Ranking the best young cores heading into the 2018-2019 NBA season

photo via: Jonathan Pushnik/ phillymag

Yes Golden State Warriors, we get that you currently have the best roster and won’t be beaten anytime soon, most likely (thanks for making that abundantly clear DeMarcus Cousins). However, as superstars get older, there are always younger players developing behind them, waiting to unseat these veteran superstars as the NBA’s next elite level talent.

With this heavy influx of terrific young talent that persists in the NBA, several of these budding superstars have found a way to be positioned on the same roster. These organizations have fully invested in building a young core and hoping that it sets them up for future success for years to come.

So, just who in fact has the best assemblage of young talent at the core of their roster?

** The players listed for qualification on this list must be (or expected to be) a heavy contributor to their team, making their team a viable contender. Each player must also be age 24 or younger to be part of the teams ‘young core’. This is my personal ranking.**

5. Denver Nuggets

Young core: G Gary Harris, G Jamal Murray, F/C Nikola Jokic, F Michael Porter Jr.

photo via: Isaiah J. Downing/ USA TODAY Sports

While they will have to wait and see what Michael Porter Jr. becomes as he continues to be sidelined with a back injury, the expectation that when he becomes healthy he will give them another talented wing scorer who can make a colossal impact.

Murray and Harris have continued to grow into quite the lethal backcourt duo. Last season Harris and Murray together averaged 17.1 PPG while shooting 38.7% from beyond the arc and an extremely high 46.8% from the field. With Harris being 23 years old and Murray only being 20, the two have already found ways to carve up NBA defenses with their deadly accuracy from deep and overall scoring ability.

Playing in the Western Conference with a surplus of teams with loaded backcourts including: Houston with James Harden and Chris Paul, Portland with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, and Golden State with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, just to name a few, Denver’s potential for Harris and Murray to turn into the next elite guard combo is abundantly clear. Think of them as the latest version of Lillard and McCollum.

Denver’s last piece to their young core, Nikola Jokic, is the face of the team and has turned into one of the most skilled big men in the game today. The third-year player has continued to grow as a player with each year seeing his latest season where he put together a very healthy stat line of 18.5 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 6.1 APG, and 49.9% from the field.

While Jokic may not get as much publicity or recognition, there is no hiding that he deserves to land on an All-Star roster eventually. Same goes for either Harris or Murray, unfortunately for all of them, the excess amount of talent that lies out in the Western Conference clouds a lot of their accomplishments. Under the radar, they will fly, but I’m sure they do not mind.

4. Phoenix Suns

Young core: G Devin Booker, F Dragan Bender, F/C DeAndre Ayton, F/G Mikal Bridges, G/F Josh Jackson

photo via Barry Gossage/ NBAE via Getty Images

The 2018 NBA draft was nothing short of fantastic for the Phoenix Suns. They selected DeAndre Ayton with the No.1 overall pick followed by acquiring the draft rights to Villanova swing-man Mikal Bridges. Both are expected to make an immediate impact.

Bridges who provides the perimeter versatility on both ends of the floor looks to join second-year man Josh Jackson as a fearsome defensive unit out on the wing. What Bridges will provide offensively is a reliable three-point shooter, fundamentally sound defense, and the ability to learn and develop his offensive game further.

Ayton has been one of the most exciting big men to enter the NBA since maybe Anthony Davis or DeMarcus Cousins. A perfect blend of size and skill, the Suns believe that it was a no-brainer to take him. He has the touch from outside (34.3 3PT% at the University of Arizona) to be a threat from the perimeter and has the body type (7’1″ 250 pounds) to bang down low in the post. Both of those added with a strong presence inside protecting the rim should have Suns fans brimming with excitement.

Joined in the front-court with Ayton is Dragan Bender. Similar to Ayton, Bender has the ability to stretch the floor but may not be as well suited for playing down now. Now that Ayton has arrived, the interior responsibilities on offense are now filled which should allow Bender to float around the arc and look for his spots in which he is comfortable. Expect higher production and more value to be placed on Bender in the 2018-2019 season.

Now we arrive at their star Devin Booker. Booker has placed Phoenix on the map for the first time since recent Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Steve Nash left town. One of, if not THE, deadliest scorers in the NBA today, Booker has set himself up for a terrific career all before the age of 22.

Now about to enter his fourth year, Booker looks to take the reigns off and bust loose as the leader for this team and get them back to the playoffs, something that has eluded them for the past eight seasons. We know he can score with the best of the talent in the NBA (24.9 PPG last season) but can Booker take the talent that is around him and be the leader they need him to be? We will see.

3. Boston Celtics

Young core: G/F Jaylen Brown, F Jayson Tatum, G Terry Rozier, G Marcus Smart

photo via: New England Sports Network L.P.

The Celtics can thank the Brooklyn Nets for their young core. In the infamous trade that centered around future draft picks, the Celtics were able to flip those picks into valuable pieces who have been instrumental in allowing Boston to return to Eastern Conference supremacy.

Jaylen Brown has looked the part of the athletic perimeter player they expected him to be after taking him third overall in the 2016 draft. After struggling straight out of the gate in terms of production, Brown rebounded in his sophomore season to put up a healthy stat-line of 14.5 PPG, 4.9 RPG, and an increased field goal percentage of 46.5% even with an increase in his shooting volume. The Celtics have a baffling amount of young talent on the roster and where Brown may not be the best overall player for them, he becomes their X-factor in late stretches of the game.

Moving forward with the young core of guards Danny Ainge has acquired, both Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier have been surprise staples on this current Celtic roster.

Smart is undoubtedly their best overall defender who will take on the task of shutting down an opponents best scoring threat. The Celtics could have optioned to move on from Smart this off-season as his asking price (12-14 Million/year) on the open-market pushed the Celtics brass to really think about bringing him back. They eventually came to terms with him and showed that his contribution as a three-and-D player, who can also play the point, makes him too essential to their roster going forward.

Rozier has been somewhat of a revelation for Boston. He can thank Kyrie Irving’s extended absence last season for allowing that to occur. ‘Scary Terry’ brings heavy scoring capabilities off the bench for head coach Brad Stevens. Rozier, who is in a contract year, could make the case as the NBA’s sixth man of the year in 2018-2019 if he can replicate his production from last season (11.5 PPG in only 16 games started and 25.6 minutes per game).

Joined in the supreme draft class last season, Jayson Tatum shined as bright as all of them, living up to his third overall selection. Tatum showcased his sweet shooting stroke, his crazy sneaky athleticism, an intense competitive nature, and several other areas which are normally seen out of NBA veterans.

As mentioned earlier, this Celtics team is stacked with all these players in the early stages of their career and combined together make-up a strong young core. Join that with several players like Irving and Gordon Hayward who carry elite level status and several All-star appearances under their belt, and you have a great recipe for success for the present and the foreseeable future.

2. Los Angeles Lakers

Young core: G Lonzo Ball, F/G Brandon Ingram, G Josh Hart, F Kyle Kuzma, F Moritz Wagner

We all know they have LeBron James now, but before he joined the Lakers, the Los Angeles obtained — and still do possess — an onslaught of young players who have given life to an organization that is accustomed to raising banners.

Lonzo Ball has been everything as advertised following his rookie year. While he was hampered with lingering knee injuries last season, he showed flashes of brilliance in the time he was on the court. His tremendous playmaking ability, mixed with his active hands on defense, and topped off with an improved jump shot as the season went on, all culminated in a solid season. Due to his success as the season drew to a close, the Lakers brass felt it was pivotal that they not move him when trade talks to land another established superstar were at their peak.

Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma were late first-round selections by the Lakers in last years NBA draft (Hart 30th, Kuzma 26th) but they definitely did not play like it.

Hart brought his winning ways from Villanova along with his tough physical frame that bullies opponents all game long. And let’s face it, the Lakers needed the defensive help at the guard position. Hart — who may be the Lakers best defender — is a combo-guard who can handle the ball, score from deep, and attack the rim when his opportunities arise on offense. On the other end of the floor, he seeks out and locates the teams best players, regardless of position, and looks to neutralize their impact as much as possible.

Outside of Kuzma and maybe the Lakers coaching staff, I’m not sure anybody saw Kuzma being as impressive as he was in his debut season. With his quick trigger finger and confidence that he has in his jump shot, paired with his capability to convert on the lost art of the hook-shot, Kuzma is simply one of the best Lakers scoring options on the court at any given time.

While we do not know how heavily No. 25 overall pick Moritz Wagner will produce in his rookie year, he has a tremendous skill set that could be beneficial to Los Angeles. Wagner has the ability to shoot from beyond the arc and in his time in Michigan demonstrated great footwork when working down low on offense. If his success in college can translate against NBA defenses then the Lakers struck gold yet again late in the first round.

The centerpiece behind this young Lakers core is Brandon Ingram. Another No. 2 overall pick for the Lakers, Ingram has continued to grow each year as a player and coach Luke Walton hopes he is now ready to be a player that he can rely on night in and night out.

With a wiry 6’9″ frame and a wingspan of 7’3″, Ingram uses his length to rise above defenders and connect on mid-range jumpers as well as finishing at the rim. His three-point shot is coming along (just ask 76ers fans about his range) as it improved from 29.4% in his rookie season to 39.0% last season.

Ingram also has the hidden ability to handle the ball where at times last season he could be seen playing as a point guard for Los Angeles. With the strong ball-handling ability along with his improved scoring prowess, the next step for Ingram is becoming a strong playmaker for not only his shots but those of his teammates.

It is not a stretch to believe that the Lakers were well on their way to the post-season with this young core gaining chemistry together. However, with the addition of James and other veteran pieces, the timeline to make a charge back into the playoffs no doubt was speed up. Will these young Lakers be up for the task? Only, time will tell.

1. Philadelphia 76ers

Young core: C Joel Embiid, G/F Ben Simmons, G Markelle Fultz, G Zhaire Smith

It’s almost impossible to mention this team without thinking of one phrase, that phrase being ‘Trust the process’. The process included tanking and acquiring high draft picks in the hopes that they would pan out and the 76ers would climb to the top of the totem pole in the Eastern Conference. Given the success Philadelphia had in 2017-2018, it is safe to say it worked out.

Markelle Fultz, who was taken No.1 overall last season due to his scoring ability which he made manifest in his time at the University of Washington, may have let some of the Philly faithful down in his rookie season. Even though he only appeared in 14 games last season and scared 76ers fans to death when footage of his claim to fame (his shooting ability) looked as if it vanished, he enters the offseason fully healthy and with a renewed focus to join and contribute to an already talented young core.

photo via: Bill Streicher/ USA Today Images

Beefing up their back-court with a freak athlete in Zhaire Smith, Philadelphia is not pulling any punches in terms of how they want to attack teams with their youth. Smith, who recorded the third-highest vertical jump at the NBA combine this summer (41.5″), pairs well with the scoring capabilities that Fultz and veteran J.J. Reddick will provide. With playmakers like Ben Simmons and Fultz on the floor, Smith will most likely be seen surveying for space on the perimeter while also seeking out hard cuts towards the basket.

The second-coming of LeBron? We will have to see about that. With the size, athleticism, and ball-handling capabilities that Simmons carries, the comparison to LeBron seems warranted. As the Rookie of the Year last season, Simmons made the overall difference in converting the 76ers from an ‘okay’ team to one of the best in the East. While no NBA team respects his jump shot (for good reason), the second he acquires that and incorporates that into his offensive arsenal, it will be near impossible to contain him.

Nobody embodies their given nickname (The Process) better than Joel Embiid. Already achieving All-NBA second-team honors, All-Rookie first-team honors, All-Defensive second-team honors, and an All-Star appearance in only two short years speaks to the level of dominance Embiid has exhibited across the NBA.

With his masterful foot-work and a sweet stroke from beyond the arc, there is no doubt he is capable of filling the stat sheet (yes, 76ers fans you can ask the Lakers about that if they ask about Ingram’s jump shot). Mix Embiid’s offense with his well-rounded defensive abilities and you could very well be looking at one of the best two-way centers we have in today’s NBA.

The reason why the 76ers took the top spot

While some teams have extremely talented young cores, none of the teams listed can match the elite level status that the 76ers already possess with Simmons and Embiid being transcendent talents at their positions.


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