NBA Playoff Debuts: Grading Lillard, Wall, Walker, DeRozan and the Rest
Maybe experience is overrated. Eight young starters are making their playoff debuts this year, and, with one exception, none of them are showing their age. They haven't crumpled under the pressure. They haven't choked on the roar of sold-out crowds. They haven't snapped from rough, physical play. No technical fouls, no tantrums, no tears.
Based upon their poise and performance in the first three to four games, here are grades for the playoff debuts of the Portland Blazers' Damian Lillard, the Washington Wizards' John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Charlotte Bobcats' Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the Toronto Raptors' DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas.
Damian Lillard: A+
Damian Lillard, Guard, Portland Trail Blazers
Blazers lead the series 3-1
If there was ever any doubt that Damian Lillard was the coolest guy in the league, he is putting it to rest in his playoff debut. The Portland point guard has been the picture of poise throughout his two-year career. Last season, he was unanimously voted Rookie of the Year. This year, he competed in all five All-Star weekend events (ignoring warnings from many) and kicked off the weekend by hosting a rap battle.
Only good things were expected from him. Nevertheless, his poise in his first playoff series is impressive, and he's performing better than ever.
In these games against the Houston Rockets, Lillard's points, assists, rebounds, field-goal percentage and three-point field-goal percentage are all higher than they were in the season overall.
Lillard was a key part of the offense when teammate LaMarcus Aldridge dropped over 40 points in each of the first two games, and he was key to finding a way to recover in Game 4 after the Rockets were able to contain Aldridge in Game 3.
In Sunday night's overtime win alone, Lillard attacked the hoop fearlessly, army-crawled across the half-court line for a loose ball and threaded the needle for some nasty passes to Aldridge. He knocked down an electrifying buzzer-beating three to end the third quarter and jogged back to the sidelines without cracking a smile. He then tacked an exclamation point on the night with a dunk as the last fractions of a second ran out.
We can't give Lillard all the credit for the Blazers' hard-fought wins over the Rockets, but he deserves quite a bit of it.
Plus, he's the star in a hilarious new Foot Locker commercial.
John Wall: B
John Wall, Guard, Washington Wizards
Wizards lead series 3-1
The Washington Wizards could have crumpled after the league suspended Nene for Game 4. But with some help from veteran Trevor Ariza stepping into the lineup for Nene, the Wizards' young starters, John Wall and Bradley Beal, handled their business and defeated the Chicago Bulls.
The No. 1 defense in the league has slowed down Wall's breakneck fast break a little bit. His shooting and assist numbers are lower in this series than they were in the season overall and are a bit lower than they were against the Bulls during the regular season.
Nevertheless, Wall's still averaging 17.5 points and 7.5 assists in his first playoff series, and he's stepped up his defense. His hands are acting as quickly as his feet, as he's nabbing 2.8 steals per game.
|Regular vs. Bulls||20.7||8.0||1.7||4.0||50||25|
Bradley Beal: A
Bradley Beal, Guard, Washington Wizards
Wizards lead series against the Bulls 3-1
The No. 1 defense in the league seems to be having no effect on the Wizards' Bradley Beal at all. Beal has more points, assists and rebounds than he did all season, including in the games played against the Bulls during the regular season.
Beal is also doing a brilliant job finding his big men, Nene and Marcin Gortat, spoon-feeding them easy buckets under the basket.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist: B+
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Forward, Charlotte Bobcats
Bobcats trail Heat 0-3
While their team is down 0-3 against the Miami Heat, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Kemba Walker have nothing to be ashamed of in their playoff debuts. This is a matchup between the reigning NBA champs and a team that won more games this season (by far) than it did the past two seasons combined.
Kidd-Gilchrist is often matched up against LeBron James. Despite that tough assignment, he is playing better than he did throughout the regular season, and his performance in front of the opposing crowd in Miami was even better than it was at home.
Kemba Walker: B
Kemba Walker, Guard, Charlotte Bobcats
Bobcats trail the Heat 0-3
Kemba Walker's first couple of NBA seasons must have been frustrating. Right after winning an NCAA championship, he joined the worst team in the NBA and won only seven games in his first season. Now, Walker is playing like a grownup and leading his team through a grueling first round.
Although he is coughing up the ball more often than he did during the regular season, Walker is also stealing it right back more often, with two steals per game. Other than the turnovers, his numbers are generally a bit better than they were versus the Heat during the regular season.
DeMar DeRozan: B
DeMar DeRozan, Guard, Toronto Raptors
Series against Nets tied, 2-2
Three of the Toronto Raptors' young starters are in their first playoff series ever. Even so, after being beaten at home in Game 1 against a Brooklyn Nets team full of veterans, they snapped right back to win Game 2.
On Sunday in Brooklyn, the Raptors jumped out to a big lead, then lost the lead entirely. Instead of getting rattled, though, the young Toronto team showed some grit, fought back, held the Nets to only 12 points in the fourth quarter and tied up the series on the road.
DeMar DeRozan has been a major part of Toronto's wins. When the team has struggled, DeRozan has often been the guy sinking the clutch shot when the Raptors need it most.
On the other hand, his assists and rebounds are down, and his turnovers are way up. If the Raptors want to win the series, DeRozan will need to protect the ball better and find his teammates more often.
That said, one of DeRozan's troubles is making it hard to increase that assist number: the play of teammate Terrence Ross.
Terrence Ross: C-
Terrence Ross, Forward, Toronto Raptors
Series against the Nets is tied, 2-2
The only starter who's having a disappointing playoff debut is Terrence Ross. Although he has started all four games against the Nets, his struggles are causing him to spend a lot of time on the bench; he's averaging only about 19 minutes of play time.
Ross's main trouble? He can't score. He's averaging more turnovers than he is field goals, and his turnover numbers aren't even that high. Ross's field goal and three-point field goal-percentages are well below 20 percent.
|Regular, When Starter||12.2||1.1||3.3||0.9||1.2||42.5||40.2|
Granted, he has a tough matchup in trying to play against Paul Pierce. Not only is Pierce bigger and better than Ross is, he's also played in 140 playoff games in his career. Still, if Ross can't find his shot, his spot in the starting lineup may have to go to someone else.
Jonas Valanciunas: B
Jonas Valanciunas, Center, Toronto Raptors
Series against Nets is tied, 2-2
A guard might get away with four turnovers a game, but no way should a center be losing the ball almost as often as he's touching it. If you take that damning figure away, though, Jonas Valanciunas' first playoff series performance looks quite good.
He's got more blocks and points and way more rebounds than he did in the regular season. With almost nine defensive rebounds per game, Valanciunas' aggressive action on the glass is preventing the Nets from getting as many second-chance points as they'd like.
It's hard to say which of these young men will make it through to Round 2 of these playoffs, but they've all got a good chance of being back next season—especially Lillard.
Next year, we might see some other promising young bloods on the court in the postseason.
The Nets' Mason Plumlee will likely be back, but probably not as a starter, especially if Brooke Lopez is healthy. Tim Hardaway Jr. may have a shot if the New York Knicks pull themselves together, but he probably won't be a starter either. The New Orleans Pelicans' Anthony Davis has a shot as well if his team gets on track.
Meanwhile, Michael Carter-Williams will probably have to wait a couple of years for his first playoff appearance, as the Philadelphia 76ers are still at the beginning of what may be a long rebuilding period.
For now, NBA fans can rely on this year's playoff rookies to continue quickening their pulse in what has been an exhilarating postseason so far.