Welcome to the Jungle: Top players making their NBA playoff debut this season
The regular season is a garden, where you hold hands with your team-mates and walk blissfully. There is optimism and the smell of sweet roses in the air, and occasionally, someone’s big nasty dog frees itself off its leash to crap on your path. But overall, even though the stroll can be a memorable experience, it is still relatively pleasant and easy, no matter how stinky the dog poo or how annoying the little badger holes might seem.
Several NBA players, most of whom are still young and growing into their potential, have only experienced the garden. The path might have been difficult from time to time, there would have been a couple of bad weather days, and the company around them would’ve been less than desirable, but they wouldn’t have really faced real adversity until the day they suit up for the playoffs.
For this season’s playoff debutants, it’s time to welcome them to the jungle.
The playoffs aren’t a stroll in the park. There are dangerous animals, unexpected changes of terrain, the possibility of getting lost in the gloom and the darkness, and a lot of annoying little insects (or the media) out there in the wild. In the playoffs, you either hunt or get hunted. Become the predator or the prey. Win four times in a series and survive, or lose and get left behind.
As we approach the end of the first week of the NBA post-season, we have seen four young perimeter players let loose in the jungle for the first time. How are they handling it? And how many will have a chance to survive and keep venturing ahead?
DeRozan is the most experienced of the bunch. The 24-year-old Raptors guard has been in the league for years already, but despite improved performances from him individually, the team around him never had the talent or the continuity to challenge for a playoff spot.
This year, flanked by Kyle Lowry in the backcourt, the Raptors have been one of the surprising stories of the season. They won the Atlantic Division to make the playoffs for the first time in six years. DeRozan’s individual numbers fell, but he was rewarded for his team’s success with his first All-Star berth. In a banner year for him, he also made his playoff debut in a forgettable Game 1 loss to the Nets, shooting just 3-13 in his first day out in the jungle. But DeRozan bounced back fiercely in Game 2, leading the way with 30 points in an electrifying night that helped his team tie the series.
Lillard may only be 23 and in just his second NBA season, but the former Rookie of the Year has the poise of a veteran. By the end of the regular season, Lillard helped his Trail Blazers return to the post-season by averaging over 20 points per contest and elevating his status as one the best rising young PGs in the game.
But reputations are truly carved out in the playoffs, and so far, Lillard’s rep seems to be heading in the right direction. Portland have won their first two games on the road in thrilling fashion against the Houston Rockets. While LaMarcus Aldridge has played like a superstar, Lillard has been right there with him, finishing with 31 points and 9 rebounds in his playoff debut followed by 18, 8, and 11 assists in the Game 2 victory.
Walker may be playing NBA basketball in late April for the first time in his career, but he is no rookie to big games. In 2011, Walker was the fearless clutch leader of the UConn Huskies as they won the NCAA National Championship. Drafted by the lowly Bobcats, he never had the team around him to continue on his path to success, but the itch of winning ways never left him.
This season has been the best of Walker’s career, as his Bobcats were led by Al Jefferson to the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Unfortunately, it is initiation by fire for young Kemba, as his team is going against the reigning champs Miami. Still, Walker has held his own, averaging 18 points and 7 assists in the first two games, both losses for Charlotte.
A former number one pick out of Kentucky, John Wall always had the talent. But he was questioned for his leadership skills, and it didn’t help that early in his career he was cursed both with a struggling team and with health issues. But 2013-14 has been a breakout season for the 23-year-old PG, as he was named to the All Star team for the first time in his career and is in the playoffs for the first time. And the Wizards aren’t just happy to be there; Wall and Co. shocked the experienced Chicago Bulls by winning both Games 1 and 2 on the road.
This has statistically been Wall’s finest season, and although he’s yet to explode individually in the playoffs, he has played a crucial part as one of Washington’s young leaders as they bid to make it into the Second Round. His backcourt teammate Bradley Beal, also in the playoffs for the first time, has grown up quickly alongside Wall, just in time for their biggest games.