Team USA Looks to Even Series at Rising Stars Challenge

by Sam Perley

The Charlotte Hornets are heading into the All-Star Break on the heels of consecutive road wins and three members of their young core will look to keep the momentum rolling at the NBA’s Rising Stars Challenge starting tonight at 9 PM EST in Chicago.

Second-year guard and Most Improved Player candidate Devonte’ Graham is averaging 18.1 PPG and 7.8 APG (seventh in the NBA) so far this season, while also knocking down the fifth-most total three-pointers (185). Fellow 2018 draftee Miles Bridges has been on a tear lately, putting up 19.6 PPG on 46.8% shooting and 6.5 RPG over his past eight games. Last but not lease, forward PJ Washington currently ranks 11th amongst rookies in scoring (11.7 PPG), fourth in rebounding (5.5), ninth in assists (2.2) and steals (0.9) and sixth in blocks (0.8).

“This validates what we’re doing and our development program, the guys we’re bringing in, the characters, the athletes, the IQ,” said Coach Borrego. “I think it’s all positive. We’re trending the right way. We’ve got a long way to go, but to be validated like this speaks to these players and their work ethic and to our organization as a whole. I’m proud of them. They’re going to represent us very well out there and enjoy it. I think it’ll raise their bar, their standard being around those great players. That’s where they should want to be every single All-Star Break.”

Team USA won last year’s meeting with Team World, 161-144, in Charlotte, which moved its Rising Stars Challenge record to 2-3 since this particular format was first implemented in 2015. Los Angeles Lakers F Kyle Kuzma was named MVP after racking up a game-high 35 points, six rebounds and two assists in just 22 minutes of playing time.

Memphis F Jaren Jackson Jr. and Atlanta G Trae Young are the only returning members from Team USA’s victorious 2019 squad. Dallas G Luka Dončić (Slovenia), Oklahoma City G Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Canada) and Minnesota G Josh Okogie (Nigeria) are all looking for revenge after finding themselves on the losing end last year.

Coming into tonight’s showdown, Young is the leading scorer (29.7 PPG) and assists generator (9.2) for Team USA. New Orleans F Zion Williamson is averaging 21.0 PPG and a team-best 7.7 RPG (although has played just nine games this year) and Memphis G Ja Morant has also looked quite impressive with marks of 17.6 PPG and 7.1 APG in his first NBA campaign.

Dončić, who is also starting for Team LeBron in the All-Star Game on Sunday night, is tops on Team World in scoring (28.9 PPG), rebounding (9.5) and assists (8.7 APG). Other players to watch on the international side include Gilgeous-Alexander (19.5 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 3.1 APG and 1.2 SPG) and Washington’s Japanese-born rookie F Rui Hachimura (13.9 PPG and 6.0 RPG).

Game Notes: Cleveland G Collin Sexton (replacing Miami G Tyler Herro on Team USA) and New Orleans F Nicolò Melli (Italy; replacing Phoenix C Deandre Ayton on Team World) were late additions to the event… The last five Rising Stars Challenge MVPs have all been from Western Conference teams.

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