Ranking the best young cores in the NBA

Every year, the league gets inundated with more and more fresh talent – young men who are capable of things players 20 years ago couldn’t even dream of doing.

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As such, various teams around the Association have used the draft to create contenders, with many going out of their way to lose games in order to secure higher draft picks, and increase their chances of securing their next franchise cornerstones.

Of course, certain teams have been more successful than others using this strategy.

Below, HoopsHype ranks all 30 teams based on the strength of their 24-and-younger players.

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30. WASHINGTON WIZARDS

Young core: Thomas Bryant, Sam Dekker, Devin Robinson, Troy Brown

Despite the promise Thomas Bryant has shown while filling in for the injured Dwight Howard (Bryant is averaging 9.7 ppg on 67.5 percent shooting as a starter) over the past few months, we still ranked the Washington Wizards’ young core as the weakest in the NBA.

With just four members, only two of whom are actual nightly contributors, the Wizards lack both depth and talent among their group of 24-and-under players.

Their top priority this offseason should be replenishing their young core, as being a borderline playoff team, while also being expensive and old, is a recipe for disaster.

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29. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

Young core: Kevon Looney, Jordan Bell, Damian Jones, Jacob Evans, Marcus Derrickson 

Various young members of the Golden State Warriors were expected to turn the corner this season, but in reality, only Kevon Looney (6.6 ppg and 5.6 rpg, +8.2 swing rating) has seen an uptick in production.

Over 24 games before experiencing a season-ending pectoral injury, young big man Damian Jones struggled to be a positive contributor, while Jordan Bell is currently playing fewer minutes per contest (11.4) than he did as a rookie, mostly due to his inconsistency.

Meanwhile, the team’s first-round pick, Jacob Evans, has only been on the floor for a total of 92 minutes this season, spending most of his time in the G League.

In all, aside from Looney, Golden State’s group of young guys have been mostly a disappointment this year.

28. DETROIT PISTONS

Young core: Stanley Johnson, Luke Kennard, Henry Ellenson, Bruce Brown, Khyri Thomas, Keenan Evans

Had the Stanley Johnson or Luke Kennard selections (both in the lottery) panned out, the outlook of the Detroit Pistons’ young core would be much different.

But with both players struggling mightily thus far in their professional careers (Johnson: 7.2 ppg and 3.4 rpg while shooting 28.9 percent from three as a pro; Kennard: 7.5 ppg and 1.6 apg while shooting 43.5 percent from the floor), Detroit’s group of young guys simply don’t inspire much confidence moving forward.

Apart from those two, the Pistons have already declined Henry Ellenson’s fourth-year option, meaning they’re already prepared to cut bait with the former first-round pick. Hard to blame them, as Ellenson is averaging 3.8 points through three professional seasons. What’s more, he’s only played in 59 career games since reaching the NBA.

Besides Kennard, who it’s still far too early to give up on, the most promising member of the Pistons’ 24-and-under crew might be Bruce Brown, who isn’t much of a scorer, but has carved out a decent bench role, in which he provides the team with defensive toughness from the 2-guard spot.

27. CHARLOTTE HORNETS

Young core: Willy Hernangomez, Malik Monk, Miles Bridges, Devonte Graham, Dwayne Bacon, JP Macura, Joe Chealey

The best player in this group, Willy Hernangomez, is already almost 25 years old, and putting up a modest 7.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.

There’s a chance for it to improve over the next year, but it’ll require that Malik Monk and Miles Bridges, the Charlotte Hornets’ two latest lottery picks, both take serious steps forward in their development. Monk, in his second season, is averaging 10.6 points and shooting 39.6 percent from the floor, while providing the team with nearly nothing else across the board. While Bridges, in his rookie campaign, is playing just 19.3 minutes nightly and putting up 6.4 points per contest.

Luckily for the Hornets, both players are still just 20 years old, so they’ve got more than enough time to develop into, at worst, productive NBA players.

26. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

Young core: Jerami Grant, Nerlens Noel, Hamidou Diallo, Terrance Ferguson, Deonte Burton, Timothe Luwawu, Donte Grantham

Oklahoma City Thunder big man Jerami Grant is having a breakout year this season, averaging 12.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per contest, and knocking down 35.4 percent of his threes.

But the fact that he’s already almost 25 (and because the rest of the Thunder’s young core is nowhere near as productive), forced us to rank Oklahoma City’s young core among the bottom five in the league.

That’s not to say there isn’t promise among these guys.

For starters, Nerlens Noel (5.1 ppg and 4.6 rpg) is having a solid bounce-back campaign after spending a year and a half in limbo with the Dallas Mavericks. Additionally, the duo of Hamidou Diallo and Terrance Ferguson may not have star potential, but both young shooting guards do look like they’re well on their way to becoming productive role players.

They’re just not quite there yet.

And that’s why this group is ranked here.

25. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

Young core: Cedi Osman, Collin Sexton, Cameron Artis-Payne, Ante Zizic

Though no one really expected the Cleveland Cavaliers to make much noise in their first year following LeBron James’ departure, it’s still disappointing they haven’t gotten more out of their young core.

Cedi Osman putting up 11.7 points per game, but requiring 10.5 nightly field-goal attempts to do so, has been a letdown. As has his 30.5 percent clip from three. Collin Sexton, too, has been quite inconsistent overall, despite the raw stats – 14.6 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists – looking decent for a rookie. Finally, Croatian big man Ante Zizic still hasn’t been able to carve out a legit role since reaching the NBA, despite his imposing physical tools.

Luckily for the Cavs, thanks to their paltry 9-35 record, they appear well on their way to earning the top overall selection in the 2019 draft, which should help them raise the ceiling on both their young core and on the roster as a whole.

They desperately need it.

24. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

Young core: Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins, Caleb Swanigan, Wade Baldwin, Gary Trent Jr., Anfernee Simons

Besides Jusuf Nurkic, who’s been a downright beast in his second full season with the club, averaging 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.4 blocks per game, no other member of this group is really worth writing home about right now.

Zach Collins is still in just his second season and barely just turned 21, so all hope is not lost when talking about the Blazers’ young core, but Portland probably hoped to see more out of the Gonzaga product in his second season. Collins is putting up 7.3 points and 4.3 rebounds as a sophomore, while his big swing skill as a prospect, his outside touch, has yet to display itself since he reached the NBA. Collins is shooting 31.2 percent from three as a professional.

23. MIAMI HEAT

Young core: Justise Winslow, Bam Adebayo, Derrick Jones Jr., Duncan Robinson, Yante Maten

This group’s ranking on this list was hurt by Josh Richardson missing the cut (the talented Most Improved Player candidate just turned 25), but aided by the huge step Justise Winslow has taken in his development.

To start the season, it appeared that Winslow was on track to being the same player he had always been – an inconsistent scorer who struggled to excel in any one position. But that changed once Goran Dragic went down with a knee injury, which allowed Winslow to become the Miami Heat’s starting point guard, a role in which he has absolutely thrived.

Over 13 games as full-time lead ball-handler, the Duke product has averaged 13.7 points, 5.3 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game, while shooting 36 percent from three and playing tough-nosed, hounding defense.

Apart from Winslow, Bam Adebayo remains a per-36-minute darling (the big man is putting up 13.3 points, 11.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists according to the stat), who looks ready to take over as the team’s starting center once Hassan Whiteside’s contract expires, while Derrick Jones Jr. has turned himself into someone deserving of a spot in Miami’s rotation thanks to his cutting off the ball and offensive rebounding prowess.

22. HOUSTON ROCKETS

Young core: Clint Capela, Gary Clark, Isaiah Hartenstein, Marquese Chriss, Vince Edwards

As far as this ranking goes, the Houston Rockets are lucky Clint Capela doesn’t turn 25 for another few months, because apart from him, none of the other under-25 Rockets have shown much of anything as NBA players.

The Swiss big man is having yet another absurdly productive season, one in which he’s putting up 17.6 points, 12.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per contest, and shooting 63 percent from the floor. Capela is obviously aided by the fact that he shares the floor with two of the best playmakers in the NBA in James Harden and Chris Paul, but either way, he deserves a ton of credit for how much he’s improved since his rookie season – when even just catching a pass in traffic was hard for him.

Not many people thought Capela had yet another level in him after his outstanding 2017-18 campaign (13.9 ppg and 10.8 rpg), but he’s shown this season that he’s not done getting better – a scary proposition for the other big men of the Western Conference.

21. SAN ANTONIO SPURS

Young core: Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Jakob Poeltl, Lonnie Walker, Drew Eubanks, Chimezie Metu, Ben Moore

The San Antonio Spurs’ young core was slightly hurt in this ranking due to Dejounte Murray missing the year with a torn ACL. A healthy Murray, coming off a solid sophomore campaign (8.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg and 2.9 apg) would have been enough to bump them up a few spots on this list. For that matter, having a healthy Lonnie Walker, the No. 18 pick of the 2018 draft, would have also helped.

Regardless, even without the two talented ball-handlers, the Spurs still get important nightly contributions from two other 24-and-under players, Derrick White and Jakob Poeltl. White is averaging 8.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game this year, while Poeltl (5.6 ppg and 5.2 rpg) remains an excellent backup big man, as exemplified by his impressive +5.9 swing rating.

The Spurs have a solid mix of veteran and youthful talent – it’s just a matter of the two highest-upside young pieces, Murray and Walker, getting healthy.

20. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

Young core: Montrezl Harrell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Tyrone Wallace, Jerome Robinson, Sindarius Thornwell, Johnathan Motley, Angel Delgado

This group is mostly buoyed by just two players: Montrezl Harrell and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. If not for those two, the Los Angeles Clippers’ young core would rank among the bottom of the league.

Regardless, Harrell has been an absolute monster this season, averaging 15.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game in just 25.3 minutes of action. The Louisville product will undoubtedly be in the running for Most Improved Player if he maintains this level of play.

Meanwhile, Gilgeous-Alexander’s numbers – 9.9 points and 2.9 assists per game – may not be as gaudy, but as a 20-year-old, he’s displayed a confident skill level, both on and off the ball, that leads one to believe he’ll have a long, productive career in the NBA.

19. NEW ORLEANS PELICANS

Young core: Julius Randle, Elfrid Payton, Frank Jackson, Jahlil Okafor, Cheick Diallo, Kenrich Williams, Trevon Bluiett

Headlined by Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton, the New Orleans Pelicans’ young core is still in pretty good shape despite it being their first year without Anthony Davis as a member.

Randle, especially, has had a fantastic start to 2018-19. The Kentucky product is averaging a career-high 19.9 points per contest, to go with 9.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists nightly. This season, only five players can match Randle’s total points (834), rebounds (392) and assists (120) for the year, and they are five of the best players the league has to offer.

Payton, on the other hand, has missed a good chunk of the season due to injury, but when he has played, he’s had an important role as a lead guard, which has allowed Jrue Holiday to move off the ball, where he’s more effective. On the year, Payton is putting up 11.0 points and 5.6 assists per contest, and the Pelicans have an absurd +13.2 swing rating when he’s on the floor. So although his numbers may not be that impressive, he clearly makes New Orleans a better team when he’s out there.

The other player in this group to keep an eye on is Frank Jackson, who missed his entire rookie year with injury, but he’s bounced back nicely this season. Jackson is knocking down 41.2 percent of his threes on the year, and his two-way abilities as a point guard provide a lot of value for New Orleans.

18. TORONTO RAPTORS

Young core: Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Malachi Richardson, Patrick McCaw

If Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet weren’t on the cusp of turning 25, thus aging them out of this ranking, the Toronto Raptors would surely place higher on this list.

And that’s because those two are really, really good.

Siakam has blossomed into a do-it-all swingman, who destroys opponents in transition, cuts to the basket at an elite level and even knocks down the open three at an acceptable rate. The 24-year-old is putting up 15.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.0 steals per contest, filling up the stat sheet in just about every way possible.

VanVleet is averaging career-highs in points (10.5), assists (4.5) and rebounds (2.7) while providing the Raptors with very consistent backup-point-guard play. In fact, there are multiple teams VanVleet could start on and be a legitimate difference maker as a lead ball-handler.

Finally, although OG Anunoby’s development may have hit a bit of a snag due to the team’s acquisition of Kawhi Leonard, the second-year forward is still a big plus defensively on the perimeter, and he’s knocking down a decent 35.8 percent of his triples since reaching the NBA, a mark healthy enough to put him firmly in the 3-and-D archetype.

17. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

Young core: Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks, Ivan Rabb, Yuta Watanabe, Jevon Carter

Jaren Jackson Jr. headlines this group, and if it weren’t for him, they likely wouldn’t crack the Top 25 of this list.

Nevertheless, Jackson is so good that it vaults the Memphis Grizzlies’ young core to another level. The Michigan State rookie is averaging 13.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 0.8 triples this season, displaying a ridiculous all-around game that should have Grizzlies fans extremely excited about his future.

On Nov. 30, Jackson became the second-youngest player in league history to score at least 36 points in a game, when he accomplished the feat at 19 years and 76 days old.

Despite most of the talk of the 2018 draft class being centered around the No. 1 and No. 3 picks, Jackson has proven to have special potential in his own right, with his ability to space the floor effectively from three, use a solid ball-handle to dribble by opposing bigs, all while protecting the paint at an elite level.

Jackson is a freakishly well-rounded talent.

16. ORLANDO MAGIC

Young core: Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba, Wesley Iwundu, Isaiah Briscoe, Jarell Martin, Melvin Frazier

Although he’s already in his fifth NBA season, Aaron Gordon is still just 23 years old, which gives the Orlando Magic’s core a huge boost in young talent. Gordon is currently putting up 15.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game while shooting a career-high 35.8 percent from beyond the arc. Gordon’s +13.3 swing rating speaks volumes on his importance to Orlando’s system, as not many big men around the league can match his quickness, ball-handling on the open floor and athleticism in the paint.

Occasionally sharing the frontcourt with him is 2017 lottery pick Jonathan Isaac, who has struggled offensively since getting drafted by the Magic sixth overall. Defensively, however, Isaac has shown flashes of being a menace, capable of defending athletic wings on the perimeter, having the instincts to jump passing lanes and the hops and length to protect the rim. The Magic will need Isaac to get (much) better at putting the ball through the hoop, but considering he’s still just 21, there’s reason to believe he can improve on that end sooner rather than later.

Also rounding out the Magic’s crew of 24-and-under players, Mo Bamba has had an up-and-down rookie season (6.3 ppg and 5.0 rpg), but has displayed promise as a rim-protecting floor-spacer, an all-important-but-still-unique modern archetype.

15. UTAH JAZZ

Young core: Donovan Mitchell, Dante Exum, Grayson Allen, Tony Bradley, Tyler Cavanaugh

When your young core is headlined by a potential superstar, you know your future is in pretty good shape. And that’s exactly what the Utah Jazz have going with Donovan Mitchell.

Though the second-year guard may not have hit the ground running this season like many (including us) expected, Mitchell is still pouring in 21.3 points and 2.2 triples per game in 2018-19, helping Utah fight for a playoff spot in the loaded West. What’s more, Mitchell is on a five-game stretch at the moment where he’s averaging 30.4 points and 5.6 assists per game, so it’s possible he’s beginning to turn the corner after a relatively (by his standards) slow start.

Nevertheless, what’s unquestionable is how talented and driven the 22-year-old is, and how lucky the Jazz are to have him.

14. NEW YORK KNICKS

Young core: Kristaps Porzingis, Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Emmanuel Mudiay, Noah Vonleh, Allonzo Trier, Mitchell Robinson, Luke Kornet, Damyean Dotson, Isaiah Hicks

Quantity over quality is the name of the game when it comes to the New York Knicks’ young core, especially as Kristaps Porzingis is looking more and more likely to miss the entirety of 2018-19 season while he rehabs from a torn ACL.

With a healthy Porzingis in his fourth season, it’s possible the Knicks could have cracked the Top 10 of this list. Without him, the 14th spot just feels right.

Kevin Knox is shooting 38.3 percent from the floor as a rookie, averaging an inefficient 12.7 points per game while not chipping in much else on the stat sheet. Frank Ntilikina has things even worse, even falling out of the rotation for the Knicks for multiple games this season. Not great for the former No. 8 overall pick, who may or may not already have been on the trade block at some point over the past few months.

Of the young guys, Emmanuel Mudiay (14.5 ppg and 4.1 apg) and Noah Vonleh (8.6 ppg and 8.5 rpg) – two castoffs from Western Conference playoff teams – are probably having the most encouraging years, with both flashing some of the skill that made them Top 10 picks in their respective drafts.

Besides those five players, the 23-year-old Luke Kornet can at least block some shots while knocking down 42.1 percent of his threes, and the 20-year-old Mitchell Robinson has displayed elite shot-blocking talent, but is still a ways away from being a consistent defensive player due to his high propensity to foul opponents.

Even with the struggles of their young guys, at least New York is taking the right approach by letting them take their bumps and bruises this season, with the year lost before it began due to Porzingis’ injury.

As opposed to trading for or signing help-now veterans, the Knicks might as well see what they have in their young core.

13. ATLANTA HAWKS

Young core: John Collins, Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, Taurean Prince, DeAndre Bembry, Omari Spellman, Daniel Hamilton, Tyler Dorsey, Jaylen Adams

With a year of seasoning, there’s a chance the Atlanta Hawks will rank even higher on this list when we do the 2019-20 edition, because Trae Young and Kevin Huerter, the team’s sharpshooting backcourt, are already really starting to blossom as they gain more confidence through experience.

Since Jan. 1, Young is averaging 16.7 points and 5.9 assists per game, and, more importantly, hitting 36.1 percent of his threes. In that same stretch, Huerter is putting up 14.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists nightly, proving that even if his outside shot isn’t falling (and it hasn’t been recently), he still has the overall game to make up for it.

This young core, though, is carried by second-year big man John Collins, who has been outstanding as a sophomore. Collins is putting up 18.9 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists per contest this season, and shooting 33.3 percent from beyond the arc. He’s athletic, has a strong face-up game and can feast on the glass, and as his three-point stroke continues to improve, Collins will only grow harder to slow down.

The one disappointment is Taurean Prince, who, due to injury, hasn’t been able to find a rhythm in his third season. Prince’s numbers are hovering right around his marks from last year (14.1 ppg and 4.7 rpg), and when you consider he’s already 24 years old, it might be time to temper our expectations for the former Baylor swingman. Regardless, at worst, Prince should be a good role player for years to come.

12. INDIANA PACERS

Young core: Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner, Aaron Holiday, TJ Leaf, Alize Johnson, Ike Anigbogu, Edmond Sumner, Davon Reed

Headlined by two outstanding young big men, the Indiana Pacers’ 24-and-under core is one of the more underrated the league has to offer.

Domantas Sabonis has become one of the best young centers in the NBA this season, averaging 15.2 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game, and shooting 62.2 percent from the floor. There may not be a better non-dunking finisher in the league right now than Sabonis; his feathery touch around the basket is second to none.

And Myles Turner, despite not blowing up as was expected, is still putting up 12.9 points and 7.1 rebounds nightly, while leading the league in blocks at 2.8 per game. He needs to get braver with his outside shot (just 1.9 attempts per contest), but Turner’s 39.1 percent three-point stroke gives us a glimpse of his huge potential.

11. CHICAGO BULLS

Young core: Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Kris Dunn, Bobby Portis, Ryan Arcidiacono, Antonio Blakeney, Wayne Selden, Chandler Hutchinson, Rawle Atkins, Brandon Sampson

One of the trickiest selections of this list was deciding which team should crack the Top 10: the Brooklyn Nets or the Chicago Bulls.

Both young cores are similarly talented, with an equal share of promising young big men and ball-handlers. But the fact that the Nets are 22-23 while the Bulls sit at 10-33 made the decision just a bit easier.

Despite the team’s record, multiple members of Chicago’s young core are playing quite well.

For starters, Zach LaVine is putting up 23.6 points per game, to go with 4.3 rebounds and 4.1 assists, while shooting an efficient 45.7 percent from the floor; Lauri Markkanen, after returning from an elbow injury, is putting up 16.5 points and 7.1 rebounds nightly and shooting 36.9 percent from three; Kris Dunn is scoring 13.2 points nightly and dishing out a career-high 6.8 assists per game; Wendell Carter Jr. is putting up 10.4 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks, flashing dominance as a defender in the paint; and Bobby Portis, despite being in and out of the lineup, is averaging 12.9 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 37.1 percent from the floor.

The makings are there for an exciting young team, the Bulls just have to put it all together and start winning some games. Perhaps better injury luck will help. Probably, though, the addition of another Top-5 pick in the 2019 draft will do the trick.

10. BROOKLYN NETS

Young core: D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Rodions Kurucs, Theo Pinson, Dzanan Musa

The upstart Nets have seemingly turned the corner as a team, sitting No. 7 in the East through 45 games, and a lot of that has to do with their excellent group of young players.

D’Angelo Russell looks like he’s finally reaching his potential as a bonafide stud of a combo guard, putting up a tidy 18.3 points and 6.3 assists per game, and having his best season according to multiple advanced metrics. Before going down with an ankle injury, Caris LeVert was playing at a similarly high level, putting up 18.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists, and using his unconventional style of play to get buckets and distribute the ball with aplomb. Jarrett Allen, despite not yet hitting his massive ceiling, is averaging 11.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks, and he has provided the team with strong inside play and plus shot-blocking. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has missed a good chunk of the year due to injury, but is still a strong two-way wing who’s most comfortable near the basket. And Rodions Kurucs, a 2018 second-round pick, has surprised just about everyone with his efficient scoring and decent outside jumper.

The strength of Brooklyn’s young core will undoubtedly make the Nets look more appealing as a free-agent destination this summer, when the team will have enough cap space to chase at least one max-level player.

9. SACRAMENTO KINGS

Young core: De’Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley, Harry Giles, Justin Jackson, Frank Mason, Troy Williams, Skal Labissiere, Wenyen Gabriel

Like Brooklyn, the Sacramento Kings have also surprised with their play this season, sitting 10th in the West despite having a 23-21 record. Also like the Nets, the Kings can thank their young core for having them in this position past the midway mark of the campaign.

De’Aaron Fox is one of just six players averaging at least 17.2 points and 7.2 assists this season, with the other five all being either All-Star or All-NBA-caliber talents. His explosiveness as a lead ball-handler and improved pull-up jumper (Fox is shooting a healthy 37.6 percent from three this year) has made him a load to handle for opponents, and he’s been the primary reason for Sacramento’s more-than-solid play this year.

Of course, Fox isn’t the only young player performing well for Sacramento.

Despite being a reserve all year, Marvin Bagley is still putting up 12.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per contest, giving the Kings solid big-man play off the bench. He may not be at the level of the other Top-3 picks from the 2018 draft, but he’s still just 19 years old and has done well in his role, without complaining about wanting to be a starter. Justin Jackson is another young King producing this year, averaging 7.3 points off the bench and shooting 37.4 percent from three. As he gets more comfortable, Jackson’s smooth offensive game will continue to get more consistent.

8. DALLAS MAVERICKS

Young core: Luka Doncic, Dennis Smith Jr., Jalen Brunson, Kostas Antetokounmpo, Daryl Macon, Raymond Spalding

Currently on one of the nastiest tears for a rookie in recent league history, Luka Doncic is making the three teams that passed on him look awfully silly early in his career.

The Slovenian ball-handler is presently averaging 20.2 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game, and shooting 37.3 percent from three, making him one of just three players ever to post a 20/6/5 stat-line in their first year. The other two? Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson.

Decent company there for Doncic.

Doncic has a special flair for the dramatic, as the 19-year-old guard ranks fourth among qualified players in effective field-goal percentage (60.9) during clutch time (when the score is within five points with under five minutes left in a game), outpacing the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Blake Griffin among others. And his step-back prowess this year ranks second to just a certain reigning league MVP with a beard.

Dallas hit a home run when they traded for Doncic on draft night, as it appears they have their franchise centerpiece for the next 15 years already in the fold.

The Mavs would rank higher on this list if not for the drama currently unfolding with their other most promising young piece: Dennis Smith Jr. It appears he may be on the way out of Dallas already, in just his second year.

Wherever Smith lands, and it appears it’ll be on another rebuilding team, his acquisition will bolster that team’s young core, as his newfound commitment to defense and solid scoring touch has made him a more well-rounded player as a sophomore.

7. LOS ANGELES LAKERS

Young core: Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Ivica Zubac, Johnathan Williams, Moritz Wagner, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Isaac Bonga, Alex Caruso

The Los Angeles Lakers’ young core had their chance to prove their worth following LeBron James’ absence due to a groin injury. Unfortunately, they have failed to impress, at least relative to expectations.

Lonzo Ball still can’t shoot worth a lick (32.7 percent from three, 41.7 percent from the free-throw stripe this year), Brandon Ingram still struggles with bouts of inconsistency, especially in fourth quarters, and Josh Hart has taken a step back after a strong rookie campaign (hitting just 41 percent from the floor, 34.6 percent from three).

The only member of Los Angeles’ 24-and-under group who has improved upon last season is Kyle Kuzma, who is averaging 18.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game, even without his three-point shot falling (as he’s shooting 29.9 percent from deep this season).

The Lakers’ young core still has all the talent in the world, but it’s disappointing they haven’t shown to be further along in their development in 2018-19.

6. PHOENIX SUNS

Young core: Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Kelly Oubre, Mikal Bridges, Josh Jackson, De’Anthony Melton, Elie Okobo, Jawun Evans, Dragan Bender, George King

Nagging injuries have prevented Devin Booker from finding a good rhythm this season, and even so, he’s still proving to be worth every penny of that five-year, $158 million extension he signed last summer. Booker is averaging 24.8 points, a career-high 6.9 assists and 3.7 rebounds, showing that he’s far from just a volume scorer, but also a pretty good playmaker in his own right.

What’s more, according to more than one advanced stat, Booker has been even better this year than he was in his breakout 2017-18 season, which means he might not be done developing just yet. And considering he just turned 22, why would he be?

Besides Booker, the Phoenix Suns also added the impressive Deandre Ayton to their young nucleus in the 2018 draft. He may not get the buzz Doncic does, but Ayton has had a great start to his career thus far – at least on the offensive end. Ayton is putting up 16.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game this season, and shooting 59.7 percent from the floor. He still needs to get better defensively, as Phoenix gets lit up in the paint with Ayton on the floor, but he has all the tools to be a special big man.

Besides the two main pieces, Phoenix’s trade for Kelly Oubre looks like a savvy move, with the Kansas product averaging 13.2 points and 3.5 rebounds as a Sun. Oubre’s two-way play has proven to be a good fit for what Phoenix lacked on the perimeter, and it’ll be interesting to see what the two sides come up with when Oubre hits restricted free agency this offseason.

The other former Kansas wing on the roster, Josh Jackson (9.6 ppg and 4.0 rpg) has been a disappointment in his second season, as he has seemingly regressed after what was already a pretty weak rookie debut.

5. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

Young core: Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Dario Saric, Tyus Jones, Josh Okogie, Keita Bates-Diop, Jared Terrell

The early season drama regarding Jimmy Butler and the firing of Tom Thibodeau have seemingly clouded how talented the Minnesota Timberwolves’ young core is, which is a shame.

Karl-Anthony Towns has blossomed into one of the best big men the league has to offer, averaging 22.4 points and 12.6 rebounds, while providing the team with plus rim protection and outside shooting. Towns’ play has gotten even better recently, with the big man currently on a 10-game tear putting up 27.5 points, 16.6 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.8 blocks per contest.

Andrew Wiggins still isn’t consistent enough, and he may never live up to his huge contract (worth $147.7 million over four years). But at worst, when he’s giving full effort, he’s a difference-maker thanks to his ridiculous length and athleticism on the wing.

Dario Saric remains underrated and quite possibly underused, as he should be allowed to play with the ball in his hands more in order to unlock his distribution skills, as opposed to being just a spot-up shooter. Perhaps under new head coach Ryan Saunders, the Wolves will be able to do just that.

And Tyus Jones remains a steady backup point guard, capable of running an offense and knocking down open shots.

Minnesota has a solid young core, but really, Towns is the one who elevates this group from just decent to one of the best in the NBA.

4. MILWAUKEE BUCKS

Young core: Giannis Antetokounmpo, DJ Wilson, Sterling Brown, Thon Maker, Christian Wood, Donte DiVincenzo, Jaylen Morris, Trevon Duval

Outside of one player, this young core would likely rank among the bottom five in the NBA.

But when that one player is an MVP candidate like Giannis Antetokounmpo, that’s enough to catapult a group up the rankings.

Here’s what our own Alex Kennedy had to say about Antetokounmpo in our most recent MVP rankings:

“Antetokounmpo has the combination of team success and dominant statistics that voters love to see when determining the MVP. He’s also had a number of trademark games under his belt. His most recent was the Bucks’ win over the Rockets on Wednesday (which was nationally televised on ESPN). Giannis finished with 27 points, 21 rebounds, 5 assists and 1 steal to defeat one of the hottest teams in the league and James Harden, who’s widely recognized as his biggest competition for the MVP award. No player in NBA history has averaged Giannis’ current stat-line (26.0 points, 12.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.5 blocks) over the course of a season. The closest is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who hit all the averages except assists per game in 1975-76 (and he was named the MVP that season).”

Needless to say: Antetokounmpo is a monster. Even as one of the worst three-point shooters in the league this season (17.2 percent), he’s still imprinted an otherworldly dominance in every game he’s hit the hardwood, a fact best displayed by Milwaukee’s 30-12 record.

3. BOSTON CELTICS

Young core: Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Robert Williams, Semi Ojeleye, PJ Dozier, Guerschon Yabusele

Both deep and talented, the Boston Celtics have managed to amass one of the best young cores league-wide.

Jayson Tatum is averaging career-highs in points (16.6), rebounds (6.3) and assists (1.8), as he has adapted well to having a bigger part of the offense. He hasn’t made an enormous leap this season (yet), but he’s still providing the Celtics with an efficient scoring punch on the perimeter, and considering he’s still just 20, there’s no reason to think he can’t reach another level eventually.

Jaylen Brown isn’t hitting three-pointers at the same rate he was last season (30.4 percent), but his toughness defensively is an important part of Boston’s Top-5 defenseMarcus Smart is only averaging 7.7 points per game, but he’s shooting a career-high 35.4 percent from three while boasting a +4.1 swing rating. And Terry Rozier hasn’t been able to translate his postseason success to this year, but he’s still a more-than-capable guard, who can defend and score in bunches.

The newcomer to the group, Robert Williams, hasn’t been able to carve out a consistent role (which is understandable on such a deep team), but he is averaging 5.6 blocks per 36 minutes, displaying a freakish ability to swat away shots.

Boston will need the young core to be even better if they want to make a run at the Finals this season, but there’s no questioning their talent level and ability to improve on their current production.

2. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

Young core: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Landry Shamet, Furkan Korkmaz, Haywood Highsmith, Shake Milton, Jonah Bolden, Justin Patton, Zhaire Smith

If the Philadelphia 76ers were able to get anything out of Markelle Fultz or Zhaire Smith, there’s a chance they could have jumped to the top spot in this ranking.

Nevertheless, how many other young cores could get absolutely zero out of two first-rounders, including a former No. 1 draft pick, and still place this highly on this list?

Not many.

And that’s because Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are just that freakishly talented.

Embiid does it all, averaging 26.9 points, 13.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.1 threes per game, and thanks to his insane level of production, he’s put himself in the conversation as the league’s best center. And Simmons, despite his complete lack of an outside shot, is still able to put up 16.6 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.2 assists nightly while shooting 58.1 percent from the floor.

Their fit might not be perfect, but a tandem of players as talented as Embiid and Simmons should be able to figure things out, and help the Sixers eventually reach their championship-level potential.

1. DENVER NUGGETS

Young core: Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Monte Morris, Juancho Hernangomez, Malik Beasley, Trey Lyles, Tyler Lydon, Thomas Welsh, Brandon Goodwin, Michael Porter Jr., Jarred Vanderbilt

With an MVP candidate of their own, as well as really talented depth, the Denver Nuggets currently boast what we believe to be the best young core in the NBA.

The 23-year-old Nikola Jokic – averaging 19.7 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game this season – would be good enough in his own right to have this group in the Top 5. But by surrounding him with studs like Gary Harris and Jamal Murray, as well as productive role players like Monte MorrisMalik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, the Nuggets have created the most well-rounded 24-and-under group league-wide.

At this time last year, we ranked the Nuggets’ young core No. 6 overall, but thanks to Jokic somehow getting even better (and ditto for Harris and Murray), as well as the developments of Morris and Beasley – who are both now very consistent in the roles – Denver has catapulted to the top spot.

And that’s without even mentioning Michael Porter Jr., a player who was in the running for a Top-5 selection in the 2018 draft before succumbing to a back injury. He may not play this season, but he’s got great upside as a 6-foot-10 scorer on the wing.

If he does suit up by the time we rank young cores again next season and resembles the prospect he was in high school, there’s a strong chance Denver will retain their top spot in this ranking.

After all, Jokic is just 23.

You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.

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