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NBA Rising Stars Challenge 2018: Top Contenders, Predictions for MVP Award

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistFebruary 15, 2018

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - FEBRUARY 14: Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Utah Jazz brings the ball up court during the first half of a game against the Phoenix Suns at Vivint Smart Home Arena on February 14, 2018 in Salt Lake City, Utah. 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. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images)
Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

The best young stars in the NBA open up All-Star Weekend with a showcase of their own in Friday's Rising Stars Challenge.

Some of the players set to step on the hardwood for the U.S. and World teams are worthy of a spot in the All-Star Game on Sunday, but they weren't able to break the hold the league veterans have on All-Star roster positions.

Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers is the only one of the 20 players participating in the Rising Stars Challenge who will play in the All-Star Game at Staples Center.

A few young players will make an impact on All-Star Weekend in the skills competitions, but look for them to use Friday as a stage to make a name for themselves among their peers.

Although we're expecting standout showings from each of the 20 participants, there are only a few worthy of earning the Most Valuable Player award from the game.

         

Donovan Mitchell

The first two days of All-Star Weekend could belong to Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz.

The Rookie of the Year contender enters Los Angeles on one of the biggest highs of any player, with the Jazz on an 11-game winning streak.

Mitchell has been at the center of the team's success, and he'll try to extend that momentum into the Rising Stars Challenge and Slam Dunk Contest.

The rookie out of Louisville, who will play for the U.S. on Friday, is averaging 19.6 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game.

Mitchell is averaging 19.3 points per game during Utah's current run of form, and he's scored over 20 points in each of his last four games, including 25 against the San Antonio Spurs on February 12.

The 21-year-old is the first rookie to lead his team in scoring during a win streak of 11 or more games, per ESPN NBA on Twitter:

NBA on ESPN @ESPNNBA

Donovan Mitchell is the 1st rookie in NBA history to lead his team in scoring during a win streak of at least 11 games. (via @EliasSports) https://t.co/VC1yREr4Uj

If he plays at the same level he has during the Jazz's winning streak on Friday, there will be few players who can match his performance.

        

Kyle Kuzma

Kyle Kuzma should relish the opportunity to shine at home on Friday night alongside Los Angeles Lakers teammate Brandon Ingram on the U.S. team.

The 22-year-old comes into Friday off a 23-point performance in a loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday.

Kuzma has scored over 20 points on 16 occasions in his rookie season, a total that is now second behind Magic Johnson for rookies in franchise history, per Spectrum Sportsnet's Mike Trudell:

Mike Trudell @LakersReporter

This is Kyle Kuzma’s 16th game with 20+ points this season, the most by a Lakers rookie since Magic totaled 32 in 1979-80.

There's more of a chance for Kuzma to be the hometown hero for the U.S. on Friday after Lonzo Ball withdrew from the contest due to an MCL strain—an injury he would've pushed through if this were the playoffs, per ESPN's Ohm Youngmisuk:

Ohm Youngmisuk @NotoriousOHM

Lonzo Ball said if this were the playoffs, he'd be playing now in games. Ball said he will be back next Friday against Dallas in the Lakers' first game after the break. He said he still feels a little discomfort when he pushes off the left knee on... https://t.co/fQpiOC1wQJ

In games at home this season, Kuzma is averaging 17.1 points, six rebounds and 1.9 assists per game, all of which are higher than his marks on the road.

          

Dario Saric

Dario Saric comes into All-Star Weekend with less fanfare than Sixers teammates Embiid and Ben Simmons, but he'll leave as the top performer from Philadelphia.

The 23-year-old has improved his numbers in every major statistical category, and he's received heaps of praise for adjusting to playing with both Embiid and Simmons, as SB Nation's Mike Prada noted:

Reggie Comma Mike Prada @MikePradaSBN

Did not think Dario Saric would be able to adjust his game to fit this well with a Simmons/Embiid frontcourt. Major credit to him for changing his game.

Don't be surprised if his unselfish teammates pick him out on Friday and thrust the Croatian into the spotlight as a reward for the work he did before the All-Star break.

The under-the-radar star in Philadelphia has reached double digits in the point column in his last 35 games dating back to November 29.

If that trend continues, Saric will sit underneath the spotlight on Friday night—an honor his teammates would more than approve of.

         

Lauri Markkanen

Lauri Markkanen's play has been one of the few things Chicago Bulls fans have had to brag about this season.

The Finnish star out of Arizona is averaging 15.3 points and 7.7 rebounds per game while impressing the team's coaching staff with his maturity.

After Chicago's loss to the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday, head coach Fred Hoiberg noted how much respect Markkanen has received from his teammates, per the team's official Twitter account:

Chicago Bulls @chicagobulls

“He never gets rattled. He’s gained respect from the veterans because of his work ethic.” - Coach Hoiberg on Lauri Markkanen

Although it will be hard for Markkanen to shine with plenty of talented big men on the World roster, the 20-year-old will separate himself from the other MVP candidates with a few big shots from three-point range.

          

Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.

Statistics obtained from Basketball Reference.

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