This week, they are in the Rising Stars contest that kicks off All-Star Weekend on Friday night.
Zeller, the center of the Cleveland Cavaliers, was among the original field of nine rookies chosen for the game. Nicholson, a power forward for the Orlando Magic, was added this week to replace injured Detroit Pistons big man Andre Drummond.
Both Zeller and Nicholson are members of Team Shaq, which features six of the nine rookies. In addition to Zeller and Nicholson, the squad includes rankings mainstays Damian Lillard, Dion Waiters and Harrison Barnes as well as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who dropped out of the top 10 recently.
Here’s the good news for Zeller and Nicholson: In picking his squad, Shaq not only chose plenty of rookies, he also cornered the market on small players. Zeller and Nicholson are the only bigs on Team Shaq.
As everyone knows, the Rising Stars is not a conventional contest. In fact, sometimes it’s not even a contest at all. Over the last five years, the losing team has averaged 125.2 points. And that’s in a 40-minute game.
And the up-and-down nature certainly gears the game toward points and wings. In the 18-year history of the event, only four players classified as bigs – Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Elton Brand, Amar’e Stoudemire and David Lee – have won MVP.
But you would have to think that Nicholson and Zeller have a better shot of having a big game than, say, Lillard. He is one of three point guards on Team Shaq, which also has two shooting guards and three small forwards.
While true positions aren’t imperative, you would imagine either Nicholson or Zeller would have to be on the floor at all times, unless Team Shaq wants to set a record for most second-chance points surrendered in the history of that statistic. That would give both big men a puncher’s chance at MVP honors.
However, the rookie who has the best chance at MVP may be Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal, who is on Team Chuck. Yes, Beal currently is bothered by a wrist injury, but that didn’t stop him from scoring a season-high 28 points on 10-of-17 shooting at Milwaukee on Monday.
Beal shot about 35 percent in November and December but is around 45 percent since the new year. He also could benefit from a rickety roster as Team Chuck has just one other shooting guard (Alexey Shved) and one small forward (Kawhi Leonard).
And Wizards coach Randy Wittman won’t be there to constantly remind Beal of the difference between a good shot and a bad shot.
After Friday night, the only place you will see rookies in Houston – other than at nightclubs and private parties – is in the Skills Challenge (Lillard) and the Slam Dunk Contest (Terrence Ross of Toronto).
And in our weekly rankings, which are after the jump.