The NBA playoffs serve as a breeding ground for many different situations. They are a place where stars become superstars, where superstars cement their legacies, and where role players become folk heroes.
But the playoffs are also an unforgiving hellscape for some. They expose weaknesses in a player’s game and mercilessly attack guys who aren’t ready for the big moment. One of the most difficult jumps an NBA player can make is to succeed in their first taste of the postseason.
Multiple future perennial All-Stars have made their debuts on the league’s biggest stage, and many have passed the eye test with flying colors.
Here, we'll highlight the five best first-time playoff performers this postseason.
5. Dillon Brooks, Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies may be staring at a 3-1 deficit, but this has been a hard-fought series with most of the games coming down to the wire. While the Grizzlies have the ingredients to upset Utah, the Jazz have countered every attack sent their way. Here’s what we wrote about Dillon Brooks in last week’s piece:
“Brooks has slowly and surely developed into a physical, snarling linebacker on both ends of the court. He doesn’t just invite contact; he relishes it.”
That description is more relevant than ever, as officials are still getting used to Brooks’ physical style. The 25-year-old wing has averaged 4.3 fouls per game in this series.
Brooks has blossomed from a solid forward who chipped in points here and there to a full-fledged beast. He’s one of Memphis’ three most important players because he’s by far their best two-way wing. He’s averaging 25.5 points and 1.5 steals on 52% shooting this series, which is an incredibly efficient number considering efficiency slightly plummets against locked-in postseason defenses.
The Jazz defense is no slouch considering they ranked third in defensive efficiency this season. But through four games, Brooks and the Grizzlies have been roasting them to the tune of 117 points per 100 possessions.
Brooks has been Memphis’ most capable defender on Donovan Mitchell, and it’s clear Mitchell is uncomfortable dealing with the brute force that Brooks applies to every player he guards. He’s also become a roving fiend in transition, using his speed and improved handle to weave his way to the basket for slam dunks:
Brooks plays with no fear, and he’s clearly unfazed by the playoffs. While his high foul counts have been a concern, the Grizzlies are outscoring Utah by 6.5 points per possession while Brooks is on the floor, but they’re getting outscored by a mind-numbing 31 points per 100 when Brooks is on the bench. Yikes.
Brooks is nearly a complete player at this point, and big wings who can shoot in tight spaces and play solid defense will cause havoc in the league for a long time.
4. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Booker, still just 24, has had to play through some legitimately shoddy Suns squads through the years that have kept the postseason a distant dream for the majority of Booker’s career.
But ever since Paul and Monty Williams arrived and changed the culture, the Suns were a juggernaut all year. Against the Lakers, Booker is averaging 26.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 5.4 assists.
The Lakers are doing their best to load up the strong side when Booker has the ball, which in turn has tested his playmaking ability even more. Los Angeles clearly fears Booker's capabilities as they've devoted plenty of resources to stop the former Kentucky product.
Lakers really just not trying to give Devin Booker any space. pic.twitter.com/tBBnRMVaVY— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) May 28, 2021
Booker has one of the deepest offensive packages in the league, and he’s more than capable of converting closely contested midrange fadeaways and running floaters in the lane.
Booker is averaging 1.20 points per possession in isolation, good for the 73rd percentile in the playoffs. Not many players can uncork a running, off-handed extended layup like this:
As a first-time playoff performer squaring off against the defending champion Lakers, Booker has helped Phoenix take a 3-2 series lead. If Booker can push Phoenix to a first-round victory, his legend will only grow from there.
3. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
After a timid sophomore season that was hampered by an ankle sprain, Ja Morant has come out swinging this postseason. While he seems determined to dunk as hard as he can on Rudy Gobert at the expense of kicking the ball out to an open shooter, he’s been fantastic all series, averaging 31 points and 7.5 assists.
Morant uses his laffy taffy-like body to swerve and wiggle around defenses with ease. His handle has tightened significantly compared to last season. Just look how comfortable he is toying with Royce O’Neale, a strong defender in his own right.
Morant has shouldered a massive offensive responsibility all series. Out of the 100 players who have recorded the most minutes this postseason, Morant ranks 11th in usage rate at 31.6 percent. He’s been a monster in transition, using his incredible speed to zoom toward 1.30 points per possession, good for 80th percentile in the playoffs.
He joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and George Mikan as the only players to score 100+ points over their first three playoff games. He also accompanied Luka Doncic as the only player to score at least 130 points and record 30 assists through four playoff games, per Basketball Reference.
These are gaudy numbers, and Morant is backing it up on the court. Look at this filthy behind the back trickery.
The next step in Morant's game is to improve his three-point percentage so defenses feel less comfortable dropping back on him and clogging the paint. Memphis is young, hungry and physical, with Morant leading the way.
Even if they bow out against the Jazz, they’ve shown they're going to be one of the scariest teams in the future.
2. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
The role of a big man in the NBA has never been more complex and difficult.
Other than patrolling the paint, they have to defend the perimeter, quarterback the defense, set hard screens, roll to the basket, get rebounds, catch lobs and navigate picks. But Deandre Ayton is acing the test, even if it's against a beleaguered Lakers frontline.
The former No. 1 pick is averaging 17.4 points, 12.2 rebounds on 80% (!) shooting. We repeat: 80%! He’s the first player in NBA history to record a double-double and shoot at least 70% from the field through four consecutive games, per Basketball Reference. And remember, those games are the first four of his postseason career.
Ayton has been one of the best bigs in the playoffs, period. Forget the fact that he’s one of the only 22-year-old centers even trusted to play minutes. Forget that he’s Phoenix’s only reliable big man and has had to play 40 minutes a night anchoring the defense against LeBron James and Davis.
Check out these three consecutive possessions Ayton uncorked in Game 4. On the first trip, he absorbs a lot of contact from Davis before laying the ball in. Then on defense he forces a botched James attempt, grabs the board, runs down the floor, seals James in the post and tosses in a layup.
This makes me so happy, man. Three consecutive possessions from 22-year-old Deandre Ayton in the biggest game of his career against the reigning champs. pic.twitter.com/aFHSexX7jl— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) May 31, 2021
Ayton sets strong screens and is constantly keeping plays alive thanks to his 7-foot-6 wingspan. Without him, the Suns would be toast.
1. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
Via pick-and-rolls, silky floaters or step-back threes, Ice Trae has been the best offensive player in the series. Watch how he sauces up Reggie Bullock, who has played good defense all season.
Young has played the villain role incredibly well. Despite embarrassing and disgusting fan behavior spewed his way, Young has embraced it all. He’s just 22, and he has the poise and swagger of a postseason veteran. He’s averaging 27.5 points and 10 assists through four games.
New York has no answer for him on offense. He’s too much for Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley, R.J. Barrett and anyone else the Knicks throw at him. The only guard who has even a remote chance of sticking with Young is seldom-used reserve guard Frank Ntilikina, who never sees the court due to his offensive challenges.
Young is getting better and better at slicing into the defense, then either lofting a buttery soft floater or lob to Clint Capela. He’s also making the correct reads by kicking out to his teammates. Young is in the 89th percentile among all playoff pick-and-roll ball handlers, producing 1.13 points per possession.
In season’s past, young guards are usually welcomed to the postseason by getting swarmed and brutalized on defense. And while that moment may be on the horizon for Young, he’s gotten off to a simply electric postseason start.
Photo: Getty Images