For basketball die-hards, the NBA All-Star selection process can be every bit as exciting as the game itself.
Not to see whether anyone can surpass LeBron James' fanfare, or how many injured stars the casual fans vote into the starting lineup. The real fun is in seeing which young players will get their All-Star tickets punched for the first time.
It's a cutthroat business, as Golden State Warriors sharpshooter Stephen Curry can attest to after being denied his rightful spot last season. When there are more deserving players than roster spots, snubs are bound to arise.
But so, too, are those joyous first-time selections. A shooting star captured mid-flight, a rise the entire basketball world can stop and appreciate.
Barring injury, Curry's going to get that call this season. But which first-year participants will join him? And which ones will be forced to feel the pain he had to endure last season?
*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and accurate through games played on Jan. 7, 2014.
**The 2014 NBA All-Star Game will be held on Sunday, Feb. 16 at New Orleans Arena.
Inevitably, there will be deserving players that for one reason or another don't make the cut.
Some can blame their teams for weakening their All-Star cause. Others have the misfortune of sharing a position with some of the world's greatest players.
And another group plays in the Western Conference, where being good enough isn't actually good enough.
These are the players who will have the biggest gripes when their numbers aren't called for the Big Easy.
Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic
He really should be an All-Star. Not only is he the league's No. 15 scorer (20.9 points per game), but he's also been a wildly effective shooter (.471/.419/.850). However, his team is 10-24. And that's what will ultimately keep him at home.
Al Jefferson, Charlotte Bobcats
Big Al used to have his All-Star campaigns undone by the fully loaded Western Conference, but it's his stat sheet that fails him this time around. He's been solid during his first season in Charlotte (17.0 points, 10.1 rebounds), but solid isn't quite enough to earn the 29-year-old his first All-Star nod.
Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks
It will be interesting to see how the Atlanta Hawks are treated in this process. They own the conference's third-best record, but their best player, Al Horford, is lost for the season (torn pectoral muscle). Millsap's 17.6 points and 8.7 rebounds will get him consideration, but he'll ultimately be underappreciated like every good Hawks player seems to be.
Kemba Walker, Charlotte Bobcats
Walker has two things in his favor. One, I think the league would like to recognize the improvements that Charlotte has made. Two, he just has that "it" factor that fans have gravitated toward since his college days. But subpar shooting numbers (.416/.365) and an underwhelming assist average (4.7) just hold him out of the world's greatest pickup game.
Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns
This is life in the Western Conference. "Mini LeBron" might have the best resume of any non-All-Star this season. With 18.0 points, 5.8 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals, Bledsoe certainly makes a compelling case. But his trips to the injury report and the depth of the West backcourt prove too great for him to overcome.
Monta Ellis, Dallas Mavericks
Ellis' history is going to impact his All-Star treatment. Either the league heralds his redemption story and parades him around as a success, or people refuse to believe he's shed his shot-chucking ways. Unfortunately, this won't be the first time that an All-Star stat sheet (19.9 points, 5.9 assists) hasn't been enough for him to secure an All-Star roster spot.
DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers
If his coach Doc Rivers is doing the voting, then Jordan—or Bill Russell reincarnated, as Rivers seems to think—might see both an All-Star spot and Hall of Fame enshrinement. With more voices in the process, though, Jordan's forgettable scoring average (9.4) undermines his stellar shooting (64.4 percent), rebounding (13.5) and shot-blocking (2.4) marks.
Ricky Rubio, Minnesota Timberwolves
Rubio does a lot of things well. He's pacing the league in steals (2.8) and sitting at No. 5 in assists (8.3). But his All-Star campaign has holes. He is in no way, shape or form a scoring threat (8.9 points on .348/.339 shooting), and he plays for a decent team in a conference full of really good ones.
All-Star Credentials: 23.5 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.9 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 27.1 PER
The 23-year-old is already blazing through the campaign trail, but his numbers say the stumping isn't necessary.
Not even with his Sacramento Kings holding an 11-22 mark. And not even with the wealth of frontcourt talent out West.
It seems a bit hypocritical denying Arron Afflalo a spot while sending DeMarcus Cousins to New Orleans. But there's something beyond the stat sheet working in Boogie's favor.
Afflalo's numbers feel a bit inflated, as someone forced to step up and shoulder the scoring load on a team full of complementary players. Cousins' don't feel that way at all. In fact, his supporting cast appears to be holding him back. With such a versatile bag of offensive tricks, he could at least match these numbers regardless of the system.
As it is, he's one of only two players (along with Kevin Love) averaging at least 23 points, 11 rebounds and three assists. He's also comfortably leading Love in field-goal percentage (49.1 to 47.0), steals (1.9 to 0.9) and blocks (1.0 to 0.4).
If voters still need a boost, there may not be a more entertaining player around. Not one packaged in a 6'11", 270-pound frame, at least.
All-Star Credentials: 22.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 9.5 APG, 1.9 SPG, 0.3 BPG, 22.3 PER
That All-Star snub might have been the best thing that ever happened to him. He's been on another level since that news first broke.
There's supposed to be a give-and-take with a player like Stephen Curry. The three-ball is such an important part of his game that his team should have to choose between quantity or quality.
Somehow, he's managed to give the Warriors both. He's launching eight triples a night and still connecting on 39.6 percent of them.
What makes his rise truly special, though, is that he's doing so much more than just firing away from distance. He's punishing defenses off the dribble, spotting his open teammates and even locking down at the defensive end.
"If he doesn't make the All-Star team, I might retire," coach Mark Jackson said, via Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press (via NBA.com).
Your job is safe, coach.
All-Star Credentials: 19.1 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 1.2 APG, 1.5 SPG, 3.2 BPG, 26.3 PER
If this is the year Anthony Davis gets his All-Star spot, it might be another 15 before he gives it up. The 20-year-old has that kind of ability now and that kind of ceiling down the line.
It's hard to speak in hyperbole about him. No matter how lofty the praise gets, it still feels attainable.
A point guard in a not-so-past life, his learning curve stretches even higher than it does for typical young NBA bigs. His offense on the low block isn't quite ready to be labeled as raw...and he's averaging more than 19 points on 52.3 percent shooting.
He's a rare combination of length, athleticism and instinct. He reads the game well, times his jumps perfectly and has a knack for making big-time plays.
A broken hand cost him some time early on, but he has managed to appear in 26 of the Pelicans' first 33 games. When he went down with the injury in early December, CBS Sports' Matt Moore noted that The Brow had been "arguably the best power forward in the league over the past five weeks."
Now back from the injury, he might still be the best two-way weapon at the 4 spot. Add in the fact he suits up for the host city, and this selection is a lock.
All-Star Credentials: 21.3 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 17.0 PER
Just like his Raptors have been doing, DeMar DeRozan is ready to slide into one of the injury-vacated slots in front of him.
With Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo on the shelf, the backcourt ranks out East are missing some notable names. As the leading scorer on the league's surprise—perhaps unintentional—playoff power, the 24-year-old is primed for the first All-Star appearance of his career.
His three-point shot is improving (29.4 percent), but his field-goal percentage has taken a dip (42.5 down from 44.5 percent last season). He's always been a volume scorer, though, and even the watered-down East wouldn't reward him an All-Star spot simply for adding a few decibels to his stat sheet.
He's Big Easy-bound for the strides he's made in the rest of his game. He's hitting the glass harder and setting up his teammates better than he ever has before. In the 15 games he's played since Toronto cut ties with Rudy Gay, DeRozan's averaging 4.9 boards and 4.5 assists.
His scoring is good enough where some will still use that as the justification for his selection. But his all-around contributions, his (relative) team success and his conference affiliation will be the real driving forces.
Plus, with his ability to play above the rim, he's a natural fit for this high-flying event.
All-Star Credentials: 13.0 PPG, 12.6 RPG, 0.4 APG, 1.4 SPG, 1.6 BPG, 21.9 PER
Andre Drummond's more stopping-through than up-and-comer. He's already a difference-making presence, but his ceiling still has yet to be set.
His birth certificate says Mount Vernon, N.Y., but he's built like he came down from Mount Olympus. The 20-year-old stands out as a physical specimen in a league dominated by the bigger, stronger, faster crowd: 6'10", 270 pounds, 7'6" wingspan, 33.5" max vertical.
He couldn't quite escape the kid gloves last season, but used his 20.7 minutes of floor time to compile some tantalizing per-36-minutes marks: 13.8 points, 13.2 rebounds. He's seeing exactly 12 more minutes of action this season and actually improving his production; his per-36-minute averages are up to 14.3 points and 13.8 rebounds.
"We don't run a lot of plays for him," Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks said, via Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press. "He still comes up with 18, 15 rebounds. He learns every game."
Translation—he's dominating now and only getting better.
All-Star Credentials: 21.9 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 5.8 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 20.4 PER
Damian Lillard's resume should speak for itself.
He's having a Stephon Curry-esque season from downtown (7.4 three-point attempts per game, 44.8 three-point percentage), and no one would label him as just a shooter. He creates prime chances for himself and others off the bounce, and has ice water pumping through his veins.
He should have support from the entertainment side. He's that always enjoyable combination of talent and a chip on his shoulder.
The team-success crowd should have no trouble getting behind the driver of the third-best team in the West. As for the number-crunchers, they've been on board since the Weber State product steamrolled his way to 2012-13 Rookie of the Year honors.
But none of those endorsements matter. Well, not as much as the one Lillard received from perhaps the only person who could sway an All-Star election by himself.
"My advice would be to focus on younger players," injured superstar Kobe Bryant said in a message to All-Star voters, per the Associated Press (via USA Today.) "The Damian Lillards of the world, because they're more than deserving to be out there and playing that weekend."
If the Mamba is running the "Vote for Lillard" campaign, who are we to disagree?
All-Star Credentials: 13.4 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 5.2 APG, 0.7 SPG, 0.1 BPG, 15.1 PER
The East doesn't pretend like it has depth. This conference understands that it's top-heavy and builds its All-Star rosters as such.
There have been 38 All-Star roster spots handed out over the last three seasons, with an injury replacement added in each of the last two. Of those 38 positions, more than 68 percent have been filled by players from one of four teams: Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks.
Those four teams, by and large, stand as the who's who of the East over that time period. The Indiana Pacers have since crashed that party, and whittled this down to a two-team race. It's time for the All-Star rosters to reflect that change.
"Born Ready" actually needed a few years of seasoning, but he's more than marked his arrival this season. His stat line has a jack-of-all-trades feel to it, but how may jack-of-all-trades players shoot 49.3 percent from the field?
Other players will have bigger numbers carrying their All-Star bids. But few can claim to have this much importance on a team this good.
He's productive, highly skilled, brash and a little unpredictable. He's the kind of player you never take your eyes off—isn't that what every All-Star Game should have?
All-Star Credentials: 19.7 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 8.8 APG, 2.0 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 20.4 PER
This won't settle any superstar debates for the former No. 1 overall pick. It won't even be his biggest test of the season; he still has that self-scribed challenge on the side of his sneakers to live up to.
But it would be a natural progression for the 23-year-old. And a well-deserved one at that.
He still doesn't have his three-point shot where he'd like it (30.3 percent), but the rest of his game is filling in quite nicely. For the second straight season, he has an assist percentage above 40 (41.1) and a turnover percentage below 16 (15.6). His 2.52 assists per turnover put him well in front of should-be All-Stars Damian Lillard (2.35), Stephen Curry (2.21) and Kyrie Irving (2.11).
His Wizards (15-17) haven't made a dramatic leap, but they've had plenty to overcome. Between trading former starting center Emeka Okafor right before the start of the season to the injury absences of Bradley Beal and Nene, Washington has struggled to find consistency.
Wall's been that calming presence. Whether that's darting to the basket or setting up one of his teammates, he's been consistently making the right call.
And that will help him get the first, of what should be many, All-Star nods of his career.