The first round of the NBA Playoffs was full of the usual suspects having dominant performances – Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo are all MVP finalists for a reason, and all unsurprisingly played like it in their respective matchups.
Jayson Tatum took his game to new heights, especially defensively, in a dominant series win over Brooklyn, but that isn’t exactly a surprise considering Tatum has already led Boston to an Eastern Conference Finals appearance once in his young career. Ja Morant doesn’t have much playoff experience, but he was an MVP candidate during the regular season so it’s not unexpected that he’s doing things like this incredible dunk in the playoffs.
Other stars like Jimmy Butler, Steph Curry, and Luka Doncic have also continued to have their typical big impacts so far in their teams’ playoff runs.
But the first round has also given some less established players the opportunity to step up and show off their star potential. Here are five players who have excelled early in the playoffs.
Desmond Bane, Memphis Grizzlies: Bane didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, as his rapid improvement this season helped keep Memphis near the top of the West standings despite Ja Morant missing time with injuries. But he’s kept it up on a bigger stage, averaging 24 points per game to lead the team and shooting 47 percent from three-point range in the series.
Bane is also a great defensive player, and his feistiness has helped counteract the antics of Minnesota irritant Patrick Beverley. Bane even drew a technical foul for giving Minnesota coach Chris Finch and firm and confident shove out of his way when he was trying to setup for an in-bound play in game five of the series.
(tie) Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado, New Orleans Pelicans: Jones and Alvarado are not the best players on the Pelicans, or even go-to players offensively. But their dominant on-ball defense has been vital in the Pelicans playing the Suns tougher than anyone expected. It has also been intense and fun to watch.
Alvarado has forced star Chris Paul into two 8-second violations in the series by pestering him the entire length of the court. Paul had a funny moment early in the series, waving Alvarado into the frontcourt when Paul caught him trying to setup for his patented sneak attack steal. Alvarado eventually tricked Paul with the move later in the series, though.
Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves: Edwards’ arrival as a true potential superstar began late last season and throughout this regular season, in which he merited All-Star consideration.
He’s raised his game in the playoffs, though, leading the team in scoring at 24 points per game against Memphis. He’s also averaging a block and a steal per game and making 40 percent of his three-pointers, much higher than his season average.
Edwards’ playoff performance has been a bit of a roller coaster. He hit the game-tying three with less than 10 seconds remaining in game five, but then he gambled on defense on the final possession resulting in Morant’s game-winning layup.
Edwards clearly doesn’t shy away from the moment, though, so expect plenty of huge playoff games from him in his future.
Jalen Brunson, Dallas Mavericks: Brunson’s season of betting on himself has continued into the playoffs. After not receiving a contract extension from Dallas last offseason, Brunson has gone about proving he’s a vital piece of the Mavs’ offense and defense, capable of being a primary scoring option when Doncic has been out of the lineup.
That has continued in the playoffs. Brunson helped the Mavs stay competitive while Doncic missed the first three games of the series with Utah due to injury, and led the team in scoring in each game as Dallas won two of those three matchups. Brunson averaged 33 points per game in that stretch, including a 41-point performance in game two, and is primed to cash in big as a free agent this offseason.