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NBA Podium Guys: The New Class

All the usual stars have come out for the postseason—well, except LeBron—but the first round has also ushered in a new wave of impact players. We run down the six biggest playoff breakthroughs thus far.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The podium is the NBA postseason’s version of a game ball. With more media packing the locker rooms in the playoffs, the league will often pull certain players out of the fray and up on stage in the interview room. Most of the time, it’s a spot reserved for a team’s star. But occasionally, an unsung hero will swing a game and get their moment in the spotlight. That is what J.A. Adande would call a Podium Game.

With the first round of the 2019 playoffs drawing to a close, we look at the six players who have broken through and established themselves as fixtures on the podium and in the national spotlight.

Derrick White, Spurs

Justin Verrier: It’s jarring to watch Derrick White catch the ball outside the 3-point arc with space in front of him and immediately dart toward the basket. The power of the 3-pointer is dogma in the NBA, and teams ping the ball around specifically to create as many opportunities to sling 3-point shots as they can. But White, a below-average 3-point shooter this season, rarely thinks shoot-first, even when the extra value is right there for the taking. Instead, he’ll jolt down the lane as the defense rotates to catch up to the ball, and then he’ll use his big body and his sharp on-court awareness to either power through or finish around any defenders awaiting him at the rim.

White isn’t all that fast. He’s not some Kyrie Irving–type ball handler who can beguile defenders. And while he’s been money from midrange this postseason, he’s yet to translate his low-release jump shot to 3-point success. But he is a smart player, and he knows how to use his keen sense for momentum and angles and timing to compensate for a lack of overwhelming athleticism and skill. In other words, he’s a perfect Spur. And in classic Spurs fashion, the former low-first-round draft pick has emerged as if out of nowhere to become the backbone for their playoff success.

White put up 16 and 17 points in the first two games of the series mostly through fearlessly attacking while his defender, often Jamal Murray, scrambled to cut him off:

In Game 3, White again went downhill toward the hoop, knowing that Nikola Jokic wouldn’t put up much of a fight if he made it to the rim. He also took advantage of the lead-footed Jokic in space, either off closeouts or in the pick-and-roll. By the end of the night, he had put up a career-high 36 points on 21 attempts—more than any Spur in a single game this postseason.

The Nuggets made it a mission to be more physical on White in Game 4, and indeed, the second guard was derailed by the extra attention (eight points on eight shots). Still, we’re now at the point when Derrick White is not some faceless man wandering the planet, but the type of player the no. 2 team in the Western Conference has to game-plan to stop.

Pascal Siakam, Raptors

Danny Chau: Maybe Siakam doesn’t belong here. He is, after all, the consensus favorite for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award who demanded All-Star and even All-NBA consideration all through his whirlwind third season. So much can change in a year. This time in 2018, Siakam was a bit player on Toronto’s bench mob, a frenetic-energy big who the Raptors mainly saw as another body to throw at LeBron James in the second round of the playoffs. Siakam, to his credit, did the best he could against the King. It wasn’t nearly enough: According to tracking data from Second Spectrum, Siakam spent 83 possessions as James’s primary defender and allowed him to shoot 60.7 percent (17-for-28) from the field. He was just another guy; someone who could have easily been a throw-in to the Raptors’ eventual trade for Kawhi Leonard instead of fellow bench mobster Jakob Poeltl.

Siakam’s transformation happened overnight, and it happened in plain sight, if you knew where to look. There were murmurs in the summer; Siakam became a fixture at Los Angeles’s Drew League, where he dropped 38 points, 15 rebounds, and 11 assists in his debut. By Raptors training camp in the fall, the murmurs out in L.A. turned into a chorus in Toronto: Siakam was a star in the making. No, seriously.

Game 3 in Orlando on Friday night was just the latest in a procession of national coming out parties for Spicy P. Siakam was a lifeline for the Raptors in an up-and-down game bereft of flow. His 30 points on 13-of-20 shooting came in all the ways we’ve come to expect: pirouetting finishes up and around defenders in the post, off-kilter dervishes from the top of the circle down into the paint that seem to belie his unique sense of coordination, smartly timed cuts along the baseline, a smattering of corner 3s for good measure. He is averaging more than 39 minutes per game in the postseason thus far; only Paul George is spending more time on the court for his team. Siakam has gone from an anonymous King’s tribute to a player flirting with true stardom. So many things will have to go right for the Raptors season to be considered a success, but Siakam, with his miraculous emergence, has done more than his part in keeping Toronto’s dreams of being a long-term contender intact.

Caris LeVert, Nets

Verrier: Just a few weeks ago, LeVert looked almost unplayable. The smooth, cerebral approach that fueled his breakout earlier this season would peak through the clouds every now and then, but the gruesome leg injury he suffered in November left him hesitant and ineffective. LeVert, like teammates D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, lives on carving up opponents off the dribble, and if he’s not attacking downhill or hitting 3-pointers to space the floor, he’s just kind of … there. But the Nets kept feeding him a regular dose of minutes and opportunities, and the LeVert of old began to resurface. In the first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers, LeVert has reasserted himself as Brookyn’s most complete offensive player.

Through four games, LeVert is averaging 21.8 points on 49-48-76 shooting, five rebounds, and three assists. His individual numbers were better in Game 3, but in Game 4, he delivered his best all-around performance since the injury: Back in the starting lineup, LeVert racked up 25 points on 9-for-18 shooting, six assists, five rebounds, and a key steal with about 35 seconds to play. He was aggressive going at his defender off the bounce, especially when he drew one of the Sixers’ loafing bigs on a switch; and he didn’t shy away from contact in the paint, one of the telltale signs of his game’s growth to start this season. LeVert got to the line nine times Saturday, his most since November, and didn’t think twice about going at Joel Embiid with a head full of steam:

The starting nod also meant more time on the court with Jarrett Allen, the Nets’ dandelion dunk machine. In the first three games of the series, LeVert and Allen shared the court for just 11 minutes; in Game 4, they played 26 together. The result: Allen also had his best game of the playoffs (21 points, eight rebounds, four assists), with four of LeVert’s six assists going toward Allen lobs and easy looks.

When LeVert went down this season, Russell was unleashed; in just three months, he became an All-Star and, perhaps, the face of the franchise. But as much progress as Russell has made reining in his id, the Nets, without another steady hand to to turn to, also allowed him to shoot through his rash decisions (Russell shot as much as Devin Booker when LeVert was injured). Russell’s erratic side is the tax you pay for some of those unguardable moonball triples, but living with the negatives becomes more difficult when the focus zooms in from an 82-game season to a few late possessions. So it’s no surprise, then, that as the series has gone on and execution has become more of a priority, the Nets have turned to LeVert—and, really, should have more late in Game 4. The first answer is usually the right answer.

Jamal Murray and Malik Beasley, Nuggets

Chau: Murray’s and Beasley’s NBA careers were linked from the start; the two combo guards were drafted by Denver 13 picks apart in 2016, coming off hyperproductive freshman seasons at Kentucky and Florida State, respectively. They were conjoined twins with their own personality quirks: Murray was the smooth, fearless shot taker whose guile allowed him to maneuver around giants without extraordinary athleticism; Beasley, on the other hand, was the freakishly athletic 3-and-D marksman in training. Murray was given a full runway as soon as his rookie season began; Beasley had to work his way into the rotation. Murray has his bow and arrow; Beasley has a literal metal rod fused to his body.

In their first postseason together, the two have proved their worth, doing what they’ve done all season long. Murray’s remarkable Jekyll-and-Hyde Game 2—wherein the 22-year-old scored 21 points in the fourth quarter on 8-for-9 shooting after what was arguably the worst 36 minutes of his NBA career—will go down as one of the best moments of these playoffs, though it more or less amplified what has been the central tension of Murray’s career thus far: The flashes of stardom don’t come without stretches of baffling inefficiency. Beasley’s impact comes with far less fanfare, but his production on both ends of the floor have been far steadier: He is shooting 56.3 percent from 3 on four attempts per game against the Spurs thus far in the series, picking up where he left off in the regular season, when he shot 40 percent from 3 across 81 games.

I’d long wondered what Beasley, a rare, committed defender who is both an elite athlete and an elite 3-point shooter, would look like given Murray’s green light to score. There are certainly signs that he’d handle it well: In 18 games as starter this season, largely filling in for either Murray or Gary Harris, Beasley averaged 15.9 points per game on 55-50-94 shooting splits. His efficiency surged rather than plummeted. Beasley has, by far, the best on-court net rating among Nuggets rotation players in these playoffs, while Murray has the second-lowest. The Nuggets are one of the youngest teams in the league hoping to validate their spot near the top of the Western standings; this best-of-seven gantlet against the Spurs has been the perfect proving ground for their identity as a whole. Jokic has sustained near triple-double averages, but it’s been the young combo guards who have been the biggest wild cards in the series. One has proved himself capable of taking the team home in a must-win game at home; the other is a perfect soldier for matchup-centric playoff basketball. Here’s hoping they both survive long enough to see another series that can show us just where Denver is headed for the foreseeable future.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Clippers

Verrier: With so much data available and so many fans now plugged into League Pass year-round, the NBA Hipster is a dying breed. (Siakam didn’t even make it through preseason before going mainstream.) But Gilgeous-Alexander may be one of the last few on the short list.

Nothing about the rookie’s statistical profile jumps off the page, and while he doesn’t lack skill or athleticism, he usually isn’t a source for the type of dunks and 3-pointers and defender-dropping crossovers that dominate timelines. The Clippers’ success amid an on-the-fly retooling has skyrocketed their approval rating, yet there’s a long list of cult heroes on that roster before you get to the unassuming young point guard.

But seeing SGA in person is revelatory. (They’re even better live, basically.) Most first-year players struggle with the speed of the NBA game, yet Gilgeous-Alexander never seems to be rushing or dragging. And while his steal rate is modest, his giant wingspan and preternatural feel for the game cause all sorts of problems for the opposition. Contributing as a rookie is hard enough; SGA is starting, for a playoff team, for a coach who up until now had a reputation for icing young point guards.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Gilgeous-Alexander’s postseason breakthrough began on defense. Less than a minute into Game 4 against the Warriors, SGA swatted the ball away from Draymond Green with his off hand. In a race for the ball, somehow his long limbs outstretched Kevin Durant’s. With KD still riding his left hip, Gilgeous-Alexander shielded his right hand long enough to avoid Durant’s swipe and finish off the glass. The next defensive possession, he got switched on Durant on the perimeter and jostled the ball away—twice.

Gilgeous-Alexander went on to drop a career-high 25 points, mostly by punishing the Golden State bigs—he made Green pay three times for going under on screens, and when he drew Andrew Bogut, Kevon Looney, or the like on switches, he went at the mismatch to create for either himself or others. The former has been slower to come—SGA averaged just 10.8 points this season, ninth among rookies. But he leads that group in playoff scoring, because the players with his kind of upside don’t make it this far right from the start.