NBA All-Star game is coming to Atlanta. Will Trae Young be in it?

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young celebrates his buzzer-beating half-court shot at the end of the first half of the NBA All-Star Game Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020, in Chicago.
Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young celebrates his buzzer-beating half-court shot at the end of the first half of the NBA All-Star Game Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020, in Chicago.

The NBA is planning to hold its All-Star game at State Farm Arena on March 7. An official announcement is expected soon, presumably once the league stops having games postponed because of COVID-19 protocols. It would be awkward for the NBA if headlines about its difficulty staging real games during a pandemic shared attention with its decision to play an exhibition game during a pandemic.

I still wonder why the NBA is bothering with the All-Star game. TV cash is the obvious answer. But that business decision backfires if any of the league’s best players are infected by, or exposed to, COVID-19 while participating in a meaningless game. Several star players have lobbied against holding an All-Star game under circumstances that also include a compressed, 72-game season.

There will be an All-Star game in Atlanta, anyway, which means the players collectively decided through their union that the reward is worth the risks and drawbacks. So my next question is: Will Hawks guard Trae Young be in it?

Young said he wants to play in the NBA’s showcase game. He was a starter in last year’s game after winning the fan vote, which accounts for 50 percent of the total (active players and media are the rest). Young was sixth among Eastern Conference backcourt players in the last update of 2021 All-Star fan voting, which ends at midnight Tuesday.

You never know how things will go with All-Star voting. It’s not the most rigorous process (there were, for example, five days when fan votes counted double). But with those votes weighed heavily in the outcome, it’s unlikely Young will be among the five East starters when they are announced Thursday.

Young’s path to the All-Star game relies on the votes of NBA coaches or the prerogative of commissioner Adam Silver. The coaches vote for seven reserves, with Young eligible for two backcourt positions and two wild-card slots. Silver can select injury replacements.

I doubt Young will be one of the four guards voted into the game. He may get in as one of the two wild cards. If all else fails, I predict Young will make it by the grace of Silver deciding that the All-Star game in Atlanta needs the most marketable Hawks player in it.

That’s not to say that Young isn’t worthy of All-Star consideration. He will get votes from opposing coaches who build their defensive game plan around limiting his impact. It’s just that Young isn’t as good this season as he was pre-break in 2019-20, and coaches will choose from a deeper group of East guards.

Washington’s Bradley Beal is the league’s leading scorer (all stats through Monday’s games). Nets point guard Kyrie Irving is healthy and playing well after he suffered a season-ending injury in November 2019. James Harden joined Irving in Brooklyn via trade a month ago. Chicago’s Zach LaVine and Boston’s Jaylen Brown are having career years.

Those five players were ahead of Young in the last tally of All-Star fan voting. Two of those them likely will be named starters, leaving Young to vie with the other top guards for two backcourt positions. The competition for the East wild-card slots also will include an impressive group of frontcourt players.

We’ll see how it goes for Young. It took him less than two full seasons to prove he’s one of the NBA’s best offensive players. This season Young ranks 11th in the league in scoring (25.9 points per game) and fourth in assists (9.3). The Hawks were 10-34 when Young was selected for last year’s All-Star game. They are 11-16 this year after losing seven of their past eight games.

Per AJC policy, I don’t vote for awards. If I did, my East backcourt All-Star starters would be Beal and Irving. If I were a coach, I’d choose LaVine and Brown as the backcourt reserves. The East frontcourt starters almost certainly will be Kevin Durant (Nets), Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks) and Joel Embiid (Sixers).

In that case, my pick for the three East frontcourt reserves would be Julius Randle (Knicks), Jimmy Butler (Heat) and Khris Middleton (Bucks). For the two East wild-card spots I’d take Harden and Young, with Damontas Sabonis (Pacers) and Nikola Vucevic (Magic) just missing the cut. Yes, my All-Star squad will play small ball, with Embiid as the only true center (whatever that means anymore).

I won’t get into specifics about my reasoning for those choices. It’s not that serious. The All-Star game is for the fans. It’s supposed to be fun. This year there will be no more than a limited number of fans at State Farm Arena. And I’m not sure how much fun it will be when some players aren’t keen on being there.

LeBron James said he has “zero excitement” about playing in an All-Star game during a pandemic. The health risk isn’t his only issue. James also was looking forward to a break after winning a championship with the Lakers in October and reporting for training camp less than two months later. I’m sure plenty of star players who didn’t go on long postseason runs also would prefer to rest.

It once looked as if they’d get that break. The NBA announced in November that it was postponing the 2021 All-Star game in Indianapolis to 2024. The league said pandemic conditions in Indiana made “fan-focused All-Star activities” unfeasible. That still will be the case in Atlanta, where the usual three-day extravaganza reportedly will be pared to a one-day event.

The NBA and the players’ union reportedly have agreed on enhanced safety protocols for the game. According to ESPN, players will be flown to Atlanta via private planes the day before the game, stay in private accommodations that night and then fly out immediately after the game. The dunk contest will be staged at halftime, which should give local fans the feel of a never-ending college football intermission.

There usually are some All-Stars who don’t participate in the weekend activities because of injury. I suspect at least one East player will cite a minor ailment to get out of this year’s game. I doubt Silver would want to get into a dispute about whether a player is healthy enough to play in an All-Star game during a pandemic. Just let it slide and pick a star who really wants to be there.

Young is among the willing stars. He’s an exciting, young player who puts on a good show. If Young isn’t voted to his second All-Star team then Silver surely would take the chance to add him.

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