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All-Star 2019

NBA All-Star Game 2019: How the five first-time All-Stars have had their breakout seasons

simmons-russell-vucevic-middleton-jokic-ftr-nba-getty
These five first-time All-Stars have all reached new heights this season (NBA Getty Images)

Much of the focus during All-Star weekend will be on the MVP candidates and retiring legends, but the five players making their All-Star Game debut deserve recognition as well.

They might not all garner the same level of attention or fanfare as their more famous temporary teammates, but each has made a specific improvement that has helped them break out and become first-time All-Stars.

Ben Simmons - Pace Control

It was probably inevitable that Simmons would appear in an All-Star game but his growth shouldn't be taken for granted. He had outstanding moments last season but his greatness was limited to flashes. This year he's exerted far more control over the Sixer offense and developed a far more advanced offensive game than the one we saw from him in his rookie season.

He has the speed and power to constantly devastate defenses in the open court, but playing at breakneck speeds isn't always beneficial for his teammates. Joel Embiid is as dominating an interior presence as we have in the league but the faster the Sixers play, the harder it is for him to consistently dominate.

While slowing down may run counter to his instincts, Simmons has learned to utilize his speed and power in the half court. He has become great at accelerating around screens and exploding to the rim to either finish or wait for the defense to collapse and find an open teammate. For much of last season, Simmons felt like an über-talented forward learning how to be a lead ball-handler. This year, he's become a true point guard.

D'Angelo Russell - Offensive Leadership

Russell may be replacing the injured Victor Oladipo, but he is very deserving of his spot on the roster.

Russell's growth has propelled the Nets to a likely playoff spot and made them one of the most entertaining teams in the league. There was a chance for Brooklyn's season to be derailed after Caris LeVert's injury in November and again after Spencer Dinwiddie's last month, but Russell has become the consistent offensive force to keep their season headed on track.

The Nets went 23-19 without LeVert went down, and Russell is one of just seven players to average 20.7 points and 6.9 assists in that span. He excels at weaving around pick-and-rolls and finding tiny cracks in the defence to get up his efficient mid-range pull-up. He rarely has the burst to finish at the rim but his improved three-point shot and ability to wrong-foot defenders makes him one of the league's most dangerous offensive players.

Nikola Vucevic - Offensive evolution

Vucevic might be the biggest surprise All-Star to casual fans but his inclusion wasn't due to a lack of stars in the East. He's had a truly outstanding season.

He's one of just five players averaging at least 20 points and 12 rebounds, and his 40 point & rebound double-doubles are the fourth-most in the league. Of the 18 players averaging at least ten boards per game, Vucevic is the second-most efficient three-point shooter of the group at 37.9 percent.

Stuck on lottery teams for most of his career, Vucevic has quietly been a scoring and rebounding machine for years, averaging a double-double for five of his eight seasons in the league. In the past couple of years, he's evolved his game even further, developing a perimeter jumper and turning himself into an ideal modern centre.

The key for Vucevic is that he hasn't fallen into the trap of floating around the perimeter and always settling for threes. He picks his spots from the perimeter but uses the threat of a jumper to get inside and dominate smaller big men. He probably won't get many accolades at the end of the season, but the 28-year-old has turned himself into one of the league's best offensive centres.

Khris Middleton - Efficiency

Middleton hasn't taken a traditional path to the All-Star game. Unlike Russell or Vucevic who've had pretty linear progressions, Middleton's raw production has actually declined from last season. Some might say Middleton is only an All-Star because the Bucks are atop the Eastern Conference and that's not accurate, Middleton has earned his spot by being a catalyst for Milwaukee's success.

Mike Budenholzer's more egalitarian offence has sometimes limited Middleton's looks, but he's making the most of those opportunities. He's turned himself into one of the league's most efficient complimentary scorers, capable of knocking down catch-and-shoot jumpers and shots off the dribble with great proficiency.

The Bucks have very quietly had the 13th-best margin of victory in league history this season. Giannis Antetokounmpo deserves the lion's share of the credit but they wouldn't be nearly the dominant force they are without Middleton. His sacrifice has directly led to the team thriving and for that, he's an incredibly deserving first-time All-Star.

Nikola Jokic - Passing & Reading the defence

When you think of offensive stars changing the nature of defences, you'll often imagine Stephen Curry, James Harden or LeBron James. Curry stretches the defence until it breaks, Harden's attack is endless and LeBron can pound a defence into submission. While not immediately as obvious, Jokic's passing creates similar problems for defenders.

It's nearly impossible to defend Jokic at the top of the key. He reads defences like a quarterback and almost always finds his open teammate. If you sag off to clog passing lanes, he'll knock the open mid-ranger or step in for a floater. If you press up, his 7-foot-3 wingspan allows him to pass over smaller defenders or slingshot a pass around taller ones.

Jokic is up to 7.7 assists per game, ninth-most in the league. It's hard to quantify how incredible that is for a center. There will be seven point guards in the All-Star Game and Jokic is averaging more assists than four of them. He's on pace to be just the second center in NBA history to average at least seven assists per game. The other is Wilt Chamberlain.

We are understandably hesitant to label 23-year-olds the best anything of all-time, but it's clear that Jokic will be - if he's not already - the best passing big man ever and certainly a deserving All-Star.

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