NBA's Most Likely 1st-Time All-Stars in 2019-20
The NBA's All-Star class may seem exclusive, but we've seen an average of five first-time participants per year over the last five seasons. If that trend holds, we should expect a handful of new faces on each conference's 2019 roster.
It'd be too easy to run down several obvious up-and-comers, so we're going to split our most likely first-time All-Stars into two tiers. The first will feature players we're predicting to make the team, beating out not only their potential first-time peers, but also established multi-time All-Stars. The second will function as an honorable mention: guys who belong in the first-timer conversation, but who won't quite make the cut.
Though we're not projecting any of these newbies to start, and therefore don't have to hazard guesses at fan voting, we still need to consider the thought processes of the 30 head coaches who'll be making the reserve selections.
What will those coaches value if there's a tight tiebreak situation? And, to consider another angle, which veteran locks will create positional constraints? Remember, reserves have to include three frontcourt, two backcourt and two wild-card picks.
There's no doubt several players will make their All-Star debuts in 2019. Here are the most likely candidates.
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Predicted 2019 NBA All-Star Rosters and Potential Vacancies
Here's a quick look at predicted rosters and potential vacancies for first-timers to fill.
Based on this guesswork, each conference has just three spots up for grabs.
To create vacancies, we had to leave a pile of past All-Stars on the sidelines: Chris Paul, Draymond Green, Russell Westbrook, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kristaps Porzingis in the West; Al Horford, Kyle Lowry, Nikola Vucevic and Andre Drummond in the East. And that's not including openings created by the injury-related absences of Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Victor Oladipo.
Backcourt Starter: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Backcourt Starter: James Harden, Houston Rockets
Frontcourt Starter: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Frontcourt Starter: Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
Frontcourt Starter: Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
Backcourt Reserve: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Backcourt Reserve: ???
Frontcourt Reserve: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Frontcourt Reserve: Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
Frontcourt Reserve: Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers
Wild Card Reserve: ???
Wild Card Reserve: ???
Backcourt Starter: Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets
Backcourt Starter: Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Frontcourt Starter: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Frontcourt Starter: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Frontcourt Starter: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Backcourt Reserve: Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
Backcourt Reserve: ???
Frontcourt Reserve: Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons
Frontcourt Reserve: Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
Frontcourt Reserve: ???
Wild Card: Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
Wild Card Reserve: ???
Western Conference First-Timers
West Wild Card Reserve: Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
That's right, we've got a rookie in the All-Star Game for the first time since Blake Griffin in 2010-11. Not even LeBron James made the team in his first season, so slotting Williamson into one of the 12 spots on a loaded West roster is easily the boldest move in this exercise.
Williamson has been dominant through four preseason games, proving the extreme athletic advantages he enjoyed in college will follow him into the NBA. One of the most hyped prospects in memory has actually exceeded expectations, overpowering bigs inside, darting past wings on the perimeter, wreaking havoc in transition and compromising defenses at every turn. Williamson impacts the game like a veteran star, leveraging power, speed and skill (his touch around the rim is remarkable) to great effect.
His preseason averages of 23.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.5 steals and 8.0 free-throw attempts in just 27.2 minutes per game actually undersell his efforts. He's made an absurd 71.4 percent of his shots and is such an overwhelming presence that he's already the type of threat opponents account for whether he has the ball or not.
If Williamson produces at a similar rate during the regular season (and ups his counting stats by playing a few more minutes), he'll have a strong statistical case. Perhaps more importantly, Williamson's highlights will be plentiful. Griffin's All-Star berth as a rookie had as much to do with his nightly posterizations as his numbers, and as "Did you see what Zion did last night?" becomes a common morning-after water-cooler topic, his All-Star case will only improve.
Coaches may be reluctant to name a rookie to the All-Star team for just the third time this century, but Williamson's makeup should endear him to a voting group that tends to ignore rookies. He's a clear superstar who only cares about the team.
West Backcourt Reserve: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Among West frontcourt players, only LeBron James got more fan votes than Doncic last year. The media and players weren't quite as enamored of the guy who'd go on to win Rookie of the Year convincingly, which kept Doncic out of the starting lineup. Then, the coaches passed him over for more experienced reserve options.
This year, Doncic will do enough to impress the entire voting pool.
We should expect Doncic's averages of 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists to spike as he develops chemistry with Kristaps Porzingis and a capable cast of Dallas Mavericks shooters. Watch for his true-shooting percentage of 54.5 percent, which ranked just 11th among 14 players with a usage rate over 30, to tick up as experience helps him cut down on low-percentage looks.
West Wild Card Reserve: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
When the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year (who happens to be smack in the middle of his prime) has yet to make an All-Star team, something's wrong.
Expect Gobert to make it right this season.
Utah's downsized and more offensive-minded personnel probably means it won't field the top-three defense we've seen over the last three years. It seems unlikely anyone will attribute slippage on that end to Gobert. On balance, the Jazz's theoretically improved spacing could result in more scoring opportunities inside, where Gobert has steadily improved as a roll-man and foul-drawer.
Gobert led the league with a 66.9 percent mark from the field last year, averaging a career-high 15.9 points. It's not a stretch to imagine him sustaining that accuracy en route to a scoring average up near 18 points per game. That, combined with universally acclaimed defense, should finally be enough to get Gobert onto his first All-Star roster.
Western Conference First-Timer "Snubs"
Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
The numbers are there. Booker averaged 26.6 points, 6.8 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game last year, three-category averages matched in 2018-19 by only James Harden and LeBron James.
Will this be the season Booker engages on defense, and will the Suns win enough games for observers to finally buy him as a positive influence on a winning team?
I guess his presence here suggests the answer to at least one of those questions is "no."
De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
Fox, like Booker and everyone else on this list, is in the wrong place at the wrong time. As ever, it's impossible to crack the West backcourt with Stephen Curry, James Harden and Damian Lillard taking up three spots without any room for discussion.
By adding Doncic (and categorizing him as a guard), we've removed all but the wild-card routes for Fox. A superstar-in-waiting on a Kings team that has the talent to challenge for a playoff spot, Fox might even be better positioned to sneak in than Booker.
Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley, Utah Jazz
Mitchell is a popular breakout pick ahead of his third season, and Conley has a shot to transform the Jazz offense in ways that could earn him a new appreciation across the league. If everything clicks, the Jazz could sprint out to a hot start—the kind that all but forces voters to reward them with a second All-Star alongside Gobert.
Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
Murray has shown flashes of an All-Star-caliber game for the last two years, and added consistency could get him into the league's upper tier at his position. Like the Jazz, Denver has a shot to run up a strong early record. If the Nuggets occupy one of the top two seeds when voting takes place in December and January, Murray's odds of sneaking in look better.
Somebody besides Jokic is going to need credit, and Murray, almost sure to be the team's second-leading scorer, is in position to get some.
CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers
McCollum is one of 13 players to average at least 20 points per game in each of the last four seasons. He's the only one yet to make an All-Star team.
He's a long shot, but a stat like that makes him worth a mention.
Eastern Conference First-Timers
East Frontcourt Reserve: Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
Siakam ran away with Most Improved honors last season, and his opportunities for expansion are far greater ahead of 2019-20.
With Kawhi Leonard gone and Kyle Lowry best utilized as an overqualified second option, the Raptors will lean harder than ever on their multi-skilled combo forward. Siakam should be in position to eclipse the 20-point-per-game mark, and though added responsibilities could hurt his efficiency, he'll also have more reps as a playmaker. Expect him to blow past last season's 16.9 points and 3.1 assists.
Don't forget Siakam is also one of the league's most versatile defenders. He earned 24 All-Defensive second-team votes last year; among frontcourt players who didn't make the first or second team, only PJ Tucker got more.
OG Anunoby will spend plenty of time on opponents' top scoring threats, but Leonard's absence means that task will also fall to Siakam.
The East is nowhere near as deep as the West, and Toronto's fourth-year pro is in prime position to capitalize.
East Backcourt Reserve: Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
We fudged positions a little and called Ben Simmons a frontcourt starter, but if he winds up categorized as a guard (which he was last year), this spot for Young could disappear.
For now, we're banking on Young captivating audiences with deep shooting, high-level playmaking and plenty of flair. He averaged 24.7 points and 9.2 assists after the All-Star break last year. Anything close to those numbers should be enough to get Young onto the roster—even if his Hawks don't project as a playoff team.
As long as Atlanta doesn't approach the break with one of the worst records in the East (don't worry; the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers should have that handled), Young feels like a safe pick. Don't expect much progress from one of the worst defenders in the league, but count on Young hitting more than 32.4 percent of his three-point shots and challenging for the assists crown.
The All-Star Game has never been about defense, anyway.
East Wild Card Reserve: Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Zach LaVine should be among your dark-horse considerations for the scoring title, and Aaron Gordon always seems mere moments away from a true breakout, but Tatum is the pick for our final first-time All-Star.
Polished offensively, underrated as a multi-position defensive weapon and no longer subject to Kyrie Irving's "leadership," Tatum is in line this year for the leap everyone expected in 2018-19.
Boston is clearly emphasizing ball movement during preseason play, and Tatum, though a gifted one-on-one shot creator, is even more dangerous when he's attacking scrambled defenses on the move. The Celtics still have a pick-and-roll-focused point guard in Kemba Walker, but Tatum should see more high-efficiency scoring opportunities this year. Cuts, spot-ups and dribble handoffs figure to make up a larger portion of his touches, which can only be a good thing.
Walker, unlike Irving, projects as more likely to step back if Tatum has his game rolling. This is as much a bet on Tatum's improved situation as his obvious talent.
Eastern Conference First-Timer "Snubs"
Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls
LaVine can fill it up with above-average efficiency and might be primed for his best season yet. He made gains as a passer (personal-best 4.5 assists) and attacker (career-high 6.0 free-throw attempts) last year, and we shouldn't ignore that he's now more than two years removed from the ACL tear he suffered in 2017.
The Bulls should be better than they were in winning 22 games a season ago, and the East will afford several players opportunities to make the All-Star Game. If LaVine takes a step forward for a Bulls team that stays competitive for most of the year, he could overtake Young or Tatum.
John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
There's just no way the Hawks get two All-Stars, and Young is the obvious pick ahead of his teammate. Still, Collins quietly averaged 19.5 points and 9.8 rebounds as a 21-year-old last year. He also added volume to his perimeter attack (2.6 attempts per game from deep after just 0.6 as a rookie), got to the foul line more often and flashed developing playmaking skills as an off-the-dribble threat.
Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
Turner led the league in blocks per game last season and continues to boast a tantalizing combination of skills. A floor-stretcher on the perimeter (who could still stand to bump up his attempt rate) and an obvious deterrent on the defensive interior, he's a good bet to take steps on both ends in his age-23 season.
If Turner doesn't crack the East All-Star roster, it'll be because his tendency to drift through the occasional game persists.
Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
A four-position defender who took on a heftier playmaking role (3.7 assists per game) last year, Gordon could easily replace Nikola Vucevic as the Magic's All-Star representative in 2019-20. If the 24-year-old continues to soak up secondary facilitation duties, handling pick-and-rolls and finding shooters as he probes the middle, Gordon could become one of the better frontcourt offensive hubs in the league.
Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers
Harris gets better every year, and the Sixers will need him to function as their primary spot-up weapon—at least on the first unit, where there's little spacing and plenty of guys who can handle setup duties.
Philadelphia will have to approach the break with the East's top seed for Harris to have a real chance, though. With Embiid and Simmons locked in, the Sixers will need to do something special to warrant a third All-Star.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played Oct. 16.