In a fascinating project conducted by Zach Kram of The Ringer this week, the Suns ranked sixth in terms of five-year projected wins above replacement (WAR) for under-25 players.
The rankings were driven by FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO player projections, which forecasts the level of production provided by NBA players. From there, Kram developed a wins above replacement metric and filtered out all players older than 25. The WAR metric in this case compares projected production to what a minimum-contract or two-way player would produce in the same circumstances.
Then, Kram added up the total five-year projected WAR for all of a team’s players younger than 25 and ranked the sum of those WAR projections. The resulting article made for a fun read and thought exercise.
Coming in last was Houston, a team that has basically foregone youth development entirely during James Harden’s prime in favor of trading for or signing the next veteran star. Their top under-25 talent by WAR projections is... Isaiah Hartenstein. (If you don’t know who that is, that’s sort of the point of me pointing it out.)
Jump up a few spots and you’ll find the Suns, sitting at No. 6.
A few things stand out in the top 10 here besides Phoenix’s nice ranking. First is a notable absence from the top spots in Cleveland. The Cavaliers troublingly, a full year into a full-on rebuild, sit 29th in these rankings despite selecting Collin Sexton last year and three players in the first round of this year’s draft. Particularly in comparison to Memphis, who slotted in at No. 3 in these rankings heading into its first real rebuilding season, Cleveland’s fortunes seem dismal.
Another surprise is seeing the Warriors slide in at No. 10, especially how highly CARMELO rates Kevon Looney, who feels 45 years old but is actually just 23.
Most notable, though, is how highly CARMELO rates Ben Simmons. Because Joel Embiid has aged out of these rankings, the 76ers are only seventh in the rankings, but Simmons alone accounts for a projected 42.4 wins above replacement over the next five seasons.
Others who are highly graded by CARMELO include Karl-Anthony Towns, Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic.
Depending on how you see it, you may be surprised not to see Devin Booker in this realm at all. Whereas Jokic is up over 40 WAR, Booker is projected to add just 19.4 wins over a replacement-level player. Buoying Phoenix’s ranking here are Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, who account for 17.3 and 12.4 projected wins added, respectively. The projection system sees Ayton as only slightly worse than Booker over the next five years despite being three years younger, so take that as you will. It could be a great sign for Ayton or a bad sign for Booker. Regardless, it’s probably good for the Suns.
If you’re curious, Josh Jackson (3.1) and De’Anthony Melton (3.6) boosted the Grizzlies’ ranking over the Suns, while the release of Dragan Bender (2.0) also cost the Suns some points. Those three player subtractions cost the Suns 8.7 points, which would have helped them overtake the Grizzlies for 3rd overall.
The Suns replaced those three with Ricky Rubio (8.3), Dario Saric (4.9) and Frank Kaminsky (1.5). None of them qualified for the under-25 cutoff but add up to six more wins on the whole. So I’ll take that trade-off.
Of course, these numbers don’t really tell us anything concrete. They aren’t predictions of what will happen, but rather baselines against which to compare the eventual performance on the court of these players. They also give us a more solid ground upon which to debate the best young teams in the NBA.
Sixth feels about right for the Suns. Until Booker shows more on defense and Ayton proves himself as a passer, shooter or defender (hopefully more than one of those skills), they probably shouldn’t be in the upper echelon of young NBA players.