Now known as the Rising Stars Challenge, the league’s midseason showcase for young players didn’t always look this way. And it wasn’t always a good game, either.
When the game debuted in 1994, it featured only rookies playing against each other. The teams were called the Phenoms and the Sensations. The following year, the teams were simply called White and Green. Now there’s some smart jersey marketing, huh?
From 1996-98, the league pitted rookies from each conference against each other. Unfortunately, there was (and still is) an imbalance between the conferences. Although the Chicago Bulls were winning championships, the Western Conference had many more good teams, which meant they were picking toward the bottom of the draft, which meant the Eastern Conference was getting the better rookies.
There was also the small problem of finding 18 rookies who deserved to be invited to a showcase event. Do you remember such immortals as Cedric Henderson? Danny Fortson? Rodrick Rhodes? John Wallace? Roy Rogers? Travis Knight? George Zidek? They all played in the Rookie Game.
In 2000, the NBA changed the format to Rookies vs. Sophomores, which solved the problem of having enough worthy players but created a new problem of competitive imbalance. The Rookies won two of the first three matchups, then lost seven in a row by an average of 22.1 points.
The 2004 game featured sophomores Amar’e Stoudemire, Yao Ming, Manu Ginobili and Carlos Boozer and rookies LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. It should have been one of the best games ever, but instead devolved into a hot mess that ended with an impromptu dunk contest and the media calling for the league to end the competition.
Two years ago, the NBA changed the format again. It selected nine rookies and nine sophomores, putting them into a pool and having TNT analysts Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal draft players for Team Chuck and Team Shaq. Once you get past the minor inconvenience of Chuck and Shaq not knowing who most of these players are, it makes for a potentially more competitive game.
This year’s player pool was announced Wednesday, and the NBA managed to clear its biggest hurdle: finding nine rookies who deserve to be invited. We know how tough this is because we rank the top 10 every week in this spot and sometimes find ourselves scraping the bottom of the barrel.
The poor performance of the 2013 draft class has been well-documented, but this says it all: Of the top nine draft picks, seven – Seven! – were not selected for the Rising Stars – No. 1 Anthony Bennett, No. 3 Otto Porter, No. 4 Cody Zeller, No. 5 Alex Len, No. 6 Nerlens Noel, No. 7 Ben McLemore and No. 8 Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
That’s embarrassing. Here’s a conversation Bennett may have with his grandkid 30 years from now.
KID: Grandpa, were you the first pick in the NBA draft?
KID: Then how come you didn’t play in the Rising Stars?
BENNETT: Um, well …
Of the nine rookies selected, we had seven in last week’s rankings. Rounding out the NBA’s roster were big men Steven Adams of Oklahoma City and Mason Plumlee of Brooklyn, both of whom have made regular appearances in our rankings this season but recently were squeezed due to the emergence of some fellow first-year players.
Those players were Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, who has been playing for less than a month due to a broken foot but already is part of the rotation; Los Angeles Lakers forward Ryan Kelly, who recently has stepped into his team’s huge injury void; and Chicago Bulls guard Tony Snell, who likely was passed over because he is not 6-10.
Two weeks ago, we shifted gears a little bit here and ranked the top 10 sophomores, correctly tabbing eight of them. Our one miss was Houston Rockets forward Terrence Jones, who barely sniffed our Rookie Rankings a year ago but has made a quantum leap in his second season. Jones did not make our top 10 but was just outside it.
The two sophs in our rankings that didn’t make the cut for the Rising Stars were Milwaukee Bucks forward John Henson, who has done a pretty good Larry Sanders impersonation for an awful team, and Toronto Raptors swingman Terrence Ross, who really hasn’t done anything recognizable this season.
Don’t fret, folks. Mister 51 will probably be at All-Star Weekend to defend his Slam Dunk title.
Meanwhile, folks like Bennett, Porter and McLemore will probably be on a beach somewhere. Where they should be is in a gym, trying to locate their games.
On to the rankings.