Which Western Conference players could make their first NBA All-Star team this season?
The starters for the 2020 NBA All-Star Game were announced on Thursday night, and among the group of 10 players were three players who will be making their All-Star debuts: Trae Young and Pascal Siakam in the East, and Luka Doncic in the West.
Any first-timers starting the All-Star Game is pretty rare. None of the 10 starters in last season’s game were players making their first All-Star appearance, and of the 200 All-Star starters from 2000 through 2019, only 13 of them were making their maiden voyage to the game. Three first-timers starting the game? That actually hasn’t happened this millennium — until now. (There hadn’t even been multiple first-timers starting since all the way back in 2003.)
This year’s crop has a nice head start thanks to the trio of starters, but that crew is highly unlikely to be alone. There are a whole bunch of players from each conference who can make reasonable cases that they should be invited. Alas, there are not likely to be enough roster spots available for all of them. So, let’s walk through a few of the candidates and weigh the arguments for each.
We’ll start below with the Western Conference.
Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, Jazz
Honestly, these two have to be in the game.
Gobert is once again playing at a Defensive Player of the Year level, and his play has helped the Jazz once again rebound with a vengeance from their seemingly-annual cold start. Gobert was less involved in the offense than usual at the beginning of the year as he and Mike Conley struggled to develop pick-and-roll chemistry, but playing more minutes with Joe Ingles has helped unlock both players. His usage rate is now right in line with where it was for most of the past three years.
He’s helped his cause by rebounding at career-best levels, and he is of course still the league’s best rim protector. But he’s protecting far more than just the paint this season, doing more than ever to cut off access to driving lanes before opposing guards even enter his area. His block rate sits at a career-low 4.7 percent at the moment, but A. that’s still ridiculously high, and B. his presence in the lane jacks up opponent shot distribution in a way that is unmatched by any other defender in the NBA.
Mitchell has taken his game to new heights this season. If he’d remained as relatively inefficient this season as he was for much of his first two, there would’ve been some whispers that Mitchell wasn’t actually as good as he’d been sold to us as. He’s wiped those concerns away, posting improved finishing numbers around the basket and blowing away his early-career numbers on mid-range attempts and shots from the floater range in the back half of the paint. This dude is shooting 53 percent on 10- to 16-foot shots and 49 percent on shots between 16 and 23 feet. That is — no exaggeration — Dirk-level mid-range shooting.
You could nitpick by saying Mitchell doesn’t get to the line quite as much as you’d like for a scorer of his caliber; but he makes up for it by almost never turning the ball over, and during his recent run as the de facto point guard, he has shown even more playmaking verve than he did during his first two seasons.
Brandon Ingram, Pelicans
Talk about guys who have leveled-up this season. Yeesh. Ingram flashed some of what he’s doing now during his mid-to-late season run with the Lakers last year, but the aggressiveness both shooting and dishing that he’s had throughout this season goes beyond what he showed during that run.
Ingram attempted 386 3-pointers and made only 33 percent of them during his first three seasons in the NBA. He’s on an 82-game pace of 515 attempts this year, and he’s knocked them down at a 39 percent clip. That kind of massive jump is how you go from intriguing prospect to All-Star.
Throw in career-best passing and rebounding numbers, plus improved efficiency and multi-positional defense (aided by his absurdly long arms), and you begin to see how the Pellies managed to stay afloat in the playoff race even without Zion Williamson for the first half of the year. Ingram established himself as a guy who can clearly be a foundational piece for somebody; now we just have to find out how he fits alongside the Pelicans’ true cornerstone.
Devin Booker, Suns
I’m not necessarily what you would call a Devin Booker Guy, but his work this season is kind of undeniable. Booker doesn’t shoot quite as many threes as you would think given his reputation as a sniper (5.2 per game) and he doesn’t make them quite as frequently as you’d expect, either (35.2 percent); but he makes up for it by attacking the rim with a frequency and ferocity that few in the league can match.
Booker is averaging 13.5 drives per game, his 50.7 percent conversion rate is 12th-best among 43 guards averaging at least 10 drives per game, per Second Spectrum data on NBA.com. Booker’s overall shooting numbers at the rim are absolutely insane. He’s making nearly 75 percent of his shots within three feet of the rim. That’s LeBron territory.
And Booker’s relentlessness has earned him repeated trips to the free-throw line, where he is damn near automatic. As a result, he has the 11th-best true shooting percentage ever for a player who used at least 29 percent of his team’s possessions while on the floor — a list that is 319 players long. Those finishing numbers and his reputation as an elite shooter help Booker bend the defense in his direction with great frequency, and he takes advantage of that movement with an underrated appetite for passing. He’s over 6 assists per game for the second year in a row.
Booker is also noticeably more engaged on defense this season than in years past, and that counts.
Ja Morant, Grizzlies
This guy, man. Morant is having one of the best debut seasons for a point guard that you’ll see in a long time.
He’s on his way to becoming the second player ever to average at least 17 points and 7 assists in fewer than 30 minutes per game. He sees passing lanes that aren’t there. He sees passing lanes that shouldn’t be there. He manipulates the defense like he’s been doing it for 15 years.
He’s not all that willing an outside shooter yet, but when he does let it fly, it goes in. He’s at 40 percent from deep, and his mid-range numbers are pretty good, too. Defenses tend to sag off him because they know he wants to attack the rim rather than pull up, but Morant can usually go by them anyway; and if they lay off far enough, he’ll just drill the shot. Ask James Harden.
Morant is turning the ball over a ton, but they’re errors of the adventurous nature. He’s clearly testing the limits of which kinds of passes he can make, and as he matures and begins seeing the floor even better than he already does, those giveaway numbers will come down. He has perfectly-fitting running mates in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Dillon Brooks and De’Anthony Melton and Brandon Clarke and even Jonas Valanciunas, and he’s lifted the Grizz to a level nobody thought they’d be at this season.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder
Gilgeous-Alexander is a strange player.
He’s not really a point guard and not really an off-guard. He’s not really a plus outside shooter and not really a nuclear athlete. And yet, he gets wherever he wants on the floor. He’s a strong finisher in the lane and already an excellent mid-range scorer. He has an array of dips and fakes that he uses to get past his defender, and although it’s a cliche, he really does play at a different pace than most other players.
He’s comfortable off the ball, which is a major plus when you are playing next to Chris Paul in the backcourt. His size allows the Thunder to run their three-point-guard lineups with those two alongside Dennis Schroder, and those groups are smoking every opponent in their path.
His scoring efficiency has jumped despite a sizable spike in usage, from 18 to 24 percent. He’s playing nearly 36 minutes a night and leading a playoff team in scoring, which is pretty incredible. He’s slashed his turnover rate by a third and he’s doubled his defensive rebound rate, with his current 16 percent mark sitting in the top 15 among all guards leaguewide.