A first all-star nod is one of the NBA’s most cherished forms of validation, in part because it is so hard to come by. Over the past 20 All-Star Games, there have been an average of only six first-time all-stars each season. The odds are long — roughly 450 active NBA players compete for 24 spots — and the selection process tends to favor established names. Fans, media members and players pick the 10 starters in a weighted vote that often devolves into a popularity contest. The league’s coaches then pick the 14 reserves, with veterans on winning teams regularly getting the benefit of the doubt.
Yet the 2020 All-Star Game will feature plenty of new blood, reflecting a transitional season for the NBA because of numerous injuries, the collapse of the Golden State Warriors and significant superstar movement over the summer. In fact, it’s possible that the 2020 showcase includes the most fresh faces since 2010, when nine first-timers were selected.
The door is open wider than usual this year because 2019 all-stars Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Victor Oladipo are all sidelined with long-term injuries. Past that group, several of last year’s selections — including Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, Blake Griffin and Vucevic — have all missed major chunks of the season with early injury issues. Finally, a few incumbent all-stars — most notably D’Angelo Russell and LaMarcus Aldridge — will fall off the map if their teams continue to disappoint.
With the season past its quarter point, here is an ordered rundown of the rising players who most deserve to take the court when the All-Star Game tips off at United Center in Chicago on Feb. 16. Criteria for this list include statistics, team record, health and contribution to winning.
1. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Last season, Doncic received more than 4.2 million fan votes, a total that eclipsed every NBA player except LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. If not for the media and player voting components, the Slovenian sensation would have been the rare rookie to start an All-Star Game.
Barring a drastic change in fortune, the 20-year-old Doncic will earn a starting spot in Chicago. His case is bulletproof: He is averaging 30 points, 9.8 rebounds and 9.2 assists, he ranks second in player efficiency rating, he is leading the NBA’s most efficient offense, and he unexpectedly has the Mavericks competing for home-court advantage in the Western Conference.
2. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
Like Doncic, Siakam has wiggled into the early MVP conversation by playing a central role for a second-tier contender that is outpacing preseason expectations. Instead of falling off in the wake of Kawhi Leonard’s departure, the Raptors are sixth in point differential and in the running for the East’s No. 2 seed. Siakam, 25, has been their main driver: He is averaging 24.5 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists while blossoming into a lead option who can make plays for his teammates and hit threes off the dribble.
3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Irving’s departure and Gordon Hayward’s hand injury have put Tatum and teammate Jaylen Brown in prime position to make their first all-star appearances. The 21-year-old Tatum has ramped up his production across the board — 21.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game — and cut down on long twos in favor of more threes.
4. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
Given that Brown’s role, statistics and efficiency are comparable to Tatum’s, it’s hard to see how one would make it to Chicago without the other. As long as Boston remains near the top of the conference standings, there should be enough room for Tatum, Brown and point guard Kemba Walker to be among the East’s 12 all-stars.
5. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Remember, this list judges the “most deserving” all-stars, not necessarily the “most likely.” Gobert suffers from a perfect storm of factors that have led to repeated snubbings: He plays in a small market, he isn’t an elite scorer, his value is largely predicated on defense, and he isn’t a global fan favorite. Last year, the French center broke down in tears when he wasn’t selected. He might suffer a similar fate come February despite averaging 14.4 points, 13.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks, ranking in the top 10 in win shares and captaining one of the NBA’s 10 best defenses. Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and Jokic could block his path again.
6. Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers
Sabonis places higher on this list than some might expect because the East’s crop of frontcourt talent is relatively thin outside projected starters Antetokounmpo, Siakam and Joel Embiid. The Pacers should receive at least one representative given their steady start without Oladipo, and Sabonis’s averages of 18.4 points, 13.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists make him an excellent candidate. Indiana guard Malcolm Brogdon also deserves mention, but he could feel the squeeze in the East’s backcourt. As a footnote: Sabonis’s father, Arvydas, the Lithuanian legend, is one of the greatest basketball players to never make an NBA All-Star Game because of his late-career arrival from overseas.
7. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
The 23-year-old Booker is in his fourth year as an elite scorer, but 2020 is the first time he has had a real shot at cracking the All-Star Game. Phoenix’s respectable record and dramatically improved team offense are crucial to his candidacy, which at this point is superior to that of Donovan Mitchell, CJ McCollum and Jamal Murray. Booker will be hard to snub if he continues to average 25.5 points and 6.3 assists while posting 50/40/90 shooting splits.
8. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
Young, 21, is a fascinating figure in the all-star discussion: He is one of the league’s most devastating offensive weapons while simultaneously being one of its worst defenders. That offsetting value and Atlanta’s poor record certainly complicate his selection. Even so, he is one of only two players averaging 28 points and eight assists despite commanding an incredible amount of attention from opposing defenses.
9. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
From the All-Star Game’s perspective, Mitchell is everything Gobert, his Jazz teammate, isn’t: a flashy, recognizable and marketable scorer. It’s hard to envision Utah landing two all-star spots, and Mitchell could be competing with mainstays such as Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook for a West backcourt spot. His chances would improve if the Jazz could play more consistently and jump up into the West’s second tier.
10. Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
Few analysts would have considered Wiggins an all-star prospect coming into his sixth season, but the 24-year-old forward has greatly benefited from an expanded role under Coach Ryan Saunders. Wiggins is averaging career highs of 24.5 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists for a Timberwolves team that was in the West’s playoff picture before its current five-game losing streak. The most likely scenario, though, will see Towns as Minnesota’s lone representative.
Others to monitor: Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat), Brogdon (Indiana Pacers), Tobias Harris (Philadelphia 76ers), Brandon Ingram (New Orleans Pelicans), Fred VanVleet (Toronto Raptors).