Game 1 of the 2021 Playoffs was eye-opening to those that chose to pay attention to the league’s younger generation. If the 2020 All-Star game wasn’t an indication that the next generation of stars are beginning to take over the league, hopefully, the start of this season’s playoffs was.
While the regular cast of players like Kevin Durant, LeBron James, James Harden, Damian Lillard, etc. are still leading the league, you can’t help but notice the young stars who have led their teams all season long to an unexpectedly productive year, including a playoff birth and dazzling Game 1. What makes this more impressive is that most of them are making their postseason debuts.
Players under 25 whose Game 1 performance showed their potential to be the next generation of NBA greats.
Booker is the most obvious choice on this list, considering his illustrious statistical career through his six seasons. He averaged 25.6 points this season, and for the first time in a decade, the Phoenix Suns are in the playoffs, with homecourt advantage and up 1-0 on the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. The eye-opening moment in Game 1 was watching Booker break a Phoenix Suns record for points scored in a playoff debut with 34 points, eight assists, and seven rebounds. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Chris Paul (three first-ballot Hall of Famers) were on the court, but Booker, the undecorated budding star, looked like the best player on the court.
The 6-foot-2, 180-pound guard out of Norman, OK, has always been confident. He’s never lacked that attribute dating back to his ninth-grade season, which was the first time I got the opportunity to interview him. It’s clear that Young’s a future star in this league, but his 32 points, ten assists, and seven rebounds in his playoff debut was another reminder that Young is a force to be reckoned with in this league. The critique of him has been his lack of size, which doesn’t matter, his inability to win on a big stage dating back to his high school years, and him not making his teammates better throughout the season. He put those criticisms on hold, for the time being at least, and his Atlanta Hawks lead the New York Knicks 1-0 in the opening round of the playoffs.
Doncic is similar to Booker in the sense that he’s proven that he’s a star in this league. Doncic and Young were highly touted out of college and have done nothing but live up to expectations since. After averaging 31 points in the 2020 NBA playoffs against the best perimeter defenders in the league Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and pushing the Clippers to six games, he’s picking up where he left off in Game 1 of the 2021 playoffs. Doncic recorded his third playoff triple-double with 31 points, 11 assists, and ten rebounds. Doncic wreaks of future Hall-of-Fame consideration after just three NBA seasons, and this playoff run may be what solidifies his name in the NBA’s top five current players for the foreseeable future.
Morant is fascinating because he’s so young (21), put up such impressive numbers, yet he’s been relatively slept on, although he won Rookie of the Year last season. That’s partially due to him being in Memphis (a small market) and the Grizzlies hopping back into national relevancy this season. Morant is primarily to thank for that. Not only did he play a lead role in lifting Memphis over Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors, scoring 16 points and dishing out ten assists. Morant also opened up the playoffs, his first playoff appearance with 26 points on 11-of-21 shooting. Morant may not be the floor general that basketball conservatives relish, but if you’re a fan of players like Russell Westbrook and Allen Iverson, you’ll likely be a fan of Morant.
Brooks may not be the next great NBA small forward, but his heart, fight, and team-oriented style of play will never be questioned. He does any and everything he can do for the Grizzlies to win. On Sunday, he went on a tear showing that he can get buckets with ease if needed. When Memphis was stuck in a tough spot offensively halfway through the second quarter, Brooks went on a tear and led the Grizzlies on a run that they’d never look back from. He finished Game 1 with an unlikely game-high 31 points and seven rebounds on 13-26 shooting.
Brooks and Morant combined for 57 points on 24-of-47 shooting.
While Game 1 is only Game 1, these individual performances weren’t flukes. Whether the Suns, Mavericks, Hawks, or Grizzlies win their first-round series, it’s evident that the players listed are the next generation of greats in this league. Booker, Doncic, Young, Morant, and Brooks are positioning themselves to be who players like Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and CJ McCollum are today.