I'm not a big All-Star festivities guy, particularly in an era where any true highlights from the Rising Stars Challenge, All-Star Saturday night events or Sunday's game are practically unavoidable after the fact. But this year's weekend was (somewhat) different, with competing primetime Olympic coverage already being hours old and, more importantly, three Raptors* participating in the event.
* Thank you to my wife, who was quick to point out in my previous recap that I had only referenced the participation of DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross, omitting Jonas Valanciunas' participation in the Rising Stars Challenge. She was right again! :p
DeRozan's inclusion as the fourth All-Star representative in Toronto Raptor history was obviously the headliner for the club, but the participation of Ross and Valanciunas was also a significant sign of the team's collective success to this point in the season. By my count, Toronto was one of just seven teams to have representation during all three days of All-Star weekend and one of two (along with Oklahoma City) to have a different player represent them on each day.
So how did they fare in the Big Easy? All three enjoyed some strong team success, but largely got lost in the shuffle individually amongst other All-Star talent.
Friday - JV invisible in Team Hill win
The concept of the Rising Stars Challenge must have been rather confusing to Valanciunas, who has spent his young NBA career banging around inside after spending time as a boy among men in the physical, bruising European leagues. 'Wait, so I'm not supposed to stop this guy coming in with the ball??' In an exhibition game geared more towards guards and wing players, Valanciunas looked uncomfortable and unsure of his role en route to a four-point, two-rebound and three-turnover performance in 19 minutes. You can't put too much stock into anything that happens in this game (or this weekend, for that matter), but it's hard not to notice Andre Drummond's laughably dominant 30-point, 25-rebound showing. If draft winds had blown in a slightly different direction in 2012 and 2013, the Raptors could easily have Drummond and Brandon Knight in the fold rather than Valanciunas and Ross. It makes for an interesting Raps nerd debate as to which pairing would have left Toronto in better shape moving forwards.
Saturday - Under abysmal new format, Ross falls short of defending dunk crown
Firstly, the overly complex format. No one at the Smoothie King Center (great name, by the way) seemed to be entirely sure what was going on with the two-round dunk contest that included the vaguely-identified "Freestyle" and "Battle" rounds. John Wall deserved to win by any measure (I mean, come on), but the fact that he was voted by fans as the "Dunker of the Night" made the win seem that much less cool. As for Ross, he did beat Damian Lillard in the "Battle" round thanks to a not-particularly-inspired Drake-assisted dunk, but he couldn't live up to his 2013 performance or his buzzed-about slam over Kenneth Faried earlier this year. Does it really mean anything that his Eastern Conference team "won" the contest?
Sunday - DeRozan not much of a factor in East win
You had to know that minutes would be hard to come by in a game that a) emphasized shared play across the rosters and b) featured LeBron James and Paul George among DeRozan's teammates. Still, the Raps leading scorer acquitted hImself well, collecting eight points on 4-7 shooting in 14 minutes. However, his contributions were all but forgotten in the latter stages of what was at least a reasonably exciting 163-155 come-from-behind win over the heavily-favoured Western Conference.
For the Raptors, All-Star weekend was a win before it happened, a sign of their suddenly emergent relevance. The franchise boasted an All-Star, a dunk champion returning to defend his crown and a Rising Star (all 24 and under, by the way), not to mention the presence of a hip-hop icon and a GM firmly in the driver's seat with just days remaining until Thursday's trade deadline (Masai Ujiri has the pieces and willingness to make a move, but can afford to wait out the right offer). Even if the individual results weren't there, there is plenty to get excited about in Toronto, not the least of which is now being less than two years away from our own All-Star weekend.