It is a little bit early to be talking about who has earned the right to play in this season’s All-Star Game, but already certain names are cropping up. There are the usual suspects of course, the LeBron Jameses and Carmelo Anthonys of this world, as well as the Kobe Bryants who haven’t played but whose names will get them onto the exclusive list. In the less talented Eastern Conference however, there is a little bit more room for surprise when the selection process is finished and the team is announced. Although unlikely to be voted in by fans, one player worth looking at is the Orlando Magic’s Nikola Vucevic, who is having a fine year on a personal level so far.
Although it is difficult to obtain an All-Star berth while on a poor team, it is not impossible–Kyrie Irving got the nod last season, on a far from stellar Cleveland Cavaliers team. Yes the Magic are currently going through a four-game skid and are 4-9 overall, but Vucevic has been nothing short of excellent. He is averaging a double-double, grabbing 10.7 boards a game and dropping 15 points. Although less than 20 percent of the season is complete they are still career highs for the young center and barring injury, this form is likely to continue. On the defensive end, too, he has been like a player reborn, putting his body about and actually getting back to defend in the paint on a nightly basis. This is something we haven’t seen from Swiss national before and it bodes well for the Magic going forward. Sadly however, defense matters precious little when it comes to the spectacle and offense orientated All-Star Game and so Vucevic is unlikely to make his debut in the game off the back of impressive defensive displays night in, night out.
In a league where genuinely good centers are few and far between, it is worth looking at Vucevic’s two main competitors for a spot at the marquee Sunday event to see how he stacks up against them. The most likely player to start for the Eastern Conference at the 5 position is Roy Hibbert and this is understandable. His Indiana Pacers sit atop the Conference at 13-1, with their stifling defense such a key factor behind this tremendous start. Although Paul George is the superstar of the team, having a player like Hibbert whose sheer length is such a disruptive force, is such an asset to the team. Through this short season he is also averaging a near double-double, with 9.2 rebounds and 12.2 points. Interestingly, throughout his career so far, Hibbert is averaging only 6.8 rebounds a contest, scandalous for somebody who is over 7-feet tall. Adding an additional three rebounds a night will help his team massively and it has shown. He is taking the dirty side of the game seriously now and added to his limited, but effective, offensive game, he deserves to start on All-Star Sunday based on what we have seen so far.
That leaves a place coming off the bench a possibility for Vucevic, but Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls may have other ideas. Although averaging just more than eight points and rebounds himself so far, he brings passion and some of the intangibles other centers do not to the court. The game itself is also a glorified popularity contest and fans love the energy Noah brings. He’s a quirky guy, always good for a quick soundbite and even looks a bit odd when compared to the average player. People like that, so if he is selected as the backup center it would be hard to argue he shouldn’t be there. He has an outgoing personality, while to date Vucevic appears a man of few words. With Derrick Rose now done for the season again, if the Bulls make it to the All-Star break above .500 with their star player gone, Noah will likely be a key reason for this. So he would definitely deserve his spot on the East team then. Injury is never too far away from the former Florida player though and there is every chance that with the additional workload at his club, he will not be available to play in this game.
Nikola Vucevic is unlikely to feature in the All-Star Game this year, but it would be harsh to say he doesn’t deserve it. A number of factors will ultimately go against him, including the team he plays for, the record they have and the way he comes across on the court. The vast improvements he is making are going largely unnoticed, improving greatly on defense and rebounding are not the kind of things the casual fan who votes on what players they want to see in the game notices. Vucevic will make the All-Star Game one day and through circumstance may yet make this one. For the Orlando Magic though, knowing they have a center sniffing around the edges of All-Star selection contention so soon into his career must excite them. When they lost Dwight Howard they must have felt it would be a while before another quality center would wear the pinstriped blue. Little did they know that very same night they received a player who may yet do what Howard did and represent Orlando at an All-Star Game.