The first round of the NBA playoffs has been a wild ride, and a few young players are shining. The usual stars — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Steph Curry, Luka Doncic, Ja Morant and Trae Young — have played as expected, but there are a handful of first-, second- and third-year players making a name for themselves on the biggest NBA stage .
Tirese Maxey scored a game-high 38 points, becoming the youngest player in 76ers franchise history to score 30 points in a playoff game, during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first-round series. Jose Alvarado went undrafted in the 2021 NBA draft and is proving to be one of the best on-ball defenders in the Western Conference, locking up Chris Paul during the Pelicans-Suns series.
Here’s a look at the top young players making an impact in the playoffs so far.
Tyrese Maxey, Philadelphia 76ers
Playoff stats: 20.6 ppg, 5 rpg, 4.2 apg
2021-22 season stats: 17.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 4.3 apg
It’s almost hard to believe that 20 teams passed on Maxey in the 2020 NBA draft before the 76ers selected him with the 21st overall pick. He was inconsistent during his one year at Kentucky, scoring 20-plus points one game and just seven points the next. John Calipari’s track record with Kentucky guards at the NBA level (Jamal Murray, De’Aaron Fox, Devin Booker) is exceptional and Maxey is the latest former Wildcat finding success in the league.
After averaging just over 30 minutes per game during the regular season, Maxey’s time on the court has increased (41.4 minutes per game) and his productivity for the 76ers has also improved during the playoffs. Even with just a couple short months playing alongside James Harden, Maxey looks comfortable in the backcourt with the All-Star guard.
Maxey did a little bit of everything during his 38-point performance in Game 1 of the series. He connected on five 3-pointers, shot 67% from the field, was perfect from the free-throw line and didn’t commit a single turnover in 38 minutes.
“It’s just a testimony to the work,” Maxey said after the game. “I always tell people it’s the work that you put in when no one else is around — early mornings, 6 am, late nights — it shows when you perform in front of thousands.”
Playoff stats: 24.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 5.8 apg
2021-22 season stats: 18.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 4 apg
No young player in the league has been a bigger stock riser than Poole. The third-year guard wasn’t a Most Improved Player finalist, and that didn’t sit well with teammate Draymond Green.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” Green said. “If you can find me anyone that’s a finalist that made a bigger jump than from third team All-G-League, to being the No. 1 option so far on a championship-contending team.”
Poole has emerged as the “Third Splash Brother” in the playoffs and is putting up huge numbers, connecting on 14 3-pointers in four games.
As a sophomore at Michigan, Poole hit one of the biggest shots in the 2019 NCAA tournament when he drained a long three with 3.6 points left to beat Houston and advance to the Sweet 16. After he was drafted by the Warriors with the 28th overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft, Poole spent his first two seasons in the league going back and forth between bench minutes on the Warriors and games with affiliated G League team, Santa Cruz Warriors. He averaged 23 points and 3.8 assists in 14 games.
Poole’s ascension to being a key piece to this championship-caliber Warriors team has been a slow and steady climb, but seeing Poole step up big when Curry was sidelined with an injury and how well he’s been playing during the playoffs has been incredibly fun to watch .
Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors
Playoff stats: 11 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 4.7 apg
2021-22 season stats: 15.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 3.5 apg
Barnes edged out Evan Mobley and Cade Cunningham in the closest three-way race for Rookie of the Year since the format changed 19 years ago. The 6-foot-7 point-forward was the fourth overall pick in the 2021 NBA draft, after starting only seven games during his one season at Florida State.
The Raptors were without their star rookie for Games 2 and 3 due to a left ankle sprain, but he has been key in Toronto’s comeback against the 76ers during the Eastern Conference first-round series. Barnes has been electric all season and found ways to impact the game when his shot isn’t falling. He led all rookies in minutes, ranking third in points and rebounds and finishing fifth in assists, steals and blocks.
Herbert Jones, New Orleans Pelicans
Playoff stats: 9.6 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.4 apg
2021-22 season stats: 9.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.1 apg
The Pelicans’ success has been a combination of things: Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum on offense and the disruption of Jones and Jose Alvarado on defense. Jones led all rookies in steals this season with 130 and was fourth in offensive rebounds with 98 boards. Standing at 6-foot-7, Jones is a lengthy wing with a 7-foot wingspan and uses his athleticism as an advantage when going up against bigger players in a mismatch. Jones was a four-year player at Alabama and helped lead the Crimson Tide to the Sweet 16 last season. He’s completely outplayed his draft stock this season after the Pelicans selected him with the 35th pick in the 2021 NBA draft.
Bones Hyland, Denver Nuggets
Playoff stats: 10.5 ppg, 2 rpg, 3.5 apg
2021-22 season stats: 10.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 2.8 apg
The Nuggets avoided a sweep after taking Game 4 from the Warriors. Star point guard Jamal Murray sat out the entire season, rehabbing an ACL injury, and it opened up the gate for Hyland to really find his pace at the NBA level. Hyland is a gritty guard who will do anything to help his team win. He’s a great complementary piece in the backcourt to Monte Morris and finds the right spacing on the court to give two-time MVP Nikola Jokic room to work.
In the most recent win over the Warriors, Hyland was incredible in the open court, dishing out seven assists and knocking down three crucial 3-pointers in a close game.
The Nuggets got a great guard with the No. 26 overall pick in the 2021 NBA draft, and his stock could have risen even more if VCU was able to compete in the NCAA tournament. There were multiple players who tested positive for COVID-19 prior to the first round of the tournament, causing VCU to forfeit their game against Oregon.
Jose Alvarado, New Orleans Pelicans
Playoff stats: 6.1 ppg, 2.8 apg
2021-22 season stats: 7.4 ppg, 1 apg, 1 spg
Alvarado’s playoff role is simple. Pick up Chris Paul as soon as he touches the ball and make his life miserable for 94 feet, every single possession. So far he’s been effective and he’s made it difficult for the Suns to get into their offense off a made basket.
Alvarado went undrafted and got the call up from the G League when the NBA was hit with numerous players testing positive for COVID-19 in December and January. He’s been the defensive spark alongside Jones that’s propelled this Pelicans team into the playoffs and is turning into a Patrick Beverley 2.0, building an NBA career on the defensive side of the ball.
The 6-foot guard spent four years at Georgia Tech, was named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and led the Yellow Jackets to an ACC Championship his senior season.