Here’s an abridged rundown of the playoffs’ first round: A Boston Celtics team missing its two best players to injury—and led instead by the second-year forward Jaylen Brown and the rookie Jayson Tatum—beat the Milwaukee Bucks in seven games. The All-Star-less Utah Jazz, with the rookie guard Donovan Mitchell at the helm, disassembled an Oklahoma City roster featuring the defending MVP and a combined 22 All-Star appearances. The Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, who a year ago had played only 31 professional games between them, cruised past the veteran Miami Heat. The sci-fi center Anthony Davis, 25 years old and without a playoff win to his credit, willed the New Orleans Pelicans to a sweep of the heavily favored Portland Trail Blazers.
It’s the basketball equivalent of a desert-wildflower super bloom, as stunning and as rare. Arguably not since the mid–2000s—when a 2003 draft class that included James, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony began to assert itself on the postseason stage—has the NBA seen such a concentrated rush of young talent. “It’s a great class,” the Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said of this year’s rookies back in January, going as far as to invoke the 1984 group that included Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon. “And over the next two, three, or four years, that will really tell the story of how great.” But they, along with players slightly their senior, haven’t made fans wait that long.
There’s no shortage of statistics emphasizing the early accomplishments. Mitchell, this season, was the first rookie to lead a playoff team in scoring since Anthony did so 14 years ago. Simmons, in Game 4 of the Miami series, became the first rookie to record a playoff triple-double since Magic Johnson. Tatum was the first rookie to score 1,000 points while shooting over 40 percent from the three-point line since Curry in 2009. And while Davis is a few years removed from his rookie season, those years have been spent with a New Orleans team that’s only just now emerging from an extended purgatory; Davis’s 33 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks per game during the Pelicans’ opening-round victory made for a charming introduction to casual fans.
Beyond numbers, though, this generation sets itself apart in how fully it has internalized the lessons of the one it aims to supplant. Watching Simmons—a 6-foot-10 and functionally ambidextrous point guard equally ready to flick a no-look pass or throw down a two-handed jam—cannot help but bring James to mind, and Mitchell’s madcap drives to the rim would evoke Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook even if the two hadn’t shared a court in Round 1. “Beating a guy I looked up to [Westbrook] and I model my game after is special,” Mitchell admitted after his 38-point effort helped the Jazz seal that series.