Top 25 under 25: Ranking the NBA's best young players entering the 2019-20 campaign

In the NBA, youth is essentially a synonym for hope. Coaches love veteran guile, but, aside from the lucky few who are employed by title contenders, they know that fans are much more focused on the future. Their bosses often are, too -- every time a draft-night steal changes a team's trajectory, every time a second- or third-year player "pops," a world of possibility opens up. 

Here, then, are the top 25 players under 25 years old, per CBS Sports' top 100 list, with an emphasis on how they can improve. (Full disclosure: These are not my personal rankings, which would have been almost identical in terms of the players included -- I had Justise Winslow in and Marvin Bagley out -- but different in terms of the order.)

Top 25 players under 25
1
Giannis Antetokounmpo Milwaukee Bucks PF
It is preposterous that the MVP (and a Defensive Player of the Year candidate) is on a list like this. Let's consider it a reminder that Antetokounmpo was 18 when he was drafted and was the youngest player in the NBA in 2013-14. I remember Larry Sanders telling me at a shootaround back then that that Antetokounmpo's teammates all saw him as "our little baby brother." I remember a bunch of Bucks comparing the skinny rookie to Andrei Kirilenko in the locker room that evening. I remember thinking he had unlimited potential. Now a few inches taller and one of the strongest players in the game, he is still realizing it -- should he make more strides as a shooter and add some new moves to his repertoire, he could bring Milwaukee a championship. (Age as of opening night: 24)
2
Nikola Jokic Denver Nuggets C
I love that not only were Antetokounmpo and Jokic drafted 15th and 41st, respectively, but that they have so little in common aside from being about 7 feet tall, growing up in Europe and having an advanced feel for the game. Jokic used to drink a gallon of Coca-Cola a day, but gave it up cold turkey when he arrived in Denver. The first time the Nuggets weighed him, he was 291 pounds. The story of his transformation into a superstar has been told ad nauseam, and, just like when Antetokounmpo gets from behind the 3-point line to the rim with one dribble, no one blinks anymore when Jokic initiates a pick-and-roll or throws a pinpoint no-look pass on the move. Entering his fifth season, his improvement is about small gains: more consistent shooting, fewer fouls, no more of his occasional eight- or nine-point nights. (Age as of opening night: 24)
3
Karl-Anthony Towns Minnesota Timberwolves C
The offense is otherworldly, and the defense is finally coming along. We'll find out soon whether or not Towns can build on the last few months of 2018-19, but, whew, those few months! None of his "unicorn" peers combine shooting, post play and face-up moves the way he does. While the Timberwolves have collectively failed to live up to the promise they had when Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine -- and then Towns, Jimmy Butler and Wiggins -- were supposed to be their long-term core, Towns' individual development is on track. If the front office can't find him a suitable sidekick, though, he will need to figure out how to make his teammates better. (Age as of opening night: 23)
4
Ben Simmons Philadelphia 76ers PG
As exhilarating as it was to see him hit his first 3 in a preseason game, I don't want to talk about Simmons' jumper anymore. Instead, let's focus on what we know for sure are his strengths: He is one of the best transition players in the league, blending speed with power like a young LeBron. He can defend 1 through 4 and some 5s. As a passer, he is a virtuoso. I wonder how he'd be talked about if he were not on the same team as Joel Embiid, with pressure to contend for championships. (Age as of opening night: 23)
5
Luka Doncic Dallas Mavericks SF
It's hard not to gush about Doncic, who was every bit as skilled as advertised in his first NBA season. He might make a leap this year based on conditioning alone, but, having established himself as the best player in Europe, he arrived with a fully formed sense of who he is as a player. It seems obvious that he will become more efficient, bump up his free throw percentage and continue to pick defenses apart. You'd trust him with the ball in crunch time, and you'd trust him with your franchise. (Age as of opening night: 20)
6
Mitchell grew into a leading-man role quicker than anybody anticipated, but the No. 13 pick in the 2017 draft now has a less weighty job. Not only can he play off of Mike Conley, he can learn from him. There should be fewer forced shots, easier scoring opportunities and a greater sense that Mitchell is in command of the game. The Jazz have set the stage for him to level up. (Age as of opening night: 23)
7
Devin Booker Phoenix Suns SG
On the one hand, Booker scored 157 points in a three-game stretch at the end of March. On the other, the Suns lost all of them, and one was a blowout. He can clearly get buckets, and his assist rate spiked last season as a de facto point guard. Based on his talent and age, Booker is more divisive than he should be, but his critics make valid points about his indifferent defense and suboptimal shot selection. The Suns' ineptitude has allowed him to stretch his wings for the last four seasons; now he needs to rein himself in and balance out his game. (Age as of opening night: 22)
8
Kristaps Porzingis Dallas Mavericks PF
We haven't seen him play a regular-season game in a while, but how could we forget the shooting, the rim protection and the putback dunks? Porzingis and Doncic give the Mavs a sturdy foundation, and the big man appears to have bulked up. Challenges ahead of him include defending the perimeter with despite that bulk, improving as a passer and staying healthy. (Age as of opening night: 24)
9
Jayson Tatum Boston Celtics SF
The 2018-19 season didn't go the way everybody wanted for Tatum, but, in fairness, he'd set the bar pretty high as a rookie. Big wings who can score from everywhere and guard multiple positions are perhaps the league's most valuable commodity, and, encouragingly, it sounds like he's focused on having a healthier shot distribution this time around . (Age as of opening night: 21)
10
De'Aaron Fox Sacramento Kings PG
From Year 1 to Year 2, Fox turned himself into a radically different player. He is blindingly fast, but it's the change of speed that gets you. I don't know anybody who doesn't like watching him play, and, if the jumper keeps improving, he can follow a Kemba Walker-like path to stardom. I wish I could be as confident about the direction of his team. (Age as of opening night: 21)
11
Jamal Murray Denver Nuggets PG
The Nuggets told the world how they feel about Murray when they signed him to a five-year, $170 million extension, a deal that was somewhat controversial because they didn't have to make such a commitment until next summer. The assumption is that he will continue to launch 3s without fear and do the pick-and-roll dance with Jokic, while sharpening things up and avoiding his cold streaks. Let's see it. (Age as of opening night: 22)
12
Myles Turner Indiana Pacers C
It's tough for a center to make an All-Defensive team with Rudy Gobert and Joel Embiid around, but Turner is capable of sneaking past one of them. He has grown as a pick-and-roll defender through experience and getting more mobile, and he has made strides as a passer, too. The next step is becoming more of a threat with the ball in his hands. (Age as of opening night: 23)
13
D'Angelo Russell Golden State Warriors PG
Brooklyn allowed Russell to write his redemption story, becoming an All-Star on a team that made the playoffs. Golden State will push him out of his comfort zone, as he is a pick-and-roll guard on a team that prefers to run a motion-oriented offense. Maybe this is a bad fit; maybe this is exactly what he needs. In terms of individual development, it's still about getting to the rim, drawing fouls and committing to the defensive end. (Age as of opening night: 23)
14
Trae Young Atlanta Hawks PG
Young is already one of the most creative passers on the planet, and the Hawks have empowered him to play with freedom. I love watching him play, but I'm not sure how to properly evaluate a player who is so obviously helpful on offense and so obviously harmful on defense. One thing he has going for him, though: Atlanta has stacked the roster with long, versatile, athletic players around him. (Age as of opening night: 21)
15
Jaren Jackson Jr. Memphis Grizzlies PF
An NBA nerd's dream, Jackson can space the floor, block shots, defend the perimeter and score off the dribble. Most rookies, even some of the most talented ones with undeniable star potential, are not as immediately productive as Jackson was last season. With no doubts about his ability to affect games as a modern, versatile big man, I am curious about how quickly he'll make progress with the more "traditional" star stuff. (Age as of opening night: 20)
16
Aaron Gordon Orlando Magic PF
There remains a sense that Gordon can bring his game to another level, but it's unclear exactly what that looks like in terms of his playmaking responsibility. As much as he has expanded his game, his best attributes remain his defensive versatility and cartoonish athleticism. I've been saying for years that I want to see him on a better, more balanced team, but it would be a nice story if the Magic became that team. (Age as of opening night: 24)
17
Jaylen Brown Boston Celtics SG
With a supposedly improved Tatum and a supposedly healthy Gordon Hayward, where does that leave Brown? It is easy to say that he should be their glue guy because he's not as natural a creator as those guys, but that doesn't jibe with how he sees himself. Brown is in a contract year, and he wants to show how hard he has worked on his game despite the fact that, as he put it, "a lot of times people try to pin you in a box." (Age as of opening night: 22)
18
John Collins Atlanta Hawks PF
Last season, Collins getting healthy coincided with the Hawks getting decent. He made a monster leap from his rookie season, becoming an average 3-point shooter out of absolutely nowhere and establishing himself as one of the league's premier rollers and rebounders. Collins wants to do everything, though -- shooting off the dribble, facilitating for others, posting up, etc. -- and Atlanta should let him try, as long as he continues to make strides on the other end. (Age as of opening night: 22)
19
Zion Williamson New Orleans Pelicans SF
The No. 1 pick has an irresistible combination of maturity and upside. He enters the league with not just an NBA body, but as one of the bounciest and strongest athletes in the game. Williamson does not need to dominate the ball to be effective, and in fact, seems to enjoy making plays for his teammates. You can picture him becoming a classic go-to guy as his shooting and ballhandling improve, but you can also picture him reaching superstardom without having a LeBron-like usage rate. According to New Orleans VP David Griffin, Williamson would be OK with being " Draymond Green with rockets in my ass." (Age as of opening night: 19)
20
Domantas Sabonis Indiana Pacers PF
Sabonis reads the game like a point guard, just as you'd expect of someone with his last name. He will likely never be able to dominate a game defensively like his frontcourt partner, Turner, but he's tough, efficient and often the hub of Indiana's offense. I imagine at some point he will expand his range -- while he has mostly stopped shooting 3s since playing out of position in Oklahoma City, you can still find him taking them in warmups. (Age as of opening night: 23)
21
Marvin Bagley III Sacramento Kings PF
Bagley had a pretty impressive rookie season, showing off his ridiculous second jump and soft touch around the rim. It's still not clear if he will play more power forward or center long-term, though, as pre-draft questions about his shooting and defense linger. The Kings may have hinted that they see him as a 4 by signing Dewayne Dedmon and Richaun Holmes when they already had Harry Giles on the roster. (Age as of opening night: 20)
22
Lauri Markkanen Chicago Bulls PF
Markkanen shoots beautifully and the Bulls encourage him to push the ball after grabbing defensive boards. When he was healthy last season, he made lots of plays that most 7-footers can't make, leaving the impression that he can eventually become a reliable creator one-on-one. Ironically the Finnisher has not been all that good at finishing early in his career, and he has some maturing to do on defense, too. He'll be an All-Star if/when he figures that stuff out. (Age as of opening night: 22)
23
Brandon Ingram New Orleans Pelicans SF
Ingram is a point-forward type and a rangy defender, and I love what he could be. The conundrum is that he's not a particularly helpful off-ball player, and the Pelicans probably aren't going to make him the focal point of their offense. It's up to him to find ways to do his thing without taking them out of their flow. If he proves he's worthy of more responsibility, they can tilt their system in his direction. (Age as of opening night: 22)
24
Zach LaVine Chicago Bulls PG
LaVine is coming off a career season in which he had every opportunity to put up numbers. At times, he was essentially the Bulls' entire attack, shooting deep 3s and aggressively driving to the basket, where he has become adept at creating contact. It is evident by now that LaVine is not a point guard, but he can initiate offense and he handled his crazy usage rate fairly well. Chicago got him some help in the summer, which ideally will mean fewer turnovers and more judicious shot selection. Still an inattentive off-ball defender, perhaps a lighter scoring load will help him in that area, too. (Age as of opening night: 24)
25
Lonzo Ball New Orleans Pelicans PG
Ball is a profoundly strange player, but a highly intelligent and effective one. In terms of defense, he's one of the better guards in the league, and he creates transition opportunities by playing passing lanes well, rebounding and throwing brilliant look-ahead passes. His shooting has been a cause for concern, but his form looks much better these days. (Age as of opening night: 21)

A few takeaways from this list:

Big time

The first four players on the list -- Antetokounmpo, Jokic, Towns and Simmons -- are huge, powerful and would have looked like aliens playing the way they do in the early 2000s. Scroll past them and you'll see a bunch of other rising stars who might have been pigeonholed as post-up guys had they been born a generation earlier. It's awesome that tall kids who grow up watching these guys won't have to deal with coaches who park them in the post and tell them they're soft if they want to work on their ballhandling and shooting. Jokic and Williamson are going to make the term "point-center" mainstream soon. 

The mighty Mavs

It was big news when the Mavs paired Doncic and Porzingis, but the story was put on hold because we couldn't actually watch the two of them play until now. Seeing them near the top of this list and on the floor together, I can't help but think Dallas deserves more attention. The playoff race in the West is going to be a bloodbath yet again, but my only real hot take about this season is that the Mavs are capable of fighting their way in. (And if they don't, then whatever -- the front office traded for both of them thinking of the next decade, not the short term.)

Wiggins :(

Friday is the two-year anniversary of Andrew Wiggins signing a five-year contract extension worth about $150 million. He was 22 then, and while the deal was seen as risky at the time, the idea that he wouldn't even make a list like this seemed like a stretch. That he has fallen this far is a real bummer, especially because if you catch him on the right night you can see why he was picked first overall and won Rookie of the Year. At media day, Wiggins acknowledged that "people are going to doubt you" and "people are going to think that you lost a step," saying that he would use it as motivation and he knows he has to add to his game. He'll be out of contention for the 25 under 25 next season, but it would be nice to see him back in the top 100.


CBS Sports Writer

James Herbert is somewhat fond of basketball, feature writing and understatements. A former season-ticket holder for the expansion Toronto Raptors, Herbert does not think the NBA was better back in the... Full Bio

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