Predicting the 1st-Time NBA All-Stars of the 2015-16 Season
First-timers always have a part to play in the NBA All-Star Game. They're the league's lifeblood, the cream of the crop making its way steadily toward the top.
In the 16 years since the All-Star Game was last cancelled in 1999, an average of 6.25 newbies per year have broken into the league's midseason festivities. Last year, Kyle Lowry was voted a starter in his first appearance on behalf of the Eastern Conference, with Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kyle Korver, Jeff Teague and DeMarcus Cousins chosen as reserves (Thompson actually started with Kobe Bryant out injured).
Who will get the call this time around? The Association certainly isn't short on up-and-coming talent. Assuming the usual assortment of injuries and year-over-year declines, there could be many more than 6.25 new faces in Toronto come February, what with all the youngsters climbing the league's proverbial latter.
For the sake of argument, though, let's play it safe by picking the five guys with the best chances of snagging those bids. Draymond Green, Nikola Vucevic, Eric Bledsoe, Ty Lawson, Hassan Whiteside, Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors were among those who garnered serious consideration, but only the five to follow—listed in alphabetical order—made our cut.
Bradley Beal, SG, Washington Wizards
Health has always been the biggest obstacle standing between Bradley Beal and a spot in the All-Star Game. He's missed an average of 18 games per season as a pro, with lower-body injuries that have sidetracked (if not outright stunted) his considerable growth each time.
That may not be an issue for Beal in 2015-16, at least at the outset. Prior to the start of training camp, he told Bleacher Report that he was "100 percent healthy."
Assuming he's good to go on opening night, the 22-year-old will be ready to show off a more refined offensive game, one wherein mid-range jumpers have been redistributed into three-pointers and easy shots at the rim.
"I have to do as much as I can as best as I can to eliminate those long twos and get to the basket, get to the free-throw line," Beal said. "Those are just easy points."
The St. Louis native did well to convert the easy opportunities he got last season. He hit 78.3 percent of his free throws, but earned only 2.6 of those per game. According to NBA.com, he took just over three shots in the restricted area a night in 2014-15, of which he connected on 63.7 percent.
Meanwhile, he launched more than 40 percent (344 of 851) of his looks within the nebulous space between 10 feet from the hoop and inside the three-point line, and connected on a subpar 34.6 percent of those attempts.
With the Washington Wizards looking to run and gun, Beal should get more threes, layups and dunks by default. And if he's able to trade those long twos for more high-yield looks, his scoring numbers could skyrocket into All-Star territory.
DeAndre Jordan, C, Los Angeles Clippers
If not for the usual equation of scoring and stardom, DeAndre Jordan may well have been an All-Star in 2015. In 54 games before the break, he averaged 13.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. And while he wasn't lighting up the scoreboard (10.7 points), he was converting his attempts at an astronomical 72.5 percent clip.
It's not as though Jordan couldn't score, either. In three of his six games prior to All-Star Weekend, he contributed at least 20 points and 20 rebounds to the Los Angeles Clippers' cause.
"Next year I probably have to average 20 points per game, and maybe it will be something that they look at," Jordan said at the time, per ESPN.coms Arash Markazi. "I'm happy for Dirk. He deserves to be an All-Star. At this point, there's nothing I can do about it. I've accepted it and moved on. It's cool."
Jordan won't likely come close to scoring 20 points a night on a Clippers squad that's loaded with talent. But as Doc Rivers said at Clippers media day, L.A. expects its 27-year-old center to play a bigger role in the offense this season and not just because of the four-year, $88 million deal he signed in July.
A few more points per game might be all Jordan needs to crack the field, especially if his pledge to participate in the Slam Dunk Contest should he be selected as an All-Star still stands.
Kawhi Leonard, SF, San Antonio Spurs
Like Beal, Kawhi Leonard has battled the injury bug at seemingly every turn since going pro in 2011. He sat out just twice as a rookie, but has averaged 19.3 games missed over his last three seasons—and not just because Gregg Popovich prefers to rest the San Antonio Spurs' best players during the regular season.
Fortunately for the Spurs, Leonard hasn't yet been diminished by physical problems in the playoffs. On the contrary, he's established his star-caliber bona fides on the postseason stage. In 2014, he was named the NBA Finals MVP in leading San Antonio to the fifth championship in franchise history. Last spring, he led all Spurs in scoring (20.3 points on 47.7 percent shooting from the field, 42.3 percent from three) while chipping in 7.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists, albeit in a first-round losing effort.
There's never been much question as to Leonard's ability to defend. The 24-year-old laid to rest any lingering doubts when he was named the NBA's 2014-15 Defensive Player of the Year.
So far, the San Diego State product has managed to stay healthy in the preseason. So long as that holds true over the months to come, amidst LaMarcus Aldridge's integration into San Antonio's ecosystem, Leonard should have little trouble putting up the numbers he needs to secure a trip to Toronto in February.
Greg Monroe, PF, Milwaukee Bucks
The Milwaukee Bucks' long-term ability to contend in the Eastern Conference is contingent on the development of gifted youngsters such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, Michael Carter-Williams, Khris Middleton, John Henson and rookie Rashad Vaughn. But if the Bucks are able to go toe-to-toe with the likes of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls this season, it'll be by dint of Greg Monroe's All-Star-caliber play.
Monroe has long had the profile of a potential future star. What he lacks in shooting ability and defensive prowess, he makes up for in low-post skill, be it as a scorer or a passer. According to NBA.com, the Louisiana native racked up the fifth-most post-ups in the league last season.
The biggest problem for Monroe, at least in recent years, had been his play at power forward for an evolving Detroit Pistons roster. As NBA.com's David Aldridge recently wrote:
Monroe will go back to playing center in Milwaukee, as he did his first couple of seasons in the league for the Pistons. In the middle, he shot 55 and 52 percent from the floor. After Detroit took Andre Drummond in 2012 and put him in the hole, though, Monroe's percentages and production fell off noticeably.
In Milwaukee, Monroe won't have to worry so much about making room for another low-post big. Antetokounmpo, Parker and Carter-Williams all can handle and will get opportunities to operate on the block, but none of those guys are dependent on those looks to grease their offensive games. If anything, having a big such as Monroe, who can draw double-teams down low, should loosen things up for the young Bucks.
Milwaukee's youth movement, with its collective length and athleticism, should do plenty to mask Monroe's defensive shortcomings. In turn, he will be tasked with serving as the go-to scorer for a squad that ranked 25th in offensive efficiency last season.
Should that trade-off work out for all involved, Monroe figures to be a shoo-in for his first All-Star Game.
Andrew Wiggins, G/F, Minnesota Timberwolves
Prior to Michael Carter-Williams' de facto win in 2014, the last three Rookie of the Year recipients (and four of the previous five) had been tapped as All-Stars in their sophomore seasons.
Andrew Wiggins certainly has the talent to make the same leap that Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard (among others) did before him. He came into the NBA last season as not only the No. 1 pick in the draft, but also one of the most hyped prospects in recent memory. All he did was run away with the top first-year honor while averaging 20 points per game after the All-Star break.
A year of pro experience and dedicated training should do wonders for the slender, 6'8" swingman. So, too, should the individual scoring opportunities that are headed Wiggins' way. According to the Minnesota Timberwolves PR Twitter account, interim coach Sam Mitchell wants his 20-year-old star to spend more time operating in isolation.
Wiggins is already pretty well-practiced in this regard. Per NBA.com, his 248 isolation possessions were the seventh most in the league last season. He averaged a solid, if unspectacular, 0.85 points on those attempts, though he did draw shooting fouls 17.3 percent of the time and got to the free-throw line 19 percent of the time—both of which were the top marks among the top 10 most frequent iso artists.
Beyond his own steady improvement and a featured role on a growing team, Wiggins could have another major factor working in his favor for All-Star consideration: his Canadian passport. The 2016 festivities will be held in Wiggins' hometown of Toronto.
If Wiggins lights up the league and Canadians turn out in droves to vote, Wiggins just might sneak his way into the game as a starter for the Western Conference. At the very least, there could be some sympathy among coaches to save a spot for Canada's native son on a crowded roster for the West.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.