NBA

23 at 23: Ranking the NBA's next generation

Last season we saw a generational shift in the NBA with a host of young stars establishing themselves on the playoff stage.

From Luka Doncic's MVP-calibre performances to Trae Young's playoff heroics and Deandre Ayton shining in the NBA Finals, you don't have to look far to find the next generation of faces of the league.

MORE: Who will win 2021-22 NBA Rookie of the Year?

With that in mind, we surveyed our NBA.com Global Staff with nine writers collaboratively ranking the best players in the NBA aged 23 years old or younger.

Let the arguments begin!

Honourable Mentions

Players who received multiple votes but just missed the cut include: Jalen Suggs (Orlando Magic), Nickeil Alexander-Walker (New Orleans Pelicans), Miles Bridges (Charlotte Hornets), Kevin Huerter (Atlanta Hawks), Gary Trent Jr. (Toronto Raptors), Rui Hachimura (Washington Wizards), Keldon Johnson (San Antonio Spurs), Kevin Porter Jr. (Houston Rockets), PJ Washington (Charlotte Hornets), Talen Horton-Tucker (Los Angeles Lakers), Cam Reddish (Atlanta Hawks), Saddiq Bey (Detroit Pistons), Desmond Bane (Memphis Grizzlies).

10. Michael Porter Jr., 23 years old

2020-21 stats: 19.0 PPG, 7.3 REB, 1.1 AST

The Nuggets have one of the best young Big Threes in the league, thanks to the emergence of MPJ, who is well on his way to being a star. At 6-foot-10, he can shoot about just over anybody and last season he was letting it fly at a wildly efficient clip, connecting on 54.2 percent from the field and 44.5 percent from the 3-point line.

With Jamal Murray sidelined for the first half of the season, 2021-22 could prove to be another breakout campaign for Porter Jr., who will firmly be the No. 2 option behind Nikola Jokic.

9. LaMelo Ball, 20 years old

2020-21 stats: 15.7 PPG, 6.1 AST, 5.9 REB

The reigning Rookie of the Year has made the Charlotte Hornets must-see TV, with his free-wheeling style of play, both attractive to watch and equally as effective.

Ball quietened any concerns about his shooting ability, connecting on 35.2 percent of his triples as a rookie, and his willingness to create shots for others, push the pace and make hustle plays has already rubbed off on his teammates.

In his first season, his leadership was evident and as he continues to improve, an All-Star selection is definitely in his future and could come as early as this season.

8. Deandre Ayton, 23 years old

2021-22 stats: 14.4 PPG, 10.5 REB, 1.2 BLK

While Luka Doncic and Trae Young took most of the plaudits over the past seasons, the No.1 overall pick in that 2018 draft showed exactly why the Suns selected him as he blossomed into a lethal two-way big man.

Ayton's emergence last season took hold in the Suns' run to the NBA Finals as stepped up repeatedly in big moments in the postseason.

Armed with a soft touch around the rim, an acute pick-and-roll game and some solid rim protection, Ayton is on his way to becoming one of the best big men in the game.

7. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 23 years old

2020-21 stats: 23.7 PPG, 5.9 AST, 4.7 REB

Entering his fourth season in the league, the Canadian combo guard is next in line to make the All-Star game. While his numbers are impressive, it's the efficiency in which he goes about his business that sets him apart, hitting 50.8 percent of his shots from the field and 41.8 percent from deep.

He still has a long way to go defensively, but he is well on the way to becoming one of the best guards in the league.

"I want to be one of the best point guards to ever play," Gilgeous-Alexander told GQ . "I'm not playing this game just to be a good basketball player. I want to be one of the greatest to ever play."

6. De'Aaron Fox, 23 years old

2020-21 stats: 25.2 PTS, 7.2 AST, 3.5 REB

He might not get the recognition playing in Sacramento, but De'Aaron Fox has quietly blossomed into an elite point guard.

A blur in transition, Fox's athleticism and speed make him one of the toughest covers, and through his four seasons in the league, he's evolved beyond just a finisher at the rim, expanding his game beyond the 3-point line and in the half-court.

At just 23 years old, he's already putting up All-Star numbers, but now that has to translate to winning basketball for the Kings.

5. Ja Morant, 21 years old

2020-21 stats: 19.1 PPG, 7.4 AST, 4.0 REB

Is there a more exciting player to watch in the NBA than Ja Morant?

The Grizzlies point guard is a nightly highlight machine and last season he was the centrepiece to Memphis making their first playoffs since 2016-17. Once he got there, he didn't shy away from the moment, dropping 30.2 points and 8.2 assists in five games against the Utah Jazz and at 21 years old, he's well on the way to setting even more franchise records.

4. Trae Young, 23 years old

2020-21 stats: 25.3 PPG, 9.4 AST, 3.9 REB

Young's playoff performances make the case that he should be even higher on this list after leading the Atlanta Hawks to the Eastern Conference Finals as he took centre stage under the bright lights.

He's much more than just a long-range shooter, with his combination of scoring and playmaking making him one of the best offensive players in the league. Last season, he was the only payer in the NBA to average at least 25 points and nine assists, with his 9.4 dimes per game ranking third behind only James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

3. Zion Williamson, 21 years old

2020-21 stats: 27.0 PPG, 7.2 REB, 3.7 AST

Team success has eluded Zion Williamson so far with the Pelicans, but his individual performances just can't be ignored.

Named an All-Star in his second season, Williamson is quickly becoming one of the most unguardable players in the league, with his combination of speed, size and athleticism leaving defences searching for answers.

We saw glimpses of what he can do with the ball in his hands last season, with the emergence of 'Point Zion' and as he embarks on this third season as a pro, the sky is the limit for the once-in-a-generation talent.

2. Jayson Tatum, 23 years old

2020-21 stats: 26.4 PPG, 7.4 REB, 4.3 AST

Tatum has established himself as the face for the Celtics franchise and continues to evolve his offensive game beyond becoming one of the purest scorers in today's game.

Last season, he took on more of the ball-handling duties for the Celtics and dished out a career-high 4.3 assists per game. At 23 years old, he is just scratching the surface of his potential and is already one of the best players at his position.

1. Luka Doncic, 22 years old

2020-21 stats: 27.7 PPG, 8.6 AST, 8.0 REB

For the second year in a row, Luka Doncic comes in at No. 1 on our list and in his third season in the league, the Slovenian took his game to another level, establishing himself as a top-five talent in the league.

Doncic was named an All-Star starter and earned an All-NBA First Team selection, shining once again on the playoff stage as he pushed the LA Clippers to seven games in the first round, averaging 35.7 points, 10.3 assists and 7.9 rebounds.

He enters the 2021-22 season as the favourite to win Most Valuable Player as he looks to lift the Mavericks into the top tier of teams in the Western Conference.

The rest of the pack

11. Anthony Edwards (20) After a slow start to his rookie campaign, Edwards made it a legitimate Rookie of the Year battle with LaMelo Ball in the second half of the season. In the 36 games after the All-Star break, he put up 23.8 points on 34.9 percent from the 3-point line, with his usage rate climbing to 27.6 percent.

The way he finished off the season will give Timberwolves fans plenty of hope that he will continue to blossom into an elite scorer after he drastically improved his finishing at the rim and from the 3-point line.

12. Lonzo Ball (23): Ball has shown tremendous growth in recent seasons, becoming a reliable outside threat, complementing his defence and playmaking. Now in Chicago, he has a chance to find some real stability and has a chance at being the Most Improved Player of the Year.

13. Collin Sexton (22): Sexton is growing into a dynamic offensive weapon in Cleveland and last season hit the 20-point mark in 48 of his 60 games. Wins have been hard to come by so far, but 2021-22 could be a year the young Cavs make an improvement in that department.

14. Tyler Herro (21): Herro didn't take the leap many expected last season, but still averaged 15.0 points on 36 percent from the 3-point line. Heading into his third season, he'll be a key figure in the Heat's championship aspirations.

15. Tyrese Haliburton (21): Haliburton made a late case for Rookie of the Year and became a fixture in the Kings' starting lineup. Doing a little bit of everything on offence while shooting 40.5 percent from deep, the Kings have a future star on their hands.

16. RJ Barrett (21): The Candian made big strides last season as the Knicks made their return to the post-season. With Kemba Walker and Derrick Rose running point, Barrett should get a lot more easy looks this season.

17. Jaren Jackson Jr. (21): Injuries have slowed him down, but Jackson Jr. has the makings of a great modern-day NBA big man.

18. Jarrett Allen (23): Allen is somewhat flying under the radar in Cleveland, but he's quickly becoming one of the best young big men in the league, averaging a double-double last season.

19. Darius Garland (21): Heading into his third season, Garland has the potential to have a breakout campaign as he continues to grow in confidence with the ball in his hands. Don't be surprised if he emerges as a Most Improved Player candidate.

20. DeAndre Hunter (23): Hunter showed flashes of brilliance last season before a knee injury derailed his season. He has the potential to be a real x-factor on both sides of the floor for a very good Hawks team this season.

21. Lu Dort (22): From undrafted free agent to OKC cult hero, Lu Dort is already one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. As his offensive game continues to flourish, notably his 3-point shot, the 22-year-old is on track to become an elite two-way player.

22. Cade Cunningham (19): The first of the 2021 rookies on this list, Cunningham has "future star" written all over him. While it's hard to quantify his standing given he hasn't played an NBA game yet, on talent alone he deserves a spot in the top 23.

23. Jalen Green (19): Closely behind Cunningham is No. 2 overall pick Jalen Green, who could make an argument to be one of the best scorers in this list outside of the top 10. His rookie season in Houston is sure to provide no shortage of highlights.

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