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Star Prospects: John Collins; Trae Young
Other Notable Players: Kevin Huerter; Omari Spellman
Schedule the Hawks for entry into the next tier in T-minus, oh, by-the-start-of-next-season. John Collins is coming for stardom in an Eastern Conference begging for new members, pre-Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis joining the Knicks, of course.
Defense remains a struggle when Collins is on the floor, which for now, drags down his would-be peak. As Jeff Siegel wrote for Peachtree Hoops:
“For the moment, Collins plays power forward in part because he’s not good enough defensively to play the most important defensive position on the floor, which puts some limits on what the Hawks can do from a team-building and lineup construction perspective. The Hawks do have two rotation-quality NBA centers in Dewayne Demon and Alex Len, which further explains why Collins operates at the power forward spot for the vast majority of his court time. With that said, Collins currently has to be paired with a defensive center who is capable of spacing the floor offensively and, in turn, that allows the second-year big man to be the main dive threat in pick-and-roll.“
Collins’ holes present real problems for Atlanta’s lineup structure. But they’re not damning enough to harsh his offensive progress and activity on the glass. Assuming his numbers hold, he’ll join Karl-Anthony Towns as the second player to clear 20 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and one made three per 36 minutes before his age-22 season.
View this in tandem with Trae Young’s recent uptick, and the Hawks get real scary, real fast. The undersized point guard is a defensive pushover, but his finishing around the rim is better than advertised, he’s a high-IQ table-setter, and the space he creates with his perimeter dribbles offsets his early shooting wrinkles.
Besides which, Young is averaging 18.2 points and 8.1 assists while splashing in 38.2 percent of his triples over the past 30 games. Combined with the sweet-shooting Kevin Huerter, Atlanta is laying a gnarly offensive foundation that already needs to be reckoned with.
Star Prospects: Jaylen Brown; Jayson Tatum
Other Notable Names: Robert Williams; Guerschon Yabusele
Boston’s failure to dominate the Eastern Conference stole some of the shine from its young nucleus. That might’ve been fair through the first couple months of the season. It isn’t anymore.
Jaylen Brown’s numbers are down from last year, but he’s recaptured his general form. He’s averaging 14.2 points on 49.5 percent shooting, including a 37.1 percent knockdown rate from downtown, over his last 25 games—output that noticeably exceeds his 2017-18 performance given a decline in playing time.
Jayson Tatum has received criticism for his shot selection. He’s earned it. Lately, though, knocks against him have more to do with the absence of a superstar leap. Such is life when you’re being propped up in the Anthony Davis sweepstakes at the expense of the Los Angeles Lakers’ tots.
This genre of shot-taking is unfair. The Celtics aren’t built for Tatum to become a megastar. He’s also just 20. And Brown is only 22. They have warts worth harping on—will they ever run an offense for long stretches?—but the star-potential sheen hasn’t worn off either of them.
Star Prospects: Jarrett Allen; D’Angelo Russell
Other Notable Names: Rodions Kurucs; Dzanan Musa
Caris LeVert’s availability through his first two-plus seasons makes him seem younger. He’s 24. So while he’s a crucial part of the Nets’ fast-brightening future, his progress doesn’t help their case here.
Brooklyn still comes off looking pretty damn good. D’Angelo Russell’s play earned him a spot in the East’s All-Star crop following Victor Oladipo’s injury. We can quibble over whether that nod should’ve gone to Eric Bledsoe or Pascal Siakam, but his inclusion within the debate itself speaks to his overall ascent.
This is someone who hasn’t always closed tight games for the Nets. Head coach Kenny Atkinson used to opt for Spencer Dinwiddie over Russell. That’s since changed—not just because of Dinwiddie’s right thumb injury or LeVert’s extended stay on the sidelines. Russell has emerged as Brooklyn’s hub with smarter on-ball reads in the half-court and sustainable tough shot-making. He’s putting down almost 36 percent of his pull-up threes.
Anyone peeved by Jarrett Allen’s classification needs to watch more of the 21-year-old. He hasn’t morphed into a dependable outside shooter, but he’s a fighter on the boards, an understated passer and hell on earth for those trying to finish at the rim. He even has some crafty interior moves and a hook shot to his game.
Rodions Kurucs, 20, is a name you’ll want to remember. He’s going to ruin defenses from everywhere once his three-point shot stabilizes. And Dzanan Musa, though seldom used, is a name you should learn to pronounce (Jah-nen Moo-suh). The 19-year-old is somewhat quietly putting in work for the Long Island Nets, Brooklyn’s G League affiliate.
Star Prospects: Wendell Carter Jr.; Lauri Markkanen
Other Notable Players: Antonio Blakeney; Chandler Hutchison; Zach LaVine; Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot
Demanding Zach LaVine still be given the possible-star distinction doesn’t impact the Bulls’ placement. None of their best options are that close fully formed.
Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen are, for the time being, carrying Chicago’s orbit. Their games fit beside one another; they should develop into one of the NBA’s most balanced frontcourt combos.
The pairing hasn’t looked great at either end this year, but that’s a rebuilding hazard. Carter is 19, Markkanen is 20, and the Bulls don’t have the personnel on the wings to properly fiddle with defensive matchups. Playing with Otto Porter Jr. will help, as should a more polished Chandler Hutchison.
Chicago’s group needs time to come together. Injuries to Carter, Hutchison and Markkanen have capped their time alongside one another, and growing pains are unavoidable. Adding another mainstay in the draft or getting a breakout from WCJ or Markkanen next season would leave the Bulls in line to climb this ladder.
Los Angeles Lakers
Star Prospects: Lonzo Ball; Brandon Ingram
Other Notable Players: Isaac Bonga; Josh Hart; Kyle Kuzma; Moritz Wagner
LeBron James’ arrival has foisted stark adjustments upon the Lakers’ youngsters, and it shows. Not one of them has excelled—Kyle Kuzma comes closest—and neither Lonzo Ball’s injury nor the Anthony Davis soap opera is helping matters.
More than a few are completely out on the Lakers’ four primary youngsters. That goes a touch too far. Brandon Ingram’s per-36-minute splits without James are stardom-bound: 20.6 points, 4.1 assists, 51.1 percent shooting, 40.5 percent on threes.
That’s not so much a vote of confidence as an excuse. Ingram isn’t ready to captain an offense. He doesn’t have the three-point volume or general shot selection. But he, like Ball, is going through more of a wholesale shift. Their skill sets aren’t made for accessory duty, and neither was a finished product in the first place. They deserve more time—and, in Ingram’s case especially, brownie points for their defensive performance.
Measure them as sidekicks for a 34-year-old James who needs to win now, and the Lakers’ kids are a letdown. Treat them as assets for a Davis trade, and they can be beaten. But the aggregative upside in Ball, Ingram, Kuzma and Josh Hart shouldn’t be written off. They’re good starting points. They’re just playing for a team that needs finishing touches.