Though the pool of players was set by the NBA on Jan. 30, the rookies and sophomores playing in the 2013 BBVA Rising Stars Challenge will not find out whose team they will be playing on until Thursday night.
For the second consecutive season, TNT's Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal will serve as "general managers" for the Rising Stars Challenge and will draft the players fantasy-style in a live TNT broadcast. Last season, Team Chuck defeated Team Shaq, 146-133, a fact that I'm sure has never (sarcasm font) been brought up on the set of Inside the NBA.
With plenty of time to prepare, it's undeniable that O'Neal has spent plenty of time thinking about his selections this season. Did he learn anything from his drafting woes the first time around? We won't find out until Thursday night.
But in the meantime, let's have fun and speculate. With that in mind, here is a complete projection of Thursday's draft results for the 2013 Rising Stars Challenge.
(According to a previously aired segment on Inside the NBA, Team Shaq will get the first pick this season.)
1. Team Shaq: Kyrie Irving (PG, Cleveland Cavaliers)
There are plenty of talented players in this year's pool, but Irving is by far the easiest call on the board. He's arguably the Eastern Conference's best healthy point guard, will suit up in the actual All-Star Game on Sunday and has the type of game that translates perfectly to these exhibitions.
It also doesn't hurt that Irving is the reigning MVP of the Rising Stars Challenge. He poured 34 points on Team Shaq last year, so O'Neal should look to draft Irving and hope he repays the favor this time around.
2. Team Chuck: Damian Lillard (PG, Portland Trail Blazers)
Assuming Irving goes first, Barkley will be left with an interesting proposition. Either he goes big and tries to counteract the maneuvering Shaq taking a point guard, or he simply goes with the best player (this season) left on the board.
If I'm in Chuck's shoes, I pull the trigger on Lillard. The Blazers point guard is running away with the 2012-13 Rookie of the Year Award, leading all freshmen in points (18.4) and assists (6.5) per game, and has been integral to keeping Portland in the playoff hunt.
On the in-game side of things, it would be a little comical to see Lillard and Irving guard each other in an exhibition setting. Neither player is all that committed defensively during games that count, so the turnstiles would likely be wide open in the Rising Stars Challenge.
It's unlikely that Shaq would double up on point guards in the first two rounds, so it's arguable that Barkley should go big and hope to land Lillard in Round 2. But Lillard and Irving could theoretically play off the ball, which could leave Team Chuck in dire straits if the "Black Bryan Colangelo" went that route.
3. Team Shaq: Anthony Davis (PF, New Orleans Hornets)
Davis hasn't been nearly as dominant in the NBA as he was in Lexington. He's struggled mightily with the intricacies of defensive rotations, and the Hornets have actually been far better with him on the bench, per NBA.com.
However, that's partially due to a bothersome knee injury, and Davis has started to show flashes of his collegiate brilliance. It's a risky pick considering the top-shelf players left on the board, but Davis is the right call here.
4. Team Chuck: Kenneth Faried (PF, Denver Nuggets)
Manimal was made for exhibitions like the Rising Stars Challenge. He runs the floor like a gazelle, has an insatiable motor and won't be limited by his lack of size due to aloof defensive pressure.
If Faried doesn't come away with a double-double and at least one jaw-dropping highlight, count me among the flabbergasted.
5. Team Shaq: Klay Thompson (SG, Golden State Warriors)
Thompson's 2012-13 season started as a mess, but he has slowly ascended into the Most Improved Player conversation. The Warriors guard has improved his stats in every full month of the season, including a January run that saw him score 18.7 points per game and knock down 45.4 percent of his shots.
Though Thompson isn't the type of player who will astound with top-notch athleticism, he's easily the best long-range shooter in this pool of players.
6. Team Chuck: Andre Drummond (C, Detroit Pistons)
Exhibitions aren't often predicated on the play of big men, but a frontcourt of Faried and Drummond could be scary good in this format. They are both extremely athletic forces of nature and could come up with some fun alley-oop finishes with whoever is passing them the ball.
Drummond's story has been all about potential this season. He has shown enough flashes of brilliance that the name Tyson Chandler has been bandied about constantly, and with good reason. He's already a scary dominant cut man on pick-and-roll plays, and the Pistons are a full six points offensively better per 100 possessions with Drummond on the floor, per NBA.com.
The problem with Drummond has been twofold. First, Lawrence Frank seems dead-set on inanely keeping Drummond's minutes limited. He's averaging right around 20 minutes a game thus far, and that number has only incrementally increased as the season has gone along.
The second, which is the overarching reason behind Frank's refusal to give Drummond starter-type minutes, is his lack of defensive awareness.
Luckily, defensive rotation concepts matter less than post-game dinner orders in the Rising Stars Challenge. Look for Drummond to be a dominant force and a smart pick, wherever he winds up being taken.
7. Team Shaq: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (SF, Charlotte Bobcats)
Much like he did at Kentucky, Kidd-Gilchrist has gone through the 2012-13 season extremely under-appreciated. He's already guarding four spots on the floor with efficiency and rarely takes a bad shot.
That doesn't make him an especially "sexy" pick, but he deserves recognition over just about all the remaining players.
8. Team Chuck: Harrison Barnes (SF, Golden State Warriors)
While the appeal of Barnes can be summed up with hundreds of words, it's only appropriate to use video in this instance.
Yup. If Barkley or Shaq watch that highlight before the draft on Thursday, Barnes may well go higher than pick No. 8.
9. Team Shaq: Nikola Vucevic (C, Orlando Magic)
Viewed by the mainstream as little more than a shrug-worthy chess piece in the Magic's trade of Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers, has emerged as the second-best (healthy) player in the deal.
The seven-footer is averaging 12.1 points and 11.3 rebounds per game while showing marked improvement as his playing time has increased. He's grabbed no fewer than 12 rebounds in any game during February and is easily the most productive center in the rookie-sophomore player pool.
Unfortunately, production isn't the only factor, so Vucevic falls a little farther than he should.
10. Team Chuck: Bradley Beal (SG, Washington Wizards)
Stuck in a nightmarish situation with a paltry supporting cast, Beal's rookie campaign hasn't exactly gone as planned. He's scored 13.2 points per game but has shot just 38.9 percent from the field and has been hobbled by a wrist injury of late.
Nonetheless, Beal's style of play should translate well to the exhibition format and he brings plenty of name value. With Chuck's side still needing a shooting guard, Beal is essentially a no-brainer in this situation.
11. Team Shaq: Dion Waiters (SG, Cleveland Cavaliers)
Waiters' season has essentially mirrored Beal's, only with a slightly higher points per game average and lower field-goal percentage. Nevertheless, the former Syracuse bench star is a menace in the open court and could throw down a jaw-dropping slam at some point.
12. Team Chuck: Kemba Walker (PG, Charlotte Bobcats)
The bright spots have been few and far between for the Bobcats this season, but Walker's emergence has to give Charlotte a glimmer of hope. Walker has improved markedly in every notable statistical category and has been vastly underrated because of the Bobcats' nightmarish season.
If there is any positive takeaway from 2012-13 in Charlotte, it's that the team found keepers in the past two drafts. With a high lottery pick coming, good times may be coming in the near future.
13. Team Shaq: Kawhi Leonard (SF, San Antonio Spurs)
If this were an actual game with even a bag of Jolly Ranchers on the line, Leonard would be easily the draft's best value in this scenario. The Spurs have developed him into one of the game's best perimeter defenders, as evidenced by them giving up nearly five points per 100 possessions less with him on the floor, per NBA.com.
Leonard has also improved mightily on the offensive end. It doesn't show up all that much in his counting stats, but Leonard understands floor spacing and can handle the ball far better than he could a year ago.
His effectiveness will mostly be limited to a few finishes here and there, but Leonard deserves some recognition for his improvement.
14. Team Chuck: Tristan Thompson (PF, Cleveland Cavaliers)
Losing Anderson Varejao put the Cavaliers in dire straits but has allowed for an emergence from Thompson. He averaged 15.1 points and 10.9 rebounds in the month of January, thriving while taking on an increased offensive burden.
Thought by some to be headed on a one-way ticket to bust city, Thompson's recent emergence certainly has the Cavs breathing a sigh of relief.
15. Team Shaq: Brandon Knight (PG, Detroit Pistons)
Still lacking a true backup point guard, Shaq's squad picks up a no-brainer selection here. Knight hasn't emerged in his second season the way Detroit hoped he would, but he still has plenty of room to improve and should do so with Jose Calderon in town as a mentor.
16. Team Chuck: Chandler Parsons (SF, Houston Rockets)
Given far more integral role in his second NBA season, Parsons has done nothing but reward the faith of the Rockets organization. The Florida product is averaging 14.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game and helps spread the floor for James Harden and Jeremy Lin.
He should be able to do the same on Friday night of All-Star weekend and is a nice addition this late in the player pool.
17. Team Shaq: Tyler Zeller (C, Cleveland Cavaliers)
Though he's been better than some (including yours truly) expected, Zeller has been pretty ordinary in Cleveland thus far. He's shooting just 41 percent, a paltry rate for a center and has been just as ineffective defensively as most pundits projected.
On the surface, Zeller should be the last pick. But based on the way the picks played out, Team Shaq needed a big body, and he was on the board.
18. Team Chuck: Alexey Shved (SG, Minnesota Timberwolves)
It goes without saying that this is a strong class of players when Shved is the proverbial Mr. Irrelevant. He's a young, exciting guard who should develop alongside Ricky Rubio to make a formidable duo in Minnesota.
In fact, Shved may wind up being a surprising breakout stud in the Rising Stars Challenge. His ability to both score and assist off the dribble could lead to some exciting plays, especially when top-flight point guards are off the floor.
Shved may be the last player (hypothetically) taken, but that's in no way a degradation to his skills or future in the Association.