Which NBA Players Will Sniff 1st-Time All-Star Status in 2017-18?

Adam FromalNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 13, 2017

Which NBA Players Will Sniff 1st-Time All-Star Status in 2017-18?

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    Unfortunately, not all of these 12 players will make the 2018 All-Star Game. The majority of them will watch the proceedings from afar since they're contending with established superstars who represent their respective conferences year in and year out.

    But they're still the dozen (largely young) players most likely to break into the field for the first time. The qualifications? They can't have any previous All-Star appearances, and they have to be in situations conducive to gaining recognition.

    Some are continuing to improve upon their prior efforts and moving further along their developmental curves. Others are joining new teams and filling roles likelier to help them earn bigger numbers. Others still should finally get the recognition they've deserved for a while.

    A handful of these players might actually earn the coveted individual accolade. Those who don't—with one exception—will probably end up populating snub lists.

    All, though hindered by the limited number of All-Star berths, should at least be worthy of serious consideration.

Lonzo Ball, PG, Los Angeles Lakers

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    This is not a declaration that Lonzo Ball will play at an All-Star level during his rookie season. He won't. In fact, he'll have trouble winning Rookie of the Year while competing against Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, both of whom are listed as honorable mentions here because of the Eastern Conference's overall weakness.

    In fact, when I projected the stats of every first-round pick in the 2017 NBA draft, I pegged Ball at 12.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 8.2 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.6 blocks. Those aren't All-Star numbers. 

    But note carefully the players we're identifying. These aren't contributors who will play well enough to earn their first nods for the midseason festivities but rather those who are most likely to be selected. Usually, those go hand in hand...but not always. The fan vote matters, and that's where the worldwide horde of Los Angeles Lakers supporters comes into play. 

    Last year, Jordan Clarkson finished sixth in fan voting among Western Conference backcourt players. The year before that, Kobe Bryant received more votes than any other player in the league despite playing at the lowest level of his career. In 2014, Bryant was voted a starter despite having suited up in only six games that campaign. 

    Lakers fans, thanks to sheer volume, are powerful, and they haven't had a player like this to throw their support behind in a while. Ball is brimming with personality and media presence, due in large part to his father's outspoken nature and the infamous Big Baller Brand. 

    Though media and players could very well keep him out of the All-Star proceedings, the fans could do so much damage with their ballots that excluding him from this list would look particularly foolish in retrospect.

        

    Honorable Mentions: Devin Booker, Markelle Fultz, Khris Middleton, Ben Simmons, Andrew Wiggins

Bradley Beal, SG, Washington Wizards

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    Bradley Beal has arrived as one of the NBA's great shooting guards. 

    Though his defense needs significant work, a handful of key improvements have allowed him to show so much overall growth that it would be downright shocking if he were excluded from representing the East in February. 

    Starting with the smallest of strides: Beal has become slightly more comfortable when it comes to looking to distribute. His turnovers stagnated while he played more minutes for the Washington Wizards in 2016-17, and he started finding his teammates with increasing frequency, improving his assist-to-turnover ratio to a much better level. 

    But should Beal regress in that area, his growth as a shooter would cancel out the backslide.

    He's no longer taking those ill-advised two-point jumpers that plagued him earlier in his career, trading them for looks beyond the arc and around the rim. His shooting distribution makes that obvious enough, as the percentage of his field-goal attempts that came from three to 10, 10 to 16 and 16 to 23 feet all declined while the slices within three feet and outside the arc grew. 

    Now, Beal heads into his age-24 season coming off a year in which he slashed 48.2/40.4/82.5 while averaging 23.1 points and 3.5 assists. He's become one of the NBA's deadliest offensive weapons, and arguments that Washington has the league's leading backcourt now have significantly more merit. 

Avery Bradley, SG, Detroit Pisons

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    Avery Bradley could not be a better fit with the Detroit Pistons

    The team needs shooters who can help space the court around Andre Drummond, and Bradley will be the best marksman in the Motor City. Not only is he capable of creating the occasional triple off the bounce—just 81.5 percent of his long-range makes were assisted in 2016-17—but he also thrived as a spot-up sniper. 

    During his final go-round for the Boston Celtics, Bradley chipped in with 1.15 points per possessions on 2.7 possessions per game, which put him in the 86th percentile throughout the league. Last year, Beno Udrih (1.15 PPP on 0.7 possessions per game), Tobias Harris (1.07 on 4.3) and Marcus Morris (1.02 on 3.1) were the only Pistons to finish in the NBA's top half. 

    Then, there's his defense and leadership, which James Herbert highlighted for CBS Sports shortly after Bradley was traded away from the C's: 

    "Last season's Pistons lacked spirit, camaraderie and intensity. They were 25th in offensive rating, and their defense was only average for most of the season. They needed a course correction, and Bradley can be a part of that. He came into the league on a stacked Boston team and learned lessons from Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo, earning his spot in the rotation because of his commitment to defense. Unlike Garnett, Bradley is quiet but will set an example in the locker room and on the practice court."

    If the stellar shooting, on-court leadership, off-court examples and point-preventing prowess that earned him a first-team All-Defensive nod in 2015-16 translate and help propel Detroit into the playoff picture, he'll probably possess premier positioning for the first All-Star push of his career.

Mike Conley, PG, Memphis Grizzlies

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    Twenty-nine players in NBA history have accumulated more win shares than Mike Conley without logging a single All-Star appearance. But that's a misleading figure, since sheer volume has pushed them ahead of a 29-year-old floor general who's still in his prime. 

    So, how many have managed to record more win shares before the start of their age-30 seasons? Here are the top five finishers

    1. Cedric Maxwell, 65.7
    2. Tyson Chandler, 64.3
    3. Richard Jefferson, 63.2
    4. Mike Conley, 62.8
    5. Calvin Murphy, 61.8

    Interestingly enough, Chandler and Murphy represented their conferences during their age-30 seasons, and Conley could do the same now that the style of the Memphis Grizzlies is fundamentally changing. Without Tony Allen, Vince Carter and Zach Randolph operating on Beale Street (and potentially JaMychal Green, who remains a free agent), Conley will have the ball in his hands even more frequently and a renewed focus on offensive exploits. 

    Last season, he undoubtedly played like an All-Star, averaging 20.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists while shooting 46.0 percent from the field, 40.8 percent from downtown and 85.9 percent at the stripe. Factor in his stellar defense, and it's rather unfortunate that he got squeezed out by Klay Thompson and the overwhelming strength of the West. He did, after all, finish 17th in total points added.

    Voters should be aware of Conley's plight at this point. So long as he keeps operating at such a high level, he may get some sympathy from those who make the selections, which could push him ahead of the many other deserving candidates in the Association's stronger half.

Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Joel Embiid was tantalizingly close to earning an All-Star nod during his rookie season. 

    Among East frontcourt players, only LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo received more fan votes. He ranked eighth in player ballots, trailing just the aforementioned studs, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Kristaps Porzingis, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love. Finally, the media only slotted James, Antetokounmpo, Butler and Love ahead of him. 

    Add that all together, and Embiid tied with Love for fourth place in the push for starting nods. But only the top three gain inclusion, and the coaches elected to go with George, Love and Paul Millsap as the reserves (Anthony served as an injury replacement for Love)

    Embiid was that close as a rookie, and now he'll deal with a depleted field. Millsap has joined the Denver Nuggets. George is with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Butler has joined the Minnesota Timberwolves. Gordon Hayward is the only noteworthy frontcourt player who headed from West to East and has a legitimate shot at All-Star inclusion. 

    Everything works in this big man's favor...so long as he stays somewhat healthy. 

    Popularity will aid Embiid's case. His remarkable play will do the same since he established himself as one of the game's most dominant presences while actually on the court. There's a reason he ranked 41st in Sports Illustrated's countdown of the best players for 2017-18. Even more telling was Rob Mahoney's explanation that the ranking will probably prove off:

    "This ranking—a futile attempt to bridge two extremes—will likely be wrong. It's possible that Embiid plays out his 2017-18 season as something close to a top-10 player. The talent and the impact are there. It's somewhat more likely, however, that the 23-year-old who has played just 31 games in three years again sees his season undercut by injury. For Embiid to play 50 or 60 games could feel like an incredible victory. That's a tough sell for a top-40 player, no matter his evident qualifications."

    If Embiid stays healthy during the first portion of the season, he'll be an All-Star lock. 

Rudy Gobert, C, Utah Jazz

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    From a purely statistical standpoint, Rudy Gobert should have been on the West All-Star roster last season. He was unquestionably the biggest snub in either half of the NBA after serving as the best player—yes, he was better than Gordon Hayward, who did make the All-Star squad—on the highly competitive Utah Jazz

    Need advanced metrics? TPA had him trailing only 11 players in the league. He finished with the eighth-best score in real plus-minus. No one could come close to matching his defensive work around the rim, as he allowed just 43.8 percent shooting on 10.2 attempts per game. Even his offense was valuable thanks to added touch near the hoop and increased volume. 

    Gobert was, quite simply, the NBA's best center last year. He wasn't the biggest name. He wasn't the most glamorous player. But he added more value than anyone else at his position with his two-way exploits, and he should keep doing more of the same while serving as Utah's top dog in 2017-18. 

    The analytics don't provide the only defense of Gobert, though. Just look at his finishes during award season. 

    He made the All-Defensive first team and All-NBA second team. Only Draymond Green finished ahead in the Defensive Player of the Year race, while this French 7-footer drew 16 first-place votes. The respect around the league was there, even if he was erroneously and inexplicably left off the midseason All-Star roster. 

    Expect that to get remedied going forward as Gobert contends for DPOY yet again, increases his offensive volume even further with no Hayward in Salt Lake City and benefits from the pinpoint passing of Ricky Rubio on a plethora of pick-and-roll sets. 

Nikola Jokic, C, Denver Nuggets

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    From Dec. 15, when Nikola Jokic re-entered the starting lineup, through the end of the season, the Denver Nuggets posted the NBA's best offensive rating. Scoring 113.3 points per 100 possessions, they edged the Golden State Warriors (112.9) and Houston Rockets (111.9) for top billing. 

    Yes, that was partly due to Gary Harris' return from injury. But Jokic was unequivocally the catalyst, boosting the Nuggets' fortunes with his touch shooting around the hoop and his jaw-dropping passing skills. 

    Since then, the rising star has become somewhat of a litmus test for the strange dichotomy between the eye test and the analytics movement—two ends of an alleged spectrum that are actually mutually symbiotic tools. Every advanced metric points to Jokic having the impact of a superstar and potential top-10 player, much to the chagrin of those with disdain for anything that requires calculation. 

    That's equal parts silly and sad. 

    Jokic passes the eye test with flying colors. You need watch Denver basketball for all of five minutes to see him whipping passes that graze defenders' ears on their way by or hitting cutters in stride for easy buckets around the hoop. Bereft of sinewy muscles and featuring a plodding gait as he motors up and down the floor, he might not look like a basketball star, but witnessing his impact in the half-court game—or his dribbling in transition—should leave little doubt about his abilities. 

    Fortunately, this could change in 2017-18. The ever-growing chasm between the two schools of thought might prevent Jokic from gaining universal acceptance out of sheer numbers fatigue. But the Nuggets will be on national broadcasts nine times, after just three such appearances during the big man's breakout campaign. 

    More will witness his skills and start to realize, however hesitantly, that he's not merely the product of abacuses and spreadsheets. 

CJ McCollum, SG, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Let's turn to Frank Urbina since he made a convincing case that CJ McCollum is the most well-rounded scorer in the NBA for HoopsHype:

    "The Lehigh product doesn't have great size at 6-foot-3, or absurd athleticism like many of his counterparts at the position. Even so, he's coming off a career season—one that saw him average 23.0 points and 3.6 assists per outing on fiery shooting splits of 48.0/42.1/91.2 percent.

    "When you take a deeper dive into his numbers, you will note the year he just had was ridiculous for yet another reason: According to NBA.com, McCollum was statistically above average to excellent in every single play type listed on the site.

    "From iso situations to running the pick-and-roll, and everything in between—including post-ups and off-ball cuts—McCollum was brilliant in just about every facet of the game offensively."

    This isn't an exaggeration.

    McCollum thrived in so many different areas during yet another breakout season for the Portland Trail Blazers, constantly showing off a smooth jumper that allowed him to rise and fire over the outstretched arms of any defender. He was comfortable displaying his isolation skills, working off the ball in anticipation of a kick-out feed from Damian Lillard and putting the rock on the floor in traffic before pulling up for a mid-range bucket. 

    One year after winning Most Improved Player, this 2-guard got that much better. He averaged 23.0 points and 3.6 assists for Rip City while shooting 48.0 percent from the field, 42.1 percent from downtown and a league-best 91.2 percent from the free-throw line—all career highs. He's well within striking distance of the 50/40/90 club, and it would be rather difficult to exclude such an efficient volume scorer from the All-Star party.

    McCollum isn't Portland's best player. That honor still belongs to his running mate in the backcourt. But he's not far from overtaking Lillard, either.  

Otto Porter Jr., SF, Washington Wizards

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    Otto Porter Jr. wasn't even the Robin to John Wall's Batman. That role belonged to Bradley Beal, which left this rising star at small forward as...Alfred Pennyworth? Commissioner James Gordon? Nightwing? Someone help me out. 

    No matter who his comic analogue may be, Porter was pretty damn good for the Wizards in his tertiary role. He held his own defensively, chipped in with the occasional assist, avoided mistakes, grabbed plenty of rebounds and shot the ball as well as anyone. 

    Boy did he shoot the ball. 

    In spot-up situations, Porter added 1.31 points per possession, which trailed only CJ Miles among the 58 players who suited up in at least 50 games and used at least three relevant possessions per contest. He was also well clear of the field in valued added as a spot-up marksman: 

    1. Otto Porter Jr.: 94.4 more points added than what a league-average player would've done with his possessions
    2. CJ Miles: 80.2
    3. Kawhi Leonard: 76.3
    4. Stephen Curry: 67.3
    5. Channing Frye: 65.4

    Porter's per-game averages (13.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.5 blocks) don't scream, "I'm an All-Star!"

    But he deserved consideration last year, and the same should be true going forward. Basketball analysis is advanced enough to realize that points per game isn't the be-all, end-all stat, which could help this Georgetown product earn the reward that often eluded previous do-everything forwards.

    Plus, suiting up in the East won't hurt his case. 

Kristaps Porzingis, PF/C, New York Knicks

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    Can we just pencil him in already? Actually, scratch that.

    Use a Sharpie. 

    Kristaps Porzingis benefits from playing for the New York Knicks—who play in a major media market with a massive fanbase that should propel him to the top of East frontcourt voting. If he doesn't land in the coveted No. 1 slot, he'll surely be close to earning pole position. The Latvian big man is an incredibly popular figure whose game and personality are both appealing, after all. 

    But let's focus on that game. 

    Without Derrick Rose taking away touches, and without Phil Jackson's presence pushing the Knicks toward a certain geometric offense that could contain its rising star rather than featuring him more prominently, Porzingis is due for a statistical explosion. Even if Carmelo Anthony remains in the Big Apple and never finds himself in a feasible trade to a contender, the 22-year-old should become New York's offensive centerpiece. 

    Seven-footers aren't supposed to possess this much shooting ability, and they're certainly not supposed to look so seamless when they put the ball on the floor and pull up to knock down a jumper. But Porzingis is a unicorn, and his impact doesn't end on offense. Playing more around the rim will allow him to morph into one of the East's most valuable defenders as well. 

    Need tangible proof the breakout is coming? Just look to EuroBasket, where Porzingis propelled his country to victories while averaging 21.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.7 steals and 2.0 blocks with a slash line of 52.4/44.0/91.9, per RealGM

Karl-Anthony Towns, C, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Karl-Anthony Towns may not have been an All-Star snub during the 2016-17 campaign, but he certainly had an argument for inclusion. Then, he seemed to take personal affront to the omission and torched the rest of the NBA throughout the season's second half. 

    After watching other players represent the West, Towns averaged a mind-numbing 28.4 points, 13.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.8 steals and 0.8 blocks. Yet that's not where the impressive nature of his numbers ends. Despite his heavy involvement, he turned the ball over just 2.5 times per contest. He also shot 59.7 percent from the field, 43.4 percent from downtown and 84.1 percent at the line. 

    This version of Towns is likely what led Bleacher Report's Dan Favale to pen the following: 

    "He is looped into a broader discussion beside other contemporary bigs who began their careers around the same time (Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis and Myles Turner).

    "In many ways, though, Towns is the most important billboard of them all. He represents the cross section of traditional size and strength and voguish range—that territory where Jahlil Okafor's antiquated arsenal collides with Porzingis' ultramodern armory. (Embiid might grow into this token if he remains healthy enough; Jokic needs to display more defensive switchability before doing the same.)

    "Don't bother parsing historical ranks for a clear-cut answer. [Anthony] Davis and Towns are both all-timers at this stage of their development."

    The Minnesota Timberwolves would surely benefit from Towns improving on the defensive end. If they want to distinguish themselves from the other squads competing for the non-guaranteed spots in the West's crowded playoff picture, he'll need to. 

    But even if he plateaus on that end, he'll be just fine in the All-Star competition...so long as he proves that second-half surge was less fluky and more a sign of what's to come. 

Myles Turner, C, Indiana Pacers

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    The Indiana Pacers now belong to Myles Turner. 

    While trading Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder brought Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis onto the roster, handing control of the operation to the 21-year-old big man was by no means a fringe benefit. The Pacers should play inside-out, throwing the ball into the Texas product and watching as he produces from the low post. Failing that, they'll feature his ever-improving shooting from the perimeter. 

    Turner's usage rate has not reached 20 percent during his first two professional seasons, but it should skyrocket in 2017-18. Gone are the days on which he supported a superstar; Oladipo, Thaddeus Young, Darren Collison and others will now support him. 

    Of course, this also applies to the defensive end. 

    Turner entered his sophomore campaign with plenty of bad habits. He got caught flat-footed while guarding pick-and-rolls far too often, twisted his limbs when dashing to the basket while defending quicker players and fouled excessively around the hoop. But he fixed the flaws rather nicely, ranking in the 62nd percentile against roll men while getting whistled just 3.7 times per 36 minutes. 

    Perhaps most importantly, he stopped functioning quite so much like a sieve around the basket. 

    As a rookie, Turner faced 7.1 shots per game while stationed at the rim and allowed opponents to connect on 50.7 percent of those looks. One year later, those numbers changed to 9.6 and 49.4, respectively. Both his volume and effectiveness increased. What changed? In a word: discipline. Instead of recklessly chasing rejection opportunities, he stood his ground and picked his spots wisely.

    If that trend continues while he improves his jumper and takes on a more featured offensive role, he's in store for a substantial two-way breakout. 

        

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball Reference, NBA.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com.