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Phoenix Suns

The 5: The best young cores in the NBA

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) reacts in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies Sunday, March 6, 2016, in Memphis, Tenn. The Suns defeated the Grizzlies 109-100. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

Of the best young cores in the NBA, the Phoenix Suns sure don’t roll with their youngsters as much as others.

Through the midway point of the season, Phoenix has only recently begun handing Marquese Chriss (19 years old), Dragan Bender (19), Tyler Ulis (21) and, even to some degree, Devin Booker (20) more responsibility.

Booker’s two 39-point outings in Mexico over the past week and improved efficiency since the calendar turned to 2017 is more in tune with the preseason expectations. Chriss and Bender have begun to flash more talent as their confidence has grown. Ulis has found more opportunities with Brandon Knight struggling.

Throw in 19-year-old project Derrick Jones Jr., Alan Williams (23) Alex Len (23), and T.J. Warren (23) and the future is bright. But how bright is it compared to some of the best young cores in the NBA?

A handful of teams can compare. Here is a ranking of the best young cores — in one person’s humble opinion — based on players 24 years old and younger. The Suns and Magic, who each have their own rosters filled with intriguing youngsters, didn’t make the cut but with one player putting together a breakout season would jump into the fold.

1. MILWAUKEE BUCKS

Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo, left, and Jabari Parker pose during the team's NBA basketball media day Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)The core: Thon Maker (19), Rashad Vaughn (20), Jabari Parker (21), Giannis Antetokounmpo (22), Malcolm Brogdon (24)

The young Bucks (see what I did there?) take the top spot no matter what the Sixers’ Joel Embiid says about the city of Milwaukee. While not of quantity, coach Jason Kidd’s youngsters produce. Parker is a 20-point scorer, Antetokounmpo is the NBA’s most improved player, arguably the most unique athlete in the league and a darkhorse MVP candidate, while Brogdon has put together an excellent rookie campaign. Maker and Vaughn haven’t gotten much run, but their futures project very well, too.

2. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

T.J. McConnell, Joel EmbiidThe core: Ben Simmons (19), Jahlil Okafor (21), Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (21), Dario Saric (22), Nerlens Noel (22), Joel Embiid (22), Nik Stauskas (23), Chasson Randle (23), Richaun Holmes (23), T.J. McConnell (24).

If Embiid’s injury history wasn’t so scary and Simmons would’ve played by now, there’s a good chance Philly would hold the No. 1 spot. By volume of youngsters, they can’t be touched. There is legitimate star potential and legitimate role player growth that makes the Sixers’ young core impressive. The expected trade of either Okafor and Noel makes us pump the brakes considering they don’t fit together, but props to The Process of drafting well in the lottery and picking up talented youngsters like Stauskas and McConnell on the cheap.

3. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony TownsThe core: Tyus Jones (20), Andrew Wiggins (21), Karl-Anthony Towns (21), Zach LaVine (21), Kris Dunn (22), Shabazz Muhammad (24)

Ask us a few months ago, and the T-Wolves would also be in the running for No. 1. The top-4 prospects of Towns, Wiggins, LaVine and Dunn would certainly be graded better if this exercise looked at only the four best youngsters on each team and weighted each slot equally. Alas, depth is important. So is winning, the Minnesota hasn’t been doing that this year despite the young talent.

4. DENVER NUGGETS

Nikola JokicThe core: Jamal Murray (19), Emmanuel Mudiay (20), Malik Beasley (20), Nikola Jokic (21), Juan Hernangomez (21), Jusuf Nurkic (22), Gary Harris (22)

There’s a lot of question-marks for the Nuggets. Can Mudiay harness his natural abilities and develop a shot? Can Murray do anything more than shoot? What do Beasley and Hernangomez look like in five years? And can coach Mike Malone get the most out of too many bigs, including Hernangomez, Nurkic and Jokic? Who knows? What we do know is that Jokic, who is looking like a young Vlade Divac, is the biggest draft steal in the last three years as the 41st overall pick.

5. LOS ANGELES LAKERS

Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, D'Angelo RussellThe core: Ivica Zubac (19), Brandon Ingram (19), D’Angelo Russell (20), Julius Randle (22), Larry Nance Jr. (24), Jordan Clarkson (24)

Los Angeles has the slight edge on the Suns and Magic because three of its youngsters have the reputations as starting-caliber NBA prospects. Russell could perfect his point guard skills and find a more efficient approach while Randle’s game has grown beyond his scoring and brute strength. Ingram’s too green to even flash star potential, but there’s little reason to doubt he’ll not take huge steps forward when his frame fills out. Plus, Nance and Clarkson are already quality role players. Clarkson could start for half of the league.

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