There are few things better than watching young players mature and join the ranks of the NBA’s elite. It’s a factor that makes being an NBA fan so special. Seeing that evolution right before our very eyes is something fans feel a part of as it's happening.
While league veterans like LeBron James, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker all continue to prove their stardom in the 2013 playoffs, their great performances were to be expected due to past experience. Many of the NBA’s young guns, meanwhile, have stepped up in the postseason as well.
Some lesser-known role players became legitimate cogs in their coach’s postseason playing rotation by improving when it matters most. Other names that were charging up the NBA ranks solidified their spot as genuine stars.
The upcoming NBA Finals matchup may overshadow those performances as championship talk heats up. But we shouldn’t forget the memorable shows put on by a variety of players.
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.
Since being drafted fifth overall by the Boston Celtics in 2007, and subsequently being sent away in the trade that netted Ray Allen for Boston, Jeff Green has had a roller-coaster ride of an NBA career.
He showed a lot of promise in the early years with OKC, averaging 16.5 points per game in his sophomore year and 15.1 points per game the year after.
The following year, Green was involved in a trade deadline deal that sent him back to Boston (along with Nenad Krstic) for Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson.
Green’s minutes (and stats) saw a decline in Boston after 49 games with the Thunder. He was seen as the eventual replacement for Paul Pierce, but that was before heart surgery threatened to end his career.
The surgery kept Green out for the entire 2011-12 season, an absence that truly hurt the Celtics playoff chances.
Green returned by playing 81 games during the 2012-13 campaign, but his stats were lackluster. He averaged just 12.8 points and 3.9 rebounds per game during the regular season (both below his career averages).
Despite those struggles, Green managed to play the best basketball of his entire career in the 2013 playoffs. The former Georgetown Hoya averaged 20.3 points (leading the Celts in the playoffs), 5.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. He also shot a masterful 45.5 percent from three-point land.
The Boston faithful will hope the 26-year-old can transition those numbers into his NBA future.
Roy Hibbert, one of Jeff Green’s former teammates at Georgetown, has also had a masterful postseason.
The 7’2” center had a whale of a time justifying the max contract he signed last summer, though. He struggled mightily during the first four months of the season. Through February, Hibbert was shooting a woeful 42 percent from the field.
Fortunately for the Indiana Pacers, Hibbert turned things around in March (47.9 shooting) and April (57.3 percent shooting) before truly getting it together in the playoffs.
In the postseason this year (18 games to this point), Hibbert is averaging 16.9 points, 10 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. He’s also shooting 50.4 percent from the field.
At 26 years old, Hibbert has made mind-boggling improvements to his basketball game since he first arrived at Georgetown as a raw talent.
It’s hard to believe that Stephen Curry wasn’t taken in the 2009 NBA draft until the seventh overall pick. The Minnesota Timberwolves passed on him twice, while the Memphis Grizzlies decided to take Hasheem Thabeet.
Even though he's struggled through some troublesome ankle injuries, Curry is proving now that he’s a bona fide NBA star.
During the Golden State Warriors’ impressive playoff run, Curry averaged 23.4 points, 8.1 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 1.7 steals and buried 42 three-pointers in 12 games.
He scored 30 or more points three times in the postseason, and possessed the uncanny ability to glue viewers to their television sets. At any moment, you could be treated to a shooting exhibition that would drop your jaw to the floor.
I think Grantland.com’s Bill Simmons said it best in Part 3 of his NBA Trade Value column:
‘Turn on the game, Steph Curry is heating up’ is the single most exciting sports-related text you can send or receive right now. If I'm at dinner and you send me that text, I'm splitting toward the bar like a doctor who just had his ‘EMERGENCY!’ beeper go off.
Curry had a stunning transition into “NBA star” during the 2013 playoffs. As an NBA community, we want more! We want more!
Denying Paul George’s status as an elite player in the NBA simply isn’t an argument anymore. If you do so, you end up looking like a loon.
Case in point, ESPN’s Skip Bayless, who tweeted the following about 15 minutes before George drained a game-tying three from another zip code to send Game 1 against the Miami Heat into overtime:
Why Paul George is not a star.
— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) May 23, 2013
I understand that Bayless’s shtick is to say things that get a rise out of people, but saying George isn’t a star during the 2013 playoffs is just plain silly.
For further reference, let’s take a look at two stat lines.
Player A: 51.7/38.3/75 shooting splits, 25.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.7 blocks and 3.3 turnovers per game.
Player B: 43.7/33/73.4 shooting splits, 19.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.5 blocks and four turnovers per game.
Player A is the best player on the planet, four-time MVP LeBron James. Player B is George.
The number of players that can stack up statistically with King James can be counted on one hand (and your fingers wouldn’t get much of a workout). But aside from shooting percentages and scoring, George’s numbers aren’t very far off.
When you factor in that George turned 23 years old in the beginning of May, his potential is downright scary.
George and Co. have a chance to knock James off the throne in Game 7. Even the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook tandem couldn’t do that in the finals last year.