The 25-under-25 is a celebration of the best young players in the NBA, but 25 is never enough. Here are the best players who just missed the cut.
For the sixth year in a row, The Step Back is honoring the best young players in the NBA with our 25-under-25. The list is exactly that long because it sets up the clever name but it’s also an arbitrary cut-off that leaves off many young players on the rise. And, if previous years have taught us anything, we’re probably wrong about a few players and will have left someone off who was more than deserving. That’s why we’re going to go just a touch deeper.
Who just missed the cut on this year’s 25-under-25 list?
26. Grant Williams, Forward, Boston Celtics
Why he missed: Williams now has a multi-year track record as a high-level role player on a very good team. However, he played just 24.4 minutes per game last season and unless the Celtics are hit but some significant injuries that’s probably his ceiling this year. He’s incredibly well suited for his role but it’s a constrained one and as good as he is, it’s hard to rank him above players with considerably more responsibility at both ends of the floor.
Why we might look stupid: With Robert Williams out and Al Horford likely to slide up to center, Grant Williams could enter the season as the Celtics’ power forward and never relinquish the spot. He’s a strong, versatile defender. He hit 41.1 percent of his 3-pointers last year, 90.5 percent from the free throw line and is an underrated passer. There is a world, not too hard to imagine, where he’s playing 30+ minutes a night, averaging 12.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.5 blocks per game (about what he averaged per 36 minutes last year) while playing high-level defense and flirting with 50/40/90 shooting percentages.
27. Franz Wagner, Forward, Orlando Magic
Why he missed: Wagner was a revelation as a rookie, contributing a bit of everything and already looking like a high-level role player. If it was up to me, personally, he would probably be in the top 25 but I think, collectively, our panel may have downgraded him a bit for his age, the presumed empty calories of impressive numbers on a terrible team and the fact that he may have to cede some offensive opportunities to Paolo Banchero this season.
Why we might look stupid: Wagner finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting but in plenty of other years, he would have led the field. He averaged 15.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game, with decent shooting percentages and fairly effective defense for a rookie. He may be ceding some offensive primacy to Banchero but he’s probably more effective as a complementary threat anyway and his shooting percentages could benefit in a big way from the offensive upgrade around him. Wagner could take a quiet step back in his second season but he could just as easily take a big step forward.
28. Keldon Johnson, Forward, San Antonio Spurs
Why he missed: This is another collective decision I’m not sure I can totally explain. It may be simply that there are a lot of talented players ahead of him and there may be some regression coming as he takes on more offensive primacy with Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker out of San Antonio.
Why we might look stupid: On paper, Johnson was a beast last season. He averaged 17.0 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game, shooting 39.8 percent from beyond the arc on more than five attempts per game. He did all that while playing more than half his minutes as a 6-foot-5 power forward and rating as a significant positive on defense. He’s going to have to create a lot more of his own offense this season but he’s also going to have a lot more freedom. The Spurs may be one of the worst teams in the league but he’s likely going to lead them in scoring and pushing 20 points per game is more than possible.
29. Jalen Green, Guard, Houston Rockets
Why he missed: Green put up an extremely impressive stat line for a rookie but there are some clear and obvious holes in his game at this point. He is still developing as a creator for others, with more turnovers than assists off of drives last season. His defense is very much a work in progress and he was particularly inconsistent as a pull-up shooter. His tools are incredible but Green is still figuring out how to use them efficiently.
Why we might look stupid: He’s already one of the most explosive young scorers in the NBA. As a 19-year-old rookie, Green put up eight games of 30+ points and averaged 22.6 points per game, shooting 48.4 percent from the field and 39.5 percent from beyond the arc in his final 22 games. If he improves as a pull-up shooter he’s going to be a nearly unstoppable three-level scorer, more than potent enough to offset his defensive shortcomings. We missed last year by leaving Anthony Edwards off our list. It’s not hard to see Green making a similar leap this year and making us look just as silly.
30. Anfernee Simons, Guard, Portland Trail Blazers
Why he missed: Simons put up some big numbers last season but he’s very much a score-first guard in the mold of Collin Sexton, Donovan Mitchell or Jordan Poole. He doesn’t provide much else besides scoring and he hasn’t yet demonstrated that his offensive firepower can help his team win games.
Why we might look stupid: Simons fits a certain template but there’s an argument he’s just as good as other players in the same template (Sexton and Poole) who were ranked higher than him. Simons averaged 21.2 points per 36 minutes last season on 44.3/40.5/88.3 shooting splits. Over the past two seasons, he was much more accurate than Poole or Sexton from beyond the arc at a higher volume than either. He may not be as advanced a self-creator as Poole or Sexton but he could be more efficient and better suited for the complementary scorer role in which he’s going to play.