Young NBA players are always evaluated for their potential – potential to win titles, to make All-Star teams, or to be selected for the Hall of Fame. Some of the game’s all-time greats like Jordan, LeBron, Kobe and Shaq had immense expectations placed on their shoulders even before they were drafted, and still exceeded them. Other times, players believed to be the league’s next superstars fell short because of injury or simply underperformed.
Of course, hindsight is twenty-twenty. But what about looking forward? The NBA bubble gave a lot of young players great opportunities to show their stuff this season, and the league is certainly full of young promising talent. Not everyone can reach basketball’s highest level of performance, but a lot of up-and-comers certainly have a shot. These are ten of those young players, all under 24, who could one day wind up in the Hall of Fame.
10. Tyler Herro
Tyler Herro made perhaps the biggest leap forward of any player in this year’s playoffs, both in his performance and his presence in the public eye. Other stars like Jamal Murray, Donovan Mitchell and Devin Booker showed incredible skills in the bubble, but they were all on many people’s radars already. Herro’s teammate Kendrick Nunn finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, and Herro still managed to be Miami’s most outstanding first-year player in the postseason.
Will that breakout showing translate into a Hall of Fame level career? Only time will tell, but Herro certainly has a lot going right for him, including a team that will likely stay in serious playoff contention for years to come. His 37-point game against Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals, in particular, showed glimpses of future superstar-caliber greatness. It was the most points ever scored by a rookie in the Conference Finals, and the second-highest tally ever by a player aged 20 or younger in the playoffs, period. The one player ahead of Herro in that stat? Magic Johnson himself.
9. Brandon Ingram
Ingram broke out big time this season, snagging his first All-Star selection and the 2019-20 most Improved Player award. He improved 5.5 points per game over last season to average 23.8, along with 6.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and a steal. The big question for Ingram is how high he’s able to go, and if he’ll be able to keep making that level of consistent improvement in the coming years. If the answer is yes, his perimeter shot keeps getting more consistent, and his defense improves, he could achieve truly great things.
The other big question as far as Ingram’s ability to win at the highest level is how he’ll fit with Zion Williamson in New Orleans. There’s a beautiful world for Pelicans fans where the two former Duke players find the chemistry that lets them dominate on all levels of offense, leading the Pels to deep playoff runs for years to come. But it’s unclear right now if that’s the future we’ll get, or if Ingram could be bartered off in exchange for some desperately-needed defense.
8. Bam Adebayo
Following Ingram and Herro, it’s another rising Heat star. Bam has improved steadily through his first three years in the league, finishing second in Most Improved Player voting this past season and being selected to the All-Defensive Second Team. He averaged a double-double for the 2019-20 season with 15.9 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, and 1.1 steals. And he’s showing no signs of slowing down.
In an era when traditional centers are largely obsolete, Bam’s combined scoring potential and capacity to guard every position should take him extremely far. He’s proved himself an incredibly versatile player who could fit well on any squad, and if he develops his jump shot he could become an even more serious threat.
Alongside Jimmy Butler, Herro and the rest of Miami’s impressive young squad, he’s also in a prime position to make more title runs throughout his prime, which he hasn’t even reached yet. And if he’d been healthy all the way through this year’s Finals, the Heat could have had a real chance at winning the whole thing.
7. Jamal Murray
If anyone had doubts about Jamal Murray before the bubble, they should have all been erased by now. He averaged 26.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 6.6 assists through the postseason, improving markedly in every category over the previous year’s playoffs. Denver’s massive comebacks against the Jazz and Kawhi Leonard’s Clippers showed that a Nuggets roster led by Murray and Jokic is a serious force for even the strongest teams, and it’s only going to get better as the young team develops.
Like Bam and Herro, Murray is in a great situation to keep contending for championships as he reaches his prime. His shot-making ability is already hitting All-Star levels, and if he can get his defense up to anywhere near that same level, he could turn into one of the league’s best two-way players for years to come. He’s solid in the clutch, can score at a high volume, and works well with a team that should hold on as a strong presence in the West.
6. Trae Young
The NBA bubble’s exclusion of the league’s eight worst-performing teams did no one more of a disservice than it did Trae Young. Before the season was suspended, Young was in many of the same conversations as Luca Doncic, averaging a staggering 29.6 points and 9.3 assists, and regularly pulling up from the half-court. Young became an All-Star this year and a highlight reel favorite, but all on a team that’s been one of the NBA’s worst of late.
No one doubts Trae Young’s ability to score the basketball in flamboyantly stylish ways, but his legacy will rely equally on his ability to win at the highest level. Right now, despite his best efforts, he’s not in a situation where that’s feasible in Atlanta. But if he can make himself a playoff contender in the future, either by joining a team with championship potential or by leading the Hawks to becoming a real playoff threat, he could be a superstar of the next decade.
5. Devin Booker
At this point, everyone is well aware of the sheer talent that is Devin Booker. He scored 70 points in a game at age 20. He’s averaged 26.6 points the past two seasons. He made the All-Star team this year, and went undefeated in the bubble, only missing the playoffs by bad luck. Booker can score from practically anywhere on the floor, and he (barely) isn’t even 24 yet.
Like Trae Young, what becomes of Booker’s story is largely up to the performance of his teams. The Suns as a whole showed great spirit and promise in their 8-0 run in Orlando, and with Booker now performing at an All-Star level, the team could keep rising quickly. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll stay in Phoenix long-term. With possibly the greatest volume scoring potential since Kobe Bryant, Booker is now one of the NBA’s hottest commodities.
4. Jayson Tatum
Jayson Tatum is the complete package. He can score from the perimeter, from midrange, and finish at the rim. He’s a good rebounder, with a solid career defensive rating of 106. He’s an All-Star now, an All-NBA player, and he’s been a beast for Boston in the playoffs for three straight years, averaging a double-double in this most recent postseason with 25.7 points, 10.0 rebounds, five assists, a steal and a block per game.
The future of the Celtics is here. It’s been here since Tatum was drafted, and he’s only gotten better with every passing season. The question is not if Jayson Tatum will win a championship, it’s when. With his size, clutchness, confidence and versatility, there’s very little to stop him from reaching the highest peaks of basketball but his own limits. And we haven’t seen any of those yet.
3. Zion Williamson
Out of everyone on this list, Zion Williamson is the biggest question mark. Not because he’s less dominant or impressive on the court than Tyler Herro, but just because no one really knows what the man is capable of. Zion’s first season was cut short by injury and again by the covid-19 pandemic, and he never quite got into a rhythm with the rest of the Pelicans roster in a way that caught fire.
Can that change? Absolutely. And in all likelihood, it will. Even in reduced minutes and very few games, Zion has already shown what he is – a player the likes of which the world has never seen. If he can find a way to stay healthy and consistent, there are few outside forces that could stop him from nabbing double-doubles on a regular basis and demolishing defenders in the paint. If New Orleans can build a decent defense around him and keep developing Brandon Ingram and Jaxson Hayes, there’s no telling what heights Zion could reach. But that remains a big ‘if.’
2. Ja Morant
If I were being hyperbolic, I might say that Ja Morant has the athleticism and finishing potential of Russell Westbrook, with the early signs of leadership and basketball IQ akin to LeBron James. That is hyperbole, but is it so far from the truth? The 2020 Rookie of the Year winner nearly carried the Memphis Grizzlies to the playoffs this year in a positively stacked Western Conference, all while averaging 17.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 7.3 assists per game. Per 36 minutes, those numbers jump to 20.7, 4.5, and 8.5.
And it’s not just Morant’s stats that put him in early contention for a future Hall of Fame spot. He has an x-factor on the court that is unquantifiable, but which set the league on fire this season. The Grizzlies will only improve over the next few years with him at the helm, and you can expect his award-winning rookie numbers to soar by the time he hits 23. It’s nearly a guarantee that Ja will deliver at the highest level. All we have to do is wait.
1. Luka Doncic
You all knew this was coming.
Luca Doncic is 21 years old. Next season, whenever that is, he will be a serious contender for league MVP. That’s crazy, but it’s not as crazy as the numbers he puts up. Numbers like 17 triple-doubles for the 2019-20 – first in the league. Numbers like 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists in a season where he made his first All-Star team, one year after winning Rookie of the Year.
Luca’s drawn comparisons to Magic Johnson. He led a fierce campaign against the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs, with a hurt leg and no Kristaps Porziņģis for a good portion of the series. His abilities as a floor general and his IQ of the game are stellar, and he’s an exceptional scorer. For many fans, Luca represents the future of the NBA. In that expectation, they may not be far off.