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Even without fans inside the NBA bubble, the spotlight might feel just as bright to this batch of under-23 ballers.
Each has a tremendous amount to prove for different reasons, which we’ll get into later.
For now, let’s talk about the players you won’t see listed here. It seems obvious, but in this business, things are rarely better left unsaid, so let’s get this out of the way: no one age 23 or older. While Ben Simmons, Jamal Murray and Bam Adebayo might all be under the microscope, they’re spared from this exercise.
We’re also excusing established leaders of teams with little or no expectations. We’re as excited as anyone to see De’Aaron Fox going a million miles per hour in pursuit of a playoff berth, but no one will hold it against him if he fails to work a miracle.
For the last stipulation, no freshmen. Like everyone, we’ll have our eyes glued to first-year phenoms Ja Morant and (hopefully) Zion Williamson, but no one should expect them to move mountains just yet.
Now that we’re clear on who isn’t included here, let’s discuss the five who are.
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Jarrett Allen is one of the few recognizable faces left on the depleted Brooklyn Nets roster, has an extension and a starting spot to go earn, and he might be on the trade block. And after having his role diminished this season to accommodate DeAndre Jordan—fewer minutes, starts, shots and points—he’s now tasked with sinking or swimming as a focal point.
Jordan isn’t playing in Orlando. Neither are—deep breath—Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Wilson Chandler, Taurean Prince, Spencer Dinwiddie and Nic Claxton. (Whew.)
“I don’t want to say I’m the last big standing, as bad as that sounds,” Allen said, per Nets.com’s Tom Dowd. “There is some pressure for me to be able to stay healthy and be able to help the team succeed.”
Allen has emerged as one of the league’s more reliable interior anchors (51.2 percent shooting allowed within three feet), and he’s proved to be an explosive finisher at the basket. Those are helpful skills, but neither demands the Nets keep him around for the long haul, let alone iron out a contract extension this offseason.
With the league devaluing interior bigs—remember what the Houston Rockets got for Clint Capela?—this is Allen’s chance to show that he brings something else to the table or he’s at least one of the best rim-runners in the business. The opportunity is immense, but the individual stakes are even greater.
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Michael Conroy/Associated Press
Year three has undeniably been a breakout campaign for Lonzo Ball.
Something about the New Orleans Pelicans fits him better than the Los Angeles Lakers ever did, and his stat sheet is showing that increased comfort level. His shooting rates have climbed across the board (including a 38.3 percent splash rate from three), and he’s one of only five players averaging 12 points, seven assists and six rebounds.
“I think he’s in a good place, just mentally,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry told reporters. “I think he realizes that we totally believe in him, that he’s our leader on the floor.”
It’s been a feel-good story so far, but there are now three distinctly different paths for Ball to follow.
If he takes Best-Case Scenario Blvd., he’ll prove this was merely a stepping stone to even greater heights by further upping his volume and efficiency while helping New Orleans secure a playoff spot. He’ll also cash out with a lottery jackpot-sized contract extension.
If it’s Solid Street, he won’t make any dramatic leaps forward, but he won’t lose ground either.
But if it’s Worrisome Way, that’s when Ball turns back into a non-shooting pumpkin—he entered this season with a career 38.0/31.5/43.7 slash line—and his lack of offense derails the entire Pelicans attack.
It’s tempting to treat his improvements as sustainable, but he had his ups and downs before the league went on hiatus in mid-March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Pels can’t afford any inconsistency going forward, meaning he must be at his best while effectively facing playoff defenses.
New Orleans needs Ball to perform well during the eight seeding games, and that can’t be the most comfortable position given his struggles over the past two seasons.
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Ron Jenkins/Associated Press
The list of players to average at least 28 points, eight assists and eight rebounds by their age-20 season starts and stops with Luka Doncic.
He debuted as an All-Star this year and did so in the starting lineup. He paced the Mavericks in points, minutes, shots, assists and usage rate (by a mile) and made them the most efficient offense in NBA history. He also has them better prepared to compete for the crown than you might think. While they sit seventh in the West in winning percentage (.597), they have the conference’s third-best net rating (plus-5.8, sixth overall).
But this is a greedy business. For all the jaws Doncic has dropped to date, the pressure to do more still hovers over his head.
He should collect multiple MVP votes this season, but his superstar ascension might lose a bit of luster if he can’t conjure up any playoff success. When he addressed reporters for the first time since the season suspension, he spoke of his team heading to Orlando “without pressure.” Maybe that’s the case internally, but external expectations are enormous for Doncic’s playoff debut.
We know he can be a megastar in the regular season. Now, we get to see whether he can find yet another gear when it matters most.
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David Sherman/Getty Images
Hey, Brandon Ingram, want to be Zion Williamson’s max-paid co-star in the Crescent City for (at least) the next half-decade? This is your chance to make that happen.
To this point, Ingram has done everything in his power to do exactly that. The 2016 No. 2 overall pick has been aligning puzzle pieces all season to finally fuel his climb up the hoops hierarchy. He had offered glimpses of future stardom before, but this was the real thing: 24.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game with a 46.6/38.7/85.8 shooting slash.
“This year was about me just going out and showing where I belong and excel in this new space,” Ingram said, per ESPN.com’s Andrew Lopez. “I think playing in this could help me out.”
As Ingram acknowledges, there’s more work to be done.
As tempting as it is to slap an “A+” grade on his campaign, the actual assessment is an “Incomplete.” He’s still walking a tightrope as a restricted free agent in a cash-strapped market. He has dealt with several injury issues in his past (including a deep vein thrombosis scare last season) and doesn’t have the largest sample of star-level play.
He appears to be in the process of turning the corner, but he needs to complete the task for this to be a successful business trip.
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Jayson Tatum had superstardom within his grasp before the hoops world was forced into hiatus.
He had already secured his first All-Star spot, but this was a different level of basketball brilliance. Over his final 15 outings—a stretch that included putting 39 points on Kawhi Leonard’s Los Angeles Clippers and 41 on LeBron James’ Lakers—Tatum averaged 29.5 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.1 blocks while hitting 48.3 percent of his field goals and an unreal 46.6 percent of his triples (on 8.9 attempts!).
“The kid is special,” James said after Tatum’s 41-point outburst, per Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today. “There’s a reason he’s a first time All-Star. He’s been special all year.”
Tatum wasn’t special like this, though. Prior to that stretch, he was averaging 21.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.9 assists while shooting 43.5 percent from the field and 36.6 percent from three. Those were breakout numbers given where he had previously set the bar, yet it also shows how great the challenge is ahead.
His scorching-hot version seemed capable of potentially steering the Celtics through the Eastern Conference side of the playoff bracket. But no one would’ve even considered shouldering him with that kind of burden last postseason, when he averaged 15.2 points, had more turnovers (2.0) than assists (1.9) and connected on only 32.3 percent of his long-range looks.
Tatum has clearly grown since then, but can he consistently be the No. 1 option on a heavyweight contender? That’s one of the many things we’re eager to learn in Orlando.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.
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