There are only so many available slots on NBA All-Star squads, meaning recognizable veterans and rookies attempting to break through glass ceilings are ultimately snubbed in fan voting and player-selection processes each season. Twenty-year-old Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant is an example of a player who could be an odd-man-out by February. The human highlight reel leading all first-year pros in scoring and assists is the uncrowned Rookie of the Year heading toward All-Star weekend, but he’ll likely have to wait until next winter to receive his first paid trip to the exhibition contest.
Meanwhile, a pair of special NBA sophomores are all-but-guaranteed to represent their respective conferences and teams in Chicago. They could be joined by a member of their draft class who enjoyed a breakout first half for a club that punched above its weight considering its tumultuous and disappointing offseason. While All-Star competitions across different sports theoretically should feature the best vs. the best, adding a feel-good story to the mix would propel the status of an athlete who is still anonymous to the majority of casual fans.
Last January, in-arena cameras appeared to capture the exact moment Dallas Mavericks then-rookie Luka Doncic learned he hadn’t made the All-Star team. Spoiler: He won’t have much to worry about this month. The 20-year-old who was the MVP of the opening half of the campaign (debate yourselves) began 2020 leading the Western Conference in fan All-Star voting, and he was averaging 28.9 PPG, 9.6 REB, and 8.8 AST on Jan. 15. Ben Rohrbach of Yahoo Sports recently offered the following: "Only two players have ever posted a 28-9-9 over a full season — Robertson and Russell Westbrook — and nobody has done so at age 20.”
We understand Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young remains a defensive liability who sometimes seems to give minimal efforts in that aspect of his game. To borrow from ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith: We don’t care. The 21-year-old second-year pro currently leads all point guards in offensive real plus-minus, he sits in the top four overall in PPG (29.1) and AST (8.5) and he produced such impressive figures while John Collins served a 25-game suspension. The Hawks are awful — the worst team in the league. In time, discussions will arise regarding if Atlanta or any team can build a championship roster around a player who is a human traffic cone on defense. None of that should affect Young’s All-Star status.
A fine line separates Most Improved Player from an All-Star-worthy candidate. Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam obliterated that line over his first 27 appearances of the season until a groin injury sidelined him for the better part of a month. Even though Siakam was unable to avoid the injury bug that infected the Toronto locker room, the 25-year-old deserves an All-Star nod for filling the void created by Kawhi Leonard’s departure and averaging career highs in scoring (24.7 PPG), REB (7.9), AST (3.6), BLK (0.9), and three-point shooting (39 percent). The leading scorer for the team sitting fourth in the conference standings as of Jan. 15 is third in RPM wins among players at the position behind only reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum (more on Tatum later).
The Phoenix Suns losing eight straight games between Dec. 11 and Dec. 27 poured cold water on the team’s playoff aspirations and hot start. That streak and the team’s fall in the standings shouldn’t cost Devin Booker his rightful place on the All-Star roster. The 23-year-old guard is shooting better than ever, burying over 50 percent of his field-goal attempts while also converting 36.1 percent of his tries from distance and over 91 percent of his free-throws. Only James Harden sits above Booker in offensive RPM among shooting guards. As Dave King of Bright Side of the Sun recently pointed out, Booker hasn’t yet completed a convincing closing argument to cement his All-Star status, and the guard may need help in the form of somebody dropping out to play in Chicago.
For a piece published on Hoops Habit, Frank Urbina explained why he included Donovan Mitchell in the NBA MVP conversation halfway through the season. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re ready to add Spida to the All-Star squad now that the Utah Jazz seemingly are finished going through the motions of participating in the regular season. Utah lost only once from Dec. 11 through Jan. 14 (15-1), and Mitchell caught fire during that run. The 23-year-old is averaging career bests in multiple offensive categories, and, as Gordon Monson of The Salt Lake Tribune wrote, Mitchell has molded his game to better put team goals ahead of his stat lines. As long as the Jazz keep winning, Mitchell and the next man deserve All-Star recognition.
Can we please start rewarding defense and also prevent Rudy Gobert from being reduced to tears by yet another All-Star snub? The two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year is — surprise, surprise — again among the favorites to take that trophy home, and he’s averaging a double-double with 1.9 rejections per outing and a career-best 14.5 REB.
This from the ESPN NBA power rankings that were updated on Jan. 13: “(Gobert’s) plus-minus during the Jazz's 13-1 run is a league-best plus-191 — 49 points better than any player who isn't a Jazz teammate during that span. Gobert leads the West in rebounds (14.4 per game), field goal percentage (67.3 percent) and screen assists (7.6) in addition to his typical defensive dominance.” Unsurprisingly, Gobert also leads all NBA centers in defensive RPM.
Last spring, the perception, not to mention the hope, was that young Boston Celtics players such as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown would thrive without having to deal with Kyrie Irving and everything Irving brought to the Boston locker room. Tatum responded to Irving’s move to the Brooklyn Nets by averaging 21.3 PPG, 6.9 REB, and 2.8 AST, all personal bests across his three pro seasons, in 38 appearances. As of the middle of January, Tatum was above names such as Doncic, Pascal Siakam, Damian Lillard and Ben Simmons in RPM wins. As mentioned earlier, only the Greek Freak leads Tatum in that category among players at the position.
Odds are Tatum and Brown both won’t get opportunities to shine on Feb.16, as the Boston Celtics having three All-Stars seems unlikely. That’s harsh on the 23-year-old who is thriving unlike ever before alongside Kemba Walker. On Christmas, Brown announced his All-Star intentions in front of a national television audience when he dropped 30 points on the Toronto Raptors in a double-digit Boston win. Two days later, he scored 34 points vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers.
As Brad Botkin of CBS Sports pointed out, though, Brown’s pedestrian numbers over his first seven games of January could drop him out of the All-Star running.
Had somebody told you ahead of Halloween the Brooklyn Nets would be without Kyrie Irving from the middle of November through January (shoulder), you likely would’ve expected the Nets to crumble and drop far out of contention, so much so that the team would’ve considered sitting the one-time champion until Kevin Durant was ready to play next October. That didn’t occur, thanks largely to guard Spencer Dinwiddie.
A Sixth Man of the Year candidate back on the season's opening night, Dinwiddie became Brooklyn’s leading scorer with Irving sidelined, and the 26-year-old is on pace to average over 20 PPG for the first time of his career. In December, he averaged a remarkable 27 PPG and 6.8 AST.
Back in early September when college football and the NFL dominated sports headlines, the Charlotte Hornets were a team on the cusp of tanking after both Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb skipped town, and they replaced them with Terry Rozier. Odds are many in the Charlotte area wouldn’t have recognized Devonte' Graham had the guard knocked on their doors in the closing days of summer.
How quickly things change.
Graham was one of the Association’s best revelations of the season’s first three months, as the 2018 second-round pick evolved from a reserve for a glorified G League team to somebody capable of averaging over 18 PPG and nearly eight dishes per contest. As of Jan. 15, only three players were above the 24-year-old in RPM wins among point guards, and Graham trailed only James Harden in three-pointers. Graham was also second in the NBA in total assists and first in total minutes played.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe was correct in pointing out that Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon became the key figures for the Indiana Pacers with Victor Oladipo sidelined, and both Sabonis and Brogdon made strong All-Star cases from October through mid-January. Sabonis is fifth in the NBA in REB (13.1) and is also averaging 17.8 PPG. He holds advantages over Brogdon in RPM, RPM wins and player efficiency rating. Lingering knee soreness, however, could keep him out of the All-Star Game if he were selected.