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NBA Playoff Breakout Candidates to Watch

Which up-and-coming players can steal the postseason spotlight?

The 2022 playoff field feels like a breath of fresh air as a new crop of stars enters the spotlight. We’re no longer gearing up for Warriors-Cavaliers II, III or IV, and LeBron James is shockingly on the outside looking in this postseason. What is likely the league office’s loss in television ratings is our gain.

The upcoming postseason features a half-dozen teams that could feasibly win the Eastern Conference, and out West, Golden State is flanked by a flurry of young squads (and Chris Paul). The skill across the league has arguably never been greater. We may be entering an age of true parity as the NBA prepares for a post-LeBron era.

So which impact players of tomorrow could have their breakout moment in the 2022 playoffs? Let’s sort through five candidates before Round 1 begins on Saturday.

Anthony Edwards, Timberwolves

You could argue Edwards just had his breakout moment in Tuesday’s comeback win over the Clippers, a performance that showcased the potential All-NBA talent sharing the spotlight with Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell. Edwards canned five threes against Los Angeles—including a huge go-ahead step-back with three minutes remaining—and paired with Patrick Beverley to lock down Los Angeles’s guards and wings down the stretch. Edwards is a ferocious driver and one of the most athletic players in the league. He’s beginning to put it all together at the tail end of his second season.

Edwards’s self-assurance is among his best attributes. He remained collected yet aggressive throughout Tuesday’s contest. You can sense the game comes easy to Edwards. Neither crowds nor opposing defenses can speed him up, and he looks comfortable in even the most frenetic moments. The Grizzlies have plenty of bodies to throw at Edwards, and their frontline should be a greater deterrent than the Clippers’ small-ball lineups he attacked in the middle of the fourth quarter on Tuesday. Yet perhaps Edwards’s talent is great enough to overcome any obstacle placed in his path. It’s not out of the question for Edwards to power Minnesota to its first playoff series win since 2004.

Jordan Poole, Warriors

The third-year guard is among the candidates for Most Improved Player this year and he’s quickly emerging as one of the league’s top instant-offense players as the Warriors eye a return to the Finals. Poole is averaging 18.5 points per game this season on 36.4% from three and a league-best 92.5% from the line, and he’s still found plenty of volume in Golden State’s offense even with Klay Thompson back on the floor. The Poole-Curry-Thompson trio is plus-32.6 points per 100 possessions this season, a gaudy number in an admittedly small sample of 129 minutes. Any initial concern over Poole’s place alongside Thompson has now dissipated. Poole is a dynamic scorer irrespective of circumstance, one who could light up the scoreboard vs. Denver.

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Tyrese Maxey, 76ers

Tyrese Maxey (0) passes the ball against the Miami Heat.

Philadelphia’s young guard made a major leap in his second season, jumping to 17.5 points per game on impressive 48.5/42.7/86.6 shooting splits. He’s both an effective spot-up option and a passable floor general when James Harden sits, and his jitterbug tendencies are often critical to speeding up Philadelphia’s plodding attack. Don’t be surprised if we see Maxey as the 76ers’ second-leading scorer behind Joel Embiid on certain nights this postseason.

Maxey’s impact may serve an outsized role considering the opponent. Nick Nurse and the Raptors love to deploy a host of exotic defensive schemes (I’m praying we see a triangle-and-two), and it’s likely we see our fair share of trapping on Harden and/or Embiid. This is nothing new for Philadelphia, and it’s a space where Maxey excels. He’s aggressive off the catch on the weak-side, punishing defenses who are too slow to halt his decisive drives. Philadelphia needs a strong effort from Maxey to avoid what could be a very long series.

Jaren Jackson Jr., Grizzlies

The wealth of young talent in Memphis vs. Minnesota extends to the frontcourt with a pair of skilled bigs taking center stage. Towns remains one of the most talented offensive centers in league history despite his clunker on Tuesday night, but his counterpart may be flying a bit under the radar. Jackson is a true two-way force in his fourth season, and he should play a key role in neutralizing Minnesota’s attack. Opponents shot just 49.6% at the rim against Jackson this season, the second-lowest mark of all players behind only Jarrett Allen. Jackson has the footspeed to dance out to the perimeter with Towns as well, a critical skill against the (self-proclaimed) greatest shooting big man of all time.

Jackson’s offensive production is slightly more in question. He has the ability to stretch to the three-point line, though he’s more of a streaky shooter than a reliable one from deep. He has soft touch near the foul line and he’s a sturdy screener. On the right night, Jackson can score in bunches. A hot stretch from the former No. 4 pick could end this series in shorter order than some anticipate.

Bones Hyland, Nuggets

Jamal Murray’s status for this series remains seriously in doubt, and even if Murray does play, it’s hard to see him carrying a heavy minutes load after a 12-month absence. Nikola Jokić’s playoff chops are not to be underestimated—25.9 points, 11.3 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game over the last three postseasons—though the reigning MVP needs at least a modicum of support to take down Steph Curry and the Warriors. Perhaps Hyland can make a difference.

Denver’s rookie point guard saw sporadic playing time in the 2021 portion of the season, though he received increasing run of late amid a thin Nuggets rotation. Hyland is averaging 14 points per game on 41.2% from three since March 1, providing a much-needed dose of secondary scoring alongside Jokić. Austin Rivers will likely see some rotational minutes as a defense-first option against Steph Curry, though when Jokić sits, the keys could very well be turned over to the rookie from VCU. It’s a tall task for this rag-tag Denver group, and perhaps we’d be discussing the Nuggets as a true Finals contender if Murray and Michael Porter Jr. were healthy. If Denver somehow pulls off the Round 1 upset, Hyland will play a major role. 

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