A few months ago, the idea of finishing the NBA season in a bubble was a mere hypothetical. Fast forward to today, the Los Angeles Lakers are your 2019-20 NBA champions, and the league is looking forward to next season’s operations and protocols. The bubble produced several intriguing storylines, including the emergence of a new wave of young stars.
Pro sports leagues rely on younger generations developing and moving their games forward. Basketball fans got several glimpses of what the future looks like during the recent playoffs, which featured plenty of players who are just getting started. The NBA’s future is in good hands.
Here are some of the young players that stood out the most during their time in Orlando.
Luka Dončić (21 years old)
Dončić led a valiant effort against the more experienced and talented Los Angeles Clippers. In his second season, Dončić is already a top-ten player in the NBA. He made the All-NBA 1st-team and impressed in his first postseason action.
Dončić set an NBA record with 42 points in the first playoff game of his career. According to Dallas’ public relations team, only four 21-year-olds have ever scored 40 or more points in a playoff game. The list includes LeBron James, Magic Johnson, and Tracy McGrady.
Throughout the series, Dončić averaged 31 points per game, 8.7 assists, and 9.8 rebounds while making 50.0% of his shots. He also posted two triple-doubles, including a 40-point triple-double in Game 4. He’s the third-youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double, only trailing LeBron James and Magic Johnson.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Dončić is the fifth player in league history to average 30 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists in a playoff series, joining LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, and Russell Westbrook. The superstar Slovenian also set a slew of other records.
After the series was over, Kawhi Leonard complimented Dončić, saying, “He’s a great player … battled every minute he was out there on the floor, didn’t back down. Led his team every game and he did a hell of a job out there.”
When this younger generation of players officially takes over for the Kevin Durants, LeBron James, and Chris Pauls of the world, Dončić should emerge as a top-three player.
Donovan Mitchell (24 years old)
The Denver Nuggets eliminated Mitchell and the Utah Jazz in seven games in the first round. However, the rising star did everything he could to will Utah past the Nuggets. Mitchell became the fourth player in league history to score 50 points twice in a playoff series, joining Wilt Chamberlain, Allen Iverson, and Michael Jordan.
Mitchell made his first All-Star game this past season, but he reached new levels in the playoffs. The Louisville product averaged 36.3 points per game during the series and led his team in total assists while knocking down 52.9% of his total shots, 51.6% of his three-pointers, and 94.8% of his free throws. It’s hard enough to get a 50-40-90 split, let alone 50-50-90.
After back-to-back first round exits in the playoffs, Mitchell is excited for the 2020 season to begin. If Mitchell brings his bubble play into the new season, he could earn an All-NBA selection and evolve into one of the league’s top three shooting guards.
Jamal Murray (23 years old)
Murray became the fifth player in league history to score 50 points twice in a playoff series, matching the feat Mitchell accomplished earlier in their first round series. He averaged 31.6 points per game against the Jazz, 22.6 against the Clippers, and 25 against the Lakers. His regular season average was 18.5.
While several other young players performed at a more consistent level throughout the bubble, Murray’s breakout was special. Before the playoffs, most analysts viewed him as a quality starting point guard who fell short of the All-Star class. After his dominating games against quality opponents, that stigma of being just another quality starter is gone.
Murray came up just short of averaging 50-40-90 in the playoffs, connecting on 50.5% of his total shots, 45.3% of his three-pointers, and 89.7% of his free throws. He led the Nuggets in points and assists during the playoff run, outdoing Nikola Jokić.
FiveThirtyEight’s Michael Pina summed up the meaning of Murray’s sudden improvement best, “It’s unreasonable to expect Murray to sustain his past few weeks for the next eight or nine years — doing so would make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer — but after a regular season that was relatively stagnant, what it does is signal what he can someday be.”
If Murray develops into the second superstar on a deep Denver team, the Nuggets might find themselves in the Conference Finals for a second consecutive season.
Michael Porter Jr. (22 years old)
Porter Jr. battled injuries during his first two seasons, but he showed flashes of stardom in the playoffs. The Missouri product averaged 11.4 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. He doesn’t offer much on defense, but his unique size, versatility, and outside shooting make him an offensive force. Porter’s best game came in the first round, when he dropped 28 in Game 2 against the Jazz.
In an analysis of Porter’s future with the Denver Nuggets, The Denver Post’s Sean Keeler wrote, “Kid’s 22. The ceiling’s been teased, in flashes. Are you banking on another leap? Did you see enough in the bubble? Do you believe it’ll carry over when sanity and normalcy, the good Lord willing, poke their heads back out in 2021?”
The potential is there for Porter. It comes down to whether or not the lengthy forward continues developing his game over the next few months.
Jayson Tatum (22 years old)
After a disappointing second season, Tatum made a major leap. He earned an All-NBA 3rd-Team selection, beating out multiple perennial All-Stars. In the playoffs, Tatum averaged 25.7 points, five assists, and ten rebounds per game while connecting on 43.4% of his shots, 37.3% of his three-pointers, and 81.3% of his free throws. He authored five 30-point games and ten 25-point games. The hot streak also included ten double-doubles.
During Boston’s playoff run, Tatum became the youngest Celtic with 30+ points and 10+ rebounds in a postseason game. Per the Elias Sports Bureau, Tatum became the youngest Celtic to score 30 or more points in consecutive playoff games, surpassing a record set by Larry Bird.
According to StatMuse, on Sept. 19, Tatum tied LeBron James for the most 25/10/5 playoff games by a player under 23 years old since 1965. Tatum broke the tie several days later, entering into sole possession of first place with five such performances.
After going down 3-1 to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, Tatum took responsibility for a quiet first half performance, saying, “I wasn’t aggressive enough. I didn’t score in the first half. That’s unacceptable. So I knew I had to play better, and that’s what I tried to do.”
Tatum is far from a finished product, but he’s already showing growing leadership skills. The Duke product’s on-court performance is also blossoming, making analysts wonder how high he can climb in the NBA ranks.
As for that Game 4 loss, Tatum rebounded with 31 points, six assists, and ten rebounds in a blistering 121-108 victory. Miami eliminated Boston in Game 6.
Tyler Herro (20 years old)
While he isn’t a superstar with the same caliber of play as Dončić or Tatum, Herro showed incredible growth in the bubble. The Kentucky product averaged 16 points per game while connecting on 43.3% of his overall shots and 37.5% of his threes.
At 20 years and 256 days, Herro became the youngest player to start a Finals game in NBA history, passing Magic Johnson’s previous record of 20 years and 264 days. He also set records for threes made in the playoffs by a rookie with 49 and for most consecutive playoff games by a rookie with at least ten points. The record-setting 20-game streak ended in Game 6.
ESPN’s Tim Legler praised Herro, saying, “It sometimes takes guys 2-3 years to improve as much as we’ve seen Tyler Herro improve even in the bubble. That’s how much better he has been even than he was in the regular season and tonight, a star performance. This guy has All-Star capabilities. I’m talking about not just get there one time. Like perennial All-Star down the road. Give the guy a few years of seasoning, I think that’s what his ceiling is.”
Bam Adebayo (23 years old)
Adebayo averaged 17.8 points, 4.4 assists, and 10.3 rebounds in the playoffs while connecting on 56.4% of his shots. Unfortunately, the first-time All-Star suffered an injury in Game 1 of the NBA Finals that made it difficult for him even to do pushups. Adebayo missed Games 2 and 3 but battled his way back for Games 5 and 6. However, he never looked fully healthy.
For perspective, Adebayo closed out the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals with a 32-point triple-double. He averaged 21.8 points, 5.2 assists, and 11 rebounds in the ECFs but only 15.3 points, 2.5 assists, and 6.3 rebounds in the Finals. Adebayo wasn’t in peak shape, but he played anyway.
In an interview with The Miami Herald, future Hall of Fame power forward Chris Bosh said, “I just love the way Bam plays the floor game. He’s patient, he lets the game come to him. It’s always kind of a weird thing to say, but he does. He’s very unselfish. He gets his teammates involved, looking for second and third situations. But I think as we saw in Game 6 [of the Eastern Conference finals], he has a lot of offensive capability as well, and that’s always there.”
Even at this stage of his career, Adebayo has shown great accountability. After Game 5 of the Finals, the young star criticized his own performance and promised to play a larger role, “[Butler’s] been as close to perfect as you possibly can get. On my part, I’ve got to be better for him so he doesn’t have to carry that load as much. My whole mindset is I’ve got to be better for Jimmy, my team.”
Between the great organization he’s surrounded with and his drive to improve, Adebayo will continue climbing the NBA’s ranks.