You remember last June, right? When Kawhi Leonard, the silent assassin, the NBA mercenary, toppled the Golden State Warriors to bring Toronto its first-ever NBA championship. That Raptors team was a throwback to the NBA of yesteryear. There was one true superstar, one emerging player with a future yet to be determined, Pascal Siakam, and a group of very good role players. They were well-coached, composed, and determined. They looked like a champion from a pre- “Decision” NBA — before there were superteams and constant speculation on what players would go where.
Then, weeks after the championship, Leonard was gone. Off to the LA Clippers where he decided to forego the opportunity to team up with LeBron and Anthony Davis on the Lakers. Leonard opted to align himself with the fellow 2-way star, Paul George. This move set off a chain of events that eventually lead to Russell Westbrook ending up in Houston alongside James Harden. “Parity” was now the word on the lips of every NBA fan.
But what about those teams that can’t afford two established superstars, but are still scratching and clawing for every win? There’s a wave of young, multi-talented potential stars sweeping through the league. And six teams, in particular, are fielding especially youthful lineups with players that may make leaps this season.
For that reason, I’m creating a new team stat. Let’s call it ASA. Average Starter Age. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Add up the age of every starter for a given team and divide by 5. I think it’s a good metric of the overall youth of the up and coming teams. These teams are young and hungry, but they still need to round out some edges and develop some talent. With a little luck, they may even challenge for a playoff spot. League pass heads will do well to look out for these guys in the coming season. I think the young guns are going to turn some heads.
Atlanta Hawks — ASA: 22.2
The Atlanta Hawks are an interesting entry on this list. They are both the youngest team on the list by way of ASA, but they may be wholly the most excited. Look at their pieces. They’ve got a potentially deadly pick-and-roll duo in Trae Young and John Collins, a deadeye shooter in Kevin Huerter, a versatile big in Deandre Hunter, and a serviceable big in Alex Len. Also, they have Cam Reddish coming off the bench. He may be the second most dynamic scorer on the team when it’s all said and done.
The moment the Hawks made the move to get Trae Young, fans started calling them Warriors lite, and they just might be. The pieces all match up. Deandre Hunter may be a poor man’s Draymond Green. Kevin Huerter comps fairly well to Klay Thompson on the offensive end. Imagine Alex Len as a slightly more durable Andrew Bogut. John Collins is way better than any big the Warriors fielded on either of those 2015 or 2016 teams.
And Trae Young, like Steph Curry, is the engine that makes it all go. His range changes the geometry of the court and forces defenses to spread and give more room to some of the less capable playmakers on the Hawks. If they can even be a league-average defense this year, they’ll certainly be in the playoff hunt in a weak Eastern Conference.
Sacramento Kings — ASA: 22.8
The Kings will be banking on speed and athleticism to squeeze them into a packed Western Conference playoff picture. They’ll be hoping for continued development from De’Aaron Fox who leaped 11 points and 4 assists in 2017-2018 to 17.6 points and 7.3 assists in 2018-2019. If Fox can continue to facilitate, he can be the catalyst for further blossoming of a King’s offense that may have turned a corner last year. They were ranked number 9 in points per game last year.
Buddy Hield has come on as one of the best shooters in the league, and Marvin Bagley proved himself to be a stand-out big man on the offensive end. If he can improve his rim protection and pick-and-roll defense, it may do wonders for the King’s defense.
Harry Giles may end up being the glue that pulls this team into the playoffs. Giles, plagued for years with knee problems, has long been seen as a talented prospect. In high school, he was ranked #1 in his class and frequently drew comparisons to Chris Webber. He has yet to reach his full potential due to durability issues, but he played 58 games last year and is healthy coming into training camp.
Memphis Grizzlies — ASA: 23.2
The Grizzlies, much like the Hawks, are built on an athletic point guard/big duo. Memphis drafted Murray State’s Ja Morant #2 overall. Morant is a 6’3” explosive point guard who can both blow by his man to score and make plays for teammates. Morant’s playmaking may be a bit underrated seeing as though he averaged 10 ASTs per game last year while leading a Murray State that was much devoid of stellar talent.
https://youtu.be/2j (h/t House of Highlights)
Grizzlies fans will hope that Morant’s presence will lead to a numbers bump for Jaren Jackson Jr. and Dillon Brooks. The Grizzlies will be starting two older veterans to off-set the developing youth in their system. Kyle “Slow-Mo” Anderson and Jonas Valanciuans will round out the starting 5, but fans can probably expect to see Anderson’s minutes give way to Brandon Clarke. The 6’8” forward can provide speed and athleticism to the Grizzlies attack though he may be sacrificing some experience on the defensive end.
Chicago Bulls — ASA: 23.8
Zach Levine will probably be the primary ball-handler for the Bulls at the beginning of the upcoming season, but Bulls fans should hope for the Coby White emergence by the All-Star Break. Levine is a proven scorer in the league and will most likely average around 25 PPG this year, but the offense will work better if Coby White has the reigns.
The 19-year-old guard out of North Carolina is extremely fast and crafty on the pick-and-roll. He could be the piece that unlocks the Chicago bigs Markannen and Carter. Lauri Markannen is coming off a great offensive season where he averaged close to 18 PPG and 9 rebounds. He’ll look to break the 20 PPG threshold and be a go-to guy in the Chicago offense.
Wendell Carter was playing well before he suffered a season-ending thumb injury last year and he should continue his development toward becoming a dominant defensive center. Otto Porter Jr. should be a veteran, stabilizing force for the Bulls by contributing consistent 3&D play from the wing. Chicago may be able to make a push for the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Phoenix Suns — ASA: 23.8
This may be a make or break year for the current iteration of the Phoenix Suns organization. The Suns have been banking on building around Devin Booker with young talent for years, but this strategy has yet to translate into wins. Booker is a prolific scorer and a capable playmaker, but he’ll be looking to prove that he can be more than a good stats player on a bad team. He’ll hope to get some help from second-year center Deandre Ayton.
Ayton began the season last year looking absolutely lost on defense, but he eventually found his way to becoming a league average big man on that end. Expect further development from him if he can stay healthy.
Kelly Oubre Jr. and Mikal Bridges should be able to provide good 3&D play from the wing. Booker may eventually relinquish some playmaking duties to rookie guard Ty Jerome if Jerome can prove to be a capable floor general. The Suns will not be challenging for a playoff spot this year, but even 30 wins would be a step in the right direction.
New Orleans Pelicans — ASA: 23.8
The Pelicans will be building around Zion Williamson, the most hyped NBA prospect since Anthony Davis, this season. He’ll most likely be deployed at the PF position for most of the year, but NBA analysts believe that he may be most effective as a small-ball 5. Williamson will need to extend his range and improve his ball-handling to reach his full potential. He proved to be a capable shooter of wide-open threes at Duke (39%) but struggled when contested (30%). Good spacing will help him find his jumper in the league.
(h/t ACC Digital Network)
For that reason, the Pelicans will rely on Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, and JJ Redick for consistency behind the arc. Lonzo Ball will most likely be their starting PG. He’s not a great shooter but is a fantastic passer and defender. Pelicans fans will hope a change of scenery will ignite the young guard.
New Orleans will most likely be starting Derrick Favors at the 5, but he may cede many minutes to Rookie Center Jaxson Hayes. Hayes is extremely athletic and may prove to be an elite rim protector in the NBA. The Pelicans are projected to win about 38 games in the challenging west, but a quick adjustment period for Zion may see them break the 40 win threshold. ■