From Feb. 14-16, 2014, the best basketball players on planet Earth will assemble in the Big Easy to participate in the NBA’s annual All-Star Weekend festivities. Sunday’s All-Star Game itself will feature many familiar faces—players who we’ve grown accustomed to seeing battle it out in the East-West match-up; superstars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul. But this year should also feature some new names—players who, because of their stellar play throughout the first three months of this season, will be making their debuts on the glitzy All-Star stage.
For the following five players, February 16 should mark the first time they’re able to attach that prestigious All-Star prefix to the front of their names. And if their careers pan out as promised, it should be the first of many appearances at the NBA’s mid-season party.
The Eastern Conference is a hot mess at present—there’s no denying that. At the time of this writing, there are just three teams (Indiana, Miami and Atlanta) that are above .500, and numerous sides to whom the idea of even reaching .500 seems like a distant pipe dream. But the unexpectedly putrid play of Brooklyn, New York and Chicago has opened the playoff door to the likes of Charlotte, Toronto and, as it pertains to this article, John Wall’s Washington Wizards.
With Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo out with injury, and Deron Williams either injured or playing sub-par ball, John Wall looks set to make his first All-Star appearance in February. But while the likely absence of those aforementioned three superstars helps Wall’s case, the 2010 first overall pick has been playing more than well enough to justify a selection on merit alone.
Wall’s displays on the court, and his leadership both on and off of it, has kept his limited and inconsistent team above water and well in the hunt for a playoff place. Wall, in his fourth season, is playing more minutes than anytime since his rookie year—a testament to the fact that he’s been healthy this season—and he’s averaging close to 20 points per game, while currently sitting third in assists per game, at 8.8. While Wall’s overall field goal percentage still leaves a little to be desired (he takes way too many mid-range 2s), he’s currently posting a career high from 3-point range (30 per cent); a number that won’t blow you away, but does represent progress. Along with the Cavaliers’ Kyrie Irving, Wall should be a shoo-in for a place on the Eastern Conference All-Star team.
And speaking of shoo-ins, if the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry is snubbed for the Western Conference All-Star team this year, there will be a riot in the Bay Area—and likely elsewhere. Last season, Curry’s 23 points and seven assists per game—along with a true shooting percentage of 59 per cent—weren’t enough to grab him an All-Star berth. But after a series of breathtaking post-season performances last year and a fantastic start to this season, Curry should be a lock.
And while the point-guard position is currently a little shallow in the East, it’s anything but in the West where Curry competes with the likes of Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Ty Lawson and Eric Bledsoe night after night. All that makes Curry’s numbers and nightly displays that much more impressive. Curry’s shooting averages have dropped a tad, owing to the fact that teams are trying to do everything they can to stop him shooting the 3-ball; but his 39 per cent from 3 is still very good considering he’s attempting eight 3s per game.
While Curry remains a deadeye shooter, it’s his playmaking abilities—often overlooked—that are really drawing the eye of many this year. Only Chris Paul is averaging more assists per game than Curry at this moment in time. Curry’s 9.5 assists per game represent a career high, and is a testament to his high basketball IQ and fantastic passing abilities. Curry frequently draws a double team, but is able to pass out of it (take note, Rudy Gay) with both hands to open teammates on the perimeter and down low. It’s no surprise that Curry’s teammate, Andre Iguodala, is currently shooting a career high 48 per cent from downtown.
Oh, and it certainly doesn’t hurt his All-Star case that his team’s winning ball games. At the present time the Dubs are winners of 10 straight and are one of the best teams in a stacked Western Conference.
This next candidate for an All-Star debut certainly doesn’t play for a good team. DeMarcus Cousins’ Sacramento Kings have been a fiery ball of dysfunction and ineptitude ever since the great Chris Webber left California’s capital. The Kings are currently 11 games under .500, and usually that would hurt a player’s chances of making the All-Star team. However, Boogie Cousins has been playing well enough to transcend his team’s dismal start and catch the eye of basketball aficionados.
Throughout his short career, Cousins has been known as a hothead, coach killer and an all-round problem child. But no one has ever accused Boogie of not having God-given talent—that, he most certainly does. And this season—again despite the Kings’ customary rough start—Cousins appears to have made the leap from an uber-talented player, who may or may not show up on a given night, to a player that is now a genuine star and a 20-20 threat on most nights in the Association.
Defensively Cousins is still found wanting, but he appears to have cleaned up some of his shot-selection issues—he’s now shooting 49 per cent from the floor, up from last season’s 46 per cent. And Cousins’ point-per-game average has also jumped, from 17 points per contest last season, to 23 points a game this season—with a whopping 26 average PPG per 36 minutes.
Cousins remains a beast on the glass, but perhaps most impressive—when we look at his advanced stats—is the fact that this season only LeBron, KD, Kevin Love and Chris Paul have a higher PER. Boogie currently has a PER of 27.1, up from 20.2 last season.
Anthony Davis is not even halfway through his second season in the Association, but the Pelicans’ super-versatile big man is already drawing an adoring chorus of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ from basketball fans and pundits alike. In truth, the Anthony Davis that we’re seeing this season—the ball-handling, shot-blocking, rim rolling phenom that has made basketball relevant again in The Big Easy—is the player many expected him to become after he entered the NBA, fresh off a National Championship with Kentucky.
Last season, Davis’ rookie campaign was derailed by injuries (he missed 18 games in total) and even though his per-36 numbers (16 and 10) were mighty impressive, he lost out to Damien Lillard in the Rookie of the Year vote. This season, Davis has bigger fish to fry. His much-improved Pelicans are locked in a Western Conference playoff battle, and he looks set to make his first All-Star appearance in just his second season.
The Brow is currently averaging 19 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks per game (he leads the NBA in that latter stat), posting a PER of 26.3; good enough for sixth in the NBA, which is rather bonkers considering his age. To that point, when the question was put to Grantland’s Zach Lowe on a recent podcast with Bill Simmons, Lowe stated that he’d rather have Davis on his team for the next 10 years than Kevin Love—a top-10 player in his own right.
In the years to come, Davis, who still has room to improve defensively, should become a top-five player in the NBA. For now, he’s more than deserving of a coming-out party in the city where he plies his trade.
The Eastern Conference is, to put it diplomatically, a little lacking this season. While the two juggernauts of the conference, the Pacers and Heat, will have their representatives on the East team at the All-Star weekend, it’s only fair that one of the few other teams in the East that’s looked mildly competent—the Toronto Raptors—should send at least one player to New Orleans.
The Raptors young shooting-guard, DeMar DeRozan—whose numbers have improved this year across the board—will be in contention to make his first All-Star game. For me, however, it should instead be Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry who makes his All-Star debut in February.
Lowry flirted with an All-Star place during his time with the Houston Rockets, but the Philly native has never put together as consistent of a season as he has with the Raptors this year. Lowry’s numbers are up across the board (15 points and 7 rebounds per game, after averaging 11 and 6 last season) and he’s currently shooting a career-high 38 per cent from 3-point range. And Lowry’s been a fantastic performer on the defensive end, as well. He’s a great rebounder for his position and height, averaging close to two steals per game without gambling irresponsibly and neglecting his on-ball defensive duties. Check out his defensive performance against John Wall in their second meeting of the season for a good example.
But Lowry has been more than simply his numbers this season—it’s his on-court leadership that’s really helped the Raptors turn the corner post-Rudy Gay trade. When Gay was traded on December 8, many predicted that Lowry would follow him out the door fairly quickly. But the trade rumours died down and Lowry started playing the best ball of his career, putting the team on his back and leading them to 10 wins over their next 13 games.
The Raptors have gone from a team likely to tank to a team that could win a playoff series. Much of that is down to the play of Kyle Lowry and, as it stands, he deserves a place at All-Star weekend.