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Young players to like during the 2019-20 NBA season

The future of the NBA is bright.

Atlanta Hawks v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

One of the most exciting parts of the NBA regular season is the development of the league’s younger players. Of course, there may be a few surprises among entire NBA teams like the Memphis Grizzlies have been this year, but the standings usually end up becoming more or less like most predicted before the beginning of the season.

When considering the league’s younger players, however, there’s always the thrill of the unknown. You never know which unexpected talents may blossom into superb role players and even stars over the course of an NBA season; you also never know which young players that you thought for sure were going to take the next step, but instead took two steps backwards (we’ll call this the “Andrew Wiggins Award”).

And it’s in the midst of this uncertainty that the beauty of the oft-criticized NBA regular season can be found: it’s about the unexpected and winding journey, in which we have the chance to appreciate greatness from expected sources like LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo while also seeing young players like Ja Morant and Luka Doncic coming into their own. It’s not about the destination, which has admittedly been quite predictable in recent NBA history.

So with all of that in mind, here are several young players in no particular order to like during the 2019-20 regular season. There’s really no specific criteria for this list beyond the fact that the players must be 25 or younger. These are simply young players who developed nicely over the course of the season that I also enjoyed watching.

I’m also going to mostly ignore the usual suspects like Ja Morant, Trae Young, Luka Doncic and Zion Williamson.

Duncan Robinson

Charlotte Hornets v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Duncan Robinson has become what is probably the NBA’s most curious success story this season.

The 25-year-old sniper was never anything more than a middling role player in his three years of college basketball at Michigan, and he went undrafted in the 2018 NBA Draft. And even after he was able to earn a two-way contract with the Miami Heat for the 2018-19 season, his performance didn’t really indicate that a long-term NBA career was in the cards for him as he shot just 39% and 28% from three in 15 appearances. He then followed up his rather poor entrance into the league by again shooting just 28% from three in preseason this year.

And despite all of his previous mediocrity, Duncan Robinson somehow has become the best shooter in the NBA this season. His 67% effective field goal performance ranks third in the league, with the only other non-big in that top 10 being Seth Curry. He has made 243 total threes, which ranks third in the league, and no one else in the top 20 of that category has made them with his 45% accuracy. He has scored 101 more points in catch-and-shoot situations than the next closest player (Davis Bertans).

He hasn’t just had the best pure shooting season in the NBA this year; he’s had one of the best shooting seasons in NBA history. And that’s not hyperbolic in the slightest.

Not bad for a player whom Jimmy Butler can’t respect because of the color of his skin!

Devonte Graham

Charlotte Hornets v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

As a 5’8” guy who always had to hold his own again players that were almost always bigger and more athletic, I might just have a thing for underdogs like Duncan Robinson and Devonte Graham.

Graham in particular caught my attention this year when I noticed him doing his best Stephen Curry impersonation on his way to becoming a Most Improved Player candidate. The 32nd pick from Kansas in the 2018 draft exploded after a meager rookie season last year to average 18.2 points and 7.5 assists while making a ridiculous 3.5 threes per game.

In many ways, Graham is the perfect player for this list. He’s a fun and talented young player that plays with reckless abandon (see: 38% shooting on 15.3 FGA per game) on a bad team in the Charlotte Hornets. His shooting ability gives him the chance to go off on any given night, like he did when he totaled 40 points, 9 assists, and 15 rebounds against the Oklahoma City Thunder earlier this year.

I love to watch Graham play, and his cerebral nature as well as potentially transcendent shooting ability may allow him to become a star in due time.

De’Anthony Melton

San Antonio Spurs v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

If an utility belt was an NBA player, it would be De’Anthony Melton.

Melton, who has been aptly nicknamed “Mr. Do Something” by Grizz commentator Brevin Knight, has arguably been the Memphis Grizzlies’ most pleasant surprise this season even in what may be the league’s most impressive young core. He’s truly the Grizzlies’ swiss army knife, a versatile player whose delectable combination of playmaking, scoring and defense has made him indispensable to the team’s playoff aspirations.

It’s easy to love Melton because he really doesn’t have any massive weaknesses in his game, which is a rarity for a 21-year-old guard in the NBA. He does need to work on his handle and consistency on his jumper (especially from range - 31.6% from beyond the arc this season) but that only means that he will keep getting better and better.

Oh, and his pleasing per-100 possession stats (19.4 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 3.0 steals) are superior to those of Gary Payton, Jrue Holliday and Joe Dumars at the same age.

Jonathan Isaac

Orlando Magic v Washington Wizards Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Even at 21-years-old, Jonathan Isaac may be the overall best and most versatile defender in the NBA. If he hadn’t unfortunately gone down for the season with a knee injury in January, everyone else may accept that fact as well.

Throughout all of NBA history, there have only been five other players to average at least 2.4 blocks and 1.6 steals like Isaac has this year: Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Ben Wallace, Andrei Kirilenko, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, and esteemed Buffalo Braves legend Gar Heard. Isaac may not technically qualify for statistical leaderboards since he only played in 32 games, but his prolific defense is eye-opening all the same.

He’s also far from a slouch offensively, showing immense improvement each of his three seasons in the league. Before his injury, he was averaging career highs in points (12.0), rebounds (6.9), FG% (46), and EFG% (51).

I believe that Jonathan Isaac will eventually be an All-Star. It is a real question to me whether Isaac or Jaren Jackson Jr. is the better prospect (I’m still taking Jaren; put your pitchforks down!). Regardless, the 6’10” Isaac could very well become a unicorn of his own eventually.

Brandon Clarke

Memphis Grizzlies v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

I’m not going to say that Brandon Clarke is the best basketball player of all time, but I’m also not going to say that he isn’t. Because if the phrase “advanced stats” was in the dictionary, Brandon Clarke’s face would be next to it.

It is no exaggeration to say that Clarke has been the most efficient rookie in NBA history—and one of the most efficient players in the league period. He has the third highest eFG% (65) and second highest TS% (67) among all rookies in NBA history, and he ranks in the top 30 for both of these categories in all of NBA history as well. His raw production has also been fantastic as a rookie. Among rookies that qualify, he is second in scoring (20.0), third in rebounding (9.7), and third in blocks (1.4) per 36 minutes.

Brandon Clarke is the prime example in recent years of a fact that isn’t talked about quite enough: NBA executives and talent-evaluators aren’t quite as smart as they want you to believe. Everyone who watched Clarke in college—where he was historically dominant—knew that his combination of size, vertical explosiveness, lateral quickness and natural feel for the game would allow him to become a successful pro, if not an outright star. And he had no business falling to the Memphis Grizzlies at pick 21.

If NBA executives have learned anything from Brandon Clarke, I hope it’s one truth in particular: choosing not to draft an obviously great basketball player because his arms are perceived to be too short is dumb.

Shai-Gilgeous Alexander

Oklahoma City Thunder v New York Knicks Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

I have a funny (ish) story about Shai-Gilgeous Alexander.

In the leadup to the 2018 NBA Draft, I was generally indifferent on him. And it was probably unfair for me to feel that way about him since he truly had a superb season as a freshman at Kentucky. However, there was nothing particularly flashy about his game, and he became an afterthought of sorts to me because he wasn’t lighting the world on fire in historic fashion like Trae Young was at the time. He was just there.

But I vividly remember a conversation I had with my friend Mark French, a college basketball player at Texas A&M who was a sophomore at the time, a few weeks before the draft. And at some point in the middle of the conversation, Shai-Gilgeous Alexander came up.

Of course, being the self-professed draft guru that I am, I told French that I really didn’t expect Alexander to be anything more than a long-term starter in the league. French, however, who played against Alexander twice that year, had a different opinion.

“He’s one of the best college guards I’ve ever seen. He will be an All-Star.”

French may not be technically right yet, but he likely will be in the future. Gilgeous-Alexander truly has come into his own in Oklahoma City after being sent there in the Kawhi Leonard trade this past offseason, averaging 19.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists. He epitomizes what a combo-guard should be, as he can play both on and off the ball while his 6’5” height and absurd 6’11” wingspan allows him to defend three positions at a high level.

While I’m sure that Shai-Gilgeous Alexander will make some All-Star teams, the only question mark to me is whether he can excel as a true point guard, a role that he hasn’t had to fill since he starts alongside Chris Paul. If he can become a more versatile playmaker, he could soon prove to be unstoppable.

Christian Wood

Detroit Pistons v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Christian Wood has had to overcome much during his NBA career, including going undrafted in the 2015 NBA Draft as well as being cut by five teams before finally finding his way to an opportunity with the Detroit Pistons this year. To say that he has made the most of what could have been his final opportunity in the NBA would be an understatement.

Besides Christian Wood this season, there have only been two other players in NBA history to at least average 13.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game while also shooting 56% from the field and 38% from three: John Collins and LeBron James (John Collins is also really freaking good). That’s quite a special company to be in for a player like Wood that has begun to establish himself as one of the Eastern Conference’s rising front court stars.

As a further example of Wood’s rise, please behold this hilarious tweet in all of its glory.

“Christian Wood has tested positive for coronavirus after BEATING THE CRAP out of Rudy Gobert last Saturday.”—Shams

Cornonavirus aside (from which he has since recovered), what Wood was able to do against Gobert was very quickly becoming the norm before the season came to an untimely suspension. In the season’s last two weeks, he ran the NBA’s front court gauntlet and faced Nikola Vucevic, Hassan Whiteside, Nikola Jokic, Steven Adams, Rudy Gobert and Joel Embiid. He averaged 27.2 points and 9.7 rebounds over that stretch.

Like Graham and Robinson before him, I root for the underdogs, and I’m excited to see whether Christian Wood can become the second player after Pascal Siakam to make an All-Star Game after playing in the G-League earlier in their career.

Bam Abedayo

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

When asked about his off-court interests at the pre-draft combine before his rookie season, Bam Abedayo had a simple answer: “I play basketball, hang out with my mom, and talk s--.”

I love it.

A few months ago, I poked a Memphis hornet nest for daring to suggest that Bam Abedayo is a more talented player than Marc Gasol. Now, I didn’t say that I’d pick Bam Abedayo over prime Marc Gasol, but the fact that it’s even a question to me shows just how much respect I have for him as a player.

Abedayo has improved each of his three years in the league, and his continued development finally culminated in his first All-Star appearance this year. Now, there may not be a more versatile center in the NBA today. He has become an excellent scorer (16.2 PPG), rebounder (10.5 RPG) and playmaker (5.1 assists!). He also possesses superb lower body strength and fantastic lateral quickness that allows him to protect the paint at a high level and switch onto the perimeter effectively.

If Abedayo can expand his range out to the three-point line, then he may soon find himself approaching the Embiid-Jokic-Towns tier.

Brandon Ingram

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Minnesota Timberwolves Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Of all of the astounding and head-scratching hills to die on, it was always inexplicable to me why many Lakers fan thought that Kyle Kuzma would be a better player than Brandon Ingram. Ingram was drafted at 19 and barely looked like he could weigh 150 pounds soaking wet. It was always going to take him time to become a great player, a fact that seemed lost among many of the Lakers faithful and the NBA as a whole.

And in his fourth year, Kevin Durant comparisons for Ingram no longer seem quite as crazy as they did a few years ago. Like Abedayo, Ingram made his first All-Star team this year and looked every bit the part of a future superstar wing. He posted career high across the board in points (24.3), rebounds (6.4), and assists (4.3) while also shooting a career high from beyond the arc (38%) on over triple the amount of attempts that he shot last year.

I appreciate Ingram because he could very well be the smoothest player in the league and isn’t afraid to do much of his damage from the mid-range area. I’m a sucker for the lost art, but so is Brandon Ingram.

Honorable Mentions

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
  • Lonzo Ball
  • Donte DiVencenzo
  • Dillon Brooks
  • Eric Paschall
  • Tyler Herro
  • Terrence Davis
  • Luke Kennard
  • Matisse Thybulle
  • Jaren Jackson Jr.