• Ziad Aziz

2016 All-Star Game: Four New Faces

NBA All-Star Weekend is packed with action and entertainment. As fans, we get to indulge in events such as: The Skills Challenge, Three – Point Contest, Dunk Contest, Shooting Stars Contest, NBA Rising Stars Challenge, Celebrity Game, and of course the NBA All-Star Game. However, it will feel strange not seeing Kevin Hart on the floor during the celebrity game, as the comedian and four time MVP announced his retirement this past February.

Now when it concerns actual NBA players, most fans are excited to see the best in the business team up and compete against each other. Barring any injuries *knock on wood*, The Eastern Conference will always feature the likes of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, while the Western Conference’s notables are Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry. These players could probably miss a quarter of the season and still be voted to the All-Star game regardless.

But it’s not the famous faces that draw intrigue for everyone. Some wonder, who will be this years Jeff Teague, or Kyle Lowry? The ones that keep slipping through the cracks, unnoticed, yet a catalyst to their team's success. The excitement of the budding unknown, the player whose face is familiar, but his name escapes you. There are four convincing candidates to make their All-Star game debut in 2016, and they’re all in different phases of their careers.

1.Kawhi Leonard

If Kawhi Leonard puts up similar numbers as last year, and isn’t voted to the next All-Star Game, then we riot. The man may be as quiet as a library, but his production, accolades, and value to the San Antonio Spurs scream All-Star material. He’s only 24 years old, and has been most recently named the NBA Defensive Player of the Year for 2015, becoming the first perimeter player to win the award since Metta World Peace (formerly Ron Artest) in 2004.

When the Spurs beat the Miami Heat in the 2014 NBA Finals, Leonard was named the Finals MVP. The only other two players to win both Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year Awards, are Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon. I’d say that’s some pretty good company. Leonard has also been selected to various NBA All-Elite Teams: NBA All-Rookie First Team (2012), NBA All-Defensive Second Team (2014), and NBA All-Defensive First Team (2015).

NEED I SAY MORE? However, on the other side of the coin, some fans may interpret Leonard as a ‘boring’ type player. Last year, the West beat the East 163-158. People want to see sky scraping dunks, and acrobatic assists, not a fundamentally sound and defensively oriented play. Even though he’s a gifted athlete dripping with talent, unfortunately fans are drawn to dynamic personalities scoring over 25 points per game. Still, the Defensive Player of the Year who averages 16.5 ppg should be a starter on any All-Star team.

2.Andrew Wiggins

Say hello to the future everybody. Maple Jordan more commonly known as Andrew Wiggins is already the star on a blossoming roster. Last year, the Toronto native played in all 82 games, and scored an average of 16.9 points, grabbed 4.6 rebounds, while recording at least 2 assists and 1 steal per game.

With the Minnesota Timberwolves maturing as a roster and adding new talent, more opportunities will arise for Wiggins to bulk up his numbers from last year. A healthy Ricky Rubio at point guard will improve Wiggins’ offensive production, and the presence of Karl Anthony Towns on the low block provides further stability to the Timberwolves’ offense.

Wiggins was the NBA Rising Stars Challenge MVP (2015), made the NBA All-Rookie First Team, as well as collected the coveted NBA Rookie of the Year Award for 2015. The twenty-year-old phenom has had a near perfect start to what will be a long and brilliant career. And could very well be playing alongside Steph Curry and James Harden in the All-Star Game just days before his twenty first birthday.

3.Reggie Jackson

Now I know what you’re thinking, this is an irrational reach and has no hope of coming to fruition. Vegas may very well be on your side, but Reggie Jackson is in a very happy place with the Detroit Pistons and his numbers reflect that statement. When he was traded from the Oklahoma City Thunder on February 19th, Jackson tweeted out “Crying tears of joy #godisgreat”.

Through 50 games of the 2014-15 Season, while with Oklahoma City, Jackson averaged 28 minutes, 4.3 assists, and 12.8 points per game. Following the trade, he played an average of 32.2 minutes, dished out 9.2 assists, and recorded 17.6 points per game. Given these numbers, it’s clear that head coach Stan Van Gundy wants the offense to flow through Jackson.

With Greg Monroe traded to the Milwaukee Bucks, most of the offensive load will likely be carried by Jackson and center Andre Drummond. Jackson could see a significant increase in offensive production, assuming the Piston’s roster remains the same up until the All-Star break. Jackson is looking to follow in the footsteps of Houston Rockets guard James Harden. Who like Jackson, wasn’t the focal point of the Thunder’s offense, but once in greener pastures, flourished in every facet.

4.Mike Conley Jr.

This is my dark horse. The man who runs the Memphis Grizzlies that no other team wants to play come playoff time. Mike Conley Jr. has been unfortunate enough to compete in a conference that feature guards such as: Tony Parker, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, and Stephen Curry. The West is simply too deep at point guard for Conley to get the attention that he deserves.

I know averaging just 16 points and less than 6 assists per game won’t cut it for the All-Star team given the competition, but Conley flat out brings it every night. He was named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team in 2013, and has led the Memphis Grizzlies to the playoffs EVERY year since 2011. Including the franchise’s first Conference Final appearance in history during the 2013 campaign.

Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph may certainly be the team's two stars, but Memphis wouldn’t be where they are today without the selfless play of Mike Conley. He’s the mitochondrion to the cell, the battery that powers the Grizzlies to the playoffs every year.

Numbers don’t tell the whole story when it comes to Mike Conley, and you know what? They shouldn’t. Mike Conley has earned the right to be considered an All-Star and display his prowess in a big game. Which shouldn’t be a problem for him, since he does it each postseason.

Stats courtesy of Basketball reference

Photos courtesy of USA Today

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