NOW THAT Houston Rockets guard Tracy McGrady has played his first game of the season, he might actually be able to earn the starting spot for the 2010 NBA All-Star Game he is currently on pace to receive.
In the first update of the fan balloting, T-Mac, the oft-injured star who scored three points in his season debut on Tuesday, is second to Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant in fan voting for the Western Conference starters.
Now, I know the All-Star Game is for the fans, and I am not one to say fans shouldn't get to pick the starters because it invariably becomes about fan favorites as opposed to deserving players. But McGrady?
Come on now.
Even the most ardent McGrady backer has to agree that a guy who has only played 8 minutes since last February shouldn't be on pace to start an All-Star Game.
But McGrady aside, I can't find much fault with the initial round of balloting.
The usual suspects like Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard and Dwyane Wade are among the leaders, with other familiar names like Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Dirk Nowitzki joining them.
And when the final rosters are announced, stars like Steve Nash, Chris Bosh, Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams will get their due.
But with a lot of time still remaining in the voting process, here are a few under-the-radar guys who fans should be looking at when casting their All-Star votes:
Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder: In his third season, the 2007-08 Rookie of the Year has taken his spot among the NBA elite.
At 27.8 points per game, Durant is fourth in the league in scoring behind Anthony, James and Bryant. He is fourth in the league in minutes (39.7) and also averages 7.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists.
Durant is one of the league's few unstoppable scorers. He is making the same ascension to stardom that James, Bryant, Anthony, Nowitzki made in their third seasons.
Tyreke Evans, Sacramento Kings: Yes, Milwaukee Bucks rookie guard Brandon Jennings jumped out to a quick lead in the Rookie of the Year race, but have you checked out what the kid from Chester is doing out West?
Evans is second in rookie scoring, averaging 20.3 points compared to 20.7 for Jennings, but he is doing so while taking three fewer shots a game. His 47.1 shooting percentage is five points higher than Jennings' and his five assists a game are just one fewer.
New Orleans All-Star Chris Paul and Utah Jazz star Deron Williams are the only point guards scoring more than Evans while shooting a higher percentage.
Andre Iguodala, 76ers: Yes, that Andre Iguodala - the Sixers' other A.I.
Some local fans tend to dismiss Iguodala, but the sixth-year swingman really has become one of the game's top all-around players
Among shooting guards, and that includes such players as Bryant, Wade and Portland's Brandon Roy, Iguodala is sixth in scoring (19.4 ppg); first in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (5.6) and third in steals (2.17).
David Lee, New York Knicks: Their best player being an All-Star afterthought is proof of how low the Knicks have sunk.
The underrated Lee is in his fifth year and has improved every season. He is currently averaging a career-high 18.1 points with 10.1 rebounds. Shooting 57.3 percent from the floor, Lee joins Orlando's Howard as the only player to rank in the top 10 in field-goal percentage and rebounding.
Despite being just 6-9, Lee's toughness has made him the second-best center in the East behind Howard. Lee would be a deserving All-Star backup to Orlando's Superman.
Brook Lopez, New Jersey Nets: The New Jersey-soon-to-be-Brooklyn Nets stink, but their second-year center does not. Lopez is second in scoring (19.7 ppg) among NBA centers to Tim Duncan. He is also in the top 15 in rebounds at 9.7.
Lopez is fourth in the league in blocked shots (2 per game) and tied for fourth with 15 double-doubles.
Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics: On a team that features future Hall of Fame selections Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, it's easy for Rondo to go unnoticed in the mix. But somebody has to orchestrate the opera that has allowed these three stars to exist cohesively.
Rondo is fourth in the league in assists and has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.78. He also leads the league in steals and is second among point guards in field-goal shooting (53.5 percent).
Rondo isn't likely to be a starting guard for the East, but if he keeps playing at this level he should make the trip to Dallas as a reserve.
Josh Smith, Atlanta Hawks: Watching this 24-year-old develop in Atlanta has to be eating at fans who wanted the Sixers to pursue him 2 summers ago instead of Elton Brand.
The Hawks declared that they would match any offer and keep its rising star at any cost, but that has been little solace as the highly paid Brand has struggled with injuries and inconsistent play.
Currently, Smith is leading the league with 2.46 blocks a game while averaging 15.3 points and 8.4 rebounds. His athleticism makes him difficult to deal with on both sides of the ball, and Smith appears to only be getting better.
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