The NBA playoffs represent the most ideal method to test the mettle of a player. To be a “star” you have to have the talent but you also need the will to win. You need that innate ability to do whatever it takes to drag your team to victory.
While watching Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell duel during the first round, a question continued to pop in my head. Are we witnessing a new generation of NBA stars emerge in these 2020 playoffs? A passing of the torch so to speak. Murray and Mitchell are both 23 years old and they are just one example of this. Other burgeoning stars such as Jayson Tatum and Luka Doncic are 21 and leading their teams in much the same capacity. The NBA tends to come in waves of talent. Lebron, Wade and Carmelo dominated the league for years after their 2003 draft. The group they supplanted (Kobe, Garnett and Duncan) filled their years of dominance with championships and personal accolades. So the question remains, is this current crop of youngsters ready to grab the torch and become the next generation of NBA stars?
To answer this question, we need to look at a number of factors. One, can we quantify their improvement through statistics? Two, can we see it on the court? (Aka do they pass the eye test?) Finally, is this improvement indicative of a “leap” or will it be limited to the Orlando bubble?
When thinking of these questions, four players come to the front of my mind. Jayson Tatum, Luka Dončić, Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell are the perfect subjects to test this theory on. These four have all elevated their games in the playoffs and they are all in their first 4 years in the league. With apologies to Devin Booker and Ja Morant, they are also relevant right now with their playoff runs. So let’s dive right in.
What do the numbers say?
|Restart & Playoffs||30.4||9.2||10.0||48%||31%||70%||13|
|Restart & Playoffs||24.0||3.2||7.3||49%||43%||72%||11|
|Restart & Playoffs||29.5||4.9||4.8||47%||46%||94%||12|
|Restart & Playoffs||25.3||5.6||5.2||53%||45%||89%||11|
- The biggest takeaway from these statistics has gotta be the shooting percentages. Offense has been the big story in the bubble and we see no difference here with these four. This makes it difficult to determine whether these stats will have staying power. However, it does indicate that these guys are coming through for their teams and playing at a high level consistently.
- Dončić and Tatum began the season performing at elite levels so it’s not surprising to see their stats remaining relatively on par with their pre-bubble stats.
- Mitchell and Murray are the two players who I had in mind when coming up with this article and their points per game increase reinforces that point. Perhaps it’s because they went head to head in their playoff series but both guys have really elevated their games and put their teams in a position to survive and advance.
The stats don’t really bring home my argument home though. Sometimes you have to trust something as basic as what the eye can see.
The Eye Test
Let’s start off by defining what the eye test is. To me, the eye test is watching a player’s body language, looking at how they interact with their teammates and assessing their level of comfortability on the court. The eye test looks beyond statistics and involves actually seeing what a player can do on the court as well as their behavior. Obviously, this is based on my own personal opinion but you’re reading my article so you’ll have to trust me on this one. We’ll take this player by player….
Luka led his Dallas team into the Playoffs against a championship caliber team in the Los Angeles Clippers. He hit a game winner, dropped a 40 point triple double and at times he looked like the best player on the court. Luka played without Kristaps Porzingis for 3 (4 if you include the game 1 ejection) out of 6 games and he led the Mavericks in every way possible. You can tell he’s their leader immediately when you turn on a Dallas game. Luka got a crash course in playoff basketball from Marcus Morris and I think he responded how a future NBA star should. He kept playing, he kept getting buckets and he never backed down.
Jayson Tatum is still only 21 years old. His age belies the confidence and poise he plays with. He takes the big shots for the Celtics and at times he carries their entire offense. When they mic’d him up for game 2 of the Philly series, his vocal leadership spoke volumes. A huge indicator of Tatum’s case for stardom is the Celtics tend to increase their lead whenever he enters the game. Tatum plays with a perennial all-star in Kemba Walker and he also has a running mate who easily could have been included in this article (Jaylen Brown) but ultimately, Tatum is considered to be the cream of the crop. He plays like a 6’9 Kobe and he’s learning to use that killer instinct that’s indicative of a top 5 NBA player and a generational talent.
Donovan Mitchell has been the man in Utah all season. “Spida” has the ball in his hands the majority of the game and his teammates defer to him. That speaks volumes for a player as young as he is. The Denver/Utah series has seen some of the best games of the 2020 playoffs and Mitchell’s play has a lot to do with that. That game 7 loss was tough. However, we can use that to infer a lot about Mitchell’s status as a member of the next generation of NBA stars. With the clock ticking down and a chance to win the game, his teammates trusted him completely. In this instance, he fell flat. You can bet your ass that the next time he gets an opportunity like that though, he’s going to do whatever it takes to come through for his team.
Jamal Murray is the engine for Denver. Jokic is their best player but the offense doesn’t click unless Murray is runnin’ and gunnin’ like he does. Denver was down 3-1 in their series with Utah but Murray’s stellar play was a huge (if not the) reason why they advanced. In three straight wins, Murray put up 50, 42 and 50 points. A casual observer may not have known about the Blue Arrow prior to this season, but you definitely know Jamal Murray’s name now. As with Mitchell, Murray had a lackluster game 7 performance. However, Murray showed leadership and grit all series and while he may not ever be a superstar in the vein of Tatum or Doncic, he’s proven that he should be mentioned among the next generation of NBA stars.
Is it legit?
We’ve looked at the statistics and we’ve put them through the eye test. Now, let’s answer the last question. Is this uptick in production real or just a blip occurring in a vacuum that is the bubble?
Each of these players has proven themselves to be a leader and a formative talent to build around. In Dončić and Tatum’s case, they have proven it over the span of a full year. So yes, they’re leap was legit and not just an aberration of the bubble. In Murray and Mitchell’s case, their play has risen above and beyond how they performed pre-COVID. However, that doesn’t mean Murray and Mitchell’s play should be discredited. It simply means they’ll have to prove it next season as well.
Going back to the Denver/Utah series that inspired this post, we saw both Murray and Mitchell come back down to earth in game 7. We saw them put up mediocre performances but that shouldn’t diminish the leadership qualities or the star power they displayed. The two put up a combined 475 points in their series (a playoff record) and they each had two 50 point games. They rose to the occasion and they should be mentioned among the very best of this up and coming next generation of NBA stars.
Did the break help?
One last question I think needs to be answered before we conclude is the impact of the 4 month break in play. These guys couldn’t work out how they usually would have. However, they clearly stayed in shape and were able to improve. In this way, are we looking at players who are a year ahead of schedule in their growth towards NBA stardom? Is Tatum playing more like the 4th year iteration of himself instead of the 3rd year player we saw pre-COVID? It’s an interesting theory to think about. It’s almost as if during the break, these players hopped in the hyperbolic time chamber and emerged ready to do battle with the game’s ruling elite. In Murray and Mitchell’s case, it certainly seemed they hopped up a power level or two.
I believe that we are witnessing the next generation of NBA stars emerging. The four we just looked at in particular are taking the first steps. Of course players like Trae Young, Devin Booker, Zion Williamson and Ja Morant will have something to say before it’s all said and done. Although, I think that’s what sets my test subjects apart. All four of the players we just looked at play on teams that are good right now. Their franchises have surrounded them with young talent that they can grow with. They have been given opportunities to flourish and they’ve risen to the challenge. In ten years, we’ll look back on these performances in the Orlando bubble and realize that their paths to stardom started here. These guys got next and the next generation of NBA stars is no longer coming. They’re here.
Written by Sean Curley