NBA All-Star weekend is a great time to step back and take stock of the league, its stars and who’s making the biggest impact. The league is loaded with as many young studs as ever.
In this two-part series, I’m examining which 25-and-under stars are the absolute best on offense and on defense. This week, we’re looking at the most prolific young offensive weapons.
Being an elite offensive asset is much more than being a talented scorer or a productive passer, although those are good starting points.
It’s ultimately about who generates efficient offense for themselves and their entire team. I based the rankings on metrics like NBA Math’s Offensive Points Added, Basketball Reference’s Offensive Box Plus/Minus, as well as Offensive Win Shares while also factoring in the player’s team situation.
Many electrifying youngsters are in the conversation, but only the best of the best this season made my top-five. Thus:
Just Missed the Cut: Karl-Anthony Towns, Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, Donovan Mitchell
HONORABLE MENTION: JAYSON TATUM, BOSTON CELTICS G/F (21.9 years old, 3RD season)
Per-game Stats: 22.4 PTS, 2.9 AST, 4.4 FTA, 44.3% FG, 33.2% 3FG
Advanced Metrics: 55.4% True Shooting (TS), 1.2 OBPM (Offensive Box Plus/Minus), 2.1 OWS (Offensive Win Shares), 42.4 OPA (Net Offensive Points Added)
Although Jayson Tatum’s all-around numbers aren’t quite enough to land in the top-five, his dangerousness as a bucket-getter keeps him in the conversation. In fact, the first-time All-Star has the scoring chops to outduel any young player in the league on any given night.
He owns the footwork, handles and shot-making prowess to burn defenders from all three levels.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens does a nice job routinely getting Tatum the rock in space, and Tatum rewards Stevens’ confidence by targeting the defense’s weakest spots. He has the talent to pull off some tough in-between shots, but he’s a bit inconsistent from that range. Tatum’s at his best when hunting for in-rhythm triples or driving aggressively all the way to the hoop. His speedy, yet smooth movements are extremely difficult for defenders to track.
During Thursday’s double-overtime triumph over the Los Angeles Clippers, Tatum delivered a superb balance of inside-outside scoring.
He dropped 39 points on 14-of-23 shooting, including seven field goals at the rim. After simmering early with a few treys, he showcased his upside from mid-range and then finished the game with a scary-good drive. Tatum crossed up Landry Shamet, sliced to the hoop and scored through the chest of Montrezl Harrell:
Tatum’s next step as an all-around offensive weapon is facilitating. He’s making progress in that department this season, posting career-highs in assists per 100 possessions (4.1), assist percentage (13.9) and potential assists per game (5.1). If he continues to polish his passing skills, he’ll make Boston’s offense uncontainable.
5. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns SG (23.3 years old, 5th season)
Per-game Stats: 26.4 PTS, 6.3 AST, 7.3 FTA, 49.6% FG, 35.8% 3FG
Advanced Metrics: 62.5% TS, 3.8 OBPM, 4.4 OWS, 147.0 OPA
It should be no surprise that Devin Booker is on the list. He’s a lethal scorer who picks opponents apart with a myriad of moves, and he chips in a healthy dose of playmaking.
I usually dislike playing the “what-if” game when it comes to NBA transactions, but I can’t blame fans for wondering how dynamic Booker would be on a playoff-caliber squad. It was great to see that he was quickly chosen as Damian Lillard’s injury replacement for the All-Star game.
Booker exemplifies all the attributes a team could want in a modern, triple-threat 2-guard.
He brilliantly leverages his size and footwork for shot-creation and also offers diverse passing skills to keep defenses off balance and complement his scoring. It’s exciting to watch him methodically attack defenders on hesitations, step-backs and drives. He utilizes all of his 6’5″ frame when posting up or slashing to the tin:
Even though Phoenix is still outside the postseason picture, Booker has enjoyed tremendous efficiency under new head coach Monty Williams.
What Booker has lacked in elite three-point efficiency, he’s compensated with terrific accuracy inside the arc. His true shooting percentage is a robust 62.5 percent, and he’s torching opponents within three feet of the hoop at 74.1 percent.
4. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets C (24.9 years old, 5th season)
Per-game Stats: 20.6 PTS, 6.9 AST, 4.2 FTA, 51.8% FG, 32.9% 3FG
Advanced Metrics: 59.7% TS, 5.4 OBPM, 5.2 OWS, 191.6 OPA
What started out as somewhat of a lackluster season has turned into an impressive winter for Nikola Jokic.
Serbia’s skilled big fella has unleashed a deluge of scoring and playmaking in February, including 27.0 points and 9.2 assists per game on 59.6 percent shooting. Despite Wednesday’s home overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, he’s buoyed the Nuggets to a slew of high-quality wins in recent weeks, including toppling the Utah Jazz twice, as well as the Milwaukee Bucks and the Portland Trail Blazers.
Jokic emerged as an offensive prodigy in 2015 thanks to tremendous instincts and rare vision for his size. Because his ability to run Denver’s offense as a point-center is his most unique and valuable trait, his scoring touch (especially as a mid-range shooter) can be overshadowed too much.
The Joker is shooting 46.2 percent between 10-16 feet from the hoop, a superb mark for a center. He’s hitting 50.5 percent of all catch-and-shoot two-pointers outside of 10 feet, per NBA.com. Jokic’s confidence, high release and soft touch enable him to make tough, contested shots from any angle.
Denver cashes in on his shooting via pick-and-pop plays at the top of the key and post-ups that become mid-range turnarounds.
Jokic somehow thrives more when there’s a defender within reach compared to when he’s wide open. Jokic shoots 62.3 percent when a defender is within 2-4 feet, which is better than his mark of 55.8 percent when wide open. He also has a strong percentage when defenders are right in his grill within two feet (52.6 percent).
Not every player can get away with taking those kinds of shots. Jokic has an uncommonly high arc on his shot, and he has one of the softest shooting motions for a big man.
His knack for sinking mid-range and long-range buckets amplifies the rest of his offensive repertoire.
3. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks PG (21.4 years old, 2nd season)
Per-game Stats: 29.7 PTS, 9.2 AST, 9.2 FTA, 44.3% FG, 36.9% 3FG
Advanced Metrics: 59.9% TS, 7.7 OBPM, 4.5 OWS, 285.2 OPA
Forget about Trae Young’s overall value for a second. It doesn’t matter in this discussion. He wasn’t selected as an All-Star for his defense, and it has no bearing on his ranking here.
He’s one of the league’s most popular young players thanks to a brilliant set of scoring and distributing skills.
He’s followed up his late-season contention for 2019 Rookie of the Year with an explosive sophomore campaign. It seems like every other game, he’s posting unprecedented franchise marks in scoring and passing. Young’s endlessly expansive shooting range and ball-handling ambidexterity allow him to consistently strike defenses when they’re most vulnerable or unsuspecting.
The gargantuan box scores are impressive, but they’re not as admirable as some of his offensive impact numbers: The conscienceless gunslinger and Houdini-like playmaker is second among 25-and-under players in Offensive Box Plus/Minus (7.7) and tops in Offensive Points Added (285.2), Per NBA Math.
Hawks fans can also love that fellow youngster Kevin Huerter is now fully cashing in on Young’s playmaking. “Red Velvet” is shooting 51.3 percent on passes from Young, including 47.3 percent from three-point territory. The young duo is developing a chemistry that involves more than just drive-and-kick sequences: Young sporadically finds Huerter cutting when opponents are too attached on the perimeter.
The downside of Young’s aggressiveness and inventiveness is that he’s frequently a turnover factory. (He gives the rock away 4.9 times per game.)
It’s somewhat excusable considering his age, workload and overall production, but he must sharpen his decision-making to take the next step in his evolution.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks F (25.2 years old, 7th season)
Per-game Stats: 30.0 PTS, 5.8 AST, 10.4 FTA, 54.9% FG, 31.3% 3FG
Advanced Metrics: 60.8% TS, 7.0 OBPM, 5.0 OWS, 224.1 OPA
Antetokounmpo’s inclusion is a bit unfair because he’s six-plus years into the league and is already an MVP. But it’s a reminder of how young he still his and that he may not have reached his peak yet.
A slew of special gifts make the Greek Freak so dominant: His size, slashing prowess, playmaking awareness and improving scoring touch all fuel his seismic impact. Then there’s Antetokoumpo’s rebounding dominance.
Defensive rebounds spark his coast-to-coast rampages, and offensive boards afford him opportunities that many other players wouldn’t have. Few players can match his ambition and hunger for the ball, and even fewer can match his length and reach.
Antetokounmpo is posting career-highs in offensive rebounds (2.5) and offensive rebounding percentage (8.4). The rest of the team doesn’t hammer the offensive glass too much, but Giannis keeps defenders honest by hunting stray caroms and put-backs.
Even when opponents have inside position for a rebound, he simply outjumps them and reaches over the top. In the following clip, Jokic—an imposing figure in his own right—keeps an arm on Antetokounmpo and thinks he’s in good position to clean up the defensive rebound.
Giannis has other plans, and proceeds to outjump Jokic for the board before overwhelming him for the put-back dunk:
It’s hard to imagine Antetokounmpo being more impactful than he already is.
The only thing that could push his peak even higher is continued improvement from three-point range. His development has been much-publicized, and I’d caution anyone who thinks he might be a limited shooter in the long-term. He’s still just 25 years old and may flex a lot more finesse in the next 5-10 years.
1. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks G/F (20.9 years old, 2nd season)
Per-game Stats: 28.9 PTS, 8.7 AST, 9.1 FTA, 46.5% FG, 32.3% 3FG
Advanced Metrics: 59.2% TS, 9.5 OBPM, 5.4 OWS, 274.8 OPA
Scarce are the occasions when a young prospect is met with legendary expectations…and he actually meets or exceeds them.
Luka Doncic’s rise is one of those rare instances. He’s looked every bit the part as “next European GOAT” and then some. He’s arguably already a top-five offensive weapon in the entire league, not just among youngsters. Yes, Doncic is currently leading the Association in Offensive Box Plus/Minus (9.5).
He’s still not yet 21 years old, yet he’s commanding the historically efficient Mavericks offense like an elite vet. Dallas is on pace to have the NBA’s best offensive rating ever with Doncic’s unpredictable and unguardable mix of shot-making and facilitating is the catalyst.
His ability to manipulate the defense is what makes him so valuable. It’s impossible to overvalue his command as a floor general. He capitalizes expertly on the variety of options Rick Carlisle’s 5-out offense provides.
Doncic has a knack for fitting the ball into confined spaces on pick-and-rolls, so defenders must honor the roll man and rotate early. Sometimes he uses the threat of a tight dish to the roll man or a drive to pull defenders toward the middle. Like a savvy NFL quarterback, he moves help defenders with his eyes and then slings pinpoint passes to weak-side shooters.
Watch how he freezes Phoenix Suns forward Kelly Oubre Jr. on this look-away pass, putting enough zip on the ball for Dorian Finney-Smith to convert a catch-and-shoot triple:
Even though that’s an extremely skilled delivery from Doncic, we’ve already started to become desensitized to him making those types of plays.
Sometimes we forget that he’s just 20 years old, what with this offensive mastery beyond his years. As the Mavericks continue to build an optimal core around him over the next couple years, they’ll climb the standings and he’ll corner the MVP race.
Dan is a TBW staff writer. After playing college ball at Franciscan University, he covered the NBA and NBA Draft for Bleacher Report for four years and the FRS Network for three years. He now co-hosts the Unlimited Range podcast and continues to campaign for Doris Burke’s promotion to lead analyst at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter: @DanO_Bball