Ranking the NBA's Most Dangerous 1-2 Punches Under 25
There is no secret formula for guaranteeing NBA success—except, of course, putting Gregg Popovich in charge of a franchise and drafting Tim Duncan—but amassing young talent almost always helps.
Not only are budding ballers often more cost-effective thanks to the league's experienced-based contract scale, they are also ideally developing their skills. There are some tremendous talents on this list, but none has maxed out his abilities.
What these players also haven't done, and won't before the 2014-15 season-opener on Oct. 28, is celebrate their 25th birthdays. That's what held James Harden out of contention, as he'll hit the quarter-century mark on Aug. 26.
Other players couldn't crack the list simply because their franchise lacks the second half of an under-25, one-two punch. DeMarcus Cousins, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Kenneth Faried have all done their share of heavy lifting, but the knockout power they possess isn't enough to overcome the missing piece of the combination.
So, who's still standing after those exclusions? A number of young, talented twosomes ranked by a blend of statistics, stature and that infallible tool known as the eye test.
To simplify the number-crunching portion of the process, two numbers were put under the microscope: player efficiency ratings and PER allowed to opponents. That two-way glance helped separate the good two-man tandems from the great ones, leaving this digestible set of the NBA's best under-25 duos.
Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers
Long, athletic and perfectly built for coach Brett Brown's uptempo attack, Philly's young tandem could finish this season as one of the most statistically strong dyads on this list.
They'll run enough to overstuff the box score, and the Sixers' patient rebuilding plan will give them every opportunity to swim no matter how many times they might sink. Michael Carter-Williams already showed what he can do under Brown's watch, as he and four-time MVP LeBron James were the only two players to average at least 16 points, six rebounds and six assists last season.
So, why didn't this duo crack the actual list? Well, Nerlens Noel remains a total question mark after missing the entire 2013-14 campaign while rehabbing a torn ACL. And Carter-Williams isn't that much easier to figure out, as his numbers came on a 19-win team that hurt for other consistent contributors.
These two should be fun to watch, but it might take some time before there is substance behind the style.
Ricky Rubio and Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
It's tempting to copy and paste the Sixers' section here.
This is another group of young gazelles featuring a high-flying rookie and a still-developing point guard. Oh, it's also not even officially a pair just yet, but it should be shortly as Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Andrew Wiggins will headline Minnesota's return package for double-double machine Kevin Love.
Once joined together, Wiggins and Ricky Rubio should complement each other well. The former has the physical tools to be a disruptive defender out of the gate, and the latter already wears that label after finishing second in steals each of the last two seasons.
Offensively, they'll hit their rough patches—Rubio is a 36.8 percent shooter for his career, and Wiggins didn't dominate that end in college as often as scouts had hoped—but they should put on some dazzling displays in the open floor.
Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, Detroit Pistons
In terms of talent, Detroit's finest should rank significantly higher on the list, but they are on the outside looking in for a couple of different reasons.
For starters, it's hard to tell how long this partnership will last.
USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt reported that Greg Monroe will accept his $5.5 million qualifying offer, meaning he'll be slated for unrestricted free agency next summer. Michael Lee of The Washington Post added that Monroe and agent David Falk "pursued sign-and-trade-proposals with at least five other teams," so it's fair to deduce Monroe's days in Motown might be coming to an end.
There's also the unavoidable fact that Monroe and Andre Drummond mix as well as cereal and water, at least as long as Josh Smith is shrinking the floor. Last season, the Pistons were outscored by 6.4 points per 100 possessions with Monroe and Drummond on the floor, via NBA.com, and 8.0 points when all three played together.
Still, Drummond appears on the fast track to stardom, and Monroe has been quietly consistent the last three seasons (at least 15 points and nine rebounds a night). The question marks keep them off the actual list, but they are too good to go unmentioned.
5. Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson, Oklahoma City Thunder
With the Oklahoma City Thunder making lengthy playoff pushes an annual event, it's easy to forget how young this group really is. If the cut-off was 26 instead of 25, Russell Westbrook would be eligible and Kevin Durant would have missed it by less than a month.
With the stopping point placed at 25, the Thunder still have one of the league's better tandems in Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson.
In fact, the numbers say they should be ranked even higher. Added together, their total PER of 35 was 4.5 points higher than that of their opponents (31.5), which was the third-widest gap of any group on this list.
However, statistics aren't nearly as meaningful without the proper context.
Widen the lens placed on these two, and it's easy to see how third and fourth options could become such efficient weapons for their team. That's not to discredit Ibaka and Jackson for what they've done, but no other twosome on this list can play off a Durant or a Westbrook, let alone both.
Free to pick their own spots, Ibaka and Jackson set career highs in both PER (19.6 and 15.4, respectively) and usage percentage (19.8 and 22.6) last season.
It's tough to make significant strides in quality and quantity, but it's possible when you have this pair's talent—and top-tier teammates.
4. Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz
The 2013-14 campaign was the fourth in the careers of Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, but it might have seemed like their first real steps under the NBA spotlight.
Hayward attempted 1,032 field goals during his debut as the No. 1 option, more than half as many as he'd launched his first three seasons (1,652). Favors saw 30.2 minutes a night, which was seven more than his previous career high.
Tasked with leading a rebuilding roster, their season could have been disastrous. Despite Utah's 25-57 record, it really wasn't.
Hayward's shooting percentages predictably declined (41.3 percent from the field, 30.4 percent from distance), but he was one of five players to average at least 16 points, five assists and five rebounds. Favors posted personal bests in points (13.3), rebounds (8.7) and field-goal percentage (52.2) and proved he could handle an expanded role.
"The numbers were a result of Favors' skills finally starting to catch up with his immense physical gifts," wrote Bleacher Report's Andy Bailey. "The combination of his size (6'10", 268 lbs) and explosiveness has always made him a nightmare in the open court. Now, he's starting to figure out how to take guys one-on-one inside."
The young Jazz are growing up. By season's end, I could look foolish for not putting Alec Burks, Trey Burke or Dante Exum here. Then again, Favors and Hayward might also wind up underrated.
3. Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, Cleveland Cavaliers
Even the staunchest Kyrie Irving supporters wouldn't call this ranking insulting, but it feels a little low in terms of star power. The 22-year-old has made All-Star trips in two of his three seasons in the league. No one else has made more than one appearance at the Midseason Classic, and only three other players can even make that claim.
Irving is the best pure scorer of the bunch (career 20.7 points per game), and his 20.1 PER ranked second among all of these players. His assist average has improved each year he's been in the league (6.1 in 2013-14), and that number should keep climbing with the added firepower around him.
But his generosity at the defensive end was one of the things holding this pair back. Opposing point guards enjoyed a 17.8 PER against him, which was the third-worst mark among these 10 players.
Dion Waiters didn't really move the needle one way or the other. The Cleveland Cavaliers basically broke even with his matchups (14.0 PER for, 14.2 PER against), while his .433/.368/.685 shooting slash took away some of the shine from his 15.9 points-per-game scoring average.
The challenge both players face going forward is adapting to their new reality. The pecking order has changed in Cleveland, with LeBron James reclaiming his spot at the top and Irving likely battling Love for the No. 2 option. Waiters must make sure he isn't lost in the shuffle.
"I have to make adjustments," Waiters told ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst. " ... I have to find ways to impact the game without having the ball."
The effectiveness of those adjustments will tell whether this spot is too high, too low or just right.
2. Bradley Beal and John Wall, Washington Wizards
Leaving John Wall and Bradley Beal out of the top spot isn't easy. Not only did they have the lowest combined PER against (29.0), but they were also the first and second offensive options for a Washington Wizards team that won 44 games and a playoff series against the higher-seeded Chicago Bulls.
They put their franchise back on the basketball map.
Wall promised an end to Washington's five-year playoff drought and delivered. He set or matched career highs in points (19.3), assists (8.8), steals (1.8) and three-point percentage (35.1), while giving the Wizards their first All-Star representative since Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison made the trip in 2008.
Beal spent the campaign raising his ceiling by pouring in 17.1 points, hitting 40.2 percent of his threes and tossing out 3.3 assists. Before that roof had time to settle, he blew it off again with monstrous postseason per-game averages of 19.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists.
He celebrated his 21st birthday on June 28.
Washington's young guns are scary good now and only getting better. But the one combo standing in front of them is downright terrifying, thanks to its massive man-child and his All-Star running mate.
1. Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans
Reigning MVP Kevin Durant called Anthony Davis the "next in line," via NBA.com's Jim Eichenhofer. Mike Krzyzewski labeled Davis as Team USA's "main guy," via Jimmy Smith of The Times-Picayune. Grantland's Zach Lowe dubbed Davis "a golden god."
All of those are apt descriptions of who the 21-year-old sensation is right now. Some might actually sell the future of the New Orleans Pelicans' franchise face a little short.
Davis has 131 NBA games under his belt. He has already proved his hype is more than deserved.
Last season, he averaged 20.8 points, 10.0 rebounds and a league-high 2.8 blocks per game. His 26.5 PER topped everyone not named LeBron James, Kevin Durant or Kevin Love.
Davis is filling out his frame this summer and expanding his game. According to The Times-Picayune's Nakia Hogan, the freakishly long finisher "is working on adding the corner three-point shot, more post moves and a pull-up jumper off the dribble to his repertoire."
How's that for terrifying?
Rounding out the one-two punch is Jrue Holiday, an All-Star in 2012-13 who missed all but 34 games last season to a stress fracture in his right tibia. When he was healthy enough to play, he formed a dominant duo with Davis. With those two on the floor, the Pellies outscored opponents by 4.1 points per 100 possessions, via NBA.com. Overall, New Orleans was outscored by 2.6 points per 100 trips.
With a (hopefully) healthy Holiday returning to action, the Pelicans should be ready to roll with the league's best, young two-headed monster.