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The Next All-Stars: Atlantic Division

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ The Next All-Stars series by identifying the most likely players from the Atlantic Division to become first-time All-Stars in 2021.

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Being name an All-Star is an arbitrary accolade – but an accolade none-the-less. There are no prerequisites that must be met prior to achieving it, only that you’re well-liked by your fans and peers.

But popularity and effectiveness go hand-in-hand (to a certain degree). Players traditionally become more recognizable after proving their worth on the court. Long story short, it’s is an inexact science. And that’s mostly OK.

But regardless of how fair the process is, players still strive to become All-Stars. And what’s more, the number of times that all-time greats qualify for All-Star teams serves as one of a finite number of metrics through which careers are graded.

Last season, the NBA welcomed 10 first-time All-Stars, all of whom were 23-years old or younger save for two. Further, there were five first-time All-Stars in 2019 and six in 2018. All of the newcomers are likely to contend for a spot. Add in the upper echelon of the NBA and there are simply a limited number of spots up for grabs.

With that in mind, Basketball Insiders is currently identifying the future All-Stars – guys on the precipice of becoming house-hold names, but who haven’t made it yet. We’ve already covered the Northwest and Central divisions. Now, we turn our attention to the Atlantic.

Before we get too far, it’s worth pointing out that only five of the 12 recent Eastern Conference All-Stars are older than 25: Pascal Siakam (26), Khris Middleton (28), Kemba Walker (29), Jimmy Butler (30) and Kyle Lowry (34). Lowry is obviously declining relative to a few years ago; Butler and Walker are at their pinnacles. Siakam and Middleton are still on the upside of their careers – but any of them can be knocked out by one of the players listed below. Further, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are likely 2021 All-Stars who didn’t make the 2020 team due to injury. So competition will be fierce for all 12 roster spots.

Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics

Brown was a 2020 All-Star snub. We can all assume that he’s better positioned for the All-Star team come his fourth professional season. He demonstrated serious progress in 2019-20, with jumps in points (20.4 points, up from 13), rebounds (6.4, up from 4.2) and assists (2.2, up from 1.4). What’s more, Brown shot a career-high 38.1% on three-point attempts and he solidified the first above-average PER of his career (17.1).

As though those stats aren’t reason enough, the 24-year-old is a Swiss-Army knife. He defends, finishes and creates for his teammates. He fits perfectly alongside flashier players like Walker and Jayson Tatum, but he also possesses the requisite bravado to stand on his own. Brown probably had the best case of all of the Atlantic Division future All-Stars to qualify for the 2020 All-Star team, but we’re looking ahead and not back. Will it matter that two Celtics are seen as being more valuable than Brown? It shouldn’t, but the All-Star voting process is subjective– so only time will tell.

Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets

There is no hard-and-fast rule that dictates that only one up-and-coming player per team gets All-Star consideration. But the Brooklyn Nets have two other All-Star locks in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant – neither of whom were All-Stars last season due to injuries – and it’s unlikely that any team boasts as many as four; a feat that’s only happened seven times in NBA history (1962 Celtics, 1975 Celtics, 1983 76ers, 1998 Lakers, 2006 Pistons, 2011 Celtics and 2017 Warriors).

So with that in mind, we had a tough decision between Spencer Dinwiddie and LeVert. Ultimately, this writer decided that LeVert’s ceiling – which is higher than Dinwiddie’s – will play a bigger role than Dinwiddie’s past success, which is more noteworthy than that of LeVert.

This isn’t meant as a knock of Dinwiddie – who actually tallied significantly more All-Star votes than LeVert in 2020. But LeVert has the kind of upside that makes scouts drool. He averaged 16.7 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists in 31.5 minutes per game prior to the 2020 All-Star break as a guy still working his way back from injury. Those figures increased to 24.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game following the break, including a 51-point performance in a win at Boston on March 3. His silky-smooth game is tailor-made to complement Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn – or really any top-tier star. And he’d look pretty good on his own, too.

Ultimately, LeVert (25) is younger than Dinwiddie (27). He’s also significantly taller despite the incorrect listings – 6-foot-6 for LeVert and vs. 6-foot-5 for Dinwiddie – and his skillset is more versatile and better fits the mold of a franchise-caliber player. It’s not mandatory that three Nets are named 2021 All-Stars, but there is simply too much talent to overlook – and this writer feels LeVert is set-up for a big-time breakout season.

Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks

Robinson is the biggest dark horse of them all. His floor and ceiling differ the most of any player on this list – and maybe as much as anyone in the entire league. He covers more defensive ground than anyone in recent memory. He’s an athletic rim runner who can finish lobs as well as almost anyone in the NBA. He averaged 15 points, 10.9 rebounds and 3 blocks per-36-minutes in 2019-20, and he posted a PER of 23.5 over the entire season. While his game is still limited, his effect is so great that it doesn’t even matter.

But those statistics ignore Robinson’s main challenge as a pro – he can’t seem to figure out how to stay on the court and out of foul trouble. He fouled out of seven games in 2019-20 and was in foul trouble (five or more fouls) in 15 of 61 – meaning that Robinson’s minutes had to be closely monitored in nearly 25% of the team’s games.

There is something of a silver lining, though. Robinson registered no more than three fouls in any one of his last nine games – a marked improvement from earlier in the season. The more Robinson can stay on the court, the greater the odds are that he puts up All-Star numbers.

But the 2020-21 season probably won’t tip-off until Christmas Day (at the earliest). How might that play a role? It probably works in Robinson’s favor more so than anyone else on the list. It means that the 22-year-old has that much more time to add muscle to his lower body – making him all the more difficult to push out of position.

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors

VanVleet certainly had the look and feel of a future All-Star this season, didn’t he? He’s shown growth in each of his four professional seasons, most recently demonstrating the ability to co-lead a team in the thick of a playoff race. The 26-year-old is a bit of a late bloomer from an age standpoint, but that doesn’t undo his successes. He averaged an impressive 17.6 points, 6.6 assists and 1.9 steals in a robust 35.8 minutes per game. He’s a pesky defender and a career 39% three-point shooter.

The key to VanVleet securing an All-Star spot will be situational. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent this offseason and should receive the keys to the castle — so the speak – regardless of where he signs. But opportunity doesn’t always translate to results. VanVleet must select his next employer carefully, looking for pieces in place that complement him as much as possible. If he does so correctly, VanVleet can walk into a situation in which his positives are highlighted and his deficiencies are concealed – and in that kind of a situation, VanVleet’s chances of securing one of those coveted 12 All-Star spots looks pretty good.

As was alluded to above, the Eastern Conference has a number of All-Star locks in 2021 like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Trae Young. There are only 12 spots for each conference, so every spot will be competitively vied over. There could be just one new Eastern Conference All-Star or – realistically – as many as six. But one thing is for sure: The Eastern Conference is stacked with young talent and no one’s conceding their spot on the team just yet.

Basketball Insiders contributor residing in the Bronx, New York.

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