The Next All-Stars: Northwest Division
Ben Nadeau kicks off Basketball Insiders’ The Next All-Stars series by examining four potential options in the Northwest Division.
Reaching an All-Star Game is no easy feat, particularly so if the world has not crowned you as a unanimously-famous face. Sure, megastars like LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving typically have an appearance on-lock as soon as the season tips off, but for others – hello to Kemba Walker, Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, etc – their worthy and stat-stuffing campaigns are not always enough. When only 12 from each conference can be selected, there will be names left out – that’s a given.
And when the roster omits three or four snubs per season, it becomes even tough to be a Next-Up All-Star. For far too long, Booker fit the criteria as a prolific scorer with a high-profile and a seller of jerseys. But in a stacked Western Conference, it was nearly impossible for him to break in until the 2019-20 season. With Booker no longer in play – who might be next?
CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers
Incredibly, one of the league’s top-notch Robins has never made the midseason dance and that seems like near insanity. In fact, this year, he wasn’t really close at all despite notching 20-plus points for the fifth consecutive season. Thankfully, McCollum, 28, still has plenty of peak-level basketball left ahead of him so there’s still time to reverse this unexplainable error. Up until the stoppage, Portland had gone a stellar 8-2 when McCollum dropped 30 or more points in a game, while also matching his career-high of 4.3 assists.
It’s possible that playing alongside Damian Lillard has dampened McCollum’s fan vote potential, but that never slowed down other multiple-All-Star-led teams before. Surprisingly, an elevation in league-wide presence didn’t occur for McCollum after his consistency helped the Trail Blazers reach the Western Conference Finals one year ago. At No. 19, McCollum finished with just 174,709 votes and behind Tim Hardaway Jr., Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green. Fan voting always leads to shaky-at-best conclusions – but, sheesh, must we start a #VoteCJ campaign in 2020-21?
Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
If McCollum’s first appearance is overdue, then we can only hope that Jamal Murray’s best chance hasn’t just sailed away.
Murray is a 6-foot-4 sharpshooter, one half of a refined two-headed pick-and-roll monster with Nikola Jokic. And although the Nuggets have shot up the conference hierarchy by embracing a team-first style of play, it’s been Jokic, a two-time All-Star, soaking up the individual accolades. Overlooked at times, however, Murray has been a consistent, reliable and healthy contributor to a near-powerhouse.
The Canadian isn’t just a punchy scorer either, and any time he tallied six or more assists in 2019-20, Denver owned a 15-6 record. Better, perhaps: When Murray went for 22-plus points, the Nuggets won 14 games and lost just five. But, like McCollum, Murray will need to make strides in the popularity department, especially if he intends to make headway in a conference that’ll welcome back Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to the fold next fall.
It’s a tight list already – one that fails to mention up-and-comers like De’Aaron Fox, Zion Williamson and Ja Morant – so it’s not impossible to wonder if Murray will always find himself on the outside looking in.
Without question, the guard has the necessary talent, statistical outbursts and team-ready successes on his resume – but will he have the popularity to break into the uber-competitive top 12 during any given season? Let’s collectively cross our fingers because a Blue Arrow hot-streak would be truly wonderful to behold.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
In any serious conversation, Gilgeous-Alexander would’ve been right at home with the younger players listed above…but that would’ve spoiled the surprise down here.
Yes, before you can even blink, Gilgeous-Alexander may just become your next big All-Star Game staple. As a 21-year-old, the former collegiate standout doubled his points (19.3) and rebounds (6.1) while forming a strong 63-game partnership aside Chris Paul, a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. Mentioned in last week’s column of the Northwest Division’s Most Underrated, Gilgeous-Alexander has a laundry list of blossoming intangibles already going his way – but how high can he go?
To wit, Oklahoma City went 9-1 – including wins over the Los Angeles Clippers, Toronto Raptors and Utah Jazz – when the guard scored 25 or more points this year. Moreover, Gilgeous-Alexander ranked first in minutes (35.1), first in points, fourth in field goal percentage (47.3 percent), second in rebounds, third in assists (3.3) and second in steals (1.1) across the entire Thunder roster this year. And that’s for a team that finished the shortened campaign in fifth – and over veteran leaders like Paul, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams.
All-Star appearances – yes, plural – are in Gilgeous-Alexander’s near future, but the only thing left up for debate is the total amount.
D’Angelo Russell, Minnesota Timberwolves
And then there’s D’Angelo Russell, a technicality, certainly – but an intriguing situation nonetheless.
Last year, of course, Russell earned a well-deserved bid to the All-Star Game…but as Victor Oladipo’s injury replacement. This isn’t to take away from Russell’s breakout season at all – but the remainder of the division is weak outside of the current and multi-year crop of All-Stars.
So Russell, now back in the bigger and stronger conference, remains a compelling case study.
Sadly, Russell only got 12 games with Minnesota this year post-trade deadline but the lefty guard averaged 21.7 points and 6.6 assists on 41.2 percent from the floor. He’ll finally play for a city that has invested in him long-term for the first time ever – his fourth team in five years – and alongside one of his best friends, Karl-Anthony Towns. Needless to say, Russell is primed for an even better 2020-21 and his star status should continue to rise as well.
Russell knocked down four or more three-pointers in 24 games between Minnesota and Golden State this season, even reaching the hallowed 50-point plateau once too. On a league-worst Warriors squad, Russell had more green lights than a NASCAR race track – but there are few that can fill it up like him.
If this partnership between Russell and Towns work out, the pair could make multiple All-Star Game appearances together – just as they’ve always dreamed of.
Reaching the midseason festivities is no easy task and, more often than not, a few big-time names get left off the invite list every year. With unmovable members like James, Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Curry in the Western Conference, earning that honor has never been more difficult. But if a spot opens up via injury, trade or conference vacancy, it’d be wise to bet on McCollum, Murray, Gilgeous-Alexander or Russell to slide on in.
On Basketball Insiders, our team will take a crack at the other division’s up-and-comers – but these four alone will add some much-needed drama to the voting process in the following years.
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