Ranking Each NBA Team’s Prospect Cores for 2019-20, Part 4

Our rankings of each team’s young prospects conclude with teams 1-5.

Remember, we only consider players entering their third season or younger. Players with a proven NBA track record are weighted quite heavily along with those who have strong 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.

Here’s Part 3 in case you missed it:


5. Atlanta Hawks

Oct 28, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks forward De’Andre Hunter (12) reacts after a basket against the Philadelphia 76ers in the fourth quarter at State Farm Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Rookies: De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, Bruno Fernando, Charlie Brown Jr.

Sophomores: Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, Brandon Goodwin

Third-Year: John Collins, Tyrone Wallace

After a flurry of moves during the 2019 NBA Draft, the Atlanta Hawks find themselves with one of the best young cores in the NBA, headlined by talented third-year big man John Collins, sophomore All-Rookie guards Trae Young and Kevin Huerter, and rookies De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Bruno Fernando.

The Hawks’ future will be defined by the efforts of Young and Collins, so let’s explore their work from seasons past.

Young will be the barometer for this team’s success going forward, and the early returns from his rookie season were fairly promising. On a sky-high 28.4 percent usage rate, he produced striking numbers, especially when it came to his passing. The 21-year-old is already one of the best passers in the NBA, with both statistics and the eye test backing that up.

According to Basketball-Reference, Young finished top-4 in total assists (653), assist rate (40.5%) and assists per game (8.1) during his rookie campaign. He also became only the third player in NBA history to produce 19 points per game and 8 assists per game in a rookie season, joining Oscar Robertson and Damon Stoudamire. Young is also the youngest player ever to produce a per-game stat line that good⁠—besting Magic Johnson and Stephon Marbury, who were both 21 when they achieved the feat.

Bolstering Young’s case is the fact that he finished top-40 in ESPN’s offensive real/plus minus statistic (2.04, no. 38 overall)⁠—though his defense dragged his overall RPM way down.

Young was also 13th in Inpredictable’s kitchen sink win probability added at 26.37, bolstered by the second-highest assist WPA (20.79) in the NBA. He was the only rookie that finished in the top 20 of kWPA (Doncic was 25th).

The early returns for Young were staggering in 2019-20, as he dropped at least 38 points, 9 assists and 7 rebounds in back-to-back games (both wins) for the Hawks to start the season, though he suffered an ankle injury that slowed the early momentum. Thankfully, it seems as if Young heals as fast as Marvel’s Wolverine, so he returned to action against the San Antonio Spurs after only missing one game.

Young’s running mate, Collins, also produced a sterling 2018-19 alongside his new point guard pal, becoming only the 15th player 21 or younger to produce at least 19 points per game and 9.5 rebounds per contest. The most recent prior to Collins to do it was Karl-Anthony Towns in 2017.

Collins was a tremendous outlet for Young in 2018-19, and his astonishing finishing ability (93rd percentile per BBall Index) led to him producing a 62.7 percent true shooting percentage, which was 17th in the NBA.

According to Cleaning the Glass, Collins’s net rating was +9.8 last season, which was good enough for the 94th percentile among bigs. Of course, much of that was due to his offensive exploits, where he helped his team to an additional 8.6 points per 100 possessions, which was in the 96th percentile among bigs. Sadly, Collins tested positive for a banned substance on Nov. 5, meaning he will be suspended for the next 25 games⁠—though the big man will be appealing the suspension.

The sweet-shooting Huerter was second in net rating on the team last year, and defensive jack-knife rookie Hunter is second so far during this season.

With a strong stable of young talent headlined by likely future All-Stars and All-NBA selections, the Hawks definitely deserve their status as a top-five young prospect core.

4. Philadelphia 76ers

Oct 15, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers guard Matisse Thybulle (22) shoots against Detroit Pistons guard Bruce Brown (6) during the third quarter at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Rookies: Matisse Thybulle, Marial Shayok, Norvell Pelle

Sophomores: Zhaire Smith, Jonah Bolden, Shake Milton

Third-Year: Ben Simmons, Furkan Korkmaz

While Joel Embiid is sadly no longer a part of this list, the Sixers are still heavy with young talent due to the influx of draft prospects during The Process era, which has been extremely influential (and effective) now that we are a few years removed from its heyday.

After redshirting his first year, Simmons is still only 23 years old, and his 2018-19 campaign saw him make his first All-Star team as well as finish in the top 20 in a variety of statistical categories: Total assists (610, 3rd), total steals (112, 16th), total rebounds (697, 16th) and field goal percentage (56.3%, 15th).

Simmons is one of the most fearsome transition players in the NBA, and his lethal speed combined with excellent length, size and preternatural passing ability mean that he often makes the right play while on the run⁠—whether that’s finding an open shooter or ramming it down the other’s teams throat at the rim.

According to Cleaning the Glass, the 76ers’ frequency of transition plays went up by 4 percent when Simmons was on the court last season, which was in the 98th percentile of combo forwards (which is how he’s described by the site). Off of rebounds, Simmons is perhaps the single-best player in the NBA at immediately racing down the court, as Philly’s +10.8 percent transition rate after a live rebound was in the 99th percentile.

While Simmons might be the most professionally decorated player on this team, he is far from the only brilliant young prospect on this roster. The Sixers traded up with the detested (by Philly’s fanbase) Boston Celtics in order to draft Matisse Thybulle out of Washington.

A single-minded, lockdown perimeter defender, Thybulle has started the 2019-20 season by blowing up plays on the perimeter and in the paint using his tremendous anticipation and a fluid swiftness of movement that must be seen to be believed. So far in the 2019-20 season, he is top-10 in total steals (14, 2nd), steals per game (2.3, 5th), steal rate (5.9%, 2nd), defensive rating (91.7, 5th) and defensive box plus/minus (6.4, 6th), according to Basketball-Reference.

If the season were to end today, Thybulle would be the only player in NBA history to play more than 10 minutes and produce steal and block rates higher than 5.5 percent.

Though Simmons and Thybulle have the makings of an intensely talented two-way wing combo, the Sixers also roster notable young prospects such as Zhaire Smith, Shake Milton (who is currently injured), Furkan Korkmaz (who recently hit a buzzer-beater to defeat the Portland Trail Blazers), Jonah Bolden and Two-Way players Marial Shayok and Norvel Pelle.

3. Memphis Grizzlies

Nov 8, 2019; Orlando, FL, USA; Memphis Grizzlies forward Brandon Clarke (15) layups over Orlando Magic guard Michael Carter-Williams (7) during the second half at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Rookies: Ja Morant, Brandon Clarke, John Konchar, Marko Guduric

Sophomores: Jaren Jackson Jr., De’Anthony Melton, Grayson Allen, Yuta Watanabe

Third-Year: Dillon Brooks, Josh Jackson

Placing the Memphis Grizzlies on this list was easily the most difficult decision I had while putting it together, and a last-second switch pushed them down to number 3. However, do not despair, Grizzlies fans, as this team’s young prospect core is among the most intriguing of any in the entire NBA. If the rookies truly “pop” in their first season, the Grizz will have an easy case for the top spot next year.

The Grizzlies also seem to be the best-positioned due to a fundamentally sound team construct: They boast a center of the future in Jaren Jackson Jr., point guard Ja Morant, four-man Brandon Clarke, rock-solid young wing Dillon Brooks, as well as young depth with their Two-Way guard John Konchar and second-year guard De’Anthony Melton (who was rated as the top steals man in the NBA last season by Crafted NBA).

The player that might truly push them over the edge is 2019’s No. 21 overall pick, Brandon Clarke out of Gonzaga.

Were it not for Zion Williamson’s preposterous 40.8 player efficiency rating, Clarke would’ve logged the highest-ever number in that statistic in Sports Reference’s database among qualified players with a 37.2.

He was a juggernaut with the Zags in 2018-19 as an efficient, low-usage scorer as well as a terrific rim protector and overall defender. According to KenPom, Clarke finished with the 5th-highest offensive rating in the country last season with a robust 134.3, and he was also in the top 10 in effective field goal percentage (69.2, 4th), true shooting percentage (69.9, 5th) and two-point field goal percentage (70.5).

Beyond that, Clarke produced 3.2 blocks per game in under 30 minutes a contest on an 11.2 percent block rate, which was 15th in the country. His 1.7 steals per 40 minutes per Sports Reference is also indicative of his overall talent on that end.

There were legitimate concerns about his shooting form (which looks improved in Memphis) as well as his advanced age for a prospect (23). Despite that, Clarke’s all-encompassing brilliance lifts the Grizzlies.

Jackson Jr. produced a terrific, albeit injury-scarred rookie campaign in 2018-19, that saw him on the All-Rookie First Team. According to BBall Index’s player grades, Jackson Jr. (19) graded out with an A- or higher in a variety of interesting categories. Most notably, he was an A- in perimeter defense while also being a clean A in the interior defense category and the 96th percentile among bigs.

Indeed, his defense was likely the best trait of his rookie season, as the Grizz defense was 6.3 points better when he was on the court (in the 93rd percentile among bigs per Cleaning the Glass).

However, his offensive game was also varied and strong, as his one-on-one A grade per BBall Index in the 93rd percentile was second only to then Memphis teammate Mike Conley. Jackson Jr.’s perimeter shot, which is hopefully still improving, led to a 35.9 percent clip from deep on a 24.1 percent attempt rate last season per Basketball-Reference.

Couple the two-way upside and youth of JJJ with the offensive dynamism of rookie Ja Morant, (who led the NCAA in assists per game last season), and the sterling pedigree of Brandon Clarke, and you have the makings of a clear-cut top 3 young core going forward.

2. New Orleans Pelicans

Oct 13, 2019; San Antonio, TX, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) brings the ball up the court against the San Antonio Spurs at the AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

Rookies: Zion Williamson, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Jaxson Hayes

Sophomores: Frank Jackson, Kenrich Williams, Josh Gray

Third-Year: Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart

This was a tough one. Though the Pelicans boast the slam-dunk best rookie prospect in the 2019-20 season (Zion Williamson), their proven sophomore and third-year players are not quite as decorated.

Despite that, the rookies they brought in⁠—Williamson, Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker⁠—make up one of the best draft nights of any team in 2019.

The 19-year-old Williamson produced one of the best-ever freshman seasons in NCAA basketball history, and his numbers from that frosh campaign at Duke bear repeating: On a 28.6 usage rate, he produced the 4th-highest true shooting percentage (70.2) and the 2nd-highest effective field goal percentage (70.8) according to KenPom, not to mention that aforementioned all-time record for player efficiency rating at 40.8.

Only four players in the 2018-19 season attempted at least 300 shots at the rim, per Bart Torvik, and Williamson was far and away the leader in field goal percentage on those shots. On 313 rim attempts, he shot a staggering 78.9 percent. Unsurprisingly, 72 percent of his shots came at the rim. The big man knew how his bread was buttered.

Though the NBA will be robbed of Williamson’s exploits to start the season after he underwent meniscus surgery this summer, let’s hope his trademark athleticism and immense love for the game remains upon his return.

Speaking of being automatic at the rim, No. 8 overall pick Jaxson Hayes comes in with a sterling rim-running pedigree after one year at Texas, though the spindly big man will have to grow into his body before truly reaching his peak.

Hayes was an utterly devastating finisher with the Longhorns due to his soft hands, incredible bounce and terrific reach. Of the players that attempted at least 120 shots at the rim and 45 non-rim two-pointers, Hayes led the entire country (per Bart Torvik) in at-rim finishing: a staggering 85.4 percent on a 72.8 attempt rate. (Most of those shots were dunks.)

Last of the Pelicans’ terrific 2019 draft picks (not even mentioning chiseled Two-Way undrafted wing Zylan Cheatham) is Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the cousin of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Alexander-Walker starred for the Virginia Tech Hokies last season and, according to Bart Torvik, he was one of only 24 players to attempt at least 150 shots at the rim and 150 threes along with at least 90 non-rim two-pointers.

Of those players, he was 8th in at-rim field goal percentage (60.7), 6th on non-rim two-pointers (42.7) and 7th in three-point percentage (37.4).

Alexander-Walker came out scorching hot in Summer League, being named to the All-Summer League First Team (joining teammates Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart from years past), but he has been a bit more up-and-down to start the regular season.

With a trio of terrific rookies as well as former No. 2 overall pick Lonzo Ball (who is shooting 38.6 percent from deep on a career-high 6.3 attempts per game) and the steady three-and-D play of third-year forward Josh Hart⁠—not to mention other quality qualifying role players, such as Nicolo Melli, Frank Jackson and Kenrich Williams⁠—the Pelicans easily have a case for best young core.

They’d likely top the list if Williamson were healthy and the other core guys had been given a chance to contribute just yet. As such, there are just a couple of unknowns lurking about to make them 1B to our current 1A below.

1. Boston Celtics

Nov 1, 2019; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) reacts after defeating the New York Knicks at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Rookies: Grant Williams, Carsen Edwards, Romeo Langford, Tremont Waters, Tacko Fall, Javonte Green, Vincent Poirier

Sophomores: Robert Williams

Third-Year: Jayson Tatum, Semi Ojeleye, Daniel Theis

The Celtics might be something of a surprising choice to top this list, but this team features the best combination of proven commodities (third-year players Jayson Tatum, Daniel Theis and Semi Ojeleye), a high-upside sophomore (the Time Lord, Robert Williams) and an absolute cornucopia of rookies that will likely play decent minutes this season.

Not many teams can boast the ability to trot out a reasonably effective lineup of all rookies, but Boston actually can. It might be an odd one, but wouldn’t it be fun to see a lineup of Tremont Waters at the 1, Carsen Edwards at the 2, Romeo Langford at the 3, Grant Williams at the 4and the legendary Tacko Fall at the five? The Celtics could make it happen!

Of course, the Celtics would not be anywhere near so high on this list were it not for the presence of Jayson Tatum, who, despite myriad detractors, continues to be one of the best young players in the league during his third campaign.

In his age-20 season last year, Tatum finished with the top net rating on the Celtics (+7.6 per Cleaning the Glass), even ahead of Kyrie Irving. Though his effective field goal percentage went down during his sophomore campaign from the 89th to 66th percentile due to a steady diet of ill-advised contested long two-pointers, that is an easily fixable habit that looks to be trending in the right direction again.

On the less glamorous end, Tatum graded out in BBall Index’s database with a B in the 69th percentile in both perimeter and interior defense, and Cleaning the Glass shows the C’s were 3.9 points better on defense when he was on the court over the course of his first two seasons.

Elsewhere, the team boasts a bevy of scintillating prospects. In extremely limited minutes, second-year big man Robert Williams has shown himself to be a terrifying rim-runner and shot-blocker, as his 70.3 true shooting percentage and 12.5 percent block rate indicate. Though he only played 283 minutes during his rookie season, if he capitalizes on his clear gifts during his sophomore run, the Celtics will have a big man of the future for years to come.

Speaking of bigs, rookie Two-Way center Tacko Fall garnered tons of attention this offseason, and he continues to be a fan favorite, even if it seems he will likely spend most of his time with the Maine Red Claws in the G-League. Despite that, his humongous size (7’7”, 8’2” wingspan) led to him being automatic around the basket on offense (74.8 effective field goal percentage, tops in the nation per KenPom) and a menace on defense (11.5 percent block rate was 14th in the country per KenPom).

The likely draft Twitter favorite is Grant Williams, who was the best player on a Tennessee team that was No. 1 in the country for quite some time during 2018-19. He was brilliant in his junior season and was rewarded with a second consecutive SEC Player of the Year award.

Williams was one of only eight players, per Bart Torvik, to attempt at least 150 shots at the rim and 200 non-rim two-pointers. He led the bunch in percentage in both categories: 72.2 at the rim and 50.2 on other twos. The 20-year-old forward was far from selfish, though, as his 18.7 percent assist rate during his junior year was quite impressive, especially considering his 26.4 percent usage rate per Sports Reference.

There’s also volume scorer Carsen Edwards, who had a huge game during the preseason in which he made eight three-pointers during a single quarter, as well as diminutive two-way dynamo Tremont Waters, who also dropped an impressive 24-point, 7-assist preseason game.

Third-year wing Semi Ojeleye remains one of the most ripped players in the NBA while lottery pick Romeo Langford projects to be an intriguing two-way wing going forward. The team also counts older sophomore Brad Wanamaker and “veteran rookies” Vincent Poirier and Javonte Green among its young prospects.

Though this list will surely look entirely different next year (i.e. here come the Pelicans), the Celtics had a terrific offseason in terms of acquiring young players and will be in a strong position going forward⁠—especially considering they’ve been a good place for development historically.