NBA Star Index: Jayson Tatum, Russell Westbrook resemble MVPs; LeBron James reminds Zion Williamson who's king

Welcome back to the NBA Star Index -- a weekly gauge of the players who are most controlling the buzz around the league. Reminder: Inclusion on this list isn't necessarily a good thing. It simply means that you're capturing the NBA world's attention. Also, this is not a ranking. The players listed are in no particular order as it pertains to the buzz they're generating. This column will run every week through the end of the regular season.

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Jayson Tatum BOS • PF • 0
PPG23.3
RPG7.0
APG2.9
SPG1.3
BPG.9

Tatum continued his torrid February with 33 points and 11 rebounds in Boston's victory over Utah Wednesday night. The Celtics have now won 11 of their last 13, and Tatum, after hanging a career-high 41 on the Lakers last Sunday, is the first player 21 years or younger to record three straight games with at least 30 points on at least 60 percent shooting since 1994, when Shaquille O'Neal did it for the Magic

For the month of February, Tatum is averaging 30.5 points on 51 percent shooting and 50 percent from 3-point range. Since the dawn of the 3-point era, the only other Celtics player to average at least 30 points on 50 percent shooting for an entire month, per StatMuse, is Larry Bird. 

Tatum has arguably become the Celtics' best player, surpassing Kemba Walker. He is in the conversation for All-Defense and All-NBA. At this point, an MVP vote or two is probably warranted. He's averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, and he's also getting to the free-throw line at a career-high rate. 

The play below, in which Tatum pulls back on Carmelo Anthony and casually lets the ball bounce two times before picking it up and sticking a 28-footer, perfectly illustrates the supreme confidence he is playing with right now. 

Through the early portion of the season, one of the knocks on Tatum's game was his relative struggles to finish close to the rim, but even that he has remedied. Per NBA.com, Tatum was shooting just 43 percent in the restricted area through the first three weeks of the season. Through November, that number raised slightly to 51 percent. In the three months since, Tatum is shooting 64 percent in the restricted area. 

As the great Gus Johnson proclaimed during Stephen Curry's 2009 NCAA Tournament run: "Folks, we got a star!"

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Joel Embiid PHI • C • 21
PPG23.3
RPG11.8
BPG1.4

After scoring a career-high 49 points against Atlanta on Monday, Embiid sprained his shoulder Wednesday night in Philly's loss to the lowly Cavaliers. This ran the Sixers' road record to an embarrassing 9-21 for the season. If you're not keeping up on the standings, that's the same road mark as the Knicks

With Ben Simmons reportedly out at least two weeks with a nerve impingement in his back, and now Embiid out at least for the Knicks game Thursday night and possibly a lot longer, the Sixers' season, and in many ways this whole post-Process experiment, is teetering on the edge of disaster

Rather than pursuing an abundance of shooting to properly complement Embiid and Simmons, the Sixers have gone big-name hunting at the expense of overall fit and support for their stars. They wildly overpaid Tobias Harris while trading the likes of Dario Saric, Robert Covington and Landry Shamet. Then they let JJ Redick, one of the best shooters in the world and a tailor-made, two-man fit with Embiid, walk in free agency. 

All of that shooting is precisely what the Sixers need. They could've gone after Malcolm Brogdon or Bojan Bogdanovic this past summer, but instead they signed Al Horford -- who was never going to fit alongside Embiid as it was and is 33 years old to boot -- to a four-year, $109 million contract. 

The Sixers' piggy bank is basically dry of meaningful future draft picks and/or financial flexibility. Harris is a negative asset. So is Horford. That's why you're hearing rumors, however illogical, about the possibility of Philly eventually considering the idea of trading Embiid or Simmons. The Sixers don't really have any other other viable routes to meaningful change, and the status quo is becoming increasingly difficult to stomach. 

If the playoffs were to start today, the Sixers would play the Heat in the first round without home-court advantage. Their unsightly road record has already been referenced. If a first-round exit were to come to fruition, Brett Brown would almost certainly be out as coach, and GM Elton Brand, who has orchestrated much of this growing mess, might not be far behind. 

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Zion Williamson NO • SF • 1
PPG23.3
RPG7.1
APG2.3
FG%57.3
FG3%41.7

Zion Williamson more than held his own in his first head-to-head matchup with LeBron James, posting 29 points and six boards -- marking the ninth straight game he has scored at least 20 points. Per NBA stats, Williamson is the youngest player in NBA history to do that, and he's the only player in the last 30 years, of any age, to score 20 or more points in 11 of his first 13 career games. 

One of the most exciting duos to watch in the league right now is Williamson and Lonzo Ball, who have had an obvious chemistry from the jump. And it's not just flashy lob dunks without substance. 

Since Williamson's debut on Jan. 22, the Pelicans have the No. 8 offense in the league and the seventh-best net rating. Prior to the Lakers game Tuesday night, the Pelicans were plus-8 with Ball and Williamson on the floor together, which was the best mark of any duo on the team, per NBA.com. That number slipped to plus-6.9 after the Lakers loss, falling just behind Jrue Holiday and Derrick Favors

For the season, Ball has tallied 35 assists to Williamson, by far the most of any New Orleans player and the same amount as Holiday and Brandon Ingram combined. Some of this is due to the fact that Lonzo and Williamson often rotate out of the game at the same time; Ball plays more minutes alongside Williamson (22.2 per game) than any other Pelicans player. But that doesn't diminish from the clear comfort they have playing alongside and off of one another. 

Here are just a few of their recent connections:  

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Bradley Beal WAS • SG • 3
PPG30.1
APG6.0
SPG1.1
3P/G2.7

Beal hung back-to-back 50-point nights on Sunday and Monday -- first 53 on the Bulls, then 55 on the Bucks. He's the first player since Kobe Bryant in 2007 to score 50 points on consecutive nights. And Beal wasn't just gunning his way to numbers; over those two games he was 34 for 60 from the field (56 percent) and 13 for 24 from 3 (54 percent). 

The Wizards lost both games, of course. 

Beal, who was somehow left off the All-Star team and might be playing with, shall we say, a slight chip on his shoulder, has scored at least 30 points in 12 of his last 15 games. Five of those games he's gone over 40, and two over 50. The film speaks for itself: 

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LeBron James LAL • SF • 23
PPG25.5
APG10.6
SPG1.2
3P/G2.204

Some regular-season games you can just tell LeBron James is taking things a little more seriously. On Tuesday night, the Pelicans came into town riding the Zion Williamson hype train, and LeBron proceeded to put up 40 points, eight boards and six assists in a Lakers victory. 

As mentioned above, Williamson more than held his own, but LeBron illustrated the still drastic difference between the next-best thing and the actual best thing. James continues to lead the league in assists, and the Lakers are steaming toward the West's No. 1 seed while still adding reinforcements. They already brought in Markieff Morris, and now they will reportedly meet with Dion Waiters on Monday

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James Harden HOU • SG • 13
PPG35.2
APG7.3
SPG1.6
3P/G4.618

The Rockets are 7-2 since trading Clint Capela for Robert Covington (effectively) and officially going all in on small ball, and even the two losses come with a qualifier. One defeat was to the Suns when Russell Westbrook didn't play, and the other was to the Jazz when Bojan Bogdanovic hit a contested, fall-away, 30-foot buzzer beater to give Utah a one-point win. 

Nobody knows how long this experiment is going to hold up, particularly come playoff time, but it's hard to keep from buying any and all Rockets stock available at the moment. Russell Westbrook is balling out of his mind, and James Harden, who was struggling for a stretch, has averaged 35 points over his past three games on 56 percent shooting, including 50 percent from 3. 

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Russell Westbrook HOU • PG • 0
PPG27.3
APG7.2
SPG1.6
3P/G.979

These days, you can't mention Harden without mentioning Westbrook, or vice versa. They are playing out of their minds, and to be frank, Westbrook should be getting a few MVP votes at this point. That's how great he's been since the turn of the calendar year. 

Per NBA.com, Westbrook is averaging 32.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 7.4 assists and 1.9 steals per game on 53 percent shooting since Jan. 1. Over that span, the Rockets are plus-97 during his minutes, which is tied for the best individual mark on the team with P.J. Tucker. 

Opening up the lane by removing Capela and going small has unleashed Westbrook as a penetrator in a virtually unstoppable way, but it's inaccurate to suggest that roster shift has been solely, or even largely, responsible for Westbrook's MVP-level play. Again, he's been doing this for the last two months. 

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