LeBron is nearing the final chapters of his potentially greatest-of-all-time career. Steph Curry turned 30 toward the end of last season. Kevin Durant will turn 30 not long before opening night 2018, while Russell Westbrook will enter his fourth decade a month into this season. When James Harden reaches that milestone this upcoming offseason, that means every NBA MVP from the past decade will be 30 or older – even Derrick Rose, who hits 30 in October.
Which brings us to the inevitable question: Who's got next?
We're in the midst of a golden era of the NBA, dominated by one individual (LeBron) and one franchise (the Golden State Warriors) yet complemented by all these other superstars (the aforementioned, plus Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard and more) and superteams (namely the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs). But good things never last forever. As unbeatable as the Warriors seem today, they could get old by tomorrow. As superhuman as James seems today, he turns 34 this year, and is already beating the odds in his battle against aging. Before you know it you'll look up and the NBA will be a different place, dominated by different superstars and different superteams.
What follows is a list of the top 25 NBA players under age 25 – the players most likely to be dominating the next era of the Association.
A few notes:
This is not a list of the top 25 young players in terms of production for the upcoming season. Nor is it a straight projection on which of these players will be best in, say, five years. It's some combination of both. The list is loosely based on CBS Sports' ranking of the top 100 players in the NBA, but it's not constrained by that. Think of it this way: If you had a draft for which young players you could start a team with, and salaries weren't part of the discussion, who would you pick?
The cutoff date is Oct. 16, the first day of the 2018-19 season. Anyone who turns 25 before then is out. So Anthony Davis, who it feels like has led these types of lists for years, is out. Other recent graduates of the 25-under-25 group include Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond and Steven Adams.
Here are the top 12 players who just missed making this list: Jabari Parker, Terry Rozier, John Collins, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Wendell Carter Jr., Kelly Oubre, Jakob Poeltl, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, Buddy Hield, D'Angelo Russell. But one stellar 2018-19 season could propel any of these youngsters – not to mention recent draftees like Trae Young, Kevin Knox or Collin Sexton – onto next year's list.
Jusuf Nurkic Portland Trail Blazers C
In the month and a half Nurkic spent with Portland during the 2016-17 season, he was a bit of a godsend. During that time, Nurkic was among the league leaders in screen assists, deflections, rebounds and blocked shots, and the Blazers were 14-6 in his first 20 games. While Nurkic's overall numbers dipped slightly last season, he's still among the best NBA big men at doing the little things: screening, boxing out, contesting shots on defense. Huge yet nimble, Nurkic has the potential to do for the Blazers what Steven Adams does for the Thunder.
Julius Randle New Orleans Pelicans PF
Randle still resorts to bully-ball, and that results in too many turnovers for a big man, but the reason he resorts to it is because he's one of the most physically powerful young big men in the NBA. Last season marked somewhat of a breakout season for Randle, as he became a vastly more efficient offensive player. His shooting percentage on 2-point field goals has increased by nearly 14 percentage points since his first full NBA season; last season he ranked 16th in the NBA on 2-pointers, and he was among the best in the NBA inside the restricted area. A pairing with the versatile Anthony Davis could be a boon for Randle's game.
Zach LaVine Chicago Bulls PG
LaVine didn't seem quite right last season after his return from his ACL injury, and worse, his defensive acumen didn't seem any better than it was during his time with the Timberwolves. His defensive rating of 114.8 was the second-worst in the NBA last season among players who appeared in 20 or more games. Yet that didn't stop the Bulls from matching the Sacramento Kings' four-year, $78 million offer sheet. That's because LaVine, assuming he's healthy, is still a superb athlete -- and one who was averaging 18.9 points and shooting 38.7 percent from 3-point range before he tore his ACL.
Marcus Smart Boston Celtics PG
Smart has never progressed as a scorer, which was the biggest worry about him coming out of college. He's averaged fewer than 10 points per game and has shot less than 30 percent from 3-point range during his four-year career. On defense, though, there are few better. It's tough to pick who between Smart, Al Hoford and Jaylen Brown is the single-most important element to the Celtics' best-in-NBA defense; the correct answer is likely all three. Smart's all-out defensive desire sticks out. On defense, he seemingly is able to hound multiple opponents at once, no matter what position they play. Smart's defensive rating was sixth in the NBA among players who played 50 or more games, and he was among the league leaders in deflections and in charges drawn.
Lauri Markkanen Chicago Bulls PF
Markkanen was one of the pleasant surprises of the stacked 2017 draft, averaging 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds and shooting 36.2 percent from 3-point range while taking a lot of them -- nearly six 3-pointers a game, more than any rookie outside of Donovan Mitchell. Markkanen also set an NBA record by reaching 100 3-pointers in 41 games. The idea of putting Markkanen alongside a more traditional big in Wendell Carter Jr. in Fred Hoiberg's offense is intriguing.
Deandre Ayton Phoenix Suns PF
It remains to be seen if Ayton can defend competently against NBA players. Results from summer league weren't particularly encouraging. What isn't in doubt is that the physically intimidating and versatile Ayton has the potential to be an absolute monster on offense. During his one-and-done season at Arizona, Ayton averaged 20.1 points and 11.6 rebounds while shooting 34.3 percent from 3-point range. He'll immediately be a force on the boards for the Suns. He's got the body and the potential to be a lot more.
Lonzo Ball Los Angeles Lakers PG
Take out your feelings about Ball's father and Lonzo's funky 3-point shooting form. Truth is, the young man has an absolutely incredible feel for the game of basketball. The 3-point shooting was not good -- 30.5 percent on the season -- but after absolutely stinking it up for the first two months of the season, Ball was an average 3-point shooter the rest of the way. And the rest of his numbers were impressive for a rookie: 10.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, 7.2 assists (against only 2.6 turnovers) and 1.7 steals. He's a high IQ player on offense and a willing defender on defense.
Jamal Murray Denver Nuggets PG
Murray is a candidate to shoot up this list in the next year as he becomes the Nuggets' primary ball-handler. Last season, the dynamic Murray averaged 16.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists while shooting 37.8 percent from 3-point range. The most impressive stat was this: Murray ranked 48th in the NBA with a 57.6 percent true shooting percentage. While that may not sound particularly impressive, that ranks Murray fifth all-time in true shooting percentage for guards age 21 and younger. Outranking him are some impressive names: Magic Johnson, Eric Gordon, Michael Jordan and Andre Iguodala.
Andrew Wiggins Minnesota Timberwolves SF
Wiggins regressed in a major way after signing a max contract extension last offseason, dipping from 23.6 points per game to 17.7 points and making shots at a lower percentage (48.1 percent effective field goal percentage, 33.1 percent from 3-point range). Part of that was because Wiggins struggled to adapt his often-passive personality to the alpha-dog personality of Jimmy Butler. One thing to note: Timberwolves sources do believe Wiggins' moribund defense -- he was named the "Least Defensive Player" by FiveThirtyEight.com after the 2015-16 season -- incrementally improved last season.
Gary Harris Denver Nuggets SG
Among the players who were picked above Harris in the 2014 draft include Nik Stauskas, Noah Vonleh, Adreian Payne and James Young. Whoops. Harris has been a big piece of one of the most exciting offenses in the league (and, yes, his defense has been one of many reasons why the Nuggets have had one of the NBA's worst defensive efficiency marks the last few seasons; Harris had the worst defensive rating among NBA rotation players during the 2016-17 season). Harris had the most productive season of his career last year, averaging 17.5 points on 39.6 percent 3-point shooting. His defense improved as well; he ranked sixth in the NBA last season with 1.8 steals per game.
Myles Turner Indiana Pacers C
Turner was expected to make a big jump last season. He didn't, regressing from the season before in points (from 14.5 to 12.7), rebounds (from 7.3 to 6.4) and blocks (from 2.1 to 1.8). The good news: He's still loaded with potential, and going into a contract season this year, Turner spent the offseason working on cutting up his body. He's still one of the most naturally talented two-way young big men in the league.
Aaron Gordon Orlando Magic PF
Gordon has always been long on potential but short on production. That changed last season as Gordon became a basketball player instead of just an athlete, and was rewarded with a four-year, $84 million contract extension. Gordon made a big jump in his fourth NBA season with career highs in minutes, points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. If Gordon doesn't achieve true stardom this year, he could by next season as this young Magic team grows around him. On Dec. 1, Gordon was shooting an absurd 44 percent from 3-point range. The rest of the season he only shot 28.3 percent. Where Gordon skews on 3-point shooting will determine his ceiling as an NBA player -- or an NBA star.
Brandon Ingram Los Angeles Lakers SF
Ingram made a huge jump in his sophomore season as he put on muscle and added confidence that he can compete with NBA veterans. Ingram is a natural scorer, averaging 16.1 points last season on much-improved 39 percent 3-point shooting. The most surprising part of his developing game last season was how he grew as a playmaker as Ingram took on some point guard duties in Lonzo Ball's stead. Now Ingram gets to play alongside one of the best playmakers in NBA history in LeBron James.
Clint Capela Houston Rockets C
The perfect player for the Rockets. Capela was molded by the Rockets to become the type of stalwart defender and rebounder that this high-powered, 3-point-oriented offense needed as a foundational piece. His game is marked by simplicity: defend and rebound, screen and roll, and most of all, dunk. He led the NBA with 213 dunks last season.
Devin Booker Phoenix Suns SG
A remarkable scorer -- but what else? It was (mostly) a no-brainer for the Suns to sign Booker to his five-year, $158 million contract extension this offseason after he'd averaged 24.9 points per game and shot 38.3 percent from 3-point range last season. But the question still remains whether Booker can become a complete basketball player. He upped his playmaking last season, and sources in the Suns organization have told me he's made incremental -- but noticeable -- improvements on his defense. Part of it is defensive effort; part of it is he's had to expend so much energy carrying the Suns on the offensive end that he's simply too gassed to play defense.
Jaylen Brown Boston Celtics SG
Brown was considered an incredible athlete but not exactly a polished offensive talent when he came into the NBA two years ago. Guess what? Still strong, still an athlete, now with some polish. Brown shot nearly 40 percent from 3-point range last season and averaged 14.5 points per game. He's also an anchor for one of the NBA's best defenses.
Luka Doncic Dallas Mavericks PG
Doncic is a guy who, if all the hype around him is real, could jump into the top five on this list within a year or two. Doncic dominated the second-best league in the world last year, playing against grown men as an 18-year-old and winning EuroLeague MVP and EuroLeague Final Four MVP. Dirk Nowitzki sounded like he was calling Doncic the next Magic Johnson when he praised him in preseason workouts: "I never had the court vision, the savviness and the stuff that he brings to the game," Nowitzki said.
Jayson Tatum Boston Celtics SF
Imagine if Tatum had been picked No. 1 overall by the Philadelphia 76ers; he'd have been the perfect fit. Instead, the long, lean natural scorer averaged 13.9 points per game for the Celtics his rookie season on 43.4 percent 3-point shooting. More surprising was his aptitude on defense; that was considered a weakness coming into the league, but the cerebral Tatum played a competent role in the league's top-ranked defense last season. Tatum's stats may not rise to the level of others in the top 10 on this list, but that's only because he's playing on an absolutely stacked Celtics team.
Kristaps Porzingis New York Knicks PF
The absurdly skilled and versatile big man was in the middle of another eye-opening season (averaging 22.7 points on nearly 40 percent 3-point shooting, and among the league leaders in blocked shots) when he tore his right ACL in February. That meant we didn't get to see Porzingis in his first All-Star Game, and we may not be able to see him at all during the 2018-19 season. If he gets healthy, though, he's immediately in contention to shoot up this list.
Nikola Jokic Denver Nuggets C
The best-passing big man … ever? That's what we might be saying about Jokic a decade from now. Among the league's big men, the 23-year-old Serbian ranked first in assists (6.1 per game), 12th in rebounds (10.7), sixth in points (18.5) and fifth in steals (1.2). Oh, and he shot nearly 40 percent from 3-point range. The Nuggets are one of the most exciting teams in the NBA (especially if you don't like defense), and Jokic is the main reason.
Ben Simmons Philadelphia 76ers PG
If Simmons can become even a league-average outside shooter, he'll rocket to the top of this list. But even with outside shooting that's barely existent (he attempted only 11 3-pointers his rookie season, made zero of them, and shot only 56.0 percent from the free-throw line), Simmons was still the Rookie of the Year. Simmons' stat line last season (averaging 15.8 points, 8.2 assists, 8.1 rebounds and 1.7 steals) was strikingly similar to LeBron James' stat line his rookie year (20.9/5.9/5.5/1.6).
Donovan Mitchell Utah Jazz SG
An absolute revelation for the Utah Jazz, who were thrilled to have the opportunity to trade up to the 13th pick last season and nab Mitchell. Mitchell's breakout rookie campaign turned the Jazz from a franchise searching for an identity in the post-Gordon Hayward era into a team that is close to the top tier in the West. He'll be an All-Star sooner instead of later.
Karl-Anthony Towns Minnesota Timberwolves C
Even with all the drama surrounding Jimmy Butler's contract situation, there's little doubt that the Timberwolves' future is based on Towns more than on Butler. On the offensive end, Towns was dominant last season; he was one of the NBA's leaders in true shooting percentage, and his 42.1 percent shooting from 3-point range was better than any big man in the league who averaged three or more 3-pointers a game except Al Horford. His defense has held him back from becoming a complete player, and was one reason why his team finished 22nd in defensive efficiency last season despite adding lockdown defender Butler in the offseason.
Joel Embiid Philadelphia 76ers C
The only other sub-25, non-Anthony Davis player to garner MVP votes last season (finished 12th), Embiid proved that the pain of the Sam Hinkie-era tanking was worth it. In his first (mostly) healthy season, Embiid averaged 22.9 points and 11.0 rebounds, and while his 3-point percentage dipped, he's still a defensively dominant big man who can score from anywhere. Embiid's impact on the 76ers was monstrous; his net rating of plus-11.6 was one of the best in the NBA.
Giannis Antetokounmpo Milwaukee Bucks PF
This pick may not be as obvious as when Anthony Davis topped these lists, but it's close. The 23-year-old Greek Freak finished sixth in MVP voting last season, higher than any other player (other than Davis) under age 25. He's one of the most versatile players in the NBA offensively and defensively. And he's done all this despite still being a below-average outside shooter; his lackluster 30.7 percentage from beyond the arc was his highest since his rookie year. Under a new coach in Mike Budenholzer, Antetokounmpo could be in line for his most impressive season yet.