Playoffs 2021

NBA Playoffs 2021: Which players have the most to prove this postseason?

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Trae Young, Tyler Herro, Donovan Mitchell [NBA Getty Images]

As we've seen before, legacies can be made or broken in the playoffs. One strong postseason can completely change the general perception of a player's career, while if a player falls short of expectations, it will hang over their head until their next chance to prove themselves on a big stage.

With the 2021 NBA Playoffs tipping off on Saturday, which players have the most to prove in this year's postseason?

Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

Playoff experience: Playoff debut

In 2020, there was some backlash for Young being named an All-Star starter when his team wasn't in the playoff picture. This season, the 22-year-old guard put up similar numbers while contributing to winning basketball, having the Hawks in the playoff picture all season, yet he was omitted from his second All-Star bid entirely.

Averaging 25.3 points per game, Young's scoring average is down compared to last season, but being surrounded by more talented scorers plays a huge part in that. He's still dishing out over nine assists per game - 9.4, to be exact, the second-most in the NBA - and he's shooting more efficiently from the field, too.

All eyes will be on Young in his playoff debut as he looks to carry Atlanta to its first playoff series win since 2016. A strong postseason performance could shape the narrative surrounding this star's career for years to come.

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

Playoff experience: Fourth playoff appearance

A severe ankle sprain has sidelined Mitchell since April 16 but the All-Star guard is expected to be ready to go for Game 1 with his Jazz team holding down the No. 1 seed in the West.

Although this is far from Mitchell's first postseason rodeo - he's taken Utah to the playoffs every season of his career so far - this is by far the highest of expectations the 24-year-old has faced after the Jazz owned the best record in the league for the majority of the 2020-21 regular season.

Mitchell was fantastic prior to his injury this season, averaging career-highs in points (26.4), assists (5.2) and rebounds (4.4) per game while shooting a career-best 38.6 percent from 3-point range.

His breakout performance in last year's playoffs is still fresh in the minds of NBA fans, which is both a positive for him, but a negative for this Utah team.

Who could forget Mitchell's two 50-point performances in a first round battle against Jamal Murray and the Denver Nuggets? Mitchell was putting up playoff numbers we've rarely seen before, averaging 36.3 points for the entire series, adding a 40-point game and two 30-point games to his pair of 50-balls.

But his team did surrender a 3-1 lead, allowing the Nuggets to pull off the unlikely comeback as the Jazz were eliminated in the first round for the second year in a row.

Now with a target on their back, can the superstar guard lead his team on a deep postseason run despite making a return from injury in the playoffs?

Tyler Herro, Miami Heat

Playoff experience: Second playoff appearance

When the playoffs started up in last year's bubble, it quickly became clear that rookie guard Herro was going to play a key role in how far Miami would go.

He went for over 15 points in all four games of the Heat's first-round sweep of the Indiana Pacers. He scored in double figures in all five games of the team's upset victory over the Milwaukee Bucks while shooting 42.4 percent from 3. He nearly dropped a triple-double in a Game 2 win over the Boston Celtics and that was far from his best performance in that series.

Herro erupted for 37 points while shooting 14-for-21 from the field with five 3-pointers to lead Miami to a series-changing Game 5 win over the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. He cooled off a bit in the NBA Finals, but still went for 15-plus points in three of the six games played.

All of that to say, Herro's playoff debut did not disappoint.

But the 21-year-old had trouble living up to the large expectations he set for himself heading into this season, posting eerily similar numbers to his rookie campaign. On the heels of a plateauing sophomore season, can the young star tap into that next level on the bright playoff stage again to help the Heat make another deep run?

Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets

Playoff experience: Second playoff appearance

With how well Jamal Murray played in last year's postseason, there wasn't much expectation for Porter in his rookie season and playoff debut. Anything the then-22-year-old provided was seen to be an added bonus.

And with those minor expectations, Porter put together a handful of solid performances in helping the Nuggets reach the Western Conference Finals, going for 15-plus points five times with two double-doubles and one 28-point game.

Now 23 years old, Porter has grown as a player and elevated his game to a new height in Year 2, as evidence of finishing as a finalist for this year's Most Improved Player of the Year award. Averaging 19.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game for the season is impressive, but what's even more jaw-dropping is his production since star guard Murray was announced out for the season with a torn ACL.

Knowing his team needed him to take on a larger role alongside the MVP frontrunner in Nikola Jokic, Porter averaged 23.5 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.5 assists while shooting a blistering 56.0 percent from the field and 48.9 percent from 3 in Murray's absence.

Those are superstar numbers.

If Denver is going to return to the Western Conference Finals (or reach the NBA Finals), it will need Porter to maintain that level of play, placing much higher expectations on the budding star forward ahead of his second postseason run.

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