With most NBA stories done for the summer, most basketball focus tends to shift to discussion on the game’s best players. Any time the NBA elite are discussed, Kevin Durant is mentioned. Any conversation on Durant tends to drift back to the fact that the Thunder franchise player has unlimited potential, and at 21, is only going to be getting better. His age might be the most remarkable part of his game, because he is competing at such a high level at an age where most people are focused on getting their drink on.
But Durant isn’t the only young player making noise in the NBA. Guys like Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans have already become the faces of their respective franchises and neither is legally old enough to drink the champagne that toasted their Rookie of the Year wins. But which of these youngsters is the best? Let’s take a look at the top 5 players in the NBA under 23.
5. Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors) –
At 22, the baby-faced Curry is a senior citizen on this list. He is the unquestioned future of the Warriors franchise, and squeaked ahead of Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook for that exact reason. While his numbers from last season (17.5 points, 5.9 assists) might not jump out at you like some other young players, Curry really started playing at a high level in the second half of last season. While most other first-year players were hitting the rookie wall, Curry picked up his game. Take a look at his scoring numbers by month:
November: 9.8 points, 5.3 assists
December: 13.5 points, 3.7 assists
January: 19.1 points, 5.1 assists
February: 21.5 points, 7.3 assists
March: 19. 8 points, 7.3 assists
April: 26. 4 points, 8.1 assists
With the exception of a slight drop off from February to March, his scoring numbers went up every month. On top of that, his last three months were not only his highest in scoring, but assists as well. As his minutes increased, so did his stats. And with one of the purest shots in the game, along with a high basketball IQ, expect Curry, not Monta Ellis, to be the player that Warriors fans expect to carry the team back into relevance.
4. Tyreke Evans (Sacramento Kings) –
Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, Lebron James. Prior to the 2009-2010 NBA season, those were the only there players to average a 20-5-5 in their rookie seasons. Then Tyreke Evans came along this past year and averaged 20.1 points, 5.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds to join exclusive company in such an elite club. Evans was the runaway winner for Rookie of the Year and easily the most consistent rookie from start to finish last season.
Evans might be a little out of place running the point, but the fact is he is still learning and has unlimited potential on the court. While he will always be more of a scoring guard, Evans has shown the ability to get others involved. The scariest part of all this is he’s only 20 and still really learning his position. With Demarcus Cousins now being his new pick and roll partner, the Kings might just have the best young guard/big combo in the league.
3. Andrew Bynum (Los Angeles Lakers) –
After his fifth season in the NBA, people tend to forget just how young Bynum really is. But at 22, coming off of his second consecutive NBA championship, Bynum is still young and full of potential. Injury concerns however have made Bynum the biggest question mark on this list. He has a great post-game and, when healthy, is a nightly double-double threat inside. But that’s the point, when healthy. Over the past three seasons Bynum has missed significant time with some pretty significant knee injuries. Just this past playoff run, he had to play through a torn meniscus.
But that playoff run said a lot about Bynum and his game. Despite having a pretty serious injury, Bynum was able to grit his teeth and go out each night and produce. While his numbers may have declined, the fact is he gave the Lakers good minutes and helped make sure size was the difference in their title run, even on one leg. If Bynum can stay healthy and continue developing on offense, he will become one of the best post players in the NBA. And should his game keep getting better, he and Pau Gasol will always give the Lakers an advantage inside.
2. Derrick Rose (Chicago Bulls) –
The 2008-2009 Rookie of the Year and former number one overall pick, Rose is considered by many to be the best player the Bulls have had since you-know-who retired back in ’98. Rose is an explosive guard with unlimited physical ability who can dominate games when he is on. You don’t have to look much further than last spring’s first round, when Rose averaged a mere 26.8 points and 7.2 assists in almost single-handedly keeping the Bulls in most games before eventually bowing out to Lebron James and the Cavs.
Speaking of James, he is who I would compare Rose to the most. While there are obvious differences in their game, just as James has ridiculous athleticism for a small forward, so does Rose for a point guard. His strength, hops and speed combine to form a set of skills that no point guard in the league can match. He’s faster than Deron Williams, stronger than Chris Paul and more athletic than both (although you couldn’t tell when Williams dunked on Rose last season), and neither of those two combine all three like Rose does. Rose however is still learning the game, but once he figures it out, the sky is the limit for this kid. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him average a 25-12 nightly.
1. Kevin Durant (OKC Thunder) –
The man who inspired this list, did you think anyone else would be number one? We all know about the numbers and accolades, 2007-2008 Rookie of the Year, youngest scoring champion ever, etc. But what makes Durant the unanimous pick as the best player his age, and arguably one of the top five players in the NBA today? Let’s start by looking more specifically at that scoring of his. Durant’s shooting numbers last season:
Field Goals: 47.6%
3-Point Field Goals: 36.5%
Free Throws: 90%
In short, Durant can score from anywhere. A 6’9 small forward with unlimited range? Good luck stopping that. Add that to the fact that he won’t miss free throws when you foul him and his teammates depend on him to score as much as any team in the league, and Durant could end up averaging 35 a game this season.
But his scoring isn’t the only thing that stands out about Durantula, which might be the worst nickname ever by the way. Durant is a leader who expects the best from his teammates, and who will stand by them no matter what. You don’t see Durant ever complaining about his teammates not stepping up, or talking about making moves to bring in other guys or even hinting at wanting to leave in free agency. All you see is a tight-knit group of young players who respect each other and truly believe they have what it takes to win.
While everyone was getting lost in the hoopla that was the Summer of Lebron, Durant was quietly signing a five-year extension to stay in Oklahoma City that was announced via Twitter, not a one hour special on ESPN. Not only that, but Durant didn’t want an opt-out clause in his contract because he felt he owed the organization that and that the Thunder can win with what they have. In a summer where players have been going to twitter non-stop to discuss their plans and make empty threats, Durant may have had the best tweet of them all when he said;
Now everybody wanna play for the heat and the Lakers? Let’s go back to being competitive and going at these peoples!
It’s that competitiveness, the same competitiveness we expected Lebron to have that never was there, that pushes Durant to be one of the best. With Wade and Lebron teaming up and Kobe slowly declining, don’t be surprised if Durant is the best player in the NBA in three years.
Belal Abdelfattah comes from a long background in sports writing at the Sports Authority Blog and The Block Radio. You can check out his weekly radio show OSD Radio at http://tinyurl.com/OSDRadio or follow Belal on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/belal_a