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While these players are not yet considered among the NBA’s elite stars—and in some cases never will—they all clearly made a leap from a viable role player to a valuable piece of their team’s playoff rotation.
None of the following players were team leaders, but it would be foolish not to mention them for having grown up in a tense playoff atmosphere. (Players are listed in alphabetical order by first name).
Harrison Barnes, Golden State Warriors
Rookie forward Harrison Barnes, who turned 21 years old on May 30, had a stellar postseason. It was remarkable to see Barnes improve statistically in every major category compared to his regular-season numbers.
Regular season (81 games): 43.9/35.9/75.8 shooting splits, 9.2 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game.
Playoffs (12 games): 44.4/36.5/85.7 shooting splits, 16.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game.
The seventh overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft had a rather pedestrian regular season, averaging just 9.2 points per game while starting 81 games. However, his playoff performance showed what he’s capable of doing on the court.
He didn’t shy away from the biggest stage, which is exactly what you want in a young player.
Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
Much like Harrison Barnes, Jimmy Butler posted some rather average stats during the regular season. Unlike Barnes, however, Butler was playing behind All-Star forward Luol Deng. Butler played in all 82 regular-season games but started only 20 of them.
The 23-year-old averaged 8.6 points, four rebounds and 1.4 assists during the regular season. Those stats made a collective leap to 13.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists in the playoffs.
The truly impressive stat, though, was Butler’s shooting from beyond the arc. He shot a woeful 18.2 percent from deep during his rookie year, upped that to 38.1 percent this season and bumped the stat up again in the postseason by shooting a highly impressive 40.5 percent from deep.
The depth Butler provides the Chicago Bulls is truly invaluable.
Lance Stephenson, Indiana Pacers
During the playoffs, I’ve taken to calling the 22-year-old Indiana Pacers guard Lance “NO FEAR” Stephenson. The nickname is mainly attributed to Stephenson’s utter lack of trepidation in the 2013 playoffs. He’s not afraid to take (and make) big shots, and he’s made a habit of going coast-to-coast off rebounds for transition layups.
Needless to say, Stephenson has come a long way since making headlines last season for taunting LeBron James by giving this choke signal (channeling his inner Reggie Miller in the process).
His 9.4 points per game in the playoffs isn’t a huge improvement from the 8.8 he averaged during the regular season. However, he’s averaging 7.7 rebounds per game during the postseason, which is a massive improvement from the 3.9 he averaged during his sophomore year.
Stephenson will continue to be overshadowed by his great teammates, but his role as an X-factor can’t be understated.
Quincy Pondexter, Memphis Grizzlies
Quincy Pondexter’s ability to defend against a variety of opponents while knocking down outside shots consistently made him a reliable asset in Lionel Hollins’ rotation.
He became a tremendous two-way player off the bench for Memphis, knocking down 24-of-53 three-point shots in 15 postseason games (45.3 percent).
At 25 years old, Pondexter has found a steady NBA niche.
Reggie Jackson, Oklahoma City Thunder
To be clear, Reggie Jackson is not anywhere close to Russell Westbrook in terms of skill. Although the responsibilities as “Westbrook’s replacement” were unfair to Jackson, he did put up solid numbers in the postseason with a much bigger role.
The 23-year-old guard averaged 13.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game in the postseason. He also shot 47.9 percent from the floor.
Losing Westbrook to injury was too much for OKC to overcome, but Jackson showed he has potential to be a legitimate NBA player moving forward.