The lockout scared many fans and NBA personnel because depriving both of an entire season at a time when the league is replete with fantastic young players bordered on criminal.
Not only is the league stocked with amazingly gifted and unique talents, but so many of them are guys who just love to play basketball and are great at connecting with their fans via social media. They are the poster children for a new age in basketball. Though Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were the NBA's saviors in 1979, in terms of young talent, the NBA has never been richer, and its young stars never more humble or approachable.
Connecting with them is easy, deciding who among them is elite proved far more difficult. To do so, we examined every player in the NBA age 24 and younger. Any player who was under 25 when the 2011-12 season started was eligible. However, any player who has played in less than half of his team's games within the past year did not qualify (Eric Gordon is one case).
We then used three factors to gauge each player's overall game: how they played in past seasons, including college in some cases, how they are playing today and how they might play in the future. The player's team success also factors in, and consideration was given to players surrounded with poor talent, poor coaching or poor management. The data offered an amazing selection of legendary college superstars, multiple NCAA champions, an MVP winner, a two-time scoring champ, numerous Rookies of the Year, Olympic gold medal champions, an NBA world champion and a plethora of international stars. And with the help of Basketball Prospectus' Kevin Pelton and his SCHOENE projection system, we can see how these players might do in the next three years using WARP (wins above replacement player) measurement.
Have a different list or disagree? Leave a comment and let us know.
1. Kevin Durant, SF, 23 years old
Drafted second overall in 2007 after having possibly the greatest freshman season in college basketball history, Durant was named NCAA "Player of the Year" by numerous outlets. He struggled for much of his rookie season while playing a lot of shooting guard, but still easily won the Rookie of the Year Award. Since then, he's been a dynamic scorer, finishing fifth, first and first in NBA scoring the past three years, respectively.
He's also sported the second-highest PER in the league (27.00), trailing only LeBron James. He's the third best rebounding small forward; his scoring and willingness to make easy plays on offense has made OKC a top 3 offensive team. He has anchored the Thunder, which during Durant's time has evolved from a tough playoff team to a conference finalist then to the favorite to reach the Finals. He's thin but very durable and capable of taking a beating without missing a beat, as he tied for first in free throws made last season.