NBA Youngsters on the Cusp of All-Star Status
We are (or should be) well past the point of talking about players who were "snubbed" from the 2014 NBA All-Star Game. Aside from Kobe Bryant and Joe Johnson, everyone who's been picked to participate in this year's festivities in New Orleans is more than deserving of the distinction.
That being said, the list of those who were passed over this time around is jam-packed with up-and-comers who figure to be fixtures at the midseason showcase in relatively short order. I'm not talking about guys like Kyle Lowry, Al Jefferson, Goran Dragic, Monta Ellis and Rudy Gay—all in their late 20s, all with borderline All-Star ceilings.
Rather, I'm referring to young studs, most of whom have already shown flashes of greatness in their first few seasons. At the very least, these guys are all in their early to mid-20s, with the dreaded cross into 30s territory still off in the distance.
With any luck, these eight guys will get their shot at All-Star glory next year in New York or wherever the league decides to set up shop in mid-February thereafter.
Anthony Davis may yet represent the host New Orleans Pelicans during the All-Star Game. With Kobe out of action until after the All-Star break, the NBA will have to settle on a replacement to fill out Scott Brooks' Western Conference roster.
Davis seems as good a choice as any. The second-year stud out of Kentucky leads the league in blocks with just under 3.4 per game and checks in among the top 20 in points (20.4), rebounds (10.5) and steals (1.5).
That's not bad for a 20-year-old who's still figuring out (and filling out) the limits of his lanky, 6'10" frame. So far, the sky seems to be the only thing holding Davis back, and even that would be hard-pressed to hold up against The Brow's tremendous length and athleticism.
A few pounds here, some seasoning there and soon enough, Davis won't need the misfortune of his peers to slip into the All-Star Game on a regular basis.
Two years before Anthony Davis set foot in Lexington, DeMarcus Cousins was causing scouts to salivate over his potential.
Four years later, Boogie remains an enigma, albeit one who's having little trouble stuffing the stat sheet. He ranks among the top 10 in both scoring and rebounding, with career highs in field-goal percentage (.489), assists (3.0), steals (1.7), blocks (1.2) and free-throw attempts (8.6) to boot.
So why, you ask, was Cousins left off the West's All-Star squad? Well, aside from the depth of top-tier talent up front in the conference, Cousins' perceived attitude problems (he leads the NBA with 12 technical fouls) and lack of team success (his Sacramento Kings are a worst-in-the-West 16-32 this season) are bound to limit his popularity among fans and coaches alike.
The latter should change within the next year or two, thanks in no small part to the reforms instituted by the team's new ownership. That process would probably move much faster, though, if Cousins were to mature as both a player and a person sooner rather than later.
As for Cousins' teammates at UK, Eric Bledsoe needed only the proper opportunity to show that he could be an All-Star. Bledsoe got just that when the Los Angeles Clippers flipped him to the Phoenix Suns this past summer.
Since then, Bledsoe has taken his shot and run with it—literally. According to NBA.com, the Suns have played at a blistering pace of 99.09 possessions per game when Bledsoe's been on the floor.
Much of the credit for that must be shared with Goran Dragic, who's had an All-Star-caliber season himself. But Bledsoe's been plenty productive on his own account, with 18.0 points, 5.8 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 33.5 minutes per game.
Unfortunately, knee problems have cut into Bledsoe's breakout campaign. He missed six games in November and has been out since early January after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his troublesome meniscus.
At the very least, Bledsoe's road to recovery hasn't been bumpy. "Doctors said everything looks good," Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek recently told Arizona Sports' Craig Grialou. "He's just going to continue his rehab. But, I think, because he got that OK, they'll step up his workload and continue to push him to get back as soon as he can."
If Bledsoe's knees ever hold up for more than a month or so at a time, he should find himself at the All-Star Game before too long, even in a conference that's stacked at his position.
Health has been a similar issue for Bradley Beal, who currently plays next to one of Bledsoe's college teammates: All-Star point guard John Wall.
Chances are, Wall wouldn't have gotten the nod without Beal's complementary efforts. Of Wall's 401 assists this season, 65 have come courtesy of Beal, who's connected on 41.2 percent of his three-point tries.
Beal was never within even smelling distance of a 2014 All-Star berth, though his selection to the Rising Stars Challenge more than hints at his upcoming potential. Beal's already shown himself to be one of the NBA's sharpest shooters, despite still being more than three months out from being able to buy himself a drink.
Beal could be a Ray Allen-esque shooting star in due course, but he'll need to keep his legs healthy to get to that point if he doesn't want to be the next Eric Gordon. He's already missed nine games this season on account of a stress injury, after sitting out 26 times as a rookie.
It might not be so bad, then, if Beal opts to skip All-Star weekend for health reasons. “That’s something I haven’t decided yet,” Beal told Michael Lee of The Washington Post. “I got to talk to the trainers and doctors and we’ll have to see. I definitely would love to play in it, but if it’s for my own benefit [to sit], we’ll see.”
Beal is to shooting what Andre Drummond is to rebounding: the next big thing. The 20-year-old already ranks as the NBA's third-most prolific rebounder (12.7 boards) and eighth-best swat artist (1.9 blocks).
This shouldn't come as any surprise. Drummond averaged 7.9 points and 7.6 rebounds as a rookie, despite coming off the bench 50 times and playing just a shade over 20 minutes a game therein. The kid's everything you want in a young center: size, length, strength, leaping ability and a nonstop motor.
At this point, the height of 'Dre's ceiling is both within and beyond his own control.
On the one hand, it's up to Drummond to learn the ins and outs of NBA defense while sharpening his free-throw shooting (40.9 percent this season) and developing something resembling an offensive game. On the other hand, he's neither the coach nor the GM, so he can't decide the size and scope of his own role next to Josh Smith and Greg Monroe.
Until one (or both) of those bigs winds up elsewhere, Drummond will be hard-pressed to realize his full potential—not unlike the Detroit Pistons as a whole.
If Drummond could ever shoot like Serge Ibaka, he'd be darn near unstoppable.
Which, as it happens, Ibaka is quickly becoming. He's scored 20 or more points five times in his last seven games while shooting 64.3 percent from the field over that span. On the whole, the Congolese big man has contributed career highs in points (15.1) and rebounds (8.8) to the Oklahoma City Thunder's best-in-the-West cause.
Aside from his obvious excellence as a shot-bothering field—he's led the league in blocks two years running and currently swats 2.5 attempts per game—Ibaka has developed into the perfect pick-and-pop partner for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
According to NBA.com, he ranks sixth in mid-range field-goal percentage (.474) among those who've taken at least 100 shots from that part of the court this season.
The Thunder certainly don't need Ibaka to produce like an All-Star, even less so when Westbrook is healthy, though they're clearly better off when he does. OKC has won 10 of the 11 games in which Ibaka has topped the 20-point mark this season.
If we're being honest, there was at least one other guard in the Eastern Conference (Kyle Lowry) who probably deserved an All-Star berth ahead of Lance Stephenson in the event that the coaches hadn't surprised so many by picking Joe Johnson.
That's not to take anything away from "Born Ready." The Brooklyn-born phenom has averaged around 14 points, seven rebounds and five assists and shot 50 percent from the field in his second season as a full-time starter for the Indiana Pacers. His versatility as a ball-handler and all-around bulldog have borne the fruit of a league-leading four triple-doubles.
Not to mention, he's contributed to Indy's NBA-best 37-10 record to date.
Stephenson, it seems, took the "snub" to heart. "I already had a chip on my shoulder and it made me even worse," Stephenson told Stefan Bondy of The New York Daily News. "Now I'm going to kill everybody who is in front of me."
If Stephenson sticks with that strategy, he may well find himself suiting up for the East as a first-time All-Star when the festivities land in New York City next year.
Part of Stephenson's All-Star "problem" might stem from the extent to which he's in Paul George's shadow. The same could be said of Klay Thompson, who spends most of his time next to All-Star starter Stephen Curry.
Thompson will need to produce more consistently if he's to join Curry among the league's elite. He's hit less than 40 percent of his field-goal attempts on 20 separate occasions this season—not a good look for a guy widely regarded as one of the best shooters in the NBA.
But when Thompson gets hot, there are few who can take over a game from a perimeter quite like him. The Dubs are 11-3 when Thompson tops the 50 percent mark and 13-6 when he scores 20 or more.
That's something he certainly should be doing more often—and will be soon enough—if his three-point stroke (40.9 percent from deep) doesn't fail him.
Like any point guard playing in the Western Conference, Ty Lawson's All-Star candidacy will have as much to do with the continued success of Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker and Damian Lillard as anything.
That's not to say Lawson's competition makes him any less deserving of consideration. He leads the Denver Nuggets in points (18.1) and steals (1.5), and his 8.8 assists are the third-most of any floor general in the league.
Moreover, Lawson has been the one (near) constant for a Nuggets club that's been ravaged by injuries, on top of all the turnover that threatened the organization's stability this past summer. Without him, there's no way Denver would so much as sniff the .500 mark, as they currently do.
With him, the Nuggets are a dark-horse team with the ability to sneak into the playoffs in the crowded Western Conference.
If Lawson's Nuggets are going to extend their 10-year playoff streak, they'll first have to leapfrog Mike Conley's Memphis Grizzlies, who currently occupy ninth place out West.
That's an impressive feat for the Grizz given what they've been up against this season. They were without Marc Gasol, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, for 23 games on account of a knee sprain and haven't seen Tony Allen in action since early January, when he suffered a small fracture in his left hand.
Oh, and don't forget about Quincy Pondexter, who was sidelined for the season by a stress fracture in his foot back in December.
Conley apparently isn't immune to the injury bug. He'll miss a week of action in the wake of spraining his right ankle on Feb. 1. But neither that nor his age (26) need deprive Conley of All-Star consideration as he approaches his prime years.
His 18.6 points, 6.3 assists and accompanying contributions as one of the NBA's premier defensive point guards practically kept the Grizzlies afloat as injuries ravaged the rest of their roster.
Memphis won't complete its push back into the postseason picture without Conley in the lineup, which is reason enough to think that he deserves more recognition for his gifts than what he's gotten so far.
Which other young talents look like budding All-Stars? Let me know on Twitter!