With the NBA regular season in the rearview mirror and the postseason set to begin Tuesday evening, the Blue Zone takes a look at how a few former Blue Devils fared through this year's 72-game slate:
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
The Celtics may not have quite met expectations this regular season, but Tatum continued to take the superstar leap. The two-time NBA All-Star improved statistically compared to previous seasons, putting up 26.4 points on 45.9% shooting, 7.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.2 steals in 35.8 minutes per game.
The former Duke standout improved his finishing greatly, increasing his 59.3% shooting in the restricted area last season to a sparkling 68.1% in 2020-21. Furthermore, the 6-foot-8 forward was able to create for other Celtics, boasting a playmaking ability that should be key to Boston’s title hopes as the postseason begins.
Beyond the numbers, Tatum had an overall great year despite testing positive for COVID-19 in January. Early in the season, the rising star inked a five-year extension with the Celtics, and in April, he became the youngest Celtic to score 50+ points—a feat he would accomplish twice with 53 points in a win against the Minnesota Timberwolves and 60 points in a comeback win against the San Antonio Spurs.
Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets
With the buzz of a new superteam in Brooklyn—the team added James Harden in January to an already elite core of Irving and Kevin Durant—all eyes turned to Irving and the Nets. Despite the many questions surrounding who would be the primary ball handler and the chemistry of the All-Stars on the court, Irving was able to play his part and shine with 26.9 points on 50.6% shooting, 4.8 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.4 steals in 34.9 minutes per game.
In terms of collecting accolades, this season was more of the same for Irving. Back in February, Irving was named an Eastern Conference starter in his seventh NBA All-Star Game. The flashy point guard was even able to become the ninth player in NBA history to join the 50–40–90 club and just the fourth player to average over 25 points in such a season, joining Larry Bird, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry. His Nets—who enter the postseason as the second seed in the Eastern Conference—are the heavy betting favorites to win the championship at season’s end.
Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
As the league’s reigning Most Improved Player, Brandon Ingram was a consistent producer this season for the New Orleans Pelicans. Putting up similar numbers to 2019-20, the 6-foot-8 forward produced 23.8 points on 46.6% shooting, 4.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists in 34.3 minutes a night. Despite these solid numbers, Ingram was not able to lead the Pelicans to the playoffs, missing the NBA’s inaugural play-in tournament with an eleventh-place finish in the Western Conference. As such, the 2020-21 season was a stable—yet quiet—campaign for the former Duke star.
Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
Playing his first full NBA season, the former freshman sensation definitely lived up to the hype. The 6-foot-7 forward showed off the many facets of his game by posting 27 points on 61.1 shooting, 7.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 33.2 minutes per contest, proving once and for all that he is more than just a highlight dunker. In a game against the Philadelphia 76ers in April, he recorded 37 points, a career-high 15 rebounds and 8 assists—visibly commanding substantial defensive attention throughout the night.
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Likewise, the NBA All-Star was able to break a few records in his historic second year. Back in February, Williamson became the youngest player ever to score at least 30 points on 90 percent shooting as part of a historic streak of 20+ point games on 50% shooting.
RJ Barrett, New York Knicks
While Julius Randle gets much of the credit for leading the Knicks to the playoffs for the first time since 2013, RJ Barrett deserves some praise for New York’s success this season. While he performed admirably as a rookie, Barrett improved much of his game in his second year, with the most significant development coming with his three-point shooting.
This season, the 6-foot-6 shooting guard recorded 17.6 points on 44.1% shooting, 5.8 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 34.9 minutes per game while significantly raising his three-point percentage from 32.0% to 40.1%. Questions remain about his shooting from other spots on the floor, but Barrett seems poised to make a difference in his first postseason appearance.