While the usual suspects like LeBron James and Kevin Durant will head to Toronto for the 2016 NBA All-Star Game, a handful of players have emerged as potential first-time All-Stars this season.
Since each of the candidates are 26 or younger, the budding superstars represent the next generation of elite basketball talents.
The trick is removing undeserving veterans — ahem, Kobe Bryant — from the sport’s popularity contest to keep bench slots for these deserving players.
Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns
Stephen Curry is essentially a lock to be named the starting point guard for the Western Conference. What the Baby-Faced Assassin has accomplished with the Golden State Warriors is simply unreal.
But he’s also overshadowing a terrific season from Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, whose 21.9 points per game ranks 12th-best in the league. Bledsoe has also tallied 6.3 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.0 steals — a rounded stat line matched only by Russell Westbrook and Kyle Lowry.
The biggest negative affecting Bledsoe is that Phoenix will likely hover around .500 and won’t receive much mainstream attention. Nevertheless, if he continues this strong performance, then the coaches who vote for reserves may give Bledsoe the national stage he’s earned.
Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat
There isn’t a stranger, more remarkable story in the NBA today than the rapid ascent of Hassan Whiteside.
A 2010 second-round draft pick of the Sacramento Kings, he appeared in 19 games over two seasons before spending 2012-13 and 2013-14 outside of the league. After playing overseas and logging a pair of brief, nondescript stints with the Memphis Grizzlies, Whiteside caught on with the Heat.
He emerged as an undisputed starter in Miami and has excelled in the full-time role during the 2015-16 campaign. Whiteside has notched 13.1 points, 10.5 rebounds and a phenomenal league-leading 4.5 blocks per outing, logging an NBA-best 88.9 defensive rating.
The only other players in league history to record those numbers — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson — are each in the Hall of Fame. They should at least get Whiteside to the All-Star game.
Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
It’s simply not fair how amazing the Warriors are. People might be sick of hearing about that, but Golden State has started the year 22-0, six games better than any NBA team ever. We are watching history.
We are also watching Draymond Green, the sport’s ultimate Swiss Army knife. He’s registered 13.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 1.4 blocks per contest. That pace is literally unmatched in available data back to 1946, according to Basketball-Reference.
You can find Green in the top 20 of both offensive and defensive win shares. Without question, though, it’s nothing short of amazing that he’s dished the third-most assists of any forward in the NBA — 34 more than the closest, LeBron James.
The Warriors are a gift to the NBA. Green ought to be rewarded.
Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
If you’d like to know what the future of NBA centers looks like, please allow me to direct your attention toward 22-year-old Andre Drummond.
Now that Greg Monroe has moved on, Drummond is owns the Pistons frontcourt. The 6-foot-11, 280-pound monster has snatched 2.6 more rebounds per game than any other NBA player for a league-high clip of 16.5.
Drummond has also averaged 18.0 points, 1.9 steals and 1.4 blocks, posting the fourth-best defensive rating (92.2) in the league. He ranks sixth and 15th in the total steals and blocks categories, respectively.
Considering the lack of All-Star-worthy competition in the East, Drummond should join Whiteside as the conference’s representatives at the position.
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Kawhi Leonard has already hoisted NBA Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year trophies, but the San Antonio Spurs small forward has never earned an All-Star berth.
Now, that’s nothing close to unfair. Both a relatively small role and injuries have kept The Claw from tallying the numbers necessary for a young player to demand a casual fan’s attention and vote in the past.
This season, however, that isn’t the case. He’s amassed 21.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.2 blocks per game, only committing 1.4 turnovers despite a 25.7 usage rate and boasting a 90.5 defensive rating.
Leonard also leads the league in three-point percentage. Yes, you read that correctly. The 24-year-old has buried exactly 50 percent of his long-range attempts while attempting more than four per game.
San Antonio’s dynasty is safely in the capable (and extremely large) hands of Leonard, who unquestionably deserves to highlight the group of first-time NBA All-Stars in Toronto.