Nikola Vučević - USA TODAY Sports
He wasn't selected to participate as a rookie, but Magic center Nik Vučević has proven he deserves a spot in the Rising Stars Challenge, otherwise known as the Rookie/Sophomore Game, at NBA All-Star Weekend.
As NBA All-Star Weekend events go, the Rising Stars Challenge--more commonly known as the Rookie/Sophomore Game--isn't a headliner. It takes place on Friday, the first night of All-Star festivities, and it lacks the appeal of the All-Star Saturday Night mainstays and the, well, star power of the main event on Sunday.
And yet the Rising Stars Challenge can also be one of the more fun events to watch, as anyone who witnessed the performance Kyrie Irving put on at Amway Center last February can attest. The eventual Rookie of the Year winner shot 12-of-13 from the floor, including 8-of-8 from three-point distance, for 34 points in 27 minutes to lead his team to victory.
The NBA won't announce who's scheduled to participate in the 2013 Rising Stars Challenge until January 30th, and team captains Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal won't pick the rosters until February 7th in a live special on TNT. But it's nonetheless not too early to discuss who ought to make the cut, and Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic is one such player.
This site recently discussed Vucevic's skills in this post, but this occasion warrants an examination of his credentials as they compare to those of his peers. In his second season from USC, Vucevic is averaging 11.6 points, 11 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per game in 32.2 minutes through Tuesday's games. Among second-year players, those numbers rank him seventh, first, third, and fifth, respectively. By any measure, he's one of the best and most productive players in his draft class.
Vucevic, who did not earn a selection to the 2012 Challenge, does not face too difficult a road in getting picked in 2013. Of the nine rookies to earn a spot in the 2012 Challenge, only Irving, Brandon Knight, Ricky Rubio, Kemba Walker, and Derrick Williams seem like locks or near-locks to be invited back, based on their name recognition and productivity. Four other players--specifically MarShon Brooks, Norris Cole, Markieff Morris, and Tristan Thompson--aren't likely to be considered for a return. Vucevic would only have to beat any one player in the quartet of middling performers in order to punch his ticket to Houston. The same rule applies to Kenneth Faried, who did not earn a selection in 2012 but who has become the second-most promising player, behind Irving, in that class. There's room for both Faried and Vucevic on the 2013 roster.
No, the Rising Stars Challenge isn't glamorous, and the level of defensive intensity makes the All-Star Game itself look like an old Detroit Pistons/Boston Celtics slobberknocker. However, it's still an honor for a player to earn a spot on either of the rosters for the event, and Vucevic is as deserving as nearly any second-year player.
For Wednesday, SB Nation has asked its NBA sites to write about All-Star Weekend in some form. This post is Orlando Pinstriped Post's contribution.