For the seventh year in a row, The Step Back is honoring the best young players in the NBA with our 25-under-25. The list (check it out here) 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. Anfernee Simons, Guard, Portland Trail Blazers
Why he missed: Simons ranked No. 30 on last year's list and was included in the same round-up of players who just missed the cut. At the time, I said: "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."
I think he was, quite clearly, better than Poole or Sexton last year — becoming a full-time starter while playing about 500 more minutes than the previous season. He played without Damian Lillard for much of the year and still averaged 21.1 points per game on 44.7/37.7/89.4 shooting splits. He's just good and I think the only real argument against him is that this impressive production came amid another terrible season for the Trail Blazers. He played 2171 minutes last season and just 116 of them qualified as high- or very-high-leverage, according to PBPStats.com. In short, very good numbers but lots and lots of garbage time.
Why we might look stupid: It's hard to ignore a young player scoring 20 points per game, in the ballpark of 50/40/90 shooting percentages, in back-to-back seasons. If anything, losing Lillard is going to open more opportunities for Simons than last season and he projects to be a lot more reliable than Scoot Henderson. Regardless of the context and the Blazers' record, if Simons puts up similar numbers again we're going to have to acknowledge we're underestimating him.
27. R.J. Barrett, Wing, New York Knicks
Why he missed: This is a major slide for Barrett who was ranked No. 16 on last year's list. Other than his cratering 3-point percentage his production didn't really decline that much from the 2021-22 season but what was supposed to be a breakout campaign turned into a season of frustration and disappointment. Again, this is more about increased expectations than actual regression but Barrett was not as good as we hoped or expected last year.
Why we might look stupid: His talent is still unmistakable and he continues to improve on defense. With nothing more than some progression in his outside shooting and some more modest expectations, this year could look very different. If the Knicks make some noise in the playoffs and he's a big part of it, his reputation is going to change quickly.
28. Immanuel Quickley, Guard, New York Knicks
Why he missed: Anti-Knicks bias? Anti-Kentucky bias? Because his name keeps cropping up in trade rumors? Because he probably won't be a full-time starter at any point this season? Because he's 24 and might seem like more of a finished product than some other players on the list? You can take your pick but at this point, Quickley not landing on the list may be more of a subjective judgment than an objective one.
Why we might look stupid: He almost won Sixth Man of the Year last season and he'll be playing with an even more effective unit this year, with the addition of Donte DiVincenzo and a full season of Josh Hart. His numbers might not swell that much but the Knicks bench should be even better and he could get a lot of attention for helping driving this key variable in the team's success.
29. Wendell Carter Jr., Big, Orlando Magic
Why he missed: Carter Jr. is effective but he's thoroughly unspectacular. He's a plus defender but doesn't block a lot of shots or create highlight plays. He has some range but he's just a 35.2 percent shooter and doesn't stand out too far from the pack as a scorer or rebounder. This will be his last year on the list befoe he ages out and this is probably the right range for him, at least by what he's accomplished thus far in his career.
Why we might look stupid: The Magic might be really good this season. They were roughly a 0.500 team over the last quarter of last season and Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner are impressive showings at the FIBA World Cup. If they take off with Carter as the reliable two-way anchor of their frontcourt rotation, percpetions of him could change a lot even if his numbers don't.
30. Jalen Duren, Big, Detroit Pistons
Why he missed: He's 19 years old and his value is still very much hypothetical. He averaged 13.2 points, 12.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.9 steals and 1.3 blocks per game last season, shooting 64.8 percent from the floor. He also attempted just 22 shots all season long more than 10 feet from the basket and the Pistons were terrible, on both offense and defense, when he was on the court.
Why we might look stupid: Duren has incredible physical tools and the fact that he was already so productive as a 19-year-old is fairly remarkable. As he learns how to turn production into impact, he could become an absolute two-way monster. If it happens quickly as the Pistons pivot towards competitiveness this season it will be clear we were way too conservative with him.