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Wednesday, May 22, 2019

8 breakout players of the NBA Playoffs

John Wall

The NBA’s regular season can drag and lose the interest of the casual fan. When the lights turn up in the playoffs, some players shrink and others rise to the occasion. Responding in the postseason can change a player’s career. With free agency and a potentially wild offseason around the corner, players around the league are eager to earn extra money or solidify their spot on their team’s payroll.

This postseason, we’ve seen a crop of players stand out from the crowd, from big names growing bigger, to unknowns making the leap, to castoffs mounting a comeback. Each is a great story, only matched by their great play on the court.

Here’s a look at some of the breakout performers of the 2017 NBA playoffs.

1. John Wall, Washington Wizards

There’s no doubt that Wall was a star before these playoffs started, but he has absolutely elevated his game this postseason and raised his profile league-wide.

In 13 playoff games, Wall averaged 27.2 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 1.7 steals. On both ends of the floor, he changed the game for Washington and dictated everything for the Wizards. He assisted on 45.7 percent of his teammates’ field goals while on the floor, good for 10.3 dimes per game, while only turning the ball over on 14.6 percent and shooting 45 percent from the field. The only ever player to post those numbers in at least 13 playoff games was Magic Johnson in 1987. Any time a point guard can be mentioned in a group with only Magic, that is rarefied air.

Now Wall will enter next season not as a semi-star like he has in years past, but as a contender for the title of the league’s best two-way, pure point guard. While James Harden and Russell Westbrook have the ball in their hand nearly the entire game, but don’t contribute much on defense, Wall could supplant the aging Chris Paul as the best passing and scoring floor general in the league.

In an Eastern Conference devoid of real threats to LeBron James’ crown, Wall’s rise to superstardom could be the beginning of something building in our nation’s capital.

2. Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz

No player is in better position to take advantage of a strong postseason that Gordon Hayward.

Pending a few other stars with opt-out clauses in their contracts, Hayward should enter the free agent market as the best swingman possibly headed to a new team.

While Hayward was almost certain to collect max contract offers this summer, he has guaranteed he will see the top offers from Utah and other teams around the league, namely Boston and the Lakers.

The 27-year-old forward posted 24 points and 6 rebounds per game in the playoffs, leading the Jazz to a first-round victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. No team will likely advance any further than this year’s Jazz with Hayward as its go-to-guy, but if Hayward signs somewhere where he can be an elite second option, he could shift the balance of power in the NBA.

3. Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets

Fans who have followed Gordon’s career have ridden quite the roller coaster. When he was 22 years old, Gordon averaged 22 points per game for the Clippers, before being used as the centerpiece in the trade to acquire Chris Paul from New Orleans. Since then, his health deteriorated. He played only 9 games in 2011-2012, and his production dropped off.

Gordon has seen a complete resurgence in Houston this season.

In his first eight years in the league, Gordon averaged 1.9 for 4.9 from outside the arc. In Mike D’Antoni’s high octane system, he’s stroking 3.3 threes per game on a wild 8.8 attempts. In the playoffs he made three or more outside shots in five of Houston’s 11 games. He was a legitimate offensive weapon and able to be relied on defensively, posting a negative plus/minus only three times in the playoffs.

Harden will continue to set the table for Houston, but Gordon appears ready and willing to take advantage of that set-up in the years to come.

4. Kelly Olynyk, Boston Celtics

The Canadian big man may have already been a household name from his days at Gonzaga and his distinctive long hair. No matter anyone’s familiarity with Olynyk, no one could possibly have expected him to play the game of his life in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Olynyk buried the Wizards with 26 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists, in just 28 minutes on the floor. He shot 10 for 14 from the field, seemingly unable to miss in the second half.

One game of brilliance from Olynyk may not propel the Celtics to new heights or make him a star, but it could serve as a vibrant reminder of the kind of role player needed in today’s NBA. His versatility makes him valuable in Brad Stevens’ system, dragging bigger defenders out of the paint and making them move in space.

Look for players with Olynyk’s skillset to demand sizable contracts in free agency or be picked early in the draft, like rangy Arizona forward Lauri Markkanen.

See Nos. 5-8 on Page 2

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