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Ranking the NBA's Best Young Cores

Hope reigns supreme in the August portion of each NBA offseason, as nearly every franchise looks at its roster with eyes on at least competing for a spot in the play-in tournament. Yet those hopes can quickly be dashed before the calendar turns to Thanksgiving.

Young teams struggle to jell as inexperienced players adjust to the rigors of an NBA schedule, and a single injury can derail the greatest of playoff hopes. Tankathons remain en vogue even with the new lottery odds, and with Victor Wembanyama standing as a coveted prize, we could see this year’s festivities begin in January. Try as it may, the league may never be able to curb the spate of meaningless contests we see in the last section of the season.

But why focus on such doom and gloom more than a month before training camps begin? This is the season for devouring pro-am highlights and player workout videos, where every second- and third-year player is ready to take the league by storm. The playoffs and Finals remain a time of year dominated by veterans. The summer is when the youngsters get to shine.

With that in mind, we at The Crossover decided to sort through the best young cores across the NBA entering 2022–23. How exactly do we determine this? Some criteria is necessary:

To qualify as a member of a young core, a player needs to fit into one of the following buckets:

  • Under 27 on opening night (Oct. 19) with at least one previous All-Star appearance
  • 25-and-younger with All-Star potential (up to discretion)
  • 23-and-younger players with 20-plus career win shares, per Basketball Reference
  • 2020, 2021 and 2022 lottery rookies
  • Players given an exception to these semi-arbitrary rules (Grant Williams and Isaiah Stewart, among others)

In an attempt at some brevity here, we’ll require teams to have at least four players to receive consideration for the league’s best young core. This eliminates the following 14 teams: 76ers, Blazers, Bucks, Bulls, Clippers, Heat, Hornets, Lakers, Mavericks, Nets, Nuggets, Pacers, Jazz and Wizards.

We now have a tidy 16 teams to sort through. Apologies to those that missed our list, whether it be due to narrow age issues (Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets) or ceiling concerns (hello, Indiana and Washington). 

So without further ado, let’s sort through the NBA’s top 16 young cores, starting in the Lone Star State. 

Daniel Dunn/USA TODAY Sports

16. San Antonio Spurs

Notable players: Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, Josh Primo, Jeremy Sochan

There’s a notable lack of top-end talent here barring some major development, a natural consequence of San Antonio’s noble desire to compete each season. This could very well be the year for a generational tank. Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson both project as potential franchise changers as we look ahead to the 2023 draft.

15. Golden State Warriors

Notable players: Jordan Poole, James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody

Poole will earn a nine-figure contract next offseason, though it’s unclear whether that will be with Golden State. It’s also unclear which of the following trio will pop as starting-caliber players. Moody should stick in the league for years to come, while Kuminga has All-Star tools despite stretches of inconsistency. As for Wiseman, any contribution in 2022–23 should be viewed as a success.

14. New York Knicks

Notable players: Jalen Brunson, Obi Toppin, Mitchell Robinson, Immanuel Quickley, Quentin Grimes, RJ Barrett

We may not see most of these names on New York’s roster within the next few months, as a Donovan Mitchell trade looks increasingly likely. As presently constituted, this is a largely group of nice names, led by not-quite All-Stars in Brunson and Barrett. Grimes has experienced some serious helium in recent weeks amid the Mitchell trade talks. I’d be surprised if he is the true sticking point between the two teams, with pick haggling being the more likely roadblock.

13. Sacramento Kings

Notable players: Domantas Sabonis, De’Aaron Fox, Kevin Huerter, Davion Mitchell, Keegan Murray

I’d feel a bit better here if this list had Tyrese Haliburton in place of Sabonis, but alas. This is still a deep, albeit limited group, one that could finally make a postseason return in 2022–23. Do teams hang banners for play-in appearances? You can assume Sacramento wouldn’t hesitate to do so.

12. Detroit Pistons

Notable players: Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, Killian Hayes, Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren

You can still make a fair case for Cunningham as the top player in the 2021 class. He sees the floor at an elite level with a large frame for a point guard, and, on a more broad level, his maturity and focus should instill faith that he can lead a much-needed resurgence in the Motor City. The rest of the picture is a bit more fuzzy. Bey and Stewart are solid role players. Duren is a complete unknown at this point, and Hayes is simply a criteria-related inclusion here. There’s warranted optimism for an Ivey-Cunningham backcourt. But we’ll keep Detroit just outside our top 10 as we wait for some actual returns in the regular season.

11. Oklahoma City Thunder

Notable players: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort, Chet Holmgren, Josh Giddey, Ousmane Dieng

We’re likely in for a third straight year of tanking in Oklahoma City given the news that Chet Holmgren is out for the 2022-23 season. It’s possible this is the group to lead the Thunder back to the playoffs at some point, though there’s still significant instability at play. Holmgren’s injury issues are a major concern. Gilgeous-Alexander is a sneaky trade candidate given his max contract and the franchise's current timeline. Another high lottery pick could vault Oklahoma City up these rankings in August ’23. A rise up the Western Conference standings is farther away.

Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports

10. Atlanta Hawks

Notable players: Dejounte Murray, John Collins, Trae Young, Onyeka Okongwu, De’Andre Hunter

Perhaps this is a bit of a disrespectful ranking. Young led the Hawks to the Eastern Conference finals two postseasons ago, and his new running mate is a rising two-way star. Yet it’s fair to have some unease about what the future holds in the latter part of the decade. Collins’s value has slid in recent years, and the organization’s depth and pick collection took a hit after the trade for Murray. A breakout from Okongwu or a resurgence from De’Andre Hunter could bring Atlanta closer to contender status in a crowded East.

9. Orlando Magic

Notable players: Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba, Markelle Fultz, Wendell Carter Jr., Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs, Franz Wagner, Paolo Banchero

Orlando will have plenty of bites at the apple as it tries to develop a new young core in the 2020s. Wagner was a lock for All-Rookie honors last year as he showed off a well-rounded offensive game, and Carter is one of the more underrated young bigs in the league. Banchero should fill up the scoreboard plenty as a rookie, and while his ability to separate from defenders is a fair question, his ability to hit contested shots should lead to a long, successful career.

The Magic’s frontcourt of the future is effectively secure. They need one of these guards to shine in order to make any real headway in the Eastern Conference.

8. Houston Rockets

Notable players: Kevin Porter Jr., Tari Eason, Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, Jabari Smith Jr.

What a difference 18 months make. The arrow is pointing up in Houston less than two years since the James Harden trade, with 2021 No. 2 pick Jalen Green now standing as the face of the franchise. Green started slow in the first portion of last season but finished with a flurry as he posted seven 30-point performances in his final 17 games. Green’s finish to last year was reminiscent of Anthony Edwards’s close to ’20–21, and the comparison is pretty fair. Both players should battle for All-NBA honors down the road, and the scoring title isn’t out of the question for either player.

None of the other members of Houston’s core have demonstrated Green’s ability at the NBA level quite yet, though there’s still plenty of upside in play. Smith’s defensive acumen should make him a plus player as a rookie and a potentially-destructive piece at his peak, and Alperen Sengün is a more well-rounded player than his reputation suggests. Keep an eye on Tari Eason, too. The rookie out of LSU turned in an impressive performance on the summer hoops circuit, and he has the frame and length to make an instant impact as a wing defender with nascent offensive ability. Houston is accumulating an impressive collection of young talent, even if a difficult season is likely on the horizon.

7. Toronto Raptors

Notable players: OG Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr., Precious Achiuwa, Scottie Barnes

Anunoby and Trent are likely more complimentary pieces than multitime All-Stars, and including Achiuwa on this list is a bit charitable. But Barnes’s rookie year in itself is enough to vault the Raptors into the top 10.

The Florida State product led all rookies in win shares last season as he finished in the top five in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, and he rose to the occasion in marquee matchups against the Nets, Celtics and Heat. Barnes is a defensive menace with legitimate scoring chops. Toronto reportedly held Barnes off the table in Kevin Durant trade talks, and to many, for good reason. Toronto could have a multi-time All-NBA player on its hands just three years after Kawhi Leonard’s departure.

6. Cleveland Cavaliers

Notable players: Lauri Markkanen, Jarrett Allen, Darius Garland, Evan Mobley, Isaac Okoro

Mobley looked downright Rudy Gobert–esque as a rookie, and the Cavaliers posted a startling plus-6.3 points per 100 possessions last season when trotting out the Mobley-Allen-Markkanen jumbo lineup. Garland made a legitimate leap as a leading man last season, and he could emerge as one of the league’s breakout guards in 2022–23. LeBron may not be coming home next season, but the future remains bright in Cleveland.

5. Phoenix Suns

Notable players: Cameron Johnson, Mikal Bridges, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton

We’re stretching our criteria here to include Johnson, who will turn 27 in March 2023. Regardless, all four members of this quartet are pre-prime or in-their-prime players, with All-NBA potential for both Booker and Ayton. Phoenix remains well positioned to contend through much of the 2020s despite Chris Paul’s advanced age.

Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports

4. Minnesota Timberwolves

Notable players: Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels

I’m more bullish on the Gobert trade than most from Minnesota’s perspective, in large part due to the development we saw from Edwards last season. There’s future MVP potential here, and we could see a significant leap in both scoring and efficiency from the 21-year-old this season. Towns has his shortcomings despite his shooting brilliance, and I’m as shocked as anyone that Russell is only 26 years old. This is a complicated roster with little guarantee of extensive playoff success this season. I’m still willing to bet on Edwards’s immense talent as we take a wider lens at the next decade.

3. New Orleans Pelicans

Notable players: Brandon Ingram, Herb Jones, Zion Williamson, Dyson Daniels

Jones wreaked enough havoc against opposing offenses last season to warrant inclusion in New Orleans’s core, and there’s immense offensive ability at hand with the Ingram-Williamson combination. Ingram continues to evolve his playmaking chops to pair with an elite shotmaking profile, and he’s the kind of player who could compete for a scoring title if he were in a Bradley Beal–style situation in Washington.

And then there’s Williamson. In case you forgot, he averaged 27 points on 61% from the field in 2020–21, becoming the first player in NBA history to post that combination. A healthy Williamson is a legitimate contender for MVP, a terrifying thought for the rest of the Western Conference.

2. Boston Celtics

Notable players: Jaylen Brown, Robert Williams, Jayson Tatum, Grant Williams

There isn’t a wealth of depth with this group, and you can quibble with Grant Williams’s inclusion here if you want. But you can’t find a better under-27 duo in the league than Tatum and Brown, and there’s still room for growth with both homegrown stars. Tatum is a good bet win an MVP at some point over the next decade. Brown has plenty of years left as an elite two-way wing. I’m betting on this duo to deliver a title sooner than later after June’s Finals disappointment.

1. Memphis Grizzlies

Notable players: Brandon Clarke, Desmond Bane, Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Ziaire Williams

Morant leads the league’s best crew of young talent, one that appears primed for the franchise’s first run at the Finals at some point in the 2020s. Bane is a legitimate sharpshooter and a perfect backcourt complement to his future-MVP costar, while Jackson sports fringe All-NBA potential when healthy. The Grizzlies reportedly sniffed around the Durant sweepstakes in recent weeks. It’s not hard to see why considering their current treasure chest of assets. 

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