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Bucks-Celtics, Suns-Mavericks showdowns boast plenty of star power

Wednesday night's split doubleheader on TNT and ESPN features 4 All-Stars who are hitting their primes in the NBA.

(From left) Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum, Luka Doncic and Devin Booker will all be in the national spotlight on Dec. 23.

After seeing the triumphant return of Kevin Durant, the Los Angeles Lakers collecting their championship rings and the LA Clippers taking round one of the Battle of Los Angeles on Tuesday night, Wednesday features a 13-game slate as the remaining 26 teams begin the 2020-21 campaign.

Highlighting the action is a TNT/ESPN split doubleheader beginning with an Eastern Conference clash between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Boston Celtics on TNT (7:30 p.m. ET), followed by two rising teams in the Western Conference with the Phoenix Suns hosting the Dallas Mavericks on ESPN (10 p.m. ET).

When it comes to young star power, these two matchups offer a look at four players that are poised to be dominant players in this league for the next decade.

Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics

The Bucks and Celtics matchup features one player that has already risen to the Kia MVP level and another that many believe is on that trajectory.

Last season, Giannis Antetokounmpo joined some elite company. Not only did he become only 12th player in league history to win MVP honors in back-to-back seasons, he joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James as the only players to win multiple MVPs by the age of 25. Antetokounmpo also become only the third player to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season, joining Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon.

When we take a look at his numbers, there is another pair of NBA legends that Antetokounmpo joined as he became just the third player in NBA history to average at least 29 points, 13 rebounds and five assists in a season — the he became the first to do so in 54 seasons.

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo (2019-20): 29.5 ppg, 13.6 rpg, 5.6 apg
  • Wilt Chamberlain (1965-66): 33.5 ppg, 24.6 rpg, 5.2 apg
  • Wilt Chamberlain (1963-64): 26.9 ppg, 22.3 rpg, 5.0 apg
  • Elgin Baylor (1960-61): 34.8 ppg, 19.8 rpg, 5.1 apg

Giannis put up those gaudy stats despite averaging just 30.4 minutes per game, which was tied for 71st in the NBA last season. That combination of production and limited minutes helped Giannis post the highest single-seasons PER in league history (31.85).

While Giannis has already posted his name alongside some of the game’s all-time greats as he enters his eighth season, the numbers point toward Tatum being on a similar path as he enters his fourth season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum are two of the brightest stars in the Eastern Conference and the NBA at large.

In 2019-20, Tatum was named to his first All-NBA team as he earned Third Team honors, finished 12th in MVP voting and narrowly missed being named to an All-Defensive team for the first time in his career.

Effecting the game on both ends of the court is a trait that Antetokounmpo and Tatum share. A great way to measure which players impact the game the most is to look at how well their team performs while they are on the court vs. how they fare when they are off it. Last season, 165 players logged at least 1,400 minutes. Of that group, here are the six that had a double-digit on-court/off-court net rating differential — meaning their team was at least 10 points per 100 possessions better with them on the court compared to when they were on the bench.

  • Chris Paul (OKC): 13.4 Differential; 2,208 Total minutes
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo (MIL): 13.0 Differential; 1,917 Total minutes
  • Kawhi Leonard (LAC): 12.5 Differential; 1,848 Total minutes
  • Jayson Tatum (BOS): 11.4 Differential; 2,265 Total minutes
  • LeBron James (LAL): 10.4 Differential; 2,316 Total minutes
  • Rudy Gobert (UTA): 10.0 Differential; 2,333 Total minutes

Antetokounmpo and Tatum rank second and fourth, respectively, on this list. The rest of it is comprised of a who’s-who of outstanding two-way NBA players.

When it came to head-to-head competition last season, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks got the better of Tatum and the Celtics, winning the season series 2-1. The Bucks also held Tatum in check offensively, as Tatum averaged just 15.7 ppg on 33.3% shooting — his second-lowest scoring average and shooting efficiency against any team last season. Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo averaged 30 ppg, 15.3 rpg and 6.3 apg vs. Boston.

Dallas Mavericks at Phoenix Suns

Luka Doncic’s 2019-20 season will go down as one of the greatest sophomore seasons in NBA history. He averaged 28.8 ppg, 9.4 rpg and 8.8 apg, leading the league in triple-doubles (17) while directing the most efficient offense in NBA history (115.8 points per 100 possessions).

Here is the list of players that have averaged at least 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists over an NBA season:

  • Luka Doncic (2019-20): 28 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 9.4 apg
  • Russell Westbrook (2016-17): 31.6 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 10.7 apg
  • Oscar Robertson (1963-64): 31.4 ppg, 11 rpg, 9.9 apg
  • Oscar Robertson (1961-62): 30.8 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 12.5 apg
  • Oscar Robertson (1960-61): 30.5 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 10.1 apg

Robertson accomplished the feat in both his rookie and sophomore seasons, but Doncic holds the distinction as the youngest player to post those numbers in a season. Robertson was a 22-year-old rookie while Doncic turned 21 midway through his sophomore season.

The dramatic leap that Luka made in his second season — plus-7.6 ppg, plus-1.6 rpg, plus-2.8 apg, plus-3.6 FG%, plus-9 triple-doubles in 11 fewer games played — combined with his age makes the ceiling he can potentially reach tantalizing for fans (and fearsome for foes).

Relive Luka Doncic’s best plays from 2019-20

Doncic ranked third in the NBA in usage rate last season at 35.5%, trailing only Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden — two players that have combined to win the last three Kia MVPs. In this year’s GM survey, Doncic (21%) trailed only Antetokounmpo (32%) as the favorite to win the 2020-21 MVP.

The last player to win MVP honors in their third season was Derrick Rose (2011). Back then, he became the youngest player to win the award (22 years, six months and 29 days old). Should Doncic accomplish that feat, he’d break that record as he will be 22 years, four months and 24 days old on the final day of the 2021 playoffs (July 22).

In four games against the Suns last season, Doncic averaged 30.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 6.0 apg, but the Suns won the season series 3-1 — including both games during the NBA restart in Orlando. The Suns went a perfect 8-0 in the bubble, with Devin Booker leading the way. Booker averaged 30.5 ppg, 6.0 apg and 4.9 rpg, while shooting 50.3% overall as the Suns outscored their opponents by 10.8 points per game with Booker on the court in Orlando.

Relive some of the best plays from Devin Booker’s career

It was during Booker’s sophomore season in 2016-17 that he established himself as one of the NBA’s top scorers, averaging 22.1 ppg to finish in the top 25 in the league at just 20 years old. That was also the season in which Booker became only the sixth player in league history (and youngest) to post a 70-point game. Booker posted only the 11th 70-point game in NBA history, joining Wilt Chamberlain (6x), Kobe Bryant, David Thompson, Elgin Baylor and David Robinson.

Booker averaged 24.9 ppg in 2017-18, which would have ranked in the top 10 had he played enough games to qualify (he played 54, needed to play 58). In the past two seasons, Booker has averaged 26.6 ppg, ranking seventh in the league in 2018-19 and ninth last season. In addition to becoming a top-10 scorer, Booker has also improved as a playmaker, averaging at least 6.5 apg in each of the past two seasons.

Last season, Booker ranked sixth in the league in pull-up shot attempts with 641 and connected at a 42.1% rank — fourth among high-volume pull-up shooters. Finishing right above Booker in attempts last season was Chris Paul, who put up 658 pull-ups with Oklahoma City. Paul and Booker and now teammates, and it will be interesting to see how Paul’s presence may impact Booker’s scoring profile.

Whether its pull-ups, catch-and-shoots, drives to the basket or hand-off, one thing all NBA fans have learned over the past few seasons is the Booker will get buckets. As he enters his sixth NBA season, can Booker and the Suns build on the momentum they found in the bubble and couple individual success with team success and end the team’s 10-year playoff drought? A strong showing against Doncic and the Mavs would be a great start.