As part of being an alumnus of LIU, I was invited to attend the Rising Stars Challenge practice at LIU’s Brooklyn campus last week and mingle with some of the NBA’s future phenoms. The event was star-studded, and the hosts were both hospitable and on the mark.
It was a fun and interactive showcase with the players being easily accessible for pictures and autographs. The environment was fan and family-friendly, and as you would expect the atmosphere was lively and jovial. Team USA and Team World did a bunch of drills, interactive skill competitions (around the world with wheelchair all-stars) and were made available for media sessions.
For the future stars of the game, though, the practice and subsequent game was as much business as it was fun. These young stars have bright futures ahead of them, and all involved were soaking up the opportunity awarded to them.
Some players are new to the game, while some players have seen an increase in their role and are now relishing the spotlight.
Shabazz Muhammad is one such player of the latter statement.
Muhammad is having breakout season while seeing his scoring increase from 8.3 points per game in his rookie year to 13.6 points per game this season. He has also seen his shooting percentage climb to .486 percent after shooting .460 from the floor last season. The biggest jump has been with his three-point shooting, though, as this season he is shooting .392 from three-point range as opposed to the paltry .273 he shot last season.
“Last year I didn’t really play and (went) to the D-League,” Muhammad told reporters huddled around him at the Rising Stars media session. “(Last year) was a wake-up call. I worked hard over the summer and I’m really happy of where I am progressing.”
While players like Muhammad had high expectations placed on them and were expected to do well (he was drafted No. 14 overall in the 2013 NBA Draft), some players have had to prove they belonged.
A player who had to fight tooth and nail to make an NBA squad is Robert Covington, a second-year undrafted player from Tennessee State. Covington now plays with the Philadelphia 76ers after briefly playing with the Rockets last season.
Covington, a 6’9” small forward with terrific range, is starting to find his way in the NBA in his second year. He is averaging 13.2 points per game while shooting .389 from three-point range and also chipping in 4.7 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game.
However, for Covington and other Sixers part of the Rising Stars Challenge (Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel), winning has not been easy—especially early. But credit the Sixers; they have picked up their play of late and are doing a good job of overcoming a dreadful 0-17 start. Since that start, they are a more respectable 12-24.
“It’s harmony and confidence,” Covington said about what has changed for the Sixers. “We’ve been playing really hard. Coach (Brett) Brown has done a great job and helping us understand rotations and a lot of other things that play a factor. We had a lot to (learn) and Coach Brown has done a lot for us and our team has bought into the system. We go out each and every night and just play hard.”
What was also special about the day was that all four of the Slam Dunk contestants were also members of the Rising Stars Challenge, with Victor Oladipo, Zach LaVine, Mason Plumlee and Giannis Antetokounmpo all showing off their hops in warmups. Of course, LaVine went on to easily win the contest two nights later with some jaw-dropping jams.
One of the highlights of the day was when Plumlee signed his No.5 Duke jersey for a delighted, young fan. In all, every player was very accommodating for pictures and autographs. A big shout-out also goes to BBVA Compass for being great marketers of the event.
Thursday’s practice, of course, was all a lead up to the actual event in which Team World beat Team USA 121-112. Stud Timberwolves rookie Andrew Wiggins was named MVP after scoring 22 points for Team World. Jazz breakout Rudy Gobert was also big on the night, scoring 18 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and blocking three shots.
Team USA was led by Oladipo and LaVine, who each scored 22 points in the losing cause.
For one day at the Steinberg Wellness Center on the tiny campus of LIU Brooklyn, the stars of tomorrow did a bang-up job of showcasing the game while letting the basketball world know they got “next.”
All quotes obtained firsthand