Veteran superstars shape the results of the league, but young players consistently demand rotational spots and make an important impact on the NBA. We’re looking at 15 of the best so far this season.
To be considered for the list, the player must be in his age-22 season or younger and have no more than two years of experience in the league. For example, this is Joel Embiid’s age-24 campaign, while it’s Kristaps Porzingis’ third season.
OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors
When the Raptors needed a replacement for an injured Norman Powell, OG Anunoby stepped into the starting lineup. Powell returned, but Anunoby didn’t leave the first unit. Although his box-score numbers aren’t particularly impressive, he’s been a better fit alongside Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valunciunas. With Powell in the preferred five, the Raptors had a minus-7.2 net rating, per NBA.com. Simply swapping him for Anunoby has resulted in a plus-2.7 mark — and Powell has played well off the bench. Anunoby’s emergence is a win-win for Toronto.
Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers
It’s a good thing shooting is only one part of the sport, because by any of those statistics Ball is having a horrible season. Beyond his troublesome percentages, however, the UCLA product has dished 7.0 assists and grabbed 6.9 rebounds per game. Along with Ben Simmons (more on him later), Ball is on pace to become one of only four rookies in NBA history to average 6.5 assists and rebounds in his debut season, per Basketball-Reference. As much as the Lakers need Ball to improve his shooting, he’s still a useful contributor every night.
Dillon Brooks, Memphis Grizzlies
Memphis has undergone a little bit of organizational upheaval in the early portion of 2017-18, since the team fired David Fizdale before November ended. The losing streak and coaching change has overshadowed a respectable start from Dillon Brooks. He only needed nine games to secure a starting spot and has shot 47.0 percent as a member of the opening five. Overall, Brooks is averaging 8.3 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game. Brooks has provided a much-needed boost to the small forward spot.
Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
After spending his rookie campaign in a smaller role, Jaylen Brown has reminded the NBA why Boston selected him No. 3 overall in 2016. Now a full-time starter, he’s collected 14.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game. Additionally, Brown has connected on 41.0 percent of his three-point attempts. The Celtics sport a plus-8.3 rating with him on the floor, according to NBA.com, and that number dips four points when he leaves the court. Thanks to his versatility and production on both ends, Brown is a key part of a championship contender in Boston.
John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
Unfortunately for the Hawks, John Collins will be sidelined for a couple weeks while recovering from a sprained AC joint in his left shoulder. On the bright side, the energetic forward backed up his first-round billing before the injury. Collins scored double digits in 14 of his first 21 appearances, also grabbing seven-plus rebounds 13 times. He’ll return to the court holding a 59.2 shooting percentage, which ranks fifth in the NBA among players attempting at least eight shots per game, according to Basketball-Reference. The Hawks should be confident Collins is a building block of the future.
Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers
Kevin Durant loves what he’s seeing out of Brandon Ingram. Portland Trail Blazers star C.J. McCollum said the Lakers swingman is going to be a problem. If you don’t believe us, praise from a superstar and an All-Star-caliber guard ought to suffice. Ingram, in his second season, has elevated his game in a significant way. The Duke product has lifted his scoring average from 9.4 to 16.0 and posted higher shooting percentages at the free-throw line, from three and overall — while taking 4.2 more looks per game. At just 20 years old, Ingram has plenty of time to become a superstar. And he’ll probably get there.
Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers selected Ball with the second overall pick in the 2017 draft. Way down at No. 27, however, Los Angeles nabbed an absolute steal in Kyle Kuzma. The recently crowned Rookie of the Month has amassed 16.8 points per game with shooting marks of 37.8 beyond the arc and 49.8 overall. He’s topped the 20-point plateau on eight occasions and failed to reach double digits just twice. Kuzma also ranks second among rookies with seven double-doubles. He probably won’t win Rookie of the Year, but a top-five finish looks certain for Kuzma.
Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls
As the Bulls hurtle toward a top draft slot, Lauri Markkanen has at least offered a semblance of hope for frustrated fans. The Finnish forward has provided 14.5 points and 8.0 rebounds on average, recording six double-doubles along the way. Markkanen’s shooting range has been helpful on a roster that lacks respected perimeter threats. Yes, he’s recently encountered a slump and is 30.9 percent from the floor over the last eight games. But in the absence of both Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis, Markkanen showed he can be a valuable part of Chicago’s future.
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
The Denver Nuggets are going to regret trading Donovan Mitchell. They might already be disappointed with the move. In 24 appearances, the former Louisville star has registered 16.6 points, 3.2 assists and 1.3 steals per game. Mitchell has been the defensive pest draft analysts expected, but he’s steadily become more of a playmaker as he’s continued adjusting to the NBA. That rapid learning was on full display when Mitchell shredded the New Orleans Pelicans for a career-best 41 points. He has eight other 20-plus-point outputs this season.
Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
Jamal Murray is not a perfect player. One look at his win/loss splits, and that much is abundantly clear. In 13 wins, Murray has a plus-22.8 rating and buried 42.1 of his long-range attempts, according to NBA.com. In nine losses, on the other hand, he’s trudged to minus-19.3 mark and connected on a horrible, no good, very bad 16.7 percent from downtown. Murray deserves a place for his best moments despite the difference. He’s contributed 14.4 points and 2.3 assists per night mostly as a tertiary — or quaternary — option. Murray’s development is crucial for Denver to truly compete in the playoffs.
Jakob Poeltl, Toronto Raptors
As a rookie, Jakob Poeltl held a scattered role until March. That has changed considerably for the center this season. In 21 appearances for the 14-7 Raptors, he’s consistently made a small yet notable difference. Averages of 6.9 points and 4.3 rebounds certainly aren’t sensational. However, Toronto boasts a 26.5 offensive rebounding percentage when Poeltl is on the floor compared to 19.5 when he’s on the bench, according to NBA.com. For comparison’s sake, the Nuggets lead the league with a 27.5 OREB% overall. Poeltl is a real weapon for the Raptors on the glass.
Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers
Domantas Sabonis knows nothing about a sophomore slump. Indiana acquired the power forward along with Victor Oladipo in the Paul George trade, and he’s quickly bolstered the frontcourt. Sabonis has tallied 12.5 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. The 21-year-old’s vision and passing skills have also flashed on occasion, evidenced by four showings with at least five assists. Plus, Marc Gasol is the league’s only player who has registered more possessions as the roll man in pick-and-roll than Sabonis, per NBA.com. Sabonis is an essential part of the Indiana offense.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Does anyone disagree Ben Simmons is probably headed for Rookie of the Year? After missing all of 2016-17 due to a foot injury, the LSU product has established himself as a versatile force. To date, only Russell Westbrook can match Simmons’ per-game numbers of 18.0 points, 9.3 rebounds and 7.1 assists, according to Basketball-Reference. When the only comparable player is the reigning MVP, you’re doing something right. The Sixers are 8.2 points per 100 possessions better with Simmons on the floor, per NBA.com. He and Joel Embiid are turning around the franchise.
Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks immediately placed Dennis Smith Jr. into the starting lineup, and the rookie is steadily becoming more reliable. Yes, his shooting efficiency must improve, but the energetic point guard has improved the quickness and effectiveness of his decisions. In his first 15 appearances, Smith averaged 3.6 turnovers. Over the last seven contests, he’s slashed that number (2.0) in half. Smith, who has recorded 14.5 points, 4.2 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game, is showing the promise Dallas needs as the end of Dirk Nowitzki’s career looms.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
“He’s a bad dude,” All-Star guard Kyrie Irving said of Jayson Tatum before the regular season began. And, oh, was he ever right. The No. 3 pick of the 2017 draft has knocked down a scorching and NBA-best 51.3 percent of his three-point attempts. Among players with at least 100 minutes this season, Tatum’s 81.1 effective field-goal percentage on catch-and-shoot attempts ranks No. 4 in the league, per NBA.com. He’s started every game and averaged 13.9 points with 5.3 rebounds. Tatum is a complementary piece, but he already looks like a star.