The NBA’s early breakout stars
Whether it’s because of injuries, the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols or a general yearly churn, the league has seen an unexpectedly rapid ascension of young stars this season. Some of this is unique to this year: With several top stars missing in action, there is more room in the spotlight for new talents.
Tyler Herro, a third-year Miami Heat guard, is helping to keep the team afloat in the face of injuries to its top players. Cole Anthony, a second-year guard for the Orlando Magic, has developed into a strong all-around player with a workable jump shot. And 23-year-old center Jarrett Allen is scoring almost 17 points a game for the Cleveland Cavaliers on better than 70% shooting. Allen has a good chance of making his first All-Star Game this season.
The strong play from three players in particular has given hope to their teams’ fans: Evan Mobley, a lanky Cavaliers rookie; Anthony Edwards, a Minnesota Timberwolves swingman in his second year; and second-year Memphis Grizzlies guard Desmond Bane, who thrived during the injury absence of the team’s top player, Ja Morant, which could have sent Memphis into a tailspin.
None of the three is likely to make the All-Star team this season, but making future ones is certainly within reach.
Here’s what makes them three of the season’s early breakout stars.
EVAN MOBLEY, Cleveland Cavaliers
As the Cavaliers have pulled themselves out of the league’s cellar, one of the most exciting developments for the franchise’s future has been the emergence of Mobley, a forward.
With a body type and skill set that have drawn comparisons to a young Anthony Davis, Mobley is an early contender for the rookie of the year. He was named the season’s inaugural rookie of the month, which covers October and November. During that span, Mobley’s 30 blocks were twice that of the next best rookie, Scottie Barnes of the Toronto Raptors.
More important, his play is helping his team win. The Cavaliers were the only team that played a rookie more than 400 minutes through November to also have a winning record.
Heading into Christmas, Mobley led all rookies in blocks per game with 1.8 and was tied with Barnes for most rookie rebounds per game. His defensive rating is among the top 10 of players who have played at least 25 games this season.
The 6-foot-11 player from Temecula, California, was expected to shine in the NBA. He was a star in high school and spent one season at the University of Southern California, where he was named the Pac-12’s player of the year, defensive player of the year and freshman of the year.
But rookies don’t always enter the NBA quite this polished.
— TANIA GANGULI
ANTHONY EDWARDS, Minnesota Timberwolves
Edwards made his mark as a high-flying slasher during his rookie season with the Timberwolves last year. He was a delight to watch, particularly because of his elite dunking. But there were some questions about his offensive efficiency as he entered his second year in the league. He shot only 32.9% from 3 last season and 41.7% overall. The NBA has a long and storied list of inefficient scorers who had inflated stats, because they were on bad teams that needed someone to put the ball in the hoop.
But this season, Edwards is shooting a bit better, including from 3, and keeping the Timberwolves competitive. On Dec. 15, Edwards hit 10 3-pointers in a game against the Denver Nuggets. He still has work to do to become a top scorer, but at 20 years old, he is already one of the best young players in the league. He has also diversified his game otherwise, improving his rebounding and passing, allowing him to contribute in games even when his shot isn’t falling. If Minnesota makes the playoffs, Edwards’ leap will be one of the biggest reasons.
He has also established himself as a leader unafraid to respectfully call out teammates, including Karl-Anthony Towns, or not-so-respectfully do so to stars on other teams, including Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert. He is a keeper for Minnesota and has an outside shot at making the All-Star team this year, as well as, you know, an actual outside shot.
— SOPAN DEB
DESMOND BANE, Memphis Grizzlies
At the 2020 NBA draft, Bane was little more than an afterthought — to nearly everyone except the Memphis Grizzlies, who traded a pair of second-round picks to the Boston Celtics as part of a three-team deal so that they could move up in the order and select Bane with the final pick of the first round.
Before the draft pundits had questions about 6-foot-5 Bane, who had spent a full four seasons at Texas Christian University, a red flag in an era when most top prospects are one-and-done. Would Bane merely be a spot-up shooter in the NBA or would he be able to create his own looks? And weren’t his arms a bit on the short side? Bane had heard it all.
As a rookie, Bane earned a rotation spot for the Grizzlies as a dependable outside threat. Now a full-time starter in his second season, he is the team’s third-leading scorer behind Morant and Dillon Brooks, and he ranks among the league leaders in 3-point shooting (41.3% going into Christmas). His value was especially apparent when Morant went down with a knee injury at the end of November. The Grizzlies won 10 of 12 games without him, and Bane was a steadying force — and occasionally spectacular. He had a career-high 29 points in a win against the Dallas Mavericks.
Morant has since returned, and the Grizzlies are in the thick of the playoff chase as one of the Western Conference’s most surprising young teams.
— SCOTT CACCIOLA