NBA

Ranking the NBA’s Top Young Duos

Jan 3, 2020; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) and guard Devin Booker (1) against the New York Knicks at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In the NBA, having two top-tier players is necessary to compete for a championship. It is a luxury to have more than two, and teams with this luxury are usually favorites to come out on top. Since 2006, only three teams have won a championship without at least two All-Stars. With that in mind, I will be ranking the NBA duos with the brightest futures. 

The only criteria for selection for this list are that both members of the duo are under 25 years old. NBA players enter their prime at around 27, so players on this list have several years to develop before reaching their peaks. Rankings consider current statistical production, ability to impact winning, potential, and the so-called “eye-test,” which is what I’ve seen and like from the players in question. 

Honorable Mentions

Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, Cleveland Cavaliers 

DENVER, CO - FEBRUARY 10: Darius Garland #10 and Collin Sexton #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers look on during the game against the Denver Nuggets on February 10, 2021 at the Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images)
Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

2020-21 Season Stats: 

Sexton: 24.3 PTS, 4.4 AST, 1.0 STL, 48% FG, 37% 3 PT

Garland: 17.3 PTS, 6.1 AST, 1.2 STL, 45% FG, 40% 3 PT

Collin Sexton and Darius Garland are some of the most exciting young backcourts in the league. They are both lightning-quick, solid shooters from the outside and creative finishers around the basket. Sexton improved his scoring by almost four points per game in each of the last two seasons. Garland has made strides as a playmaker, upping his assist-to-turnover ratio from 1.5 to over 2.0 from last season to this. Garland’s great handles and vision combined with Sexton’s incredible speed make this duo entertaining to watch.

The two most significant issues for this duo are defense and positional redundancy. Both Garland and Sexton give effort on the defensive end, but it is difficult for them to overcome their size. Both stand 6’1′. Their small size makes it easy for taller point guards and shooting guards to either shoot over them or attack the basket at their expense.

They also share similar skillsets on offense. Garland is a better passer, but they are both slashers by nature who love to drive and finish. We have seen this formula work to a certain extent in Portland with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. It remains to be seen whether the Cavs can find similar success with the two electrifying guards. They were just 18-36 when playing together this season.

Lamelo Ball and Miles Bridges, Charlotte Hornets 

Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

2020-2021 Season Stats: 

Ball: 15.7 PTS, 6.1 AST, 5.9 REB, 43% FG, 35% 3 PT

Bridges: 12.7 PTS, 6.0 REB, 2.2 AST, 50% FG, 40% 3PT

Lamelo Ball and Miles Bridges have provided us with some of the top highlights in the NBA this season. Their impact goes beyond spectacular plays, however. Ball, the likely Rookie of The Year, showed all-star potential as soon as he stepped on the court. A 6’5′ point guard, he demonstrated unmatched versatility among rookies, leading the class of 2020-21 in assists and steals while finishing second in rebounds and points. Ball was a significant factor in the  Hornets’ surprisingly competitive season. 

Bridges was also impressive in his third season. While he started slow, Bridges was a vital contributor to the Hornets while dealing with several injuries. Known primarily as one of the best dunkers in the league, he showed us that he is much more than that by becoming a 40% shooter from beyond the arc this season and improved off-ball movement.

Ball and Bridges have demonstrated brilliant chemistry in their short time together. Ball looks destined for superstardom, while Bridges must continue to expand his offensive game for the Hornets to become a real threat in the East. This electric windmill dunk by Bridges from Ball is in the conversation for play of the year. 

Rankings

Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies 

Nov 15, 2019; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. (13) and Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) during the first half against the Utah Jazz at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

2020-2021 Season Stats: 

Morant: 19.1 PTS, 7.4 AST, 4.0 REB, 45 % FG, 30% 3 PT

Jackson Jr.: 14.4 PTS, 5.6 REB, 1.4 BLK, 42% FG, 29% 3 PT

Jaren Jackson Jr. played just 11 regular-season games due to a torn meniscus in his left knee which he suffered in the NBA Bubble last season. Therefore, we didn’t get to see the duo of he and Morant grow together this year. They are still one of the most exciting young tandems in the league. 

Morant didn’t make the leap from his rookie to sophomore year that many were expecting. He struggled with consistency, especially with his jump shot and turning the ball over, but he still has star potential. He gets to the rim with ease using his quickness and superb handles and has a great floater. Morant might be the most athletic player in the league. And he has the perfect pick-and-roll partner in Jaren Jackson Jr., one of the sweetest shooting big men in the game. 

Jackson can stretch the floor effectively, shooting almost 40% from the three-point range in 2019-20. His shot creates lanes for Morant to attack the rim or kick it out to the perimeter. Scoring from the post is another strong aspect of Jackson’s game. Perhaps his most valuable attribute is his defense. Jackson is a highly versatile defender who can switch onto guards as well as defend the paint. However, he must cut down on fouling as he averages 5.2 personal fouls per 36 minutes in his career. 

With an entire offseason to rehab his knee, Jackson Jr. should bounce back next season.  Morant has shown superior confidence and leadership, as evidenced by his terrific performance in his first playoff appearance. As he works on the holes in his game, the Grizzlies duo will be a powerhouse in the Western Conference in the next several years.

Trae Young and John Collins, Atlanta Hawks 

Jan 20, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young (11) and forward John Collins (20) celebrate a play during their overtime win against the Detroit Pistons at State Farm Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

2020-2021 Season Stats: 

Young: 25.3 PTS, 9.4 AST, 3.9 REB, 44% FG, 35% 3PT 

Collins: 17.6 PTS, 7.4 REB, 1.0 BLK, 56% FG, 40% 3PT

Often criticized for putting up empty numbers on a bad team, Trae Young made strides in his third season, leading the Hawks to the playoffs. He is still inefficient on a high volume of shots, but he cut down his three-point attempts by three this year. Notably, Young attempted less ill-advised 30 footers early in the shot clock, which often kills the Hawks’ offensive groove. Ironically, John Collins criticized Young for those very shots back in January. Their relationship held up as the Hawks finished the season on a tear and are poised to move on to the second round.

Collins is an exciting player in his own right. He is a highly athletic forward who compliments Young beautifully, especially on alley-oops, like the one below. While Collins took a lesser role offensively this season, with the Hawks adding several new players, he remained efficient overall and from three-point range. 

Two main issues are holding this duo back. They are both below-average defenders. Young’s struggles are primarily due to his size. Collins has all the tools to be a great defender, but he often lacks effort and misses defensive assignments. The second concern is whether Collins is committed to Atlanta. He turned down a four-year, 90 million dollar extension before the season and is a restricted free agent this offseason. While the relationship between him and Young is workable, it is unknown whether Collins has changed his mind about remaining with the Hawks. If he chooses to do so, the Collins-Young pair will be one of the more exciting and productive duos for years to come. 

Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans 

Apr 26, 2021; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) is congratulated by forward Brandon Ingram (14) after making a three point basket against LA Clippers during the second half at the Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports.
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports.

2020-2021 Season Stats: 

Williamson: 27.1 PTS, 7.2 REB, 3.7 AST, 61 FG%, 29% 3 PT

Ingram: 23.8 PTS, 4.9 REB, 4.9 AST, 47% FG, 38% 3PT

Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram are two of the more gifted scorers in the NBA. Ingram has excellent length and shooting touch, while Williamson scores with brute force and athleticism. The duo ranked second in total points scored among tandems this season. While their individual production is astounding, historic in Zion’s case, the Pelicans finished just 31-41. They missed the playoffs for the third consecutive year. 

Williamson had one of the greatest age-20 seasons of all time. He scored 20 or more points in 21 straight games, breaking the record of consecutive games over 20 points by a player younger than 21. Zion also tied Shaquille O’Neal’s record of 25 consecutive games with 20+ PTS on 50% shooting or better.

Ingram is a silky smooth scorer who can get buckets from anywhere on the court. He shot a respectable 38% from range this season and has averaged over 23 points in his first two seasons in New Orleans. He’s also an underrated playmaker, as he averaged almost five assists a game this year. 

Ingram and Williamson struggle to coexist at times. Both score many of their points in isolation situations, and both are more capable of carrying the offensive load. This leads to a bit of a power struggle at times. However, as the chemistry between them improves, the ceiling is on the moon. There is still hope for this duo to become one of the scariest in the league. 

Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns 

Jan 10, 2020; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) celebrates with center Deandre Ayton (22) against the Orlando Magic in the second half at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

2020-2021 Season Stats: 

Booker: 25.6 PTS, 4.2 REB, 4.3 AST, 48% FG, 34% 3 PT 

Ayton: 14.4 PTS, 10.5 REB, 1.2 BLK, 63% FG, 20% 3PT

The Suns put the league on notice in the Bubble last season when they went 8-0. This performance was largely thanks to the duo of Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, who were both spectacular. After acquiring Chris Paul, the expectations of this team were high. It is not a stretch to say they comfortably exceeded them this season. 

Booker and Ayton have a chance to become an extraordinary duo. Booker is one of the more talented offensive players in the league. He scores in every way imaginable, and his game resembles the late, great Kobe Bryant. Booker earned his reputation as a spot-up shooter but has proven himself to be an elite three-level scorer and is as clutch as they come. He routinely knocks down insanely difficult shots, like the one below.  It’s hard to criticize his offensive game, aside from turning the ball over (3.3 in his career) and a below-average three-point percentage (35% for his career). 

Ayton is one of the more underrated big men in the NBA. He has a multitude of post moves and a solid mid-range jump shot. Passiveness is the only element holding him back. He was fourth in the league in field goal percentage in the regular season at 63% and is leading the league in that category in the playoffs, shooting a remarkable 80%. Thus far, Ayton’s game has improved significantly in the postseason, upping his points per game by 3 points against the Lakers’ number one rated defense. His excellent mobility for his size makes him a solid paint defender. As he works on his three-point stroke, he has a chance to become a top-five center in no time. 

Booker and Ayton showed us this year that they can accomplish more than just good numbers on a bad team. The Suns are a legitimate contender this season, in large part thanks to this young duo. That’s what gave these two the nod over Ingram and Williamson. And given their age, they can continue to have both individual and team success for a very long time. 

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics

Sep 9, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) and guard Jaylen Brown (7) react at the end of the first overtime period in game six against the Toronto Raptors in the second round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

2020-2021 Season Stats: 

Tatum: 26.4 PTS, 7.4 REB, 4.3 AST, 46% FG, 39% 3 PT

Brown: 24.7 PTS, 6.0 REB, 3.4 AST, 48% FG, 40% 3 PT

If you had to design the perfect young duo, it would probably look like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The Celtics’ season ended disappointingly, with Brown getting injured before the playoffs and Tatum unable to slow down the Nets. Tatum and Brown are still two of the best young stars in the game. 

Tatum has MVP potential. As a rookie, he took LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. In that postseason, Tatum scored the second-most playoff points by a rookie in NBA history. Since then, he has steadily improved every year and now routinely drops 50 points like it’s nothing. Tatum can score from anywhere on the court and has the size and length to give any defender fits. I would like to see him attack the basket more, as he settles for contested jump shots too much. Although, much like Booker, Tatum makes a ton of those shots. His rebounding, passing, and defense have improved significantly since his rookie year to the point where he is the best player on the floor almost every night. 

Jaylen Brown is the perfect sidekick to Tatum. He came into the league as a defensive specialist. We have seen his defensive ability: he locked down Pascal Siakam in the Celtics’ series versus the Raptors last season. This season, his offensive game caught up to his outstanding defense. Scoring an efficient 24.7 points a game, Brown also greatly improved his passing. These improvements led to him getting the All-Star nod for the first time in his career. He is dynamic in transition and a great spot-up three-point shooter. 

The Celtics must bring in players who compliment Tatum and Brown to ensure they are not wasting their unlimited potential. They have gotten close, with two conference finals appearances in the last five years. As Tatum and Brown continue to improve, they will undoubtedly be a team to beat in the East. 

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