In a pre-pandemic world, it would be right around that special time of the season where players, media and fans spend countless hours arguing over the NBA All-Star rosters. In some years, a player might even lash out at a post-game presser over the perceived slight. The first post-snub game for those players is a must-watch, as they always seem to bring extra intensity in the hopes of showing the voting public just how wrong they were.
But this season, the All-Star situation is fluid, to say the least. The game itself was originally a no-go, but recent reports indicate the NBA may be looking for a way to host the exhibition. The league also just announced that voting on the starters for each conference will begin soon.
With only a month of NBA basketball in the books, crafting a perfect All-Star team that spares no deserving player is futile. There will be snubs — likely even more than usual. A player’s reputation may come into play more than ever leading to more deserving players missing the cut. Those players will make snarky comments about this, and their fans will argue on Twitter, and life will go on.
In previous years, Basketball Insiders would take a look at some players on the fringes of the All-Star roster and make the case for their selection. Due to the aforementioned circumstances, it seems more prudent to leave the All-Star game out of the equation and take a look at a few players who have simply stood out this year.
Our own Tristan Tucker has already pinpointed a few of those players in the East, so a few players from the West will be examined here. Keep in mind, these are players who, in a normal year, would be in the All-Star discussion, rather than a lock for the team. So, while players like Nikola Jokic and LeBron James have had incredible seasons, neither will not be mentioned beyond this sentence.
Mike Conley, Utah Jazz
The entire Utah Jazz starting five was in consideration for this list. The Jazz are now on a 10-game winning streak and sport the league’s best record. Their starting lineup is running teams off the court and they are shooting the lights out of the ball over the last few weeks.
While each player involved in the streak has played well, Conley will be the focus here. His two-way play at point guard has been a revelation, particularly after his struggles when joining the team last season.
Conley currently leads the entire league in plus-minus. While this stat is more indicative of team success than player success — Rudy Gobert is second on this list — the fact that Conley leads all other members of the Jazz shows just how valuable he has been in propelling bench units.
Conley’s efficiency has mostly been driven by his hot three-point shooting and the rebirth of his once-great floater game. Conley is shooting 42 percent from three and 54 percent from floater range, up from 38 percent and 36 percent in those respective areas last season, per Cleaning the Glass.
Conley has also developed better pick-and-roll chemistry with Gobert. The Jazz has scored 1.03 points per possession with Conley as the pick-and-roll ball handler this season, up from 0.84 points per possession last season, per NBA.com.
Just as impressive has been Conley’s defense. His basketball IQ and experience have made him a standout team defender and he still possesses the ability to hound the opponent’s point guard out to the half-court. Here he stays with Trae Young while reading the pass from John Collins, nabbing a steal which leads to a layup:
While Conley is helped by a Jazz team that is dominating as a unit, his stellar play has been a large part of their recent streak.
Christian Wood, Houston Rockets
After bouncing around the league and a brief stint in China, Wood has found his footing in Houston. The gangly big man is averaging 23 points and 10 rebounds a game on 60 percent true shooting. His production has been maintained even after the departure of James Harden, with who he had developed decent chemistry in their short time together.
The Rockets offense is performing at a league-average rate when Wood plays but plummets to one of the worst in the league when he sits. His vertical gravity around the rim opens up the team’s pick-and-roll game, where they have scored 1.20 points per possession on nearly six of those possessions per game, per NBA.com. Only Nikola Vucevic can claim that efficiency on that high of a volume over the first month of the season.
Wood is not a perfect defender, as his slight frame can make guarding the league’s bulkier centers a tall task and he can often find himself out of help position. He does occasionally find ways to be disruptive thanks to his ridiculous wingspan. Here he swipes an entry pass while guarding the perimeter:
The most impressive part of that clip comes after the steal, as his poise with the ball when leading the break has stood out early this season. Despite his stature, Wood looks comfortable dribbling into his spots and doesn’t panic when guards swipe at him. He moves at his own pace to get to where he wants on the floor.
The play of Wood has put him well ahead of the pack in the race for Most Improved and has been a key component in the Rockets’ fight to stay competitive.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
After a year under the tutelage of Chris Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander has been given the keys to the Thunder offense. And the third-year point guard has rewarded the team’s trust, putting up 21 points, 5 rebounds, and 6 assists on the season with a very impressive 61 percent true shooting.
While the Thunder have slipped from the national spotlight this season, Gilgeous-Alexander is blossoming into a star. He has continued to improve his ability to finish at the rim and draw fouls, while also improving his already impressive floater game.
He is carrying the Thunder offense. The team posts a not-great-but-respectable 110.1 offensive rating when he plays, compared to a god-awful 96.0 when he sits, per Cleaning the Glass. His defense has slipped a bit with the increased offensive load, but he still competes on that end and has the length to bother opposing guards.
And, if you are into cherry-picked statistics, then this is the stat for you: in NBA history, only seven players have averaged at least 21 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds on 60 percent true shooting or better. Those players — Michael Jordan (twice), Lebron James (six times), Larry Bird (twice), Magic Johnson (three times), James Harden (six times), Stephen Curry (three times), and Wilt Chamberlain.
Right now Gilgeous-Alexander and Jokic — who was not supposed to be mentioned again, but alas — are posting at least those numbers.
The league is filled with talent in every corner, but those three have made their mark on this condensed and weird season in a way that deserves recognition.
Outside of that triumvirate, young players out West like Mikal Bridges, Michael Porter Jr., Lu Dort, and Keldon Johnson have been impressive and important for their teams as well. Basketball Insiders will be keeping an eye on them and many others as the season wears on.