The playoffs present new challenges for young players entering mid-April for the first or second time. How will the budding stars fare in the postseason this year?
This NBA season was full of up-and-coming players making a name for themselves, including Ben Simmons, Victor Oladipo, and Donovan Mitchell. When the playoffs hit, it is much harder to continue solid play that was seen in the regular season, especially for young players who don’t have much experience in high stakes games.
As teams get more chances to game plan for a player’s specific strengths and weaknesses, they will see less production. Which young players seeing some of their first chances at the postseason are best prepared for success in the playoffs? Who might see a decline under the pressure?
Let’s take a look.
Simmons is a rookie, dictionary definitions be damned. Through just two games in the postseason, he is continuing his strong campaign. At home, leading a young three-seed squad, he has had two monster games. In his first career playoff game, Simmons scored 17 points to go along with nine rebounds and 14 assists. In Game 2, he posted 24 points on 17 shots, nine rebounds, and eight assists, with only two turnovers. It is truly remarkable how mature and poised Simmons is as a 21-year-old rookie. He completely controlled the pace of both games, and his passing vision has not missed a step. What is even more fascinating about Simmons performances is that he is doing it without Philadelphia’s star center Joel Embiid.
The Miami Heat are quite possibly the worst matchup for Simmons. With exceptional defenders in Justise Winslow, James Johnson, and Josh Richardson, Simmons has some of the hardest competition in the league. Yet, he hasn’t faltered one bit, and his transition and penetration skills are too much for even the best of defenders. The Sixers won Game 1 but lost Game 2 when Dwyane Wade channeled Father Prime and the Sixers shot an abysmal 7-for-36 from three-point range. Simmons, through only two career postseason games, has proven that his exceptional talent is for real and translates to the playoffs, no questions asked.
Regular Season: Spectacular
Playoff Prediction: Remain spectacular
Joel Embiid might be in his fourth season as a 24-year-old sophomore, but he plays like an NBA legend. This is his second season playing games, after his first two were derailed by injury. Last year, he played 31 games. This year, it was 63. He and teammate Ben Simmons are playing in their first playoffs. Embiid increased his per game average of points, rebounds, and assists by a solid margin, and his net rating was a +6, an elite mark. He has few opponents that can contain him with any success.
Unfortunately, he was accidentally hit in the face by teammate Markelle Fultz, fracturing his orbital bone, which has left him sidelined since mid-March. He is not expected to return to the court until possibly game 3, 4, or 5 of the current series against the Miami Heat.
Regardless, it remains almost a guarantee that Embiid will swing the series the second he returns. Even though Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is a basketball guru, it is tough to imagine how to game plan against a monster like Embiid. With Hassan Whiteside worse on defense than he has been in recent years, Embiid might make mincemeat of him. Other defenders such as Bam Adebayo or Kelly Olynyk don’t have the physical tools or experience to contain such a force. There should be no issue with Embiid’s play when he returns, and he will significantly help the Sixers on both sides of the ball as he has all year.
Regular Season: Spectacular
Playoff Prediction: Terrifying
Donovan Mitchell was the other sensational rookie this year. With his 6-foot-3 frame, it would have been reasonable to expect weaker performances from a guard with so little experience. However, Mitchell shined as much as Simmons. In his first playoff game, he shot 50 percent from the field, scoring 27 points and also securing 10 rebounds. He was able to hit three threes, making his performance efficient as well as at a high volume.
Mitchell continues to wow the league with his scoring and defensive talent. While he was unable to contain the Oklahoma City perimeter players, he was at least present. It would certainly be too much to ask Mitchell to lead an offense and also slow down Russell Westbrook, Alex Abrines, and Raymond Felton.
Mitchell hit his first four shots of the game, and he utilized his expert craft around the rim and shooting stroke to make life difficult for OKC. Mitchell and Simmons will now forever be compared, given their tight rookie campaigns from the regular season. It would have been fair to expect some lost production from both. Instead, they both flourished and exceeded all expectations. In Mitchell’s case, it could be reasonable for him to hit a wall during the course of this series, especially depending on the status of his foot injury. His lack of size can be an issue for him.
Regular Season: Spectacular
Playoff Prediction: Slightly worse production, or efficiency, or both.
Oladipo is now in his second playoff series as a pro. His first came last year with the Thunder, where he was marginalized for the sake of Russell Westbrook’s triple-double bonanza. In his five playoff games last season, Oladipo shot 34.4 percent from the floor, and largely was useless in the Thunder offense. Now, against the Cleveland Cavaliers playing for the Pacers, he had a magnificent showing, dominating every facet of the game.
His regular season success is obviously his new norm. He finished the game with 32 points on just under 60 percent shooting. He also pitched in six rebounds, four assists, and four steals. Oladipo was an animal on both sides of the ball, handing LeBron James his first loss in the first round since 2012. Take that for what it is, but Oladipo is on another level in every part of the game. He is made for the big moments, which he proved when he hit dagger after dagger to silence the Cleveland crowd on Sunday. For me, there is a zero percent chance that Oladipo regresses from his current production in any way, shape, or form.
Regular Season: Spectacular
Playoff Prediction: Even better
As a fourth-year forward, Parker has shown his offensive gifts are profound. He has had to return from a long recovery of his torn ACL, missing 51 games this year. This regular season was promising. In 31 games, playing exactly 24 minutes a game, he has continued his solid scoring and surprisingly looked great on three-point shots, increasing his accuracy to 38.1 percent on mild usage and a small sample size. This is fantastic for him, and Milwaukee was surely hopeful he could be a matchup nightmare against a limited Boston Celtics team. Unfortunately, it looks like Jabari’s play doesn’t translate well.
As the playoffs roll around, teams zero in on weaknesses as much as they need to. Jabari, as gifted as he is as a scorer and athlete, simply can not defend. He quickly was taken out of the game for Milwaukee in his first playoff game, ending with two points on 20 percent shooting and a second worst +/- of -14 in just 14 minutes. His lack of success on the defensive end is even picked apart by a Boston team that is missing its two best offensive talents, making his inability to produce in the playoffs a probability for the time being. While the potential is always there, and his regular season was promising, this postseason looks tough for Jabari Parker, and it is very possible he can’t play effective minutes.
Many among the ‘Blog Boys’ universe were advocates of Jabari Parker playing even more minutes in order to give the offense a boost. I fall in the other side of the camp. Parker’s complete lack of defensive presence is so negative, he should not play a second until he can improve.
Regular Season: Great
Playoff Prediction: Next to hopeless
Murray is yet another late Spurs’ draft pick that has immense potential. This year, he took a leap forward on offense and improved his exceptional guard defense. He was very valuable all year, taking the reins of the offense from Tony Parker. Murray is in his second postseason, as he was a part of the Spurs’ run through the West before Kawhi Leonard went down. With a limited roster, the Spurs need production from anywhere possible. Sadly, Murray might not be ready to produce quite yet.
His biggest flaw is not only his inability to make but even to take threes. As a guard in the pace and space era, it is next to impossible to be an effective guard without the threat of shooting. Very few can do it the way Ben Simmons can, and Murray is no exception. His value is severely hurt in the postseason since defenses are laser-focused, and the Golden State Warriors have effectively made him a non-factor. The San Antonio offense has so many problems already, and Murray’s lack of range exacerbates them. The spacing is non-existent and LaMarcus Aldridge has to manufacture mid-range offense all alone.
In Game 2 of the first round, Murray’s minutes went all the way down to 12, nine less than his regular season average of 21.5. This game was the more competitive of the Spurs’, which is no surprise since Murray played less. While Murray can wreak havoc during the regular season, he is not ready for a load in the playoffs yet without a jump shot against a good defense, and the proof sits in his minutes played for San Antonio. The bright note is that his perimeter defense is phenomenal, but until he can pick up the offensive production, it will be hard for him to make a playoff impact.
Regular Season: Great
Playoff Prediction: Ineffective
Towns took off this season. His regular season was exceptional, adding virtually every offensive skill to his game, particularly three-point shooting. His defense has shored up a bit, and he finally looks somewhat comfortable defending the paint. As a relatively slow big with limited defensive talent, it seems possible that his playoff potential is greatly reduced. Towns will be less effective in the playoffs as compared to his regular season.
This is particularly true against a team like the Houston Rockets who will show no mercy putting him in the pick and roll, forcing him to defend Hall of Fame-level ball handlers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The regular season may not force him to live by this, but the playoffs will without a doubt. Towns is an unbelievable talent on offense, with a back-to-the-basket game that is unguardable by virtually anybody not named Joel Embiid or Rudy Gobert.
It is unfortunate that their series had to come against Houston. They will multiply all his problems. If Towns must play 40 or more minutes, he will be too gassed to run around the court keeping up with Houston. If he isn’t playing 40-plus minutes, the Minnesota Timberwolves will have a brutal offense. The switchability of the Houston design is playing against Towns’ strengths as well. While Towns is a transcendent offensive talent, the holes in his game might derail his positive impact. In the first game of the first-round series, Towns shot nine field goals, which is less than Jimmy Butler (11), Andrew Wiggins (15), Jamal Crawford (11), and Derrick Rose (14)(????). If he is producing this little on the offensive end, it’s tough to see him being a huge plus for Minnesota.
Regular Season: Unbelievable
Playoff Prediction: Exposed defensively, less production.
*All statistics come from www.basketball-reference.com