The Next Step // Players Ascending to Superstardom on the NBA’s Biggest Stage

By Casey Egan

According to the NBA’s world-renowned marketing department, the playoffs are “Where Amazing Happens” (TM). The first week of the 2017 postseason has had a number of amazing moment already. It IS amazing that Vince Carter—who entered the league the same year Michelle Kwan dazzled at the Nagano Olympics (1998)—is somehow still starting for a playoff team. It is amazing that Kyle Singler (zero points in 10 total minutes so far this postseason) is still playing and Demarcus Cousins isn’t.

Sidebar: Here’s an actual recent Kyle Singler news clip from this past month: “Thunder’s Kyle Singler: Doesn’t impress in starting role”

But the most amazing part of the playoffs is the opportunity to witness a superstar ascending.

Guys like Russell Kanye Westbrook, LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Kawhi Leonard have all announced their arrivals in crucial playoff moments over the years. They’ve guided their teams through uncharted waters, and solidified their reputations as premier stars.

The star status afforded to these players all came about as a result of each guy elevating (and not a D Wade-dunk-attempt-in-Game-1 kind of elevation) his performance in the biggest moments of the biggest games in recent seasons. So as the 2017 playoffs get underway, it bears the question: Which mid-level star is most likely to make that jump this year?

Editorial note: Matthew Dellavedova just missed the cut.

NBA: Miami Heat at Boston Celtics

5. Isaiah Thomas

Though IT often draws adoration from fans and analysts for his scrap, heart, and hustle, the 2017 postseason is unlikely to propel him to the stature of a player who can lead a team to a championship. It’s certainly worth mentioning that IT was struck by tragedy on the eve of his 2017 postseason debut—and that’s no doubt been weighing on him. But Isaiah’s play in the last month against the likes of Lebron and Jimmy Butler has revealed a cold reality: His physical limitations will prevent him from ever becoming a superstar. In 2017 we learned exactly what peak Isaiah looks like, and while it’s good, it’s not good enough.

Likelihood of making the jump: 0.5/10

Roughly the same odds of Mike Conley drawing a technical foul this postseason.



4. Paul George

PG is in a tough spot drawing King James in the first round. Indiana’s roster is laughably inadequate compared to the roster of the defending champs. And even when PG has an incredible stat line like he did in Game 3 at home (36p, 15r, 9a), his team still found a way to lose. It seems the only way Paul George can make the leap to superstardom is with a change of scenery and a fresh start somewhere else.

Likelihood of making the jump: 2/10

Significantly better than the odds of a Spencer Hawes step-back three.


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3. John Wall

In year seven in D.C., John Wall hasn’t quite yet broken through to the next level. The four-time all star is flourishing under first-year coach Scott Brooks—averaging career highs in points and assists (23.1 and 10.7, respectively)—but he is unlikely to take his team deep into May or June. Wall is physically gifted enough to lead a playoff run with Bradley Beal as his co-pilot, but the Wizards will likely have to go through Chicago and Cleveland. My skepticism about Wall taking the leap this year is more about the route than the player. In a different year with a slightly upgraded supporting cast, the climate could be just right for Wall.

Likelihood of making the jump: 5/10

Roughly the same odds as DeAndre Jordan making a free throw. It could happen, but you just really can’t assume with any confidence.


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2. Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Greek Freak has been nothing short of iridescent this postseason. He’s showing a certain playoff switch we weren’t aware he had. Averaging 26p, 11.5r, and 5a, Giannis (yes, I don’t want to try to spell his name again) is blossoming into a Next Level player before our very eyes. And with a solid bench and surprisingly good supporting cast, the Deer appear poised to knock out the Fighting Drakes. But with Cleveland looming next round, it’s hard to imagine the Deer going much further. That being said, Giannis’ impressive first-round showing has already elevated his stature. The question that remains, however, is how much further he can go this year.

Likelihood of making the jump: 7/10

Roughly the same odds as Cleveland steamrolling all of these guys and the rest of the Eastern Conference.


Jimmy crop

1. Jimmy Butler

After a disappointing regular season for the Bulls, the expectations for Jimmy Buckets in the playoffs were fairly tempered going up against the East’s top seed. In his sixth season, I thought we knew what Butler was—a versatile forward who can stretch the floor and fill up the stat sheet. But the early returns in the 2017 postseason suggest that he could be more. In his first two games, Butler has nearly averaged “a Lebron” at 26p, 8.5r, and 5.5a. And with the supporting cast of “Playoff Rondo” and a proven champion in Dwyane Wade, this Bulls team feels like it may go a few rounds. Butler’s teammates are more than happy to give the stage to the Brad Paisley megafan.

Likelihood of making the jump: 8/10

Roughly the same odds as TNT showing Larry Bird with the look of a dad who is juuust about to threaten to turn the car around thirty minutes into a family road trip.