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First Time, Long Time: Rookies Are Impacting the Playoffs Like Never Before

A handful of first-year players start playoff games every year, but never before has a rookie class had such a dramatic effect past the first round

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Forget Rookie of the Year, which wasn’t much of a race this season unless you asked Donovan Mitchell. This was the Year of the Rookie. Fans flocked to the Las Vegas summer league to catch a glimpse of new Lakers guard Lonzo Ball and his equally famous shoes. Markelle Fultz’s mysterious shoulder injury and malfunctioning jump shot confounded everyone from fans to the 76ers’ front office. And while most observers crowned Ben Simmons as the ROY well before the regular season ended, Mitchell turned the campaign into a semantic debate over the definition of “rookie.”

The impact of this year’s rookie class (yes, including Simmons) didn’t end with the regular season, either. Jayson Tatum has the most playoff points on a Celtics team that made the conference finals, Simmons recorded the first playoff triple-double for a rookie since Magic Johnson, and Mitchell scored at least 20 points in his first seven career playoff games and nine of his total 11. We’re told playoff experience is critical for playoff success, but this crop of rookies has broken conventional wisdom.

Up until this season, multiple rookies had never played in multiple playoff rounds and averaged at least 15 points per game since the 1983-84 season, when the playoff format expanded to 16 teams. This year, there are three. For further comparison, the highest-scoring rookie in last year’s playoffs was Atlanta’s Taurean Prince (11.2 points per game). The year before, it was Indiana’s Myles Turner (10.3), followed closely by then–Dallas forward Justin Anderson (9.4). The year before that, the leading performance came from 25-year-old Nets rookie Bojan Bogdanovic (10.3). Not one of those players won a series, and not one of them made any imprint on their respective series. Almost every night this postseason, though, you could watch a first-year player leading his young team beyond its means.

Despite Utah’s elimination Tuesday, Mitchell has been the breakout star of the playoffs. His impact has little precedent: The only rookies in NBA history to play in at least two series and average more points per playoff game than Mitchell are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor), Wilt Chamberlain, George Mikan, and Elgin Baylor. None of those rookie seasons came after 1970.

Against the Thunder in the first round, Mitchell nearly matched Russell Westbrook’s scoring output (176 total points for Westbrook, 171 for Mitchell) while shooting a higher percentage than the reigning MVP and routinely torching him in transition. Mitchell slashed through a typically sturdy defense time and time again, turning All-Star defenders into extras in his own highlight show. In Utah’s series-clinching Game 6 win, the rookie scored 38 points.

In Round 2, the Rockets overwhelmed the Jazz but didn’t fully stifle Mitchell, who still averaged nearly 20 points per game and posted a 20-point third quarter in Game 5 to give Utah a wisp of a chance at extending the series. It was an apt capstone for a delightfully surprising season; Mitchell was going to go out shooting.

Mitchell received the opportunity to captain the offense after Gordon Hayward left Utah for Boston in free agency last summer, and the playoffs’ next rookie star has capitalized on a similar vacancy. With Hayward lost for the season in October and Kyrie Irving joining him on the injury list in March and Marcus Smart missing the first four games of the first round with a thumb injury, Tatum needed to assume a top scoring role. It’s like making a first-time camper perform counselor duties. To his credit, Tatum has played like he’s 30 and not 20, averaging 35.2 minutes per game in the playoffs and scoring 20 points or more in every contest since Game 5 of the Celtics’ first-round series against the Bucks. His loudest statement came in Game 1 against the Sixers, when he dropped 28 points on 16 shots and played 40 minutes.

Both Tatum and Mitchell present compelling contrasts to Simmons, the third member of this rookie trinity. Unlike Tatum and Mitchell, Simmons’s chief role isn’t scoring; it’s doing everything else. Simmons can’t shoot, and he knows he can’t shoot, so he often chooses not to. But what he does keys everything for the Sixers. As the series against the Celtics showed, a discombobulated Simmons makes it nearly impossible for Philadelphia to thrive. Against Miami, Simmons looked his regular-season self, averaging 18.2 points, 10.6 rebounds, and nine assists per game as Philly advanced via a gentleman’s sweep. But the Celtics forced Simmons to be a half-court player, demanded he hit a shot, and put him in a vise all series long. As he faded, so did his team.

Even with his second-round downturn, Simmons still posted overall playoff numbers any rookie would gladly accept: 16.3 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game. The only other rookies in playoff history to average a 15-7-7 are Magic Johnson and Chris Webber.

But what stands out about these rookies other than their success is their burden. Each has recorded a usage rate north of 20 percent in the playoffs, meaning they’ve shot the ball more than an average player on the court. The last time three rookies managed that feat in the same postseason was 2004, which is when members of the ballyhooed 2003 draft class made their first playoff runs. The no. 1 pick from that draft conveniently thinks the similarities between the two rookie groups extend further:

LeBron James wasn’t a part of the 2004 playoffs, though, as the Paul Silas–coached Cavaliers finished just 35-47. (The three rookies with 20-plus-percent usage rates in that postseason were Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Dallas’s Marquis Daniels, though the latter two didn’t win a series.) That’s another separating factor for this year’s rookie overachievers: The three were all lottery picks who, through good fortune and their own performance, made the playoffs in the first place.

Simmons and Fultz, who hasn’t played since Game 3 of the first round and appeared sparingly before that, are the first no. 1 picks since Derrick Rose in 2009 to reach the playoffs as rookies. Before this season, only nine first overall selections had done so since the 1983-84 playoff expansion. But Simmons’s arrival after an injury-induced gap year moved Philadelphia’s Process to the next step, and draft-pick trades helped both Tatum join a team that had just finished with the East’s best record and Mitchell join a sturdy roster whose greatest deficiency—a lead scorer, with Hayward gone—was one he was most suited to correct.

Part of the apparent rookie playoff takeover results from the rookies being present at all: Six rookies have started a game in these playoffs, which by itself isn’t notable—the same number did in 2015-16 and 2016-17; remember Salah Mejri nabbing a start for the 2015-16 Mavs? But what is notable is how many of them started for teams good enough to win a series. Five rookies this season—the big three, plus Royce O’Neale and OG Anunoby—have started a game in the second round, the most in any season since 1989-90. While the undrafted O’Neale was in Utah’s opening lineup only because of Ricky Rubio’s injury, Anunoby started for most of the season on the East’s no. 1 seed and was Toronto’s preferred option to guard—if unsuccessfully—LeBron James in Cleveland’s second-round sweep. And when Tatum starts a game in the conference finals, he’ll join a short list of just 10 rookies since the playoff expansion who have started a game in so late a round.

Tatum will also, finally, be alone as the sole remaining member of this rookie trio. Chris Paul might be a conference finals rookie, but the top title contenders writ large are nothing of the sort. They’re laden with veterans, rather, as the Cavaliers, Rockets, and Warriors are three of the four oldest teams in the league; on those three rosters, rookies have played fewer than 100 minutes combined in these playoffs.

To continue the rookie trend, Tatum needs to will his team to a win over the Cavaliers, or a new face will need to emerge. If there’s one aspect this rookie class has lacked, it’s depth—beyond the top three, only Anunoby has made a real impact, so the fifth place on the All-Rookie Playoff Team is still up for grabs. Maybe Jordan Bell—whom Warriors coach Steve Kerr says could play a role in the Western Conference finals—will secure that spot with a key double-double against Houston, or maybe Cedi Osman will reemerge in Cleveland’s rotation. Given how their peers have played over the past month, it would be hard to doubt further achievement.