Rising Stars Challenge 2015: Projecting the Ceiling of Every Participant
If you want to catch up on the current state of affairs in the NBA, you can tune into the All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Sunday. If you're eager to peer into the league's future before then, look no further than the Rising Stars Challenge at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
As always, the main event on Friday of NBA All-Star Weekend will feature 20 of the Association's best first- and second-year players. This year, though, the Rising Stars Challenge will split that bunch by nationality (sort of) by pitting the USA against the world.
The new format might not make the game any more palatable to those in search of beautiful basketball and crisply executed plays. Either way, what's most important here is seeing what these kids are capable of, before they develop into the stars they're destined to become...or don't.
To prepare you for this scrimmage of relative unknowns, we've put together a nifty guide to the participants—listed by team, in alphabetical order—predicated on the prominent pros, past and present, to whom they most closely compare.
U.S. Team: Trey Burke, PG, Utah Jazz
Ceiling Comparison: Chris Paul
Trey Burke would be beyond fortunate to ever be as great a point guard as Chris Paul is and has been for years. But the basic blocks from which Paul built himself into a member of the NBA's elite and those with which Burke is attempting to construct a solid edifice for his own pro career aren't all that different.
Like Paul, Burke is a diminutive guard (generously listed at 6'1" and 185 pounds) whose leadership and command of the court belies his size. Both were also tremendous players at the collegiate level, with Burke earning Player of the Year honors as a sophomore at Michigan.
Neither player shot the deep ball particularly well upon entry—Burke's knocked down 32.4 percent of his threes, Paul hit 31.3 percent of his through his sophomore season—but Paul was (and remains) far superior as a passer on offense and disruptor on defense.
Let's not forget, either, that Paul was an extraordinary athlete before succumbing to knee injuries later on in his career. Burke will never be that, but in time, his command as a floor general could more closely resemble that of a poor man's CP3.
U.S. Team: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, SG, Detroit Pistons
Ceiling Comparison: Joe Johnson
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (6'5", 205 lbs) is two inches shorter and about 35 pounds lighter than Joe Johnson, but as far as early-career production is concerned, his game falls right in line with that of the NBA's third-highest-paid player. See if you can figure out which of these per-36-minute stat lines, through Caldwell-Pope's young career and the first two seasons of Johnson's, belongs to whom:
In case you were wondering, Player 1 is Johnson and Player 2 is Caldwell-Pope. Johnson was (and is) a superior playmaker and rebounder to KCP. By and large, though, Caldwell-Pope has struggled just as mightily from distance as Johnson did, albeit while attempting 1.4 more three-pointers per game than Johnson did in his early days.
The fact that both players spent two years at SEC schools in their respective home states—Caldwell-Pope at Georgia, Johnson at Arkansas—certainly doesn't hurt the comparison.
U.S. Team: Robert Covington, SF, Philadelphia 76ers
Ceiling Comparison: Danny Granger
If you took a young Danny Granger and told him to shoot three-pointers like the NBA was about to ban them, you'd probably wind up with a player who looks a lot like Robert Covington. Aside from his accuracy within the arc and volume outside of it, Covington's stats so far compare more than favorably to those of the former All-Star at a similar point in their respective careers:
The similarities in size between the 6'9", 222-pound Granger and the 6'9", 215-pound Covington don't hurt the latter's case. The Philadelphia 76ers certainly wouldn't mind if Covington, an undrafted forward from Tennessee State, plucked out of the NBA D-League earlier this season, turned out to be anywhere near as good as Granger.
After all, it was Granger, the No. 17 pick in the 2005 draft, who served as the cornerstone around which the Indiana Pacers built their post-Malice-at-the-Palace renaissance.
Not that the Sixers are up against anything that ugly, though a 0-17 start to this season and a 26-game losing streak last season are plenty putrid themselves.
U.S. Team: Zach LaVine, G, Minnesota Timberwolves
Ceiling Comparison: Jamal Crawford
It's tempting to compare Zach LaVine to Russell Westbrook. Both came off the bench as freshmen at UCLA, showing off an AAU-bred tendency to try to dunk anything that wasn't a three-point shot.
And both had the athleticism to pull it off, and then some.
Westbrook, though, was much more prepared physically for the NBA upon arrival than LaVine was. And while LaVine can jump out of any gym you put him in—and will have the opportunity to do that in front of a national TV audience during the Slam Dunk Contest—his game, in truth, has always been more about scoring and shooting off the dribble than attacking the basket with reckless abandon.
To that end, LaVine's future self more closely resembles what fellow Seattleite Jamal Crawford became. Ask LaVine, and he'd probably tell you the same thing.
"I feel like we’ve got a little bit of the same shake," LaVine told Bleacher Report in December 2014. "I think that’s just being bred in Seattle, though. It’s great playing like somebody like him. I feel like a lot of people would like to base their game after him. He’s such a great scorer. It’s hard to guard him."
Clearly, LaVine isn't there yet, but Crawford wasn't either upon arrival from the University of Michigan. As a rookie, Crawford managed a mere 17.2 minutes in 61 games, eight of which were starts. And when he did play, Crawford scored all of 4.6 points per game on an abysmal 35.2 percent shooting.
LaVine is already well ahead of Crawford on all of those counts. Where he and Crawford can really see eye to eye, though, is in the overall struggle. The Chicago Bulls of Crawford's debut season won just 15 games, while LaVine's Minnesota Timberwolves are on track to win a shade under 14.
U.S. Team: Shabazz Muhammad, G/F, Minnesota Timberwolves
Ceiling Comparison: Paul Pierce
As for LaVine's fellow Bruin/Timberwolf, Shabazz Muhammad has long had an old soul and not just because he and his family lied about his age prior to Muhammad's arrival in the NBA. The nature of Muhammad's game also belies what his 22 years on Earth would suggest.
The 2013 draftee came into the pros as a polished mid-range scorer, albeit one who didn't play much as a rookie. Muhammad got a chance to strut his stuff earlier this season and delivered, to the tune of 13.8 points on 48.6 percent shooting, before succumbing to a strained abdominal.
While healthy, though, Muhammad showed off an impressive array of low-post moves, shot fakes and nifty finishes, all while nailing 39.2 percent of his threes and moving around the court with a pace and a fluidity that hid his true quickness and athleticism. Watch the bulky (but less so than before) Muhammad effectively lumber his way from one spot to another—and score points from wherever he winds up—and you may well have visions of a young Paul Pierce.
Surely, Minnesota would be more than happy if their own crafty and deceptively mobile wing had anything close to the surefire Hall of Fame career that Pierce has compiled over the course of his 17-year run.
U.S. Team: Nerlens Noel, PF/C, Philadelphia 76ers
Ceiling Comparison: Theo Ratliff
Theo Ratliff isn't the sexiest comparison for a young NBA big man, but Nerlens Noel could do a heck of a lot worse. Ratliff played for nine teams during his 16 pro seasons, earning a spot as an All-Star starter for the Eastern Conference in 2001, though injuries kept him from fulfilling that obligation.
Body-wise, Noel (6'11", 228 lbs) is a spitting image of Ratliff (6'10, 225 lbs). The same goes for their games.
Ratliff was a shot-blocking specialist whose mid-range jump shot made him a useful player on both ends. Noel's jumper is a work-in-progress, but he's got the swatting thing down (1.7 blocks per game) and has proven himself mobile enough to defend out to the perimeter and disrupt passing lanes (1.6 steals per game).
Noel can also take heart in the knowledge that Ratliff's best years, including his All-Star campaign, came with the Philadelphia 76ers. Granted, Ratliff's Sixers, with Allen Iverson leading the way, were never nearly as bad as the squad of which Noel is a prominent part.
Perhaps, though, that Philly team will give this one something to shoot for, with a future Penny Hardaway (Michael Carter-Williams) and a young Ratliff (Noel) already on the roster.
U.S. Team: Victor Oladipo, G, Orlando Magic
Ceiling Comparison: Dwyane Wade
The superficial similarities between Victor Oladipo and Dwyane Wade are almost scary.
Both are 6'4" combo guards who played college ball under Tom Crean—Oladipo at Indiana, Wade at Marquette. Floridian NBA teams drafted both in the lottery. Each brings a distinct attacking mentality to both ends of the floor. Neither is particularly prolific as a shooter, even less so from beyond the arc. Both benefited from playing next to productive big men early on in their respective careers.
Oh, and both are currently on the shelf with hamstring strains.
For what it's worth, Oladipo is well aware of the widespread Wade comparisons, thanks in no small part to their shared coaching lineage.
"We always used to compete, Coach Crean used to always bring it up," Oladipo told SB Nation's James Herbert in January 2014. "It was kind of hard not to watch him and try to take things from his game and add 'em to mine. We're both different in ways, but we both have similarities, so I'm just gonna try to be the best Victor Oladipo possible."
Oladipo has already missed the playoffs as many times in his season-and-a-half as Wade has over the course of his 12 years in the NBA. But with the way the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat are going these days, both could wind up watching the postseason from home.
Oladipo still has a ways to go to catch up to Wade's craftiness in that awkward three-to-10-foot range (Wade shot 42.8 percent from there across years one and two, compared to 24.4 percent from Oladipo), but when it comes to three-point shooting, in terms of both lethality and willingness, the former already has a leg up on his predecessor.
U.S. Team: Elfrid Payton, PG, Orlando Magic
Ceiling Comparison: Gary Payton
Elfrid Payton has drawn comparisons to another Payton—Hall of Famer Gary—since before he first suited up for the Orlando Magic. As Brett David Roberts wrote for FanSided:
It was expected that Gary would be a superb defensive player initially, and Elfrid is expected to be much the same. Gary Payton had developed into a premier scorer at Oregon State, averaging 25.7 points and 8.1 assists per game his senior season, while shooting 50.4 percent from the floor. Elfrid, by comparison, averaged 19.3 points and 5.8 assists per contest.
So far, the comparison has proven prescient. Just check Elfrid's rookie stats against Gary's:
If hair were any factor, Elfrid's 6'3", 180-pound frame would measure favorably next to the 6'4", 180-pound Gary.
More importantly, Elfrid came into the NBA with a reputation for stifling defense and poor perimeter shooting, not unlike Gary back in 1990-91. The Magic can only hope that their Payton develops into as dominant a stopper at the point as The Glove was during his glory days with the Seattle SuperSonics.
U.S. Team: Mason Plumlee, C, Brooklyn Nets
Ceiling Comparison: Marcin Gortat
Chances are, Marcin Gortat could identify with Mason Plumlee's pro path. Both came into the NBA at the age of 23 as understudies to All-Star centers before busting out as bona fide starters themselves, thanks to their athleticism, physicality, rebounding and shot-blocking prowess and intriguing ability on the offensive end.
The biggest difference? Aside from their origins—Gortat's known as the Polish Hammer for a reason (hint: He's from Poland), Plumlee grew up in Indiana before spending his high school and collegiate years in North Carolina—the latter wasn't stuck behind said All-Star for quite so long.
Gortat had to bide his time behind Dwight Howard in Orlando for three-and-a-half seasons. Plumlee, on the other hand, managed to dislodge the oft-injured Brook Lopez during his sophomore season, after performing admirably well in 22 starts as a rookie.
Plumlee (6'10", 235 lbs) isn't quite as long or as strong as Gortat (6'11", 240 lbs), but his hops are comparable; both registered maximum verticals of 36 inches at their respective predraft combines, per Draft Express.
Plumlee's offensive game, while still raw, is already ahead of where Gortat's was in his second year. If the middle Plumlee brother can continue to hone his skills on that end while taking as many defensive cues as possible from teammate Kevin Garnett, he, too, might someday become the lynchpin of a formidable NBA front line.
U.S. Team: Cody Zeller, PF/C, Charlotte Hornets
Ceiling Comparison: Anderson Varejao
If you were to put a Sideshow Bob wig and a headband on Cody Zeller, you might think Anderson Varejao had miraculously recovered from his torn Achilles and started suiting up for the Charlotte Hornets.
And not just because of the wig and the headband, either. Much of the same hustle, toughness, willingness to do the dirty work, ability to run the floor and occasional flashes of offensive skill that characterize Varejao's game are evident in Zeller's.
Neither is particularly quick or well-equipped to be a reliable scorer on a quality team. But, on occasion, Zeller, like Varejao, can fill it up, as he did during a career-best 21-point outing against the Denver Nuggets this season.
Then again, Zeller isn't counted on to pile up points, not with Al Jefferson dominating the paint in Charlotte. For the Hornets to succeed, all Zeller needs to do is collect loose caroms and provide a modicum of rim protection behind Jefferson, just as Cleveland expected Varejao to prior to suffering his latest in a long string of season-ending setbacks.
World Team: Giannis Antetokounmpo, G/F, Milwaukee Bucks
Ceiling Comparison: Scottie Pippen
If Jabari Parker, a Chicago native who played at a basketball powerhouse in the Tar Heel State, Duke, is to be the Michael Jordan of the Milwaukee Bucks once he recovers from a torn ACL, then Giannis Antetokounmpo can be his Scottie Pippen.
And what a perfect fit that would be. The Greek Freak has all the makings of a young Pippen: the incredible length, the lightning quickness, the bountiful athleticism and the ability to affect every aspect of the game.
Not to mention the unusual origins—Pippen a top-five pick out of Central Arkansas; Antetokounmpo a top-15 pick from a lower-division club in Greece.
Larry Drew saw many of the same qualities in Antetokounmpo during his short stint as the Bucks head coach.
"What I envision with him is more of a Scottie Pippen type, a guy who can play 1, 2 and 3," Drew told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Charles F. Gardner during Antetokounmpo's rookie campaign. "You can put him on the ball. He can initiate the offense. He can get a rebound and bring it coast-to-coast and make a play.
"I think that's who Giannis is. If he reaches his full potential, that's how I envision him."
Even Pippen couldn't have envisioned Antetokounmpo's impressive frame (6'11", 217 lbs), which has morphed toward that of a seven-footer since he first set foot in the NBA in 2013. More exciting still, Antetokounmpo's physical growth hasn't stunted that of his game; he can still handle the ball and create for others, and his shot selection has improved considerably under Jason Kidd's direction.
World Team: Bojan Bogdanovic, SF, Brooklyn Nets
Ceiling Comparison: Peja Stojakovic
Is it lazy to compare players based on their nationality and best skill? Maybe, but if the shoe fits, why not wear it?
Certainly, the Brooklyn Nets would be pleased if Bojan Bogdanovic turned out to be anywhere near as good as fellow Croatian national Peja Stojakovic. The 25-year-old Bogdanovic arrived stateside four years later in his life than Stojakovic did in his but with a similar reputation for perimeter shooting.
Of course, there was more to Stojakovic's game than just his 40 percent three-point shot, just as there's more to Bogdanovic's than his currently mediocre (31.0 percent) stroke. Bogdanovic also brings a keen sense of court awareness to his work off the ball. He's racked up more than a few easy hoops off quick cuts, particularly along the baseline.
As for those threes, the Nets needn't panic about Bogdanovic's present lack of proficiency. Odds are, he's still adjusting to the added distance of the NBA trey. Stojakovic had his own struggles in that regard; he hit 32.0 percent of his threes as a rookie but never shot worse than 37.5 percent from downtown over a full season thereafter.
World Team: Matthew Dellavedova, G, Cleveland Cavaliers
Ceiling Comparison: Patty Mills
I know, I know: Comparing Matthew Dellavedova to another Australian backup guard who played collegiately at St. Mary's seems lazy, but the statistical comparison, through year two in their respective careers, is too striking to ignore:
Dellavedova's advantage comes in his size (6'4", 200 lbs) and toughness on the defensive end. He's already a better three-point shooter than Mills was during his early days in Portland. If Delly can improve his performance inside the arc to the extent that Mills did upon arrival in San Antonio, he, too, could win a ring or two as a second-stringer behind a quick, tricky All-Star point guard.
With the way the Cleveland Cavaliers are playing these days, Dellavedova might have that opportunity this spring.
World Team: Gorgui Dieng, C, Minnesota Timberwolves
Ceiling Comparison: Serge Ibaka
The points of comparison between Gorgui Dieng and Serge Ibaka extend well beyond their African origins—Ibaka's in the Congo; Dieng's in Senegal.
For one, Dieng's already shown himself to be proficient at the sort of mid-range shooting that's become a staple of Ibaka's offensive game. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Dieng has nailed 53.8 percent of his shots in the 10-to-16-foot range this season, up from 52.0 percent as a rookie.
As it happens, Dieng (6'11", 245 lbs) is actually a bit bigger than Ibaka (6'10", 220 lbs). But that doesn't mean Dieng is bound to become a better player than Ibaka.
The Oklahoma City Thunder forward is one of the NBA's premier rim protectors, with two block titles already under his belt. Moreover, Ibaka has molded himself into a proficient three-point shooter, with career highs in attempts (3.6) and percentage (.389) this season.
Dieng may have a tough time becoming a true perimeter threat at this point. He and Ibaka are nearly the same age (25), but the latter has had four more years as a pro to expand his game.
That being said, if Dieng is to serve as a strong complement to the middle-dominant Nikola Pekovic with the Minnesota Timberwolves for the foreseeable future, he'd do well to diversify his game to include a bit of floor stretching.
And when it comes to defense, Dieng, a tremendous paint protector during his collegiate days at Louisville, should find his comfort zone in due course.
World Team: Dante Exum, G, Utah Jazz
Ceiling Comparison: Penny Hardaway
No, we're not going to compare Dante Exum to another Australian. The fact is, there are no other Australians in the NBA who are quite like him. Exum's length, size for his position and lightning-quick first step all set him apart from those who've previously made the trek to the Association from Down Under.
Those qualities aren't as unique for a 6'6" guard like Exum as they used to be, though. His frame and game are reminiscent of those that have made Michael Carter-Williams and Penny Hardaway potential doppelgangers for one another—and, as it happens, for Exum.
As Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman surmised prior to Exum's selection by the Utah Jazz in last year's draft, Dante and MCW could see their development stunted by the same problem:
If Carter-Williams and Exum never really take that superstar step, inefficiency will likely be what holds them back. Erratic shooting, turnovers, poor shot selection—these are the traps and dark clouds to avoid.
Exum has already fallen into those traps plenty during his debut campaign and figures to have many more dark clouds to dodge going forward now that he's already supplanted Trey Burke as Utah's starting point guard.
His growth from here will depend as much on building up his physical strength, without taking away from his speed, as it will on learning the finer points of an NBA game that's immeasurably more difficult than the one Exum played previously in Australia.
World Team: Rudy Gobert, C, Utah Jazz
Ceiling Comparison: DeAndre Jordan
The 6'11" DeAndre Jordan is uniquely freakish among the NBA's current crop of centers.
Or was, until Rudy Gobert came along. Gobert isn't quite the leaper Jordan is, but he's not all that far off.
Moreover, Gobert has already shown similar promise as a shot-blocker and oop-finisher, thanks to his rare length. In fact, according to Draft Express, Gobert's 7'8.5" wingspan is not only longer than Jordan's (7'6"), but it's also one of the longest on record.
In terms of production, Gobert is a spitting image of what Jordan was through his first two seasons:
The biggest difference? Gobert, a 59.8 percent foul shooter, is already far more proficient at the line than Jordan, who's hit just over 42 percent of his career freebies.
As with Jordan, though, the key to Gobert's offensive success isn't a matter of diversification but rather of refinement.
Jazz head coach Quin Snyder told Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix:
It’s not so much about expanding his game but improving on the things he does now. Rolling to the basket, playing at the high post, finishing at the rim. He watches a lot of film. He spends a lot of time with [Jazz assistant coach] Alex Jensen. And he’s interactive. He has opinions, and he’s quick to share them.
All the better for this particular comparison, since Jordan's regarded as one of the league's most gregarious citizens.
World Team: Nikola Mirotic, F, Chicago Bulls
Ceiling Comparison: Ryan Anderson
The comparison between Nikola Mirotic and Toni Kukoc is a tantalizing one to make. Both hail from what was once known as Yugoslavia. Most regarded both as Europe's best before they finally jumped to the NBA, and both joined the Chicago Bulls when they did.
And, as it happens, the same person brought both to the Windy City—Ivica Dukan, the Bulls' top international scout.
But there's another 6'10" sharpshooter who's currently in the NBA and whose rookie campaign, on a per-36-minute basis, looked a lot like Mirotic's has so far:
That mystery player: Ryan Anderson. Surely, Chicago would be pleased to see Mirotic develop into a 15-to-20-point scorer who stretches the floor like Anderson has and does.
Mirotic might even turn out to be a more well-rounded player than the defensively challenged Anderson.
"He can put it on the floor, he can make plays for people, he can get to the basket," Bulls teammate Mike Dunleavy Jr. told NBA.com's Steve Aschburner of Mirotic's game. "Defensively he's pretty good—blocks shots, gets his hands on a lot of balls. As he gets used to everything a little more, he'll foul less and be a pretty effective defender."
For now, the Bulls need Mirotic to bring just enough toughness and shooting off the bench to help them weather the storm in the East.
World Team: Kostas Papanikolaou, F, Houston Rockets
Ceiling Comparison: Luke Walton
Luke Walton doesn't come across as the most flattering comparison nowadays, but once upon a time, the guy was a valuable, versatile contributor on two title-winning teams.
So far, Kostas Papanikolaou has shown similar potential and may well wind up with an NBA career superior to Walton's. For now, their per-36-minute rookie stats compare quite favorably:
Now, if the 24-year-old Greek import can start knocking down shots with greater regularity, he just might make himself into an integral asset for a Houston Rockets squad with its sights set on the sort of success that Walton's Los Angeles Lakers enjoyed back in his day.
World Team: Dennis Schroder, PG, Atlanta Hawks
Ceiling Comparison: Rajon Rondo
Dennis Schroder has done a surprisingly good job of living up to the "Baby Rondo" moniker he was tagged with when the Atlanta Hawks scooped him up with the 17th overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft. As Grantland's Zach Lowe described back in December:
Schröder is advanced in his ability to read a moving chessboard on the fly. This is where you can see the Baby Rondo comparisons — the lanky point guard with a broken jumper, exquisite passing vision, and the ability to throw crazy wraparound dishes that traverse impossible angles. He just gets it.
Heck, you could probably go through the rest of Lowe's piece, replace every "Schroder" with "Rondo" and every Hawks reference with one to the Celtics, and you'd get a pretty familiar picture of what Rondo was like back in 2007-08, when he was Ringo to Boston's John-Paul-George trio of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.
The similarities in frames and games of these two guards are uncanny. So, too, are the stats they produced on a per-36-minute basis through year two...surprise, surprise:
Schroder may well join Rondo as a champion, if the Hawks' recent success is any indication. But with Jeff Teague, an All-Star, entrenched at the point, Schroder will be hard-pressed to have the same impact on Atlanta's fortunes that Rondo did on Boston's prior to his departure to Dallas earlier this season.
World Team: Andrew Wiggins, G/F, Minnesota Timberwolves
Ceiling Comparison: Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant
Pegging a ceiling for Andrew Wiggins is at once impossible and pointless because, frankly, the sky's the limit for this kid. The 19-year-old hasn't yet looked like the NBA's next great player on a consistent basis, though the absences of Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin afforded Wiggins ample opportunity to flash the tremendous talent that made him one of the most hyped draftees of the last decade.
The blinding speed getting up the floor in transition, the impressive leaping ability, the brilliant balance when spinning through the lane, the bouncy step-back jumper—it's all there for Wiggins.
Call him the next Kobe Bryant or the next Tracy McGrady. Either way, the comparisons—and the per-36-minute rookie numbers—stack up favorably for Wiggins:
Neither Bryant nor McGrady played enough as first-years to so much as sniff Rookie of the Year honors. Wiggins, on the other hand, has been a starter in Minnesota since day one and is practically running away with the award now that so many of his chief competitors have either underperformed or succumbed to serious injuries.
However you slice it, one thing is clear: Wiggins' future is bright, as is that of the Timberwolves.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.