The NBA's season may be on hold, but there are rising stars who have a bright future ahead. There are a lot of top tier players who, despite having played in the NBA for around 5 years, are still very young. Unlike established players such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Anthony Davis, who are mostly in their mid to late 20s, I'm instead going to talk about the best players who are currently in their rookie or sophomore season. So here we go:
1. Luka Dončić
This one was an obvious choice. Though Luka Dončić recently turned 21 years old, he's playing like a veteran. From his rookie season, he bursted into the spotlight averaging 21 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists while leading the Dallas Mavericks to statement wins over teams like the Warriors, Rockets, Celtics, and Thunder. After the season, he was awarded the Rookie of Year. But what he did last year feels like an afterthought compared to this year. His averages have all gone up to 28, 9, and 8, he is number 1 in the league with 14 triple doubles as well as in franchise history with 22, and he has the Dallas Mavericks in position to make their first playoff appearance in 4 years. They actually might not have to clinch if the NBA chooses to start the playoffs as soon as their coronavirus hiatus is over. Getting back to the subject of Luka, his unique ball handling and passing at 6'7 allows him to be one of the craftiest guards despite his lack of athleticism. By the way, his clutch performances aren't too bad either. Don't be surprised if he wins an M.V.P. award in the future.
2. Ja Morant
Though this guy was picked at no. 2 by the Memphis Grizzlies, he was definitely playing like the no. 1 pick during the time that Zion was out. His stats of 17 points, 7 assists, and a shooting percentage that hovers around 50 are good; his highlight reels are even better. Morant's name continues to pop up on basketball highlights all over the internet and for the right reason. Take for instance his putback dunk over the Rockets' P.J. Tucker, beating Sun's Aron Baynes to the hoop to seal a win in Phoenix, or his stare down after breaking the ankles of the Clippers' Jermey Robinson before knocking down a 3 pointer. When he's not making highlight plays, he's earning praise from peers like LeBron James who labeled him "Super special" earlier this month. Most importantly perhaps, is how in one season Morant has transformed Grizzlies into a playoff team (unless the NBA choses to resume the season and they end up collapsing). No matter how the season ends, he has established himself as the face of this franchise.
3. Zion Williamson
If it wasn't for an injury that kept him out until late January, Williamson would've probably been ranked higher than Morant. But unfortunately, the unexpected happens, and that was the case with Williamson. When he came back, though, he didn't just ease back into basketball. He came with a purpose. He debuted with a 17 point 4th quarter outing and didn't look back. Pretty quickly, he regained all of the strength and athleticism that he displayed in college. Williamson's successful recovery is impressive considering he's 6'6" and 284 lbs. He may have only played 19 games this season, but 19 games was enough for him to dominate, bring a vibe, and show leadership. He may not be going to the playoffs like Luka and Ja, but he'll have Pelicans' fans going into the offseason very optimistic about their future.
4. Trae Young
It's kind of hard to believe that a guy who is so scrawny, plays so well. That's the case for Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks. In just 2 seasons, he's already one of the best shooters, ball-handlers, and passers in the NBA. His defense needs work, but those three other abilities I just mentioned make other NBA players look like they're still in high school. Young's impact didn't happen immediately, as he went through a bumpy first half of his rookie season. In the second half, however, he went on a tear and although he didn't win Rookie of the Year, it didn't stop him from carrying his momentum into this season. His averages of 29 points and 9 assists per game, which include 11 40-point and 1 50-point night, shows his massive leap. Unfortunately most of those 40-point games have tended to be a losing effort throughout his young career. Hopefully the Hawks will build around him this offseason so his performances can finally result in more wins.
5. R.J. Barrett
Though the New York Knicks failed to win the lottery for Zion, it allowed them to take a good consolation prize in R.J. Barrett. He hasn't posted the stats or made as many highlight reel plays as the previous four players, but he deserves credit for handling New York's spotlight while playing for a franchise that's earned the reputation as a laughingstock. After some impressive performances to start the season, Barrett started to show growing pains, which can be expected from a 19 year old. However, his play and confidence has improved throughout the season. The game that stands out was against the Houston Rockets, where he dropped 27 points as well as a tough layup in the closing moments that stretched out the Knicks' lead en route to an upset win. The improvement of Barrett's stats and confidence gives Knicks fans something to be hopeful about during a very rough stretch. These are the first steps Barrett has taken toward becoming the face of this franchise.
These players were all drafted with high expectations despite the fact that their average age is only 20 years old. Guys like Luka have taken massive strides while others like R.J. have shown some signs of progression. Nonetheless, it's very impressive to see another group of young players make a name for themselves while playing against grown men with experience. It's unfortunate that we don't know when we'll see these players in action again, but we do know that as long as the players I've talked about keep improving, the NBA will be in good hands for the future.