CHICAGO — Giannis Antetokounmpo was almost done picking sides with LeBron James for Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game when he pretended to have a case of mistaken identity.
“So with my next pick, I’ll pick a guy that is having a great season, helping his team do great things,” said Antetokounmpo, who along with James served as captains during the annual all-star draft last Thursday. “I just played him a couple of nights ago. Kevin Dur---. I mean, Brandon Ingram. That will be Brandon Ingram.”
The NBA’s reigning MVP cracked up at his own joke, which nodded to years of comparisons between Ingram, a lanky 22-year-old forward for the New Orleans Pelicans, and Kevin Durant, the two-time NBA Finals MVP who signed with the Brooklyn Nets last summer. Inadvertently, Antetokounmpo’s passing reference was a perfectly appropriate summation of the upcoming all-star weekend in Chicago: While the recent deaths of former commissioner David Stern and Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant will receive significant attention, a defining theme of the festivities will be a significant infusion of new blood, like Ingram.
All told, there will be 10 first-time selections in Sunday’s All-Star Game, the most since 2002. There will also be three first-time selections in the starting lineups, the first time that’s happened since 1994.
This deep class includes East starters Pascal Siakam and Trae Young; East reserves Bam Adebayo, Domantas Sabonis and Jayson Tatum; West starter Luka Doncic; and West reserves Devin Booker, Rudy Gobert, Ingram and Donovan Mitchell.
No doubt, the number of new faces in Chicago has been inflated because of a rash of injuries to established superstars. In addition to Durant, Stephen Curry, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Kyrie Irving, Victor Oladipo and Klay Thompson are all missing out due to the impact of health concerns. Booker was announced as an injury replacement for Damian Lillard on Thursday.
Yet the all-star newcomers arrive in Chicago riding significant positive momentum and carrying impressive individual achievements. Doncic, the 20-year-old engine of the Dallas Mavericks, has posted a player efficiency rating of 29.2, the highest mark ever for a player 21 years old or younger, and he will appear on plenty of MVP ballots by season’s end. Remarkably, he received more than 6.1 million votes during the fan voting process — ranking second among West players — and will be the youngest all-star starter since James in 2005.
Young, 21, ranks third in the NBA in points per game and second in assists per game. The Atlanta Hawks guard beat out returning all-stars such as Irving, Kyle Lowry and Ben Simmons to earn his starting nod.
The 25-year-old Siakam has replaced the departed Kawhi Leonard as the new leader of the Toronto Raptors, averaging career highs in points, rebounds and assists while leading the defending champs to the NBA’s third-best record. After an offseason trade from the Lakers to the Pelicans increased his role, Ingram’s numbers (24.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game) have approximated Durant’s production at the same age (27.7 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game). Both Siakam and Ingram rank among the top contenders for the Most Improved Player Award.
Basketball observers won’t need to wait until Sunday to feel the impact of all these fresh faces. Doncic and Young are slated to headline Friday’s Rising Stars Challenge. That exhibition, which pits a World Team and a USA team composed of first- and second-year players against each other, will also include Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, two sensational rookies who appear to be on track to become perennial all-stars in the near future.
Tatum, a 21-year-old breakout star for the Boston Celtics, will headline the Skills Challenge on Saturday night, seeking to defend his title from last year. Adebayo, Sabonis and Siakam will also participate in the obstacle course event. Young, meanwhile, will headline the Three-Point Contest.
All-star weekend has evolved from a basketball celebration into a brand summit, too, and the next generation pitchmen will be kept busy. Williamson (Jordan Brand and Mountain Dew), Doncic (Jordan Brand), Young (Adidas) and Morant (Nike and Panini America) are among the younger stars who will be balancing on-court and off-court responsibilities.
First-time selections invariably leave all-star weekend exhausted, but feeling satisfied and professionally validated. Ingram was overjoyed when he was informed of his selection, thanking his teammates and coaches individually as he tried to process the good news. Young covered his face in disbelief as he appeared to choke back tears when he was named a starter. Doncic, who was born in Slovenia and played professionally in Spain before entering the 2018 draft, smiled through a trip down memory lane once his selection went official. Their collective excitement will shine through Chicago’s cold temperatures and weighty tributes.
“I remember all those years I used to wake up back in Europe at 3 or 4 a.m. to watch the [All-Star Game],” Doncic said in an interview with TNT. “Now I can be in it. It’s just a pleasure.”