Ranking the NBA teams most – and least – prepared for the future

NBA analyst Eric Smith joins SN Today to discuss his 2019-20 expectations for the NBA Champion Raptors, saying he thinks they'll be better than people are giving them credit for.

As the NBA season eventually nears, a handful of teams will have their eyes set on a championship after a wild off-season. Still, the majority of franchises will be looking ahead to the future in various stages of development to compete for a future title.

A rare few teams, it should be noted, are currently able to juggle both title contention and building for the future — mainly the Denver Nuggets and to a degree the Philadelphia 76ers, teams built in full or in part around 24-year-old Nikola Jokic, 22-year-old Jamal Murray, and 23-year-old Ben Simmons. But many more are focused on building their stable of future stars and key role players that could help turn their fortunes around in a hurry.

Some teams on this list are loaded with potential-laden young players, while others already have the makings of a budding star or two to build around, and some have sacrificed long-term potential in order to win now. The organizational structure of the league and its teams means there isn’t the same farm system or prospect-stashing that is common in baseball or hockey, but it doesn’t limit teams from stocking up on young talent.

With that in mind, here’s a ranking of the NBA teams with the best collection of talent age 24 or younger heading into the 2019-20 season:

If there is a podcasting odd couple, this might be it. Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis don’t agree on much, but you’ll agree this is the best Toronto Raptors podcast going.

1. Denver Nuggets
Notable U24 talent: Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Monte Morris, Bol Bol

Jokic and Murray are already proven — the former should be a Top 5 MVP candidate once more this season while the latter is poised to take another leap and challenge for an all-star spot. The surrounding cast features plenty of standout young talent in key supporting roles. It’s a rare luxury that the Nuggets will be competing for the West’s top seed while also bringing along a core that should keep the team in the title hunt for years to come.

2. Atlanta Hawks
Trae Young, John Collins, De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish
3. Dallas Mavericks
Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, Jalen Brunson
4. Sacramento Kings
De’Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley III, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovich
5. New Orleans Pelicans
Zion Williamson, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Nickiel Alexander-Walker, Jaxson Hayes

A group of teams rich with prospects, including potential all-NBA players and multiple all-stars. The Hawks are teaching a lesson in roster-building at the moment, assembling a deep and promising group around likely superstar Trae Young. The Mavs lack the depth of talent, but it’s easy to forget how good Porzingis was playing before he went down and the combination of he and 20 year-old Luka Doncic has as much upside as any duo in the NBA.

6. Boston Celtics
Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Carsen Edwards, Romeo Langford, Grant Williams, Robert Williams
7. Minnesota Timberwolves
Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Jarrett Culver, Josh Okogie
8. Memphis Grizzlies
Jaren Jackson Jr., Ja Morant, Brandon Clarke, Josh Jackson, Tyus Jones, Bruno Caboclo
9. Phoenix Suns
Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton, Kelly Oubre, Dario Saric, Mikal Bridges

Each team here features multiple all-star level talents, but are still a piece or two (or more) away from reaching their potential. The Celtics’ duo of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum is exciting, but each will have to improve on disappointing seasons last year. In the case of Minnesota, the clock is ticking on the current core, talented as they may be, while the Suns are developing talent but are struggling to turn the corner and win games with the 22-year-old Booker as the centrepiece.

10. Philadelphia 76ers
Ben Simmons, Mattise Thybulle, Jonah Bolden Zhaire Smith
11. Miami Heat
Bam Adebayo, Justise Winslow, Tyler Herro, Derrick Jones Jr.
12. Orlando Magic
Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba, Markelle Fultz
13. Indiana Pacers
Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis
14. San Antonio Spurs
Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker, Jakob Poeltl

This group features great young talent who, for the most part, have shown to be top-tier supporting cast members as opposed to franchise cornerstones and are currently in that role on teams built around veteran stars in Jimmy Butler, Nic Vucevic, Victor Oladipo, and DeMar DeRozan/LaMarcus Aldridge. The one exception is Simmons, who has the best chance of any in this prospect group to become “the man” on a contender, a role he nearly occupies already for the 76ers.

15. Chicago Bulls
Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Coby White, Zach LaVine
16. Brooklyn Nets
Jarrett Allen, Caris Levert, Rodions Kurucs, Nic Claxton
17. Portland Trail Blazers
Jusuf Nurkic, Anfernee Simons, Zach Collins, Nassir Little

Lots of promising young players on these teams, but major question marks remain for most if not all. The Bulls developing core has shown potential but it’s still unknown whether any of this group can help the team win games; Brooklyn’s young stable will have to take on a complimentary role now that Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are on board; Portland is monitoring Nurkic’s broken leg closely, while Simons and Little are unproven prospects albeit with high upside.

18. Golden State Warriors
D’Angelo Russell
19. Utah Jazz
Donovan Mitchell
20. Oklahoma City Thunder
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

These spots are reserved for teams with just one notable under-24 player and lack the prospect depth of others on this list. However, there is one caveat that could warrant each being ranked higher: that one player is good enough to build around. Russell opened a ton of eyes in helping carry the Nets to the playoffs last season, while Mitchell is poised to build off his Team USA starring role at the upcoming World Cup. Gilgeous-Alexander will have a great opportunity to build off an impressive rookie campaign and will be given the chance to seize the Thunder as his own team this season.

21. Los Angeles Clippers
Landry Shamet, Ivica Zubac, Jerome Robinson, Mfiondu Kabaegele
22. New York Knicks
RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox, Allonzo Trier

The Knicks feel like they should maybe be a little higher, but after the team essentially took its NBA starting five (minus Julius Randle) to the Summer League and walked away with a losing record doesn’t exactly inspire hope in this group as they look for Barrett to emerge as a true superstar in NYC.

23. Cleveland Cavaliers
Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Cedi Osman, Dylan Windler
24. Charlotte Hornets
Miles Bridges, Malik Monk, PJ Washington
25. Washington Wizards
Rui Hachimura, Thomas Bryant, Troy Brown
26. Detroit Pistons
Sekou Doumbaya, Luke Kennard, Bruce Brown

Order these teams any way you want, but the fact remains that these clubs and their fan bases are in the agonizing spot of rebuilding (save for the Pistons, who may be better off going that route anyways) without building-block prospects. It’ll be interesting to see what these young players can accomplish this season to change — or re-enforce — the narrative that they’re not good enough to build around.

27. Los Angeles Lakers
Kyle Kuzma
28. Toronto Raptors
OG Anunoby, Dewan Hernandez
29. Houston Rockets
Gary Clark, Isaiah Hartenstein
30. Milwaukee Bucks
Dante Divincenzo, DJ Wilson

Three of these teams should be competing for a title this season, and so building a stable of prospects is hardly a priority at the moment. The defending champion Raptors could be in a tough spot down the line given their lack of U24 talent in the pipelines, especially given we don’t quite know what to expect from Anunoby after missing parts of last season. The Raps have great young players – but they’re old young players, like 25 year-old Fred VanVleet and 26 year-olds Chris Boucher and Norm Powell.

They’re a playoff team this year, but given the expiring contracts of several key veterans including Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, there could be incentive to undergo a rebuild around Pascal Siakam. If that’s the case the team needs to find a way to draft or acquire prospects it can fill out the roster with sooner rather than later.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.