Young Players Who Shone in the 2021 NBA Playoffs

By Nick Sterling in Sports
| July 27, 2021 1:07 am PDT

The 2021 NBA playoffs are officially complete. Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Milwaukee Bucks to their first NBA Championship since 1971.

While Antetokounmpo got the spotlight, and rightfully so, there were a handful of other young stars that took their game to the next level. They performed at the top of their abilities when the lights were brightest.

Here’s a look at five NBA playoff stars who impressed in 2021.

5. Ja Morant, PG, Memphis Grizzlies

Ja Morant is just two years into his NBA career. The Memphis Grizzlies point guard averaged 17.8 points and 7.3 assists during his rookie season. Nearly all of his stats stayed the same his second season except for his points average. Morant upped his average to 19.1.

Memphis finished the 2020-2021 season with a 38-34 record. They earned the nine seed in the Western Conference, giving them a spot in the play-in tournament. Morant scored 20 points in their win over the San Antonio Spurs. The Grizzlies then upset the Golden State Warriors with 35 points, six assists, six rebounds, and four steals from Morant.

Their reward for beating the Warriors was a matchup with the top seed, the Utah Jazz. Memphis stole Game 1 with Morant scoring 26 points. Game 2 is really where Morant showed everyone he was one of the brightest young stars in the league.

Despite a 141-129 loss, Morant went off in the game. Check out his stat line.

  • 47 points
  • 7 assists
  • 4 rebounds
  • 57.7 field goal percentage

The 47 points were a career-high for Morant. It also tied a franchise record.

Memphis fell short once again in Game 3 with a 121-111 loss. Morant had 28 points and seven assists.

Utah won Game 4 and 5 to win the series 4-1. Morant had a double-double in both games. He had 23 points and 12 assists in Game 4, and 27 points and 11 assists in Game 5.

For the series, Morant averaged 30.2 points, 8.2 assists, and 4.8 rebounds. While it wasn’t the finish Morant or the Grizzlies wanted, they showed the world what they’re capable of.

Morant showed the ability to step up his game on the league’s biggest stage. Memphis has the third-youngest roster in the league, with a 21-year-old Morant leading the way.

He has a bright future ahead. This is only the beginning of something special.

4. Jayson Tatum, PF, Boston Celtics

Jayson Tatum has been getting better and better with every season in the league. The 2020-2021 season was his fourth in the NBA. Tatum became a more complete player with 26.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 4.3 assists. Somehow, he didn’t make the All-NBA team, but in the playoffs, Tatum upped his game even more.

The Boston Celtics were underwhelming this season, finishing seventh in the Eastern Conference. They matched up with the Washington Wizards in the play-in game. Washington was no match for Tatum as he scored 50 points in the Celtics 118-100 victory.

After that, Boston got to match up with the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs. Boston lost the first two games, with Tatum struggling in both games. He scored 22 and nine points, respectively. He also shot under 30 percent in both games.

Back home in Boston, Tatum put on a show in Game 3. Look at his amazing performance.

  • 50 points
  • 7 assists
  • 6 rebounds
  • 53.3 field goal percentage
  • 5-11 from three-point range

His heroics gave Boston their first win of the series. Unfortunately, it was also their last, as the Nets big three was just too much for Boston to handle. Tatum did everything he could to hang on with 40 points and seven rebounds in Game 4, and 32 points and nine rebounds in Game 5.

In the postseason, Tatum averaged 30.6 points. He showed the world that he is capable of taking over a game on any given night.

From the beginning, it was going to be a tough road for Boston as they were shorthanded going up against the super-team Nets. However, Tatum gave everything he had and even willed them to a victory.

There’s a reason a lot of people believe the 23-year-old is a future MVP. If he can replicate his playoff performance over an entire regular season, that MVP may come sooner than you think.

3. Devin Booker, SG, Phoenix Suns

Devin Booker had to suffer through five losing seasons before the Phoenix Suns finally made the playoffs. Not only did they make the playoffs, but they finished with the second-best record in the league at 51-21.

Booker worked hard in the Suns’ first-round series against the defending champion, Los Angeles Lakers. He scored 30 or more points in three of the first five games. In a closeout Game 6, Booker went off for 47 points and 11 rebounds. He shot 8-10 from three-point range as the Suns won the series in six games.

His second-round series wasn’t as dominant, with an average of 25 points and 7.8 rebounds. However, the Suns made quick work of the Denver Nuggets in a four-game sweep.

In the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Clippers, Booker kicked off the series with a triple-double. Check out his stellar performance:

  • 40 points
  • 13 rebounds
  • 11 assists
  • 51.7 field goal percentage

He went over 30 points just one other time in the series, during Game 5, but the Suns won in six games to advance to their first NBA Finals since 1993.

Phoenix won the first two games, with Booker putting up 27 and 31 points, respectively. He hit seven threes in Game 2.

Following a down Game 3, Booker responded in Games 4 and 5. He scored 42 and 40 points, respectively, and shot over 50 percent in both games. Unfortunately, the Bucks won all three games and Game 6 to win the NBA Finals.

Booker finished the postseason with 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.5 assists.

The Suns have a bright future ahead. They should be competitive for the next few years, with Booker leading the way. We know he’ll be hungry to get back to the league’s biggest stage.

2. Donovan Mitchell, SG, Utah Jazz

When you look at Donovan Mitchell’s regular-season stats, they look pretty similar to earlier seasons. He did go from 24.0 points per game to 26.4 and upped his assists 5.2, but that’s really it. However, the big difference in the 2020-2021 season was Utah Jazz’s performance.

They finished with the best record in the league at 52-20. Utah opened the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies. Mitchell missed Game 1 in Utah’s loss. He returned for Game 2 and got the Jazz back on track.

Mitchell scored 25 points en route to a Utah Game 2 victory. The Jazz took their first lead in the series behind Mitchell’s 29 points in Game 3. Utah closed out the series with a pair of victories in Games 4 and 5. Mitchell scored 30 points in each game.

The Western Conference Semifinals is where Mitchell really showed out. The Los Angeles Clippers were a tough matchup for Utah, but Mitchell and the rest of the team were up for the challenge.

Utah won Game 1 behind a dominant performance from Mitchell. He made six three-pointers on his way to a 45-point game.

Mitchell scored 30 or more points in each of Games 2, 3, and 4, with at least five sunk threes in each game.

He struggled in Game 5 as the Clippers won their third consecutive game to take a 3-2 series lead. But Mitchell had a huge comeback performance in Game 6. He had 39 points, nine assists, and nine rebounds. He also shot 9-15 from three-point range. Unfortunately, the Jazz blew a 25-point second-half lead to lose the series.

Despite the crushing defeat, Mitchell put on an amazing performance this season. Both Utah and Mitchell took the next step this season.

Mitchell is just one of many young stars looking to lead their team to an NBA Championship. He’ll look to do just that next season.

1. Trae Young, PG, Atlanta Hawks

The Atlanta Hawks seemed to have come out of nowhere to make the playoffs as the five seed in the Eastern Conference. Once there, Trae Young and the Hawks showed that they belonged among the league’s elites.

Young immediately made his mark with a pair of 30+ point games at Madison Square Garden. The Hawks won their opening-round series against the New York Knicks in five games. Young closed out the series with 36 points and nine assists.

Atlanta surprised a lot of fans by taking Game 1 of their second-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers. Young led the way with 35 points and 10 assists. The Hawks lost the ensuing two games, but they erased a big deficit to win Game 4, as Young put up 25 points and 18 assists.

For the second straight game, the Hawks came back from a sizeable deficit to win Game 5. Young scored 39 points to give Atlanta a 3-2 series lead. Atlanta lost Game 6 despite 34 points and 12 assists for Young.

Despite shooting just 5-21 in Game 7, Young scored 21 points to help Atlanta upset Philadelphia and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Hawks won Game 1 on the road for the third consecutive time. Young put together his best performance of the playoffs with an amazing stat line.

Unfortunately, Young suffered an ankle injury in Game 3 and didn’t make much of an impact for the rest of the series. The Hawks lost in six games.

Young drew a lot of criticism as he was coming out of college, but it’s clear he has evolved his game from just a high-volume shooter. The great thing about his career is he’s only 22 years old. There’s so much time for him and the Hawks to continue to grow.

He caught everyone off guard this postseason. Next time, it won’t be as big of a surprise.

Other Stars Who Shone in 2021 NBA Playoffs

  • Luka Doncic, PG, Mavericks
  • Dillon Brooks, SG, Grizzlies

People may look at this list and wonder where Luka Doncic is. I didn’t include the 22-year-old because I already feel he is one of the best players in the league.

But he definitely showed out this postseason, though, with 35.7 points per game.

Dillon Brooks doesn’t get as much attention with Ja Morant starring for the Grizzlies, but he quietly had an impressive postseason. He went from 17.4 points per game in the regular season to 25.8, with 51.4 percent shooting from the field in the playoffs.

You can also throw in The Greek Freak for his epic championship-winning run, but much like Doncic, he’s clearly an established NBA star.

It’s interesting to note NBA playoff stars that impressed, but it also could show us which players are ready to take the next step in their development.

Were these just crazy flashes from these athletes, or are they all ready to be permanent fixtures of the NBA’s elite?

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