The next generation of NBA superstars are no longer on the rise. They have arrived.
Of course, Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Stephen Curry still grab the spotlight and headlines, but they are well into their 30s. It’s safe to say all three are approaching the descent of their Hall of Fame careers.
As last year's postseason showed and this year's playoffs have proved further, the league's young franchise players are already in the forefront, making buzzer-beating shots and leading their teams through grueling best-of-seven series. It's rare for stars to stay with the same team for their entire careers, but where there’s stardom and a supporting cast, there’s usually a few NBA titles to follow (see Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, James and Curry).
Here's a look at the 10 players who can be the centerpiece of a championship contender over the next decade.
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
Mitchell is an offensive wiz and the star of the Western Conference's top seed. The two-time All-Star has led the Jazz to four consecutive playoff appearances, including a trip to the West semifinals in his rookie season.
The 24-year-old has averaged 23.4 points in his four NBA seasons, including a career-best 26.4 points this season. His 45-point outburst against the Clippers on Tuesday matched Karl Malone's franchise record for 40-point playoff games. Mitchell takes pride in sharing the ball and getting his teammates like Rudy Gobert, Bojan Bogdanović and Mike Conley Jr. involved.
Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Morant has been putting pressure on opponents since he entered the league in 2019. He won Rookie of the Year that season, and this year, he led the Grizzlies to victories over San Antonio and Golden State in the NBA's play-in tournament to end the franchise's four-year postseason drought. In the first two playoff games of his career, Morant scored a combined 73 points, the second most for a two-game postseason debut in NBA history.
Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
It's time to give the two-time All-Star a better nickname than "D Book." The No. 13 pick in 2015 has waited for his time to shine. In 2016, Booker became the youngest player at 19 years old to participate in the Three-Point Contest, but before this season, he was mostly known for his 70-point performance against the Boston Celtics in 2017. Now, the 24-year-old is the leading scorer of a Suns squad looking to reach the franchise's first conference finals since 2010.
Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Doncic is in a world of his own. On the court, he makes the toughest shots look easy, demoralizing his defenders.
The 22-year-old is set to sign a contract extension that’s worth over $200 million over five years. He deserves the big bucks after leading Dallas to back-to-back playoff appearances and averaging 33.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and 9.5 assists in 13 postseason games.
Doncic signed his first contract at age 13 with Real Madrid and moved up to its senior team at 16. He was labelled the best player in Europe at 18 and earned his first All-NBA selection at 20. The individual accolades have never been a problem for Doncic, but now is the time for the Mavs to build a winning team around him.
Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
This postseason has been a breakthrough for Young, whose floater is becoming a nightmare for opponents and their fans.
Young pretty much did whatever he wanted in Atlanta's first-round victory over the New York Knicks, and he has kept his foot on the gas in the second round against the Philadelphia 76ers. The 22-year-old has averaged 28.9 points and 10.0 assists in seven games this postseason, and his on-court confidence obviously has rubbed off on his teammates.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Tatum led the Celtics in scoring this postseason, averaging 30.6 points in their first-round series loss to the Brooklyn Nets, including a 50-point performance in Game 3. He certainly has a fan in the Nets' Durant.
“I’ve been in the league for 13, 14 years, and I started to like tally mark the matchups, the series, the players that I’ve played against,” Durant said on his podcast “The Etcs. with/Kevin Durant. “... I’ve had series against Kobe, LeBron, Tim Duncan, the Memphis Grizzlies — Jayson Tatum is in that conversation. He’s that elite level player already at 23, and I’m like, all right, I can see where this is going. It was an honor to play against him.”
LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets
Ball, 19, is the first rookie on this list for many reasons, but the biggest is his passing ability. Whether the pass is made behind his head or around a defender, his skill to distribute the ball is truly amazing.
The third pick in the 2020 NBA Draft led all rookies in assists per game (6.1) this season and was second in scoring (15.7). His ball-handling skills and ability to get past defenders and score at the basket helped the Hornets become a playoff contender this season. Ball is the favorite to win Rookie of the Year.
Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves
Edwards is Ball's competition for Rookie of the Year. He played in all 72 of Minnesota's games and led all rookies in scoring with a 19.1 average. The first pick of the 2020 draft took some time to get comfortable but found consistency after the All-Star break, scoring a career-high 42 points twice in the season's final two months. The 6-foot-4 225-pound shooting guard also has a knack for highlight-reel dunks.
I don’t know about you, but I could watch his highlights all day. His performances with the Minnesota Timberwolves not only makes him a young face the franchise should keep around, but also puts him alongside some of the best rookie scorers in league history.
RJ Barrett, New York Knicks
The former Duke standout doesn't get the credit he deserves. As the third overall pick in the 2019 draft, Barrett was expected to bring his high IQ and scoring ability to New York. Even though the Knicks had a losing record (21-45) his rookie season, Barrett averaged 14.3 points in 30 minutes per game. And still, he was left off the NBA All-Rookie team.
While his numbers have not measured up to others in his class like Zion Williamson and Morant, Barrett made strides to improve his game from Year 1 to Year 2. As his playing time increased this season, his confidence grew and averaged 17.6 points and 5.8 rebounds. Alongside Julius Randle, the NBA's Most Improved Player, Barrett helped the Knicks make the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
The 2019 No. 1 pick been compared to LeBron, and despite two injury-ridden seasons, there has been no doubt about what Williamson can do on the court when he’s fully healthy. The 6-7, 284-pound power forward was one of the most efficient players in the league in his rookie season. After missing the first 44 games, he averaged 22.5 points on 58-percent shooting in 27.8 minutes per game. He scored double-figures in every game except for one and put on a show for Pelicans fans night in and night out.
This season, Williamson suffered another injury that sidelined him at the end of the regular season. Leading up to that, it was clear the next face of NBA superstars was emerging. His ball-handling and passing had improved immensely. Plus, he became an even more consistent shooter (61.1 percent from the field).
Williamson is clearly the focal point of the franchise, and keeping him healthy has to be the top priority of the Pelicans, as the 20-year-old’s combination of finesse and force has only scratched the surface in the first 85 games of his career.