NBA All-Star Weekend has always been an event that’s “for the kids.” The only question is — which kids are we talking about here?
Last night’s BBVA Rising Stars Challenge showcased a slew of the world’s youngest and most profound athletes in the entire world. The friendly exhibition game, held at Brooklyn’s Barclays Arena, is one of nine events occurring this weekend as part of NBA All-Star Weekend. In what has transformed into arguably the most impressive All-Star spectacle in sports, America’s basketball association has transformed the four day slate of events into a destination spot for not only the NBA’s most talented professional athletes, but celebrities and media personalities as well. All-Star Weekend offers up a point of interest for everyone that’s watching, and things got going last night with the annual celebrity game. And while I’m completely alright with watching the Mo’ne Davis put Kevin Hart in the spin cycle, and definitely alright watching Skylar Diggins take the phrase “like poetry in motion” to another level, the Rising Stars Challenge was the actual kick-off to the NBA showcasing the absolute freakish athletes and supreme talents that populate their league at this current point in time. That’s what NBA All-Star weekend is all about, really… The defense is lax, the hops are high, the threes are deep, and it turns into one big party. As James Harden appropriately noted yesterday evening as he lounged away on the sideline, “It’s all for the kids.”
While the bearded one is undoubtedly on target, I can’t help but to momentarily balk when I ponder the question — which kids is he talking about? Surely, Harden’s speaking to the little hoop dreamers that are peppered throughout the crowd during this weekend’s events. With All-Star weekend occurring in a city that’s long been credited as a cradle of the game, and the amount of coverage the events get at an all-time high, the league is primed for their annual opportunity to spark youthful interest in a sport that’s already one of the world’s most popular. I’ve still got All-Star memories tatted across my mental from years past. A.I’s under-the-elbow-self-pass-lay-up was my go-to in games of Horse against my brother in the driveway. Hell, when my dad used to go to work I would put my mattress on my bedroom floor to replicate Vinsanity’s dunk contest dominance. Needless to say, you can’t hang from your elbow on a Nerf rim, but I did master the reverse 360 windmill. And while the dimensions of the bedroom I shared with my brother didn’t provide the room necessary to mock up my own long distance clinic, I would certainly consider myself a founding member of the Splash Brother’s if we’re talking about three-point contest mode on NBA Live 98.
Those are the kids he’s talking about. The ones in the crowd, the ones behind the television screen. But when you consider Harden’s words in another context, the Rising Stars Challenge last night takes on a whole new meaning. Young stars — kids — took to the Barclays Arena floor last night to show their stuff to the world, and to prove why they’re next up in the lineage of NBA greatness. Sure, these guys are all considered young men within the scope of their general lives, but in comparison to some of their NBA brethren, they’re still babies.
Want some proof? Go no further than Giannis Antetokounmpo, aka “The Greek Freak.” Two years ago the foreigner was playing Division II level ball in Greece. Fast forward to now, and he’s one of they key cogs to a youth movement that happening in Milwaukee that’s got them in the middle of the playoff picture in the East. Yeah I know… Being in the middle of the playoff picture in the East is like being the smartest dumb kid. But still, Giannis is a young, developing talent that is a key piece to the Bucks’ future with J. Kidd at the helm, and hopefully a healthy ‘Bari coming back next year. At 30-23, the Bucks aren’t primed to be any kind of deep playoff contender this year, but The Freak is transforming into an interesting catalyst for them on both ends of the floor.
Giannis is growing up fast in the NBA game, and though the Rising Stars contest ultimately turns into a glorified fast-break dunk contest, he was one of the most entertaining players to check out last night for the World team. He was active early on, doing nearly everything on the floor. He cleaned the boards, he drove to the rack, he blocked shots, he distributed. Point in case, Giannis demanded attention on the floor. The Freak stuffed the stat sheet in multiple categories (12 points, 10 boards, 5 assists, 4 steals, 2 blocks) throughout the course of the game, proving to be a nuisance on the defensive end of the court, aided by his go-go-gadget limbs. At one point The Freak looked as though he was going to be slow coming around a pick set by Nerlens Noel at the top of the key, but he used his long arms to tip a shot attempt by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on the baseline. Antetokounmpo didn’t send the shot into the seats though. No, he just barely grazed it enough with his fingertips so that it went spinning towards cameramen seated behind the basket. The Freak stayed with the play though, and scooped the ball with his right hands to Hawks rookie Dennis Schroder, who subsequently lead the World team on a fast break that ended in a two-handed slam from top pick Andrew Wiggins. It was a thing of beauty, and a great representation of some of the young defensive talent the league’s got on tap for years to come.
For as many good things as The Freak did on the floor though, there were times where he also looked sloppy as well. He committed some egregious turnovers, took some questionable shots, and even fouled Mason Plumlee while the Duke product was on his way to a fast break jam (pronounced “yam”) in front of the home Brooklyn crowd. Giannis looked like a kid out there, sheepishly grinning as World coach Kenny Atkinson reemed him out while Plumlee took the line. Keep in mind this is the same guy that began his rookie season at 6″9″, and finished the first year campaign nearly two inches taller. He’s still got some growing to do, both on and off of the court, but this weekend was made for a kid like this.
Antetokounmpo will also be competing in this evening’s dunk contest as well, and though he’s already a household name with a great majority of NBA fans, his star has yet to fully emerge on a grand stage. Being around so many NBA vets, and taking in this entire weekend won’t only be fun for the Greek product, but it’ll be an opportunity for him to soak in all that comes with the All-Star experience, and to gauge where he game stands against some of the league’s most talented stars. He’s averaging 12.0 ppg and 6.6 rpg in his sophomore season for the Bucks, and if he continued to develop it won’t be too long before he starts suiting up for the East All-Star squad.
While The Greek Freak put on a well-rounded show yesterday evening, he wasn’t the only one out there that made some jaws drop. Both teams were stacked with talent from the past two draft classes, and the entire field of participants put the rest of the league on notice for forty minutes of straight up ballin’. Timberwolves rookie Zach LaVine did his best Russy Westbrook impression, showing off his springs and handles in transition, while teammate Andrew Wiggins snagged the game’s MVP, which will pale in comparison once he wins this year’s rookie of the year award as well. Orlando boasted their backcourt’s gem with second year man Victor Oladipo, Chicago wing Nikola Mirotic continued to impress, and Utah’s Rudy Gobert gave the crowd all kinds of funk when he went coast-to-coast for an emphatic slam. The Jazz big man demonstrated his defensive prowess and motor on the night as well, blocking Philadelphia rookie Nerlens Noel and then running the floor to finish the fast break with a slam. All in all, it was an impressive showing from the league’s young crop of talent, and while I don’t buy the Zach LaVine #VC2015 hype for a second, I’m licking my chops just thinking about some of the skills that the league has yet to see, and what the league will be seeing in the very near future.
So which kids was Harden talking about? Surely he meant the ones that are outside right now lowering the rims in their driveway to practice their best Zach LaVine impression, right? Of course he was. But what about the kids that are going to be sitting on the sidelines tomorrow night watching NBA veterans provide some of the best entertainment the world has to see? A. Wiggins will be there. So will Rudy Gobert. Chances are those guys will be enamored by this weekend’s experience so much so that they’re inspired to attain their full potential — a potential that right now seems limitless. There’s a lot of worthy talent out there in the NBA that didn’t make this year’s All-Star roster, proving that they don’t give those spots out to just anybody. It sounds cliché, but for the sake of the NBA, I hope the young men that played in last night’s BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge truly comprehend the amount of hard work that it takes to be one of the league’s elite. And while I can try and derive some sort of deeper meaning out of Harden’s four words last night, the fact remains that NBA All-Star Weekend is for the kids, whether they’re a 10 year old big man that plays in a parks and rec. league, or a 20 year old from Greece that’s flourishing right in front of our eyes.