasts a plethora of young guards such as Elie Okobo, Ty Jerome and Jevon Carter, there are two sophomores and a rookie that will likely be three of the team’s biggest “swing” players in 2019-20.
First up is controversial rookie Cameron Johnson out of North Carolina.
When the Suns traded back from No. 6 overall to No. 11, (picking up Dario Saric in the process), there were a multitude of questions, all of which were answered swiftly when the Suns took Cam Johnson about 10 to 15 spots ahead of where he was expected to go in the 20s of the 2019 NBA Draft.
Social media disdain was rampant for the Suns’ new front office of James Jones and Jeff Bower, but when digging into Johnson’s numbers, it’s clear that he was a major difference-maker for the Tar Heels during his fifth and final collegiate season.
According to Bart Torvik, Johnson was one of only 23 players to attempt 90 shots at the rim, 100 non-rim two-pointers and 210 three-pointers. Stunningly, Johnson led that group of players in both at-rim finishing field goal percentage (a lofty 71.3%) and three-point percentage (a staggering 45.7%).
Furthermore, Johnson was perhaps the most important cog in Coach Roy Williams’s offense, as he was 15th in the country in offensive rating with a 129.0 ORtg per KenPom, and he was also 35th in true shooting percentage at 64.8 percent.
There can be no questioning of Johnson’s offensive gifts, but the main complaints about the rookie were surrounding his age (turns 24 in March) and his injury history. Still, if Johnson can produce sterling offensive exploits with a low usage, expect him to be a major key for the Suns’ development.
Speaking of swapping picks in the first round, the Suns also made a move in the 2018 NBA Draft by moving up from No. 16 to No. 10 in order to take Mikal Bridges out of Villanova.
Bridges was widely thought of as the most NBA-ready prospect in his draft class, and the early returns during his rookie season were indeed promising. He was a positive player with a +3.5 efficiency differential, per Cleaning the Glass, which was in the 72nd percentile among all wings—quite good for a rookie on a bad team.
According to Inpredictable, Bridges was the third-best player on the Suns by kitchen sink win probability added, which aggregates a player’s entire box score impact in one metric. Bridges’s 11.96 kWPA trailed only Devin Booker’s 19.26 kWPA and Deandre Ayton’s 15.12 kWPA.
Speaking of Ayton, while he is clearly a major part of the Suns’ young prospect core, he now sits out due to a 25-game suspension after testing positive for the use of diuretics. He was a clear-cut No. 3 in the Rookie of the Year race, and his physical gifts and easy offensive game helped make him look the part of a former No. 1 overall pick.
7. Dallas Mavericks
Rookies: Isaiah Roby, Josh Reaves
Sophomores: Luka Doncic, Jalen Brunson, Ryan Broekhoff, Antonius Cleveland
Third-Year: Justin Jackson, Maxi Kleber
Another extremely difficult choice, the Dallas Mavericks simply lack the volume and depth of young prospects despite the presence of incredible sophomore player Luka Doncic and a brilliant third-year Maxi Kleber. The team does boast another solid sophomore in Jalen Brunson and interesting rookies Isaiah Roby and Two-Way player Josh Reaves.
Perhaps the single-best prospect in the entire NBA is none other than Luka Doncic. He raced out to a sizable lead in the Rookie of the Year race last year and, despite some stiff competition from Trae Young late, ultimately won the award with ease.
Now, in his second season, how will Doncic—and his renowned “razzmatazz hop skiddily-doo”—improve on one of the best rookie seasons in NBA history?
His first year was just as transcendent: He became the first rookie since Oscar Robertson to average 21 points, 7.5 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game. Discounting his rookie status, that stat line helped the 19-year-old Slovenian savant join a list full of Hall-of-Famers and NBA legends such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, LeBron James, John Havlicek, Kevin Garnett and Grant Hill.
Doncic also grades out in spectacular fashion via more advanced metrics: He became one of only three players in NBA history to produce a usage rate higher than 30 percent, an assist rate higher than 30 percent and a player efficiency rating better than 19 at age 21 or younger per Basketball-Reference. He will likely only get better from here.
Though Maxi Kleber will turn 28 in January, he qualifies for this list due to only being in the NBA for two seasons. According to BBall Index’s player grades database, he is not a good passer (F grade in playmaking) or defensive rebounder (D+ grade), but he grades out with a B- in every other category listed by the site, showcasing a wide breadth of talent for the third-year big man.
In particular, Kleber is a great cutter on offense (A grade in off-ball movement; 92nd percentile) and a prodigious rim-protector (A grade in interior defense; 94th percentile). He was even ranked as the NBA’s 14th-best rim protector according to Crafted NBA in 2018-19. He was one of five players last season to produce a 4 percent or higher block rate to go along with a higher than 55 percent three-point attempt rate, per Basketball-Reference.
6. Sacramento Kings
Rookies: Kyle Guy, Justin James, Wenyen Gabriel
Sophomores: Harry Giles, Marvin Bagley III
Third-Year: De’Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Caleb Swanigan
After a thrilling season in 2018-19, the Sacramento Kings made a bevy of changes during the offseason, perhaps the most important of which was firing Head Coach Dave Joeger in favor of former L.A. Lakers head man Luke Walton.
Though the Kings vastly outperformed expectations last year, the early returns in the 2019-20 season have been less than spectacular—though that doesn’t necessarily mean this team’s young core is anything short of one of the best in the entire NBA.
Headlined by rising third-year players De’Aaron Fox and Bogdan Bogdanovic, along with sophomore Marvin Bagley III, the Kings also boast sophomore Harry Giles and Two-Way players Kyle Guy (of Virginia national title fame) and Wenyen Gabriel.
After being one of the worst players in the NBA during his rookie season (2017-18), Fox bounced back in a big way and was a hugely impactful player for his team on both ends of the court last year. The Kings played an extremely entertaining, fast-paced, run-and-gun style that led to a variety of shootouts, though it’s Fox’s nascent two-way play that is most striking.
He finished last season in the top 10 of four notable playmaking and defensive categories: Assists (590, 4th), steals (133, 6th), assists per game (7.3, 8th) and steals per game (1.6, 9th). For a second-year player, those are striking numbers that showcase Fox’s swift growth across two years.
Beyond that, the guard out of Kentucky logged the second-highest efficiency differential (per Cleaning the Glass) on the Kings last year with a +6.4, which was in the 86th percentile among point guards. He also finished 12th in Inpredictable’s kitchen sink win probability added, ahead of players such as Karl-Anthony Towns, Stephen Curry, Joel Embiid, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Luka Doncic.
According to BBall Index’s player grades, Fox produced a striking scorecard for a young prospect. Though he grades out lowly in categories that point guards are not expected to excel in (roll gravity, rebounding), he features an A- or higher grade in every other category including post play, perimeter shot, playmaking, off-ball movement, perimeter defense, one-on-one and finishing. Fox’s meteoric rise alone is enough to guarantee the Kings a high ranking on this list, but they also boast a variety of other strong candidates.
After a strong rookie season, Bogdan Bogdanovic saw his role get ramped up in 2018-19 to the point that he was often the team’s primary ballhandler on a rather thin second unit. As such, his usage rate rose to a career-high 22.3 percent per Basketball-Reference. Though his shot creation is likely his most important trait for the Kings, he is also a willing (and talented) passer.
Bogdanovic graded out with the second-highest playmaking marks on the Kings last season (per BBall Index), and his assist rate (per Cleaning the Glass) of 19.8 percent was in the 94th percentile among wings. Though Bogey may be a slightly negative defender, there is no question that he has legitimate chops on offense, which makes him a solid pairing with Fox and Buddy Hield.
Sophomore and former no. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley provided steady production at age-19 last season, with 14.9 points and 7.6 rebounds per game off the bench, though he fractured his right thumb in Sacramento’s first game during 2019-20, which will keep him out for 4-6 weeks.
The combination of Fox and Bogdanovic was easily enough to put the Kings in the top ten of this list on their own, but adding in Bagley, Giles and other intriguing prospects has Sacramento knocking on the door of the top five.
Part 4 is coming soon!
Chris Guest is a writer for ClutchPoints and FanSided based out of the cursed sports city of Atlanta. A Pokémon master and beer connoisseur, Chris enjoys bad movies more than your average bloke.