Barnstorming: The best youthful rivalries in the NBA


The next generation of NBA stars is rising and their personal rivalries are already taking shape. Which ones have the most potential to drive the league forward?

The NBA is a player’s league and for as much structure as there is around team rivalries it is often the rivalries between individual players that drive the narrative. The player who was traded trying to show up his replacement. The player trying to embarrass the unfortunate souls who were drafted right in front of them. The player trying to protect their zero-sum share of All-Star selections and playoff wins.

With a tantalizing new crop of stars taking shape, here are a few of my favorite burgeoning individual rivalries (all between players age-25 or under).

Kyle Kuzma v. Brandon Ingram

The root of this one is the fact that the Lakers, in very public trade negotiations made a point of protecting Kuzma and dealing Ingram. But for this to develop into a rivalry of any substance, a few knots would need to untangle themselves. Ingram would need to prove his breakout this season is not a fluke and continue playing on a competitive team, as the Pelicans appear to be ascending towards. On the other end, Kuzma would need to take a meaningful leap towards Ingram’s tier and, probably, keep his place on the Lakers.

From there you get two players at the same position. Kuzma has to carry the weight of the Lakers’ legacy and proving they made the right decision. Ingram gets revenge as motivation and embarrassing an antagonist as the means to an end.

Aaron Gordon v. Zach LaVine

Gordon and LaVine built their rivalry in the 2016 Dunk Contest, an outlier of both excitement and competitiveness that drew comparisons to the epic 1988 dunk-off between Dominique Wilkins and Michael Jordan. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to add any fuel to the fire in the three regular seasons worth of basketball since. Both play for struggling franchises. Neither has made a proper All-Star team and they’ve appeared in a total of five playoff games between them. If the Magic or Bulls were to somehow claw their way to the top of the Eastern Conference playoff standings over the next few years and create some playoff tension, this one might go off. But for now, it’s just an exercise for the poor soul who does pregame graphics for Fox Sports Florida when the Bulls come to town.

Ben Simmons v. Donovan Mitchell

Remember when this was a thing? Arguing about the definition of the word “rookie” and t-shirt trolling? Both players have continued to blossom, delivering on the promise they showed during those “rookie” seasons and moving their narratives in diverging directions. Mitchell is in the Western Conference, padding Rudy Gobert’s screen assist totals and doing everything in his power to push the Jazz from dark-horse- to legitimate-contender. Simmons is the Eastern Conference working through back pain and trying to hold together a process that appears to be coming apart at the seem. There was some legitimate beef here but now it just feels quaint, like a high school senior laughing it out with their old first-grade nemesis.

Jayson Tatum v. Lonzo Ball v. Markelle Fultz

Jayson Tatum is a borderline All-NBA player. Lonzo Ball is an above-average point guard in the advantageous position of playing third-fiddle to the transcendent Zion Williamson and the resplendent Brandon Ingram. Markelle Fultz is looking forward to finishing his first full and fully healthy NBA season. Suffice it to say, we’re talking about three players carving out niches in very different tiers of production.

But even though Tatum is separating himself from the pack, this season has established that Ball could be an important piece on a good team and that ceiling is not out of the question for Fultz either. Their per-36 numbers pale in comparison to Tatum’s, but they are both posting interesting lines and both should have an opportunity to build on them in the playoffs.

There will probably never be any good-faith arguments about which of the three is the better player or who made out best in the draft. But all three are interesting players on interesting career paths that will continue to intertwine.

Pascal Siakam v. Giannis Antetokounmpo

Siakam’s game is like a distorted echo of Antetokounmpo’s, softer, smaller, muffled. But whatever cavernous gulf in production exists between the two of them is worth spelunking through because it could shape the Eastern Conference playoff picture for the next few seasons and it’s an honest-to-goodness matchup in the way that some of the other rivalries above aren’t. Giannis actually guards Siakam — only two players have spent more minutes as his primary defender this season. The Raptors mix things up a bit more but Siakam spends plenty of time on Giannis as well. And it matters that there are some aesthetic similarities.

Giannis’ ascendence and age (25) put him in a somewhat strange position, bridging eras. Of the other nine most-likely MVP candidates, according to Basketball-Reference’s MVP tracker, only two — Nikola Jokic and Anthony Davis — fall in his age window. Luka Doncic is four years younger. The other six — Khris Middleton, Damian Lillard, James Harden, LeBron James, Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard — are all at least three years older than him. (Siakam is also 25). And Giannis’ style of play is so peculiar and distinct that there are very few suitable measuring sticks for him. Similarity, chronological synchronicity and playoff proximity could make this make one of the most compelling rivalries for the next half-decade even if we never have to wonder who has the upper hand.

Zion Williamson v. Ja Morant

One is big, the other is little. One finishes place no one else can finish, the other creates the opportunities no one else can see. One wears a smile that’s a mile wide, the other lives in his mean mug. One has pedigree — viral high school mix-tapes and a season at the bluest of blue-chip colleges, the other was molded in (relative) anonymity, demanding attention from a mid-major and nearly going dunk for dunk with the dunkiest college prospect any of us had ever seen.

Williamson and Morant are a study in contrasts but they’re also two spectacular rookies who seem to have mutually agreed to trade the Rookie of the Year race for a sprint to the last the playoff spot in the Western Conference. We won’t get a playoff matchup this year but we will someday soon and, hopefully, every year after that until they both retire.

Trae Young v. Luka Doncic

Young and Doncic were traded for each other on draft night, a factoid that will keep them linked forever. They are both mythical creatures of incredible skill but aesthetically they have almost nothing in common. Young is slight, deceptively quick, untethered from our conventional perception of basketball geometry, liable to hit from anywhere, at any moment, burning down anything he touches. He’s lightning.

Doncic plays with a force and power that Young can’t muster. He’s a dominant ball-handler as well, creating with vision and foresight, playing every angle. But where Young separates with quickness, Doncic can overwhelm with the force of will to push through, past, around or over any obstacle. If Young is lightning, Doncic is like…a river of molten lava.

They play different positions and in different conferences but it’s not to imagine them spending the next decade competing directly for scoring titles and assist crowns, maybe even MVPs as players like Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and James Harden age out of that top tier. I guess the only question is, who ya’ got: lightning or lava?

Donovan Mitchell v. Devin Booker

This one has it all — two elite young All-Stars, at the same position, in the same conference. They love playing against each other — Booker dropped 59 on Mitchell last March, Mitchell had 38 on Booker last month — and their head-to-head numbers are almost identical (although the Jazz have won seven of their nine meetings). Both players are finalists for the 2020 USA Basketball Olympic team and their careers are synced in way that will let them build around friendly competition both inside and outside of the NBA arena.

The only thing that’s missing is stakes of some sort.

The Jazz have their eyes on a title. The Suns have their eyes on breaking 30 wins. Mitchell already has 16 playoff games under his belt. The only thing under Booker’s belt is the top of his pants.

If the Suns are able to take a leap over the next few years, become a consistent playoff team and a fringe contender, Mitchell and Booker will have the opportunity to flesh out this rivalry with legacy-building moments. If the Suns never put it together or it turns out that Booker’s best years are spent missing the playoffs in Minnesota or doing his thing in the Eastern Conference then this rivalry will live out its days as a Sisphyean hypothetical for Twitter to untangle.

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Barnstorming is an irregular column series, willing to go anywhere and take on anything. Check out the entire project at A Unified Theory of Basketball.