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At the quarter point of 2018-19, what players in the East and West have you noticed most so far?
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Steve Aschburner: It’s tempting to say Stephen Curry in his absence, and the challenge that threw up for Golden State. As for active participants, it’s been impossible not to notice the play of Charlotte’s Kemba Walker, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Dallas rookie Luka Doncic. But I’m going to go with Toronto’s Pascal Siakam and Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins, one up and one down. Siakam has to be an early candidate for Most Improved, with his work around the basket at both ends and wing mobility. Wiggins is a source of consternation, meanwhile, for his inability (refusal) to grow his game -- and passion -- to honor the max contract extension with which the Timberwolves gifted him. He shrugged his way through the Jimmy Butler challenges and keeps shrugging his way through the NBA, five years into his career.
Shaun Powell: Three in the East are Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward and Kawhi Leonard all for different reasons. Walker is doing his best to carry an otherwise blah team, Hayward is struggling here in his comeback season and Kawhi is MVP-like on the team with the best record in the league. Three in the West are LeBron James, Luka Doncic and Donovan Mitchell. LeBron is astonishingly good as he approaches his mid-30s, Doncic is by far the best rookie and Mitchell is suffering from a severe sophomore slump.
John Schuhmann: In the East, it's Domantas Sabonis. He was a Kia Most Improved Player candidate last season with his move to Indiana, where his big man skills were utilized better than in his rookie season in Oklahoma City. This season, he's taken another (pretty big) step forward. The guy is averaging a double-double (14.7 points and 10 rebounds per game), while also dishing out 3.3 assists from the center position, in less than 25 minutes per game. He also ranks second in the league in effective field goal percentage at 68 percent.
In the West, it's the combination of De'Aaron Fox and Willie Cauley-Stein, who have led the Kings out of the abyss. Coach Dave Joerger has given them more consistent roles (instead of changing his starting lineup every five games) and the freedom to play their style (fast and relentless). Fox has been a terror off the dribble and Cauley-Stein has improved on both ends of the floor (and has been surprisingly good posting up).
Honorable mentions: Caris LeVert, who was getting to the basket at will before getting injured, and J.J. Barea, who's been killing opposing second units with his pick-and-roll wizardry over the last few weeks.
Sekou Smith: Giannis Antetokounmpo has been outstanding and should be the guy picking his team for All-Star weekend. Other Eastern Conference stars who have made me sit up and pay closer to attention to their seasons include Joel Embiid, Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard and Blake Griffin. I know he's been back in the East for a short period of time but Jimmy Butler stands out as well. In the Western Conference it's hard to ignore LeBron's work 16 years into his outlandish career. Stephen Curry (before his groin injury) Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant, Paul George, James Harden, Tobias Harris, Marc Gasol, Lou Williams and Mike Conley have all made positive impressions with their play early on this season. Good luck picking the guys who will be All-Stars from that side of the conference divide. The competition should be thick as ever.