Next-Gen NBA: Grading Playoffs' Top 23-and-Under Stars so Far

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IJune 1, 2021

Next-Gen NBA: Grading Playoffs' Top 23-and-Under Stars so Far

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    The NBA thrives on talent. It markets games as individual matchups, making it completely dependent upon the superstars: LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul—the list goes on. These players are over 30, meaning they are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. 

    There is another wave of players ready for the helm, including Devin Booker (24), Giannis Antetokounmpo (26), Joel Embiid (27) and Anthony Davis (28). They are great, and the next generation also has no shortage of talent, which is on full display in the 2021 NBA playoffs.  

    The postseason has several stars 23 and under calling next. For some, this is their first playoff appearance. For others, they are essentially playoff veterans by now. 

    Almost all are performing at high levels, so we took a step back and graded the top young talent so far—a group showing that the NBA will be in good hands for a long time.

Honorable Mentions

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    A few bright under-23 stars are watching the playoffs at home but deserve being mentioned as part of the next generation.

    Zion Williamson (20) of the New Orleans Pelicans is not a star in the making—he already is one. After a shaky start to his rookie year, he wowed this season, shooting 61.1 percent from three for a 27.0-point scoring average. Williamson in the playoffs is going to be fun to watch whenever he makes it. 

    De'Aaron Fox is a fourth-year veteran and, at 23 years old, has been one of the best things the Kings have going for them. Each season he is becoming a better and more efficient scorer. His scoring average is up to 25.2 points a game and 7.2 assists. His effective field-goal percentage has climbed to 52.3. Fox has not had a chance at the playoffs, so his name is not that well known, but when he does, people will be asking where he came from.

    LaMelo Ball set NBA Twitter on fire most nights with ridiculous passes throughout his rookie season. The 19-year-old will most likely be named rookie of the year, dropping 6.1 assists to go with 15.7 points. Ball brings a ton of excitement on the court. The Hornets just missed out on the playoffs after the play-in tournament but are League Pass darlings with Ball on the court.

Ja Morant, 21 Years Old: Memphis Grizzlies

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Not only has Ja Morant made his playoff debut, but he has done it in style. He is the fourth player in NBA history to score 100-plus points in his first three playoff games, joining Wilt Chamberlain, George Mikan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in that elite club.

    More importantly, Morant helped the eighth-seeded Grizzlies upset the Utah Jazz in Game 1 and has pushed them ever since. After four games, he is second in scoring for the playoffs at 33.7 points. He is shooting 51.4 percent from the field. 

    Morant isn't doing this against some average defense. He is having his way with one of the top five defenses in the NBA. Morant has been able to get wherever he has wanted to go on the court, and the Jazz have not had an answer for him yet.

    The Grizzlies might get knocked out in the first round, but Morant has put the league on notice. He is a certifiable star. His grade would have been an A, but his defense still needs work.

    Grade: B+ 

Trae Young, 22 Years Old: Atlanta Hawks

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Trae Young's first playoff game was on the road against the New York Knicks—also the first playoff game at Madison Square Garden since 2013. It would not surprise anyone if he was shaken. 

    Instead, Young did the shaking, dropping 32 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and the game-winning floater. 

    For the series, Young is averaging 27.5 points, 10 assists and 47.0/36.7/95.5 percent shooting splits. He has been electric on the court. The Hawks are up 3-1 in the series, and Young has led the attack.   

    Along the way, Young has embraced the role of a villain to Knicks fans. Despite the vitriol that the Garden has been throwing his way, he is averaging 31.0 points and shooting 50.0 percent from three on the road. 

    Young is rising to the occasion in just his third season in the NBA and is on the verge of getting to the second round in his first playoff run. 

    Getting the mayor of New York to take a shot at you during a press conference because you are so good is an automatic A+.

    Grade: A+ 

Luka Doncic, 22 Years Old: Dallas Mavericks

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    This is not Luka Doncic's first foray into the playoffs—or even his first against the L.A. Clippers. His performance has been consistent. In last season's playoffs, Doncic put up 31.0 points, grabbed 9.8 boards, dished out 8.7 assists and hit a monster game-winner as the Mavericks lost the series in six games. 

    This year, in four games, Doncic has scored 33.3 points a night on 40.9 percent from three. He was spectacular in the first two games of the playoffs. Doncic put on a show on the road and it forced the Clippers to make changes to their lineups. 

    Unfortunately at some point in Game 3, Doncic suffered a neck strain that has hampered his game and slowed him down. After having a 2-0 series lead, it seems like the momentum has swung the Clippers' way. 

    Doncic is already a star. He finished fourth in the MVP voting last season and should finish high this year. Doncic's performance in these playoffs so far has him poised to be another generational player in the next NBA class. 

    Doncic gets a slight ding because of how poorly he has shot free throws this playoffs; he is too good to be shooting below 50 percent from the line.

    Grade: A- 

Jayson Tatum, 23 Years Old: Boston Celtics

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    In his four-year career, Jayson Tatum has yet to miss the playoffs. At 23 years old, Tatum has already played 50 playoff games and has performed well. His career playoff numbers are solid, with him averaging 21.3 points and 6.8 rebounds on 44.5/35.6/82.9 shooting splits. This includes facing off with LeBron James in a Game 7 during his rookie year. 

    The Celtics have limped into the playoffs this year with Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker and Robert Williams all banged up. Tatum has had to put the team on his back against the juggernaut Brooklyn Nets. In this series, he has averaged 30.3 points and shot 40.0 percent from three. He dropped a 50-point performance in a surprising win over the Nets in Game 3, then followed it up with 40 points in their loss in Game 4. 

    Tatum is a star and a proven playoff performer. With his play this postseason, it is easy to view him as the centerpiece of a future championship team. 

    Scoring a combined 90 points over two games in a series where the Celtics are greatly outmatched is a feat.

    Grade: A 

Micheal Porter Jr., 22 Years Old: Denver Nuggets

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    This one is betting on a player's potential more than what he has done, but Michael Porter Jr. has a legitimate chance to be a star. He is a 6'10" wing player with a ton of athleticism. He showed up in a big way last season in the playoff bubble for the Nuggets, stepping up as a third option. In last year's playoffs, he averaged 11.4 points and 6.7 rebounds while shooting 38.2 percent from three in 23.7 minutes. 

    With Jamal Murray sidelined, the Nuggets need Porter to take his game to another level. In four games against the Blazers, he is averaging 15.3 points in 31.5 minutes per game. He has struggled from three in this series, but when he is on, Denver could go to another gear. 

    Since the Murray injury, Porter has elevated his performance. He stepped up as a reliable second scorer with 23.2 points, 6.9 rebounds and 54.9/44/85.2 shooting splits. He is a star in the making, and with some more seasoning, Porter can evolve into one.

    Taking just three shots in Game 4 is a red flag, and Porter is going to have to be more forceful to get that number up.

    Grade: B- 

Deandre Ayton, 22 Years Old: Phoenix Suns

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    No young star has surprised everyone as much as Deandre Ayton in the playoffs. Coming into the series against the Lakers, he was a bit of a question mark. Ayton answered with an 80.9 field-goal percentage for 19.8 points. To go with his scoring, he pulled down 13.5 rebounds, including a 17-rebound day in Game 4. 

    Ayton is having his way in his matchup against Andre Drummond. He has done a great job with rim runs in transition, early seals and rolling to the basket after setting a ball screen. He has been a steady force for the Suns. When he is on the court, Phoenix has a net rating of 4.2, and when he is off, the Suns are a minus-14.7. That is the second biggest swing in this series. 

    After a good season averaging a double-double, Ayton has taken his game to the next level. This is a young player growing in the spotlight of one of the biggest first-round series. 

    Simply put, there is no question after four games that Ayton has been the best big man in this series.

    Grade: A+ 

Bam Adebayo, 23 Years Old: Miami Heat

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Bam Adebayo burst on the scene last playoffs in the bubble as the Heat made a run to the NBA Finals. This year's playoff run ended in a first-round sweep, but he has all the talent to be a building block for the Heat.

    In the bubble playoffs, Adebayo averaged 17.8 points and 10.3 rebounds while shooting 56.4 percent from the field. This season the numbers dipped a bit, averaging 15.5 points and 9.3 rebounds while shooting 45.6 percent. 

    In the regular season, he was the most consistent player for the Heat. He averaged a career-high 18.7 points to go with 9.0 rebounds and 5.4 assists while shooting 57.0 percent from the field. 

    Several folks are ready to jump off the Adebayo bandwagon, but that would be a mistake. The Heat ran into a buzzsaw with the Bucks, but Adebayo’s future is bright and will be for years to come. 

    With the team's failures going from the Finals to getting swept in the first round, it is tough to give him a higher grade than this.

    Grade: C- 

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