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NBA

Leap Year: Seven players who have taken 'the leap' to superstardom this NBA season

The leap.

For some players, it comes sooner than others, but this season has seen a fresh crop of young players emerge as the future faces of the league, making dramatic improvements to not only their individual games, but the overall success of their teams.

With this being a leap year, we break down the seven players in 2019-20 who have elevated their games and put their teams in playoff contention.

Jayson Tatum - Boston Celtics

Stats: 23.3 PPG, 7.0 REB, 2.9 AST | 45.3% FG, 39.8% 3PT

In a matter of weeks, the Celtics have become Tatum's team ... and it's not close.

The 21-year-old has been on a tear of late, emerging as their most devastating offensive force. While the talent has always been there for Tatum, now so is the consistency.

Tatum saved his biggest games of the season so far for the biggest matchups, giving the LA Clippers 39 points and the Los Angeles Lakers 41 points, emerging as the go-to guy down the stretch for head coach Brad Stevens.

The first time All-Star has also adjusted his shot profile while increasing his finishing around the rim and creating 3-point attempts off the dribble with plenty of success.

Ben Simmons - Philadelphia 76ers

Stats: 16.7 PPG, 8.2 AST, 7.8 REB | 58.5% FG

A two-time All-Star, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and the engine that makes the 76ers go, Simmons has emerged as one of the best players at his position.

While he will be sidelined with a nerve impingement in his lower back for at least a couple of weeks, the Aussie was playing the best basketball of his career in the 15 games leading into the All-Star break, averaging 21.9 points on 63 percent shooting, adding 9.1 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.1 steals to his stat line.

Defensively, Simmons ranks first in steals and leads the league in total deflections as well as defensive loose balls recovered. His absence from the 76ers has been evident as they continue to struggle on both sides of the ball.

Donovan Mitchell - Utah Jazz

Stats: 24.8 PPG, 4.4 REB, 4.2 AST | 45.8% FG, 36.7% 3PT

Another first-time All-Star this season, Mitchell is now the "guy" in Utah, propelling them towards a top-five finish in the Western Conference.

Averaging a career-high 24.8 points per game, the 23-year-old is on track to reach 5,000 career points, which would make him just the seventh player since 2000 to score that many points in their first three seasons, putting him alongside LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Vince Carter, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Decent company.

He's not only getting buckets, but he's getting them when they matter. Mitchell has emerged as a genuine late-game closer, ranking second in the league in clutch scoring, trailing only Chris Paul.

Bam Adebayo - Miami Heat

Stats: 16.2 PPG, 10.5 REB, 5.1 AST | 57.1% FG

Adebayo is among the favourites for the Most Improved Player of the Year award, and for good reason.

The Heat had no qualms trading away Hassan Whiteside knowing what they had in Adebayo, and the 22-year-old has made good on the faith the organisation has shown in him, evolving into a nightly mismatch, with his athleticism, versatility and never-ending motor.

His three triple-doubles this season trail only Domantas Sabonis (4) and Nikola Jokic (11) among big men and while for now the Heat are Jimmy Butler's team, Adebayo is quickly emerging as the team's next franchise star.

Brandon Ingram - New Orleans Pelicans

Stats: 24.8 PPG, 6.3 REB, 4.3 AST | 47.6% FG, 40.0% 3PT

Ingram is about to get PAID.

A restricted free agent this offseason, Ingram is well on his way to becoming a perennial All-Star after his first selection this season.

After an up-and-down tenure in Los Angeles, the change of scenery worked wonders for Ingram, who emerged as the focal point of the Pelicans offence from the start of the season.

With rookie Zion Williamson joining the fold after missing time early in the season, the Pelicans are surging at the right time as they look to snatch the eighth seed and set up a first round series against his former team.

"You can just tell he wants to be the best," Pelicans point guard Lonzo Ball said of Ingram via NOLA.com

"You can tell he honestly thinks he can be one of the best players in the league, and he goes out there and shows that every night. It all starts in the gym. He believes in putting in the work. Between film, shooting, 1-on-1 work, B.I.'s always around basketball."

He is averaging 24.8 points per game and doing it super-efficiently, with a 54.6 effective field-goal percentage. He is one of just eight players in the league posting numbers like that.

The 22-year-old is a professional scorer and if he continues to make improvements this season, the Pelicans are a team no one wants to see in the first round.

Pascal Siakam - Toronto Raptors

Stats: 23.7 PPG, 7.5 REB, 3.4 AST | 46.2% FG, 37.0% 3PT

How do you lose a Finals MVP, a top-three player in the league and cornerstone of your championship run and somehow get better?

Insert Pascal Siakam.

Not to say the Raptors are better off without Kawhi Leonard, but there's a reason they're boasting a similar record in 2019-20 than at the same point last season, with Siakam putting himself alongside Raptors royalty in the process.

Siakam's rise is the most improbable of this list, going from the G League to Most Improved Player of the Year to a starter in the All-Star Game. According to former teammate DeMar DeRozan, it's been nothing but hard work to get to this point.

"He was always the first one in the gym," DeRozan said via ESPN. "He always came back to the gym at night. He worked on everything he does now."

Luka Doncic - Dallas Mavericks

Stats: 28.6 PPG, 9.4 REB, 8.8 AST | 46.3% FG, 31.9% 3PT

Taking "the leap" is something that usually shouldn't apply to second-year players. You're supposed to get better in your second season, but man, not this much better!

Many questioned whether Doncic could take his game to new heights in his sophomore season with increased attention from defences, but the 21-year-old has embraced the challenge at every turn, earning an All-Star starter berth along the way.

Just this week, Doncic recorded the 21st triple-double of his career, tying Hall of Famer Jason Kidd for the most triple-doubles by a player in a Mavericks uniform.

What gives Doncic the edge here is that in his second season his play is directly leading to wins.

They've already eclipsed their win total from last season (33 games), sitting at 36-24, good enough for seventh place in the Western Conference and putting them on track to make their first postseason appearance since 2016.

Honourable mentions

There are varying levels of the leap, from a bench guy to a rotation player, a rotation player to a starter or a starter to an All-Star.

While these guys haven't quite made that leap, their individual improvements certainly deserve mention.

Trae Young: You could argue that Young probably deserves to be on the list above considering his numbers and All-Star status, but with the Hawks sitting with the third-worst record on the East, here we are.

Young's numbers this season are nothing short of ridiculous. He ranks third in the NBA in scoring (29.9 PPG) and second in the NBA in assists (9.3).

Malcolm Brogdon: From a valued reserve with Milwaukee to a starting point guard with the Pacers, Brogdon has been central to Indiana's continued success this season, averaging 16.3 points and 7.2 assists per game.

Domantas Sabonis: Another first-time All-Star, Sabonis has become a walking double-double for the Pacers, averaging 18.4 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game.

DeVonte' Graham: Graham has started more games this season (48) than he appeared in last season (46), and he has more than seized his opportunity, averaging 17.7 points and 7.6 assists per game.

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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