NBA All-Star Weekend is upon us, and by all indications, it will be one to remember.
The All-Star game is full of talent (but not without some snubs). The three-point contest is a complete toss-up. Bill Simmons is coaching against Jalen Rose for the celebrity game. The talent in the new dunk contest format promises to break Twitter on Saturday night. The skills competition has both Goran Dragic and Giannis Antetokounmo. And the Rising Stars Challenge really is full of rising stars in the league.
Though the game has transformed from the Rookie Challenge to a combined roster format, this year's contest closely resembles the game of old. In fact, the team drafted by Kenny Smith and Chris Webber contains only two sophomores. The team drafted by Charles Barkley and Grant Hill is comprised of eight second-year players. A look of these sophomores is below:
*Plumlee replaced the injured Pero Antic.
The table notes a wide disparagement in nERD, a measure of a player's efficiency and impact on his team's success rate, between the sophomores playing in the Rising Star Challenge. The renowned sophomores (Davis, Drummond, and Lillard) impact their teams in significant ways. Some of the others don't match-up quite yet, but this just means that there are plenty of players in the showcase game who may be under the radar for the casual fan.
Davis, and deservedly so, has been playing so well that he has already been featured in his own article, and Drummond got similar attention for being underappreciated. Additionally, Lillard is competing in every event this weekend, and his team was surging back in December.
The rest of the sophomores, though, are amidst noteworthy seasons either because of their impact on playoff contenders or because of their individual performance (and, in some cases, both). I know that before I started to follow the NBA as closely as I do now All-Star Weekend was when I began focusing on the playoff push, so here's a good look at some young players who deserve your attention.
These are some players who are critical components of teams fighting for a playoff birth and who could become household names during this year's playoffs.
Terrence Jones, PF, Houston Rockets - Even in the heavyweight slugfest that is the Western Conference, the Rockets find themselves with the third seed entering All-Star Weekend. Jones enters the break tied for 15th in the league in blocks (1.40 per game). Jones has recorded a 36-point night, too, showing that he's more than just a shot blocker and a rebounder. If the Rockets make it to the Finals, it will likely be because Jones took the next step even though his nERD of 5.0 proves how important his contribution already is.
Jonas Valanciunas, C, Toronto Raptors - Valanciunas is currently tied for 17th in the NBA with 8.8 rebounds per game of all qualified players (on pace for 70 games or 800 rebounds). That's the highest tally for players in this game except for Drummond who is third in the entire league with 13.0 boards per game. Valanciunas is also tied for 28th in double-doubles with 18 this season. The Raptors are roaring right now and remain the third seed in the Eastern Conference. A big rebounding series from the multifaceted Lituanian could trouble a weak interior team like the Miami Heat, so keep Valanciunas on your mind (even if you can only pronounce his name as well as Barkley can).
Bradley Beal, SG, Washington Wizards - Beal is not the young star on his own team, that honor goes to the emerging John Wall, but the sharpshooter is hitting 43.0% of his three point attempts, tied for eighth in the league. Beal makes 2.1 three-pointers a game, tied for 19th in the NBA. He missed some time with a leg injury in December, but through November, he averaged an astounding 40.1 minutes per game. Beal's affinity for the three-ball could swing a playoff series, so be sure to keep an eye out for him.
Miles Plumlee, PF/C, Phoenix Suns - Plumlee probably deserves to be in the playoff factor section, but his statistical contributions have been immense this season. He's 14th in the league in blocks (1.43 per game) and 24th in rebounds (8.5). Plumlee has also had six games with at least 13 points and 13 rebounds, including a 17-point, 20-rebound showcase against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Suns were projected to be a bottom-five team in the league this year, but Plumlee's contributions in addition to the All-Star caliber play of Dragic have been integral. They currently sit at the seventh seed in the West and could become the Cinderella team in this year's playoffs.
Jared Sullinger, PF, Boston Celtics - The Celtics are one of the few teams in the league without playoff hopes, but Sullinger is taking advantage of the opportunity by posting huge numbers. Sullinger is tied for 26th in rebounds per game with 8.2. He isn't shooting particularly effectively (43.7% from the field), but he's prone to eye-popping box scores. His 25-point, 20-rebound game against the Raptors is his best game this year, but he's recorded four other games with at least 19 points and 14 rebounds. His minutes are inconsistent due to the jammed frontcourt in Boston, but Sullinger's numbers when he gets consistent minutes are impossible to ignore.
Other Notable Sophomores
Terrence Ross, SG, Toronto Raptors - Ross, like this section, is a bit of a wild card, but Ross is returning to defend his slam dunk title this weekend. Just as important, Ross is one of three players to score at least 50 points in a game (along with All-Star Starters Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant), making him an intriguing aspect of the Raptors' attack.
John Henson, PF/C, Milwaukee Bucks - Even though the Bucks are atrocious, Henson has proven himself to be a frontcourt asset. Henson is fifth in the league in blocks (2.5) and second in the league in block percentage (6.3%) behind Davis's (7.0%). He can score and rebound, too. He has four games of at least 19 points and 14 rebounds, indicating that the spry rim-runner could be a key player in the league for the next decade.
Kendall Marshall, PG, Los Angeles Lakers - Marshall's team isn't going anywhere, but he has emerged as a potential star point guard. In addition to two 17-assist games and a 16-assist game, Marshall is third in the NBA in three-point field goal percentage (46.5%) while making 1.8 three-pointers and averaging 10.3 points per game.