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First-timers to consider for the NBA all-star game

First-timers to consider for the NBA all-star game
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There’s a good reason why teams unleash multi-channel campaigns while players take their cases to the media: earning an NBA all-star selection is hard work.

Of the more than 450 players who have seen NBA action this season, just 57 have made an all-star game during their careers. And over the last decade, there has been an average of just 5.5 first-time all-star selections per year.

Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, left, could be joined at the NBA all-star game this season by Denver’s Nikola Jokic for the first time.  (David Zalubowski / AP)

As if those odds weren’t daunting enough, potential first-time selections must compete in an online voting process that naturally favours the league’s most famous players. Want to earn a starting spot in the West? Be prepared to go ballot-for-ballot with LeBron James (41 million Twitter followers), Kevin Durant (17 million) and Stephen Curry (13 million).

The good news: the fans (50 per cent), media (25 per cent) and players (25 per cent) only vote for the five all-star starters — two backcourt and three frontcourt players — from each conference. NBA assistant coaches then select seven reserves from each conference. But even that second voting wave has its limitations.

With that context in mind, let’s examine which five players have the best chance to make their all-star debuts this February in Charlotte.

Nikola Jokic

Centre, Denver Nuggets

Michael Malone clearly has no interest in waiting to see how the all-star voting process, which starts Christmas Day, treats Jokic. The Nuggets coach is already campaigning on behalf of his do-everything centre for an even more prestigious award. “He’s a most valuable player candidate,” Malone told reporters after Jokic pulverized the Dallas Mavericks for 32 points, 16 rebounds and four assists in a Tuesday win. Nights like that are becoming routine for the Serbian, dubbed Magic Jokic, who ranks top-10 leaguewide in player efficiency rating, win shares and real plus-minus while leading Denver in points, rebounds, assists and steals. Despite multiple injuries to his fellow starters, Jokic has led the Nuggets to the West’s best record through Tuesday, and he’s started to flirt with some interesting historical comparisons. If he maintains his current pace, Jokic would become the first seven-footer to average seven or more assists for a season since Wilt Chamberlain in 1968.

Mike Conley

Guard, Memphis Grizzlies

If the NBA ever commissioned a trophy for the snub of the year, Conley would be the perfect model. The 31-year-old point guard has been a worthy all-star candidate on three or four occasions, but he’s been passed over for teammates including Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph and drowned in the West’s deep pool of point guards — Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Damian Lillard among them. Nevertheless, this could be the year Conley gets an all-star nod. The Memphis Grizzlies have rebounded nicely from last season’s ugly tank job, thanks largely to Conley’s stewardship. He’s averaging 20.4 points and 6.5 assists per game and deftly controlling the Grizzlies’ style of play. Memphis has rejected the leaguewide trend to play a faster style — ranking 30th in pace — and Conley’s ability to milk possessions and run the pick-and-roll deliberately has kept his offence afloat.

Khris Middleton

Forward, Milwaukee Bucks

Although he’s bound to be overlooked in the fan vote, Middleton deserves serious consideration from the coaches. The 27-year-old forward embodies his team’s strong start: He’s refined his shot selection by cutting down on tough twos in favour of threes; he’s been a valuable two-way contributor on a team that performs well on both ends; and he’s found the right calibration as a secondary scorer alongside superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. Middleton, who is averaging 17.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game, can be counted on to not do too much nor too little.

Ben Simmons

Guard/forward, Philadelphia 76ers

When the Philadelphia 76ers swung for the fences by trading for Jimmy Butler, it was reasonable to wonder whether Simmons’s role would be compromised. So far, that hasn’t really been the case. His numbers (15.9 points, nine rebounds and 7.9 assists per game) are nearly identical to last season; Denver’s Jokic and Oklahoma City’s Westbrook are the only two who can match him this season in points, rebounds and assists. Simmons’ case is aided by the fact that his up-tempo, highlight-friendly style is tailor-made for the all-star game, full of brilliant passes and ferocious dunks.

Serge Ibaka

Centre, Toronto Raptors

There are a bunch of guys who deserve a name-check for the fifth and final spot on this list, but Ibaka has the inside track. For starters, the Raptors have narrowly edged out the Bucks as the East’s most impressive team, and Ibaka’s resurgence has been a major driver of that success. After a 2018 post-season in which he played like his best days were behind him, the 29-year-old big man has flourished, averaging a career-high 16.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. Shifting more of his minutes from power forward to centre has been key to his offensive success: Ibaka is attempting far more shots in the basket area than he did last season, and he’s finishing at a substantially better rate.
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