For These Stars, First Chance to Showcase Themselves

Sometimes, all it takes is an invitation. You know the one I'm talking about. There's that party that goes on every year ... the one for the elite of the industry. You'd love to go, but the powers that be believe that privilege hasn't been earned quite yet. You know, though, if you get the chance to show up, the skills you possess can be on full display for everyone to appreciate.

Professional sports is such an industry. Annually, the teams that qualify for their respective postseasons get a special stage unto themselves. And no matter the stage of one's career, when you make that first postseason appearance, you can use that attention to show how well you belong.

Regarding the first round of this season's NBA playoffs, there are some key figures that are putting their best "show-out" foot forward. And they all come in at various stages of their careers.

In the bid for Rookie of the Year, there's a clear-cut favorite. However, I wouldn't be surprised if the vote is a little closer than anticipated. Let's start with the favorite.

Ben Simmons

Over the entirety of the season, the 76ers' point guard has shown why has was so highly touted coming out of Australia. After sitting his first year as a pro due to injury, he set out to prove his readiness for the top level. Boy, has that been stated. He's been the floor leader missing for this franchise for a while, and, perhaps, he's on the road to being their best since Allen Iverson. Heck, why not project him all the way to "Magic" status? A guy that's 6-10 and 230 pounds with outstanding ball-handling skills, as well as a propensity for leading teammates into open shots? Sounds a lot like the 6-9, 215-pound Hall of Fame member. Oh, and, if memory serves me, Magic had to develop a quality jump shot himself.

Donovan Mitchell

While Simmons had a full season to develop anticipation from the public, Mitchell was an afterthought. The former Louisville guard may have been expected to grow in his first season with the Jazz. However, the fact that he became just as (if not more) important than the all-star that the organization just lost in Gordon Hayward. Yes, he was a lottery pick (13th overall by Denver), but who thought he would have more of an impact than Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum (more to come), Josh Jackson, etc.? I know I didn't.

After letting Hayward leave in free agency, you figured that this team would revolve around Rudy Gobert. Mitchell, though, made his presence known early and often in his first season as a pro. He scored in single digits nine times in the 79 regular season games that he played. Since February 7th (the last time he scored in single digits), the guard averaged 22.9 points a game. Over that stretch, the Jazz went 22-6 (to be fair, Mitchell's started this run in the midst of the team's midseason, 11-game winning streak). Entering the playoffs, Mitchell led the team in scoring (20.5 ppg), and it continues in the second stanza.

Jayson Tatum

Speaking of Tatum, we knew that he had the tools to be a "more than just quality" NBA player. The Celtics knew that, too. They had him in the starting lineup for the Opening night tilt in Cleveland. You had the sense, though, that this would also be a good chance for a developmental-style campaign. That shifted once Gordon Hayward broke his leg two minutes into the season. The need for the small forward has only increased into the postseason, with star point guard Kyrie Irving undergoing surgery in early March. Tatum appears to be headed to a 3rd-place finish in the ROY vote. But, just as the other two candidates, the impact of his role on a team that finished 2nd in the Eastern Conference can't be understated.

So, what about those young veterans that have some time built in?

Karl-Anthony Towns

The Timberwolves' stay was short-lived. The breakthrough, however, came with the appearance. For the franchise that held the longest active playoff drought, this was a big deal. Towns is one of the big reasons they got the West's 8-seed. As long as he plays home games in Minneapolis, his improvement will probably be the main reason that this squad can make any deep runs down the road. The first two games against Houston were rough on the Minnesota center. The rebounding was there (11.0 rpg), but he scored 6.5 ppg on a combined 5-for-18 (27.8%) shooting. A return to some home cooking seemed to get Towns in a better on-court mood. The last three contest of the series, the center averaged 21.0 ppg (on 54.5% shooting) and 15.0 rpg. There could a bright future for the third-year player.

Joel Embiid

For 76ers fans, The Process finally came to fruition this year. You may not have liked how the organization got to this point (count me in that category), but they've arrived. Embiid wasn't on the court the entire time, but he was in Philly for all of the losses the last three seasons. Now, he's showing why NBA GMs were coveting his talents during his one season at Kansas. After two years getting his body right, he finally got onto the court last season, playing 31 games and teasing the general hoops public with what could be. That total doubled this time around (63 games) and the tease turned into a force. Now, he hopes to be the centerpiece of a title contender. If what was displayed against Miami (in just three games of the series) continues, that shouldn't be an issue.

Then, there always a veteran or two that finally make it over the hump to that second part of the season.

Ricky Rubio

The Spanish point guard is 27-years-old. Should have a nice 4-5-year stretch in the league, right? Try seven. It's been nearly nine years since he was drafted by the Timberwolves. After six years of trying to end Minnesota's long postseason absence, he was traded to a division rival. Fortunately for him, it was one that had playoff experience as recently as the season before. He was able to parlay that into his first postseason appearance.

Going through his first five contests, Rubio took advantage of the moment. His Game 3 triple-double against the Thunder (26 pts, 11 reb, 10 ast) even drew an annoyed post-game response from superstar Russell Westbrook (that would be rated 'R'). An injury in Game 6 of that series may end this run (if the team can't extend or beat Houston). However, he has shown the capacity to be a key contributor on a playoff squad.

There are other players in their first postseason action (Andrew Wiggins and Dario Saric come to mind) that have had some good showings. And even though his team made it, DeMarcus Cousins is still waiting for that initial taste of playoff hoops. So, the basketball cycle continues. Whether being integrated into a postseason staple or ending a playoff drought, we'll see more playoff debutants make their marks next year. We always do, and we always will. All they need is that invitation to the party.

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