After two years of Charles Barkley besting Shaquille O'Neal in their battles for fantasy general manager supremacy, the reigns of the 2014 Rising Stars Challenge have been handed over to TNT colleagues Grant Hill and Chris Webber.
Hill and Webber (with some always-entertaining assistance) divided the selected rookies and sophomores for Friday night's kickoff to All-Star Weekend in New Orleans via fantasy format, the third straight season the NBA has trotted this out.
Depending on how much you enjoy "celebrities" poorly playing basketball, the Rising Stars Challenge is either the highlight or second highlight of All-Star Friday. Created in 1994 with a contest between teams named the Phenoms and Sensations, the game has seen numerous iterations. Whether it's pitting Eastern or Western Conferences against one another, randomizing teams between "Green" and "White" or merely splitting the rookies and sophomores down a line, the game has been a solid showcase for young talent around the league.
But the fantasy draft format seems to have struck a chord. Falling in line with a lead from the NHL, the NFL also adopted a fantasy draft format for its Pro Bowl this season. (Major League Baseball allows "team captains" to choose three other representatives from their league in the home run derby, a nice middle-ground wrinkle.)
More than anything, though, the game is all in good-natured fun. There are no proverbial "gym class heroes" in this game, as everyone recognizes it's mostly just an appetizer to the main course of the weekend. Just don't tell Chuck that. He'll probably still be ragging on Shaq for his back-to-back Rising Stars victories in 2114.
As for this year's game, let's check in quickly with a look at the rosters for Team Hill and Team Webber and pick a winner.
When: Friday, Feb. 14, 9 p.m. ET
Where: Smoothie King Center in New Orleans
Stream: TNT Overtime
Rising Stars Challenge Rosters
|Anthony Davis||New Orleans Pelicans||Sophomore|
|Michael Carter-Williams||Philadelphia 76ers||Rookie|
|Tim Hardaway Jr.||New York Knicks||Rookie|
|Trey Burke||Utah Jazz||Rookie|
|Jared Sullinger||Boston Celtics||Sophomore|
|Mason Plumlee||Brooklyn Nets||Rookie|
|Victor Oladipo||Orlando Magic||Rookie|
|Steven Adams||Oklahoma City Thunder||Rookie|
|Kelly Olynyk||Boston Celtics||Rookie|
|Damian Lillard||Portland Trail Blazers||Sophomore|
|Bradley Beal||Washington Wizards||Sophomore|
|Andre Drummond||Detroit Pisons||Sophomore|
|Harrison Barnes||Golden State Warriors||Sophomore|
|Terrence Jones||Houston Rockets||Sophomore|
|Giannis Antetokounmpo||Milwaukee Bucks||Rookie|
|Jonas Valanciunas||Toronto Raptors||Sophomore|
|Dion Waiters||Cleveland Cavaliers||Sophomore|
|Miles Plumlee||Phoenix Suns||Sophomore|
First, an acknowledgement: We can all agree that this game tells us nothing about the skills of these young players, yes? It's just a fun, kind of dumb excuse to showcase the league's best talent on a night where not all that much is going on (that you can televise at least) in New Orleans. Team Webber vs. Team Hill is ultimately more about "giving your friend and co-worker (expletive)" rights than the final score.
Second thought: I thought the whole point of the fantasy draft concept was splitting up the rookies and sophomores? This looks a whole heck of a lot like the old, staid rookie-sophomore format to me, unfortunately. Whether this was done merely by chance or Adam Silver is starting off his commissionership with his own "cold envelope" moment, we'll probably never know.
But, either way, the result of the draft comes out looking like a landslide for Team Hill. Outside of top overall pick Anthony Davis and the surging Jared Sullinger, Team Webber drafted seven rookies while just one of nine players on Team Hill are in their first year. (Pero Antic of the Atlanta Hawks would have been the second. He was replaced by sophomore Miles Plumlee of the Phoenix Suns due to injury.)
Davis is unquestionably the best player in this game. He's on pace to join Shaq as just the second player since the NBA began counting blocks to average 20 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks per game, according to Basketball-Reference's historical database. While there is certainly progress still to be made, Davis is slowly realizing his Defensive Player of the Year future as a rim protector and flashes surprising signs of polish offensively.
Make no mistake: Davis is a game MVP candidate and would probably win it if he swapped places with Damian Lillard. But the way the draft fell has the Pelicans star propping up a roster almost entirely filled with one of the worst draft classes in recent league history.
It became popular in June to go against the grain and tell folks that the 2013 class of players was not "as bad as you think." The first returns have made it clear these players might be worse. Neither No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett nor No. 3 overall pick Otto Porter were selected to even participate Friday night. Only three rooks (Michael Carter-Williams, Victor Oladipo and Trey Burke) are averaging more than 10 points per game, and only Oladipo is (barely) shooting better than 40 percent.
Casting long-term aspersions after a half season is always a bad idea, especially with Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo looking like he has the most potential of the lot. But Antetokounmpo is also rawer than just-butchered steak and might always land in the "untapped potential" strata if the Bucks' player-development track record sticks. For now, he's more of a fun-loving, yogurt-eating, adorable Twitter-having kid who enraptures the minds of basketball writers.
And it's worth noting Antetokounmpo is the one rookie on Team Hill.
Lillard and Team Hill also have real-life basketball players to work with. Bradley Beal is on the league's short list of best young 2-guards and gives Team Hill two elite gunners from beyond the arc. Andre Drummond was arguably a snub in his own right for the Eastern Conference All-Star team, a nightly double-double machine who could create a fun matchup of athletic freakdom with Davis should the two guard one another.
Even Terrence Jones is coming off averaging nearly a triple-double in February, and we're all aware of the flashes Harrison Barnes showed last postseason—even if he's plateaued a bit in his second season. From a purely superficial standpoint, this looks like a bunch of starters and regular contributors—some on contending teams—versus one superstar and a bunch of guys clawing to prove they belong.
That said, counting out Team Webber is overzealous. This is an exhibition game. Players' effort levels are going to wax and wane throughout, and defense is played only in the closing minutes of a close contest—if at all. The Rising Stars Challenge is at times a preview of Saturday night's dunk contest and three-point competition shrouded in the guise of a basketball game.
Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are bound to do some nifty things in their on-court Michigan reunion, Sullinger might just drop 35 on everyone without a moment's notice and the Carter-Williams-Davis combo has freakish length and athleticism. If those two don't link up for at least 30 ally-oops, fans didn't get their money's worth.
You know where this is headed. Team Webber has a chance. In the final two iterations of the previous format, the rookies defeated the sophomores. The exhibition feel of everything makes any result possible, and Davis remains the best player on the floor.
This isn't happening. Friday night's game will look far more like the seven-year run from 2003-09, where the sophomore team won each contest and six of them by double-digits. The chasm between the 2012 and 2013 draft classes is too great at this point, both in terms of talent and tangible on-court production. Loading up on veterans was a sage move on Hill's part, and his draft-night victory should translate to a pretty easy night for Pacers assistant coach Nate McMillan.
As for an MVP prediction, Lillard seems like another obvious choice. The Blazers star is making it clear he plans on upping his national profile in New Orleans, becoming the first player in league history to participate in five All-Star weekend events. The Rising Stars Challenge is an unapologetic chuckfest by its very nature, and Lillard isn't exactly shy during the regular season.
I'd set the over/under for his point total at 40 and take the over.
Score: Team Hill 161, Team Webber 135
Game MVP: Damian Lillard
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