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For a few reasons, both of this year’s All-Star teams could be littered with more than a few new faces. In each conference, several household names (Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Klay Thompson, Kyle Lowry, Al Horford, Victor Oladipo, and Draymond Green) are either hurt, enduring down years, or both. Some of them will coast off name recognition and fundamental respect to make it over more deserving players, but some won’t. Here are a few candidates that could/should break through for the first time in their career.
Bet-Your-Life Locks: Nikola Jokic
Denver’s lack of playoff experience in key areas has me skeptical about their legitimate chops as a contender, but that’s not what this is about! Jokic is an MVP candidate on a team that has the best record in the Western Conference. He’s a starving hippopotamus on the block and probably the smartest, boldest passer his position has seen in 30 years. Congratulations, Joker! You’re one of the most obvious All-Stars in the entire league!
If they don’t qualify it’s OK to say they got robbed: Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic, Ben Simmons, Khris Middleton
Harris is on a quality playoff team, averaging 21.1 points and 8.0 boards with near 50/40/90 shooting splits. Duh.
Vucevic is (still) a hipster’s MVP candidate. I’d take him over every center in the East, except Embiid.
Simmons is a bullet train whose size, speed, and vision couple with a non-existent jump shot to make him the most polarizing and unique player in the league. He isn’t better than Jimmy Butler, but has more responsibility in Philly’s offense and was built to collect triple-doubles. It’ll be fascinating to see if he makes it or not.
Middleton is the second-best player on the NBA’s best team, but that’s less impressive than it sounds. Milwaukee reminds me of the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, with Giannis as Dirk and then everyone else existing as a perfect supplementary fit. Middleton is one of the league’s unsung tough-shot-makers, but he also has a lower True Shooting percentage than last year despite jacking up way more threes. It’s also really hard to only choose one All-Star from a team that’s been so impressive.
Crucial pieces on good teams who deserve recognition: Pascal Siakam, Marcus Morris, JJ Redick, Domas Sabonis
Siakam is the third-best player on a title contender but on some nights that feels like an insult. The way he races up the floor throws the entire sport into a different frontier. Spicy P forever.
Morris has the ninth-highest True Shooting percentage in the league and helped save Boston’s season. In 19 games as a starter he’s comfortably in the 50/40/90 club and probably deserves an invite (at the very least) to the three-point shootout. What a ridiculous contract year for Morris.
Here are far too many words about Redick’s case.
Sabonis might low-low-low-key be Indiana’s best player. He’s shooting 74 percent at the rim, is one of the five best passers at his position, and in big minutes holds his own on the defensive end.
Too soon?: Luka Doncic, De’Aaron Fox
These are two of the most enjoyable spectacles in the NBA who’re virtually guaranteed to play in at least half a dozen All-Star games before they retire. Their numbers are terrific and they play for OK teams that have overachieved primarily because nobody expected either Doncic or Fox to be this good. Coming up with a case against them isn’t particularly fun, but unless Sacramento or Dallas goes on a winning streak that stabilizes their playoff status, actually playing in the All-Star game this soon won’t be easy.
(An honorable mention goes to Devin Booker, who’s 22 years old, has the third-highest usage rate in the league, and is averaging 25 points per game. Sadly, injuries and his team’s terrible record have kept him from serious consideration.)
An unofficial albeit acceptable lifetime achievement award: Mike Conley
Memphis’s recent slide has been a painful kidney punch to Conley’s All-Star campaign. But I’d still like to pretend he can be Martin Scorsese, with his value to the Grizzlies standing in as The Departed. The team is wet trash when he sits and 17.7 points per 100 possessions better when he plays; his partnership with Marc Gasol is still roughing up everyone else for the 276th season in a row, and Conley is fifth in Real Plus-Minus among all point guards. But Memphis’s offense isn’t particularly great when he’s on the floor and some of that’s because he isn’t finishing at the rim or drilling pull-up threes like he used to. He isn’t a six-foot roman candle like so many others at his position. I don’t really care. The man deserves this.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.