It's time for an NBA dog days tradition: the Marc Gasol All-Stars, honoring my dozen favorite players to watch during this NBA season. Some ground rules:
* Ditto for the high-profile rookie phenoms we've been drooling over (or arguing about) all season; Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns, D'Angelo Russell, Jahlil Okafor, Myles Turner and others need not apply.
* We use an All-Star-style 12-man roster with a realistic mix of guards, wings and big men.
* No Warriors! Andre Iguodala is a natural for this, but we've all written plenty on Golden State, and we'll write plenty more.
Here are your 2015-16 Marc Gasol All-Stars:
Kemba Walker, G, Hornets (team captain): Walker's filthy, mean-spirited handle is even filthier now that he can shoot; fancy jitterbugging doesn't get you far if defenders duck under every screen. They can't do that as often with Walker hitting a career-best 37 percent from deep, and when opposing point guards chase him over picks, Walker is pulling up for Lillardian triples.
Walker might have the league's nastiest crossover, a low-to-the-ground left-to-right job that leaves saps lurching the wrong way on broken ankles. He'll fake toward a pick, coax his man that direction, and then zoom the other way into open water. Trap him on the pick-and-roll, and he'll scrunch down like a sprinter at the starting block before jetting through the crevice in between defenders.
Walker manages three direction changes in the time it takes most dudes to pull one, but when he sees a clear lane to pay dirt, he can hit the turbo button for a straight ahead bum-rush. The threat of that drive spooks defenders into backpedaling, and Walker exploits that with a deadly step-back jumper that covers so much ground that it's really more of a lunge-back shot.
He's shooting 60 percent near the basket, by far his career best, and he appears more comfortable kissing floaters off the glass. Walker has been a delight to watch for the scorching Hornets, and he might be the league's most fearless clutch shooter; no one has jacked more shots within the last three minutes of close games, per NBA.com, and Walker has canned a tidy 44 percent of those high-leverage looks.
Marcus Smart, G, Celtics: The guard version of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist -- a maniac who plays all out on both ends, defends inside your jersey and snags offensive rebounds few at his position are even allowed to pursue. Seriously: You had better box him out, even if he's 25 feet from the rim. Stand upright and he's either sprinting around you, or blasting you out of the way.
Smart has rebounded 4.7 percent of Boston's misses this season, the second-best mark among rotation players listed at 6-foot-4 or shorter, behind only the scowling blur known as Russell Westbrook. Smart is a master at sneaking in from the weakside corner for put-back jams, and he'll even fly in from someplace off your television screen to snare a Boston miss.
On defense, Smart is nearly impossible to screen on or off the ball, perhaps the most viscerally ferocious among a cadre of Boston perimeter defenders who can make it hard to throw one simple pass along the 3-point arc. The only way to pick Smart off: If he somehow doesn't see it coming and slams right into it. And since he plays at a million miles per hour, those collisions come with a loud thud.
Smart has added some needed subtlety to his pick-and-roll game, with change-of-pace dribbles in either direction and a floater he's lofting with more confidence. But he has struggled shooting from all over the floor, and he tries to finish in crowds at the rim instead of kicking the easy pass out to an open shooter. Smart isn't a point guard yet; he has logged just 94 minutes without one of Evan Turner and Isaiah Thomas to run the offense, per NBA Wowy.
But it's early, and Smart is proof that effort alone is entertaining.
Gordon Hayward, F, Jazz: Paul Millsap just appeared in his third All-Star game, so it's official: Hayward has seized the mantle of Most Underappreciated NBA Player. He does everything well, with the same combination of change-of-pace craft and straight-line explosiveness that makes Walker so magnetic -- only Hayward has perhaps the league's most stylish hair. Seriously, the guy is like a gelled-up, modernized Don Draper out there.
Any ball handler navigating the forest of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors needs to squeeze through tight spaces and handle with enough guile to create space where none exists. Hayward can bounce it in either direction, and he has become an expert at scooting around a pick, pausing Chris Paul-style with a defender on his hip, and reading the floor with a live dribble until an anxious enemy commits one way or the other. Hayward in the that moment is a puppet master, the game in his hands, and when he sees an opening, boom, he strikes.
Utah's trees can obscure the path to the rim, so Hayward has developed a deep bag of midrange tricks -- step-backs, up-and-unders, and leaners where he's almost literally falling out of bounds. How many guys would even think to try this?
Hayward can manufacture a decent look from thin air, and that should serve him well as a crunch-time scorer. Utah has struggled in the clutch this season, but that has been due mostly to awful defense; Hayward is 13-of-28 on shots within the last three minutes of close games. When Rodney Hood and Favors are rolling, Hayward skulks around for scoring chances off the ball.
Jabari Parker, F, Bucks: Parker starting to get it -- at least on offense -- as some sort of positionless monster has been one of the stories of the last two months, even if it hasn't led to more wins for Milwaukee. Parker is flashing the mid-range touch everyone expected from the evolutionary Melo, and he even canned his first two triples of the season over the past week.
He has become so at ease with the ball that the Bucks are calling Parker-Miles Plumlee pick-and-rolls out of timeouts:
(Nice help defense, James Harden.)
He is a devastating open-court finisher, and over the past three weeks, Milwaukee's fast breaks have been a circus of alley-oops, no-look trickery and off-the-backboard passes. Parker is playing with a new calm in transition, searching out the simple passes:
And when Point Giannis (more on him later) has the controls, Parker morphs into one of the league's most dangerous baseline finishers:
Parker is one of those genius baseline tip-toers who leans and reaches out of bounds to extend the length of usable space on the court beyond 94 feet.
There is still a long way to go, especially on defense, where Parker is only beginning to get a clue. He's developing a back-to-the-basket game that would be useful when opponents can't scramble into the right matchups, and Parker finds a smaller guy on him.
But this dude is going to be something. Forget the notion that Milwaukee has been a disappointment this season. If the Bucks come out confident that they have two stars, everything else is noise.
Nikola Jokic, C, Nuggets: Do you like centers who run the break, shoot 3s and thread slick no-look passes all over the floor? You do? Then meet Nikola Jokic, the best rookie no one outside NBA Twitter knows about.
Only four bigs have assisted on a higher percentage of their teams' baskets this season: Joakim Noah, Blake Griffin and the Gasol brothers. The Nuggets use Jokic as a facilitator from the elbows, and they've featured him as the connector in some of the same lob sets the Bulls call for Pau Gasol:
He's shooting 52 percent overall and 36 percent from deep, with an All-Star-level Player Efficiency Rating -- a statistical profile that, at just 21, has resulted in Denver's broadcast team making the unfortunate, predictable comparisons with Dirk Nowitzki. Please, stop doing this with every good Euro prospect.
Jokic is more of a bruiser than Nowitzki, anyway. He's shooting 47 percent on soft-touch post-up shots he launches with either hand, and he fights hard for position on both ends. He can dive to the rim or spring for 3s after setting a screen, which allows Mike Malone to play him alongside almost any sort of big man partner.
He's not a great defender, but he's long, tough and smart -- ahead of the curve for a typical young center. Jokic isn't a leaper, so he gets his shot blocked a lot, and he'll probably never be a great rim protector. But he's solid, already, on both ends.
C.J. McCollum, G, Trail Blazers: The NBA's Dean Malenko: a man of 1,000 moves. Some guys have a magic crossover, in-and-out dribble, hesitation move or up-and-under around the rim. McCollum has all those at expert level, and he uses them to unleash hell from everywhere. He has shot better on off-the-bounce 3s than Damian Lillard. He's a floater master. And he's one of those lucky guys who can drive at full speed, hit the brakes and set his feet for a perfect straight up-and-down pull-up jumper.
McCollum has only hit about half his shots around the hoop this season, but he scores major style points for the way he contorts his body for a ridiculous array of scoop shots.
He's an intuitive mover within Terry Stotts' motion offense. He knows what the defense expects on this pitch play with Lillard, veers against that grain, and sprints at full speed even after he gets rid of the ball. Pause to catch your breath, and McCollum's gone:
Patrick Beverley, G, Rockets: Amid the Rockets' puzzling chemistry issues and horrid effort, there is Beverley, playing as if nothing has changed in Houston since last season. He's irritating opposing point guards, canning 40 percent of his 3s and working as an underutilized secondary attacker off the dribble.
When Harden sucks the defense away from Beverley and kicks him the ball, Beverley has a nice pump-and-go game; he can drive for soft runners or knife into the paint, draw another help defender and sling the ball across the court to the next open Rocket in the chain. Houston is most effective when it strings two or three of those sequences together, instead of watching Harden dribble away the shot clock and wing grenades to teammates who have no choice but to launch.
Beverley is a cagey offensive rebounder with free reign to slither in for second chances.
But let's get real: His chest-to-chest defense is the main draw. Beverley's battles simmer with the possibility of physical confrontation. He might annoy some fans, but it's hard to look away.
Aaron Gordon, F, Magic: On the right nights, Gordon is the most electric nonsuperstar in the NBA -- an unmatched brew of bouncy athleticism and earnest, gleeful effort. Those dunk-contest hops translate into noisy putback crams and flying ninja closeouts where Gordon emerges from off camera to swat a jump-shooter who had no idea Gordon was even nearby.
The finer skills are coming, and that's what makes Gordon exciting. Jumping novelties don't make it in the NBA. Power forwards who can fake, drive and pass like this do:
Gordon on that play creeps with an almost artificial slowness, as if he understands his body moves faster than his mind when he really lets it fly. You sometimes see the opposite happen, too: Gordon will streak down the floor, leap from the foul line as if he's in a dunking exhibition, and meet a defender in midair without a plan. He's like a superhero learning to harness his powers in the first 30 minutes of the movie.
I can't wait to watch the rest, especially since Gordon is jacking 3s without hesitation lately.
Jerami Grant, F, 76ers: The angriest, most violent player in the NBA. Grant doesn't just block shots; he swings so hard, it's like he's trying to deflate the ball, or smash a hole in the floor. When he whiffed on Friday against Miami, he smacked Amar'e Stoudemire's head on the follow through with such force, he drew blood.
It's the same for Grant on offense as a pseudo-stretch power forward: If he doesn't have enough space to chuck a triple, he's off on a zigzaggy drive that will probably end in a fierce dunk attempt. He wants to dunk everything, even if he can't quite reach the rim. And those 3s are scary too. Grant is down to a ghastly 21 percent from deep, and some of those misses are the all-backboard type that will fly downward and hit you flush in the face if you're not ready to rebound.
It's unclear whether Grant will ever shoot well enough to be a rotation guy on a real team, but you can see what Philly is thinking. Grant can defend at least three positions -- he was Philly's go-to defender against Dwyane Wade for much of their weekend series against Miami, despite playing at power forward -- and he has a fast-twitch energy.
Boris Diaw, F, Spurs: I feel like every other "10 Things" has some spicy Diaw action, so let's keep this brief: Boris Diaw is an international treasure. No one plays quite like him. No player makes me giggle at the television more often.
Thaddeus Young, F, Nets: Young is one of the league's wackiest shot makers, tossing in junk balls from that in-between space all those hip 3-point-shooting power forwards have abandoned. Some players need space to shoot. Young doesn't. He just needs time, and he buys it with dancing footwork bopping just a hair off the NBA's usual rhythms.
It doesn't matter if defenders are jersey-to-jersey with Young as he spins into his lefty jump hook; he releases the ball with his body turned away from the rim -- and almost before he even starts his jump. The funky timing throws defenders off; by the time they leap to contest the shot, it's already swishing through the net. Young creates separation on the vertical plane -- in the air -- instead of on the horizontal plane, where we normally imagine spacing. The ball's up, and you're down.
Young has hit 51 percent of his shots from the post this season, one of the best marks in the league, per Synergy Sports, and a preposterous number for a guy who doesn't look like a post scorer.
On the pick-and-roll, he no longer pops for 3s, and he can't really dive to the rim with Brook Lopez eating up space there. Young drifts into open space near the foul line and plops in soft little floaters. And sometimes, he just does goofy stuff, all his limbs flailing in the wrong directions, only for the ball to go in:
Ricky Rubio, G, Timberwolves: I accidentally spoiled this last week in reporting on Rubio-centric trade talks between Minnesota and Milwaukee. Like Young, Rubio's game unfolds at a pace just a bit off from normal NBA point guard play -- a dissonance that wrong-foots defenses and gives his teammates a precious extra bit of time and space to attack. He makes the same pick-and-roll reads as every other high-level point guard, only he makes them earlier, so that the ball arrives at its destination sooner.
Some of that is natural basketball genius. Perhaps some of it comes from Rubio's reluctance to score, and wavering faith in his jump shot. And that's part of the appeal here, too: Every game, and every Minnesota possession, is a mini-referendum on whether a point guard who can't shoot might still lead an efficient NBA offense in the pace-and-space era.
Bonus points for the consistency of Rubio's beard game, and for being one of the world's last real no-look passers.
10 THINGS I LIKE AND DON'T LIKE
1. Point Giannis
Oh my god. I'm not sure what's even going on here, but I like it. In the opening stretch of last week's win over Minnesota, the Wolves assigned Rubio to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo -- probably to keep Rubio's basic defensive job the same -- while the Bucks had Antetokounmpo defending Towns on the other end. What do you even label a player who defends the opposing center and then runs the offense against the other team's point guard? A ... freak?
All that positional confusion and cross-matching pays dividends: Opposing defenders can't find their matchups in transition, leaving Milwaukee with mismatches all over the floor.
Teams will slip under picks against Antetokounmpo, giving him space to shoot, but he's starting to find ways around that, including via instant re-screens going the other direction:
He already knows basic point guard reads, and when Jason Kidd wants to keep things simple, he can have Antetokounmpo attack one-on-one. Is a smaller guy on you? Post up! Is the opposing power forward on you, as often happens when Kidd removes Parker and pairs Antetokounmpo with just one big man? Then catch the ball at the elbow and blow by that sucker!
Funny thing about the Bucks: For all the fretting about their allegedly fatal lack of shooting, they've been a league-average offensive team most of the season, and their core lineups -- including one group Kidd called "unplayable" two months ago -- have been much better than that. They cut, screen and drive their way to enough buckets.
It's unclear where the Point Giannis experiment goes from here, especially since it marginalizes two high-profile acquisitions in Michael Carter-Williams and Greg Monroe. But Kidd kicked off the experiment ahead of schedule, and Antetokounmpo is thriving.
2. "Wall Star"
This is a rice cake-level dull nickname for John Wall, and it makes me sad that he wears a diamond and gold medallion bearing it. Wall is a unique player -- a human fast break with an underrated eye for artful passes that zip one step ahead of rotating defenses. He can generate a corner 3 almost at will. He deserves a nickname that evokes what makes him special.
3. The Pau Gasol-Jimmy Butler connection -- with shooting!
Chicago has been tearing up defenses all season with variations of this play, which starts with a Butler ball screen designed to draw his defender out toward the perimeter -- and free Butler for a rim run after the Bulls' point guard touches a pass to Gasol.
Teams who see this coming, especially out of timeouts, might have Gasol's man sag down to cut off the lob pass, but that's a tough read in real time. Defenses by reflex send help from the weak side, and the Bulls turn that into a fatal proposition by stationing two shooters -- Nikola Mirotic and a surging Doug McDermott -- over there, as they did in Saturday's win over the typically lackluster Rockets:
Chemistry issues have swirled around Chicago -- and Butler -- all season, but Butler and Gasol have a fun mind meld on this play.
4. Michael Beasley, never changing
Four of Beasley's first five shots as a Rocket were long 2s, and the fifth was a twirling fadeaway after the Rockets recovered a Beasley jumper that drew all backboard. On his second shot, Beasley caught a dish from Harden, passed up an open 3-pointer, took one dribble inside the arc and hoisted a contested 20-footer. You be you, Mike.
It might be time to stop slobbering every time an NBA ex-pat scores 60 points in the Chinese league.
5. Nick Young, never changing
It might be time for Nick Young's NBA career to die:
6. Derrick Favors, fast and balanced
The sports-science experts at P3 in Santa Barbara have told me Favors is the most explosive NBA big man they've ever tested -- a rare mix of speed, size and force. As Favors' masters the nuances of NBA defense, he can do even more with that raw ability. There aren't many behemoths who can shut down a drive on the pick-and-roll, recover out to a popping big man in time to snuff an open jumper, change directions on a dime and track that big man's foray to the basket:
Tyler Zeller isn't the quickest cat, but that combination of wheels and body control is impressive.
7. "WHICH WAY DID HE GO?"
I love when Fred McLeod and Austin Carr, Cleveland's homerific broadcast duo, get giddy about some crazy Cavs highlight. I can't help it. Among my favorites: when Kyrie Irving jukes some poor defender out of his shoes and blazes to the hoop as McLeod screams, "Which way did he go???!!"
I can only hope it's an homage to a classic Tex Avery cartoon.
8. The Shane Larkin-Brook Lopez chemistry
Don't tell anyone, but the Nets have almost been watchable over the past two weeks! The Joe Johnson buyout cleared time for a revived and confident Markel Brown. Chris McCullough is finally healthy, Thomas Robinson jumps a lot. And Shane Larkin jets around like Sonic the Hedgehog off the bench.
Larkin and Lopez have developed the most random two-man chemistry since Shaun Livingston and Luke Walton made the give-and-go sing for an otherwise forgettable post-LeBron Cleveland team:
Lopez would be justified hunting shots for an aimless bunch, but he has doubled his assist average in making a real effort to get other guys going.
9. Shots of Joel Embiid practicing
Do Sixers fans still find these breathless montages of Embiid warming up intriguing, or have we reached the point where it's a cruel tease -- where you just want to see the dude play? Hoops Twitter overflowed with hope after Embiid busted out a between-the-legs dunk before a game last March; he's since undergone another foot surgery, jet-setted to Qatar for mysterious treatments and continued to not play competitive basketball.
I got as caught up in that dunk as almost anyone, and I'm so chastened, I look away from the TV whenever the Philly broadcast shows new Embiid warm-up footage. Wake me up when he plays.
10. Alex Len and Tyson Chandler, less together
There will be nights, including Sunday against the brick-throwing Grizzlies, where the Len-Chandler double-barreled center works well enough for the Suns to win, especially when they get a nutty 3-point barrage from Ronnie Price. Len's scoring binge on the block as a No. 1 option has been refreshing after injuries and team melodrama hijacked his first three seasons. Both Len and Chandler have useful midrange jumpers, and they can beat up smaller guys on the offensive glass.
But starting two 7-footers who belong in the paint is a great way to lose basketball games -- especially since Chandler is a rim runner who can't snag pick-and-roll lobs when the lane is overcluttered:
The Suns have scored just 92 points per possessions when Len and Chandler share the floor, way worse than Philly's cellar-dwelling offense. and their defense hasn't been much better; Chandler can't chase stretch power forwards 30 feet from the hoop. Just start one of Mirza Teletovic and Jon Leuer, even if it makes Chandler feel bad -- just as long as you do not play Teletovic at small forward.