By Ben Golliver
Kyrie Irving's selection to the 2013 All-Star Game at age 20, and his likely move into the Eastern Conference starting lineup after Rajon Rondo's season-ending knee injury, amounts to a lapping of the 2011 field. He joins Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Isiah Thomas as the only players named to an All-Star Game before turning 21, and he looks poised for a decade-plus of NBA dominance.
It's not often that young stars separate themselves from the rest of their class this quickly. When Derrick Rose became the youngest MVP at age 22 in 2011, the 2008 draft already had two other established All-Stars, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love. Most of the NBA's biggest stars have had top competition within their draft years: Chris Paul came into the league with Deron Williams in 2005; LeBron James entered with Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony in 2003; Kobe Bryant's loaded 1996 class generated Hall of Fame talents Allen Iverson, Ray Allen and Steve Nash; and even Michael Jordan had to contend with Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley in 1984.
The best comparisons over the last decade for Irving's class superiority are Kevin Durant and Dwight Howard. Durant's 2007 class has produced multiple All-Stars -- Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol -- but none have approximated the impact of the Thunder forward, who already has three scoring titles, four All-Star selections and three All-NBA first-team nods. Howard looms over the 2004 class: His seven All-Star Game selections are more than the rest of the class combined (Devin Harris, Luol Deng, Andre Iguodala and Jameer Nelson have five combined, with Deng the only repeat All-Star).
It's important to note that history suggests it's a matter of when, not if, another player from the 2011 class joins Irving at the NBA'a annual midseason celebration. Every draft from 1993 to 2009 has produced multiple All-Stars, even the bust-ridden abomination of 2000, whose All-Stars were Kenyon Martin, Michael Redd and Jamaal Magloire.
So who is most likely to join Irving, and when? Here's a list of the top candidates.
Kenneth Faried, Nuggets (No. 22 pick in 2011): Denver's dreadlocked ball of fury (No. 48) joins Irving (No. 11) and Kemba Walker (No. 36) as the only players from the 2011 draft to crack the top 50 in Player Efficiency Rating this season. Yes, there are holes in the 6-foot-8 Faried's game: A full 90 percent of his shot attempts come inside the paint, his lack of height catches up with him in individual defensive matchups, he fouls a lot and he's not a good free-throw shooter. His strengths -- effort level, leaping ability, elite offensive rebounding, taking and making high-percentage shots -- overcome those limitations and regularly overwhelm defenses.
At 23, Faried is averaging 11.8 points and 9.7 rebounds in 29 minutes per game for a team that is poised to make the playoffs for the 10th consecutive season. His path to an All-Star selection isn't particularly easy: The Nuggets' balanced approach makes individual stardom more difficult, Faried is competing in a crowded Western Conference frontcourt field and his playing time, while ramped up from 22.5 minutes as a rookie, isn't yet in line with what we expect from All-Star power forwards. But when the Tim Duncans, Dirk Nowitzkis and Zach Randolphs of the world hit the retirement castle, Faried will be well-positioned, especially if Denver's promising young core continues to crank out solid win totals year after year.
Kawhi Leonard, Spurs (No. 15): Leonard showed a rare commitment to defense as a rookie that suggested big things were to come this season. His raw statistics -- 9.1 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.3 assists -- haven't been jaw-dropping, in part because of injuries, but there's no question his individual numbers would be significantly larger if he played on a team that relied on him more. Instead, he's fitting snugly into his "three-and-D" role, hitting 46 percent of his corner threes and ranking among the team leaders in defensive rating. San Antonio has improved from No. 11 in defensive efficiency last season to No. 4 this season, and Leonard's play and instincts on the wing deserve a slice of the credit.
It's difficult but not impossible for perimeter players primarily known as defenders to receive All-Star recognition. Iguodala found his way to Orlando in 2012, the Pacers' Paul George was selected this season and Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum should be a candidate in coming years. George and Batum took big steps forward on offense this season, something that can be expected from Leonard once Manu Ginobili and Duncan hang it up or play even less. Assuming he can pair with Tony Parker to continue San Antonio's tradition of winning, there's every reason to believe Leonard will get his due, even if his game lacks the flash and pop of other small forwards. Coach Gregg Popovich's ability to construct a winning system around his top players should pay huge dividends once Leonard grows into bigger shoes.
Klay Thompson, Warriors (No. 11): Thompson entered the NBA gunning and he hasn't stopped since. His 40.7 shooting percentage this season leaves much to be desired, but his smooth stroke, deep range (38.1 percent on 7.1 three-point attempts) and comfort level with all types of shots suggest the potential to become a 20-point scorer, and volume scoring can be one of the surest paths to All-Star status. That he's already an every-night starter putting up numbers -- 16.1 points, four rebounds and 2.5 assists -- for a playoff-bound team sets him apart from most of the rest of this class, Irving included.
Golden State's pecking order could be a limiting factor for Thompson in the short term. The Warriors' two All-Star candidates this year -- David Lee and Stephen Curry -- both take at least 15 shots per game and are signed long term, and while coach Mark Jackson has done a masterful job of keeping everyone happy and productive, Thompson's shooting appetite has been satiated in part because of the absences of Andrew Bogut and Brandon Rush. It's not unthinkable that a team trades for Thompson in a few years with the idea of utilizing him as a No. 1 option, much like the Rockets did with James Harden this season. Harden, of course, wasted no time in making his first All-Star team.
Kemba Walker, Bobcats (No. 9): Running the terrible Bobcats is no walk in the park, but Walker has progressed this season, averaging 17.9 points, 5.8 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.9 steals. His 19.5 PER trails only Irving in this class, and it's much improved from his shakier rookie season. The 22-year-old faces an uphill climb toward All-Star recognition thanks to a long list of talented point guards in the East that includes Rose, Irving, Williams, Rondo, Jrue Holiday, Brandon Jennings and John Wall. Pistons point guard Brandon Knight (No. 8 pick in 2011), a full year younger than Walker, faces the same problems and he'll need to improve his 42 percent shooting and assist-to-turnover ratio before he enters the conversation.
Nikola Vucevic, Magic (No. 16): Hats off to Vucevic, who is averaging 11.9 points and 11.2 rebounds as Howard's replacement in Orlando. He's secured 16 or more rebounds six times, including a ridiculous 29-rebound effort against the Heat on New Year's Eve. Those stats and his workmanlike, goof-free approach play better among Internet stat heads than in the All-Star selection process, unfortunately, and Orlando's long-term rebuilding project doesn't do his candidacy any favors.
Enes Kanter, Jazz (No. 3): Kanter is the sleeping giant of the 2011 class, stuck playing fewer than 15 minutes a game behind Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. His per-36 numbers -- 15.7 points and 10.2 rebounds -- are outstanding, as is his physicality. Hopefully he gets real court time, every night, sooner rather than later.
Chandler Parsons, Rockets (No. 38): The top second-round steal has taken full advantage of a big opportunity on a young Houston team, earning praise from Bryant and affecting the game on both ends of the court. He might be headed more toward "indispensable complementary starter" than All-Star selection, but who is complaining?
Jonas Valanciunas, Raptors (No. 5): Big men are the hardest to project and the body of work to analyze is limited by the fact that Valanciunas delayed his NBA arrival by a year and has missed significant time this season with a finger injury. Nevertheless, his feel for the game and the upside that comes with it remain.
Jan Vesely, Wizards (No. 6): Only career highlight remains the draft night kiss from his girlfriend. Nolan Smith, Trail Blazers (No. 21): Selected one spot ahead of Faried, Smith's 3.1 PER ranks No. 432 out of 448 players in an ESPN.com database; the Blazers didn't bother to pick up his third-year rookie option.