Posted Jan 16 2012 11:34AM
There are superstars who enter the NBA as rookies and make the job of becoming a perennial All-Star look as easy as slipping into a warm-up jacket. Hello, LeBron and Blake. Then there are those who have to work long and hard to raise their games and their reputations to get recognized.
Since the hurry-up schedule has voting coming to a close on Jan. 31, it's not too soon to identify those players who already are making their cases for a trip to Orlando and their first-ever appearance in the high-flying, slam-dunking All-Star circus. Here are eight that rate:
Andrew Bynum, Lakers -- Do the Lakers really need to pursue Dwight Howard in order to pursue another championship? Do they dare even ponder a 2-for-1 deal that might send both Bynum and Pau Gasol to Orlando? Not as long as the big fella in the middle keeps putting up numbers like 16.4 points and 13.8 rebounds per game. He's been aggressive, efficient and everything that Kobe Bryant has dreamed of in a center ever since ol' whathisname flew the coop to Miami. It's taken six long years of waiting -- and you always hold your breath on him staying healthy -- but Bynum has clearly taken a step up to All-Star level and could carve out a spot in the West starting lineup for the foreseeable future.
Josh Smith, Hawks -- He's had numbers like this -- 16.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.8 blocked shots per game -- before, but never this way. Smith is playing smarter and more under control and, strange as it may sound, it makes him look like he's playing harder and more out of this world. His field-goal percentage (49.2) is back up where it belongs and he seems to have sworn off those constant and confounding 3-pointers. It's taken him into his eighth pro season, but this is the player that every opposing coach has feared would one day break out of the world of knuckleheadedness, playing both above the rim and within himself at a level that makes him a bona fide All-Star. And it couldn't happen at a better time. With Al Horford maybe lost for the season, Smith has to pull the wagon. That thought used to make Hawks fans cringe. Now they're up celebrating a late blossoming.
LaMarcus Aldridge, Trail Blazers -- Nobody could argue last season when the commissioner made Kevin Love a late injury replacement for the Western Conference team in L.A. Nobody, that is, except L.A., who was having a breakout season for Portland. Now with Brandon Roy retired, Aldridge has embraced the spotlight and the mantle of leadership. There should be no way he's left sitting home again -- except that fan favorites Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin are running away with the voting. Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki has faded and Love is back to his old 20-20 tricks. Aldridge's 22.8 average has him eighth in the league in scoring and he's also pulling down 7.8 rebounds per game as the big dog on a Portland team that is going to compete over the long haul in the West.
Kyle Lowry, Rockets -- In what could quickly deteriorate into a quite forgettable season in Houston, Lowry is the reason to remember to show up at the Toyota Center for every game. The feisty one ranks third in the NBA in assists at 9.3 per game while scoring a career-best 17.8 points and pulling down 6.9 rebounds per game. He doesn't have the pedigree or reputation of the big name point guards in the league, but in the early going Lowry's playing as well as any of them. Chris Paul and Ricky Rubio are the high-profile additions to the Western Conference side of the ballot, but Lowry deserves real consideration to strut his stuff in Orlando.
Monta Ellis, Warriors -- It's not fair to simply dismiss him out of hand because he plays for a team on one of the lower rungs of the standings. If that win-loss record were valid criteria, Griffin and Love had no right to be in last year's All-Star Game. Truth is, if Stephen Curry wasn't hobbling around on a bad ankle, Ellis' eye-popping scoring numbers might be more of an impediment here. But Ellis and LeBron James are the only players ranked in the top 10 in both scoring (23.9) and assists (7.7) this season. Ellis' dishing of the ball shows a growth and expansion in his game that deserves recognition.
Ryan Anderson, Magic -- So what's all the fuss with Dwight Howard wanting to go a place where he can have a supporting cast to help him win a championship when Anderson is already dressing in the same locker room in the Magic kingdom? He's having a bust-out season that has helped his team get to an 8-3 start and, in the process, is making everyone in Orlando forget about Rashard Lewis. Anderson is averaging 17.2 points and his 3-point shooting clip (43.4 percent) and rebounding average (7.7) are better than the best season of Lewis' career. Of course, what he's got working against him is his own coach, Stan Van Gundy, who is on the record as saying he has not yet compiled a full enough body of work. Go figure.
Marc Gasol, Grizzlies -- Maybe he'd have a better chance if the All-Star Game was held at the end of the regular season, because with Zach Randolph on the shelf for at least another month, Gasol's numbers are only going to rise as he carries the inside game. The resident bull in the Grizzlies' china shop is already averaging a double-double (13.6 points, 10.9 rebounds) for the first time in his career. Last year's playoffs opened many eyes to the fact that Little Brother Gasol has plenty of game. He hasn't backed down since getting his new contract.
Thaddeus Young, Sixers -- On a team that is trying -- and succeeding -- to get it done without a superstar in the lineup, can a guy who comes off the bench for the no-names merit recognition as an All-Star? You bet if it's Young, statistically efficient and excellent at both ends of the floor. He fills the lane on the break. He slashes to the basket. He goes after rebounds like a bloodhound on the scent. There isn't a pick set on the court that he isn't ready to blow up with his ferocious defense. The Sixers are the team surprising everybody in the East, leading the Atlantic Division and with a record that's than the Heat and third-best in the entire league. It's the bench that really makes this team and go and it's Young who ignites the bench.
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