The NBA loves to tweak the terms of its All-Star Weekend slate from year to year, and the 2015 festivities set for New York City next month, are proving to be no exception. First up: the annual Rising Stars Challenge, which features first-year and second-year players, will adopt a USA vs. the World format for the first time.
The Rising Stars Challenge has undergone a number of evolutions over the years. From 2000 to 2011, the game featured a team of rookies against a team of sophomores. That was scrapped for a mixed format in 2012, where TV personalities served as coaches and drafted teams that featured rookies and sophomores.
Moving to an international format for this game is timely and practical. The NBA has pursued a global approach for more than 20 years, and the fruits of those labors are everywhere: a league press release notes there are now 101 international players from 37 countries on NBA rosters this year. The reigning champion Spurs had a fully globalized roster, including players from France, Italy, Argentina, Australia, Canada and New Zealand; and the last two No. 1 overall draft picks were Canadian (Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins).
The “USA vs. the World” pitch has been used everywhere from the Olympics and the rebranded FIBA World Cup to youth showcases like the Nike Hoop Summit and the Nike Global Challenge. There shouldn’t be any concern about the quality of young international talent: four 2013 lottery picks and five 2014 lottery picks were born outside the United States, and the list of up-and-coming international standouts is a long one.
Conveniently, the switch to an international format helps the NBA cover up the biggest problem facing this game: the 2013-14 and 2014-15 classes have been hit hard by injuries during their rookie campaigns. Last year, Bennett, Otto Porter, Alex Len, Nerlens Noel, Trey Burke and CJ McCollum all missed significant time due to injuries. This year, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Aaron Gordon, Dante Exum, Marcus Smart, Julius Randle and Doug McDermott have all missed time.
The new format calls for 10-man rosters made up of four frontcourt players, four backcourt players and two additional players of any position. Each team must have at least three first-year players and three second-year players on its roster, a low standard that helps the league cover up for all the rookies missing in action due to injuries.
What might these rosters look like? Here’s a first-take guess at how the teams might shape up that takes into account the specific guidelines listed above. The two teams appear evenly matched on paper, although the World Team has a significant size advantage while the USA team boasts greater depth and experience in the backcourt.
Michael Carter-Williams, Sixers (second year): The reigning rookie of the year has struggled with his efficiency, but a loose leash in Philadelphia has helped him stuff the box score.
Victor Oladipo, Magic (second year): The high-flying Oladipo is reportedly set to take part in the Dunk Contest and he’s bounced back nicely from an early season injury.
Trey Burke, Jazz (second year): Although he may or may not be Utah’s starting point guard of the future, Burke has compiled better numbers than most of his class.
Cody Zeller, Hornets (second year): Zeller has shown enough progress to land a starting role for Charlotte, but he’ll need to add range to his shooting if he wants to find success as a stretch forward.
Aaron Gordon, Magic (rookie): This is where the USA would love to plug in Parker or Randle, but adding the now-healthy Gordon helps the roster hit the three-rookie and four-bigs minimums.
Elfrid Payton, Magic (rookie): Even though he can’t hit the broad side of a barn, Payton’s attack mode offense and high-energy on-ball defense make him a treat to watch.
Andrew Wiggins, Timberwolves (rookie): The high-flying Canadian wing is the odds-on favorite to win Rookie of the Year and he should dazzle in this loose format.
Dante Exum, Jazz (rookie): Still working his way into NBA life, the 19-year-old Australian can be dynamic with the ball in his hands.
Nik Stauskas, Kings (rookie): Unlike the USA roster, the World team is light in the backcourt. The Canadian shooting specialist brings the prestige of a top-10 pick, even though he hasn’t quite found his range yet in Sacramento.
Rudy Gobert, Jazz (second year): Still an overlooked diamond in the rough for most fans, the 7-foot-1 French big man has looked at times this season like a potential franchise center.
Nikola Mirotic, Bulls (rookie): The 23-year-old Mirotic (born in Montenegro) has looked like a rookie of the year candidate despite playing limited minutes in a bench role for coach Tom Thibodeau.
Gorgui Dieng, Timberwolves (second year): The 6-foot-11 Senegalese center has been one of the few bright spots for coach Flip Saunders in Minnesota.
Anthony Bennett, Timberwolves (second year): The Canadian forward has moved on from one of the worst rookie seasons for a No. 1 pick in recent memory thanks to an offseason trade from Cleveland to Minnesota and some substantial weight loss.