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Grading Every NBA Team's Top Under-25 Player So Far

Dan Favale

Gather 'round, kids. It's time to discuss the NBA's, well, kids.

Report card-style grades are always awkward. And by "awkward," I mean incendiary. Grading rubrics can be inexact and ambiguous, and the responses usually skew toward "What the hell, this is too low for My Favorite Player X!" or "Why did Not My Favorite Player Y get such a high mark when they're averaging fewer points per game than My Favorite Player X?!"

With this in mind: Everyone here is getting evaluated relative to expectations. Stars will be held to higher standards than end-of-bench players. That's how it has to be.

In an attempt to clear up any potential confusion and address the typical disdain and dismay toward "C's," here's a breakdown of what each letter grade represents:

Falling in between these categories follows the same thought process. Getting a "B+" means you're doing more than just exceeding expectations. And so on and so forth.

Selecting the top under-25 player from every NBA team is a pretty straightforward undertaking. Most of the focus will lie on who's supposed to be each squad's top kiddie. In certain cases, however, we will pass the torch if an alternative candidate has proved themselves sustainably better.

Finally, and most importantly, this report card covers the 2022-23 NBA season alone. Past performances shape the bar to which each under-25 whippersnapper gets held, but at-this-moment play is all that factors into their grade.

Atlanta Hawks: Trae Young

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Age (as of Nov. 11): 24

Grade: C-

Alarm bells start sounding when you dig into Trae Young's numbers.

Putting up 27.9 points and 9.2 assists is patently ridiculous, and he has managed to up his volume at the charity stripe, where he's shooting 92.5 percent. But his overarching efficiency is down at every level. He's shooting 43 percent at the rim, 40 percent from mid-range and 30 percent from three—marks that pale in comparison to last year's 59/47/39 split.

Young has also exchanged long-range attempts for more looks between four and 14 feet. That's not sinister when he's converting over 46 percent of his floaters, but it's worth noting.

Bumps and hiccups are the expectation right now. He and Dejounte Murray have been a stellar fit, but not a natural one. Young is spending more time away from the ball—not a ton, but it's a noticeable change. More of his buckets are coming off assists compared to last season, and his total time of possession per game has dropped by over 11 percent—from 8.7 minutes to 7.7—despite virtually no change in court time.

Lineups featuring Young without Murray are also getting annihilated. Dinging him for that feels off. The lift during those minutes is heavy. Bogdan Bogdanovic has yet to play this season, and head coach Nate McMillan has responded by tethering many of Young's solo stints to both Holiday brothers.

Defaulting to a "C-" could seem cruel. Young's output remains absurd, and he's trying different things, within more confined spaces. But his efficiency dip, while not unexpected or entirely his own, is at least a hair more significant than you'd like.

Boston Celtics: Jayson Tatum

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Age: 19 19 19 24

Grade: A

Some idiot left Jayson Tatum off their first MVP ladder of the season (me). Rest assured, that'll be remedied next time around.

Tatum is averaging 31.2 points and 4.2 assists and downing 60.2 percent of his twos and 37.9 percent of his triples. He has never done a better job of getting to the charity stripe and is shooting damn near 80 percent at the rim.

Boston has done a nice job streamlining some of his three-point attempts compared to last season, and Tatum isn't drilling off-the-dribble jumpers at a pristine clip. Generally speaking, though, he remains the offense's lifeline—and he still manages to play really good to monster defense. It feels like the Celtics have him checking harder assignments, he remains disruptive away from the ball, and he's turning blocks from behind into an art form.

Oh, and Tatum is doing all of this while battling a left wrist injury. That is categorically bonkers. And it adds to the real-time mystique of a tenured superstar taking up the mantle of a top-flight MVP candidate and, potentially, entrenching himself as the most complete player in the league.

Brooklyn Nets: Nicolas Claxton

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Age: 23

Grade: A-

Somewhat lost within the smoldering pile of ash and rubble that has become the Brooklyn Nets' future is one helluva season from Nicolas Claxton.

Drama, drama and more drama has no doubt obscured how well he's playing. The team's lack of success when he populates the frontcourt beside Ben Simmons doesn't help matters. But little about Brooklyn's issues are within Claxton's control. His partnership with Simmons comes closest. Yet, it was always counterintuitive. Claxton can't be dinged for not spacing the floor. That's never been his job.

Switching onto players of all strengths and archetypes is Claxton's job. And he's good at his job. He remains matchup-proof on the perimeter, and though burlier bigs can toss him around on the glass, he's posting a career-best defensive (and offensive) rebounding rate and holding his own on contests at the rim.

Claxton's offensive usage isn't complicated, but that's part of his charm. He gorges on cutting dunks and layups and tip-ins while busting out the occasional hook shoot or on-ball drives. He is currently shooting 77.8 percent (14-of-18) as the roll man, and he'd probably lead the world in points per possession as the diver if he could hit a friggin' free throw or resist the urge to set fewer painfully obvious moving screens that officials have no choice but to call.

Charlotte Hornets: P.J. Washington

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Age: 24

Grade: B

LaMelo Ball would typically get the nod for the Charlotte Hornets, but he has yet to make his season debut while recovering from a sprained left ankle.

In a twist I sure as hell didn't see coming, 24-year-old Dennis Smith Jr. came reaaally close to making an appearance. From his finishing and standstill three-point shooting to his passing and defensive energy (fifth in deflections!), almost everything about him is a pleasant and monumental surprise.

Twelve games isn't quite enough for him to curry favor over more established options, though. DSJ was thinking about trying out for the NFL mere months ago. His comeback story, which is more like an official emergence, needs time to marinate.

Washington's season is tough to wrap your head around. He seemingly shuttles between "nightly notable" and "WTF DID I JUST WATCH?!" offensive performances.

Injuries have left him to create more, and he's flashed shiftiness when Charlotte spreads the floor. But he's shooting under 39 percent on drives. The Hornets have juiced up his touches around the elbow, where he's 13-of-20 (65 percent) and dime-ing up cutting, sometimes-slithering bigs. But the increased on-the-move looks from four to 14 feet are uncomfortable, and he's hitting just 31 percent of his spot-up threes.

It makes sense to appreciate his versatility, on both sides of the floor, in the end. He's done everything from sprinkle in step-backs to initiate some pick-and-rolls. His is an outsized role he doesn't seem fit for long term, but he also doesn't look out of his depth.

Chicago Bulls: Ayo Dosunmu

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Age: 22

Grade: B+

"Where is Patrick Williams?!"

Great question. Especially because it seems like he's starting to put more and more together. But, er, how do I phrase this...

Ayo Dosunmu is better. And he's been better and more available since entering the league last year. Sub-25 torch passings aren't permanent, but for now, the Chicago Bulls' sub-25 torch has been passed.

Dosunmu's offensive game is incredibly tidy. He offers rim pressure and threes and has exchanged his long middies from last year for even more rim pressure and threes. He is shooting 58.3 percent on drives and clearing 38 percent from distance.

Though not your typical floor general, Dosunmu does elevate the offense as a quick-decision playmaker. Whether he's working from a set position or off live dribbles, the ball doesn't stick.

Through it all, defense remains his calling card. Dosunmu is 6'4" yet almost positionless and capable of rescuing entire possessions by juggling multiple assignments. If he ever diversifies his offensive portfolio with more self-creation, less aversion to contact and/or just fewer turnovers out of the pick-and-roll, Williams will have a hard time catching up to him in the pecking order.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Darius Garland

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Age: 22

Grade: C-

Go with Evan Mobley if you're so inclined. But Darius Garland entered the season as the Cleveland Cavaliers' best player.

Donovan Mitchell has changed that calculus. Ditto for the eyelid laceration (related: ouch) that cost Garland a handful of games and has probably contributed to his shaky efficiency. But the latter remains mission-critical to the Cavs' mode of offensive operations.

Defenses still have trouble keeping up with him in the lane, and he is rather comfortably Cleveland's best passer. The scoring will come. He won't shoot 30 percent at the rim forever, even if he keeps going for impossibly angled layups. His turnovers should dip, too.

Some might see the "C-" as overly generous. Or maybe harsh. That makes it ideal.

We absolutely should expect more from Garland, but he's simultaneously playing through the integration of another All-Star and a nicked-up eye. This warrants grading against a curve. His meld of speed and slipperiness and feel is intact. That's more important than anything under the circumstances.

Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic

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Age: 23

Grade: A-

Luka Doncic could probably get an unqualified "A."

Yes, he has looked absolutely gassed by the end of certain games. Anecdotally, it seems like he's most lethargic and less than spectacular against inferior opponents.That isn't on him. For the most part.

The Dallas Mavericks have surrounded Doncic with one other player who can effectively dribble. That number balloons to 1.5 depending on how you feel about Christian Wood. Their dependence on Doncic is alarming—and historic.

Only two other players have ever posted a higher usage rate: 2016-17 Russell Westbrook and 2018-19 James Harden. Ridiculous still, more than 90.5 percent of Doncic's made baskets have gone unassisted. Among every player to average at least 15 minutes and appear in five or more games, this mark would be the largest share of unassisted field goals made in the NBA's track database, which goes all the way back to 1996-97.

I'm exhausted from just thinking about the immensity of Doncic's role. Many will argue he's not wired to play any other way. That's B.S. The Mavs haven't given him the chance to play a different way. And failing to keep or replace Jalen Brunson has only thrown them further down the one-man-show vortex.

Doncic is killing it anyway, because he's a megastar. His sub-30 percent clip from beyond the arc puts the minus in "A-," but he's shooting over 60 percent on twos, including 52 percent from mid-range, while averaging an NBA-best 33.6 points per game, living at the foul line, dominating in the post and injecting his usual remarkable passing into the offense.

Denver Nuggets: Michael Porter Jr.

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Age: 24

Grade: B

Michael Porter Jr. can really sling it.

His 48.6 percent clip from deep comes on over seven attempts per game. Stephen Curry is currently the only player to finish an entire season matching that three-point volume while shooting better than 45 percent. (Four players are on pace to join him this year.)

These are not your run-of-the-mill triples, either. Most of them are assisted, but Porter can swish treys off movement and escape dribbles. There is no recourse for his anomalous combination of size, form and touch. And he bends defenses further with some away-from-the-ball misdirection inside the arc.

Part of me wanted to roll with a "B-" for MPJ. We knew he could shoot the lights out. The rest of his offensive game hasn't changed. He's seen his efficiency on short mid-rangers dip, and the Denver Nuggets don't entrust him with a ton of creation.

Still, this somewhat specialized role is a function of the roster. The team neither is built nor needs to plumb the depth of his on-ball decision-making.

MPJ deserves credit for operating more within the flow of the offense; for averaging nearly 30 minutes per game after returning from a back injury that cost him most of last year; for historically incandescent shooting even by his standards; and for potentially giving Denver a way to survive stints without both Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray when he plays with Bones Hyland.

Detroit Pistons: Cade Cunningham

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Age: 21

Grade: B-

Sentiment on Cade Cunningham appears to have ever so slightly shifted among many outside the Detroit Pistons orbit. I don't get it.

Cunningham's overall efficiency remains less than ideal. He's below 28 percent from three, and his conversion rate from deep only climbs to 33.3 percent on spot-ups. Increased dependence on the mid-range jumper is unnerving, even if he's banging them in at a slightly higher clip. His finishing near the basket is wonky, repressed by (what feels like) premature takeoff points and a lack of awareness or regard for crowded spaces.

Concerns are exacerbated by his drawing a low percentage of shooting fouls and not grinding up defenses off the dribble with the vulturine mania of Luka Doncic. Cunningham's defensive lapses away from the ball seem like they're mounting in number, too.

Paint me every shade of unbothered in existence. Detroit's defense at large is a mess of work-in-progress coverages, and Cunningham remains a byproduct of the offensive load he's ferrying.

Most of the lineups in which he plays contain three below-average shooters, and the addition of Jaden Ivey has not in any way streamlined his usage. Over 84 percent of his made two-pointers have gone unassisted, a noticeable uptick from last season's 76.5 percent share.

News flash: He's not floundering amid still-complex usage. Cunningham is draining 49-plus percent of his pull-up twos and remains a caps-lock PLAYMAKER. Detroit's offensive efficiency improves by 16.4 points per 100 possessions, with a six-point bump in effective field-goal percentage, for a reason. Cade is viable lifeline—overstretched, perhaps, but a lifeline all the same.

Golden State Warriors: Jordan Poole

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Age: 23

Grade: D

Jordan Poole is considered—and received an extension that suggests he's—the Golden State Warriors' star in waiting. He's not playing like it.

The offensive armory remains duh-eep. He is an underrated table-setter, and his on-ball shiftiness in the lane is tough to cover. He wields a variety of body movements and shot levels to keep defenses on tilt. His 52.3 percent clip on twos comes in spite of shoddy finishing around the rim. That efficiency inside the arc is instead buoyed by a 50 percent knockdown rate on mid-range jumpers outside of 14 feet.

Eventually, though, we need to have a conversation about how the Warriors' star-in-waiting still doesn't carry the offense to net neutrality when Stephen Curry is off the floor.

Golden State's bench has vacillated between disappointing and putrid, not all of which is on Poole. He can lug Steph-less units featuring some combination of Moses Moody, Ty Jerome, James Wiseman, Anthony Lamb and Jonathan Kuminga only so far.

To this point, however, Poole hasn't been part of the solution. His defensive resistance is nonexistent and has the bigs behind him overcompensating, and he's putting down a lackluster percentage of both pull-up threes (23.3 percent) and spot-up triples (34.9 percent).

Spending so much time beside relative inexperience, without a healthy Donte DiVincenzo, explains part of Poole's struggles. It is far from vindication. He will be better than this, because he is better than this. For now, he's missing the mark...demonstrably.

Houston Rockets: Jalen Green

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Age: 20

Grade: B-

Basketball fans prone to brewing their own beer in the laundry room inside their basement will insist Alperen Sengun belongs here. He is really good—a sees-all playmaker who has ratcheted up his scoring. He does not belong here.

Jalen Green is supposed to be That Dude for the Houston Rockets, the central nervous system of their entire rebuild, noticeably more so than Sengun or Jabari Smith Jr. That at once locks Green into this spot while pushing up the bar to which he's held.

Anyone expecting a progression into transcendent territory is being treated to a letdown. Green continues to score like whoa—20.8 points per game—and is splashing in 36.2 percent of his threes, including a 35.9 percent clip on off-the-bounce treys. His overall efficiency is down, but an infinite number of first-step blow-bys make you almost not care. If there was a "Player Who Looks Like He's Most Likely to Swish Unfathomably Difficult Shots" award, Green would be among the finalists.

There is nevertheless a nagging sense of plateauism—or at least a failure to measurably branch out. His playmaking instincts have felt more natural over the past few games, but he has almost as many turnover (30) as assists (31) on the season.

Houston bears full responsibility for the offense's setup. Green shouldn't be looked at as, let's say, the 1B playmaker. But the roster demands it. He can hit mind-melting shots in droves, at every level, on clips reasonable enough to endorse his taking them. The rest of his game remains very much under construction and in serious need, at times, of deceleration—which, barely a dozen games into Year 2, is perfectly fine.

Indiana Pacers: Tyrese Haliburton

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Age: 22

Grade: A

The Indiana Pacers are no longer waiting to see whether Tyrese Haliburton can become the pillar around whom they construct their entire team and future. They know, for a fact, he's that type of building block.

Because he keeps showing them.

Haliburton is averaging 21.6 points and 9.9 assists on almost 65 true shooting. His aggression has heightened, and it covers every level. He has reached peak unpredictability in the eyes of opposing defenses, someone who attacks switches, throws up on-a-dime floaters and pushes, rains down step-back and escape dribble jumpers, deploys abrupt changes in direction and footwork and continues to disarm with last-second dimes after leaving the ground.

Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic and Donovan Mitchell are the only players who have so far buried more unassisted three-pointers, according to PBP Stats. Imagine thinking Haliburton would be this reliable of a self-starter one year ago. And he marries it with the passing necessary to weaponize an entire offense both on the run and in the half court.

Indiana has rediscovered its timeline after last year's midseason pivot. And its timeline is Tyrese Haliburton.

L.A. Clippers: Brandon Boston Jr.

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Age: 20

Grade: C

Shout-out to the L.A. Clippers for making this mega-tough.

Brandon Boston Jr., Moses Brown, Moussa Diabate and Jason Preston are the only players on their roster who qualify for this shindig. And none of them are playing with any regularity.

Preston seemed like he might get semi-actual run after missing 2021-22 with a right foot injury. John Wall isn't playing both ends of back-to-backs, and the Clippers remain light on floor generals. Preston has spent most of his time in the G League anyway.

A teensy-tiny subset of Twitter wondered whether Brown deserved more burn after dropping 13 points in a Nov. 2 victory over the Houston Rockets. Let's not get carried away. Ivica Zubac is somewhere spitting fire as you read this, and Brown plays at the cadence of someone wandering around the supermarket without a shopping list even when he's sprinting.

Boston seizes this spot—and not entirely because he just torched the South Bay Lakers in the G League for 37 points on 14-of-20 shooting. He has hardly exceeded expectations, but given the depth of the Clippers' big league roster, he's not missing them, either. His comfort level running off screens and dribbling into threes intrigues—especially as someone who stands 6'6" and might be able to initiate some offense for others or, at the very least, doesn't shy from navigating traffic.

Los Angeles Lakers: Lonnie Walker IV

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Age: 23

Grade: B

There is an alternate reality in which I was brave enough to go with Austin Reaves. The 24-year-old is the consummate complement at both ends of the floor. But to choose him is to deny the value of high-volume scoring and rim pressure.

Lonnie Walker IV brings both to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Roughly 40 percent of Walker's looks are coming at the hoop this season, which would be a career high. And he has done a better job fitting inside the larger context of the Lakers than someone who is so maddeningly inconsistent from downtown probably should. Walker has set some screens, quickened his decision-making, busted his butt in transition and even dished a few nice passes going downhill.

Efficiency from the perimeter remains his Achilles' heel. "My jump shot is too beautiful to not be making any threes," he told Spectrum SportsNet's Mike Trudell after a Nov. 2 win over the New Orleans Pelicans.

Walker isn't lying. His 15.8 points per game come on a 46 percent clip from mid-range, and he's 10-of-20 from deep over his last four appearances. For the season, though, he remains under 30 percent on threes, with an effective field-goal percentage below 45 on all jumpers.

Memphis Grizzlies: Ja Morant

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Age: 23

Grade: A

Ja Morant's start to the 2022-23 campaign can be summed up in two words: MVP candidate.

His numbers evoke double-takes. He's averaging 28.8 points and 6.9 assists while hitting 45.9 percent of his threes. That clip from downtown is not a typo.

Going under him or assuming he won't actively look for his three-ball is no longer viable recourse for defenses. Morant is finding the net on 53.3 percent of his spot-up treys, but almost half of his deepies have gone unassisted. He's canned over 41 percent of his pull-up threes.

Spectacle continues to ensue every time he attacks, which means it ensues quite often. Only Shai Gilgeous-Alexander averages more drives per game. Morant's capacity to leverage his mid-flight decision-making, sudden push shot and, now, a three-pointer has rendered him unsolvable.

While he can fall too in love with bailing out of drives, it's a tendency the Memphis Grizzlies gladly indulge, because he's capable of hitting fallaway and tough-angled looks, and because the defensive attention he draws regardless of the possession's outcome is invaluable to their offensive existence.

Miami Heat: Tyler Herro

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Age: 22

Grade: B+

Tyler Herro has flown somewhat under the radar after signing a big extension, most likely because the Miami Heat as a whole are underachieving.

He is not.

Entering the starting lineup has not diminished his impact as a scorer. If anything, the Heat's dependence on him has mushroomed. More of his made baskets are going unassisted than last season, which is counterintuitive given the lineup context.

Perhaps there is a world in which Herro does more accessory work. It can't be this one. The Heat's offense needs his from-scratch zip to survive. And this reliance doesn't include a trade-off. Herro has polished his scoring arsenal. He's cut out some mid-range jumpers in favor of threes and, most critically, more looks at the rim—where he's finding nylon a career-high 68 percent of the time.

Deferring is clearly less of a focus for Herro right now. That's fine. He made strides as a passer the last couple of seasons, but this isn't a reversion. His scoring efficiency—along with Miami's offensive structure—necessitates the shift.

Minutes without Jimmy Butler are touch-and-go, but that's the case for everyone. Herro is pumping in 48.6 percent of his pull-up triples, a top-three mark among 32 players who have launched as many such shots. And among the 42 names finishing at least five pick-and-roll touches as the ball-handler per game, only Stephen Curry is averaging more points per possession.

Milwaukee Bucks: MarJon Beauchamp

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Age: 22

Grade: B+

Injuries up and down the Milwaukee Bucks roster have opened the door for rookie MarJon Beauchamp to actually play. And he's rising to the occasion.

Over his past four games, two of which came as spot starts, he's drilling 36.4 percent of his threes on 5.5 attempts while busting his hump in transition, figuring out where to stand depending on who has the ball and competing on defense.

Milwaukee might be hard-pressed to find minutes for its newbie at full strength. There should come a time when Giannis Antetokounmpo, Pat Connaughton, Joe Ingles, Wesley Matthews and Khris Middleton are available all at once.

But if Beauchamp keeps running the floor like hell and hitting corner threes, the Bucks may have no choice other than to make permanent room for him in the rotation.

(P.S. Jordan Nwora, I'm sorry.)

Minnesota Timberwolves: Anthony Edwards

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Age: 21

Grade: C-

Anthony Edwards set a lofty bar for himself last season, implementing enough comprehensive improvement at both ends of the floor to have spectators wondering how long it'd be before he made his first All-NBA team. The Minnesota Timberwolves were so sold on the leap they mortgaged their future for one of the most fascinating win-right-the-hell-now experiments in recent memory with the acquisition of Rudy Gobert.

Year 3 has not featured as many tangible steps forward for Edwards. His scoring (21.3 points) and assist (3.8) averages are unchanged, and he's seen his three-point clip drop back below 33 percent.

Plenty is being made about his dearth of dunks—including by Edwards himself. But more of his buckets are actually coming at the rim despite logging so many reps in dual-big lineups. His efficiency from the perimeter has suffered more. His effective field-goal percentage on jumpers (45.7) is over four points lower than last season (49.9).

Minnesota's entire team feels like it's searching on offense. Edwards is no different. There are possessions in which he looks entirely displaced from the action. And his defense hasn't impressed nearly as often as the Timberwolves toggle between different variations of coverage depending on who occupies the frontcourt.

Awkwardness can be a part of growth. Going through the motions now could pay massive dividends later. Either way, Edwards' start to the season has served up a reality check: Superstardom remains his end destination, but he's not there yet.

New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson

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Age: 22

Grade: C

Zion Williamson's return has either been as anticipated or marginally mellowing.

Moments of video-game dominance aren't hard to find; his downhill assaults remain among the most terrifying sights in NBA history. He's also averaging 26.3 points and 4.3 assists per 36 minutes—production right in line with what he did during the 2020-21 campaign.

Something still feels off. Multiple somethings, even.

Considerably fewer of his looks are coming at the rim. Depending on the night, this feels like a symptom of less overall explosion, distantly and bizarrely angled layup attempts, additional usage in the post or some combination of all three.

I'm inclined to attribute a swathe of any offensive oddities to New Orleans Pelicans head coach Willie Green. Zion has yet to even finish 10 possessions as the pick-and-roll ball-handler this year, and his drives per 36 minutes (12.4) are down from 2020-21 (14.0). New Orleans has more mouths to feed than before with both Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum in the fold, but there's value in giving Zion the ball up top and simply telling him "Go!"—particularly when you're trying to bust up zones.

Similar topsy-turviness applies to the defensive end. As Michael Pina outlined for The Ringer, Zion impresses and infuriates, both on and away from the ball. This two-way tug-of-war will become a larger-scale issue if it sustains. In the meantime, Zion's availability and overall offense remain early-season wins for a player who missed all of last year with a right foot injury and is already dealing with a hip issue now.

New York Knicks: RJ Barrett

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Age: 22

Grade: C

RJ Barrett received a benefit-of-the-doubt boost when he cracked my "Top 25 Under 25 Right Now" list to start this season. He's getting another here.

To be clear: He's looked better recently. He's averaging 20.2 points and 3.5 assists over his past six games while hitting 44.1 percent of his triples.

Optimization—or the lack thereof—continues to be a huge part of the RJ Barrett story. Is it a coincidence his latest stretch aligns with getting more floor time independent of both Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson? I'll let you decide—so long as your answer is "no." But there has been a certain aimless tunnel vision to his offense at times.

Providing rim pressure is great. Having more counters when you barrel into traffic or can't get all the way there is even better.

To his credit, Barrett has nudged up his efficiency around the basket anyway. He's shooting over 60 percent within four feet for the first time of his career, and his 55.9 percent clip on drives the past six games is a potentially massive development.

In the aggregate, though, Barrett's season has been uneven. He's still below 31 percent from three and too often seems to be flittering around and eminently screenable on defense. The Knicks reaching their highest-percentile outcome always hinged upon him sniffing sustainable stardom. By both their hand and his own, he's not yet there.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

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Age: 24

Grade: A+

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's first 10 games have been a masterclass in all-encompassing dominance, a level of play possible for only the super-est of superstars.

Averages of 31.6 points, 5.6 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.5 blocks leap off the page. His 62.7 true shooting percentage while shouldering one of the league's heaviest offensive job descriptions does the same—and then smacks you in the face.

Nobody is averaging more drives per game, and nearly 80 percent of his buckets go unassisted, the second largest share of anyone who has appeared in at least 10 games, trailing only Luka Doncic. That SGA's efficiency lands where it does amid his from-scratch workload boggles the mind.

He is shooting 74 percent at the rim and 47 percent from mid-range, including a reality-twisting 50 percent on twos outside 14 feet. A sub-33 percent clip from deep won't earn him any praise from box-score gazers, but he's sinking 45.5 percent of his spot-up threes and a solid-yet-unspectacular-yet-still-better 33.3 percent of his step-back triples.

The kicker? SGA is competing on defense. His closeouts are harder, his spacing deliberate, his fight around screens endless, his length ubiquitous. The Oklahoma City Thunder have retreated down the standings, but their minutes with SGA remain in the green.

What he's doing right now is nothing short of iconic—a case of both expectations obliterated and a superstar life force unleashed.

Orlando Magic: Paolo Banchero

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Age: 20

Grade: A

It is a testament to both Wendell Carter Jr. and Franz Wagner that this decision gave me pause. It is an even bigger testament to Paolo Banchero that he trounced those reservations.

Rookies seldom look so complete. Banchero plays with an air of total control, someone who mandates the terms of engagement, speeding up or slowing down for no one except himself. He is equal parts force and finesse on his forays to the basket, a bulldozer with side-to-side tactility and handles and touch.

Banchero would ideally drill more of his jumpers. He eventually will. For the time being, he can thrive on 1.5- to two-level scoring. His finishing around the rim is already decidedly above average, he's shooting 53.1 percent on drives, and his 1.25 points per post-up possession are the sixth most in the league.

How Banchero can be so high-usage and economical with his touches is beyond me. He is on track to become the youngest player in league history to post a usage rate above 30 with a turnover percentage below 12.5. Only four players, meanwhile, have maintained those benchmarks for an entire season prior to their age-22 season: Carmelo Anthony (2005-06), Kevin Durant (2009-10), LeBron James (2005-06) and Tracy McGrady (2000-01).

Because this isn't enough, Banchero is resetting estimations of his defense. He is more head-on-a-swivel than most rookies, and his rim protection has held up versus moderate-to-high volume. The limit of who he becomes once in his prime does not exist.

Philadelphia 76ers: Tyrese Maxey

Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Age: 22

Grade: A-

Breathtaking speed and scintillating long-range marksmanship remain the bedrocks upon which Tyrese Maxey is building his All-Star track. His past few games have been, uh, not so hot. But he's still good for around 23 points and four assists a night while shooting over 41 percent from behind the rainbow and 45 percent on long twos.

There has been some pullback on his efficiency near the basket; he's shooting sub-60 percent around the rim. His 40 percent clip on drives also pales in comparison to last year's 50 percent success rate, and he's seen his accuracy at the foul line drop by more than 10 points.

Absences from James Harden and Joel Embiid, some of them overlapping, have spotlighted holes Maxey must fill. Slowed-down orchestration is not natural for him, and the Philadelphia 76ers offense has cratered in the time he and Embiid spend without Harden. Visually, meanwhile, it looks like Maxey has less zest on defense.

More than most, this is an interpretative open to the season. I recognize it as a standout—a relative continuation of Maxey's offensive lethality in the face of volatile circumstances and lineups and rotations and shifting usage.

Phoenix Suns: Deandre Ayton

David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Age: 24

Grade: D+

Scoring regression from Chris Paul, injuries and a shallower rotation at the top all seem like ingredients for a Deandre Ayton role expansion. They haven't been.

This is to some extent beyond Ayton's control. The Phoenix Suns aren't attempting to use him much differently in response to availability shakeups. A smaller percentage of his offensive possessions are coming as post-ups (18 percent) compared to last season (21.9 percent), and only a slightly larger share of his buckets are going unassisted (21.1 percent, up from 18.8).

To say Ayton is blameless, though, would be a gross understatement. Foul trouble has inherently limited his minutes—his 4.8 personals per 36 minutes are by far a career high—and his propensity for playing without force or fading entirely into the background persists.

Things he's historically done well have even started spiraling in the wrong direction. Last year, he averaged 1.25 points per possessions as the roll man (72nd percentile) while turning the ball over just 7.5 percent of the time. This season, he's averaging 0.95 points point per possession (21st percentile), with a turnover rate of 16.2. (The latter could be skewed by a climb in moving screen calls, but that's not exactly comforting.)

Ayton is coming off a year in which he hit 60-plus percent of his hook shots. He is currently 6-of-15 (40 percent) on those same looks this season. His defensive body language has vacillated. He looks stiff and/or drowsy on a ton of possessions and has churned out some half-assed contests around the basket. Opponents are shooting 64.4 percent against him at the rim, a decidedly lackluster mark among everyone who challenges as many looks—and a nuclear increase over the 55.5 percent he allowed last season.

Take this demerit as a backhanded compliment if you find yourself enraged. Ayton hasn't been bad, but he set lofty standards for himself over the past two years. He is supposed to be a top-end center ascending—a legitimate star.

Maybe one of these games he'll start playing like it.

Portland Trail Blazers: Anfernee Simons

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Age: 23

Grade: B+

Anfernee Simons has not seriously expanded his game from last year, which is actually in itself a feat. He is playing more than ever, and defending harder than ever, yet has not seen his efficiency implode. It has mostly weathered the storm of greater volume.

High variability is caked into his performances. That comes with the territory of a 23-year-old bestowed an unconditional green light off the dribble.

In the absence of gaga efficiency on self-created jumpers or general pick-and-roll mastery, he has parlayed extra half-court space into more rim pressure and cleaner finishing to go with it. The touch on both his floater (53.3 percent) and spot-up three (41.5 percent) remains.

Simons continues to make incremental playmaking strides, as well. His potential assists are down from last season, but the Blazers are better at the top and have placed him into a more even-keeled role. He can be trusted to get the ball to his teammates in open space sooner and with more gusto.

Broadening his offensive margins—and, again, leveling up on defense—has helped Portland navigate protracted stretches and entire games without Damian Lillard. Lineups with Simons as the lead guard are a plus-12.3 points per 100 possessions, a body of success for which he's not solely responsible but his play makes possible.

Sacramento Kings: De'Aaron Fox

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Age: 24

Grade: A+

Fits and starts have punctuated much of De'Aaron Fox's career. That might all be over now. He has opened the season unlike anything we've seen before, with numbers that bend the brain.

Fox is averaging about 25 points and five assists while knocking down over 60 percent of his twos and 36 percent of his threes. He isn't getting to the rim or free-throw line as much on a per-minute basis, but his efficiency from both areas is so damn high the minor drop-off becomes inconsequential. He's swishing 87 percent of his free throws and finishing at an unfathomable 85 percent clip around the bucket.

Certain possessions still include too much congested dribbling. Until they don't.

One second, you're wondering whether Fox is unnecessarily forcing it—probing to nowhere. The next, he's unbottling a floater (56.5 percent) or turnaround fadeaway (56.3 percent). His 55 percent clip on spot-up threes is team-offense friendly, and he's hitting juuust enough of his step-backs, again, to defang opponents.

True to expectations, the Sacramento Kings are not winning any defensive awards. But Fox no longer feels undeniably complicit in their struggles. He's tracking his man more, even when he drifts too far from him, and his stances aren't as Scarecrow upright.

Lots of basketball is left to play, but if Fox keeps this up, he's not just earning his first All-Star nod. He's party-crashing the All-NBA discussion.

San Antonio Spurs: Keldon Johnson

Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

Age: 23

Grade: A-

Shout-out to Devin Vassell, who made me think about this for a minute. Louder shout-out to Keldon Johnson, who is stoking All-Star flames.

Through 11 games, Johnson is averaging 23.1 points and 3.7 assists while downing 50 percent of his twos and 41.2 percent of his threes. The numbers are eye-popping. The manner in which they're coming is even more so.

Johnson's efficiency from deep comes on nearly nine attempts per game, and he's sprinkling in a blisteringly hot 46.2 percent of his spot-up triples—which account for more than 40 percent of his shots. His jaunts to the basket can be misadventures, but he goes full bore in transition, always, and has added more directionality and changes in cadences to his half-court attacks.

This version of the San Antonio Spurs roster has necessitated more creation from Johnson, and he seems up for the part. Jacking up responsibilities has messed with aspects of his efficiency inside the arc, but he looks more and more comfortable surveying the floor on the move, throwing pocket passes and just generally getting rid of the ball in traffic.

Sticklers could nitpick and yank Johnson down half a letter grade. I won't do it. This kid dislocated his shoulder not two months ago and is already playing, by far, the best basketball of his career.

Toronto Raptors: Scottie Barnes

Mark Blinch/Getty Images

Age: 21

Grade: B

Everything seems to be happening faster for Scottie Barnes on the offensive side of the floor. The handle, the live-dribble kickouts, the spins, the range of motion on his hook shots and jumpers—he's operating at a higher processing speed and more unpredictable, in mostly good ways, because of it.

Barnes is averaging 14.2 points and 5.0 assists while shooting 75 percent around the hoop. His pull-up jumper isn't falling, but his 42.8 percent clip on spot-up threes is a critical development. He is now equipped to make defenders second guess positioning on his catches. That, in turn, has opened not only more scoring opportunities but also more passing avenues.

Granted, it isn't all sunshine and dandelions for the 21-year-old. Barnes will puke up garbage jumpers if he can't immediately beat his man or get all the way to the basket, and he's flirting with entry into the Hall of Looks Like He Should Be a Good Defender But Really Isn't.

Mild concern is allowable. Barnes is still really young. That he's refined a good portion of his offensive decision-making at all is a victory, and the trajectory for him hasn't changed.

If anything, the scope of his offensive toolbox keeps him ahead of schedule.

Utah Jazz: Collin Sexton

Chris Gardner/ Getty Images

Age: 23

Grade: B+

This just in: Collin Sexton is good.

Expectations for the 23-year-old were admittedly tapered entering the season after he missed most of last year with a left knee injury. The Utah Jazz's ultra-stacked guard rotation has also left him to play fewer minutes overall, though they did get beefed up to open November.

It turns out Sexton hasn't needed much of a grace period.

His 58.8 percent clip on pull-up threes is impressive. Even more impressive: how selective he's become. Pull-up jumpers accounted for 38.5 percent of his total shots back in 2020-21, his last full season. They represent just 24.6 percent of his attempts this year.

Playing inside so many five-out lineups has empowered Sexton to follow through on his drives. More of his shots are coming at the rim than ever, and he's posting what would be the highest free-throw-attempt rate of his career.

Utah has slotted him into a more modest role, for now, but chances are he won't stay there. He has more to offer as a downhill playmaker, and his speed shows no ill effects from last year's knee injury.

Low-level touch on catch-and-shoot threes (21.7 percent) is worth monitoring, and Sexton could stand to weed out more of his baby mid-rangers. The qualms with his return to the floor end there.

Washington Wizards: Rui Hachimura

David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Age: 24

Grade: C+

Deni Avdija had the Washington Wizards' "Best Under-25 Player" spot on lock for me entering the season. Projecting years down the line, he still might. The Wizards have him handling some truly ridiculous defensive assignments while simultaneously not playing or utilizing him enough on offense. Then again, his reticence and overall efficiency on threes makes it tough.

Another case can be made for Daniel Gafford. That feels so beginning-of-the-last-season, though. He's not seeing the floor nearly enough this year.

Rui Hachimura encounters no such playing-time problem. The Wizards have used him as a focal point off the bench to some level of efficacy. Hachimura is averaging 12 points while converting a career-high 53.1 percent of his twos, including a tidy 47.2 percent of his pull-up jumpers inside the arc.

Defenses respect his penchant for getting to his spots and (what looks like) a faster release. He is not a bankable threat from downtown—30.4 percent on spot-up threes—yet players crowd him in an attempt to take away his lanes. His post work is ready-made for attacking mismatches, and he's getting better at moving away from the ball but toward the basket.

Washington's past three games suggest Hachimura might be equipped for an even larger role. But his skill set hasn't dramatically expanded, and what he offers now is so specific and situationally valuable, it's hard to project forward.

Is there more playmaking, better shooting, more consistent defense and/or the potential for screening and rolling here? Is this mostly it? Hachimura has, frankly, answered neither question. And that's probably a good thing since it leaves open the door of possibility rather than closing it.

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering Friday's games. Salary information via Spotrac.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and subscribe to the Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes.


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