The unfortunate truth of the National Basketball Association is that even with the league forcing high school talents to wait at least one year from the date of their graduating high school class before being eligible to enter the NBA Draft, the league is still largely drafting players based on long-term projections of their athletic and basketball potential.
And yet, many of those prospects — who are often years away from being able to purchase an “adult beverage” — are expected to contribute as a professional right away, fairly or unfairly. As the saying goes, professional sports are very much a “what have you done for me lately?” business.
So that’s why we wanted to look at some of the youngest NBA talents to enter the league, as well as some of the talents who’ll enter the league in 2019, and see which players either currently have or project to provide the best (and worst) returns on investment for the teams that took them.
Star: Jayson Tatum
Even as Jayson Tatum went through something of a regression during his second NBA season as his Boston Celtics tried to figure out how to divide up minutes among all their players, there’s a reason why the Celtics refused to include him any potential trade deals for a superstar player.
Tatum did increase his statistical totals in 2018-2019, averaging 15.7 points, and 6.0 rebounds per game during his sophomore season, and if the Celtics can figure out a way to make their otherwise toxic culture more conducive to its young talent, he still has plenty of “franchise cornerstone” talent.
Star: Luka Dončić
It’s rare when a highly-touted prospect enters the NBA and lives up to expectations. It’s even more noteworthy when said prospect comes in and exceeds expectations.
And the latter was almost certainly the case with Luka Dončić of the Dallas Mavericks, whose incredible rookie season not only made him the heavy favorite to win the 2018-2019 NBA Rookie of the Year Award, but a legitimate cornerstone player whom the Mavericks could hand off the torch to, passing it from Dirk Nowitzki.
Star: Trae Young
While Luka Dončić is likely to win the 2018-2019 NBA Rookie of the Year Award, Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks made the race for the award far closer than most people previously anticipated. Young became just the third rookie in NBA history to average more than 18 points and 8 assists per game, joining guys like Oscar Robertson and Damon Stoudamire.
Perhaps even more importantly, Young’s prolific scoring ability and dynamic playing making ability in general have suddenly made the Hawks a team that could draw marquee free agents, who’d want to play alongside Young.
Star: Harry Giles
After missing virtually all of his one season at Duke University, Harry Giles was still talented enough to be selected with the 20th overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, by the Sacramento Kings. The Kings knew that Giles would probably miss much of his first season in the NBA, as he recovered from his troubles with his knee. But after finally getting on the court to start his pro career in 2018, Giles showed numerous glances of his talent and potential, especially from January of 2019 onwards.
He and forward Marvin Bagley III have the potential to form one of the top scoring front courts in the Western Conference, and Giles advanced stats showed his ability to change the game defensively when he’s on the floor.
Star: Wendell Carter
It’s ironic to mention Wendell Carter among the league’s next generation of star players, considering he’s your classic in-the-paint big man in a league that greatly values pace, space, and outside shooting. But even during an injury-shortened rookie season in 2018-2019, Carter averaged 10.3 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as the defensive anchor for his Chicago Bulls team.
His combination of basketball IQ on the defensive end of the court, combined with a deceptive level of athleticism that allows him to switch out against more fleet-footed opponents make him an interesting chess piece.
Star: De’Aaron Fox
De’Aaron Fox’s first two seasons in the NBA were as different as night and day, which is why many believed Fox was one of the prime candidates for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. As the Sacramento Kings became one of the most entertaining stories of the 2018-2019 NBA season, Fox showed far more of his legitimate All-Star-caliber talent.
He finished his second year in the NBA averaging 17.3 points and 7.3 assists per game, and his 1.64 steals per game ranked among the top 10 players in the league in that statistic.
Star: Lauri Markkanen
After a promising rookie season, Chicago Bulls’ forward Lauri Markkanen justified the enthusiasm that his team and their fans had in his selection, finishing his sophomore season in the NBA averaging just under 19 points and 9 rebounds per game. In other words: for a guy whom most people widely panned with the Bulls selected him in the 2017 NBA Draft, if he continues on his current projection, he looks like he’ll be a 20-and-10 player.
Pairing him with another talented big man on this list whom the Bulls recently brought into their organization gives Chicago two major building blocks their rebuild will be built upon.
Star: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
We’re getting to the point where calling Shai Gilgeous-Alexander a “guard” is like calling a Swiss Army Knife a “tool.” During his rookie season in 2018-2019, Gilgeous-Alexander averaged almost 10.8 points, 3.3 assists, and 2.8 rebounds per game as a reserve, while shooting just under 48% from the floor and 37% from three.
And after he became a regular contributor in the playoff-bound Los Angeles Clippers, Gilgeous-Alexander earned the respect of his veteran teammates and some of the biggest names around the NBA after actually upping his stat line during the postseason.
Star: Jaren Jackson Jr.
Even if the 2018-2019 season ended much uglier than it started for the Memphis Grizzlies, Jaren Jackson Jr. gave them plenty of reasons for optimism as they head into what is sure to be a major rebuild. While his rookie season was curtailed by a nasty bruise to his leg, Jackson averaged just under 15 points per game over his last 15 games before being shut down, with several games of 20+ point scored in that stretch.
As a legitimate two-way player, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear people around the league to start mentioning Jackson as one of the game’s true “unicorns,” especially if he can help the Grizzlies stay even somewhat relevant.
Star: Donovan Mitchell
It’s a bit trite to say that Donovan Mitchell “projects” to be a star, considering most people would already consider him a star. But there’s still a lot of room for him to grow as a player, as he admitted after the concluding game of his Utah Jazz’ loss to the Houston Rockets in the opening round of the 2018-2019 Western Conference Playoffs.
The runner up to the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award in 2018 had stretches of the 2018-2019 season where he looked like he was going through a sophomore slump, but he rebounded nicely into once again being one of Utah’s two franchise players (alongside big man Rudy Gobert).
Star: Mitchell Robinson
Whether it’s with their scant few draft picks (that they actually hold on to) or their free agent decisions, the New York Knicks haven’t had much reason for optimism when it comes to player personnel acquisition. But Mitchell Robinson, their 2nd round pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, was one of the few reasons for optimism during a dreadful 2018-2019 season.
The 7.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game won’t wow most people, even if they acknowledge he put up those numbers while playing less than 21 minutes per game. But if nothing else, Robinson has showed the potential to be a dominant presence in the paint, and one of the better shot-blockers in the league.
Star: John Collins
Everyone knows that Trae Young is the proverbial “Superman” for this new iteration of the Atlanta Hawks, but anyone talking about the promise held by the Hawks would be remiss to not talk about John Collins as the “Batman” alongside Young. Over the Hawks’ last 53 games of the season, Collins averaged over 20 points and more than 10 rebounds per game, while shooting just under 56% from the floor and even just over 37% from three point range.
The advanced statistics show Atlanta was markedly better with Collins on the floor, and if he can develop the defensive part of his game, he has All-Star-level potential.
Star: Zion Williamson
What would happen if you took the talents of Charles Barkley, Larry Johnson, and Blake Griffin in their respective primes, put all of those talents in a blender, and maybe added a few dashes of Julius Erving and Draymond Green for good measure, and blended up said concoction? You’d get Zion Williamson. In all honesty, what other way is there to describe him?
At 6’7 and 285lbs, Williamson looks more like an NFL interior defensive lineman product, yet he would already be one of the most explosive leapers and thunderous dunkers the day he arrives in the NBA. And that’s not even mentioning his quickness or deceptive shooting ability. In an era where we’re seeing so many incredibly talented athletes, Zion Williamson is essentially like none other.
Star: Ja Morant
The people nitpicking the accomplishments of Ja Morant, saying that he’s a questionable prospect because he played more than one year at a school (Murray State) where he didn’t face superior competition, are the same people who would’ve passed on Damian Lillard in the 2012 NBA Draft. And we all know how that would’ve worked out.
The truth is that, like Lillard, Morant is a one-man offensive dynamo who can drop huge point totals if needed, but almost always plays with a “set up my teammates for success” mentality primarily (evidenced by his NCAA-leading 10+ assists per game). That combination will make him a supremely valuable floor General in the NBA.
Star: De’Andre Hunter
The Draft scouting process in every major sport becomes so consumed with what a player can’t do, that they end up overlooking what a player can do, or has already accomplished. So while some NBA types will question Hunter’s potential athletic upside and high-volume-scoring ability, we forget about the fact that he is a near-textbook “3-and-D” wing prospect for a league always desiring such talent, and has always found a way to play his best in the games where the most is at stake (just look at his performance in the final game of the 2019 NCAA Tournament).
Some team is going to steal Hunter later on in the lottery part of the 2019 NBA Draft.
Bust: Frank Ntilikina
The New York Knicks really thought they stuck it to the Dallas Mavericks, as the two teams both greatly coveted point guard Frank Ntilikina from Strasbourg Illkirch-Graffenstaden Basket in France. Instead, Ntilikina’s woefully underdeveloped offensive game has become evident, in the form of his sub-36% shooting in his two seasons in the NBA.
Even if you put aside the fact that the Knicks passed on Donovan Mitchell to take Ntilikina, if you wanted to look at it from just a point guard perspective, even taking someone like Derrick White or even Frank Mason III would’ve probably been better choices than Ntilikina
Bust: Justin Jackson
Sacramento traded back from the #10 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, and took Justin Jackson from the National Champion Tarheels of the University of North Carolina with one of the two first round picks they acquired. A three-year starter at UNC, Jackson was supposed to come to Sacramento and add intangibles and a winning mentality to the perennially hapless Kings.
But after averaging less than seven points per game in his first season-and-a-half with the the Kings, Sacramento shipped him off as “trade” filler in their deal to acquire Harrison Barnes from the Dallas Mavericks. Even in Dallas, most people think Jackson has more value being flipped as a trade asset, versus being a building block for the Mavericks.
Bust: Markelle Fultz
As ESPN’s Zach Lowe quipped: some day, somebody is going to write a book about the tragedy that was the start of Markelle Fultz’ star-crossed NBA career. He was considered a no-brainer, no-way-you-should-think-twice lock to be the #1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, and the league took notice when the Philadelphia 76ers traded up for the #1 pick, seemingly to pair Fultz with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
But after one of the most mysterious shoulder injuries in the history of professional athletics completely robbed Fultz of his ability (and his confidence) in shooting the basketball, his presence became an ugly blemish on the rising 76ers. To add insult to injury: Boston further fleeced Philadelphia in the deal for this pick, walking out of the same draft with star-in-the-making Jayson Tatum.
Bust: Malik Monk
When the Charlotte Hornets took Malik Monk with the 11th overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, everyone immediately declared the Hornets got one of the biggest steals in the draft; never mind that Monk looked like someone told him his dog had cancer, as he was totally devastated when the New York Knicks passed on him.
Monk seemingly hasn’t recovered from that devastation, considering that in the first 130+ games of his NBA career, he hasn’t registered a single start, and averages less than 8.5 points per game. The fact that Charlotte was another one of the teams that passed over taking Donovan Mitchell can’t be reiterated enough times, given how bad it looks in hindsight.
Bust: Dennis Smith Jr.
A 6-2 bulldog who could jump out of the gym, blow by defenders, and play like a one-man offensive dynamo, Dennis Smith Jr. from North Carolina State seemed like a tantalizing prospect. That is, of course, until you realized that he was one of those guys who coasted by on his god-given athletic gifts, and left major questions about his attitude, focus, and work ethic at every stop he made.
But that didn’t stop the Dallas Mavericks from drafting Smith in the 2017 NBA Draft, and then trading him away less than two years later, probably realizing his destiny is something close to “Steve Francis 2.0.”
Bust: Josh Jackson
Most people acknowledged that Josh Jackson was an athletic project when entering the NBA, and the logjam of wing players plus the general erratic-ness of the Phoenix Suns have perhaps irreparably damaged his developmental path.
Through two NBA seasons, Jackson is averaging under 42% shooting overall, but his sub-30% shooting from three-point range is even more alarming. His number of starts and his total playing time all went down in his second season, which can’t be a good sign.
Bust: Deandre Ayton
Regardless of all the excuses you can make about the team (and its poor management due to its petulant owner), the facts are the facts: the season before DeAndre Ayton arrived in Phoenix, the Suns won 21 games. After Ayton’s first season in the NBA, the Suns won 19 games.
How do you select a player with the #1 overall pick in the NBA Draft, and with virtually the same exact team, end up losing even more games? That should tell you nearly everything you need to know about the impact Ayton has on his team and on winning basketball games in general, no matter what the shiny numbers in his box scores might tell you.
Bust: Bol Bol
As you might’ve guessed, Bol Bol is the son of Manute Bol, the 7’7 Sudanese center who had a solid career playing in the NBA. Bol Bol stands 7’2 himself, but unlike his dad, plays the game more like a wing, preferring to to shoot the ball and play on the perimeter. And therein lies the greatest irony: for a guy his size, he’s almost allergic to playing down low or getting physical with anyone.
It’s going to take a lot of polishing and cajoling for him to really capitalize on the “Unicorn” skill set everyone sees in him. Plus, already suffering from season-ending injuries to his lower-body can’t bode well for his future in the NBA.
Bust: Cam Reddish
Cam Reddish feels like one of the proverbial poster children for why coaches say “the only thing talent is good for is getting coaches fired.” Nobody can deny this 6’8 frame, the athleticism and fluidity he moves with, and the tools he possesses to become an ideal wing player in the NBA. And yet, when the lights shine the brightest, Reddish is so non-existent on the court that you’re halfway tempted to put him on a milk carton, under a “missing” caption.
He’s one of those guys who will continue to tantalize teams who believe they can bring the best out of him, only to frustrate the heck out of them when said talent is never realized.
Bust: RJ Barrett
As crazy as this might seem, prior to the start of the 2018-2019 college basketball season, many NBA types actually saw RJ Barrett as the better NBA prospect than Duke University teammate Zion Williamson.
But while Barrett showed flashes of being a dominant player before arriving at Duke, the fact that the Blue Devils didn’t look anything like the same team with Barrett leading Duke when Williamson was injured, and the offense stagnated when it didn’t run almost entirely through Williamson, should be a major red flag for any team looking to build their team around Barrett.