In the 2021 playoffs, the NBA's class of 2018 is showing up

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Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton is fouled by Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, right, during the second half of Game 1 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series, Monday, June 7, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Phoenix's Deandre Ayton had Guy Fieri leaping out of his courtside seat with a thundering dunk. Atlanta's Trae Young had Spike Lee leaving early in disappointment. Dallas' Luka Doncic impressed Paul George so much that the Clippers’ veteran insisted on trading jerseys with the youngster.

They’re all part of the NBA’s draft class of 2018.

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And that group, so far, might be the class of these playoffs.

Doncic is gone, but plenty of others — Young, Ayton, Michael Porter Jr., Mikal Bridges, Kevin Huerter, Bruce Brown and more — from the group that got drafted three years ago remain. And they’ve seemed right at home in this postseason, even though for many it’s the first time on this big a stage.

“I think it’s the best class in NBA history,” Ayton, the Phoenix center who went No. 1 overall in that class three years ago, said after the Suns won their first-round series over the 2020 NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. “That’s how I feel. ... Guys like Luka, MPJ and Trae, it’s been great to watch us young guys go at it. We’re not backing down.”

Quite the contrary. They’re showing up.

Entering Tuesday, those drafted in 2018 had combined for 21 games of at least 20 points in these playoffs. The only draft class with more so far in these playoffs was the 2011 group — which has 22, led by the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving and Tobias Harris.

Doncic, whose Dallas Mavericks lost a seven-game series to the Los Angeles Clippers in Round 1, had six of those 20-point games. Young, whose Atlanta Hawks took a 1-0 series lead into Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Philadelphia on Tuesday, also had six -- in his first six playoff games.

“I’m not satisfied,” Young said after Round 1, a series against New York that he punctuated with a theatrical bow at Madison Square Garden. “Winning feels good. It feels better.”

Doncic leads — and will likely finish — as the playoff scoring leader this season, at 35.7 points per game. He's in line for a rookie extension this summer that will exceed $200 million, and there's little doubt that the Mavericks will slide that piece of paper his way.

“He just plays with so much confidence, and his game is just so beyond his age," George said of Doncic. “He pretty much can pick up and read almost any defense. ... He’s going to be great. He’s got a big, huge future ahead of him."

Doncic is far from the only one in the class of 2018 that's has a big, huge future — and some big, huge paychecks — awaiting him. Young is averaging 30.2 points entering Tuesday’s game in Philadelphia. Ayton, in his first playoffs, is shooting 78% from the field, something nobody in NBA history with more than 50 shot attempts has done in their first trip to the postseason.

Suns guard Chris Paul has said all season that Ayton has all the tools — and no one would argue that now.

“It's great to see it coming together for him," Paul said.

Some of the class of 2018 are full-time starters in these playoffs, like Young for the Hawks, Ayton and Bridges for Phoenix, Porter Jr. in Denver. Others, like Brown with the Nets, got called upon to be a spot starter. And some have the closer role; Huerter, for example, has been on the floor for most of the fourth-quarter action for the Hawks in the postseason, and his brilliant pass to John Collins late in Game 1 of the win in Philadelphia led to a clear-path foul that helped the Hawks seal the victory.

“I’m just trying to impact winning and that’s any way I can right now in the playoffs,” Huerter said.

And while Huerter doesn’t deny that his 2018 draft class — he went 19th, while Ayton went No. 1, Young No. 3, Doncic No. 5 (Young and Doncic were traded for one another), Bridges went 10th and Brown was a steal at No. 42 — has signs of being special, he knows it’ll take more than one good postseason run for the group to be anointed as great.

There are other players who have made impact out of that class as well, including but not limited to Sacramento's Marvin Bagley III and Orlando's Wendell Carter Jr., neither of whom have made the playoffs yet, and Oklahoma City's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — who went to the playoffs in his first two seasons, but not this season.

Ayton fully believes the 2018 takeover is coming.

“It’s the new generation of the league,” he said.


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