HANG TIME, Texas — All-Star.
It’s a word that explodes rather than rolls off the tongue. It’s the gaudy label that usually gets attached to the players who crackle, pop and send sparks flying like an electricity transformer that’s been struck by lightning.
But what of the players who spend their long careers quietly humming through the power lines and rarely getting noticed?
The patron saint of the overlooked is Eddie Johnson, who played 17 seasons with the Kings, Suns, Sonics, Hornets, Pacers and Rockets, 1,199 games and scored more points (19,202) than any player in NBA history without once being selected to play in the All-Star Game. He still ranks in the top 50 all-time scorers in the league, ahead of Hall of Famers Gail Goodrich and Scottie Pippen.
Sitting at Johnson’s right hand is Derek Harper, who played 16 seasons with the Mavericks, Knicks, Magic and Lakers and retired in 1999 ranking 11th on the all-time steals and 17th in career assists and never got a single chance to take an All-Star bow.
So with a nod of appreciation for their efforts and in honor of Johnson and Harper, it’s time to take a look at a six-pack of current players who have been flying under the radar and might be due some All-Star love before they’re gone:
Jamal Crawford, Clippers, 13th season — All those years of playing for bad teams in Chicago, New York, Golden State and Portland with the only two playoff seasons of his career mixed in with the Hawks has built up and often well-deserved reputation as a mad gunner who’ll take any shots as soon as he’s in the building. But consider those teams, consider that he was often cast in exactly that role to provide big points off the bench. Now he’s in a perfect place in reserve with the best-in-the-NBA Clippers and is having the time of his career.
Al Jefferson, Jazz, 9th season — He’s learned to use those big hands to become a very good passer out of double-teams, but his strength is still as a low post scorer from the left block. His scoring average is down a bit over the past few seasons because he doesn’t have to carry so much of the load with an influx of talent. Nothing at all fancy about the way he plays, but shows up every game to put in an honest night’s work and produces. Playing the bulk of your career in Minnesota and Utah will never help anybody’s profile. He has deserved his due.
Kevin Martin, Thunder, 9th season – How foolish now does anyone feel who wondered if this guy would be able to step into the hole left by James Harden’s departure in Oklahoma City? There’s no beard and he doesn’t have the explosiveness, but having already proven over a seven-year span in Sacramento and Houston that he could carry an offense, now he fits like a hand inside a custom-sown glove with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. He’s shooting a career-best-by-far 45.5 percent on 3s, 93 percent on free throws and, most important, has not caused OKC to miss a beat.
Andre Miller, Nuggets, 14th season — How does a guard you’d never want taking a shot with your life on the line keep moving ahead in his second decade in the league? But using his slick veterans moves to get to the rim himself or to use his amazing passing skills to get up his teammates for layups or dunks. Either way the result is usually an easy finish. In every one of his seasons there have always been other point guards who were faster and quicker and could fill up the basket more. But a guy with his smarts and productivity should have taken one All-Star bow by now.
Josh Smith, Hawks, 9th season – Because he’s still only 27, because he can still make your jaw drop from either a stupendous or stupid shot, the NBA world has managed to turn right by Smith. That’s despite his putting together a career stat line — soon to be 10,000 points, 5,000 rebounds, 2,000 assists and 1,000 blocked shots — that will rank him among the all-time greats. There are signs that he’s finally learning and other times when his shot selection still makes you cringe. If there is a current player who can eclipse Eddie Johnson as the best to never play in a single All-Star Game, it’s J-Smoove. But at 27, maybe there’s still plenty of time.
Anderson Varejao, Cavs, 9th season – For the early part of his career he was merely the one-trick pony who threw himself around like a bucking bronco just let out of the chute. But now Varejao is leading the league in rebounding at 14.4 per game, also averaging a career-high 14.1 points and therefore is tied for fourth place in double-doubles with 16 in his first 25 games. While the big question around the league is whether a would-be contender will be able to pry him away from the rebuilding Cavs, the other is if Cleveland’s place near the bottom of the standings will cost Varejao his earned recognition as an All-Star?