Training camp has not been kind to the NBA's collection of rising stars. Injuries to John Wall and Eric Gordon, along with the length of recovery of Ricky Rubio, have put a bit of a damper on the lofty expectations abounding among the league's young and restless.
Not that there aren't plenty of other breakout candidates on tap, ones who could do worse than pull a Jason Terry by predicting the future via tattoo. Cracking the All-Star Game will be no easy feat for any first-time hopeful, not with only 12 spots per team to fill and so many incumbents likely to play their way to Houston in February.
But if there's going to be significant turnover in the field, expect these five youngsters to be first in line to make like boisterous upstarts and steal seats from their established elders.
There will be no shortage of debate this season over whether Jeremy Lin should play in the All-Star Game, but the ballot box will speak for itself. The phenomenon that is Linsanity has significant pull in China, Taiwan and around East Asia—the prevalence of Rockets games on television in that part of the world can only boost Lin's popularity.
If there's any franchise in the NBA that understands how to parlay a player's international stardom into All-Star votes, it's the Rockets. They were able to tap into the massive Chinese market to land Yao Ming in the All-Star Game eight times in eight seasons, even though he wasn't healthy enough to play on two occasions.
That's not to say that electioneering at home and abroad will be the only reason for Lin's All-Star turn. He stands to benefit handsomely from a hodgepodge-of-a-Rockets-roster whose offense will likely be pieced together around his ability to score and create for his teammates. With a dearth of quality veterans by his side, the onus will fall on Lin to do much of the heavy lifting.
Not that he hasn't succeeded under such circumstances before. His meteoric rise to international fame with the New York Knicks last season came amidst the absences of Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, wherein Lin's productivity was crucial to the team's continued success.
That figures to be the case in Houston, where Lin looks like a solid bet to be the one and only Rocket to represent the hometown team at the All-Star Game in 2013.
If you're looking for a top-notch player on a surprise contender to crack the All-Star code for the first time, then Ty Lawson is your guy. Simply put, he's the engine that makes the Denver Nuggets go.
And go. And go. And go some more.
The sub-six-foot Lawson was fantastic during his first season as a full-time starter in 2011-12. The third-year point guard out of North Carolina averaged 16.4 points, 6.6 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals while shooting 36.5 percent from beyond the arc.
Those numbers all figure to improve as Lawson's game naturally progresses, along with the offseason upgrades to Denver's roster. The returns of JaVale McGee and Wilson Chandler, the development of Kenneth Faried and Kosta Koufos—and, of course, the addition of Andre Iguodala—leave Lawson with a plethora of running mates on the fast break.
The Nuggets will push the tempo in the Mile High City—they were second in pace and third in offensive efficiency last season—with Lawson as their ringleader. If they win as frequently as some think they will, it'll likely be Lawson who reaps the greatest benefits from the additional exposure.
Granted, fitting in another point guard in the West will be tough, what with Lin, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker and Steve Nash hangin' around. But if anyone's going to break on through to the other side, it's Ty.
Kyrie Irving would be faced in the East with the same problem Lawson has in the West if not for Derrick Rose's knee injury. The former league MVP is currently eying a return around the All-Star break, which leaves his ticket to Houston up for grabs.
That is, unless Kyrie continues to sparkle the way he has so far. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, Irving was remarkably efficient during his debut season, shooting 60.4 percent at the rim and 39.9 percent from three on the way to averaging 18.5 points, 5.4 assists and 3.7 rebounds.
For his efforts, Irving was named the Rookie of the Year in a landslide and the praise has been nothing but effusive since. Irving starred for the select squad during Team USA's training camp this past July. By some accounts, he was, at times, the best player on a floor shared with the likes of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant.
A fluky hand injury later that month left Kyrie somewhat limited for much of the summer, though it shouldn't be too much of a hindrance going forward.
The greater threat to Irving's All-Star candidacy may well be the rest of his team. The Cleveland Cavaliers have the look of an up-and-coming team with youngsters like Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller expected to get significant run.
Exciting basketball won't necessarily translate into a successful bottom line. Nonetheless, Irving will be the Cavs' ringleader and, as such, will have every opportunity to fill highlight reels and dribble his way to Space City.
Speaking of players whose overwhelming talent will shine through the futility with which they're surrounded, allow me to introduce DeMarcus Cousins.
The Sacramento Kings' temperamental big man appears to be adding measured leadership to a CV that already features offensive skill, tremendous physical prowess and legitimate 20-10 potential. Boogie averaged 18.1 points and 11 rebounds per game in 2011-12 and stepped up his productivity as the season wore on.
His hot head aside, there is cause for concern in Cousins' game. His field goal percentage (.448) was troublingly low for a player of his size who spends so much time in the paint, though, to his credit, it marked a noticeable jump from his accuracy as a rookie.
Assuming Cousins' conditioning continues to improve, he should be able to impose his will on opponents for considerable stretches on both ends of the court and, in turn, take the next big step from young pivot to bona fide All-Star.
Even if the Kings crumble around him.
The upcoming season is shaping up to be a coming-out party of sorts for the 2009 NBA Draft class, with Paul George slated to join the fray. The third-year wing is arguably the most talented player on the Indiana Pacers' roster and may well be the central figure on a top-two seed in the Eastern Conference by season's end.
George has all the tools to be the face of the franchise in Indy—a smooth-shooting stroke (38.5 percent from three, 80.2 percent from the line), a surprisingly tight handle, excellent size for a wing, jaw-dropping athleticism and a nose for the ball (second in rebound rate among shooting guards).
The key for George is experience. He's still relatively raw in both skill and understanding of the game. His propensity for attempting spectacular plays on both ends of the floor often leaves him susceptible to mistakes, be they turnovers on the offensive end or letting his man slip by on defense.
That being said, if the leap between his rookie and sophomore seasons is any indication, George should take another giant leap forward in 2012-13. He'll have his fair share of opportunities to show off his considerable skills for a balanced Pacers squad that has the chops to challenge the Miami Heat in the East.
A move from shooting guard to small forward would do wonders for George's game and his candidacy for the All-Star Game, and may well be in store if the Pacers finally opt to part ways with the recently-disappointing Danny Granger.