Fan voting for the 2023 NBA All-Star Game continues apace, with a slew of established superstars poised to add another All-Star appearance to their lengthy and glittering résumés. One of the coolest parts of the annual midseason exhibition, though, is when newcomers break through, earning enough recognition from the many stakeholders in the process — whether from fans, fellow players and members of the media in the vote to determine starters, or from the league’s coaches when it’s time to round out the rest of the rosters — to make their first appearance on the All-Star stage.
It won’t be easy to carve out a spot in a crowded field of incumbents. Based on the second round of fan ballot returns, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Stephen Curry and Luka Doncic all seem like locks for starting spots. Whether Joel Embiid or Jayson Tatum gets the final Eastern frontcourt slot, both will certainly be on the roster; the same probably goes for Anthony Davis and Zion Williamson out West (though their respective injuries could wind up removing them from the equation) and for vote leaders Kyrie Irving and Donovan Mitchell in the East’s backcourt. Add in the sort of high-performing marquee names you wouldn’t be surprised to see get reserve nods, and you soon run into a number crunch — inevitable with 12-man rosters — that might leave some first-time hopefuls without a seat in this particular game of Musical Chairs.
Some, though, may have strong enough cases to break through, claim a spot, and leave a bigger name standing when the music stops. Like, for example …
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder
It was clear two weeks into the season, and it’s remained blindingly obvious since: Gilgeous-Alexander has fully leveled up in his fifth season. He’s not a future star. He’s a superstar, full stop, right now.
After cutting his teeth as a precocious member of playoff-caliber ensemble casts with the Clippers and Thunder before seeing his first two seasons as the main man for rebuilding Oklahoma City curtailed by injuries, Gilgeous-Alexander sprinted out of the starting blocks with 30 or more points in seven of his first 10 appearances this season. He hasn’t slowed down, sitting fifth in the NBA in scoring at 30.5 points per game. He’s the NBA’s highest-volume driver, using his syncopated dribble, long arms and saint’s patience to give even the league’s best defenders fits, consistently slithering his way into pockets of open space before finishing with soft touch with either hand from all manner of angles.
With Gilgeous-Alexander on the court, the Thunder generate 115 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass — a near-top-10 rate of offensive efficiency. When he sits, they score a measly 109.2 points-per-100 — worse than the Rockets’ league-worst mark.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s not the only reason Oklahoma City’s been better than many anticipated, sitting just 1.5 games out of sixth place in the West with a positive point differential for the season. Head coach Mark Daigneault deserves credit for turning the league’s second-youngest team into its No. 10 defense despite the absence of a real rim protector (until next fall, at least). Josh Giddey’s improvements in attacking the paint and knocking down 3-pointers (40.6% since Dec. 1) have helped open up his game and turned him into an increasingly dangerous second option. Rookie Jalen Williams has looked picture perfect as a complementary source of size, savvy, defensive versatility and playmaking acumen. It remains to be seen which other members of the roster will cement spots in the Thunder’s long-term core as team president Sam Presti looks to push his rebuild from conception toward contention, but the roadmap for that journey looks much clearer now than it did before the start of the season.
We can see that, though, because of the giant leap that Gilgeous-Alexander has made right before our eyes. He’s not the only reason OKC’s on the upswing, but he’s the biggest one — a high-volume, high-efficiency offensive centerpiece who can go toe-to-toe with the best players in the world and more than hold his own. The only question left is whether he joins Doncic in the West’s starting backcourt, because he’s going to be on the roster. When people tell you who they are, believe them; SGA is him.
Lauri Markkanen, Jazz
I highlighted Markkanen’s jaw-dropping recent play last week in my Second-Quarter Awards column, but it bears repeating: He’s averaged a shade under 27 points and nine rebounds per game on 52/44/88 shooting splits since mid-November, and performing better than ever with the biggest workload of his career (7.8 3-point attempts and seven free-throw attempts per game, a 25.6% usage rate).
The sixth-year forward is combining usage and efficiency to a degree that evokes some iconic names, establishing himself as a nightmarish cover on and off the ball. Will Hardy has moved Markkanen all over the chessboard, taking advantage of his combination of size (7 feet, 240 pounds) and shooting skill to damage defenses in all sorts of ways: knocking down catch-and-shoot looks, posting up smaller players on mismatches, taking bigger ones off the dribble, working either end of the pick-and-roll, you name it. The Jazz have cooled considerably since their 10-3 start, but they still boast a top-five offense, thanks in large part to Markkanen’s shot-making and versatility: Utah has outscored opponents by five points-per-100 with him on the court, and has been outscored by 6.2 points-per-100 with him off it.
Judging by most of the various all-in-one advanced statistical metrics, Markkanen has been, at worst, one of the six best frontcourt players in the West this season. He has also played about 200 more minutes than James, 420 more than Paul George, 480 more than Williamson, 600 more than Davis and more than twice as many minutes as Jaren Jackson Jr. This is a case where quality meets quantity; as with Gilgeous-Alexander, the question should be whether Markkanen winds up starting at his home arena, not if he winds up staying in Salt Lake City for All-Star weekend at all. He belongs there.
Tyrese Haliburton, Pacers
Like Gilgeous-Alexander’s Thunder and Markkanen’s Jazz, Haliburton’s Pacers were widely expected to rank among the league’s worst teams, more likely to vie for the right to draft Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson than contend for a postseason berth. And like Gilgeous-Alexander and Markkanen’s squads, Indiana has dramatically overperformed those paltry expectations, thanks largely to Haliburton’s work as an offensive engine and all-around conductor.
Haliburton has been the straw that stirs the drink in Indiana, taking the reins of Rick Carlisle’s offense and blossoming into one of the NBA’s highest-volume, most effective pick-and-roll playmakers. He’s vying for the league lead in assists with James Harden — they’re the only two players averaging more than 20 points and 10 assists per game this season, though Jokic and Trae Young are knocking on the door — and has shown a particular knack for dissecting defenses to create the highest-efficiency looks on the board. Only Jokic, Young and Russell Westbrook have more assists on buckets at the rim than Haliburton, and nobody has set up more 3-pointers, according to PBPstats.
Combine that playmaking feel with the ability to fill it up from long distance — Haliburton is shooting just under 40% from 3-point land on more than seven attempts per game, forcing opposing defenses to pick their poison when he’s sharing the floor with Buddy Hield (42.6% on 9.1 attempts a night), Andrew Nembhard (37.6% from deep) and north-south machete Bennedict Mathurin (17.2 points per game off the bench) — and you’ve got the heartbeat of a surprisingly potent attack. The Pacers have scored like a top-10 offense with Haliburton on the floor, like far and away the league’s worst unit without him, and sat in sixth place in the East before an ugly fall that’ll keep him on the shelf for at least a couple of weeks. There are a number of deserving candidates for Eastern guard spots; in terms of per-possession production and overall impact, Haliburton’s case stands up well next to every one of them.
While Gilgeous-Alexander, Markkanen and Haliburton seem like locks to me, they’re not the only top performers with a case for a career-first All-Star appearance. Consider, if you will:
De’Aaron Fox, Kings
Domantas Sabonis will likely get his third All-Star nod for helping spark the beam-lighting, scoreboard-igniting turnaround in Sacramento. Deservedly so: Arvydas’ baby boy has essentially been an A-minus Jokic at Golden 1 Center, pulverizing fools on the low block while leading the league in rebounding and posting one of the highest assist rates ever for a center. But while we should acknowledge how instrumental Sabonis has been to Sacramento’s explosive third-ranked offense, we shouldn’t overlook what his partner in the two-man game has been doing to propel the Kings’ exciting rise up the standings.
Fox is scoring and rebounding at his best per-minute clip as a pro, and finishing at the rim and from midrange better than ever. He’s taking (and making) more catch-and-shoot threes, and posting the lowest turnover rate of his career. He’s also been one of the league’s premier sources of crunch-time offense: Only DeMar DeRozan has scored more points in “clutch” situations than Fox, who has shot a scorching 40-for-65 from the field (61.5%) in the final five minutes of games where the score’s within 5 points, and 17-for-29 (58.6%) when it’s a one-possession game in the final three minutes. Sacramento owns the NBA’s most efficient clutch offense, and Fox’s ability to beat defenders off the dribble, get into the paint and wreak havoc — whether by hitting the brakes and getting to his stepback, carving a path all the way to the rim, drawing defenders before dishing off to an open teammate, or drawing a foul to head to the free-throw line — has played a massive role in that late-game success.
Some voters might look askance at the fact that the Kings have been drilled in the minutes Fox plays without Sabonis, or wind up slotting players who’ve been more productive in fewer games/minutes — superstars like Curry, Devin Booker and Damian Lillard — ahead of Fox in the Western guard hierarchy. Some, though, might give the nod to Fox’s durability, availability and contributions to lifting a perennial also-ran to the No. 4 seed in the conference — a reward for his career-best play, and an acknowledgment of one of the best stories of the season thus far.
C.J. McCollum, Pelicans
The veteran sniper’s chilly start to the season, which saw him averaging 16.9 points per game on sub-40% shooting through 20 games, combined with the aforementioned “more productive in fewer games/minutes” group might scuttle his candidacy. But McCollum getting as hot as just about anybody in the league for the last month — 27 points, 6.1 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game, shooting 48% from 3-point land on more than nine attempts a night — might drum up some support for his work in helping to keep New Orleans afloat amid injuries to both Williamson and Brandon Ingram.
The union boss and podcast professional’s case might also get a boost from that most contentious of media terms: narrative. With Mike Conley finally shedding the somewhat ignominious moniker of “best player never to make an All-Star team” in 2021, McCollum — one of just four active players with at least 12,000 points, 2,000 rebounds and 2,000 assists in his career but without an All-Star berth to his name, with the highest-scoring average of the bunch — might be the next man up. Might some members of the voting public see fit to recognize McCollum’s strong recent play, the fact that he leads third-seeded New Orleans in minutes, and the Pelicans’ surprising-in-some-quarters standing as the West’s No. 3 seed with … well, not a “lifetime achievement award,” per se, but a slight thumb on the scale when weighing his candidacy this season?
Whether or not they do, McCollum sounds sanguine about his standing in the league writ large: “I get paid like an All-Star. If it happens, that’s great. If not, I am treated very well on the first and the 15th.” Counting your blessings is probably a little easier when you’ve got nine figures worth of them, but still: three cheers for perspective!
Jalen Brunson, Knicks
Brunson’s in kind of a similar spot in the East — and, coincidentally, having a pretty similar season — to Fox in the West, as the ball-handling complement to a big man with eye-popping numbers and a superior advanced statistical profile.
The 26-year-old lead guard has been everything New York’s brass could’ve hoped for when they targeted him in free agency. He’s been a rock-solid source of high-efficiency offense, averaging a career-high 22.4 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 39.4% from deep, getting to the foul line more often than ever and turning the ball over less frequently than ever. He has also helped nudge Knicks power forward Julius Randle toward finishing rather than creating; the result has been an even better start for Randle than he had during his 2021 All-NBA campaign, a rising tide that has lifted New York to a surprising seventh in offensive efficiency.
With his balletic footwork and killer array of fakes and feints, Brunson’s been excellent when calling his own number. New York has scored 1.19 points per possession that features the Villanova product attacking in isolation, according to Second Spectrum, third-best out of 72 players to log at least 100 isos. (Behind, as luck would have it, only Haliburton and Fox.) That gift for one-on-one orchestration has made Brunson a dependable option late in games: He’s tied with Fox in clutch scoring, shooting 52.4% from the field in crunch time.
I’m not sure that Brunson’s stellar offensive numbers and role in the Knicks’ ascent to the East’s No. 7 seed will be enough to earn him a guard spot, though — not with him trailing by a mile in the fan vote (the only New York guard to show up on the second round of returns was Derrick Rose) and with a handful of other former All-Stars with their own gaudy individual stats all in a competitive mix. But if voters give him credit for where the Knicks sit in the standings compared to, say, the Hawks and Bulls — and if they consider that Brunson’s played more games and minutes than Darius Garland and Irving — he might have a real chance at being the first Knick guard to make an All-Star team since Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell in 2001, and the first Knick point guard to do it since Mark Jackson in 1989. (It’s been a … pretty rough couple of decades, you guys.)
The best-team effect
It can be tricky to make All-Star cases based on the principle that The Best Teams Should Get Multiple Guys. It is something that voters consider, though — and, depending on how things shake out, it’s a factor that could lead to a few first-timers. Such as:
Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane, Grizzlies
Bane looked like a surefire All-Star in the season’s opening weeks, averaging a shade under 25-5-5 while shooting 45% from 3-point range before suffering a toe injury that cost him more than a month. Jackson’s been one of the league’s most dominant defensive players — and arguably one of its best overall, on a per-possession basis — since returning from his own foot injury in mid-November. The bet here is that all the missed games prevent either from joining Ja Morant in Utah; if other candidates wind up falling by the wayside, though, it wouldn’t be shocking to see either (or both?) get a look considering the major roles they’ve played for a Memphis team that has the West’s best net rating and continues to joust with the Nuggets for the top spot in the conference.
Aaron Gordon, Nuggets
It’s impossible to overstate just how perfect a fit Gordon has been between Jokic and Jamal Murray for West-leading Denver. He’s excellent at moving off the ball, hunting open space and finishing damn near everything he gets his hands on near the basket; he’s scoring 1.52 points per possession finished off a cut, according to Synergy, shooting a bonkers 83.8% on those plays. He’s a versatile defender who’s become Michael Malone’s No. 1 option against opponents’ best scorers across multiple positions, from big wings like James and Kawhi Leonard to point guards like Gilgeous-Alexander and Dejounte Murray. He attacks the glass on both ends, he can knock down catch-and-shoot threes … he does exactly what the Nuggets need him to do on both ends at a high level, to the tune of just under 17 points and seven rebounds in 30 minutes per game on 59% shooting. The question facing voters: Is being the textbook definition of “a star in your role” for the best team in the conference enough to outshine those doing more in larger roles on teams with fewer wins? Maybe not. But Gordon’s overall two-way play makes that a tougher call than you might think.
Nic Claxton, Nets
Brooklyn being a handful of games behind the Celtics for first place in the East, with Durant and Irving both likely to earn selections, probably renders this a moot point. And I wouldn’t blame you for thinking we shouldn’t be considering a guy who shoots seven times a game, and hardly ever does it beyond arm’s length from the rim, in the same breath as the top offensive engines in the sport. It’s worth noting, though, that a lot of the advanced stats love Claxton due to his high-efficiency offensive game and point-preventing work as a rim protector — he leads the league in field-goal percentage and ranks second in block percentage — and that he’s played an integral part in unlocking the switching scheme that’s vaulted the Nets from the bottom of the defensive rankings all the way up to the top 10 in points allowed per possession. There’s a similar case to be made for Claxton’s fellow New York big man, Mitchell Robinson, whose presence as a putbacks-and-lob-dunks finisher, box-out road-grader and interior shot deterrent have been key elements of the Knicks’ uptick; it’d be a sizable surprise, though, if either got a real look in a crowded Eastern frontcourt.
The long shots
A few more dudes who’ll likely fall short for one reason or another, but who have opened some eyes with their play:
Anthony Edwards, Timberwolves
If you’ve found yourself focusing primarily on how awkward and underwhelming the start to the Rudy Gobert era has been, you might have missed that the Wolves — for all their flaws and foibles — are only two games out of fifth in the West. The biggest reason for that? Edwards, who has averaged 25-6-5 with a pair of steals for the last two months, emerging as the leader of the pack in Minnesota.
Jerami Grant, Trail Blazers
The good vibes of the early part of the season in the Pacific Northwest have largely dissipated, but Grant has continued to be precisely the two-way combo forward Portland’s brass hoped he’d be when it swung the deal to bring him in over the summer: 21.7 points per game, 54% inside the arc and 43% beyond it, while logging iron-man minutes defending up and down the positional spectrum and transitioning seamlessly between a complementary option when Damian Lillard is available and a primary when he’s not. I agree with Sean Highkin of The Rose Garden Report: a lucrative long-term extension seems like a no-brainer, and beneficial for both sides.
Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero, Magic
Wagner’s built on the strong all-around play of his rookie campaign in Year 2; he’s one of just 18 players in the league this season averaging at least 20 points, three rebounds and three assists per game on .590 true shooting, and the other 18 all have either made All-Star appearances in the past or already been covered in this column. Banchero’s counting stat line (21.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists) calls to mind the first-year numbers of fellow No. 1 overall pick Blake Griffin — the last rookie to make the All-Star Game. Together, they’ve shown signs of being the kind of complementary frontcourt scorers and playmakers who could help lift the Magic out of more than a decade in the offensive doldrums. (Orlando famously — or infamously, I guess — hasn’t finished in the top half of the NBA in offensive efficiency since Dwight Howard left town.)
Orlando’s recent 3-7 skid post-Christmas dimmed their shine a bit, though, and all the incumbent Eastern frontcourt talent — Embiid, Giannis, Tatum, Durant, Pascal Siakam, Jimmy Butler, Randle, Bam Adebayo, Kristaps Porzingis, the list goes on — makes it exceedingly unlikely that either Banchero or Wagner break through this season. That might not be the case for long, though; they’ve cemented themselves as bona fide foundational pieces for the Magic, giving Central Floridians legitimate reason, at long last, to believe that brighter days might lie ahead.