NBA All-Star 2017

Welcome to the party: Candidates for first-time All-Star bids

Fran Blinebury

We all know the NBA All-Star Game is part-show, part-reward, part tribute. So each season sees a few hoary veterans get voted into the starting lineups, touching off squabbles about what it means to be an All-Star and who is most deserving. It’s also why the process has been changed this year to add voting by the players and media to the usual fan ballot-stuffing for favorites.

But the real intrigue comes when the league’s coaches pick the reserves on the East and West teams, and each year that task gets more difficult with the blossoming of young talent. A year ago, it was Andre Drummond, Draymond Green, Kawhi Leonard and Isaiah Thomas who made their All-Star debuts in Toronto. Now with the voting for All-Star 2017 having begun, here’s a look at a six-pack that could break through in New Orleans:

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

In his fourth season, he’s no longer the Greek Freak periodically doing something that will turn up on the highlight reels. Now the 6-foot-11 bundle of talent is playing his complete game from start to finish to emphatically make the case for his first appearance in the All-Star Game. Antetokounmpo is averaging career highs across in the board — 23.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 2.0 steals, 1.9 blocks — and juiced the Bucks enough to land them just outside the top 10 in offensive efficiency (105.8). His PER of 30.1 trails only Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, James, Harden and Kevin Durant. He’s got to be the leader in the clubhouse for Most Improved Player through the first half of the season, and in a lineup without Khris Middleton, he is keeping Milwaukee in the race for an Eastern Conference playoff spot. At 22, it’s just the start of really big things and there’s no reason he shouldn’t get to dance at the big show in New Orleans.

2. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets

Walker took it on the chin a year ago when he was left off the East roster in favor of Kyle Lowry, Isaiah Thomas and John Wall and he wasn’t very happy about it. So imagine how upset he’d be to get overlooked again when the engine that makes the Hornets’ attack go has raised his level of performance. His 22.3 points per game is a career best and goes along with averages of 5.5 assists and 1.4 steals. Walker has worked hard through five NBA seasons to become a better shooter and is now at a career-best clip of 45.4 FG percentage and 41.1 on 3-pointers. He is unquestionably the leader of the team with the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference and he should get the nod over Boston’s Isaiah Thomas based on defense and because John Wall can’t ever seem to lift the Wizards out of mediocrity.

3. DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers

He took the barbs last season after the summer of 2015 free agent flip-flop soap opera and he always takes shots for his inability to make free throws. But while Chris Paul and Blake Griffin always get the top spots on the marquee in Hollywood, it’s the co-star Jordan’s durable presence that keeps it all together in the middle. Now Griffin is back on the shelf following knee surgery and Paul has just missed three straight games with a balky hamstring. That means that the 6-foot-11 center will have to step up and carry more of the load if the Clippers are going to keep their heads above water in the race for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. He’s come through in the past in these situations. The numbers — 11.5 points, 12.9 rebounds, 1.7 blocks per game — are simply consistent, as is Jordan’s ability to defend the paint. They were good enough to make him good enough for first team All-Defense and All-NBA first team last season. Doing it again should make him deserving of his first Al-Star spot in nine seasons.

4. Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks

We can’t keep thinking about that little kid who cried on TV on draft night when the Knicks made Porzingis the No. 4 in the 2015 draft. Give Phil Jackson grief for so much else, but he got this one right. At 21, the lanky Latvian is blossoming quickly into the franchise player of the future that every New Yorker has been waiting for. Carmelo Anthony might get voted into the East starting lineup because of his popularity with the fans, but the coaches are the ones who see all of the things the 7-foot-3 bundle of energy is doing. He’s averaging 20 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.9 blocks. In today’s changing game, he’s a unique stretch-four who has excellent shooting range and can also go down into the low post, though he still needs to add strength to thrive inside. The Knicks are also significantly better defensively when Porzingis is on the court. It’s only a matter of time until he’s a perennial All-Star. What could work against him is Anthony getting voted in by the fans and the coaches not inclined to put two Knicks on the 12-man team.

5. Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz

Barring another disastrous late-season collapse, the playoff drought (2012) should finally end this season in Utah and that should send the Western Conference coaches plucking one from the Jazz lineup when it comes to filling out the All-Star roster. In addition to the stiff competition from around the conference, Hayward’s stiffest competition could come from teammate Rudy Gobert and his piling up of rebounds and blocked shots. Hayward’s shooting could be better, but he’s averaging 22.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 0.9 steals and is one of those guys that never seems to run out of skills. He’s already going to hit it big next summer in the free agent market. A debut in the All-Star Game would be a nice springboard.

6. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

He’s going to lose votes in some corners for the way the Timberwolves have underperformed most of the preseason expectations of the team. But is that his fault or ours? Of all the 21-year-old-and-unders that are running up and down NBA courts, Towns just has that presence about him that tells you he’s going to be doing this — and doing it even better — for years and years to come. The 2016 Kia Rookie of the Year is averaging 22.2 points, 11.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. While so many of his teammates have been up and down, he’s delivered consistently and failed to score in double figures just once. He must take responsibility with the rest for the way Minnesota has been unable to play that kind of defense that closes games. But the kid is star worthy.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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