Grading Every NBA Team’s Young Core: Eastern Conference Edition

By Max Feldman

EASTERN CONFERENCE EDITION

Grading Scale:
A+
A
A-
Elite core in place with a cemented direction for the future.
B+
B
B-
Collection of strong pieces but have various holes to fill.
C+
C
C-
Have one or two pieces in place but lack and identity – unclear longterm direction.
D+
D
D-
Little to no cemented identity or direction. Stuck in a purgatory between a rebuild and contention with a recent history of poor drafting.
FNo pieces for the future. Young core is unidentifiable.

The rules in place for this assessment are the inclusion of players the age of 24 years old or younger as each teams “Young Core”. While some teams might have limited talent under the age of 24, their star power might largely be in players in their mid to late 20’s who are approaching or in their prime. This is not a grade of each teams collective roster, only their young core. The core is listed out by their longterm value according to FOG.

Atlanta Hawks

The Pieces

Trae Young (21)

John Collins (22)

De’Andre Hunter (22)

Cam Reddish (20)

Kevin Huerter (21)

Bruno Fernando (21)

The Hawks have struggled for many years now and this year was no different. What sets them apart from other teams who are struggling has been their ability to hit on picks early who determined direction. Trae Young and John Collins were both guys who had no shortage of questions entering the league, but 2 and 3 years later respectively, you wonder how multiple teams glossed over them and allowed them to fall into the Hawks hands. Trae is a generational talent and has already eclipsed the All-Star mark, but the Hawks have not slowed down after hitting big in the 2018 Draft. Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter and Bruno Fernando were all very successful collegiate players and bring vital strengths to the table for the Hawks who are tasked with adding defense and floor spacers to allow Young and Collins to maximize their potential. I am and have been a huge believer in Cam Reddish while the population of supporters dwindled after a mediocre season at Duke. Efficiency is not necessarily his game, but his shot creating ability, size and athleticism breed optimism as a high level wing scorer down the line.

What’s next for their core? Add more weapons who do NOT need the ball in their hands to produce. High motor, heady pieces who add immediate needed production rather than untapped potential. Travis Schlenk and Lloyd Pierce have Atlanta back on track.

Boston Celtics

THE PIECES

Jayson Tatum (22)

Jaylen Brown (23)

Robert Williams (23)

Grant Williams (21)

Romeo Langford (20)

Carsen Edwards (22)

Tremont Waters (22)

Tacko Fall (24)

This is one is a lot to unpack. They get an A for their grade because of the star power at the top in Tatum and Brown but I am little more critical here due to some of their other picks in recent years. They’re in a unique position due to the massive backload of draft picks they accumulated a few years ago where they are in compete mode atop the Eastern conference, but are relying on multiple young pieces for production. Tatum will be a multi-time All-Star assuming his consistency is stabilized and Jaylen Brown is an impressive two-way piece with more room to grow. Robert Williams and Grant Williams have work to do but show their respective flashes as potentially cornerstone role players at times. The Langford pick was puzzling to many in 2019 and his Rookie season did not answer many questions. He is a talented scorer with a smooth jumper but needs work defensively and in his shot selection. Edwards and Waters are both good pieces as rotational scoring lead guards when Kemba needs a break.

What’s next for their core? Continue to fill gaps. More front court stability and versatile wing defenders. Boston has one of the most collective rosters in the entire league so adding a mix of mature talent along with some high potential younger guys who can develop for a few years should be the mentality this offseason.

Brooklyn Nets

C-

THE PIECES

Jarrett Allen (22)

Dzanan Musa (21)

Nic Claxton (21)

Rodions Kurucs (22)

The Nets are in compete now mode with acquisitions of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving last offseason. The youth core is extremely limited, with Jarrett Allen being the only one who has produced thus far. He has become one of the best shot blockers in the league pretty quickly in combination with his high motor, freakish measurements and athletic development. With all that, he is not a center piece and lacks the ability to create on his own. Claxton is very young and had an extended timeline when he was drafted so with more opportunity it is fair to assume he can develop into a nice rotational piece with his wing skillset and high athletic ability. Musa is appealing but has only showed flashes thus far. There is not much more to write home about…

What’s next for their core? It’s tough. Kyrie was very transparent about his stance on how the Nets must maneuver their roster. I think it is more likely they go ahead and find more mature prospects in the draft who are ready to contribute, but I do fear for their direction if they can not win next season with KD and Kyrie. There is little to no insurance in place.

Charlotte Hornets

C

THE PIECES

PJ Washington (21)

Miles Bridges (22)

Malik Monk (22)

Dwayne Bacon (24)

Solid players, solid pieces, but I can not wrap my head around the idea of building with these guys. Washington struggled at the beginning of his Rookie campaign but later on impressed and settled into a role. I have questions on if Bridges has room to develop further, as it seems like he might be approaching his maximum potential as a solid two-way athletic scorer with limited playmaking ability for others. Monk is a former lottery pick but has yet to produce on a large scale, starting just one game in his three year career thus far. Bacon is a solid role player and is probably the only piece besides PJ who has performed a bit better than expected. The Hornets are in no position to compete with their collection of poor draft picks and disorganized roster post Kemba era. The roster is still very young, but they are certainly in a pickle for now in the middle-to-late lottery area and a ton of money stuck up in veterans with terrible contracts and mid-level NBA talent.

What’s next for their core? They’ll need to swallow the loss with these poor contracts they’ve tied themselves into and the high value draft picks they essentially wasted. They can go two directions to better establish themselves when the cap space is freed up a few seasons down the line. Option one would be to prioritize prospects who can make plays for others and do not require the ball to be in their hands, or, option two would be to prioritize young, high ceiling prospects who have standout areas that provide optimism as useful role players in the worst case scenario.

Chicago Bulls

B

THE PIECES

Coby White (20)

Lauri Markkanen (23)

Wendell Carter Jr (21)

Chandler Hutchinson (24)

Daniel Gafford (21)

The B grade hits the Bulls young core right on the head. Collection of strong pieces but have various holes to fill. I have preached over and over again the Bulls absolutely need playmakers. Too many of the pieces they’ve acquired require the ball in their hands to produce. Coby White is better fit off ball long term as a go-to scorer rather than putting lead playmaker on his plate. He can be a lights out scorer at all three levels with his limitless range, lightning quick speed and his awaited progression in shot choice. Markkanen has been the king of showing flashes but has been hampered by injuries, inefficiency and defensive struggles. Carter Jr has faced his fair share of injuries but when healthy has appeared to be the prospect that the Bulls hoped he’d be and even more at times. Arturas Karnisovas brings in a new reign destined to fill the various gaps that Gar Forman left behind.

What’s next for their core? Establishing identity. The pieces are valuable but they must be surrounded with playmakers and defenders. Filling these holes with prospects who have IQ’s, advanced feel for the game and cemented playmaking capabilities must be a priority. There should be optimism for Bulls nation because Karnisovas established a roster in Denver with a creative blend of high upside prospects like Michael Porter Jr and Bol Bol while cementing the present with highly skilled prospects like Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray and NBA ready guys like Gary Harris and Monte Morris. Not only was the hire of Karnisovas strong due to his resume, it is an A+ fit in terms of finding the right mind to fill in the glaring holes left by the GarPax era.

Cleveland Cavaliers

B-

THE PIECES

Collin Sexton (21)

Kevin Porter Jr (20)

Darius Garland (20)

Dylan Windler (23)

In the post-LeBron era, the Cavaliers have gotten off to a somewhat rocky start but managed to get themselves somewhat back on track in the 2019 NBA Draft. The acquisition of Andre Drummond was peculiar in terms of how he fits their timeline and his paycheck, so it will be intriguing to see how they maneuver his situation as well as Kevin Love’s. Sexton has steadily improved and has all the makings of a 20+ point per game scorer but struggled creating for others especially in the assist to turnover category. More high IQ, high feel for the game prospects are necessary to piece together this rebuild but Garland impressed while scoring the ball but still has room to develop as a playmaker in the P&R. Kevin Porter appears to be a steal after being selected 30th overall in the 2019 Draft. He can have tunnel vision at times and can be a ball stopper, but it is evident that his flare translates to the NBA and can score effectively at all three levels with his massive wingspan, mature physique and isolation package.

What’s next for their core? Cement a direction. Add more playmaking pieces and sort out what is happening with their front court. Move on and use either or Garland or Sexton in a trade OR, which would be my choice, focus on the development of Garland’s playmaking ability in the P&R so he can be the lead guard of the future. Add wing shooting and versatile playmakers, let Drummond walk and stock future assets by moving Kevin Love to a contender. Focus on development of Sexton, Garland and Windler while planning for the future in the draft rather than tying their money into veterans who do not provide direction.

Detroit Pistons

C

THE PIECES

Sekou Doumbouya (19)

Christian Wood (24)

Luke Kennard (23)

Bruce Brown (23)

Lou King (21)

Svi Mykhailiuk (23)

Jordan Bone (22)

Thon Maker (23)

This could even be too high, but I am big supporter of what Sekou can be down the line, what Christian Wood has proved to be and what Bruce Brown and Lou King have showed flashes of. If Wood wasn’t approaching Free Agency with a high paycheck rumored, this would be a B- because his progression as a floor spacing, pogo stick athlete who fits ideally as a 4 man in the league today. Lou King hasn’t gotten the opportunity with the Pistons as of yet but I am a believer in shot creation and touch as a long, mismatching causing wing. Kennard has been mentioned in some trade talks, Maker still has not proved much and Svi does not look to be more than average wing shooter. While this is considered their core, I would not be surprised to see 2-3 of them moved on the near future whether its through free agency or trades. An unsung piece they have to keep around to develop along with Doumbouya? Bruce Brown. The former 42nd overall pick impressed in his Sophomore campaign as a capable playmaker, improved shooter and potential as an all-around creator.

What’s next for their core? Snag a lead guard. There are some young tools and plenty of room to maneuver contracts after shedding Drummond and Griffin, Rose and Henson all trade candidates. Detroit needs more creativity, more fire power and more upside. Any of FOG’s top three lead guards would be a fit, but they can not make a mistake and grab a guy like Anthony Edwards or Tyrese Maxey who will likely carry higher volume shooting the ball and can be ball stoppers on the offensive end. They need an engineer, a cornerstone playmaker to collect assets around moving forward.

Indiana Pacers

B+

THE PIECES

Myles Turner (24)

Domantas Sabonis (24)

Aaron Holiday (23)

Goga Bitadze (20)

TJ Leaf (23)

Brian Bowen (21)

Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis have both shown plenty of flashes, as Sabonis has already eclipsed the All-Star mark. The questions is whether the future of the Pacers has both of the big men in the picture or just one. There is due concern over whether they can co-exist and breed a winning culture. Aaron Holiday has provided some optimism as a shifty, tough two-way lead guard. Leaf’s career has amounted to much as of yet while Tugs Bowen has the tools but remains extremely inexperienced. Bitadze is a piece to watch as he is uber talented and provides a ton of optimism, but has a limited role behind Turner and Sabonis.

What’s next for their core? The Bucks own their first round selection and their second round pick falls at 50 so it is unnecessary to mention the type of prospects they should target. With the pieces in place, the plan of action I would choose is to test the market on Myles Turner and make a move to add wing firepower or a scoring lead guard. Brogdon, Oladipo and Sabonis should be the cornerstones. I am a big fan of Myles Turner so it’s no shot at him, but I do think they can land the largest amount of assets in return because of his shot blocking credibility and floor stretching flashes. They are not too far off if Oladipo gets healthy, but nailing down the right deal for Myles Turner might just push Chad Buchanan and the Pacers over the edge.

Miami Heat

B+

The Pieces

Bam Adebayo (22)

Tyler Herro (20)

Kendrick Nunn (24)

Derrick Jones Jr (23)

KZ Okpala (21)

Chris Silva (23)

This very well could have been an A- or even an A but there is still a bit more to prove from the Heat youngsters in terms of credible production. Bam Adebayo is as good of a young piece as there is in the NBA as he should hold down their front court and be paid a max contract for 5-8 years. Herro’s collegiate flashes materialized while he was healthy, and he should certainly be the off guard of the future for Miami. The Heat scouting department and coaches deserve a ton of respect for the acknowledgement first off and the development of Nunn, Silva and Derrick Jones, all of which were undervalued in the early years of their careers. Okpala is a piece to watch, as his identity fits extremely well with the Heat.

What’s next for their core? Filling roles. Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra are hoping Kendrick Nunn’s productivity is sustainable, but adding another pure playmaker to the group should be the top priority. Wings have been the commonly marked area for improvement, but I do like their depth there. Some more athletic depth in the front court could be necessary to take some of the interior load off of Bam, but otherwise, the Heat have done an incredible job with the Draft over the last 3-4 seasons.

Milwaukee Bucks

C-

The Pieces

Donte DiVincenzo (23)

DJ Wilson (24)

Everything regarding the future revolves around Giannis, but there is no doubt that this young core is far too shallow. Giannis’ rapid ascension and the fact that the Bucks have the third oldest team in the NBA certainly do make sense as they’re trying to capitalize on roster wide spending while Giannis is not the most expensive player in the league. But soon he will be and the Bucks will need some more young, cheap talent to bring production to make up for the lack of maneuvering they can do salary cap wise. DiVincenzo is a nice role player as an off guard who can catch fire, stretch the floor, bring energy and guard multiple positions. DJ Wilson has yet to bring any notable production to the table in three NBA seasons and whether it is because of the Bucks depth or his physical immaturity, his future in Milwaukee is uncertain.

What’s next for their core? Simply add pieces. Bringing in a young lead guard at the 19th pick which they acquired from the Pacers should be a priority. Take some of the load off of Giannis and space the floor a bit more. A big man might make sense if it is the right fit, but with a very strong lead guard class in 2020, snagging a prospect who can bring some immediate offensive production and be groomed over the next few years behind Bledsoe and Georgie Hill seems like the right move for Jon Horst.

New York Knicks

B-

The Pieces

RJ Barrett (20)

Mitchell Robinson (20)

Kevin Knox II (20)

Allonzo Trier (24)

Frank Ntilikina (21)

Dennis Smith Jr (22)

Kenny Wooten (22)

Ignas Brazdeikis (21)

This young core is among the most debated league wide, coming at a B- because of their lack of production and disregard for roster fit. Glossing through the core, it is obvious that the instability in the Knicks front office over the previous 3-4 years has led to them jumping at high upside guys through drafts and trade talks in an effort to hit big on someone. It has not materialized. They hit on Mitchell Robinson and while he should anchor down their front court for the long stretch, he will not make them relevant in the East if he remains their top young piece. Barrett was the right pick in 2019, and while there are mixed reviews I do believe the future is bright as long as he can become more consistent and improve athletically. Kevin Knox is still just 20 years old, but saw decreases in production in almost every category. He needs to find a way to contribute in some fashion without the ball in his hands because while he is extremely talented, initiating this rebuild with him as a centerpiece will not provide fuel to the entire roster. Once there are more playmakers in the fold, Knox might just take off. Smith Jr is likely on his way out once again and has a number of questions to answer as the former 9th overall pick enters his 4th NBA season with little to no credible production. Frank Ntilikina has not been what Knicks fans expected, but he is slowly but surely growing into a role as a two-way energetic combo guard with length, energy and strong instincts. He just is not going to be the star that they hoped they were getting at the 8th pick in the 2017 Draft. Kenny Wooten and Allonzo Trier were two very strong pick ups as Undrafted Free Agents, but hitting in the open market will not jump start the rebuild like making the right pick in lottery of the draft will.

What’s next for their core? Add heady players with advanced feel for the game. Knox and Barrett both require the ball to make an impact, so adding more prospects that have tunnel vision will put them even further behind. A lead guard who is an advanced decision maker, pass first and is capable of opening up the court for his teammates should be priority number one in the 2020 Draft. Find a trade partner of Dennis Smith and stock future assets. Add high motor big men who do not the ball to produce. Extend Mitchell Robinson. Find the right new Head Coach who can position these pieces to approach their maximum potential.

Orlando Magic

B+

The Pieces

Jon Isaac (22)

Markelle Fultz (22)

Mo Bamba (22)

Aaron Gordon (24)

This is probably surprising to a ton of people, but I am high on Orlando’s young core. Isaac has improved in every area and is a future All-NBA defender. He’s the centerpiece for their future and while the pick seemed risky at the time, it has materialized and Isaac has developed his body and natural skill through his first three seasons. Markelle Fultz finally found himself in year three and his first season with the Magic. His efficiency numbers are all up, opening up his playmaking ability. Mo Bamba has improved slowly, but still has not amounted to much. A prospect with his measurements and experience require patience and I do feel that his ceiling remains incredibly high. His touch is improved and he’s added about 20 pounds to his massive frame. As he approaches 240 pounds, his future as the front court anchor should shine through. 2020-21 will be a big one for Bamba. Aaron Gordon is only 24 but has already completed 6 full NBA seasons. You know what you’re getting with him. While he has produced a solid amount in the scoring category in the last three seasons, throwing a big contract at an inefficient, athletic stretch man who is not a strong defender might not bode well for the rest of the roster construction.

What’s next for their core? Add more playmakers and shot makers. A running mate for Fultz who can stretch the floor and attack defenses could do a world of good on the offensive end for Orlando. Continue building an identity of toughness and athleticism with a focus on Isaac as a two-way centerpiece. Find a trade partner for Gordon as his $20 million contract does not align with the Magic timeline. Free up the cap space tied into Fournier, Terrence Ross and Al-Farouq Aminu. Make more strong picks, fill roles, diversify the core and wait for the right big time free agent in the 2021, 2022 or 2023 offseason.

Philadelphia 76er’s

A-

The Pieces

Ben Simmons (23)

Matisse Thybulle (23)

Furkan Korkmaz (22)

Shake Milton (23)

Zhaire Smith (21)

While I do not agree with the roster construction of the 76er’s roster over the last few seasons, they have done a strong job making draft picks after stocking assets for multiple seasons. Ben Simmons is an All-Star and an incredible two-way talent, but the experiment of using him as the lone ball handler has not bred the results the 6er’s completely hoped for. With that, he is their franchise player and has become one of the most dynamic playmakers and young defenders in the entire NBA. Korkmaz and Milton were two very, very good selections in spots that did not hold the most stock. Korkmaz specifically is one of the most efficient, deadeye shooters in the NBA and should be a part of the longterm future. Zhaire Smith has faced his fair share of injury issues but remains a high upside wing with elite athleticism. Thybulle is already a fan favorite and his defensive prowess will be a main stake for Philadelphia for the long run. For one of the top teams in the East, it is not one of my favorite rosters yet it is undeniable how good of a job Elton Brand and Co. have done making late first round and second round draft picks in recent years.

What’s next for their core? Keep doing what they’re doing in terms of drafting. Ditch the Al Horford experiment as it directly opposes the direction the NBA is going in terms of twin tower big men. Add another playmaking lead guard and allow Simmons to float off ball at times. High volume ball handler must be able to knock down shots at all three levels in order to produce at a high level in terms of playmaking. Simmons is not that. Slightly alter his role and add more options.

Toronto Raptors

C

The Pieces

OG Anunoby (22)

Terence Davis (23)

Oshae Brissett (22)

Stanley Johnson (24)

To be fair, the Raptors have been heavily reliant on veterans over the last few years as rose to the top of the East. This group contains no star power but fall right in the middle of the grading scale because of their value as role players. Anunoby has required some patience but had a very, very solid season number three on both ends of the court post-Kawhi era. Picking up Terence Davis after he went undrafted was a big time pickup. His toughness and athleticism should cement his role in the Raptors rotation for the foreseeable future. Brissett has limited experience but brings some front court flare in terms of potential.

What’s next for their core? Make the most of the situation they are in because this young core will not survive on it’s own. Plan for life after Kyle Lowry and Fred Van Vleet by selecting one of the many strong playmakers who are likely to be available at the end of the first round. Stack assets and stabilize the salary cap situation this offseason.

Washington Wizards

B

The Pieces

Rui Hachimura (22)

Troy Brown Jr (20)

Thomas Bryant (22)

Admiral Schofield (23)

Jerome Robinson (23)

Mo Wagner (23)

Isaac Bonga (20)

Anzejs Pasecniks (24)

This one also could be fairly regarded as high for a team reliant on veterans, but they’ve done a sneaky good job stocking up young assets through the draft and trades. Hachimura looks to be an ideal fit as an athletic four man but needs to sort out his shooting consistency in year two and beyond. Troy Brown was the youngest player in the 2018 field and saw major improvements in year two. His rebounding, natural facilitating skills and fluid three level scoring ability as well as defensive progression guarding the one through four in certain situations brought due optimism. Thomas Bryant, a former second round pick in 2017, has proved his worth and some more in two seasons with the Wiz. The positivity from this core comes is due to the fact that there is no dead value here. Bonga, Wagner and Robinson have all proved more worth than what was previously believed on their former teams. Tommy Sheppard deserves a ton of respect for making these moves and adding notable value, whereas many teams stock young assets just for the sake of providing potential. The Wizards have provided the opportunity for these young players to find their fit in the NBA and each and every one of them has provided some credibility to that potential.

What’s next for their core? Instill more of a focus on the defensive end. Sort out the direction of the franchise as decision time roles around this offseason as to what comes next for Beal and Wall. Holding onto Beal is extremely likely, so if Wall is on his way out, look to add a young playmaker who can bring an immediate impact on the defensive end. They’ve done a nice job adding assets while quietly producing in the win column. Continue to build arond Bradley Beal, one of the leagues best all-around scorers, but provide him weapons to lower the load.

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