It's funny that they put the world "challenge" right in the name of the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge because it doesn't look like what's happening is very difficult for anyone involved, at least not at first.
The two teams of rookies and sophomores divided up into U.S. and World teams combined for 84 3-point shots in 40 minutes of basketball and why shouldn't they? They combined to shoot 40.4 percent from deep on the night, after all. Zach LaVine scored 30 for the winning U.S. team while Kristaps Porzingis and Emmanuel Mudiay each poured in 30 for the World. The final score? 157-154 (!!) Sure, there was a little showboating here and there, but mostly what you saw was every best guy from every pickup game you've played multiplied by a factor of five and put onto the court at the Air Canada Centre at the same time.
Consider this lovely little tête-à-tête between the Los Angeles Lakers' Jordan Clarkson and the Denver Nuggets' Mudiay:
If calling it the best pickup game in the world makes it sound a little like the actual NBA All-Star Game – its big brother arriving Sunday – the distinction is that these rookies and sophomores haven't yet been genuinely tested and hardened by the game the way some of their older peers have. This brings them closer to the orbit of that one guy who's six inches taller than the others at your weekly run, the dude who played Division I ball and kinda maybe sorta held his own.
By way of distinction, when Russell Westbrook set his mind to winning the All-Star MVP last year, there was a jaded element of "I want this; what do I have to do to get it?" to his performance. "You want a new record for points in a half? Fine, here's 27." At times, guys were either getting out of his way or helping him along to it, and that's fine, but in a way there's something more true about the gentle selfishness the Rising Stars Challenge brings out.
Sometimes, it's almost like you can see this collection of kids who at some point discovered they had a gift for basketball and maybe even that they had a passion for it, not necessarily in that order. In their first and second seasons they're still learning that that thing you're good at, that thing you love can be hard and unrelenting, can do its best to drain the love right out of it. That's real challenge here; the Challenge itself is easy, a chance to get back to the playground a little, to horsing around and clowning your opponents lightly.
"I mean, we were just going out there and just having fun," Clarkson said. "Just living in the experience of the game."
And as if you needed any more of a reminder just how young they are, LaVine's father somehow sneaked in a question at his press conference about where he got his work ethic and athletic ability.
"I get it from my mom," deadpanned LaVine.
"Your mom?!" his dad shot back.
"I get it from my dad –"
"Come on back."
" – who played professional football. Hey who gave him a mic? Please don't give him a mic again."
So it starts as fun and games and that's where it ends, eventually, when these players get to sit at a table with a spray of NBA logos behind them and answer questions. But much like the main event on Sunday, a kind of remarkable thing happens right before the end when it's close: a basketball game breaks out.
This year's Rising Stars Challenge had intentional fouls! And replay reviews! As the game ticked down into the last few minutes, a pecking order emerged. Hometown hero Andrew Wiggins was going to do his damndest to throw the World on his back in richly metaphoric style and drag an MVP trophy away from real-life teammate LaVine. Karl-Anthony Towns had already come on strong down the stretch and then Clarkson made free throws when he needed to, a statement you probably never thought would apply to a game like this.
To throw it back to pickup, it was that moment when the heat checks have been taken, when the guy who's nice but couldn't hit the broad side of a barn has gotten up a few, when the game gets tight and those players who have tasted real competition taste it again and bear down. This kind of thing happens in the NBA, too, but it's also shepherded along by coaches and scouts and schemes and substitutions and matchups and injuries, all shaping the structure of what happens on the court along the way.
In an exhibition like last night's or Sunday's All-Star Game or your Monday night run, it flowers from within the players, grows in the wild when the conditions are right, organically. It's at that moment when the players find themselves again, when they remember not only the sheer joy of the game itself but also the taste of blood in their teeth, when what started as an exhibition becomes – for a moment anyway – a little something more. The Rising Star Challenge actually gets challenging.