For two straight years, Shaquille O'Neal proved unable to defeat Charles Barkley. Now, we'll have to see who proves superior between fellow TNT analysts Grant Hill and Chris Webber.
In a special edition of TNT's NBA Tip-Off on Thursday, Feb. 6, Hill and Webber evenly distributed the 2014 crop of rookies and sophomores who will be competing in this year's festivities in New Orleans via fantasy draft. The highlight of Friday night during All-Star Weekend, the fantasy draft replaced the stale rookies vs. sophomores format and is largely credited with other formats in other sports leagues.
The NFL's Pro Bowl most recently adopted a fantasy-draft format, in which legends Deion Sanders and Jerry Rice divvied up the selected players.
But, as evidenced by the telecast, the Rising Stars Challenge is arguably more about bragging rights between friends than anything.
Team Chuck combined to beat Team Shaq by 41 points over the first two years of the event. His 163-135 victory last year was thanks to a 40-point, 10-rebound effort from Kenneth Faried and a 10-assist outing for Ricky Rubio—two players ineligible to return this year.
This time around, Team Hill will have to contend with Team Webber and No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis. The New Orleans Pelicans big man was an obvious pick from the get-go, not only because of his stellar play but also with this being a hometown trip for the 2013 No. 1 overall pick. Team Hill followed up Webber's Davis pick by taking the only true All-Star (for now) in the competition—Blazers point guard Damian Lillard.
With the draft now complete, let's take a look at the rosters for both sides and analyze how the precocious young players fit together.
|Team Webber Selection Order|
|1||Anthony Davis||New Orleans Pelicans|
|2||Michael Carter-Williams||Philadelphia 76ers|
|3||Tim Hardaway Jr.||New York Knicks|
|4||Trey Burke||Utah Jazz|
|5||Jared Sullinger||Boston Celtics|
|6||Mason Plumlee||Brooklyn Nets|
|7||Victor Oladipo||Orlando Magic|
|Draw||Steven Adams||Oklahoma City Thunder|
|Draw||Kelly Olynyk||Boston Celtics|
To many, Anthony Davis was the biggest snub when Western Conference reserve selections were announced. The second-year big man is on pace to have one of the best statistical seasons for a young player in league history.
Davis is averaging 20.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game heading into Thursday night's action. Per Basketball-Reference, Shaquille O'Neal is the only other player in league history to average 20-10-3 before his age 21 season, and his 26.7 player-efficiency rating would be the highest ever by a player 20 years or younger (assuming a significant sample of games).
Point being: Anthony Davis is very good at basketball. And he's only going to get better.
An elite defensive stopper during his one-year stop at Kentucky, Davis is still learning the intricacies of NBA defense and is still understandably prone to mistakes. He'll lunge a bit and get off-balance in pick-and-roll coverage, and he has a propensity to over-help, thinking that his massive wingspan will atone for an extra step or two.
But when Davis is locked in, there are few more impactful bigs in the league. Opponents are shooting just 44.6 percent when Davis is within five feet of the basket and the offensive player taking the shot, ranking ninth in the NBA among players who see at least five shots per game, per SportVU data released by the NBA and Stats LLC.
Considering his offensive load is greater than that of any of the players before him on this list, having Davis around is going to atone for plenty of mistakes going forward. It will also give Team Webber elite length all over the floor, with his second pick Michael Carter-Williams roaming the perimeter.
In a year when the No. 1 overall pick (Anthony Bennett) takes until late January to finally score double-digit points in a game, it's pretty easy to tell we're not working with a 2003-level class here. Of all the rookies, it's the guy taken 10 selections later, Carter-Williams, who has proven himself most worthy of the professional level.
Which, of course, is ironic because many pegged Carter-Williams as among the rawest prospects this past June.
Rather than struggling, Carter-Williams is one of the few bright spots for Philadelphia, adapting instantly to Brett Brown's uptempo system and establishing himself as easily the Rookie of the Year favorite. The Syracuse product is averaging 17.2 points, 6.6 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game, which could make him the first since Steve Francis in 1999-2000 to put up similar numbers.
Brown's uptempo style—the Sixers are the only NBA team averaging more than 100 possessions per game—helps Carter-Williams rack up easy counting stats. As does playing on a team with a roster filled of D-League talent and players very unlikely to be with the team in the long term.
Mason Plumlee and Victor Oladipo should also give Webber the type of bouncy team that lights up the highlight reel in transition.
Beyond length and athleticism, unshakable confidence and team chemistry seemed to be an emphasis. Former Michigan teammates Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke have been linked back up, the latter a surprise pick with Webber's third-round selection. With a playoff-proven guy like Harrison Barnes still hanging around, it was at least a slight surprise.
But the last time Burke and Hardaway were teammates, it nearly ended in a national championship for the Wolverines. And, of course, we have to acknowledge that one Mr. Chris Webber wore the maize and blue once upon a time.
|Team Hill Selection Order|
|1||Damian Lillard||Portland Trail Blazers|
|2||Bradley Beal||Washington Wizards|
|3||Andre Drummond||Detroit Pisons|
|4||Harrison Barnes||Golden State Warriors|
|5||Terrence Jones||Houston Rockets|
|6||Giannis Antetokounmpo||Milwaukee Bucks|
|7||Jonas Valanciunas||Toronto Raptors|
|Draw||Dion Waiters||Cleveland Cavaliers|
|Draw||Pero Antic||Atlanta Hawks|
Whether you agree or disagree with his All-Star selection (I'm in the latter camp, but not angrily so), Damian Lillard has the chance to be the 2014 answer to Kyrie Irving. Last year, the Cleveland Cavaliers guard nearly ruled the entire weekend, first embarrassing Brandon Knight with a killer crossover and then winning the three-point shootout before his first All-Star appearance.
ESPN's Marc Stein reported Lillard was one of the earliest confirmations for the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest, a curious decision on the surface but one that may wind up surprising. The second-year point guard's game is also tailor-made for scintillating feats in lax defensive settings, with his ability to create and shoot off the dribble likely making him a favorite for the game's high scorer.
It's gone entirely under-reported this year, but Lillard has been one of the handful of the best three-point shooters in the league. If the season ended today, Lillard would have one of 10 seasons in league history with seven three-point attempts per game at a better than 40 percent rate, per Basketball-Reference. Chris Haynes of Comcast SportsNet reported he's considering entering the three-point contest, which would make him the first to participate in five All-Star events in history.
Coupled with the effect he's had on Portland's surprisingly hot start, it's been a pretty good year for the guy whose rights were essentially traded for Gerald Wallace.
As for Team Hill's other starting guard, look no further than Bradley Beal—a guy who could be an underrated choice for Rising Stars MVP. Along with John Wall, Beal has helped buoy the Wizards to their first above-.500 record since 2009, making good on the sweet-shooting promise he showed at Florida. Beal isn't as high-volume as some of the other elite three-point threats, but he picks his spots well and is hitting just under 41 percent.
If floor spacing and gunning are your thing, betting on Team Hill is probably a good idea. Manning the middle and protecting the rim for those two young guards will be a guy with an All-Star snub claim all his own.
In the bereft Eastern Conference, where Joe Johnson somehow qualifies as an All-Star, Andre Drummond was left out despite cementing his status as an evolutionary Tyson Chandler.
Drummond is averaging 12.9 points on 61.1 percent from the floor, while pulling down 12.8 rebounds and blocking 1.9 shots per game. The Pistons' season hasn't gone the way anyone has planned. The Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith combo has been a disaster on both ends of the floor, being outscored by 7.4 points per 100 possessions in their 855 minutes together.
It's largely assumed either Monroe or Smith will have to be sent elsewhere for team chemistry to develop, but that also exposes Drummond as the one building block the franchise has faith in. Much in the same vein as Davis, Drummond's reputation as a defender exceeds his actual production.
Opponents are shooting 49.9 percent against him at the rim, per SportVU, and his pick-and-roll coverage is generally an adventure. Drummond allows 0.91 points per possession covering a pick-and-roll ball-handler, ranking in the 22nd percentile of the league, per Synergy (subscription required).
Luckily, none of that stuff will matter on Friday. Drummond will jump, Drummond will block, and Drummond will be awesome.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is bound to create a ton of headlines—mainly because he's #BasketballTwitter's favorite son. "The Greek Freak" has been a curiosity item all season, the one positive in a moribund Bucks season. He is averaging just 7.2 points and 4.5 rebounds per game and few are sure about what he can actually do on the floor at this point, but the 19-year-old's potential if off the charts.
Equipped with freakish length—he has grown more than an inch since draft day—and hands worthy of an internet meme by themselves, the possibilities seem endless. There are times on the floor you can tell he doesn't quite know what he's doing yet, and then he'll somehow swat a shot out of nowhere and make you forget all the criticism.
All advanced stats are via NBA.com unless otherwise stated.
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