NBA Top 25-Under 25
Ranking the L’s youngest players who go hard.
TIER 1: The NBA’s Elite
1) Kevin Durant | SF | OKC Thunder
Age: 21 years, 8 months and 24 days
Years Pro: 3
Durantula earned the highly coveted top spot on this list, but his selection was definitely not a no-brainer. There are two elite players under the age of 25: Dwight Howard and Kevin Durant. Howard is the best low-post defender and rebounder in the League, but Kevin Durant is a much more complete player. He’s starting to rebound and defend very well. Oh and one other thing…KD led the League in scoring this season. I prefer sticking with the Durantula nickname because of his long arms (those same long arms hindered him in the bench press during the pre-Draft workouts) that allow for defensive deflections and exhilarating dunks. Anyway, Durant was the floor leader for a Thunder team that went from third-worst in the League (23 wins) to a 50-32 team that took the Lakers to six games in the first round of the Playoffs. Durant has improved in countless areas of his game, but I’d like to emphasize his ability to get to the line. Durant attempted 10.2 freebies per game, which tied LeBron James for the League lead. The difference between LeBron and Durant with regard to free throws, is that Durant made considerably more than LBJ, at a mark of 90 percent.
2) Dwight Howard | C | Orlando Magic
Age: 24 years, 6 months and 14 days
Years Pro: 6
The Magic have been an elite team in the East for the last three seasons, and it is no coincidence that over that stretch, their starting center was an elite player in the NBA. It’s just like I said. Howard is the best low-post defender and rebounder in the Association. In fact, Superman has led the League in rebounding for three years running, each season leading the next guy by at least one whole rebound per game. In ‘07-08, Howard boarded a superhuman 14.3 per game and has managed to grab 13+ in each of the two seasons since. He’s also led the League in blocks in the last two seasons. Here’s another astonishing stat: Howard has recorded at least 60 double-doubles in five consecutive seasons. That’s in an 82-game schedule. He’s been able to do that, because of his rebounding talent along with his durability. Staying healthy his entire career is impressive considering that the guy is 7-foot and gets banged up pretty well in the post. Aside from Howard’s inside dominance, there are two primary concerns about his game. First of all, Howard’s offensive game is not very diversified, to say the least. All Howard really can do is get deep in the post and dunk or take a short hook shot. He can’t really step back just yet and he’s scoring just as much as he did four years ago. He’s got to add more facets to his offensive approach. Secondly, he faces the same problem that his Superman predecessor continues to face…free throw shooting woes. It’s OK, though. The next two guys are pretty bad free throw shooters too.
TIER 2: Nearly Elite
3) Rajon Rondo | PG | Boston Celtics
Age: 24 years, 3 months and 29 days
Years Pro: 4
Every single season, Rondo has increased his minutes, FG%, points and assists. Unfortunately, the only disappointing area has been the point guard’s free throw shooting, which remains in the low 60s. With that said, Rondo is one of the most exciting players in basketball (especially on the break) and has been a huge part of the Celtics’ success in the last three years. If and when Rondo develops a consistent outside shot, look out! At this point in time, Rondo’s lack of a consistent outside shot allows defenders to sag off of him in a half-court setting, partially negating his speed and ingenuity to go around defenders. It’s pretty amazing though to consider that Rondo recorded 40 doubles-doubles in his ‘09-10 campaign. Tying for eighth in the League in a category that is dominated by big men is a pretty impressive feat for a 24-year-old point guard. Coined “Grand Theft Rondo” by former point guard and current ESPN analyst Mark Jackson, when Rondo steals the ball, it is nearly assured that he’ll convert the turnover in to two points (either with a strong finish or via a nice dish to one of his teammates).
4) Josh Smith | F | Atlanta Hawks
Age: 24 years, 6 months and 17 days
Years Pro: 6
Smith is one of the rare southpaws on this list! After five years of launching three-pointers, Josh Smith finally figured out that he’s most effective sticking to mid-range jumpers, hook shots and electrifying dunks. Although he’s been known to gamble on defense (like Rondo), Smith’s long arms enable him to steal and block shots at an alarming rate. He’s also a solid rebounder for his height. Like Rondo and Howard, Smith is not the guy you want to take a crucial free throw down the stretch. Still, without J-Smoove, the Hawks would not have appeared in three consecutive postseasons.
5) Derrick Rose | PG | Chicago Bulls
Age: 21 years, 8 months and 18 days
Years Pro: 2
Rose is a player, who loves to attack the basket, but in doing so, he’s been able to stay healthy (only missing five games over two years). In his second professional season, Rose took the offensive BULL by the horns as he took over 17.5 shots per game, making an impressive 48.9 percent of them. In fact, Rose was the main reason why the Bulls took the Celtics to seven games in the opening round of the 2009 Playoffs. Over the three games in which Chicago beat Boston, the point guard average 29 ppg, 9 apg and 7.7 rpg. More importantly, each of those three big games resulted in overtime wins against the then-defending champions. He also came up big against the Cavaliers in the first round of the Playoffs in 2010 although the rest of his team didn’t really show up (except Noah and Deng). Averaging over 42 minutes per game and scoring nearly 27 points per contest, Rose did all he could against the overmatched Bulls. Even with Derrick Rose’s heroics, it has never been more obvious that the front office needs to get the man some help. Maybe then, he can raise his assist average from 6 closer to what he’s capable of achieving (at least 8 considering the PG’s good court vision).
6) Tyreke Evans | G | Sacramento Kings
Age: 20 years, 9 months and 3 days
Years Pro: 1
Memphis should not have passed on this hometown favorite. Rather than selecting the eventual Rookie of the Year, the Grizz took a chance on Hasheem Thabeet. That’s ancient history, but there’s little doubt in my mind that Tyreke Evans will be an NBA superstar one day…maybe even as soon as 2012. I see ‘Reke as more of a shooting guard than a point guard, but regardless of the role he assumes, he does exceptionally well. You want points? He’s your man. If you want him to set up a guy for an easy score, he’s also the guy. At this point in his career, what makes Evans so good is his ability to absorb contact while going to the basket. This also helps Evans’ passing game (that’s right…Daunte Cullpepper isn’t the only QB in Sacramento these days) in that the opposing defenders are drawn to covering him and away from the men they should be guarding. As the defenders leave to crowd Evans, outside shooters are open for him to find. Now that Kevin Martin has been traded, Geoff Petrie has shown that he’s counting on Evans to be the franchise player. In time, I thoroughly trust he can be that player, especially with another high draft pick coming in. This past season, Tyreke became just the fourth rookie in NBA history to average 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists per game, joining a star-studded list of Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, and LeBron James. Still, Tyreke’s main weakness is his lack of consistency with his outside shot. How will opponents guard this man if he can scorch them from the outside, inside and everywhere in between?