NBA

Ranking top 15 players seeking first NBA All-Star Game appearance: Jamal Murray, Zion Williamson lead the way

1 Did Murray make the proverbial “leap” in the bubble? I take issue with that word in this case because nothing Murray did in the playoffs surprised me. His consistency is the question, but even that discussion is skewed because of the presence of Nikola Jokic, who controls so much of Denver’s offense. Pretty much every other point guard with Murray’s ability has complete control of his offense, so Murray’s scoring numbers are going to fluctuate more on nights when Jokic is in attack mode. Bottom line: There are only a handful of guys in the league I would rather have on my team in a playoff series than Murray, who is, amazingly, still just 23 years old. What a future the Nuggets have brewing. 2
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For 19 games, he was a revelation. No one could keep Williamson off the glass or stop him in transition. Even as a rookie coming off a knee injury, he averaged 17.3 points in the paint, second only to Giannis. (On a per-possession basis, he actually edged Giannis in this category.) His defense was nowhere near where it was in college, his shot needs work and he didn’t look right in the bubble, but Williamson has already shown that he can affect the game like a legitimate star. And his upside is limitless. 3
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Jaylen Brown was snubbed from the All-Star Game a season ago, after posting career numbers across the board, including an improved finishing rate around the rim. He’s become a more efficient scorer alongside Jayson Tatum, and now that Gordon Hayward is gone, it will give Brown even more opportunities to shine on offense. 4
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The Robin to Damian Lillard’s Batman in the Portland backcourt, McCollum has never quite become a star, but he is a model of consistency. Every single night you know he’s giving you 20-25 points while handling some of the playmaking duties. He can’t carry a team by himself on a consistent basis, but he’s one of the better secondary scoring options around, and is not afraid of the moment in the playoffs. 5
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Entering his fourth season and fresh off of signing a massive contract extension over the offseason, Fox could be in line for a career campaign. He has improved in each of his three seasons so far, and this year should be no different. Fox averaged a career-high 21.1 points per game last season while shooting a career-high 48 percent from the floor, and those numbers will likely improve as Fox has established himself as Sacramento’s top option. 6
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Mix the Road Runner’s speed with Wile E. Coyote’s creativity and you get Ja Morant, a basketball genius willing to try just about anything on the court no matter how ridiculous. As a rookie, that led to wild dunk attempts, plenty of turnovers and an uncomfortable number of awkward falls. But he is going to mature. Once he sands those rough edges off of his game, we’ll be left with an unstoppable athletic force that starts every play two literal and figurative steps ahead of the competition. 7
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VanVleet got paid this offseason to the tune of $85 million over four years, and he deserves every penny. VanVleet is no longer a spark-plug bench guy; he’s an integral starter on an upper-echelon team who averaged 17 points and six assists last season. He’s also a tenacious defender who shot 39 percent on just under seven 3-point attempts per game in 2019-20. But forget the numbers; VanVleet is just what a winning basketball player looks like. There isn’t a team in the league that wouldn’t love to have him. 8
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It was the same old story for Brogdon last season. He played like a borderline All-Star when healthy, but since this is Malcolm Brogdon we’re talking about here, he didn’t stay healthy for long. The version of him that killed teams with late-game pick-and-rolls and carried the Indiana offense in Victor Oladipo’s absence was the best we’ve seen yet, but until he plays an entire season at that level without incident, he is always going to hit a ceiling at this point in the list. 9
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You cannot use stats to describe Marcus Smart, and even if you tried he doesn’t put up many of them for you to work with. He is an experience — at times exhilarating, at times maddening, but always memorable. There are few in the league who play as hard, or do as many little things to impact winning as Smart, which is why he’s become a fan favorite in Boston. He’s not the best player on the Celtics, but he just might be the most important. 10
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In his first season with OKC, Gilgeous-Alexander showed that he has all the tools to become an All-Star in this league, and now that Chris Paul has been traded to Phoenix, and Dennis Schroder’s in Los Angeles, he’ll get a chance to show what he can do as the lone point guard for the Thunder. He’ll need to improve his decision making, but he’ll now have the space to learn and grow on an OKC team that has gone full rebuild this offseason. 11
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Regardless of your opinion on the effectiveness of LaVine’s game, you cannot ignore the fact that this guy is a pure scorer, as evidenced by him averaging a career-high 25.5 points a game last season on a lowly Bulls team. He proved to be a serious threat from long range during a season in which his mid-range game was grounded by the Bulls analytics department. He was also an integral part of Chicago having a top 10 defensive team in the league, averaging almost two steals a game, which ranked in the top 20 in the league. 12
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Jackson’s development over the course of his two seasons with the Grizzlies is all the more impressive because he was a productive starter from Day 1. Stretch bigs aren’t uncommon anymore, but 6-foot-11 dudes who are comfortable taking deep, above-the-break 3s, coming off pindowns and even busting out a stepback every once in a while? Not normal at all. Jackson’s footwork is freaky for someone his size, and he can already score in the post, put the ball on the floor, block shots and hold his own defending smaller players. He needs to improve as a rebounder and stop fouling all the time, but, I mean, he is 21 and is apparently still growing. 13
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Nurkic returned to action in the bubble this summer and looked fantastic. So much so that you never would have guessed he was playing for the first time since breaking his leg over a year ago. He is a fascinating mix of size and skill, just as likely to bully someone in the paint or rock them with a hard screen as he is to thread a backdoor pass. The Blazers are going to be a problem in the West this season, and having a healthy Nurkic is a big reason why. 14
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A strangely divisive player, our panelists ranked Covington as high as 47 and as low as 71. In some ways, how you evaluate him reveals how you think about the game: Can you be an elite defensive player without being a one-on-one stopper or a giant who walls off the paint? Would you rather have a 34-37 percent 3-point shooter who fires away without hesitation or a 40-percent 3-point shooter who only shoots when he’s wide open and happens to be feeling confident? My answer to the first question is yes, if your help defense is as awesome as Covington’s. My answer to the second is the 34-37 percent shooter every time. Covington has long been one of the best role players around, and his shot-blocking in Houston was outrageous. 15
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LeVert put up career highs across the board last season and took his game to another level in the bubble, where he averaged 25 points, 6.7 assists and five rebounds in six games for an undermanned Nets squad. It will be interesting to see how coach Steve Nash uses LeVert next to a healthy Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but there’s a chance LeVert gets to showcase his talent as the primary playmaker when the two stars rest. No matter the role, LeVert’s improved 3-point shooting (36 percent last season and 43 percent in the playoffs on over five attempts per game) will be essential to his success.



 

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