"For me to get this trophy is crazy." -- Bridges on winning MVP
NBA All-Star Friday is officially in the books. The night kicked off with Team Wilbon taking down Team Smith in the Celebrity Game, but after that, all eyes turned towards the real players as the NBA's best rookies and sophomores took the floor for the Rising Stars Game. In the sixth edition of the game's revamped format, the teams were divided into USA vs. World. The World entered Friday with a 3-2 edge in the series, so Team USA had plenty of motivation to tie things back up. They were able to do just that with a 151-131 victory.
Miles Bridges took home MVP honors with 20 points, five rebounds, five assists and three steals, and his incredible third quarter is what turned the tide in the game. Team World led by as many as 13 points in the first half, but Bridges poured in 13 points of his own in a third quarter that Team USA won by 20 points. They finished things up with a 36-26 margin in the fourth quarter to complete the second-half blowout.
Bridges was far from the only standout, though. New York Knicks rookie R.J. Barrett led all scorers with 27 points, and Brandon Clarke, Eric Paschall and Collin Sexton all topped 20 as well. The true star of the show, though, was No. 1 overall pick, Zion Williamson. He finished with 14 points on 7-of-11 shooting to go along with two rebounds and an assist, but the numbers weren't the story. While he is not competing in the dunk contest, he hardly needs to after throwing down a number of the game's most explosive jams. The biggest? A second-quarter slam that was so strong it bent the basket.
Here are some key takeaways from the night's action:
1. No shortage of funny moments
- Rim mics
For whatever reason, the rim mics in the United Center were extremely loud, and it added some much-needed comedy to the evening. Every time someone tossed up a brick, which happened surprisingly often for an exhibition game, a thud echoed through the arena. Not sure if it was audible through TV, but it was hilarious in the building.
- Luka and Trae
Late in the first half, Doncic launched a halfcourt heave to beat the buzzer and got it to go off the glass. It was a great shot, and the crowd loved it, but the reaction between Doncic and Trae Young was even better. Young was in disbelief, and the two collapsed into each other's arms, laughing and joking about the moment.
- In-game entertainment
T-shirt tosses, trivia contests and interactive games are a staple of in-game entertainment in the NBA, and the Rising Stars Game was no different. There were all sorts of examples from this game, including a young kid who expertly named players from five different countries representing Team World, and won tickets to the All-Star Game. But the best moment was when the in-arena host just gave up all pretense late in the fourth quarter and yelled at the crowd, "who wants some free stuff?"
2. Zion is on a different level
The Rising Stars game is not short on talent, and the crowd was thrilled to see the likes of Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Ja Morant. But the excitement for Zion Williamson was just on a different level. It's almost hard to explain, but there's a buzz, a sense of anticipation when he gets the ball, or, as was often the case in this game, when the crowd notices him preparing to go up for an alley-oop.
In the final few minutes, when the game gave way to an impromptu dunk contest, he tried to throw down a few absolutely incredible dunks, and the sound was incredible. Even though he missed all of his attempts, the crowd "ooh-ed" and "ahh-ed" louder than when other players actually made some dunks.
His talent is obvious, and even in his first few weeks of actual action, it's clear he's stronger and more athletic than most of the other guys in the league. But the reaction to what he's doing sets him apart even more. This was the first time I've seen him in person, and it was just incredible to see how much he turned up the atmosphere.
3. Bridges wins MVP
Boasting Zion Williamson, Trae Young and Ja Morant in the starting lineup, pretty much everyone expected Team USA to win this game. But at halftime, Team World led 81-71. That didn't sit well with the Team USA locker room, and even though it was just an exhibition, they made up their minds during the break that they would come out in the second half and take over.
"Coach was getting on us," Miles Bridges said after the game. "He was saying 'we gotta play for real.'" The Hornets youngster took that to heart, and even sent out a tweet joking that they were about to take things seriously. It worked, as he led Team USA back into the game with a dominant third quarter.
He went for 13 points in that frame alone and threw down a monster self alley-oop off the backboard that was one of the plays of the game. From there, Team USA dominated and pulled away for the 20-point win. Bridges finished with 20 points, five rebounds, five assists and three steals to win the MVP Award.
4. The Rising Stars Challenge should go back to rookies vs. sophomores
Since 2015, the Rising Stars Challenge has been Team USA versus Team World, and while it's been a great nod to show just how international the game of basketball has become in the league, it takes a bit of luster away from the overall matchup. Some years the rosters are incredibly lopsided, creating a predictable affair, or you miss out on seeing some of the best young players teaming up because they don't fall under the same umbrella of U.S. or World talent. That's why the NBA should go back to having this game be rookies vs. sophomores.
Imagine seeing a sophomore team led by Luka Doncic and Trae Young match up against Ja Morant and Zion Williamson. We got to see one half of that with Morant and Williamson both suiting up for the U.S. Team this year, but we'll likely never be able to see Doncic and Young on the same team and this would serve as the best platform for that. Those two players are already linked together by the draft night trade that tied them to one another forever, imagine the fodder it would cause by having them suit up on the same team.
Not to mention, it would add a little more incentive to this game. Sophomores never want to lose to rookies, and the first-year players would try their hardest to upstage their second-year colleagues. It would create instant intrigue among the players trying to show each other up, which would result in a better product overall. The league has tinkered with this game several times over the years. From having former NBA legends draft teams, to it originally being an all-rookie team. This new format works some years when there's enough quality talent to fill both rosters, but in the years that it doesn't, it leaves out key players because only so many players can be on one team. If it were rookies against sophomores, someone like Jaxson Hayes would've likely made it, and he would've brought a lot of excitement with his high-flying dunks.
5. The Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks both won the trade
At the end of the first half of the Rising Stars Challenge,shot as time expired in Young's face and nailed it. The crowd went wild, and both Doncic and Young laughed and reveled in the ridiculousness of the shot Doncic just hit. It was all in good fun, and it was just the latest reminder in the fact that while everyone always asks, "who won the trade," the answer is clear that both teams won. These two players will always be tied together after being traded for each other on the night of the 2019 Draft, and despite their incredibly different styles of play they'll always get compared. However, after watching Young go for 18 points and Doncic tack on another 16, that argument over who won the trade should be filed away.
In all honesty, both of them being named "Rising Stars" is a ridiculous understatement considering they'll be suiting up for the All-Star Game on Sunday. If anything, it's just another indictment of the Sacramento Kings for not only overlooking Doncic, but Young as well. With every 30-foot shot Young knocked down -- he made at least two of them -- it just reiterated the ridiculous range he has, and every time Doncic threw another jaw-dropping pass or nailed his patented stepback three it showed how much of a generational talent he is. While the Luka-Trae debate might be painted as a rivalry, the truth is these players are both thriving and they have a deep level of respect for each other, and Friday night's Rising Stars Game just proved that further.
Catch all the action from the Rising Stars Game in our live blog below.