Having enjoyed the self-empowerment of selecting the All-Star reserves, and with my head still spinning from an unbelievably exciting day in sports yesterday, I have decided to continue my projection of this year’s All-Star Weekend.
The Three-Point Shootout selections will come later in the week, but for now, we start with the Rookie Challenge (also known as the “Rookies have no chance in hell” game).
One more point before my picks—I’m not entirely sure of how the rosters are filled on each team. As far as I can tell, you fill each position with the starting five positions, then just pick the next best four players (with perhaps a little thought to their ability to sub). With that in mind, here are my selections.
Center: Al Horford — Easy choice here. If you’ve seen Horford play this year (excluding the stupid but unintentionally harmful foul on T.J. Ford), you’ve seen a player who has expanded his game greatly from his time at Florida and is making solid contributions to a likely playoff team. Only Kevin Durant plays more than Horford’s 31 minutes per, and no rookie is averaging more rebounds than Horford’s 10. If his scoring increases a few points a game from the 9 he’s averaging now and the Hawks make a push to earn the 5th or 6th playoff spot, a strong case could be made for Horford’s selection over Kevin Durant for this year’s ROY award.
Forward: Yi Jianlian — Arguments could be made for putting Luis Scola as the starter here, but I hate having to consider 27 year-old foreigners who have been playing in pro leagues since they were 14 as rookies (although Yi was playing in a pro league before he came to the NBA as well… he just happens to be 20 rather than 27). As such, I will go with Yi. The Bucks are making good on getting Yi 20 minutes a night (he’s at 27 right now), and Yi is producing fairly well with averages of 10 and 6. Possessing good athleticism for his size, he should be fun to watch in this game.
Forward: Kevin Durant — Crowned ROY since Oden’s injury announcement, and the obvious choice for MVP of the Rookie Challenge if the Rookies somehow pull off an improbable victory, Durant’s shoot-as-soon-as-I-catch disease will go unnoticed in the midst of the uptempo play. I expect nothing less than 27 points from him on 20+ attempts.
Guard: Nick Young — As I’m trying to fill this spot with a shooting guard, the choice comes down to Daequan Cook or Nick Young. If asked to make this selection in pre-season, I would have said Marco Belinelli without any hesitation, but he hasn’t played substantial minutes in back-to-back games since the first two games of the season and won’t even make the rookie team roster. Afflalo has been playing 15+ minutes for the Pistons of late, so he’s someone to watch out for, but for now, the choice is between Cook and Young. Cook had been useful for Miami in mid-December, but that had to do with Wade’s absence, and has seen his minutes diminish since Wade’s return. Young, on the other hand, plays a consistent 10+ minutes a night on a much better team, and therefore is a more logical choice. Unless Cook or Afflalo have a hot stretch over the next week or two, Young is the right choice in a shooting guard thin class.
Guard: Mike Conley — Starting January 2nd, Conley has played more than 20 minutes in every game but 2 (save for Saturday’s game that he missed with an injured rib), averaging 10.3 points. 5.4 assists, and 1.2 steals. More than that, Conley continues to show poise beyond that of a first year player, rarely making bad decisions. His game has little flash, but much effectiveness, and he always seems to find the open man.
Reserve: Jamario Moon — The NBA loves seeing its Dunk Contest participants build a little hype with a couple of big dunks in the Rookie Challenge, and Moon should do just that. Even better, Moon isn’t the type of player who demands the ball, and he loves to get out and run. He’s just the type of player that makes games like this fun—and could even end up leading the team in scoring with enough turnovers and fast breaks.
Reserve: Sean Williams — One thing I know, if I’m a Nets fan, Williams is one of the few reasons I would remain one. This kid’s athleticism continues to impress, even surrounded by NBA talent, and with the right work ethic and development, he could be Amare lite someday. In 21 minutes a game, he’s averaging 7 and 6, and is a sure bet to embarrass at least one Sophomore in the game.
Reserve: Luis Scola — Despite my disdain for old, foreign “rookies,” Scola is deserving of a spot. Finishing up a month where he averaged 10 points and 6 boards in 25 minutes a night, Scola’s overall talent may be the Rookie squad’s biggest asset in their match-up against a stacked Sophomore squad. I expect his extra experience to give him an edge on the rest of his rookie counterparts (save for 27 year-old Moon).
Reserve: Juan Carlos Navarro — I really want to put Glen Davis here. In fact, I almost hope someone gets injured (a minor, one-week kind of injury) so he can be on the team. But Doc’s refusal to give Big Baby any playing time most nights makes it impossible to put him on the team in place of a guard who played nearly 30 minutes per game for the month of January. Even though Davis will become a solid player for the C’s in time, Navarro has earned his roster spot for now. Hopefully we’ll see Davis on the Sophomore team next year.
Center: Josh Boone — The Celtics have played the Nets three time this year, and after each game I am more and more impressed with Josh Boone. Anyone who remembers Boone’s play at UConn isn’t completely surprised by Boone’s recent success, he owns an exceptional skill-set, but the fact that he looks to be on his way to becoming a double-double monster this early in his career is a little surprising. Regardless, he’s shown me more than Bargnani and his falling numbers, and Boone plays as more of a center than either Aldridge or Millsap, so Boone gets the start at center for the Sophomore squad.
Forward: LaMarcus Aldridge — You could have given me a crystal ball filled with game footage of LaMarcus Aldridge and I still wouldn’t have believed he would be the type of player he has turned into. Don’t get me wrong, I understand players improve from college, but did anyone see this coming? 17 and 7.4? Really? On top of that, he does his scoring in a variety of ways and displays a soft touch that I don’t remember at all from when he was at Texas. Aldridge has been as key to Portland’s run this season as Brandon Roy, and you would be hard pressed to find many better young posts in the game. I expect an easy double double out of Aldridge.
Forward: Rudy Gay — I’m pretty sure everyone questioned his work ethic coming out of college. Does he want it enough? Will he ever develop that instinct to take over a game? Is he gutsy enough to take and make big shots? Survey says: yes, on all counts. Not only has Gay upped his scoring and rebounding from his rookie year to averages of 20 and 6, he’s now shooting 40% from three. More than just an athletic highlight man, Gay creates off the dribble, has a close to consistent jumper, and never seems to tire. On top of all that, the word around the blogosphere is that Gay possesses a tireless work ethic. I, for one, have added Gay to my 5 this year. You should too.
Guard: Brandon Roy — Do I really need to give an explanation here? I mean, Roy will most likely be using this game as a warm-up for the big show on Sunday. That alone is enough.
Guard: Rajon Rondo — As the starting point guard for the 34-8 league leading Celtics, Rondo has (for the most part) quieted his doubters this season. Although averages of 9.3 points and 4.7 assists (with only 1.7 TO’s per) aren’t gaudy by any means, his value to the Celtics’ success is greater than his numbers let on. One of the ways to measure Rondo’s worth is noticing how much his absence changes the play of Boston. Being the team’s primary ball-handler, the C’s struggle to initiate their offense when Rondo sits. He also possesses a combination of quickness and length that make him a decent on-ball defender at times and a strong slasher always. A friend of mine has compared him to a young Tony Parker, a somewhat lofty but not completely inaccurate comparison. Tony Parker or not, Rondo is certainly the best point guard of this sophomore class, and is much deserving of a starting spot.
Reserve: Paul Millsap — If you saw any of Utah’s playoff run last season, you understand exactly the type of weapon Millsap can become. Now if Sloan would just give him a little more court time. In the games where Boozer has been sidelined, Millsap has far exceeded his averages of 8.4 points and 5.6 rebounds, and the Jazz barely missed a beat. Known for being primarily a rebounder and hustle man, Millsap’s scoring ability has shined through when allowed this year. Hopefully a strong performance in the Rookie Challenge will prompt Sloan to release the shackles from Millsap.
Reserve: Ronnie Brewer — The second Jazz that should be selected to the team, Brewer possesses tremendous upside. Averaging nearly 30 minutes a game for Utah, Brewer’s consistency has been one of his most impressive attributes this season. Already an outstanding slasher (due to ridiculous athleticism), an improving jump-shot makes Brewer, shooting 56% from the floor, a downright scary player to face. Add his defensive tenacity to his list of intangibles, and Brewer could be one of the best players from this class when it’s all said and done.
Reserve: Jordan Farmar — I won’t lie, I didn’t expect Farmar to amount to much as an NBA player. Despite UCLA’s tournament run his final year, Farmar did little to impress me. I thought his jumper was shaky and his decision-making average. Perhaps I was right, or maybe I was completely wrong. Either way, I no longer think those descriptions are accurate. Shooting 41% from three, Farmar is an instant spark off the bench for the upstart Lakers, providing energy and scoring in bunches. More than that, his confidence never waivers, and thus it would be surprising to see Farmar do anything but improve over the next few seasons.
Reserve: Kelenna Azubuike — For the final roster spot, I’ll take a player with Azubuike’s upside over Bargnani’s impending Darko status any day. His NBA readiness has been evident since the first time he stepped on the court at Kentucky, and he finally got his shot this season. Although he has cooled off a little from his remarkable pre-season/ first few games (due to diminished playing time), Azubuike is always a threat to create havoc for opposing teams. He shoots nearly 40% from three, yet attacks the rim with ferocity, utilizing his superhero build to finish against with ease. Hopefully, Nellie boosts his playing time before too long, but either way, Azubuike will shine in a wide-open game like the Rookie Challenge. Let me be the first to say it: Scola will more than likely be on the wrong end of an Azubuike poster if the NBA sees things the same way I do.
Tags: Aaron Afflalo, Al Horford, Amare Stoudemire, Brandon Roy, Daequan Cook, Glen Davis, Jamario Moon, Jordan Farmar, Josh Boone, Juan Carlos Navarro, Kelenna Azubuike, Kevin Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge, Luis Scola, Marco Belinelli, Mike Conley, Nick Young, Paul Millsap, Rajon Rondo, Ronnie Brewer, Rudy Gay, Sean Wililams, Yi Jianlian