Watch anything too closely and you may well fail to see the bigger picture.
That is the case with this season’s NBA playoffs, in which the 36-year-old LeBron James is still firmly in the spotlight, while other stars over 30, like Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and James Harden are also playing a prominent role. But zoom out and you will see a new generation of superstars who look poised and ready to take over the league, using this postseason as their coming out party.
Now that they are finally here, it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate them and their early success, because a changing of the guard is not only inevitable, it’s long overdue.
Enter Devin Booker (24 years old), Deandre Ayton (22), Ja Morant (21), Trae Young (22), and RJ Barrett (22), who all made their playoff debuts this past week. Enter Luka Doncic (22) and Donovan Mitchell (24), both of whom could well carry their teams beyond the first-round. And behind them, still hoping to get a taste of the playoffs next season, are LaMelo Ball (19), De’Aaron Fox (23), and the NBA’s newest posterboy, Zion Williamson (20).
The new generation is here, they are fun, and most importantly, they are ready for their moment. They proved as much in the first week of the playoffs, translating their games to the postseason so seamlessly that you would think they had been here for years.
Booker and Ayton made that clear in their first playoff game ever – the first Phoenix Suns playoff game since 2010 – when they combined for 55 points, 23 rebounds, and eight assists in a 99-90 win over James’ Los Angeles Lakers. Booker, in particular, looked like a player who has been preparing for the playoffs since entering the league in 2015, using his tight handle and smooth jumper to consistently create for himself, eventually forcing the Lakers to double-team him, where he looked like a poised veteran showing patience and finding open teammates.
The Memphis Grizzlies’ Morant made his mark in a do or die play-in game against Steph Curry’s Golden State Warriors, dropping 35 points and hitting a contested floater after a spin move with just 4.5 seconds remaining in overtime to secure a 117-12 win and a spot in the playoffs. Morant’s favourite time to take over the game is towards the end, using his speed to get to the rim and his bounce to seemingly suspend himself in the air for prolonged periods of time as he contorts his body for layups or last-second passes that leave the defence guessing.
Facing Morant in the first-round is Utah’s Mitchell. He already proved himself last playoffs, averaging 36 points in a seven-game loss to the Denver Nuggets in the first-round, but this was the season he asserted himself as a legitimate offensive star by rounding out his game and leading the league’s best regular season team in scoring (26.4 points per game), taking more three-pointers (8.7 per game), and using the threat of his shot to get inside the arc for clean looks, where his 6ft 10in wingspan and 36.5in standing vertical help him finish.
This class of playoff newbies is also representative of the NBA’s international identity, with 107 international players from 41 countries on opening-night rosters this season.
Canada’s Barrett, despite being on the other side of Trae Young’s game winner against the New York Knicks in Game 1 of their playoff battle, hasn’t looked out of place. His combination of size, strength, and finishing ability are rare for a player at his age, giving the Knicks a much-needed wing-defender and slasher who can finish through contact.
Ayton, meanwhile, is only the seventh Bahamian to play in the NBA. The seven-footer has been a steadying presence for the Suns despite having to battle two potential Hall-of-Famers in Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol in the Lakers’ frontcourt, using his soft hands to corral passes and finish floaters and sky hooks and his size and strength to grab rebounds and finish through contact.
Slovenian Luka Doncic, who is likely to receive MVP votes for his play during the regular season, looks like the best player in a series that features two established superstars in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Doncic dropped 31-10-11 in Game 1 and 39-7-7 in Game 2, both road wins, by controlling the tempo with his elite dribble-package and ability to read the floor, dictating mismatches by taking smaller defenders into the post and bigger defenders out to the three-point line.
Luka Doncic was special today against the #Clippers.
His step back three was working so well for him in this game.
He finished the game with a triple double:
31 pts, 10 reb, 11 ast, 5/11 from 3pt range.
One of the brightest young talents we've seen in the NBA for a long time. pic.twitter.com/4nomBeRG5U
— NBA u23's (@NBA_u23s) May 23, 2021
Of all the players mentioned, Doncic is the hardest for defences to contain and the most likely to dominate the league for years to come. He combines the ability to hit every shot in the book with the uncanny ability to find his teammates from all types of angles.
One thing that all of these young players have in common is their smarts. Contrary to the popular narrative that most young players get by on their speed and athleticism, this group has an advanced feel for the game, reading the floor expertly and using their shot-making and playmaking chops to execute on those reads. While they might not control the tempo or read the floor at the level of James or Paul – very few in the history of basketball have – they are advanced game-managers, especially when you consider their relative lack of NBA experience.
Maybe it’s because they grew up playing AAU basketball, getting thousands of reps before ever playing in the NBA, or maybe it’s that they benefited from better coaching than in the days of smoking cigarettes at halftime. Regardless, this group has made a seamless transition into playoff basketball because they are more than their speed and athleticism. And because they are able to create advantages through their smarts at such a young age, there is no reason why they should slow down any time soon.
In fact, it’s possible that this generation of superstars will dominate the league for even longer than their predecessors did. While it’s hard to envision anyone having a career as lengthy and distinguished as James’, sports science and medicine continues to propel athletes forward, and it’s likely that these players will see their success sustained over a long timespan, too.
Right now, however, it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate what these young players are doing. Zoom out just a little and you will see that these playoffs are not defined by the old guard. Instead, these are the playoffs that a new generation takes over. And what a fun and exciting group of players they are.