Not every participant in the NBA's 2016 Rising Star Challenge is actually an All-Star in the making.
Some of them are, sure. But the concept isn't supposed to be taken literally. Friday night's exhibition, which ended in a 157-154 win for Team USA, is a showcase for young, talented, up-and-coming contributors, many of whom won't ever come closer to the All-Star tilt itself.
For others, though, this is just a stepping stone to stardom. Certain NBA kiddies have already distinguished themselves enough for us to buy into their All-Star potential. For them, Friday night is just the beginning.
Honorable Mention: Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers
Nerlens Noel was unable to grace the Rising Stars Challenge with his presence as he tends to a knee injury. But because he's so good—and since this section was written before The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski confirmed his absence—he gets an honorable mention.
Of the 435 players throughout NBA history who have totaled at least 3,500 minutes over their first two seasons, the 21-year-old Noel has the third-highest defensive box plus-minus (DBPM)—a measurement of how much better the average defensive team is with a given player on the floor.
Both Tim Duncan (sixth) and David Robinson (fourth) rank in the top 10 as well. But Noel plays for the Sixers. And he's third.
Defensive specialists seldom get All-Star recognition these days, and Noel is very much a defensive specialist. The Sixers are sabotaging his offensive development by shimmying him between the 4 and 5 spots, and Noel doesn't have a consistent jumper to his name. He is shooting under 32 percent outside three feet of the hoop.
Future Defensive Player of the Year staple? Absofreakinglutely. Eventual All-Star material? Not for the fan vote. But the Association's coaches will, presumably, know better.
Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
How good is Devin Booker, who is the youngest player in the NBA at 19 and dropped 23 points off the bench in the Rising Stars Challenge (18 in the first half)? So good that NBA Twitter extraordinaire Conrad Kaczmarek can write the following without actually causing an uproar:
Conrad Kaczmarek @ConradKaz
I'd take Devin Booker 4th in a 2015 re-draft. https://t.co/Zsrk0kI2fo2/11/2016, 11:07:35 PM
One of the lone silver linings for the Phoenix Suns, Booker has burst onto the scene over the last few weeks. Since Dec. 26, he's averaging 16.2 points and 2.9 assists per game. His three-point percentage has dipped during that span, but he's connecting on 40.3 percent of his long-range missiles for the season.
Booker still needs to grasp the intricacies of NBA defense, and Phoenix isn't the place for him to do that right now. But injuries to Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and T.J. Warren have put him in a unique position to learn, develop and make mistakes free from consequence.
And for what it's worth, the last rookie to average 16 points and 2.5 assists per 36 minutes while draining 40 percent of his threes was none other than Klay Thompson.
Jordan Clarkson, Los Angeles Lakers
Jordan Clarkson, 23, took full advantage of the fast-paced, easy-going nature of Friday night's exhibition, scoring 25 points while connecting on five of his 14 three-point attempts.
He has also done a nice job of proving his 2014-15 rookie campaign wasn't the byproduct of playing for a desperately bad Los Angeles Lakers team.
Though his usage rate is down, his per-36-minute scoring split remains unchanged. He has fine-tuned his three-point stroke, and the Lakers are using him almost exclusively at shooting guard as opposed to point guard—a position for which he's better fit, and one that lacks real star power.
Mapping out Clarkson's career arc is nevertheless difficult. He isn't a remarkable passer or defender and will hit restricted free agency this summer.
If he stays in Los Angeles, his usage will be indefinitely curtailed by Julius Randle, D'Angelo Russell and whichever free agents the Lakers land. And if he leaves, he is still tasked with distinguishing himself as more than a scorer before he has a shot at stardom.
Rodney Hood, Utah Jazz
Looking for a low-usage wing who can shoot and score and pass and defend and do anything else you ask?
Meet Rodney Hood.
Here's a super-specific, albeit telling stat for your consumption: Hood is reaching 17 points and three assists per 36 minutes while posting a usage rate south of 23 and shooting better than 36 percent from three-point range. Khris Middleton of the Milwaukee Bucks, a borderline All-Star himself, is the only other wing matching that output.
Hood is a legitimate cornerstone. And with the NBA valuing swingmen who can play multiple positions and function on or off the ball more than ever (see: Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, Klay Thompson, etc.), Hood's ceiling is most assuredly that of an All-Star.
Zach LaVine, Minnesota Timberwolves
Zach LaVine is more than just a spring-loaded dunker. He is an adequate secondary playmaker and understated threat from outside. His three-point percentage has climbed ever so slightly since his rookie season, and he's putting down more than 39 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples.
He's also your Rising Stars Challenge MVP after recording 30 points on 13-of-20 shooting (2-of-3 from deep) and collecting seven rebounds and four assists on the night.
But the Minnesota Timberwolves still predominantly use him as a point guard. Nearly 60 percent of his minutes are coming at the 1, which is down from last season but still far too much.
Positional designations have become corroded leg-irons, and there is real value in developing someone as a combo guard. But the Timberwolves have shown no inclination to make LaVine a full-time starter, and he's once again an offensive minus.
Throw in the Western Conference's ever-expanding pool of starry guards—most of them point men—and LaVine, not yet 21 years old, will face stiff competition for the next decade.
Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers
Jahlil Okafor, 20, still must prove he's for today's NBA.
He has sexy numbers on the surface (his 13 points in Friday's exhibition were quiet but efficient, as he shot 6-of-7 from the field and made his lone three-point attempt). He, along with Karl-Anthony Towns, is the first rookie since Pau Gasol to go for 17 points, seven rebounds and one block per game. But he is enjoying the third-highest usage rate of any rookie big man in league history, doesn't score at a high clip outside of 10 feet and torpedoes the Sixers defense.
Bigs who neither shoot nor defend can only climb so far up the ladder. Okafor will carve out a nice offensive niche for himself, a la Greg Monroe, but it's difficult to see All-Star credentials in his future.
Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks
Jabari Parker's return from last season's ACL injury has been underwhelming. He is logging fewer minutes than he did as a rookie, and the Bucks are diminishing his offensive potential with poor shooting lineups that don't give him enough space.
His 12 points and five assists from the Rising Stars challenge don't jump off the page, but maybe plays like this will keep him in the forefront of your mind.
"Parker will find NBA identity at some point," wrote ESPN.com's Zach Lowe, "but Milwaukee already has to start thinking about whether he can do that with [Michael] Carter-Williams and Monroe."
You can see the outline of a small-ball 4's game in the 20-year-old Parker. He has the coordination to attack off the dribble, and the Bucks are trying to use him in spot-up situations. But Parker has yet to make a single three this season, and his shooting percentages have dropped despite more of his looks coming inside 10 feet.
Looking ahead—way ahead—is the only way to fully understand Parker. His offensive game will round out at some point; he's too talented for it not to. And, per Lowe, he is making a concerted effort to improve defensively.
Once the Bucks retool the roster and rotations to include fewer overlapping, clunky skill sets, Parker's stock, a steady purchase as of now, should have no trouble rocketing upward.
Elfrid Payton, Orlando Magic
Elfrid Payton, who gets the not-so-honorable distinction of being the only youngster not to score Friday night, has quietly revamped his three-point shot. He is putting down 36-plus percent of his treys and is even more lethal when launching off the catch (38.8 percent).
Still, there is something inherently scary about a point guard who converts below 48 percent of his opportunities inside the paint and restricted area. And there's no telling if Payton's deep-ball success is sustainable, since he barely attempts one per game.
A nightmarish Orlando Magic offense is also scoring more than four additional points per 100 possessions with him on the bench, and Payton's sub-62 percent shooting from the charity stripe is straight frightening.
None of which means the 21-year-old is a bad egg. Payton is just still so raw—so thoroughly incomplete. He has a long, long way to go before the thought of him entering All-Star discussions can even exist.
D'Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers
There is no in-between for D'Angelo Russell.
When he's on, he looks like a future Hall of Famer. Take Friday's exhibition performance with a grain of salt, but his 22 points and seven assists were impressive considering he played fewer than 17 minutes.
But when he's off, oh man, is he off.
Russell's case is compounded by inconsistent playing time. Lakers coach Byron Scott brings him off the bench, and the 19-year-old hasn't been given free rein on the offensive end. As Hardwood Paroxysm's Matt Moore noted, the Lakers' uninventive, Kobe-catering offense makes you long for the days of yore:
Hardwood Paroxysm @HPbasketball
D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Randle in a D’Antoni offense? Fire. Straight fire.2/10/2016, 5:12:07 AM
Recurrent struggles in mind, Russell is just the fourth rookie since 2000 to average 16 points, four assists and 1.5 steals per 36 minutes with a true shooting percentage better than 50. His company? Stephen Curry, Victor Oladipo and Chris Paul.
Indeed, Russell has the lowest true shooting percentage of this quartet, but he's too talented not to improve. He is already more efficient on standstill attempts from three and has studied tape of Curry and Manu Ginobili.
Factor in his size at 6'5", with a smattering of 50-plus percent shooting exhibitions, and Russell will live up to his draft-day status in due time.
Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
Marcus Smart has crafted a bright future on the back of unrelenting defensive effort. He ranks in the top five of defensive win shares among all players who have seen fewer than 1,000 minutes of spin, and the Boston Celtics defense, already a top-two unit, is more than three points per 100 possessions better when he's part of the action.
If not for an underdeveloped offensive game, a 21-year-old Smart would look the part of a budding All-Star. His already-shaky three-point percentage has plummeted, and he's shooting well below the league average around the rim.
It's unclear when, or even if, Smart will get the chance to bust out of his shell. Present-day All-Star Isaiah Thomas has two years left on his deal, Celtics coach Brad Stevens has experimented with Jae Crowder and Evan Turner as point wings, and Smart doesn't play starter minutes.
Defensive specialists are at a disadvantage as it is, and Smart will constantly be pitted against an incredibly robust, well-rounded point guard market. The odds of him becoming the headlining offensive threat it takes to carry All-Star clout are slim.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
Remember this Towns take from ESPN.com's David Thorpe?
david b. thorpe @coachthorpe
i know it's just been 3 games against non-playoff teams, but I have seen enough to suggest that Karl Anthony Towns has more upside than AD.11/3/2015, 10:36:58 PM
That came off as immoderately ambitious, if not wholly ridiculous, at the time. Now it's bordering on fact.
Towns, 20, is one of three players clearing 17 points, 10 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game. Pau Gasol and, you guessed it, Anthony Davis are the other two. And when you look at the efficiency with which Towns scores on various possessions, he stacks up to Davis once again:
In so many ways, Towns is already keeping pace with Davis. That doesn't mean he has more upside than Davis, but it's ironclad proof he doesn't have any less.
Verdict: Buy, buy, buy
Bojan Bogdanovic, Brooklyn Nets
Bojan Bogdanovic, 26, is basically the Omri Casspi of the Eastern Conference.
Efficient spot-up banger? Yes. Part-time defender? Sure. Great complement to any team with a quality point guard (so, not the Brooklyn Nets)? Most definitely.
Future All-Star? Not a chance.
Clint Capela, Houston Rockets
Clint Capela isn't a 21-year-old All-Star in waiting. Let's just get that out of the way. He has no jump shot and struggles to finish within pick-and-rolls. He doesn't even rank in the top half of roll-man efficiency, a damning downfall for a big who lacks three-point chops.
Granted, the Houston Rockets must do a better job of using him. They don't set him up with nearly enough pick-and-roll opportunities, and interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff should immediately cease slotting him at power forward.
Capela's ceiling extends beyond that of an afterthought though. He is one of six qualified players averaging at least 12 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks per 36 minutes, and the Rockets are having more success with him on both sides of the floor than Dwight Howard:
No wonder Houston has, according to Wojnarowski, started shopping Howard. His replacement is already on the roster.
Mario Hezonja, Orlando Magic
Philip Rossman-Reich nicely summed up Mario Hezonja's rookie year for Hardwood Paroxysm:
Hezonja has had a weird rookie campaign. His playing time has been somewhat inconsistent, and despite the Orlando Magic needing shooting, Hezonja has not seen the floor very much. Much of this is due to [Scott] Skiles' demanding defensive style. Hezonja had to get up to speed literally and figuratively.
Whatever leash the Magic have on their 20-year-old is gradually coming off. His minutes and usage rate have jumped since Jan. 1, and he's beginning to display the bombast and bluster that followed him into draft night—a crazed, uninhibited sense of self that merges the personalities of Kobe Bryant and Curry into one.
Friday night's affair saw Hezonja record 19 points and 10 rebounds. He was one of just three players to record a double-double.
Coupled with a 6'8" frame that will allow him to dance between shooting guard, small forward and power forward, Hezonja's attitude makes him All-Star material. His per-game numbers aren't yet impressive, but he's averaging 12.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.6 assists per 36 minutes—all while drilling more than 36 percent of his long balls.
Hezonja embodies a boom-or-bust prospect, and it's much too early to know which way he'll lean. But in the event he continues parlaying more prominence into better numbers, an eventual All-Star appearance becomes likely.
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
That kid is gonna get paid a lot if he just keeps the course, because he just brings a different aspect. He can step out and shoot the three. He makes his free throws down the stretch. He plays great defense. Rebounds the ball. He's just coming into his own.
Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone has taken the cautious approach to bringing along Jokic. And while a shortage of frontcourt minutes has resulted in benign per-game numbers, the 20-year-old's per-36-minute splits are so ridiculous it's disgusting.
The last, and only, rookie to eclipse 17 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and one steal per 36 minutes while planting five or more made three-pointers? Larry Bird.
Opponents are also shooting under 50 percent at the rim when being challenged by Jokic. So if you're wondering what (a slightly less athletic) Larry Bird with Defensive Player of the Year swag would look like, Jokic is it.
Trey Lyles, Utah Jazz
Why yes, the Utah Jazz do have high hopes for 20-year-old Trey Lyles. From Lowe:
"You can see some similarities in the way Trey and Draymond Green play," [Gordon] Hayward told ESPN.com.
[Quin] Snyder has privately suggested Lyles might model Green's drive-and-kick game, Lyles said, and Snyder is trying to control his optimism about Lyles' recent play. "I like to say Trey has a good nervous system," Snyder said. "And he's clearly different than our other bigs in a way that gives us versatility."
Utah might want to slow its roll—like, a lot.
Lyles is 6'10" and, in addition to playing power forward and center, can probably gut it out at small forward against certain offenses. And his three-point percentage has exploded since entering the NBA, rising above 40 percent on almost 50 total attempts.
But Lyles has a ways to go before the Jazz can realistically use him as a point forward, and opponents are feasting when he's defending them beyond the arc. Plus, any hope Lyles has of entering All-Star territory hinges on Utah abandoning its traditional frontcourt duo of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert—which is anything but a sure bet.
Emmanuel Mudiay, Denver Nuggets
Evaluating Emmanuel Mudiay takes some imagination. You have to look past his broken jumper. And you must ignore his league-worst box plus-minus—combination of offensive and defensive box plus-minus—among players to have tallied a minimum of 700 minutes this season.
Do that, and you'll see the Nuggets offense is statistically better with him running the show. Do that, and you'll appreciate him being the first newbie since John Wall to average 13.5 points and seven assists per 36 minutes.
Poor shooting and suboptimal defense have no doubt cramped Mudiay's coming-out party. But he is already able to make plays and has worked to correct certain deficiencies—such as abruptly picking up his dribble.
And if you're looking for proof that a shot is somewhere in there (even with the asterisk that comes from recording gaudy numbers in an exhibition), the Denver point guard did manage to hit five of 10 threes en route to 30 points Friday night.
Those comparisons he drew to Wall ahead of last summer's draft were not plucked out of thin air, and they still exist. The more you watch him play, the more accurate they become.
Raul Neto, Utah Jazz
Kudos to Raul Neto, 23, for shooting almost 40 percent from downtown and notching the lone positive net rating among Jazz point guards. And kudos to him for complementing Utah's bigs better than Trey Burke, per Bleacher Report's Andrew Bailey:
Andy Bailey @AndrewDBailey
NetRtg of 2-man lineup of Favors & Gobert: +5.4 3-man lineup of Favors, Gobert & Neto: +11.3 Favors, Gobert and Burke: -18.52/12/2016, 1:35:46 AM
Now we're officially out of kudos.
Neto is scrappy and a defensive survivor. But he is undersized at 6'1" and won't ever command the touches it takes to wage All-Star battle at the NBA's deepest position.
Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
Can you name the last rookie, other than Kristaps Porzingis, who averaged 15 points and two blocks per 36 minutes and also splashed in 20 treys?
Of course you can't. He doesn't exist. There is only Porzingis.
As it stands, the 20-year-old novice is one of two overall players hitting those benchmarks entering the All-Star break. The other is Anthony Davis.
Porzingis and Towns are the first of their kind: freshmen who entered the NBA shooting threes, amassing rebounds and policing the rim. Not even Davis, who only just started bombing away from deep, can say the same. Much like Towns, Porzingis is on the fast track toward megastardom.
He's also seemingly always good for a highlight, which is something he gave us in the Rising Stars Challenge, scoring 30 points, hitting five of his eight three-pointers and displaying his ability to finish above the rim like this.
Dwight Powell, Dallas Mavericks
Dwight Powell is going to surprise a lot of people if his three-point attempts ever start finding nylon. His offensive game is raw, but the Dallas Mavericks are doing their best to make him a stretch forward-center, and he's already earning his keep on the defensive end.
Zaza Pachulia is the only Maverick with a better DBPM, and while Powell doesn't block a ton of shots, he frequently forces mid-air adjustments.
Dallas hasn't been afraid to station the 24-year-old on the perimeter, either. Opponents are shooting under 37 percent against him outside 15 feet of the hoop and just 25 percent when letting it fly from distance.
Establishing himself as a reliable outside threat and/or pick-and-roll finisher is all that's standing between Powell and a leap from intriguing reserve to high-usage rotation fixture. But the gap separating him from All-Star status is much larger and patently insurmountable.
Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
Andrew Wiggins' inefficiency has lent itself to concern (we'll assume he's not going to make 13-of-15 on a regular basis as he did en route to 29 points in Friday's contest). He has the fifth-worst effective field-goal percentage of everyone to attempt 2,000 shots since 2014-15, and of the 125 players to surpass 3,000 total minutes during that time, his BPM ranks 120th.
And yet, Wiggins is going to be just fine.
Many of his shortcomings can be traced back to the Timberwolves. The 6'8" 20-year-old is being left to fend for himself at shooting guard much too often. His combination of handles, size, speed and explosion is most valuable as an everyday 3.
Playing alongside fellow ball-dominators Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad and Ricky Rubio also messes with his offensive fit. Wiggins leads Minnesota in usage, but the floor is bogged down by too many ball-handlers, giving way to iffy execution.
Wiggins has still been able to leave an imprint on the league despite his warts. Just five active players have matched his point, rebound, assist, steal and block totals through the first 135 games of their careers: Vince Carter, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Paul Pierce and Dwyane Wade.
Open your wallets. Wiggins is selling All-Star stock that's worth buying.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.
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