By Frank Hughes
February 13, 2010

DALLAS -- Rookie of the year clarity was not forthcoming in the NBA's rookie-sophomore game during the official opening night of All-Star weekend.

Well, it was in the sense that Sacramento's Tyreke Evans and Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings, who led the rookies to their first victory in eight years, a 140-128 decision at American Airlines Center, are the only true candidates. But which player between those two will pull away in the final stages of the season remains to be seen.

Certainly all their skills were on display in the annual affair, which is designed to not only showcase younger players but provide incentive for those players to return to All-Star weekend as a primary participant by giving them a flavor of the event.

Evans used his unique combination of size and power to lead the rookies with 26 points, six assists and five rebounds, winning the MVP award, while Jennings, wearing a hair-do that made him look a bit like Gumby, put forth his scoring flair and his all-around game by totaling 22 points, eight assists, six rebounds and four steals.

San Antonio's DeJuan Blair acquitted himself nicely, using his big body to go for 23 rebounds and 22 points in 30 minutes, contributing enough that Evans felt compelled to make an unofficial offer of sharing the MVP award.

But when it comes to the overall season, the race for the honor comes down to Evans and Jennings. Evans went mostly inside on Friday, at one point putting in a swooping baseline reverse that sent him to the line after he was knocked sideways on the move. Jennings did most of his damage from outside, his nifty step-backs and alluring quickness enough to give him the space to create.

Their combination was enough to offset the 40 points scored by Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook, whose regular-season teammate, All-Star Kevin Durant, was the assistant coach for the rookie squad. In fact, it was Durant's year-old record of 46 points that Westbrook came close to breaking, lobbying sophomore coach Patrick Ewing to re-insert him into the game when he removed him with seven minutes remaining.

"I didn't even know there was a record," said Ewing, who was assisted by Toronto's Chris Bosh. "I was wondering why he asked me to put him back in."

Westbrook's other Thunder teammate, point guard James Harden, scored 22 point off the bench for the rookies, while Miami's Michael Beasley had 26 points and seven rebounds for the sophomores.

But it was Evans and Jennings who impressed -- and the players many predict will be the first ones back for the main game. In fact, some feel that Evans should have been an All-Star this year, including Shaquille O'Neal, who called him one of the best players in the game.

Jennings grabbed the early-season headlines because of his 55-point outburst against Golden State. Since, though, he has been the focal point of most opponents' defense, bringing his nightly production down. He is averaging 16.9 points and 6.2 assists. When that happened, Evans then seemingly took control of most people's decisions, particularly because he led the Kings to unexpected success even while they were missing leading scorer Kevin Martin.

But it is a two-man race once again. Martin's return prompted struggles by Sacramento, including losses in 14 of 15 games to drop their record to 18-34, fourth worst in the Western Conference. Evans is averaging 20.3 points, 5.1 assists and 4.8 rebounds.

"When Kevin Martin came back he was rusty and I hadn't had a chance to play with him like that," Evans said. "When he came back I was just trying to figure out where he liked the ball and things like that. I think we have begun to play better with each other now and have a better feel for each other."

Jennings, meanwhile, has helped the Bucks stay in the race for a playoff spot. Milwaukee is 24-27, a half game behind the Chicago Bulls for the eighth and final playoff spot.

"Tyreke Evans probably has (the award) right now, and that is fine," Jennings said. "He is putting up big numbers for his team. I am just focusing on getting my team to the playoffs, which is a big accomplishment for a rookie. (If we make the playoffs), I think I should be considered. Even though we are in the Eastern Conference, it is still the NBA and you still have to go out there and compete every day."

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