SALT LAKE CITY — There are always snubs or players who feel like they’re right on the cusp of being an All-Star, even after this season of so many injury and injury replacements. Here’s who can have a good case to be on the All-Star list next season or in the very near future.
Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers
Is he a power forward or center? Who cares, it doesn’t actually matter because he functions as whatever Cleveland needs, particularly defensively. This was supposed to be an All-Star type of season, it seemed like he was the most likely of the sophomores to make the leap to the Sunday showcase, perhaps even more so than Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes and No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham. Mobley came into season 2 with high expectations and after he got off to a slow start — largely due to allowing Donovan Mitchell to take up more rightful real estate — he was almost forgotten about.
“It was definitely a different dynamic with Donovan coming in, overall it was a little change,” Mobley told Yahoo Sports on Friday night. “But I felt I did a good job of changing with it.”
Where was he going to get the ball? Would he get the volume of touches his talent seemed to require? It seemed like he was content being lost in the shuffle, but it’s more than likely he was finding his way in the new setup.
A funny thing happened after that underwhelming start, though: Post January, he’s been an undeniable force. Mitchell is still getting the share of shots and opportunities, but Mobley has looked far more comfortable on both ends.
In his last 23 games, he’s averaged 17.6 points and 8.9 rebounds with nearly two blocks — one can say he has an easier time than other first- or second-year bigs because he’s playing alongside a vet in Jarrett Allen, but Allen benefits from playing next to Mobley, too.
He’s figured out how to use his length and he’s not getting bullied while still growing into his body.
“I wanted to be the best I can be, that’s always my goal. I’ll do the same thing next year. Hopefully, I get in it next year or sometime soon,” Mobley told Yahoo Sports. “Early on, I had some good games, some not. So I’m trying to be consistent with it.”
The Cavaliers have the No. 1 defense per 100 possessions and Mobley’s versatility allows the Cavaliers to do so many things. He covers for Mitchell and Darius Garland — two smallish guards — by playing cat-and-mouse on the screen-roll and buying time.
Were the Tim Duncan comparisons a bit premature? Perhaps, but not really. At this stage, Duncan was in his third year at Wake Forest and it was no guarantee had he come out in 1996 he would’ve been the No. 1 pick ahead of Allen Iverson and Marcus Camby (believe it or not).
To be fair, it’s hard to say if Victor Wembanyama would certainly be taken ahead of Mobley if both were in the same draft, which says more about Wembanyama than Mobley.
Either way, it’ll be a real disappointment if he wasn’t in Indianapolis next February.
Mikal Bridges, Brooklyn Nets
There was a clear lid on Bridges’ game last playoffs, even though he was exceptionally solid as a prototype 3-and-D: long enough and strong enough to defend everything from twos to fours and not afraid to play on the perimeter against the herky-jerky guards.
But his inability to be a secondary playmaker stopped him from going to the next level. Bridges couldn’t negotiate screen and rolls or make the best reads, and it prevented his natural growth. After the Suns’ unexpected loss to Dallas in the second round, he went back to the lab.
He was already rewarded with a four-year, $90 million extension before the start of last season, so he wasn’t playing with a contract in his head, or even the specter of being traded for Kevin Durant hung in his psyche because it seemed to come and go over the summer before being resurfaced over the last couple weeks.
With the injuries to Devin Booker and Chris Paul, he displayed the work in keeping the Suns afloat and has been completely unleashed since the trade to Brooklyn. He was averaging nearly 18 a night while still keeping his efficiency — 47-40-89 in 59 games, while averaging nearly four assists, a sizable jump from his first few seasons.
Being the fourth option was only going to show so much of what Bridges could do, but he’s started showing his full potential in the small sample size after the Durant deal. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed by even the most seasoned observers.
“The stars continue to come,” Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame chairman Jerry Colangelo told Yahoo Sports on Friday after the Hall finalists were announced. “Bridges, he goes to Brooklyn and gets  in his first game. And he gets 45 in the [last] game. He’s a young, rising star. That’s a new one, you know. There’s plenty of talent. And there’s more stars down the road.”
Anfernee Simons, Portland Trail Blazers
Simons was slated to be in the 3-Point Contest before an injury prior to All-Star weekend pulled him from participating, so his time in the light will have to wait a bit.
But he’s ably stepped into the role left vacant by C.J. McCollum and slotted himself right next to franchise mainstay Damian Lillard as a certified No. 2 option. Now, McCollum hasn’t made an All-Star Game yet, so it won’t be easy for Simons to crack that tough Western Conference guard line.
It’s possible Simons can keep growing and surpass his predecessor, especially with the trust and freedom he has from his coach and Lillard.
The information overload he used to feel is long gone, and he’s embraced the attention of opposing defenses. He curls into the lane and hits floaters, but his bread and butter is hitting from 3.
He takes nine a game and hits them at a 38% clip, still dishing out four assists and shooting 53% on twos.
“Before, I would get hot and stay shooting to see if I would stay hot,” Simons told Yahoo Sports recently. “Maybe it wasn’t the best option to do that. Now, when I hit two shots in a row, let’s get the ball moving side to side because everybody’s watching me.”
Everybody’s watching and expecting more.
Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic
Banchero looks like a man among boys sometimes, sometimes too quick for some opponents and too powerful for others.
He’s midway through his rookie season but already has his sights set on next year’s All-Star weekend in Indianapolis.
“Yeah. For sure,” he said simply when asked if he expects to be an All-Star next season.
This rookie year has probably felt like multiple seasons in one for the No. 1 pick in last year’s draft. The Magic started out slowly but rebounded to win 21 of the last 34 games.
Banchero has been an expected part of that, scoring 19 a game with six rebounds and 3.5 assists.
“Playing all these games against the best players in the world, you got to just be strong, not just physically, but also mentally, it’s a lot,” Banchero said Friday night following Rising Stars. “It’s definitely something I’ve been learning and just trying to manage it and as the season goes on.”
There are playoff aspirations in Orlando even though there are four games between the Magic and 10th-place Toronto for the last play-in spot.
“I mean, we feel really good. Anybody on a given night [can lead], we’re talented enough. It’s just up to us bringing that same mentality,” Banchero said. “We all want to see each other win, so nobody’s out there with a personal agenda. Everyone knows just trying to do what’s best for the team. And I think when you have guys with that mindset, with talent like we are, we’ll have some awesome wins.”