The NBA's All-Star Weekend at Toronto's Air Canada Centre gets underway with Friday night's Rising Stars Challenge between young players, odds TBA. Let's break down the game!
This event has undergone a few changes over the years. It originated in 1994 as a game between rookies, then called the Rookie Challenge. There really weren't enough good rookies each year to make it interesting, so soon after it became rookies against sophomores. Last year, the NBA altered it again and made it the USA Team of rookies and sophomores against a World Team of the same. There are some who argue the actual All-Star Game should now feature the USA vs. the World because there are now so many good international players in the NBA. That wasn't the case back when the Rookie Challenge started.
The current teams are chosen by a vote of the assistant coaches around the NBA. Like the All-Star Game picks, there are some rules. Each side must be made of four guards, four frontcourt players and two players at either position. And each team must also have a minimum of three first-year players and three second-year players. The teams are coached by the lead assistant of the two All-Star Game coaches, so the main guys under Cleveland's Tyronn Lue and San Antonio's Gregg Popovich this year.
In 2015 in New York, the World Team beat the USA 121-112 behind 22 points, six rebounds and four assists from game MVP and Canadian Andrew Wiggins of the Minnesota Timberwolves and 18 points and 12 rebounds from Utah center and Frenchman Rudy Gobert. Orlando's Victor Oladipo and Minnesota's Zach LaVine led the USA with 22 points each. Like the main All-Star Game, there's little defense played. Unlike the main game, the Rising Star Challenge is played in two 20-minute halves as in NCAA basketball instead of the NBA's four 12-minute quarters.
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Wiggins is back to headline the World Team and he's my early MVP favorite again on NBA odds because he's from Toronto and thus will be the fan favorite. Wiggins of course was also last season's NBA Rookie of the Year and is having a very good second season in averaging 20.8 points. He'll be a regular All-Star very soon. Gobert, the Jazz's stellar rebounder and shot-blocker, is now in his third season and thus not eligible for the game.
The biggest name joining Wiggins on the World Team is Knicks rookie sensation Kristaps Porzingis, the No. 4 overall pick in this year's draft and already a cultural icon in the Big Apple. The Latvian has been named the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month in every month and is averaging 13.9 points and 7.7 rebounds. Think the L.A. Lakers regret not taking him No. 2 overall over D'Angelo Russell? I sure do. Another top rookie, Denver point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, is also on the World Team. There has been one injury replacement. Utah rookie forward Trey Lyles has replaced Chicago's injured second-year forward Nikola Mirotic. So that's three Jazz players in this game, with Raul Neto also on the World Team and Rodney Hood on the USA Team.
Speaking of the USA Team, it's led by Wiggins' teammate, 2015 No. 1 overall pick and lock NBA Rookie of the Year Karl-Anthony Towns of the Timberwolves, one of three players from that team in this game. Towns has won the Western Conference Rookie of the Month every month and is averaging 17.1 points and 10.1 rebounds. Towns already has 30 double-doubles on the season, which is fifth in the NBA. Towns might be a regular All-Star as soon as next season.
The USA Team's frontcourt looks strong with Philadelphia's Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel and Milwaukee's Jabari Parker joining Towns. However, Noel might have to be replaced. He had to miss Wednesday's game with knee tendinitis. Perhaps he could be replaced by one of three rookies: Detroit's Stanley Johnson, Miami's Justise Winslow or Indiana's Myles Turner. Or perhaps second-year Laker Julius Randle. But that's conjecture at this point.
The backcourt on the USA Team also is strong, with the Timberwolves' LaVine (who also is the Dunk Contest favorite on Saturday night), the Lakers' Jordan Clarkson and Russell, the Jazz's Hood, Magic's Elfrid Payton and Celtics' Marcus Smart. Let's make our NBA pick now
The USA Team looks deeper even if Noel sits and should be a slight favorite. I like it to beat the World. And assuming the MVP won't go to a player on the losing side, you have to lean Towns for that honor.