The NBA has an impressive number of young stars spread out across its 30 teams. In some cases, two or more of said young stars have combined to create some phenomenal duos. For these rankings, I considered both the individual statistics of each player in addition to how their teams have performed. In a (surprisingly) large number of cases, several of the young duos that I feel are near the top of the league formed only recently (at the beginning of the 2019-20 season or at/around the trade deadline), so I took into account whether or not each individual player has contributed to team success in the past (outside of their newly formed duo). For example, if a certain player had a major role in leading his team to the playoffs in the past two or three years, but did not see that same team success this season with their new partner in crime, it wasn’t always held against said player. However, winning was prioritized in my rankings (especially if a certain duo had formed before the start of the 2019-20 season), and unless the duo found themselves in the specific situation I just described, a lack of team success was penalized even if both players put up seemingly outstanding statistics.
Young duos just outside of the age cutoff:
Pascal Siakam (26) & OG Anunoby (22), Toronto Raptors
Joel Embiid (26) & Ben Simmons (23), Philadelphia 76ers
Nikola Jokic (25) & Jamal Murray (23), Denver Nuggets
Trae Young & John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
While Atlanta’s abysmal record over the past two seasons can obviously be attributed to much more than the play of Young (21) and Collins (22), the Hawks finished with the league’s 5th-worst record in 2018-19 and own the league’s 4th-worst record this season. Big numbers are great, but Young and Collins have had a good amount of time to translate those numbers to wins, and so far have not shown that they are capable of hanging with the league’s truly competitive teams.
Devin Booker & Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
The story of Booker (23) and Ayton (21) mirrors that of Trae Young and John Collins, to an arguably even greater degree. Booker and Ayton do play in a beefier conference, but the Suns rounded out the 2018-19 season tied for the 2nd-worst record in the NBA and sit at 13th in the Western Conference standings right now. This is another example of a pair that has had a fair amount of time to develop chemistry and has continued to lose despite their impressive statistics. Booker and Ayton have an absurd amount of potential, but if they want to be considered elite players at their respective positions, Phoenix needs to make the playoffs.
Ja Morant & Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
The margin between the Memphis Grizzlies’ dynamic pairing and the duo that occupies spot number five on this list is small due to the fact that Morant (20) and Jackson Jr. (20) have shown that they can compete at the highest level in the NBA’s tougher conference. The fact that Memphis was on track to make the Western Conference Playoffs before the season was suspended is a remarkable feat, and speaks to the advanced leadership we’ve seen from the young players. Morant and Jackson Jr.’s individual statistics don’t pop out as much as the other duos on this list, but they deserve serious recognition.
The Top Five:
5. Karl-Anthony Towns & D’Angelo Russell, Minnesota Timberwolves
An argument could be made that this duo should be ranked higher – but as the oldest duo on the list, and with both players only making the playoffs once (on different teams), Towns (24) and Russell (24) land at spot number five. Both players have managed to put up impressive per-game statistics, but both struggle defensively and haven’t really seen their play translate to serious success. Towns’ lone playoff appearance was during the one full season that Jimmy Butler spent in Minnesota, and Russell’s playoff birth last season came as a result of an incredibly top-heavy Eastern Conference (a playoff race that saw the 42-40 Brooklyn Nets, 42-40 Orlando Magic, and 41-41 Detroit Pistons qualify for the postseason). Ultimately, this duo earned the fifth spot due to the fact that we’ve only seen them together in one single game – a loss to the defending champion Toronto Raptors. They get a bit of a pass here, as both have participated in the postseason before and their individual numbers suggest that they might be a terror on offense next season. However, factoring in their defensive ineptitude and spotty team success, they cannot be ranked ahead of duos with more potential and/or a better team record.
4. Bam Adebayo & Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat
Some may disagree with this pick, as the Miami Heat’s young duo has the weakest per-game numbers of arguably any duo on this list (including the honorable mentions). But Adebayo (22) and Nunn (24) are worth more than the sum of their parts. That starts with Adebayo – one of the brightest young players in the league. An absolute force on defense and an increasingly well-rounded offensive player, Adebayo has so much potential and is already showing how versatile his game can be, averaging 16.2 points and an eye-popping 5.1 assists per game from the center position on extremely efficient percentages from the field. Additionally, his 3.6 Defensive Win Shares and 2.1 Defensive Box Plus/Minus rank near the top of the league. Nunn’s statistics are less impressive, but as one of the league’s top candidates for rookie of the year, he’s stepped up in a big way for a Heat team that is rounding into form. His game doesn’t necessarily scream “future star”, but he doesn’t turn the ball over very much, can rack up points within the flow of the offense and, most importantly, makes winning contributions. The biggest reason that Miami’s young duo finds their way to the fourth spot on this list is the fact that neither player has seen anything but success thus far in their careers. While that should also be attributed to Miami’s strong front office and coaching staff, if you consider this season’s fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference standings to be “making the playoffs”, Adebayo has qualified for the postseason in each of his three seasons, while Nunn has seen great success thus far in his first year. Like it or not, this pairing will be a mainstay of the NBA postseason for years to come.
3. Zion Williamson & Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
If Williamson had played this entire season, the New Orleans Pelicans might be in the playoff picture right now. Instead, we have to look at the potential that both players have shown thus far in their limited time on the court. While some might think it’s unfair that I penalized Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell for their lack of team success while ranking Williamson (19) and Ingram (22) so highly, I believe the differences in defensive potential and the fact that the pairing has had much less overall time in the league makes a big difference here. Williamson has already seen his play translate to wins, with the team winning ten of the nineteen games he’s played in. It may not seem like much, but the Pelicans were well below .500 before Williamson made his debut and have been playing their best basketball of the season since he’s been on the court. Ingram, meanwhile, has played most of the season and has shown how great of a scorer he can be if given the opportunity. Neither player has put up phenomenal defensive numbers, but the athleticism, explosion, and effort both have exhibited makes me much more confident in their defensive abilities than I am with the Minnesota Timberwolves’ pairing. I’m confident that, barring injury and with some more time to develop both as individuals and as a duo, Williamson and Ingram will be a fixture in the Western Conference Playoffs.
2. Jaylen Brown & Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Had they been given the keys to the Boston Celtics earlier in their careers, Brown (23) and Tatum (22) may have nabbed the number 1 spot on this list. Even so, it’s an incredibly tough call. No duo on this list has seen even a fraction of the playoff success that Brown and Tatum have had, with both players sniffing the conference semifinals at minimum in every year that they’ve been in the NBA. This year, both players took their games to another level. Brown is the best third option in basketball right now, averaging 20.4 points per game on ridiculously efficient shooting numbers (49.0% from the field and 38.1% from the three-point line). He’s had an All-Star-caliber season and can score at all three levels while defending some of the opponent’s best players in nearly every game he plays. Tatum, on the other hand, has exploded onto the MVP scene and has a legitimate argument for a spot in the top-15 players in the NBA this season regardless of age. He’s boosted his scoring average from 15.7 points per game last season to 23.6 this season, and shook off a rusty start to the year by raising his percentages to 44.8% from the field and an elite 39.8% from the three-point line. The Celtics’ star tandem aren’t just dominating weaker teams, either – both players have shown up in nationally televised games and have continuously shown the NBA world that they are a force to be reckoned with. In an era where two-way wing players have become arguably the most essential element of a championship roster, Brown and Tatum have put Boston in an excellent position moving forward. The otherworldly potential and absurd intangibles of the top pairing on this list are the only reasons they didn’t finish in first place.
1. Luka Doncic & Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks
It’s just simply not fair. It’s not fair to the rest of the NBA that not only do the Dallas Mavericks have a legitimate MVP candidate in his second season in Doncic (20), but that the team also employs a 7’3” unicorn with even greater potential in Porzingis (24). Let’s start with Doncic – the 20 year-old averaging 28.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 8.7 assists per game to go along with a 27.7 PER and 5.8 Offensive Win Shares. Doncic is a basketball savant at an incredibly young age, and the way he sees the floor coupled with the elite pace at which he plays is not only fun to watch – it has turned the franchise around in just two years. Yet, Doncic might not even be the best player on his own team forever. Not only does Kristaps Porzingis have the natural gift of a 7’3” frame and the ability to move like a wing player – he’s also equipped with some elite defensive potential and a lethal three-point shot. To some extent, he’s already a quicker-moving, defensively adept Dirk Nowitski (just without the years of consistency, playoff success, etc.). The fact that they’re playing together should scare you if you’re not a Mavericks fan – especially fans of other Western Conference teams that will be faced with impossible matchup problems in the postseason for the next ten years. They’re not perfect, and both players still have lot of room to grow. For Doncic, that’s his defensive play, and for Porzingis, it’s his efficiency and his thin frame. Despite their flaws, however, it’s clear that this international duo will be dominating the league for years to come.
All statistics obtained via basketball-reference.com
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