Friday, 15 February 2013

5 things to look for in Friday’s BBVA Rising Stars Challenge

HOUSTON — We're getting closer and closer to tipoff of the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge at NBA All-Star Weekend 2013, and the assembled media got a chance to chat with the players selected last week by "general managers" Shaquille O'Neal and Charles Barkley during a Friday morning Q&A session. Because you're already going to be watching for how No. 1 overall picks Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis fare, and you already know that you love Ricky Rubio, here, quickly, are five other things you might find interesting/worth looking out for in the game:

Kenneth Faried has won an All-Star MVP here before, and seems eager for another. Look it up — the National Association of Basketball Coaches' Reese's College All-Star Game back in 2011, after his time at Morehead State University and before he went to the Denver Nuggets with the 22nd overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft. He had 18 points and 17 rebounds to lead his West team to a 113-108 win at this very same Toyota Center; that team featured Cleveland Cavaliers sophomore Tristan Thompson, who will once again team with Faried in the frontcourt of Team Chuck. (He's also had a couple of big games in Houston as a Nugget, going for 16 and 11 in a win last March and 16 and 16 in a win back in November.)

For what it's worth, Faried sounded pretty confident that he's going to repeat his stellar performance on Friday, telling reporters that the best way to showcase what makes him special — his energy, his rebounding and his athleticism — is to "help lead my team to victory."

"We want to win, and we're going to win. We're going to win this game," Faried said. "So I'm not really worried about it. It matters, because I want to win each and every time I step on the court."

Damian Lillard might show out. Speaking of confidence, the Portland Trail Blazers star rookie point guard sure isn't lacking for it after his stellar first half, and he said as much when asked if he was at all surprised at the degree to which he's succeeded in his rookie season.

"It's hard work, man. Hard work, and my hard work has paid off," Lillard said. "You put the work in and you'll get results, and this is just what's coming from how hard I've worked these past four or five years. I'm not surprised by this at all."

Lillard also sounded very aware of the opportunity presented by the Rising Stars game ("It's a big stage for all of us [...] it's an opportunity for all of us to improve our image, just because of how […] many people are here to see us and evaluate us, and just watching us, every move") and very eager to get to play off the ball in a two-PG Team Shaq lineup alongside Cleveland Cavaliers phenom Kyrie Irving.

"I mean, it's a lot less responsibility when you have not only another really good guard, but an All-Star [alongside you]," Lillard said. "I mean, he's a playmaker and a scorer, and I'm the same thing, so it'll be really fun just to be on the floor with him."

We've seen Lillard drain big shots in big moments and soar for slams early this season; a little bit of extra freedom could open the door to a big night for him.

Andre Drummond is ready to man the whiteboard. One of the biggest bummers of All-Star Weekend is that we won't get to see the atomic Detroit Pistons rookie explode, after suffering a stress fracture in his lower back that will keep him out for several more weeks and has him pursuing some, um, interesting rehabilitation methods. But he's still here in Houston to work with Team Shaq, and he's eager to contribute in whatever way he can ... including by staying as close as possible to Team Shaq coach David Fizdale (one of Eastern Conference All-Star coach Erik Spoelstra's key assistants with the Miami Heat).

"I think being alongside with Coach Fiz, he's going to help me out. He's going to give me different input," Drummond said. "Even though he's with Miami, he's here now to help me out and give me a little different input on what he thinks I can do to be ready to play in this league."

During Team Shaq's morning practice — a 45-minute walkthrough that consisted of about five minutes of offensive installation (one half-court set, one primary look in transition, one sideline-out-of-bounds trigger, stuff like that) and 40 minutes of shooting games, including games of knockout with kids who watched the practice from the stands — Drummond lined up right alongside Fizdale and later told reporters that he'd assume the same position come gametime.

"Oh, man, I'm the assistant coach! Ask him! He'll tell you!" Drummond said excitedly. "I'll be out there with the shirt and tie, the blazer — everything. You'll see."

Considering we're talking about a 6-foot-10, 270-pound behemoth, I suspect it'd be hard for us not to see.

(One other big bummer about Drummond's injury: We don't get to see him take on the Taco Bell Skills Challenge obstacle course, where he swears he'd school friend and All-Star Saturday participant Lillard. Asked how his ball-handling compared to Lillard, Drummond didn't hesitate: "Waaaaay better ... Nah, he can shoot it [better than me]. But I just got the handles.")

Harrison Barnes might get a little too serious if it's tight late. After noting that the Rising Stars Challenge is primarily an opportunity for everyone to relax and have fun, the Golden State Warriors forward also clarified that he expects things to get feisty if the score's close.

"You always want to compete — I mean, that's just competitive nature, [and] at the end of the day, there's going to be a winner and a loser in this game," Barnes said. "I think you're going to see a lot of showcasing, a lot of guys looking to have one-on-one battles, but you know, when it kind of gets to be closer at the end of the second half, I think it's going to be real serious [...] I mean, I'm a winner first and foremost, so I'm going to do whatever it takes to win, whether it's me taking that shot or making an extra pass, making a screen, a hustle play. I'm about winning."

We're sure this is music to Warriors coach Mark Jackson's ears, but don't go too hard out there, HarBar. Remember that "fun" thing you were talking about earlier.

(Possibly not music to Jackson's ears? Barnes' assessment of the current state of the 17-year NBA veteran's game: "I mean, he plays pickup with some of the managers -- no, not managers, some of the film guys and the other coaches. Is he what he used to be? … No, I don't think so.")

Kemba Walker is very altruistic and will be lob hunting. A freewheeling, wide-open, guard-dominated game like the Rising Stars Challenge seems tailor-made for the Charlotte Bobcats' Walker, a speed demon with handle who came up in the Bronx and, in the right context, can show plenty of swagger in his game. In keeping with Team Shaq teammate Lillard's theory on the opportunity for image expansion in the Friday night showcase, you might expect Walker — who hasn't gotten a ton of light in his two NBA seasons, by virtue of the Bobcats having gone a shiver-inducing 19-99 since he entered the league — to go after a little bit of individual recognition.

And yet, when I asked him to pick which of three potential highlights he'd like to have in the Rising Stars game — a sick crossover/shake move that dropped an unsuspecting Team Chuck defender to the deck, a lob pass that led to the biggest dunk finish of the night, or a breakaway opportunity to get up and throw one down himself — Walker chose to share the spotlight.

"I would say throw the lob for somebody and see somebody hit a big dunk," Walker said. "Because I'd rather see somebody else shine."

Drummond's absence takes away the best possible oop partner for Kemba, but he does still have high-flying wings Barnes and his Bobcats teammate Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at his disposal, as well as guys like the Houston Rockets' Chandler Parsons and the Golden State Warriors' Klay Thompson, all of whom are rangy swingmen who can go up and get it.

Or maybe Walker serves one up for Cleveland Cavaliers center Tyler Zeller, and he throws down the biggest jam of the night. Surprises always abound on All-Star Weekend, after all.

Stay tuned to BDL and Twitter for more All-Star Weekend goodness from Houston.

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