Friday night, All-Star Weekend officially kicks off with the the Rising Stars Challenge at 9 p.m. on TNT. I can't, in good conscience, recommend that anyone actually watch the Rising Stars Challenge. But it does give us a good excuse to talk about this rookie class, and this class is phenomenal. It's got stars at the top, it's deep, it's fun ... It might be the best class of rookies since 2003, or even since the '90s, and this photo.
In any case, next to everything else we've learned from the first four months of NBA this year, every few weeks brings a new excuse to blurt out, "Wait a second, these rookies are AWESOME, aren't they?"
It caught everyone off guard. The 2014 draft was supposed to be the one full of franchise-changers ready to make history. Then Joel Embiid, Jabari Parker, Aaron Gordon, and Julius Randle all got hurt, and the hype fizzled. It turns out the revolution was coming a year later.
So let's go through it. Knowing what we know now, how would the 2015 draft play out? Couple notes before we start:
• These picks are my own. It's pointless to try to guess what Vlade Divac or Phil Jackson or the Sam Hinkie/Jerry Colangelo hydra would do under these circumstances, or in Vlade's case, under any circumstances.
• Each pick is tailored to the needs of each team. For instance, Myles Turner might be slightly ahead of a guard, but if a team already has four big men, Turner makes no sense.
• We only did 20 picks, because I'm not quite crazy enough to go deep in Jarell Martin territory.
• Finally: All these rookies are awesome. This was way too much fun.
Here we go!
1. Wolves: Karl Towns
Obviously. There were hints of "Porzingis or Towns?" debates early in the year, but then more people watched Towns. He can do everything, and he's only gotten more deadly as the season's unfolded. In the past 9 games, he's averaging 23.2 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 2 blocks. On Wednesday he had 35, 11 rebounds, and 3 blocks to beat the Raptors. At 20 years old. Any Porzingis argument is a waste of time at this point in the year. The better question is, "Brow or KAT?"
2. Lakers: Kristaps Porzingis
Everything you know is a lie. Porzingis is in Hollywood. He's being mentored by Kobe. He's dapping up Kanye West and Jack Nicholson. Byron Scott somehow finds a way to play Brandon Bass 49 minutes per game to keep Porzingis on the bench. And ... yeah, in this scenario, he still turns into the same God/icon/ international sex symbol we have now.
Of course, the Lakers would take him if they could do it all over again. That's not even a shot at D'Angelo Russell, but this fits their roster better. With his combination of size, shooting, and fearless attitude, the Porzingis superstar ceiling is higher than anyone but Towns.
3. Sixers: D'Angelo Russell
Look, I'm still on Team D'Angelo. You're either with us or against us. For one thing, if he'd gone to Philadelphia, Sam Hinkie would probably still be in charge. They'd play small and fast around Nerlens Noel, the Sixers would be fun as hell, Russell would be playing 40 minutes per game, and he'd be having one of the better seasons of any rookie in the league.
He's struggled in L.A., but he's also got a much steeper learning curve than big men. Go back and watch James Harden or Steph Curry as rookies. This takes time. In addition to sharing a backcourt with Kobe and Jordan Clarkson, he's getting thrown to the wolves trying to guard a league that's full of dominant point guards in 2016. But every now and then he'll take your breath away with a pass, or hit a vicious step-back jumper, and you remember that one day he will one of those dominant guards. Please see the second half of that Lakers-Kings game for further evidence.
4. Knicks: Myles Turner
This is a dark timeline for Knicks fans. There are still great players all over the board, but if you're going to take Porzingis out of Madison Square Garden, you might as well wipe out Walt Frazier, Anthony Mason, Spike Lee, Latrell Sprewell, and every other reason to care from the past 30 years. (In other words, they become the Nets.) Also, remove Porzingis and this becomes one of the toughest picks in the draft.
I'm going with Turner because a big man who can shoot and protect the rim is quickly becoming the most valuable prototype in the NBA. He was a complete wild card coming out of Texas, but over the past 30 days, Turner's averaged 14 points, 6.3 rebounds, and almost two blocks. He also hasn't turned 20 yet, so we're barely scratching the surface here. He may never have the range or the killer scoring instinct of Porzingis, but as LeBron knows, he can kill you in other ways.
5. Magic: Devin Booker
Did you know that Devin Booker is younger than Ben Simmons? It turns out, it's not an accident that he looks like he's 15 years old next to the rest of the NBA. Now, did you know that he's averaging 17 points per game over the past month and shooting 45% as a starter? He can barely buy cigarettes. Imagine what he'll do by the time he can drink.
He's handling the ball more than he ever did at Kentucky, he's running pick-and-rolls with surprising success, and while all this opportunity is partly a by-product of broader dysfunction in Phoenix, he gets credit for knocking it out of the park. All the added responsibility will make him better in the long run. The Magic would be ecstatic to add Booker here, which tells you a lot about this draft class. The 14th pick in the lottery would be a steal in the top 5.
6. Kings: Emmanuel Mudiay
What can anyone say about Sacramento at this point? How do you judge a plan that changes every other week? I would take Mudiay for two reasons. 1) Because the Kings playoff dreams are currently on life support, and before too long someone in Sacramento will realize that Boogie is going to leave for nothing in 18 months, so the smart play is to trade him now and rebuild. In that case, 2) Mudiay has the highest ceiling of anyone left here, so it's worth a shot to build around him.
Depending on the night, Mudiay either looks incredible—like the next John Wall with a little hint of Westbrook—or he's completely out of control, can't hit jumpers, and depressing for everyone. He's basically already a Sacramento King.
7. Nuggets: Justise Winslow
Given the out-of-nowhere development of super-skilled Nikola Jokic—another rookie surprise, but ineligible for this exercise as a 2014 second-round pick—and the continued brilliance of Danilo Gallinari, the Nuggets have the luxury of gambling here.
Grabbing Winslow as a lockdown defender—next to skilled scorers like Gallo, Will Barton, and Jokic—is a smart play regardless. Even without a jumper, he's good enough to play for a playoff team in Miami, and even at 19 years old, he can slow down any scorer in the league. If he can learn to shoot and turn into Rocky Mountain Kawhi Leonard, suddenly that team starts to look like a contender in the West. (In this alternate reality, they also get lucky in this spring's lottery and eventually grab Kris Dunn to be their point guard of the future. Go Fake Nuggets.)
8. Pistons: Trey Lyles
This is tough, because Stanley Johnson has come into his own over the past month, and looks like a great fit in Detroit. But given a do-over, and seeing how well Trey Lyles filled in for Derrick Favors earlier this season, wouldn't Stan Van Gundy grab the perfect stretch four to play alongside Andre Drummond for the next 10 years?
9. Hornets: Jahlil Okafor
On the one hand, Okafor has been a disappointment in Philadelphia, even before you factor in his off-court issues. His defense is atrocious. He doesn't fit with Nerlens Noel. He needs time to work in the post, and that comes at the expense of the rest of the offense, both with ball movement and pace.
On the other hand, he's putting up 17 points, 7 rebounds, and 1 block in 30 minutes per game for the Sixers. If Okafor has somehow turned into the cautionary tale of the 2015 draft, that's only an indication of just how great everyone else is. He's been in a horrible situation, without teammates who can get him the ball, in games that don't really matter. And he's still putting up numbers. Putting him on a playoff-caliber team in Charlotte—as the understudy to Al Jefferson, and next to a guy like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist—feels like a gamble worth taking.
10. Heat: Mario Hezonja
Tell the models, tell the aging European millionaires with suspicious business histories, tell the trashiest clubs to get ready to lift their velvet ropes... SUPER MARIO IS COMING TO SOUTH BEACH.
We need it to happen. Goran Dragic has struggled this year, but putting him next to Hezonja could unlock magic once Dwyane Wade moves on. As for Hezonja, his ceiling as a gunner is still sky high. He flew under the radar while the rest of his classmates took off over the first few months, but it appears Scott Skiles is beginning to Super Mario off the leash. It's working:
Get ready, South Beach. The hamstring is fine.
11. Pacers: Willie Cauley-Stein
For the first few months of the season, Cauley-Stein looked like the weak link among these rookies. A few months later, and ... there might not be any real weak links with this class.
Since coming back from injury in Sacramento, Cauley-Stein's established himself as exactly what everyone expected him to be: an excellent rim protector who can't shoot even a little bit, but can rebound and run the floor. On a Kings team that wants to space the floor around Boogie, he helps, but it's still a strange fit. On a Pacers team that was all set to go small until Myles Turner's emergence changed their plans, Cauley-Stein would be a perfect to anchor the defense for the rest of the Paul George era.
12. Jazz: Cameron Payne
He's been fantastic in Oklahoma City. Not quite good enough so that we all need to start talking about him as an X-Factor in the playoffs, but he's getting there as the months pass. Unfortunately, he's also destined to be stuck behind Westbrook for at least the next 18 months.
For the Jazz, he'd be the point guard of the future they've needed all along, and a perfect fit next to Rodney Hood and Gordon Hayward. This would be a good change. Definitely. It would be healthy for everyone.
But I'm glad it won't happen, because I would miss the handshakes too much.
13. Suns: Bobby Portis
Portis might be the only player in NBA history to achieve folk hero status among his hometown fans without ever actually doing anything. Are we sure he's good? Bulls fans seem pretty convinced.
He's shown a more fluid jumper in the NBA—especially the preseason, when his folk hero status began—than he ever did at Arkansas. He can rebound, he's athletic enough to be a good defender, and he's definitely had moments where he looks like a 10-year starter. But the glut of big men and Fred Hoiberg's unpredictable rotations have made it tough to know exactly how excited fans should really be. In any case, for the Suns, this gamble can't go worse than Markieff Morris!
14. Thunder: Stanley Johnson
Cam Payne was a steal, but this would be a STEAL. After a slow start, Johnson's picked up his scoring the past month, and he's showing the complete game on the wing that we saw hints of at Arizona last year. He can guard three positions, and he's averaging 13.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 3 assists filling in for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope over the past 15 days. As his shooting improves, he should get even better.
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15. Wizards: Kelly Oubre
Oubre has all the tools to turn into exactly the kind of two-way weapon that's become so valuable in the modern NBA. His shooting form is sound, he's long, and he's athletic enough to stay in front of anyone on defense. The question will be whether he gets the coaching he needs to actually turn those tools into anything. He could be another Nick Young, or he could be Nick Young Who Actually Plays Defense And Takes Good Shots. The second one is a borderline All-Star, so hey, worth a shot!
16. Celtics: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
If the Celtics were ready to give up four first round picks to take Justise Winslow, they could always just grab Hollis-Jefferson instead. He's been hurt in Brooklyn this year, but he looked good early on. He could be an Avery Bradley clone on defense, and if his three-point shooting improves, he's a potential fifth starter for a playoff team. In the short term, that gives Boston depth. Long term, he could be ready to step in if players like Bradley are packaged for a star.
17. Bucks: Frank Kaminsky
Along with Okafor and Cauley-Stein, Kaminsky is the other lottery pick who might look disappointing next to the rest of this class. That's not totally fair. Is he a future All-Star who will start on playoff teams for the next ten years? Absolutely not. But he's looked very solid off the bench in Charlotte—12.6 points and 6 rebounds per 36 minutes—and he's been almost exactly what was expected. It's the rest of the class that's blowing people's minds. For a Bucks team that desperately needs help spacing the floor, he'd be a significant upgrade off the bench.
18. Rockets: Kevon Looney
I would say my favorite part of the NBA season came when I read that Kevon Looney could be key to landing Kevin Durant this summer. And hey, maybe he can! I've learned not to laugh at any optimistic buzz coming out of Golden State. During the draft, teams were scared away from Looney because of a hip that required surgery. But the hip is clearly improving, and the Rockets have time to wait in this alternate reality, so gambling on his potential as a long-term pairing with Clint Capela would be a smart move.
19. Knicks: Larry Nance Jr.
All energy and limbs, questionable skills, and a fun addition to any game he plays. Can he be a starter? Maybe not. But he can definitely be a pain in the ass off the bench for the next decade.
20. Raptors: Jerian Grant
He's been up and down with the Knicks this year, but there have been enough flashes to give you reason to buy into the long-term. For the Raptors, letting him develop behind Kyle Lowry is perfect. For the purposes of our re-draft, this boring Jerian Grant discussion is a reminder that this the most we can say about most rookies every year. The ones we have in 2016 are the exception. Enjoy this.
BONUS: The Spurs
There were about two weeks this season where all I wanted to do was watch Boban Marjanovic play basketball. And fascinations aside, both he and Jonathon Simmons have been pretty solid in limited minutes. Neither one were draft eligible last year—for all I know Boban is 38 years old—but they are technically "rookies" and, thus, two more members of the class here.
This is just a warning, really. It started with Kawhi, it's continuing with Boban. Then one day Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker will retire, and you'll look up and realize that the Spurs are made up entirely of dominant players whose origins you can't explain.
One day, the Spurs Labratory will rule the NBA.