The New Rising Stars Format Turned The Worst Event At All-Star Into A Delight

The New Rising Stars Format Turned The Worst Event At All-Star Into A Delight

CLEVELAND — Let’s face it: The Rising Stars game usually sucks. Like every event at the NBA All-Star Weekend, the No. 1 priority for everyone — players, coaches, teams, etc. — is that no one suffers the kind of serious injury that puts a damper on the entire event and makes us question whether or not these sorts of midseason exhibitions are a good idea.

That does not mean these events can’t be fun. Sometimes, it’s as easy as a simple rule change — back in 2020, the NBA adopted the Elam Ending for the All-Star Game and gave us one of the best games that All-Star has ever seen. The institution of a target score made the fourth quarter of the game legitimately competitive, and apparently, someone in the league office decided it’d be a good idea to take that general idea and apply it to Rising Stars. Perhaps it’ll go back to being a bore in the coming years, but in 2022, the event set a high bar for everything else at All-Star.

The gist: Four teams of first and second-year players, with each team getting one G League Ignite youngster. The first two games were to 50. The third game, featuring both winners, was to 25. It ruled. Game one, a matchup of teams with honorary coaches Isiah Thomas and James Worthy, became a next basket wins scenario. There was, for long stretches, the sorts of lax play that we see during the event in the past — guys weren’t exactly sprinting back on defense, dunks had a higher degree of difficulty than usual, etc.

And then, something funny happened: The game was really, really close as it approached 50. Dudes began running. Big plays were celebrated because they got their squad closer to winning. There were people playing defense in the Rising Stars Game. The Rising Stars Game! This isn’t supposed to happen!

Ultimately, Desmond Bane was fouled and stepped up to the free throw line with his team trailing, 49-48. After making the first, both Tyrese Maxey and Cole Anthony got in his face, trying to shake him just a little bit. It didn’t work, nor did Anthony pulling his pants down, and as a result, Team Isiah moved on to the final.

The second game was much of the same. A matchup between teams led by Rick Barry and Gary Payton was close from start to finish, with both sides legitimately buying into the competitive aspect of the whole thing.

Following the final media timeout of the game — there were built-in breaks after one team hit 20 and 40 points — the game got really gross because both squads were trying to defend like it was a playoff game. There was a “DE-FENSE!” chant when Barry’s team, featuring Evan Mobley and Isaac Okoro of the local Cleveland Cavaliers, was trying to get a stop with their team ahead, 48-47.

LaMelo Ball of Team Payton split a pair of free throws a few possessions after those chants starts up, tying things up at 48 and putting us in yet another next basket wins scenario. It didn’t take long to decide a winner: Jae’Sean Tate reeled in a pass from Cade Cunningham after Ball got a hand on it, then drove into the lane and finished in traffic to hit 50.

The final was much of the same. Guys dogged one another on both ends of the floor. Fast hands on defense led to deflections, incisive passing and moving led to good looks on offense. The big fellas were throwing their weight around, trying to corral a rebound that led to a legitimate fast break, not the usual cherry picking we’re used to in these sorts of exhibitions. Refs were getting worked, all with the hopes of a potential game-changing call going in the way of their team.

This time around, the game wasn’t decided by the next basket wins like its predecessors — Franz Wagner iced things with a free throw to give Team Barry a 25-20 win. It didn’t matter, the game could have been a 25-0 drubbing and this still would have been the best Rising Stars Game in the history of the event 100,000 times over. This game is supposed to have a few wow plays, two teams getting close to 200 points, and no one really caring about anything other than getting a few fun highlights.

Instead, everyone who watched got to see the sort of thing you want in the best version of an All-Star event: the best players at a specific thing (although I suppose this specific thing is “being young”) going head-to-head and caring about the outcome. If everything else is like this at All-Star Weekend in 2022, we’re in for the best mid-winter stretch in league history. And if not, at least Friday night was fun.