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Sunday, October 21, 2018

10 NBA players who could become first-time All-Stars

Donovan Mitchell

Last year’s NBA All-Star Game was the most competitive we’ve seen in years, as Team LeBron edged Team Stephen, 148-145. Something about having the two stars pick their squads, playground-style, got the competitive juices flowing.

The entertaining showdown featured five first-time All-Stars (including four from the East): Joel Embiid, Victor Oladipo, Bradley Beal, Goran Dragic, and Karl-Anthony Towns. So, which players could make their first All-Star Game appearance this year? Here are 10 to look out for.

10. Brandon Ingram, Lakers

The Lakers may not win the West, but adding the best player alive practically guarantees they’ll be a top-tier team. As L.A. jockeys with the Warriors, Jazz, Rockets, and company, someone is going to have to step up to complement LeBron James. Ingram is your best bet to fill that role. The lanky Duke product made a big leap from year one to two, significantly elevating his per-game averages in points (9.4 to 16.1), rebounds (4.0 to 5.3), assists (2.1 to 3.9), and blocks (0.5 to 0.7), as well as his three-point shooting percentage (29 percent to 39 percent). Though rumors are swirling that Kevin Durant may opt to join LeBron in Hollywood in 2019, Ingram has an opportunity this year to prove the Lakers already have a Durant-type star.

9. Tim Hardaway Jr., Knicks

Kristaps Porzingis is the Knicks’ star, but he’s out for the foreseeable future. There’s still no hard return date set, but it seems the Knicks will ease him into action, and it’d be a surprise if he played much before the All-Star break. Thus, the Knicks will be looking for a go-to scorer. Though Kevin Knox could emerge in that role, it’s likelier that the veteran Hardaway will do so. After receiving a hefty four-year, $71 million contract in the summer of 2017, Hardaway put up solid numbers for New York last season: 17.5 points, 2.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.1 steals per game, all career highs. Though his shot was inconsistent, he was still arguably the Knicks’ best weapon after Porzingis tore his ACL in February. With new coach David Fizdale in tow, look for Hardaway to crack 20 points per game early this season.

8. Aaron Gordon, Magic

Gordon was one of the guys who cashed out this summer. He signed a four-year, $84 million extension with Orlando. Gordon has a new contract and a new coach (Steve Clifford). Now it’s time for him to prove the Magic were wise for believing he could become a franchise player. Last season, he averaged career-highs in minutes (32.9), points (17.6), rebounds (7.9), assists (2.3), steals (1.0), and blocks (0.8) per game. No one has ever questioned Gordon’s athletic ability; he can get up with the best of them. It’s the rest of his game that needs development. Last season, he finally cracked the 30-percent mark from three-point range (33.6 percent). If he comes out of the gates hot, he could take LeBron’s vacant All-Star spot in the East.

7. Jaylen Brown, Celtics

Seemingly everyone favors the Celtics in the East this season – they have the second-best odds of winning the title – and with good reason. Boston has a great problem on its hands, though: it has too many good players. How can you find enough minutes to satisfy Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier? It seems inevitable that Danny Ainge will end up dealing one of the final two on that list. The Celtics’ top five, however, should all be All-Star candidates (though it’d be surprising if even four made it). Brown, like Ingram, made a massive jump from year one to two – his averages ascended in minutes (17.2 to 30.7), points (6.6 to 14.5), rebounds (2.8 to 4.9), steals (0.4 to 1.0), and assists (0.8 to 1.6), and his three-point shooting surged from 34.1 percent to 39.5 percent.

6. Myles Turner, Pacers

We thought Turner was poised for a big breakout campaign last season – but that didn’t really come to fruition. Though the Pacers surpassed expectations, Turner didn’t live up to the hype. His per-game averages dipped in points (14.5 to 12.7), rebounds (7.3 to 6.4), blocks (2.1 to 1.8) and steals (0.9 to 0.6). But his shot improved, and he took a backseat as Victor Oladipo, the season’s Most Improved Player, emerged as a star. Turner was the talk of the NBA blogosphere after he shared photos showing his body transformation in June. With Turner eligible for a contract extension next summer, and his improved diet and cardiovascular conditioning, this should be the season in which he truly breaks out.

5. Rudy Gobert, Jazz

Isn’t it crazy to think that the Stifle Tower hasn’t made an All-Star Game yet? Gobert, a two-time All-Defense first-teamer and last season’s Defensive Player of the Year, qualified for All-NBA second team in 2017-18 – but he didn’t make the All-Star Game. The reason? He missed significant time with knee injuries in the first half of the season. If he were healthy, he would’ve all but certainly been an All-Star. No one is sleeping on the Jazz this season – we saw just how dangerous Quinn Snyder’s squad can be down the stretch last year, when they finished the season 29-6 – and that’s largely because they boast the most dominant defensive presence in the game. If Gobert stays healthy, he’s a surefire first-time All-Star.

4. Jayson Tatum, Celtics

Tatum is only No. 4 on this list because he’ll jockey for numbers with Boston’s four other stars. In terms of ceiling, however, I think he could be the best player in the 2017 draft. The No. 3 pick out of Duke showed far-beyond-his-years maturity – both on and off the court – last season. He has an incredibly polished game. Though he went through a bit of a funk around the All-Star break, he snapped out of it and was ready to ball out in the playoffs. Tatum briefly but fearlessly went toe to toe with LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals. He worked on his off-the-dribble shooting this summer – teams won’t be leaving his open around the arc this season, that’s for sure – and he has the potential to one day be the best scoring forward in the league.

3. Donovan Mitchell, Jazz

Another pick from the Jazz. Mitchell was a stud from Day One last season. It’s rare for a rookie to immediately inherit the reins to a team’s offense, and even rarer for that to happen with a rookie selected outside of the top 10. Mitchell, the No. 13 pick in the 2017 draft, was an All-Rookie first-teamer last season, and he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting to Ben Simmons. In terms of true rookies, he was the best, wire-to-wire. He averaged 20.4 points(!), 3.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 1.5 steals per game, and he was even better in Utah’s 11 postseason games, averaging 24.4 points. No one will disagree with this: Mitchell is a star in the making.

2. Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

In a recent podcast, former Cavs general manager David Griffin said Jokic is his sleeper MVP pick. That might sound absurd, but the gifted Nuggets big is poised for a big 2018-19. Joker is known as a defensive liability, and that label will probably always follow him (much like it has for James Harden), but he – at least marginally! – improved defensively down the stretch last season. His offensive talent is enrapturing; Jokic is the best passing big man in the game today, and he also has impressive handles. The 23-year-old has been somewhat unpredictable throughout his career, but look for this to be the season in which he consistently puts up big numbers.

1. Ben Simmons, 76ers

This pick won’t surprise anyone. Simmons is a generational talent. His court vision, his ball-handling, his passing – you don’t see guys like this come around very often. After missing his rookie season due to a right-foot injury, Vegas pegged him as the favorite to win Rookie of the Year in 2017-18 – and he made that prediction come to fruition. Simmons filled the stat sheet, averaging 15.8 points, 8.2 assists, 8.1 rebounds, 1.7 steals, and 0.9 blocks per game – and appearing in 81/82 games, playing 33.7 minutes a night. With Philly poised for a long run of success, this triple-double machine is just getting started. It was surprising that he missed the All-Star Game last year. He won’t this season.

Aaron Mansfield is a freelance sports writer. His work has appeared in Complex, USA Today, and the New York Times. You can reach him via email at [email protected]


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