NBA Rising Stars Challenge 2017: Top Contenders, Predictions for MVP Award

Tim Daniels@TimDanielsBRFeatured ColumnistFebruary 16, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JANUARY 22:  Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets handles the ball against Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves during a game on January 22, 2017 at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
David Sherman/Getty Images

The BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge is a perennially underrated event during the NBA All-Star Weekend. The high-scoring, free-flowing game is an awesome opportunity to see some of the sport's young stars showcase their skill and athleticism.

It's also a chance to witness some unique matchups since the contest uses a United States vs. the World format rather than Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference. So Philadelphia 76ers fans will get to see Jahlil Okafor (U.S.) go up against frontcourt teammate Dario Saric (World). Fellow Sixers star Joel Embiid was forced to pull out of the event because of a knee injury.

Let's check out the important details for Friday's game. That's followed by a look at the rosters for both teams and an early glance at the battle to be named Most Valuable Player. Minnesota Timberwolves guard Zach LaVine won the MVP Award last year with 30 points, seven rebounds and four assists.

                                 

Viewing Information

Where: Smoothie King Center in New Orleans

When: Friday, Feb. 17 at 9 p.m. ET

Watch: TNT

Live Stream: Watch TNT

Tickets: ScoreBig.com

                       

Game Rosters

2017 BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge Rosters
PositionU.S. TeamWorld Team
GDevin Booker (Suns)Dante Exum (Jazz)
GMalcolm Brogdon (Bucks)Buddy Hield (Pelicans)
GD’Angelo Russell (Lakers)Alex Abrines (Thunder)
GJonathon Simmons (Spurs)Jamal Murray (Nuggets)
F/CMarquese Chriss (Suns)Willy Hernangomez (Knicks)
F/CBrandon Ingram (Lakers)Nikola Jokic (Nuggets)
F/CFrank Kaminsky (Hornets)Trey Lyles (Jazz)
F/CJahlil Okafor (76ers)Kristaps Porzingis (Knicks)
F/CKarl-Anthony Towns (Timberwolves)Domantas Sabonis (Thunder)
F/CMyles Turner (Pacers)Dario Saric (76ers)
NBA.com

                   

MVP Award Contenders

Favorite: Karl-Anthony Towns (Minnesota Timberwolves)

Frankly, Towns probably belongs in the main All-Star Game. The Minnesota Timberwolves center is the only player ranked inside the top 10 of the Value Added metric who won't be playing Sunday. He's also ahead of Stephen Curry and DeMarcus Cousins, among others.

The 2015 first overall selection is enjoying a monster season for Minnesota. Along with his usual high-end production in terms of points and rebounds, he's starting to show progress as a distributor out of the post, which is turning him into a more complete player.

HoopsHype provided a stat that showcases the rare air Towns is in:

From a Rising Stars Challenge perspective, the big man does everything necessary to have success in this type of game. He can run the floor, knock down outside shots and deliver the highlight-reel plays, which are particularly important in the All-Star setting.

There are a couple other highly touted challengers for the game's top individual honor, including Kristaps Porzingis of the New York Knicks and Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets. But it's hard to label anybody other than Towns as the favorite going into the game.

                            

Sleeper: Jonathon Simmons (San Antonio Spurs)

This year's Rising Stars Challenge is frontcourt heavy, led by the aforementioned trio of Towns, Porzingis and Jokic. So when looking for a potential long-shot MVP winner, the best option is looking to the backcourt for somebody capable of stealing the show.

Enter Simmons. The 27-year-old swingman went undrafted in 2012 and didn't get a chance in the NBA until the San Antonio Spurs signed him before last season. He's since illustrated himself as a useful, reliable piece of the rotation.

He made waves in the team's season-opening victory over the Golden State Warriors, putting up 20 points, four rebounds and three assists in the surprising blowout win. While he hasn't come close to maintaining that pace, it showed what he can do when his all-around game is clicking.

Simmons has also made a fair share of highlights on the defensive end, as the NBA noted:

Friday's game is a chance for Simmons to prove his name belongs among the league's best players in their first or second season even though he's older than his counterparts. If anything, that's all the more reason for him to put on a show and make an MVP bid.

                            

Predicted Winner: Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets)

Jokic rides into the Rising Stars Challenge on a hot streak. The Nuggets power forward has been playing the best basketball of his career since the calendar flipped to 2017. That includes a 40-point outing against the Knicks and a triple-double against the Warriors.

The Serbian post player showed flashes of his upside during his rookie year. But there was some concern about his progress after he averaged just 8.6 points in November. He's done everything possible since that point to eliminate any lingering doubts about his long-term outlook.

Like Towns, becoming a more well-rounded asset has helped his rising stock. Jokic has established himself as a true passing weapon. That's made him a much greater defensive challenge and helped create more one-on-one looks for himself.

He told Nick Kosmider of the Denver Post that studying a various power forwards, all of whom utilize a vastly different approach, has helped him grow.

"We really practice all the shots—right hand, left hand, off the left leg, right leg, fadeaway," Jokic said. "I like watching [Dirk] Nowitzki, [Tim] Duncan, [Boris] Diaw, but I just try to improve myself."

All told, winning the MVP at a one-off event like the Rising Stars Challenge is like a lot of things in sports: It's not about who's the best overall but rather who's the best at that moment. That's why Jokic is a strong bet to bring home the award.

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