Youth is wasted on the young, unless you are these NBA teams

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So, who has the hottest young talent in the league? We’re analyzing the five teams who have built the best through the draft across positions and skill sets. No room for wannabes here – gotta be 25 or below to even join the party. We’re also looking for impact players, not DNPs, with dreams bigger than their wingspan.

These teams have the firepower to steamroll the league in a few short seasons, some as soon as now, like the Timberwolves, who look like playoff contenders in the making. Or others like the Jazz and Pacers, who are undergoing a rebuild and have more draft picks to parlay.

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The Core: Ochai Agbaji (23), Keyonte George (20), Taylor Hendricks (20), Walker Kessler (22), Collin Sexton (24)

The Case: Danny Ainge needs to make a choice: Is he rebuilding or trying to stay competitive? Recently, most optics lean toward Ainge becoming open to trading anyone on the roster, including All-NBA awarded Lauri Markkanen. If that’s the case, Sexton might be gone, too. But the pieces they acquired in the Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell trades (Agbaji, Kessler) are two of the team’s brightest building blocks.

The Ceiling: The Lottery. This team sucks. There are no two ways about it. The Jazz have one of the three worst accumulations of talent. The Jazz will suck, make the Lottery and nab another building block. If they also decide to unload Markkanen, they could be picking twice. Kessler locks in the centerpiece, moving forward as a youngster with incredible timing and feel as a rim protector and shot blocker.

What’s Missing: A clear plan. Again, the potential of this current squad depends on when Ainge decides to pull the plug on this bunch of over-achievers and goes all in on the tank.

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The Core: Deandre Ayton (25), Scoot Henderson (20), Kris Murray (23), Shaedon Sharpe (20), Anfernee Simons (24)

The Case: Not much to argue for their supremacy, yet. First, they need to figure out who and what Henderson is. A bust is a stretch, but the start has not looked good in motor and effort. So much depends on him taking over Lillard’s spot as the face of the franchise and reason to watch the Blazers. They have great pieces around Henderson, but none have 1A potential.

The Ceiling: The Lottery. No shade intended. They just also suck. They have more talent than the Jazz, but perhaps the same chance of overachieving. The jury is out on Chanuncy Billups as a head coach. The young studs on this roster must take a significant jump at some point. Even if he can keep Ayton engaged throughout the season amid the losing, that will be a win for Billups.

What’s Missing: Structure and development. Sharpe and Simons have a higher ceiling. Sharpe could be something special. But the core needs to stay healthy and work tirelessly on their game. By now, we should have seen one of the handful of Lottery guys on this team step into the main role.

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The Core: Tyrese Haliburton (23), Benedict Mathurin (21), Andrew Nembhard (23), Jarace Walker (20), Obi Toppin (25)

The Case: Rick Carlisle needed a few years to build his team’s identity, but here it is. For the first time in modern history, the Pacers are primarily known for their offense. Carise is one of the best offensive masterminds in the NBA, and he has brought his high-octane, point-guard-centric scheme to Indy, unlocking Haliburton into an All-NBA-level player. Haliburton is one of the best two-way players in the NBA. Unlocking Haliburton has brought a new dimension to the Pacers, who have built a roster of athletes who thrive in transition.

The Ceiling: First-round knockoff. It will take them making a big swing before the trade deadline to elevate them above a first-round, feel-good story. As good as they are on offense, they suck on defense, bad enough for the bottom three in the league in defensive rating. As we saw with the Sacramento Kings last year, having the league’s best offense means little in the playoffs, where defense wins games. Unlike the Kings, the Pacers have the player archetypes to become competent defensively.

What’s Missing: Scoring wing. This current iteration is the most balanced since the mid-2000 contending Pacers squad. But while they have high-ceiling pieces across the rotation, including Toppin, Nembhard and Mathurin, none appear to be first-option-level dudes. Haliburton is an incredible player and could eventually become the man. Still, it would behoove them to package two of the three players aforementioned named and picks to go after the available wings at the deadline.

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The Core: Ja Morant (24), Jaren Jackson Jr. (24), Desmond Bane (25), Santi Aldama (22), David Roddy (22)

The Case: Almost since Morant entered the league in 2019 as the second pick in the draft, the Grizzlies have been a playoff threat. Much of that is because of Morant, who, when locked in, is an unstoppable force at lead guard. But off-the-court distractions and controversies have slowed his progression. There was a time when he was pegged to be the next face of the league. All that is under question now and depends on how he bounces back after he’s returned from gun-affiliated suspension.

The Ceiling: Western Conference semifinals. Morant’s return will surely reverse the course of this season’s slow start. But is he enough? They traded for Marcus Smart this past summer and brought in Derrick Rose as mentors and veteran leader to take some pressure off Morant. But this is his team, and he must step up into the role of the emotional leader. Much depends on JJJ’s offensive evolution. We know he can be a Defensive Player of the Year, but can he be the second option offensively?

What’s Missing: A third option. Is it Desmond Bane? He’s a lethal scorer, but Bane is not the takeover player the Grizzlies need him to be as Morant’s Robin. It feels like JJJ and Bane are both better suited as third options. They need a stone-cold killer on the perimeter, over 6-foot-7 and capable of locking down his counterparts. As competitive as they are, it’s unlikely they are finding this guy through the draft so free agency might be their best bet.

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The Core: Anthony Edwards (22), Jaden McDaniels (23), Naz Reid (24), Nickeil Alexander-Walker (25), Troy Brown Jr. (24)

The Case: The Timberwolves have the biggest boom potential of this group. They sometimes look like a legitimate contender and have the frontcourt rotation figured out. Other times, they need roster consolidation and swapping Karl-Anthony Towns for a wing. Edwards is a bonafide star and is the team’s clear number one. The roster is currently not built well around him. It’s still built around Town’s skillset. Either he or Gobert needs to be traded, and a scoring wing as the second option should be added.

The Ceiling: Western Conference Finals. Just like the Pelicans, it depends on continuity between health and chemistry. Edwards is a dawg and will always give you everything he has. And the defensive wings on the rooster power the league-leading defense. Especially McDaniels and Kyle Anderson, two of the best point-of-attack defenders in the NBA. Things could get interesting if Gobert and Towns stay healthy and Reid or McDaniels become an offensive threat.

What’s Missing: Mike Conley has been an underrated point guard his whole career. At 36, his prime is in the rearview mirror, and it’s time to replace him via trade, as most of their picks went to Utah in the Gobert trades. There isn’t a player on the roster who seems primed to take this role unless Edwards decides to become a point, and the team can target another guard.

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The Core: Alperen Sengun (21), Jalen Green (21), Jabari Smith Jr. (20), Tari Eason (22), Amen Thompson (20)

The Case: I tried to tell you all about Ime Udoka. Coach is a dog. He deserved to be reprimanded for his off-the-court behavior in Boston. But there is no denying his ability to right the ship wherever he goes. The Rockers were the worst team in the NBA three years in a row until this year when the Rockets nabbed Udoka and used their cap space to sign championship guard Fred Van Vleet and defensive dynamo Dillion Brooks. The young core is thriving: Jalen Green, Jabari Smith Jr and Alpern Sengun.

The Ceiling: Western Conference Finals. Yes, you read that right. Udoka showed he can inspire greatness in his players. Armed with a champion vet in Van Vleet, plus a team full of neophytes and grizzlies dawgs, the sky’s the limit. Because Sengun has emerged as a star and future superstar, he does everything great and is now a force on defense under Udoka. He is the future of the center position post-Jokic and is already approaching his level as a rebounder and short-roll decision-maker.

What’s Missing: Alpha dog. Who is the leader of the team? Is it Van Vleet, the highest-paid player? Is it Green, the highest-drafted player? Sengun, the best player? Once this is determined and the hierarchy is set along with defined roles, watch out. This team is out for blood.

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The Core: Victor Wembanyama (19), Devin Vassell (23), Keldon Johnson (24), Jeremy Sochan (20), Malaki Branham (20)

The Case: The Spurs have had to trade away any player of note over the last three years to tank for a player like Wemby. Now that they have him, they will need to continue to build through the draft while addressing positional needs at point and center.

The Ceiling: Lottery. This team ran off a 20-plus losing streak earlier this season before finally winning one against the Los Angeles Lakers on national TV. They will likely add to their core next summer through the draft. Besides a point guard, they also need more depth at center and could pair another shooting big next to Wemby, creating the second coming of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson in the 1980s.

What’s Missing: A point guard. This needs to be the team’s top priority to ensure the team’s future at the position has at least a few years to mentor under Gregg Popovich. There have been rumblings about bringing back Dejounte Murray or perhaps drafting someone in next year’s draft, as they are sure to have one of the highest odds for a lottery pick. Until then, it’s the Wemby show, as he will be given every opportunity to show off his full arsenal this season.

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The Core: Zion Williamson (23), Trey Murphy III (23), Herb Jones (25), Dyson Daniels (20), Naji Marshall (25)

The Case: Even with Zion out most of last season due to health, weight and internet thots, the Pelicans remained competitive. With Zion, they can beat just about anyone on paper. The main core, including CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram, have yet to get enough reps together. Once they do, and Zion fully commits to conditioning and playing hard every game, they will fulfill their destiny. Otherwise, like Chris Paul and Anthony Davis, Zion could be the next great Pelicans player who asks out of town.

The Ceiling: Western Conference semifinals. This season feels like a make-or-break for the Pels. Zion has to choose to stay or go. And the franchise has to commit to him as the face of the franchise, accepting his Bourbon Street-sized warts. If Zion is healthy and decides New Orleans is where he wants to make his legacy, this team could reach a new level. That is a massive “if.”

What’s Missing: Shooting. McCollum and Murphy are respected shooters, but they need consistent shooting from the point guard position, which is also in flux. They can find this in the middle of the draft, where they have been selecting recently. The team’s depth around Zion and Ingram was built primarily through the draft, with Jones, Daniels, and Murphy’s critical pieces for the present and future.

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The Core: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (25), Chet Holmgren (25), Josh Giddey (21), Cason Wallace (20), Jalen Williams (22)

The Case: SGA cracked the All-NBA First Team last season after becoming the most unstoppable driving force in the NBA. With Holmgren returning for his first full season, he has catapulted the Thunder ahead on their timeline, currently sitting second in the West and in the top ten ratings in offense and defense. Holmgren is unlike anything we’ve seen, the post-up ability and defense of Ralph Sampson and the on-ball game of Kevin Durant.

The Ceiling: Western Conference semifinals. The Thunder must either cash in some of their draft capital for a proven veteran like Lauri Markkanen or make a handful of moves to bring in veterans before the deadline. Either way, their super-stud starting five needs supporting help outside of Isaiah Joe and Cason Wallace.

What’s Missing: The Thunder need to figure out the Josh Giddey situation, which is horrid and disgusting, if true. If so, he must be shipped out of town and the league. Otherwise, an athletic, pure shooting wing to pair with SGA would be the next upgrade, as neither Wallace nor Dort has the offensive game to complete the starting lineup as a contender.

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The Core: Paolo Banchero (21), Franz Wagner (22), Jalen Suggs (22), Wendell Carter Jr. (24), Anthony Black (19)

The Case: Only three of the young cores listed have bonafide superstars: the Magic, Timberwolves and Thunder with Banchero, Edwards and SGA. Zion and Ja are uber-talented but have faced development and off-the-court maturity roadblocks. The Magic are very well coached by Jamahl Mosley, who should have been Rick Carlise’s replacement in Dallas, with Orlando in the top 10 in defensive rating. The Magic took a tremendous turnaround this season, appearing to have figured out their rotations around Benchero and Franz Wagner, currently sitting fourth in the East.

The Ceiling: First round. A lack of a definitive point guard and center size are minor and fixable weaknesses. Banchero is about as sure of a superstar bet as you can find in the modern NBA game. But he needs time to adapt to the NBA’s game and improve his shooting efficiency. But they are certainly the dark horse of the Eastern Conference come playoff time and could stretch any top team to seven games and perhaps beat one or two of them based on health and match-up.

What’s Missing: For the amount of depth the Magic have at point guard, they still need someone to step up as the bonafide lead guard. Each of the three (Suggs, Cole Anthony, Markelle Fultz) all have glaring weaknesses while excelling at different things. Combine them all, and you have their answer. For now, the hope can be that the Wagner brothers can be the playmakers and let Suggs run the point while locking down opposing points of attack. This can work until the Magic lures a free agent or makes a big trade.

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