NBA

Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, RJ Barrett and the second-year players that could make major impact in postseason

The New Orleans Pelicans are down, but not out, as they enter the final week of the 2020-21 NBA season just a game-and-a-half out of the West's final Play-In spot with four games to go.

New Orleans wouldn't be where it is now if it wasn't for the play of Zion Williamson, who has emerged into an All-Star and an All-NBA calibre performer in just his second NBA season, posting averages of 27.0 points and 7.2 rebounds while shooting 61.1 percent from the field.

Williamson is out indefinitely with a fractured ring finger but his team has managed to stay afloat. Next up is a date with the ninth-placed Memphis Grizzlies, who are led by another stellar sophomore in Ja Morant, who was taken one pick after Williamson in 2019.

Of course, rounding out that top three is RJ Barrett, who is at the forefront of a New York Knicks resurgence that will see the team return to the postseason for the first time in eight years. As we could potentially see each of the top three picks of last year's draft take the postseason stage in 2021, there's no time like the present to take stock of what we've seen in Year 2 from a group of others that will be influential in the 2021 NBA Playoffs.

Zion Williamson

Season averages: 27.0 PTS, 7.2 REB, 3.7 AST

The lone All-Star on this list, Williamson has become a dominant force at just 20 years old.

After missing significant time in Year 1, Year 2 has spelled opportunity for the former No. 1 overall pick to show exactly why he was selected so high. New Orleans is a young team that hasn't done itself any favours by losing winnable games this season, but should it somehow make the playoffs, the league's most dominant interior scorer will be a problem for any team, provided he's able to return to the floor.

Ja Morant

Season averages: 19.3 PTS, 7.3 AST, 3.9 REB

His efficiency has taken a slight dip, but the encore to Morant's Rookie of the Year campaign hasn't been all bad.

For one, the Grizzlies are essentially a Play-In lock despite playing the majority of the season without Jaren Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow, two key members of the franchise's future, who would have likely made things easier on the 21-year-old point guard. That being said, the Grizzlies will need big performances from Morant in order to advance past the Play-In and make noise in the playoffs.

RJ Barrett

Season averages: 17.7 PTS, 5.8 REB, 3.0 AST

Your yearly reminder to not write players off after their rookie campaigns.

At just 20 years old, Barrett is a big reason that this Knicks franchise is set to end an Eastern Conference-leading postseason drought as a likely top-six seed, rather than a Play-In team. Barrett has improved as a 3-point shooter, going from 32.0 percent as a rookie to 40.3 percent in Year 2, on higher volume, no less.

Poised and confident, Barrett will have an opportunity to prove he's built for the playoff stage in front of a fanbase that's not lacking for excitement. As a potential fourth seed, they'll need him to advance to the second round.

De'Andre Hunter

Season averages: 16.0 PTS, 5.1 REB, 2.1 AST

A troublesome knee has limited him this season but Hunter is evolving into the two-way ace that many expected him to be when he came out of Virginia.

Hunter is nearing his return to the lineup, which will be crucial for this Atlanta Hawks team. It's simple: Atlanta is just better when Hunter is in the lineup. Regardless of who the Hawks draw in the opening round of the postseason, Hunter's presence on both ends of the floor is what they'll need to have a chance to advance.

Rui Hachimura

Season averages: 13.7 PTS, 5.5 REB, 1.5 AST

After serving as Washington's No. 1 option during the NBA Restart, Hachimura now has the benefit of playing off of the star-studded backcourt of Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook.

We've caught glimpses of just how special Hachimura can be this season, most recently evidenced by a 27-point performance in a crucial win over the Indiana Pacers. With the Wizards looking to creep into a top-eight seed, Hachimura's ability to be the third option can set this team apart in a Play-In game as well as a potential first-round series with the East's elite.

PJ Washington

Season averages: 13.2 PTS, 6.4 REB, 2.5 AST

Luck hasn't been on the side of the Charlotte Hornets, who have been forced to deal with absences of LaMelo Ball, Miles Bridges, Gordon Hayward and Malik Monk.

For the most part, Washington has remained consistent, but it's difficult given the constant changes around him. This season, Washington has developed into a 41.2 percent shooter from deep, benefitting from the playmaking and spacing provided by his teammates. As a stretch-four, Washington has the ability to open up a game by simply catching fire from deep.

We've seen it before, and it could happen again on the playoff stage.

Tyler Herro

Season averages: 15.1 PTS, 4.8 REB, 3.3 AST

Last year, we caught a nice glimpse of what Herro can do for the Miami Heat on the postseason stage.

After reaching such heights as a rookie, it strangely feels like this season is a dress rehearsal for the 21-year-old, who has shown he knows how to flip the switch when it matters, recently going for 27 points (on 10-for-13 shooting) in a must-win against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

As the stakes are higher and the competition tougher, can Herro replicate what he did in the bubble? Miami absolutely needs the offence.

Michael Porter Jr.

Season averages: 19.2 PTS, 7.4 REB, 1.1 AST

While he was drafted in 2018, it's Year 2 for Porter, who has stepped his game up in the absence of Jamal Murray, who suffered a season-ending ACL injury in mid-April.

Since Murray's injury, the 22-year-old is averaging 25.1 points and 6.4 rebounds while shooting 57.2 percent from the field and 50.0 percent from 3-point range. The road has gotten much harder for the Denver Nuggets, but if Porter can be a go-to bucket-getter in the playoffs, their ceiling raises much higher than we may think it is.

Keldon Johnson

Season averages: 12.7 PTS, 6.2 REB, 1.8 AST

The San Antonio Spurs have done it again, as Johnson looks to be the franchise's most recent late first-round gem.

After something of a breakout at the NBA Restart, the 6-foot-5 forward has sustained the success this season by doing a bit of everything, including a 23-point, 21-rebound (11 offensive!) performance in a March win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Looking at the playoff picture, it will either be San Antonio or New Orleans and if the Spurs are to make their return to the playoff stage, that could be the time when Johnson becomes more of a household name with his efforts.

Talen Horton-Tucker

Season averages: 8.7 PTS, 2.6 REB, 2.6 AST

There's a reason the Los Angeles Lakers weren't willing to part ways with Horton-Tucker in trade talks.

At just 20, Year 2 for Horton-Tucker is a lot like Year 1 in many ways, as he's younger than a number of rookies and has much more of a consistent role than in his rookie campaign. He's been asked to step up as the team was ravaged by injuries and now, as the Lakers are on the mend ahead of a potential Play-In appearance, Horton-Tucker's newfound wisdom and development could be put to the test.

He might not have to put forth a 14-point, 11-assist double-double as he did in a crucial win over the Brooklyn Nets earlier this season, but knowing that he's capable of doing so allows the Lakers to rely on him as a scorer, playmaker and perimeter defender against Western Conference playoff teams with elite guard talent.

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