There were a million and one reasons to be excited about the 2022-23 NBA playoffs.
Seeing how five prominent postseason first-timers handled this spotlight was high on that list.
Playoff basketball is a different animal, and you never quite know how players will react to the bright lights, detailed game plans and heightened competition. Some members of this quintet handled it better than others.
With the second round underway, it's the perfect time to check in on these players and see how their performances have measured up against expectations.
De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
De'Aaron Fox made his playoff debut against the defending-champion Golden State Warriors. He had a built-in excuse if the postseason stage bothered him a bit.
But it never did. Or if the spotlight got to him at all, he did a tremendous job of hiding it.
The Warriors never found a great answer for him, particularly before he suffered a broken index finger in Game 4. Through those first four contests, he averaged 31.5 points on 44.7 percent shooting with 7.0 assists, 6.0 rebounds and 2.5 steals. Even after the injury, he still willed his way to 22.0 points, 8.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds, though his shooting rates tanked and his turnovers increased.
He wound up with the second-most points by a player in his first postseason series. He even validated his Clutch Player of the Year award by netting the third-most fourth-quarter points and second-most clutch points in the opening round.
"De'Aaron Fox, being the head of the snake from the player's perspective," Draymond Green told reporters. "Leading his guys. Tough, tough player. One of the futures of this league. This won't be the last we see of Fox."
The Kings would quite possibly still be playing now had Fox ducked the injury bug. That's the kind of force he was right out of the gate. This was the continuation of his All-Star ascension this season, and it will be captivating to watch where he's headed next.
Darius Garland, Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cleveland Cavaliers didn't put up much resistance during their five-game loss to the New York Knicks. It was rough enough that on the heels of Cleveland's first 50-win season since LeBron James' latest departure, Cavs president of basketball operations Koby Altman deemed it necessary to tell reporters he doesn't envision "sweeping changes" for this group.
Like most of his teammates, Darius Garland couldn't carry over his magic from the regular season.
His stats popped every now and then—32 points and six triples in Game 2, 10 assists without a turnover in Game 4—but on balance, he was pretty blah. He had five total free throws in Games 1, 3 and 4. Those six three-pointers in Game 2 made up half of his total for the series. He was skewered defensively by Jalen Brunson and Immanuel Quickley, who combined to shoot a blistering 17-of-27 (6-of-11 from three) against him.
Garland wasn't bad by any means. Most playoff newbies would gladly exit their first playoff series with per-game averages of 20.6 points (on 43.8/38.7/84 shooting) and 5.0 assists. But most players aren't producing like Garland to begin with. For him, his numbers backtracked across the board from the regular-season (21.6 points on 46.2/41/86.3 shooting and 7.8 assists).
The Cavs needed him to find a higher gear, but he had trouble shifting out of neutral. New York exposed Cleveland's lack of spacing and scoring depth, so the Cavs' only hope became absurd shot-making from their guards. Garland is capable of providing that (ditto for Donovan Mitchell), but he just couldn't summon those fiery streaks often enough.
It'll go down as a learning experience for the 23-year-old, and maybe this is all part of his developmental process. Still, given his sky-high standards, this landed somewhere between disappointing and not impressive.
Josh Hart, New York Knicks
Want a reliable barometer for the New York Knicks? Just check Josh Hart's plus/minus number, and you'll have your answer.
The do-it-all swingman has posted a positive plus/minus in five of his first seven playoff games. The Knicks are undefeated when he lands in the green and winless when he can't get out of the red.
He doesn't put up the numbers typically seen from a difference-maker, yet his insatiable energy, relentless rebounding and defensive versatility all paint him in that light. Never was that more clear than during New York's series-evening Game 2 win over the Miami Heat on Tuesday. Hart landed one dime shy of a triple-double (14 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists) while pacing everyone with a plus-16 in his 33 minutes.
"In Josh's case, he did everything, and that's who he is," coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters. "We talk about the playmaking ability, the assists, the big threes, the rebounds, the defense."
Hart's shooting was bound to cool down from his torrid run after the trade deadline (58.6/51.9/78.9 slash in 25 games), and it has (50/36.8/68.8). However, he has offset that decline by upping his points (11.7, up from 10.2) and rebounds (8.3, 7.0) all while holding his playoff matchups 5.7 percentage points below their normal shooting rates.
He is doing everything you'd want from a complementary role player, just as he has throughout his brief run in the Big Apple.
Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers
Expectations were rightfully lofty for Evan Mobley heading into his first postseason. After all, he was last season's silver medalist in the Rookie of the Year race, and he upped his production almost across the board in Year 2.
That's what made his playoff struggles so hard to stomach. The Cavs needed him to control the interior with Jarrett Allen, and both were ragdolled by a much more physical Knicks frontline.
Mobley's game-highs in the series were just 13 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks. He had two tilts with single-digit points and two with single-digit boards. He had more turnovers (12) than assists (10), more fouls (13) than combined steals and blocks (nine) and as many free throws made as games played (five each).
New York had a nightly advantage of more than eight rebounds (45.4 to 37.2). Cleveland almost suffered a 40-point loss in second-chance points for the series (91 to 55). That's not all on Mobley, obviously, but he didn't help in those departments.
Defensively, he pestered the heck out of Julius Randle, limiting the All-Star forward to just 28 points on 11-of-43 shooting. Remember, though, that Randle was battling an ankle injury that forced him to miss the final five games of the regular season and the opening game of New York's second-round series. When Mobley had to check Mitchell Robinson or Isaiah Hartenstein, he had no answers (18 combined points on 8-of-12 shooting).
This wasn't a disastrous debut for Mobley, but it was rough.
Austin Reaves, Los Angeles Lakers
Among Los Angeles Lakers rotation regulars, two have a net differential north of plus-10 points per 100 possessions this postseason.
One is Anthony Davis, who is staying healthy enough to remind the hoops world of his superstar status. The other is Austin Reaves, whose floor presence has made the Purple and Gold a staggering 18.6 points better per 100 possessions than they've fared without him.
While the Lakers' makeover at the trade deadline is rightfully credited with helping turn their season around, Reaves' second-half surge has been critical to their success. He was a solid role player before heating up, but his post-All-Star play took him to a different stratosphere (17.6 points on 57.8/44.3/85.6 shooting and 5.5 assists against 2.0 turnovers).
His production has tailed off a touch this postseason (15.6 points on 44.7/35.1/83.3 shooting with 4.7 assists against 1.6 giveaways), but not in a way that changes the fact he's probably their third-most important player now.
While L.A.'s Game 1 win over the Golden State Warriors wasn't Reaves' finest effort, even that contest helped solidify his significance. He netted 10 points, was the only Laker to hit multiple threes (2-of-5), didn't commit a turnover in his 39 minutes and held Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins to a combined 5-of-14 shooting (1-of-7 from three).
"He's a killer," D'Angelo Russell told ESPN's Dave McMenamin. "When you recognize a killer that [has the mentality of], 'I'll score 40 on you ... and then I'll try to score 50 on you.' He's that guy. Like if he's going, he's going to go and there's no holding back."
Reaves has scored in double figures in all seven playoff games, posted a positive plus/minus in six of them and had at least four assists in five. If he can maintain this volume while nudging his shooting rates a pinch higher, he could have a huge say in turning the Lakers' championship dreams into a reality.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com and current through Tuesday's games.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.