The Whiteboard: Biggest disappointments on the NBA 25-under-25

Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images /

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Today, The Step Back is rolling out our annual 25-under-25 list. It’s out ranking of the 25 best players under the age of 25, as we head into the new season. The first five names are announced today, along with profiles of each player and what makes them so compelling. We’ll be rolling out five per day over the next five days, finishing the top of the list on Friday.

While we’re not ready to reveal who is at the top, you can probably guess some of the names at the bottom. Here are a few of the young guys who didn’t make our list this year but we’d really love a chance to say nice things about next year.

Kevin Knox: What would you say, you do here?

This is Knox’s third straight year of missing the 25-under-25, which is more disappointing than surprising. He was not exactly a wild swing when the Knicks took him at No. 9 in the 2018 NBA Draft but it was certainly understood that he was more of a project than Mikal Bridges, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Miles Bridges — the three players taken directly after them. And, after two quiet seasons, it feels like the Knicks haven’t even started the project.

The free-agent signings of Julius Randle, Bobby Portis Jr. and Marcus Morris all took minutes, shots and developmental opportunities from Knox last year. The point guard rotation certainly didn’t do him any favors (more on that a minute) and he just kind of receded into the background.

For a young player like Knox, entering his third season, you’d like to be able to see some outlines of a positive role he could eventually play. Not only is that murky, but it’s also hard to see an obvious toe hold that he even uses to move in a clear direction. He increased his steal and block rates but ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus still estimated his defensive impact to be overwhelmingly negative, among the worst wing players in the league last year. Through two seasons he has more turnovers than assists, he’s hit 32 percent of nearly 500 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts, he’s shooting under 50 percent within five feet of the basket and under 40 percent on his drives to the basket.

He’s just 21 with solid physical tools and potential. Somewhere in there is a useful NBA role player. But we haven’t really seen a trace of him yet.

Mo Bamba: Blocking shots, hitting 3s and missing games

The appeal in Mo Bamba’s draft profile was a mobile 7-footer with elite shot-blocking instincts and the hint of 3-point range. He has certainly looked the part for the Magic as a rim protector, racking up 4.5 blocks per 100 possessions across two seasons. The jumper is still a work in progress but he did hit 34.6 percent of 5.9 3-point attempts per 100 possessions which certainly gives the defense something to think about. The problem is that health issues have limited him to just 109 of a possible 155 games. And his prodigious foul rate, among other things, has limited him to an average of just 15.1 minutes per game when he’s actually been available.

Bamba has averaged 6.5 fouls per 100 possessions and, for his career, has considerably more fouls than steals and blocks combined. He’s only 22 and, unlike Knox, has shown some clear definable NBA skills that could make him useful even if he never rounds out his game much beyond cutting down on his fouls. But for a player with such a unique profile, it’s disappointing that we’ve gotten to see so little of it.

Dennis Smith Jr.: Started from the bottom now he’s on the Knicks

I maintain that Smith Jr. has gotten a bum deal. He was taken as the Mavericks’ point guard of the future exactly one year before Luka Doncic fell in their lap. Smith’s skill set — dynamic on-ball creator — was always going to make his fit with Doncic an issue but he put work into improving in the most essential areas. In his second season, his first playing with Doncic, he increased his 3-point percentage from 31.3 to 34.4. He bumped up his steal and block percentages, took fewer long 2-pointers but made a higher percentage of them. He worked on his weaknesses and tried to be what the Mavs needed him to be. And after 32 games, Dallas flipped him to the Knicks in the Kristaps Porzingis deal.

It was the right move for both teams (given that the Knicks kind of had their hand forced) but it was a disaster for Smith. He’s been injured and atrocious ever since but he’s also playing in a disastrous situation with a train wreck roster. I’d like to think a revival is coming but it’s hard to climb out of a hole as deep as the one he’s in right now.

Marvin Bagley: An impossible ask

To be fair, we still don’t really know what Marvin Bagley is as a basketball player. He was taken No. 2 in the 2018 NBA Draft but because of injury he played in just 13 games last season and has appeared in just 75 total across two seasons. But we do know what Marvin Bagley is not.

He is not Luka Doncic, taken No. 3 in that draft. And he is not Trae Young, taken No. 5. As long as we’re on the subject he’s also not Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Michael Porter Jr., although those comparisons may turn out to be less damning. The point is, Bagley might turn out to be great but the Kings have set him up for a lot of “could have had player X” hand-wringing.

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Chris Bosh is done with basketball. Our hearts and minds? He’s not done with those quite yet.

Today’s 25-under-25 additions: