Judging a young inexperienced player is one of the toughest, yet polarizing topics among sports circles. Players in their late teens can be considered a blank canvas waiting for someone to turn them into a real piece of art. These days, however, fans tend to jump the gun and act like players in their rookie and sophomore year are finished products and while it may hold true for some players, it is definitely a norm we fans should avoid. Historically speaking, we have seen multiple players break out in their second contract; Steve Nash, for example, struggled mightily in his first two years with the Dallas Mavericks and he was all of 26-years-old when he became a productive NBA player for the first time.
While Steve Nash is the exception, not the rule, there are players who just flat out cannot play in the NBA. Fans waiting patiently for young players to turn the corner but instead, they head straightforward in a direction filled with misery and wasted potential.
These players are still blank canvases, but a closer look shows a clear picture of what they are as players. With that in mind, this list is no means a prediction of who will be the best in five years, but more of who is better than their peers today. Here are our early impressions of the top 10 NBA Draft picks from the past three years, ranked from least to most productive/promising.
30 Dragan Bender, 4th Overall, 2016 (Phoenix Suns)
Dragan Bender is in his third year yet we still have no idea what he does well. Bender was supposed to be a project player and so far, it looks like the project deserves a big fat "F." The 7’1" Croatian was heralded as a guy that can do it all as far as passing, shooting, and defending, but whenever he is on the court, it seems as though he is scared of the physicality involved in the NBA.
Bender was taken fourth overall by the Phoenix Suns and this year he has yet to receive meaningful minutes. If Bender wants to prove he belongs in the NBA, he will need to add something noteworthy in his arsenal.
29 Marquese Chris, 8th Overall, 2016 (Sacramento Kings)
In 2016, the Phoenix Suns took a chance and drafted Bender, then a couple minutes later, they traded for Marquese Chriss, who was taken eighth overall by the Sacramento Kings. Chriss had a promising start to his NBA career, as he earned All-Rookie Second Team honors, but everything after that went downhill quickly. Chriss came into his sophomore year out of shape and head coach Jay Triano did not appreciate his effort, or lack thereof.
This year Chriss is playing for the Houston Rockets, where he has gotten very limited opportunities, and rightfully so, as the Rockets are trying to contend for the NBA Finals.
28 Thon Maker, 10th Overall, 2016 (Milwaukee Bucks)
In a surprising move by the Milwaukee Bucks, they took Thon Maker tenth overall during draft night of 2016, which was significantly higher than expected for the Australian big man. Maker had potential for sure, but he also had “out of the league in three years” potential, which we are seeing in full display today. Maker looked good playing against a lower level of competition but in the NBA, he just looks lost against elite talent.
Maker’s time is very limited with the Bucks, who are the favorites to come out at first place in the East. If Maker wants to stay and get a significant role, he needs to turn this around and fast.
27 Frank Ntilikina, 8th Overall, 2017 (New York Knicks)
Much like the guys listed before him, Frank Ntilikina looks lost. Multiple New York Knicks fans claim it is because he is not used to the system where the offense is channeled in on one guy. Ntilikina is still super-young at 20, so there is enough time to turn it around as far as production goes, but so far it is not looking good for the young point guard out of France.
The good news for Ntilikina is that the Knicks are not rushing their rebuild, giving him ample time to prove his worth to the franchise and their rabid fanbase.
26 Markelle Fultz, 1st Overall, 2017 (Philadelphia 76ers)
Considering where he was taken, Markelle Fultz should definitely be at the very bottom of this list, but his production and the possible outlook is enough to move him a few spots higher. We could write a book on the bizarre case of Fultz and what happened to him, but ultimately, it comes down to a nerve disorder.
If this was a “most disappointing young player” list, then Fultz would be at the very bottom but so far, there is still hope for Markelle to turn this around. If his health is indeed in play here and he gets a chance to reinvent his playing style, Fultz can still live up to the hype he had in college. But of course, those are pretty big “ifs."
25 Mo Bamba, 6th Overall, 2018 (Orlando Magic)
Steve Clifford is a tough coach to crack when it comes to playing rookies and no one knows that more than Mo Bamba. Bamba was taken sixth overall this past draft and yet, he is getting buried on the bench as opposed to letting his game develop on the court. Bamba’s lack of production can be attributed to a handful of things, not the least Nikola Vucevic's presence and strong play at center, but ultimately, his lack of minutes hurts his chances for success.
Sooner or later, the Orlando Magic will have to trade Vucevic in favor of Bamba, and until then, he'll sit at the very bottom among his peers.
24 Trae Young, 5th Overall, 2018 (Dallas Mavericks)
Trae Young first made his presence known around this time lat year. The former Oklahoma Sooner, whom the Atlanta Hawks acquired from the Mavericks on draft day, was stringing together amazing performances on top of one another and it resulted in a top-5 selection in the 2018 draft. This year, Young’s scoring and assists are remarkable for a young player, but his shooting percentage is not a sight to be seen, an example of the end not being justified by the means.
Young is a talented scorer and passer and it should only take a few more years before he figures it all out as a player.
23 Jonathan Isaac, 6th Overall, 2017 (Orlando Magic)
Jonathan Isaac’s improvement from year one to year two is quite noticeable if you have been paying attention to the Orlando Magic. The wing out of Florida has always played with a calm demeanor on defense, but his offensive game this year has taken a leap, most notably in terms of his efficiency on the floor. Isaac still has ways to go before living up to the hype of being a sixth overall pick but he is taking the right steps in getting there.
In order to contribute more wins, Isaac needs to further expand his offensive game but that will surely come with more playing time and experience.
22 Josh Jackson, 4th Overall, 2017 (Phoenix Suns)
If this list was done last year, Josh Jackson would have been much higher on the ranks. Jackson had a promising rookie year where it seemed he was the perfect complement to Devin Booker. This year, however, Jackson started out slow and it has taken him more than 25 games to find any form of rhythm on offense and on defense.
The numbers don’t lie and Jackson has taken a massive step back in terms of production. Josh is not as young as the others in this list, so you have to wonder how much time he truly has, considering Mikal Bridges is breathing down his neck as the future small forward of the Phoenix Suns.
21 Collin Sexton, 8th Overall, 2018 (Cleveland Cavaliers)
There are not a lot of things to be thankful for this year if you’re a fan of the Cleveland Cavaliers but one of them is Collin Sexton. Sexton started out super slow but he has then turned it up a notch with quality games early on this year. The young point guard was criticized by his veteran teammates in regards to “not playing the right way” but Sexton’s intense demeanor on the court has given Cavs fans all around the globe new found life.
If this continues, Sexton has a chance to be a legitimate top-15 point guard by next year which is a feasible goal.
20 Jakob Poeltl, 9th Overall, 2016 (Toronto Raptors)
Out of the all the names listed in this list, Jakob Poeltl might be the most obscure one as far as young players go. Poeltl can ultimately be described as solid; he does not excel in any roles but he knows what his role is which is to dive hard, play physical defense, and move the ball around. While his game is not flashy by any means, Poeltl has always contributed to winning whenever he steps on the court.
As far as potential goes, Poeltl might not be a guy you run your offense around but will always be a guy you take into account when running an offense and this goes for the guy coaching him and the guy coaching against him.
19 Zach Collins, 10th Overall, 2017 (Portland Trailblazers)
Honestly, Zach Collins and Jakob Poeltl are so close in terms of production and what they bring to their team that they can be interchangeable. Anyway, Collins is a solid big man that provides shooting and floor spacing for the Portland Trailblazers. Like Poeltl, Collins has yet to have a breakout game, but it should not matter for Blazers fans since he has given them enough reason to believe he will be a very good starting player in the near future.
Collins might never average 20 points per game in his career but he doesn’t need to. Taking someone tenth overall to be a positive role player is fine, and the outlook on Collins is that he will be an above-average role player in Portland.
18 Jaylen Brown, 3rd Overall, 2016 (Boston Celtics)
Jaylen Brown has been disappointing in his third season, to say the least. After a seemingly smooth rookie to sophomore jump, Brown has regressed to old habits that surfaced in his rookie year. Brown’s shooting and ball-handling has looked shaky all season long, and while the struggle can be connected to Gordon Hayward being healthy, ultimately, it still comes down to Jaylen and how he plays.
Brown is not the only guy taken in 2016 that has regressed from a promising sophomore year, though. Furthermore, there is still hope that we see the 2017-2018 Jaylen Brown that was embraced by the Boston community.
17 Mikal Bridges, 10th Overall, 2018 (Philadelphia 76ers)
Mikal Bridges has been as good as advertised. The Phoenix Suns traded for Mikal to help with their shooting and defense, and so far, Bridges has provided. The numbers don’t tell the whole story, though. Mikal’s long wingspan has been a big factor for opposing offense, and on the other end, Mikal’s sweet shooting stroke has given a couple of teams a hard time.
The Suns are at the very bottom of a stacked Western Conference, but Mikal has certainly put himself as a potential third guy next to Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. Only time will tell how good he is, but so far he’s been phenomenal for the Suns.
16 Kevin Knox, 9th Overall, 2018 (New York Knicks)
Kevin Knox has been a revelation for the New York Knicks. The scoring wing out of Kentucky has given hope to Knicks fans this season, as he has lit up the box score on numerous occasions. Knox was supposed to be good, but he was never supposed to be this good early on. If the former Wildcat can keep this up, he has a legitimate chance of giving Tim Hardaway Jr. a run for his money as far as being the number one option goes.
Like most rookies, Knox needs to improve on a lot of areas, but so far, he has embraced being on the spotlight.
15 Kris Dunn, 5th Overall, 2016 (Minnesota Timberwolves)
Back in 2016, the hype for Kris Dunn as a potential John Wall-type of player was definitely lingering around until opening night. And while Dunn has not lived up to the expectations, he has been a pretty good player for the Chicago Bulls in his short stint in the Windy City. Dunn has a lot of holes in his game, especially in his shooting, but we still see the defense and passing that scouts salivated over. If he stays healthy, Kris has a place in the rotation of any team he plays for, and so far, he looks like the perfect complement to Zach LaVine and Lauri Markannen.
Dunn bounced back from a poor rookie year and he has definitely made a statement that he is here to stay.
14 Brandon Ingram, 2nd Overall, 2016 (Los Angeles Lakers)
Earlier, I said that Jaylen Brown is not the only guy taken in 2016 that has taken a step back from a promising sophomore year; enter Brandon Ingram. Ingram took the leap last year, as it looked like the Los Angeles Lakers finally found themselves a future superstar. This year, however, Ingram has struggled to adjust playing next to LeBron James, as both guys need the ball in their hands in order to succeed.
It’s not a guarantee that Ingram will eventually adjust, but the talent is certainly there to overcome this obstacle.
13 Dennis Smith, 9th Overall, 2017 (Dallas Mavericks)
Amidst all the Luka Doncic hype, Dennis Smith is still out there being a great starting point guard for the Dallas Mavericks. While we still need to see a bit more to consider him among the elite prospects, Smith has shown enough to be considered one of the better young players in recent memory. The athletic shifty guard has been playing behind the shadows of Doncic, but he has embraced the role and so far, he has excelled and thrived as the second option.
Smith has looked like a better shooter this year, compared to last year where he shot less than 40 percent from the field AND the three-point line.
12 Lonzo Ball, 2nd Overall, 2017 (Los Angeles Lakers)
The scrutiny surrounding Lonzo Ball has been unfair, especially for someone his age, but if you ignore all the outside noise and focus on Ball as a player, you will see a solid starting point guard that can pretty much do it all. Shooting form aside, Ball has been a great passer and a great defender next to LeBron James. The numbers are all down compared to his rookie year but this is to be expected from someone playing with James, who demands the ball to be in his hands most of the time.
In short, Ball is one of those players whose improvement from freshman to sophomore year cannot be quantified by means of their raw numbers.
11 Marvin Bagley, 2nd Overall, 2018 (Sacramento Kings)
You have to hand it to the Sacramento Kings; they took the guy they wanted despite pressure from fans and the media to take someone else, and it has worked. Marvin Bagley has been a key piece in this surprisingly good season for the Kings. While the lack of right hand and defense has hurt the Kings at times, Bagley’s scoring, athleticism, and rebounding have all resulted in wins.
Bagley is younger than his draft peers and if he is already this good, you have to wonder how good he can be in five to six years.
10 Wendell Carter, 7th Overall, 2018 (Chicago Bulls)
Before the NBA draft this past June, there was a camp that insisted that Wendell Carter is better than his Duke teammate Marvin Bagley and so far, those guys are feeling vindicated. Carter has been a great addition to this young Bulls team; he gives them offensive versatility that will only improve once he starts making three-pointers. On defense, Carter has arguably been the second or third-best defender in his class.
People tend to limit Carter and his ceiling mostly because of his lackluster athletic ability, but Carter is a very smart ballplayer that will only improve if given more time.
9 Jamal Murray, 7th Overall, 2016 (Denver Nuggets)
Jamal Murray has been nuclear in his third year in the NBA. Murray was off to one of the hottest starts this year, which included a 48-point game against the Boston Celtics. Nicknamed “Blue Arrow,” Murray has solidified himself as one of the best guards in the NBA today and that includes everybody in the league.
If Murray can keep this up, we might finally see the Denver Nuggets in the NBA finals. Given the talent they have and the depth Isaiah Thomas will provide, Denver can get a truly special basketball team this year.
8 Jayson Tatum, 3rd Overall, 2017 (Boston Celtics)
The chaos that ensued last year with the Rookie of the Year race between Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell was a highlight no one will forget in quite a while. But trailing behind the two was Jayson Tatum, who looked like a star since game number one.
Tatum looked NBA ready from the get-go but quite frankly, this year the former Duke Blue Devil has struggled with everything. In an inverse of what we discussed with Lonzo Ball, don't let the slightly improved stats deceive you – from his shooting to his defense, Tatum has yet to show what made him highly touted as a rookie.
A bounce-back is inevitable, considering the talent oozing out of Tatum. Celtics fans need to be patient, though.
7 Jaren Jackson, 4th Overall, 2018 (Memphis Grizzlies)
It is hard to underrate a rookie that was taken fourth overall but somehow, that is the case for Jaren Jackson. Jackson is hardly covered when talking about the best rookies this year, but all the numbers point towards Jaren being the third-best in his class.
The Memphis Grizzlies took Jackson fourth because he has potential to be a great player, but at the same time can produce immediately and so far, Jackson has answered the call. By far the best defensive player in his class, Jackson has been a pleasant surprise in this young season.
6 Lauri Markkanen, 7th Overall, 2017 (Minnesota Timberwolves)
You have to give credits to where credit is due and the Chicago Bulls have done a wonderful job in terms of team-building. The Bulls have assembled a ragtag group, it's true, but they are led by two great young players in Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen.
Markannen looks to spearhead the Bulls in a new era where versatility is a must-have in your big man. Lauri can step outside and knock the three-point shot and at the same time, he can bang it down low and be physical against defenders. Markannen looks like one of the best young bigs in the NBA.
5 Buddy Hield, 6th Overall, 2016 (New Orleans Pelicans)
Talking about 2016 draft picks, Buddy Hield is the exact opposite of Ingram and Brown. Hield has taken a gigantic leap in his game this year. Hield is one of the best three point shooters in the league right now and it looks like there is no stopping his upward trajectory. The Sacramento Kings’ owner Vivek Ranadive wanted Hield because of his scoring potential and so far it has worked out for both parties.
If he keeps this up, Hield might have a shot at the All-Star game down the road.
4 Deandre Ayton, 1st Overall, 2018 (Phoenix Suns)
Taken first overall, Deandre Ayton has surprisingly low amount of expectations from the fans and media alike. Ayton was seen as a walking double-double with loads of potential, but there was no buzz surrounding him compared to past rookies who were taken first.
So far this year, however, Ayton has been better than advertised. Ayton is on track to make history as a hyper-efficient big man that can score in the post, shoot from mid-range, and potentially be a great defender. Ayton has a lot to work on, but so far, the good greatly outmatches the bad in terms of his play.
3 De’Aaron Fox, 5th Overall, 2017 (Sacramento Kings)
If you want to talk about someone making the leap, De’Aaron Fox is your guy. Fox went from a “he can turn into a good player” into “he is one of the best point guards in the West,” all in the span of a year. Fox looks like he has found a speed in which he is faster than everyone else but at the same time, he is still in control of where he is headed to. His jumpshot has mightily improved as well, and along with it is the Kings’ record, as they are off to a winning record for the first time in over a decade.
The Kings have a bright future ahead of them and Fox is in the middle of it all.
2 Luka Doncic, 3rd Overall, 2018 (Atlanta Hawks)
Expectations were set high when it comes to Luka Doncic. People had him pegged as potentially the greatest European of all-time when it is said and done and so far, Doncic is off to a great start. The front runner for Rookie of the Year, Doncic has exceeded expectations, which is a remarkable feat considering how high people were on the European sensation.
Doncic, whom the Mavericks acquired for Trae Young on draft day, can potentially dethrone his own teammate Dirk Nowitzki as the greatest player to come out of Europe. Even Dirk wasn’t this good in his first season and Doncic is by no means done.
1 Ben Simmons, 1st Overall, 2016 (Philadelphia 76ers)
Was there any doubt as to who is the best young player today? Ben Simmons has been on a tear ever since he stepped foot on the court. Simmons has been a huge factor in terms of the 76ers turning from a fringe playoff team to a championship contender. Simmons’ numbers are comparable to Magic Johnson and even LeBron James, and that's pretty darn good company if you ask me.
The jumpshot is still a work in progress, but even without one, Simmons has been dominating the league as a 6’10" point guard. If he develops a serviceable mid-range jumper, Simmons might have a chance of being a legitimate MVP candidate; what more if he starts hitting three-pointers?