PHOENIX – How much media interest was there in the NBA Rookie Challenge before the game Friday night? Well, moments before a press conference for the game featuring both coaches, Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard, I was the only one in attendance along with a transcriber, moderator and a crew from NBA TV. When a league representative looked at the embarrassing turnout, he cancelled the press conference.
I might be the only one that cares about the Rookie-Sophomore game, but I think it's the best event outside of the actual NBA All-Star game. Some years it's the only thing worth watching during the weekend.
Not to take anything away from anything that might happen Saturday or Sunday, but the highlight of NBA All-Star weekend might very well have been the performance of Kevin Durant during the Rookie Challenge. The second-year forward from the Oklahoma City Thunder poured in a Rookie Challenge-record 46 points in 30 minutes to lead the sophomores to a 122-116 win in the closest Rookie game in nearly a decade.
It's hard to call a meaningless exhibition game a coming-out party but for those that haven't watched many Oklahoma City Thunder games (that would basically be any non Thunder fan without NBA League Pass). It was the first time they had a chance to watch the maturation of Durant as a true star in this league.
That Durant doubled his scoring output from last year's Rookie Challenge (23 to 46 points) is no accident. He's twice as good as he was last year and only getting better. His statistics are up across the board this year, and his 25.6 points per game average is one of the highest never to be selected to the All-Star game at the midseason point.
From the opening tip of the game, it was clear that Durant was using this Friday-night stage to prove that he should have been playing Sunday afternoon instead. While many of the other players on the court looked like they might be content with letting the game devolve into a bad imitation of an And 1 Mix Tape Tour game with plenty of highlight but no defense (five of the last six games had been decided by more than 20 points), Durant picked up the intensity of the game and his teammates.
When the Sophomores fell behind by 13 points with 13 minutes left in the game, Durant took it upon himself to continue the streak of the second-year players, who had won seven of the past eight Rookie Challenge games, including six in a row. Durant scored a record 28 points in the second half and saved his best highlight-reel plays for the final minutes as the rookies attempted to come back, going past Rudy Fernandez for a three-point play and rolling away from Marc Gasol for a reverse jam in the final two minutes to put the game away.
It was only two years ago that many were arguing which player should be taken first in the 2007 NBA Draft. While Greg Oden, who is averaging 8.8 points and has missed 14 games this season due to injury, ended up going first, the picture of him sitting at the end of the bench injured Friday night has come to signify how his career has been defined thus far while Durant's game may only be a preview of how good he can be.