NBA All-Star Weekend: What you need to know about 3-Point Contest, Steph vs. Sabrina, Slam Dunk Contest and the big game

With the frenzy of the 2024 NBA trade deadline now behind us, the basketball-watching world will turn its collective attention to Indianapolis: home to a rising superstar who will feature in the starting lineups of Sunday’s main event at 2024 All-Star Weekend. Here are a few things to keep an eye on as the league’s best and brightest strut their stuff across three days of basketball-related activities, content-creation/brand-management opportunities and possibly spirited exhibition play:

What nature of fresh, ridged hijinks awaits us during the Ruffles Celebrity Game?

Ruffles NBA All-Star Celebrity Game: 7 p.m. ET Friday (ESPN)

In case you’ve somehow forgotten, the 2023 edition featured a tour de force MVP-winning performance by extremely muscular Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf …

… and Richard Jefferson toggling from announcer to referee to player, which frankly sounds like way too much work for a retired guy …

… and venerable WWE Grand Slam Champion The Miz draining what looked like a game-tying half-court buzzer-beater, only for it to be waved off for coming just after time had expired:

Hey, look at that: Giannis Antetokounmpo grabbing the game ball and running away. Huh. Maybe we should’ve seen that fracas against the Pacers coming.

(And listen, Giannis: I know you’re back in Indy this weekend. If you score a lot of points again … just be cool this time, OK? No violence on the dance floor.)

So: What’s on tap for this year’s model come Friday night?

Well, for starters, RJ’s back on the call; maybe this year he’ll announce, ref, play and, I don’t know, sing the national anthem? Cheerlead? Square off against Pat McAfee, who’s slated to make a “special guest appearance,” in a punting-infused skills challenge? Possibilities abound!

As for the game itself, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see:

  • Quincy Isaiah, who played Magic Johnson in HBO’s “Winning Time,” making a concerted effort to put all that time spent learning how to run the break like Earvin to good use;

  • Some kind of high-concept bit featuring content creator Tristan Jass, who really seems to enjoy exposing trash talkers (sometimes while dressed as a grandmother), and streamer Kai Cenat, who has been known to engage in trash talk;

  • Micah Parsons coming unblocked off the edge to deliver Backstreet Boy AJ McLean, Pinhead-style, into a world of pain and suffering;

  • WNBA stars Jewell Loyd and Natasha Cloud putting everyone in the gym to shame; and

  • Team Stephen A. punishing Team Shannon with the Jennifer Hudson-Metta World Peace pick-and-roll game, because I think we all know that there’s no real way to effectively guard an EGOT winner.

Ultimately, if you’re a younger reader, the main thing I’d like you to take away here is this: If you know someone who might not be super familiar with the influencers, musicians and reality TV stars dotting these rosters — like, say, a 41-year-old basketball writer whose cultural consumption is largely relegated to a couple of hours per weekend of trying to catch up on the decades of stuff he’s already missed — then be patient. Be kind. Be gentle. And be ready to explain who Anuel AA is. Please and thank you.

A statue of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning stand in front of signage promoting the NBA All-Star basketball game on the window on Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024. The NBA All-Star game in Sunday. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Indianapolis is getting ready for some NBA All-Star Weekend events. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Which Rising Stars will shine brightest?

Panini Rising Stars: 9 p.m. ET Friday (TNT)

For the third straight year, the rebooted Rising Stars event will feature four seven-player teams competing in a three-game Friday night mini-tournament. Newly minted Hall of Famer Pau Gasol will coach one entrant, Indiana Fever legend Tamika Catchings will lead another, and Pacers stars Jalen Rose and Detlef Schrempf will head up the other two.

Team Pau’s probably going to generate the most buzz, considering that in the draft of all the Rising Stars participants — a 24-player pool of rookies, sophomores and G-Leaguers — Gasol landed Victor Wembanyama. And, in case you’ve somehow managed to miss it over the past few months, that dude tends to command attention:

The tournament, then, exists primarily as an opportunity for someone else to pull focus away from the 7-foot-4 elephant in the room. Might Brandon Miller, drafted one slot after Wembanyama back in June and on something of a tear of late, rise to the occasion while serving as Big Vic’s compatriot on Team Pau? Will reigning Rookie of the Year Paolo Banchero serve notice of why he’s the lone honest-to-goodness All-Star in the Rising Stars mix and propel Team Tamika to the winner’s circle?

Could the Oklahoma City tandem of Chet Holmgren and Jalen Williams — the second- and third-best players (in whichever order you want to put them) on a Thunder squad with legit championship aspirations — lead Team Jalen to glory? Or will some of Schrempf’s G-Leaguers — including highly touted 6-foot-10 forward Matas Buzelis, a top-10 pick in Yahoo Sports draft analyst Krysten Peek’s most recent mock draft — offer proof that they’re ready to bang bodies and trade buckets with the best young ballers the big league has to offer?

Jabari Smith Jr., Jaden Ivey, Keegan Murray, Scoot Henderson, Bennedict Mathurin — there’ll be plenty of top-tier talent on display. And, you’d figure, plenty of motivation to seize the showcase and use it as a stepping stone to the kind of stardom that gets you playing on Sunday night in the years to come.

And speaking of Big Vic …

Whomst is most skilled?

State Farm All-Star Saturday Night Skills Challenge 8 p.m. ET (TNT)

The Skills Challenge is a nine-player competition to find out who is the best at throwing passes through tires, dribbling around obstacles, and making uncontested shots while lots of people stare at you. It’s pretty weird!

This year’s three-team conflagration will pit the hometown Team Pacers (All-Star point guard Tyrese Haliburton, Rising Stars participant Mathurin and center Myles Turner) against Team All-Stars (Scottie Barnes, Trae Young and Tyrese Maxey) and Team Top Picks (Wembanyama, Banchero and Anthony Edwards). It will feature three rounds: one timed relay race in which all three team members have to complete a 35-foot outlet pass, dribble through three moving pylons, make both a shot in the paint and a corner 3, and go coast-to-coast for a bucket; another where you have to hit moving targets of varying depths with bounce passes, chest passes and long-distance outlet passes; and a third where you get 60 seconds to hit as many shots as you can from five different spots on the floor.

Who will win? I don’t know, man. The fans, I guess? Whatever happens, I just hope Ant is mic’d up.

Will Stephen vs. Sabrina be cool?

State Farm All-Star Saturday Night Steph vs. Sabrina 3-point Challenge, 8 p.m. ET Saturday (TNT)

That depends. Do you like watching beautiful shooting motions resulting in an avalanche of made 3-pointers?

If yes, then: probably!

What about the other 3-Point Contest?

State Farm All-Star Saturday Night 3-point Contest, 8 p.m. ET (TNT)

In what has, in recent years, become the highest-wattage event of the weekend, six 2024 All-Stars (Haliburton, Trae Young, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jalen Brunson), one 2023 All-Star (Lauri Markkanen) and one Malik Beasley (Malik Beasley) will hoist as many triples as they can in 70 seconds. Ideally, they’ll make a bunch!

What Beasley lacks in star power, he makes up in accuracy. He’s drilling 44.9% of his long balls this season, seventh in the NBA and the highest clip of any of our participants. Young ranks third in the league in total 3s made, trailing only Steph and Luka Dončić; Beasley, Lillard, Mitchell, Markkanen, Brunson and Haliburton are all in the top 25. And while Towns trails the group in total makes, he’s also shooting a career-best 43.6% from distance this season in Minnesota and has the distinction of having won this competition before:

For that matter, so has Dame — just last year, in fact!

Will we see a repeat winner? Will Beasley outshine the bigger names? Will Tom Thibodeau emerge from the bowels of Gainbridge Fieldhouse to demand Brunson put up an extra thousand shots after his turn ends? The basketball-loving world awaits the answers with bated breath.

So: The Dunk Contest?

State Farm All-Star Saturday Night Slam Dunk Contest: 8 p.m. ET (TNT)

I’ll answer your question with a question: I know, right?

Because this is service journalism and I am a service journalist, this is where I will remind you that last year saw Mac McClung emerge from the G-League to take the crown, outshining the PelicansTrey Murphy III with three perfect scores in four tries in a performance that — in the words of noted dunk enthusiast Reggie Miller — “saved the Dunk Contest.”

While McClung hasn’t made it onto an NBA roster this season — though he has impressed with the G-League’s Osceola Magic this season, averaging 23.6 points, 7.4 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game while shooting 52% from the field and 39% from 3-point range — he’s back to defend his crown. Trying to snatch it off his head: another vaunted rookie (Jaime Jaquez, averaging just under 13 points, four rebounds and three assists in nearly 30 minutes per game for Erik Spoelstra), a fellow G-Leaguer (Knicks prospect Jacob Toppin, younger brother of 2022 Slam Dunk Contest winner Obi Toppin) and yes, that’s right: an actual All-Star.

All-Stars pulling dunking double-duty used to be pretty common. DeAndre Jordan did it in 2017, so did Andre Drummond in 2016 and the trio of Paul George, John Wall and Damian Lillard in 2014 (during the ill-fated and soon-scuttled attempt to turn it into a team event). It’s been less so in recent years, though: The last player selected to participate in the Sunday headliner who also agreed to suit up for Saturday night’s main event was Victor Oladipo in 2018. Or, he was — right up until Celtics swingman Jaylen Brown threw his hat into the ring.

The 6-foot-6 three-time All-Star has shown enough bounce and panache in actual games to inspire hope of generating some oohs and aahs in a competition setting:

He might also benefit from a touch of … let’s say preference.

While we’d never dream of impugning the integrity of the esteemed panel of judges assembled to rate Saturday night’s offerings — former Dunk Contest champions Dominique Wilkins, Darnell “Dr. Dunk” Hillman and Fred Jones, as well as Hall of Famers Gary Payton and Mitch Richmond — it does feel like, barring Brown just getting straight-up rim-checked on all of his attempts, grading him warmly would redound to the benefit of a league looking to encourage further Dunk Contest participation from bona fide All-Stars. (Consider this a renewed plea for healthy versions of Ja Morant and Edwards to volunteer as tribute next year.)

Even if there was an unconscious thumb on the scale, though, it’s certainly possible that McClung has enough heat up his sleeve to render the verdict inarguable. However it shakes out, the standard operating procedure for these contests remains in effect: Let’s remember to keep our expectations low, our hopes high and the following truism in the front of our minds. Dunking is like pizza; even when it’s not great, it’s still pretty good.

Who is most likely to pull off something ludicrous in the All-Star Game?

73rd NBA All-Star Game: 8 p.m. ET Sunday (TNT)

Maybe this is a mug’s bet, but I’m going to go with the guy who’s the lone All-Star on the team in the host city, who lit up the NBA in the early season and became something verging on a household name with his playmaking audacity, and who’s got the temerity to do stuff like this in real games:

The (massive LED glass) floor is yours, Tyrese Haliburton. We look forward to seeing what you’re planning to do with it.

Who is least likely?

I mean no disrespect here, because I am well established on the record as a huge fan of his game, but … does Bam Adebayo really have sauce like that? Is he willing to deploy it? Or is this going to be a Paul Millsap-type situation, where he tells credulous and wide-eyed reporters that he’s going to get his Hot Sauce on, only to do the same kind of nutritious but lightly seasoned work that got him to the big show in the first place?

I know what I fear. I live in the hope, though, that I will be proven wrong.

Who will be on the court in crunch time of the All-Star Game (should we get it)?

We’ll have to wait until season’s end to find out which players will make the three annual All-NBA teams, which offer the best approximation we’ve got of which players are the best in the world at any particular point in time. (Although, given the implementation of the 65-game threshold for end-of-season award eligibility, there’ll certainly be some names missing from that guesstimation this time around.) If you’re looking to do some instant-reaction back-of-the-envelope math on the matter, though, you could do worse than taking a snapshot of which 10 players are on the court at the point when the All-Star Game transmogrifies from Source of Highlight Reel Footage into Actual Competitive Game That Extraordinarily Competitive Athletes Really Want to Win.

As you might expect from rosters composed entirely of All-Stars, there are plenty of good choices for head coaches Chris Finch and Doc Rivers. The East squad features two-time MVP Giannis, multi-time All-NBA selections Lillard and Jayson Tatum, and single-selection All-NBA types like Mitchell, Young and Brown, as well as several other players who very well could earn their first All-League nods in two months’ time: hometown hero Haliburton, Brunson, Adebayo and Tyrese Maxey.

The West, on the other hand, has four MVPs — LeBron, Steph, Kevin Durant and Nikola Jokić — plus All-NBA mainstays Luka, Kawhi Leonard, George, Anthony Davis, Towns and Devin Booker … and that’s before we get to the guy who could win MVP this season, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Edwards, who absolutely believes he’s the best dude on every court he’s on and is right more often than he’s wrong. Truly: an embarrassment of riches all around!

If you told me that it’s going to be all (relative) old heads (LeBron, KD, Kawhi, Steph and Jokić for the West; Giannis, Dame, Tatum, Mitchell and Brown for the East) it wouldn’t shock me. Nor, though, would it surprise me at all if some of the game’s brightest newcomers (SGA, Ant, Maxey, Brunson and especially Haliburton) force their way to the front of the line. However it shakes out, the bet here is that if it’s a tight game late and the competitive juices start flowing, we’re going to get a very public update of what the NBA’s current pecking order really looks like — a clear look at which vets are hanging onto prominence and just how much youth is going to be served.

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