By Rahul Lal
NBA All-Star Weekend, February 17-19 in New Orleans, Louisiana, is fast approaching. The contestants for each of the marquee events have been announced. But the storylines tend to focus on past champions not participating, all-star snubs and tension more so than in other years.
The big events for All-Star Weekend include the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge, Taco Bell Skills Challenge, JBL Three-Point Contest, Verizon Slam Dunk Contest and the 66th NBA All-Star Game. Below is a preview of each contest and what fans can look forward to for each event.
BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge (Friday, 9 p.m. ET)
One of the most underrated events each year, the Rising Stars Challenge gives fans a chance to see the NBA’s future stars square off on one court. This year’s game features first and second-year players with perhaps the brightest futures in the NBA, including last year’s Rookie of the Year, Karl Anthony-Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and D’Angelo Russell. Joel Embiid, maybe the biggest name in this game when teams were announced, will sit this one out due to injury. Alex Abrines of the Thunder will replace him.
The talent is split between a U.S. Team and a World Team. And with the emergence of an impressive contingent of international players, that should make the game evenly matched and competitive. Young difference-makers like Nikola Jokic, Myles Turner, Brandon Ingram and Devin Booker will also get a great chance to display their developing and versatile skillsets.
Taco Bell Skills Challenge (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET)
With the evolution of the NBA big man, the Skills Challenge has grown into one of the weekend’s more entertaining events. This year’s contest will feature four guards and four bigs, squaring off in a variety of challenges. Each player in each pairing has to dribble, pass and make a layup, then make another layup on the other basket and then return to make a three. The winner of the guards bracket and the winner of the bigs bracket will compete in the finals.
The guards for this year’s event are last year’s runner-up Isaiah Thomas, John Wall, Devin Booker and Gordon Hayward. The bigs include DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Kristaps Porzingis and Nikola Jokic in place of Joel Embiid. Last year’s surprise champion, Karl Anthony-Towns, will not defend his title this year.
John Wall is arguably the most versatile player among the guards. He should be favored to advance from the pool, though a case can be made for each player based on their passing and shooting abilities. Anthony Davis is the most likely of the bigs (at least based on his skillset) to advance. But don’t count out Porzingis, who we’ve yet to see unleashed in this event.
JBL Three-Point Contest (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET)
The Three-Point Contest has been the most exciting event over the last few years. With so many NBA players seemingly a three-point threat, there were plenty of possible participants, even with Steph Curry declining the invitation this year. His teammate and reigning champ Klay Thompson leads a field that includes Eric Gordon, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, Wes Matthews, CJ McCollum, Kemba Walker and Nick Young.
This is probably the toughest event to predict because each of these shooters is among the premier three-point shooters in the NBA. But the Lakers fan in me will be all-in on the revitalized Swaggy P to groove his way into a championship. It’s about the only championship a Laker fan can realistically target. So give me a break, okay?
Verizon Slam Dunk Contest (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET)
The Slam Dunk Contest, headlined by athletic freaks who churn out unbelievable dunks, is always the best event. We’re long past the days of Vince Carter making you question whether superheroes actually disguise themselves as NBA players. But the NBA still offers up some of the most incredible dunkers the league has ever seen. Last year’s runner-up Aaron Gordon is the early favorite after his memorable bout with last year’s champion Zach LaVine, who is currently suffering from a torn ACL.
Battling Gordon will be big man DeAndre Jordan along with relative unknowns Glenn Robinson III and Derrick Jones Jr. The athletic Jordan could shock some people with his finesse. But Robinson, who gets his athleticism from his father, The Big Dog, has provided some sick dunks. One of the most eyebrow-raising contestants, Jones will gets a chance to really make a name for himself on a huge stage. He’s an athletic monster who unfortunately is relegated to the end of the bench in Phoenix. He’s only logged 14 minutes of NBA time to this point. Still, his D-League dunking exploits illustrate what he’s capable of and why he is a dark horse to win it all.
NBA All-Star Game (Sunday, 8 p.m. ET)
The NBA All-Star Game is obviously the biggest event of the weekend, as it features the game’s best players on the same court. Separated into Eastern and Western Conference teams, these NBA stars will fill highlight reels with their exploits. And no one will play a moment of defense. It’s nearly impossible to ever pick which set of all-stars will win, but some very interesting storylines are at play this season. A couple of them revolve around triple-double machine and lone wolf Russell Westbrook.
It’s pretty clear that after Kevin Durant’s departure to the Golden State Warriors, just months after blowing a playoff series lead to the same team, Westbrook isn’t looking to make any friends. But he will be stuck having to play nice through practices and media events with Warriors Durant, Steph Curry (who barely edged out Westbrook in All-Star voting though the media and other players ranked him behind), Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think Westbrook would enjoy stealing the show from his enemies. And expect some minor fireworks, given that he wouldn’t acknowledge Durant in their teams’ January matchup.
The only first-time participants will be the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo (starter), Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward and big man DeAndre Jordan. We obviously know what guys like LeBron James, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard can do, but watching Jimmy Butler and Paul George on the wing together or DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis down low at the same time should excite any basketball fan. The All-Star Game is always the best combination of basketball talent in one game, and this year should be no different.
Rahul Lal is an LA native stuck in a lifelong, love-hate relationship with the Lakers, Dodgers and Raiders. You can follow him on Twitter here.