The Next Wave Of Young Stars Are Using The 2021 Playoffs To Show The Future Of The League Is In Good Hands

It can feel like doomsday cult behavior, sometimes, this heralding of stars. We, as a collective, pin every hope on the date they’re picked and then weirdly long for them to immediately upend, wreck havoc, outright destroy the thing they’ve been drafted into en route to becoming the generational player that was promised. And when it fails to pan out, the scramble resets. We go back to consulting the data for the next year, pick new candidates, and hope this time, we’ll get the asteroid that wipes everything out. Our cult, clearly pretty shitty at predicting the future, can finally rest.

With the real-time and compelling rise of players like Trae Young, Devin Booker, Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, Deandre Ayton, and more in what’s been a sustained sea change, these playoffs have upended all that. What’s more, with the NBA’s fixed postseason stars largely absent, we’re seeing the future identity of the league — from its most dominant players to the way the game itself looks — take shape with every brash and innovative night on the floor.

And while there’s a feeling of immediacy to the performance of these players, and a sense that through their finesse and flourish — Young’s playful manifesting of the villain in theatrical bows and shoulder shimmies, Ayton’s candidness in celebrating Nikola Jokic and teammate Chris Paul in his postgames with the awareness that he now shares the same stage, too — there’s recognition they’ve stepped into the spotlight. And perhaps more promisingly, the path they traveled to get here came from some of the most understated and unpopular methods in a league hellbent on win-now acceleration: drafting for fit, solid coaching, and gradual development.

When the Hawks gave up the number three pick that could’ve landed them Doncic to trade down for Young, the franchise was skewered for it. Atlanta had just come off their first season without seeing the playoffs after a decade getting there and falling out in early exits, and Doncic looked like the kind of player who could propel the team past where it had been stuck for so long. By comparison, Young was rakish, green, if a little awkward. But in him, the Hawks saw the fluidity of his handle, the depth of his shooting, and the potential to tie everything together with prodigious playmaking.

In his first two seasons in Atlanta, Young could be mercurial on the floor, swinging from firing on all-cylinders offense to harried defense, doing a little bit of everything. The Hawks, too, were a team in transition, a vet-heavy roster with a handful of young players. Loosening from the repetitions of Mike Budenholzer and adjusting to the defensive demands of Lloyd Pierce, Atlanta had plenty of upside, but the problem of that potential came in choosing a direction. The abrupt firing of Pierce and his replacement in Nate McMillan at the beginning of March this past season could’ve brought with it more reluctance, but it’s instead forced a way forward through trust.

“I told him, ‘You’re a Ferrari, but even in a Ferrari conditions change,'” McMillan said recently of Young, “If there’s ice on the road, you have to slow down. If it’s bright sunshine, go do your thing.”

The conditions for Young to flourish have come from trusting his teammates. In Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, and Kevin Huerter, Young gets ready, intuitive outlets, shooters who offer opportunities for Young to run the floor without the weight of every shot, lead, or deficit falling on him. In Clint Capela, he’s given plenty of defensive room and intuition. McMillan has pushed Young to organize the team and by doing so Young has tapped into the individual capabilities of his teammates. It seems simple, but it is something that only comes in what can be most difficult for frenetic multitaskers like Young: giving up control.

“He has really gotten better at trusting his teammates,” McMillan said of Young looking to his teammates, “and understanding they can do some things too.”

The foundation of that trust has also become the stage for Young to play the villain, the most entertaining role of his NBA career so far and one that feeds back into the team around him. The Hawks, by some accounts, shouldn’t yet be where they are, a team too young, too brazen, too hopeful on the verge of the NBA Finals, but there were no shortcuts. Even making big splashes in free agency this year, bringing in Bogdanovic and Gallinari, were calculated moves with an eye on a window opening in the coming years. It was steady growth that got Atlanta and Young where they are, farther than the franchise has been in five seasons. Whatever happens, the best, most sustainable parts of it should carry over, in large part because of their young star guard who has exploded in his first postseason.

Incremental growth is something the Suns share with the Hawks, though Phoenix has had to wait a little longer for this high-powered, beaming team that’s burned up the West. For Booker, this playoff run has been six years in the making, for Chris Paul, 15. Ayton has only had to wait two seasons, but both were weighed down by doubt around his capabilities and the veracity — as if irrefutable proof in a concept so abstract, with so many variable, were possible — of his number one pick due to the guy who got traded for Young.

Instead, it was the perfectly timed and titled “valley-oop” that offered the tidiest, lethal proof of Ayton’s growth as a player. In those 0.9 seconds, everything from team synchronicity to Ayton’s sense of timing and trust in his role culminated in what’s been the most breathless, signature win for the Suns so far these playoffs.

“He’s starting to understand having a role doesn’t limit you,” Monty Williams said of Ayton after Game 2 against the Clippers.

That role has seen Ayton as an offensive juggernaut, providing pin down and ball screens for Booker and Paul, and hot handoffs to Cam Payne and Mikhail Bridges, all while limiting his own touches. Per James Herbert at CBS, Ayton’s own points, assists, and shot attempts are way down, but he’s collecting nearly 60 percent of opponent’s missed free throws, taking 69 percent of his shots at the rim, and making 81 percent of those close and often physical points. It takes everything to win a playoff series, each game its own grueling campaign of on-the-fly adjustments, near-psychic intuition, and a dizzying amount of intangibles capable of turning the tide minute-to-minute, and Ayton is doing it all. In a league so hyper-focused on the development of star players for their offensive prowess only, it can take years (if at all) for new players to round out (or even recognize they have to) their games enough to stay relevant. Ayton has needed three years to get to that point, and his arrival has been emphatic.

That the Suns managed to keep things consistent in a season impacted so deeply by COVID and injuries is a testament to how the team turned inward, shoring up skills they already had. Booker, who consistently carried the Suns all season with 30-plus scoring performances, has managed to back off on needing to be the most ball-dominant player on the floor, leaning into playmaking with pointers from Paul while expanding his midrange capabilities. His toughness has taken shape, too. Whether it’s from settling into an on-court shorthand with Ayton or under the domineering pressure of Paul, Booker hasn’t backed off from the physical challenges, most notable in a semi-finals dust-up with Jokic or having his nose broken in three places.

Where Booker had drawn ire in the past was from a showiness without substance, not only in physicality but in a willingness to take responsibility for where the team, once a quick group of impatient gunners, was falling short. But something has clicked under the measured coaching of Monty Williams and Booker is not just poised for the stage the Suns have taken, but mature enough for the spotlight not to spook him.

Regardless of how far the Cinderella-style runs the Hawks and Suns are having these playoffs take them, the impact of these two young, slow-built franchises — not to mention teams with a similar makeup who fell out a little earlier — is going to trickle into the league at large, in everything from copycat team building to game mechanics. This formula for gradual, even growth has offered a road for small-market teams to get out from under the big market behemoths powered by superstars as much as it encourages a new, potentially more accessible way for young players to advance their games and careers without getting stuck behind walking mountains like LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and James Harden for years.

What’s become evident in these playoffs is that established players do best when adjusting their own games to the developments the younger generation is bringing in. Where scoring in the paint was once put mostly to stretch forwards and big men, guards have scored more points up close in the last two seasons than both those positions combined. Guards are also shifting the preference in terms of go-to shots, with floaters now edging out pull-up jumpers overall. While the six most active floater utilizing players are all guards and all under 22, three of them — Young, Doncic, Morant — were difference-makers for their teams these playoffs, preferring zig-zagging drives that roll easily into floaters, disrupting defenses in their lurching wake.

A sea change like this doesn’t mean the end for the Draft — there are still plenty of teams that, nobly or not, the Draft provides the quickest route to change — nor is it a failsafe method. A franchise could still spend five years waiting for things to evolve only to end up with an anticlimactic bust. The reward of this new wave is, at first, selfishly singular. We get a crop of confident, brash players figuring out their own counters in a high-stakes, cinematic setting that feels closer to a 2K game, while players like Young, Booker, Morant, Doncic, and Ayton feel, for the first time, the reward of so much work, the quashing of Draft brainwashed doubt.

But what comes next, seen already through the ripples of in-game stylistic shifts and the force of a generation of stars instead of one generational star, is a new tide rising.