With the 2022 NBA playoffs in full swing, we are taking a look at some of the under-the-radar athletes that could have a significant impact on their respective series. How their opponents adjust to the emergence of the five players highlighted will determine how deep a playoff run one can expect.
Cameron Johnson – SF / Phoenix Suns
Johnson just had the best season of his three-year career, improving in every statistical category. He set new career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals, FG% and FT%. Most significantly he upped his 3PT% from 34.9% last season to 42.5% this year, which stands as the fourth-highest average in the entire league.
In recognition of the excellent season he just had, Johnson has been named one of three finalists for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award. With the Suns being betting favorites for the NBA title it is easy to overlook Johnson’s impact off the bench, providing the kind of spacing that allows Devin Booker and Chris Paul to create havoc in the backcourt. Phoenix will need him at his very best if they are to avenge their NBA Finals loss last year against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Tyrese Maxey – PG / Philadelphia 76ers
The narrative behind the 76ers postseason chances hinged on how well superstars Joel Embiid and James Harden would fare under the postseason pressure. Perhaps more time should have been spent paying attention to the second-year point guard, 21 year-old Tyrese Maxey. With the Toronto Raptors defense focused on the 76ers Big-2, Maxey exploited space and screens to drop a 38-point performance on 14-21 FG, 5-8 3PT and 5-5 FTs in Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs.
Maxey followed that up in Game 2 with a 23-point, nine rebounds and eight assists night as the 76ers took a two-game lead in the series. The 76ers know that they have an offensive weapon given enough space as Maxey helps key their transition game, providing an outlet when Harden gets double-teamed and struggles to hit shots. Maxey is breaking out in the 2022 playoffs, he looks like a potential x-factor that will determine how far the 76ers can go.
Jordan Poole – SG / Golden State Warriors
Since the turn of the year there have been many that lost some faith that the Warriors were a top-tier title contender. With injuries to Draymond Green, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson working his way back into game fitness there were doubts the Warriors could put it all together in time for the playoffs.
The extra threat that Poole provides has the Warriors looking like a top contender again. For the first two playoff games of his career he posted 59 points and 11 assists, shooting 19-29 from the field, including 11-17 from three point range. With the ball-movement schemes the Warriors favor, Jordan Poole has been unguardable against the Nuggets and is now part of the Warriors new ‘death lineup’ alongside Curry, Thompson, Wiggins and Green. The extra benefit to Poole’s star form during the series against Denver is the extra rest it affords Steph Curry, as he eases his way back from a sprained foot ligament. The Warriors are looking good at just the right time.
Marcus Smart – PG / Boston Celtics
Fresh from being named the 2021-22 NBA Defensive Player of the Year – the first guard to win the award since Gary Payton in 1996 – Marcus Smart is going to have a key role to play in the most exciting first-round matchup between the Boston Celtics and Kyrie Irving. If Game 1 is any indication, Smart is going to have his hands full defending Kyrie in the kind of spectacular form he is in.
Make no mistake however, Smart leads the top-ranked defense in the NBA and is talented enough to box out and defend centers for one of the most switch-heavy teams around. His improved judgment with respect to picking his shots and passes has really allowed the Celtics offense to flow freely this year, he averaged 5.9 assists per game (career high) as well as shooting 41.8% from the field, his best percentage since 2018-9. If you are in any doubt regarding his improved influence on the talented Celtics team: his patience on the final play of the game getting the ball to Jayson Tatum as he pirouetted for the buzzer-beater victory over the Brooklyn Nets.
Anthony Edwards – SF / Minnesota Timberwolves
If Game 1 is anything to go by, Anthony Edwards is going to be a problem for the second-seed Memphis Grizzlies. In his introduction to the playoffs Edwards scored 36 points, made six assists and blocked two shots for Minnesota’s 130-117 victory over Memphis. It isn’t just the numbers however, he made a bunch of tough shots and at times looked unstoppable going to the hoop.
His relationship with Karl-Anthony Towns has had two seasons to marinate and their chemistry looks on fire as they attempt to make a playoff push past the youthful and talented Grizzlies. Edwards, 20, gained recognition in his rookie season due to highlight-reel dunks. However he has improved his game in his sophomore year, increasing his points per game from 19.3 to 21.3, raising his shooting percentages from the field to 44.1% and on 3-pointers to 35.7% over the regular season. Like the Celtics-Nets matchup in the East, the Grizzlies-Timberwolves series is the pick of the West featuring two of the youngest teams in the NBA. With the 20-year old Edwards and the 22-year old Morant leading their respective teams, the future of the NBA is set for an exciting future.