Whether it’s because of injuries, the N.B.A.’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, the third-year Miami Heat guard, is helping to keep the team afloat in the face of injuries to its top players. Cole Anthony, the second-year guard for the Orlando Magic, has developed into a strong all-around player with a workable jump shot. And the 23-year-old center Jarrett Allen is scoring almost 17 points a game for the Cleveland Cavaliers on better than 70 percent shooting. Allen has a strong chance to make his first All-Star game this season.
The strong play from three players in particular has given hope to their teams’ beleaguered fans: Evan Mobley, the lanky Cavaliers rookie, and Anthony Edwards, the Minnesota Timberwolves swingman in his second year. And in the case of the second-year Grizzlies guard Desmond Bane, he thrived during the injury absence of the team’s top player, Ja Morant, which could have sent Memphis into a tailspin.
All three succeed in different ways — Mobley with his height and agility; Edwards with his slashing and dunking; Bane with his shooting prowess. But all of them are helping their teams be competitive and they’re — if nothing else — fun to watch.
None of the three are 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 Cleveland 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 the rookie forward Evan Mobley.
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 Award. 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, Toronto’s Scottie Barnes.
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 center from Temecula, Calif., was expected to shine in the N.B.A. 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 N.B.A. quite this polished.
Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves
Anthony Edwards made his mark as a high-flying slasher during his rookie season with the Minnesota 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 percent from 3 last season and 41.7 percent overall. The N.B.A. 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. This month, 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’s already one of the best young players in the league. He’s 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’s leap will be one of the biggest reasons.
He’s also established himself as a leader unafraid to respectfully call out teammates, like Karl-Anthony Towns, or not-so-respectfully do so to stars on other teams, like Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert. He’s 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.
Desmond Bane, Memphis Grizzlies
At the 2020 N.B.A. draft, Desmond Bane was little more than an afterthought — to nearly everyone, that is, 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 Bane, a 6-foot-5 guard 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 N.B.A. 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 Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks, and he ranks among the league leaders in 3-point shooting (41.3 percent 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.