Young stars making “the leap” in the Playoffs

The Playoffs are the NBA’s ultimate proving grounds. 

Everything about the regular season is amplified in the postseason. Here, a player’s weaknesses are exposed, their tendencies exploited, their mental toughness put to the test. Many young aspiring stars have crumbled under the intensity, forever doomed to be 82-game players. 

But the same scorching-hot forge that can melt away a player’s confidence can also galvanize other players. These guys are the ones who thrive under the pressure. In the bright lights of the Playoffs, they ball out and show the world just how good they are. The postseason isn’t just their ally; they were born in it, molded by it. 

This year’s Playoffs, despite so far being a snoozefest for the most part, have revealed the young guns who are making the proverbial leap and are likely be the faces of the league in the future.

Photo from Getty Images

Jayson Tatum

Turns out Tatum wasn’t benefitting from Kyrie’s presence in the team. Who would’ve thought? 

In all seriousness, though, the third year player has been balling out big-time as the lead guy for the Celtics both in the regular season and the Playoffs. Much has been made about his improved shot chart (less long twos, more threes) and his defensive impact, but the biggest reason for his rise to superstardom has to be his passing. 

He’s no Larry Bird when it comes to playmaking, but Tatum has shown the ability and willingness to distribute when needed. He recognizes windows of opportunity that open up from his talents. That’s an important asset to have for a team’s offensive fulcrum. 

Tatum a year ago would for sure take that shot. It’s a make-able shot for him. But instead, he recognizes the easier shot available and makes a sweet dish to Kanter.

JT’s back, folks, and he’s about to score on everyone in the league. 

Photo from Getty Images

Fred VanVleet

VanVleet’s late Playoff insanity last season was the talk of the town after their championship. Few expected him to actually ball out in the Finals, considering his atrocious performance in the first two rounds. But after the birth of his son in the middle of the Eastern Conference Finals, VanVleet Sr. started to find his rhythm and more. His Finals exploits were so good he even earned one Finals MVP vote! 

This year, though, he’s upped it to a whole new level. 

Proving to the world that his six-game streak wasn’t a fluke, VanVleet has been on a mission this postseason. The Raptors have a fairly egalitarian style on offense, but FVV has been the shining light so far for the team (especially with Pascal Siakam still trying to find his groove in the bubble). His tenacity on defense and constant steadying presence on offense solidify his status as one of the league’s elite. 

VanVleet’s greatest threat is his three-point shooting. He’s no Logo Lillard, but he can definitely hit long bombs like these when left wide open. He drained a ridiculous 55% of his threes in their sweep of Brooklyn, with a lot of them being two or three steps behind the line.

If Toronto wants to have a shot at retaining their title, they’ll need Steady Freddy to channel his new-dad mode once again. 

Photo from AP

Donovan Mitchell

Shot-chucker. Inefficient. Not a needle-mover. 

Mitchell has had these names thrown at him during his career. His “meh” performances in his last two Playoffs only furthered this reputation. But this postseason, Spida has finally figured out the code to scoring efficiently in the Playoffs. He’s leading the league in points per game by a WIDE margin while distributing a fair amount of assists as well. 

There’s nothing drastic that has changed in Mitchell’s game. He’s still essentially the same player, but he’s just refined all of his skills to the best level. His off-the-bounce threes are now falling. His pick-and-roll navigation is amazing. He can isolate and score at will. Everything about Mitchell’s game has been just so good. 

Mitchell loves running the pick-and-roll, especially with a big lob target like Gobert. He’ll put his defender in jail to force a two-on-one, and even if the defender recovers, he’s able to make contested shots like this consistently.

Spida’s tired of the first round. He wants more of good stuff, and he wants it BADLY. 

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Jamal Murray

You’d think, by way of everything I’ve said about Donovan Mitchell, that the Jazz would be obliterating their opponents right now. And you’re right, they are pushing their opponents to the brink of elimination. 

But one player on the other side has tried his damnedest to keep them afloat. That man is Jamal Murray. 

Murray has always been one of the more talented guards in the Denver lineup, but he’s been disappointing at times in the Playoffs. This year, though, Murray has been just excellent for the Nuggets, providing a much-needed scoring boost for a team lacking two of their major scoring threats. He’s also been facilitating pretty well for the team. 

While Mitchell loves to be patient as the ball-handler, Murray has more of a devil-may-care attitude in the PnR. You’ll often see him exploding off a pick, or splitting his defenders like he does here. That 360 finish against Stifle Tower was just one of his many successful exploits that game.

It’s a tough road making it out of a 3-1 deficit, but Jamal Murray is more than ready to carry his team over the hump. In Game 6, he went toe-to-toe with Spida once again, trading blows with him like heavyweights in a 12-round classic. For every impossible bucket Spida was getting for the Jazz, the Blue Arrow was there to make an equally absurd shot. The result was an all-time classic: Mitchell scoring 44 points while Murray grabbed another 50-piece to his name AND the W to force a Game 7.

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Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

When OKC traded Paul George to the Clippers, everyone thought that they got a fairly mediocre haul. Yeah, there were a lot of picks, but in the short-term they only got two players: Danilo Gallanari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Add to that the departure of Russell Westbrook and the arrival of an older Chris Paul, and the expectation was that the Thunder would undergo a long rebuild. 

But nay, it wasn’t destined to be. CP3 was still the same old CP3, Gallo regained some of his old mojo, and SGA blossomed into one of the best two-way guards in the league. His herky-jerky game, amazing court vision, and immense versatility on defense make him such a terrifying force to face. That defense, in particular, is such an important part of OKC’s game plan. Because of his long wingspan and great instincts on defense, Shai gives OKC the ability to trot a three-guard lineup with Paul and Dennis Schröder. 

Gilgeous-Alexander’s long limbs make this play possible. Normally, guards wouldn’t be able to reach a lob pass like that, but Shai’s 7-foot wingspan plus the awareness of the pass itself (he’s watching Harden closely and instantly reacts when the lob is thrown) makes it an easy steal for him.

With him in tow and the great Paul guiding him, OKC is in great hands. 

Honorable Mentions

  • Luka Doncic. Man. That’s a bad man right there, folks. The only reason he’s an honorable mention is because he’s way too good to only get a 200-word or so essay. If you want to read about how amazing Luka-mania has been, read about it here
  • OG Anunoby has been integral to the Raptors. The stats don’t show it, but his improvements on offense (he can finally create his own shots!) and his still-great defense make him a valuable asset for the defending champs
  • Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson might be the next Splash Brothers. Robinson is just splashing threes everywhere, while Herro is learning from Goran Dragic and doing a little bit of everything on offense. 
  • If Michael Porter Jr. can play even just a little defense, he’d be a bona fide stud. Right now though, his scoring is his only calling card, and he does everything about scoring so well that you can sometimes justify him playing. Sometimes. 
  • Not many rookies can claim to lock down an MVP-caliber star, but Luguentz Dort has earned that distinction. His offense is shaky at best, but he’s been the only one able to slow down James Harden in the bubble so far. 
  • Bam Adebayo was THIS close to making the final cut. That’s not a knock on his game. Adebayo is one of the most complete big men in the game, a player who can do literally anything on the court. I just couldn’t ignore one of the players who made it in the list though.