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 this past summer. Inadvertently, Antetokounmpo’s passing reference was a perfectly appropriate summation of the upcoming All-Star Weekend here: 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, such as Ingram.
All told, there will be 10 first-time selections in Sunday’s All-Star Game, the most since 2002. There also will be three first-time selections in the starting lineups, the first time that has happened since 2001.
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 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 because of health concerns. Booker was announced as an injury replacement for Damian Lillard on Thursday.
Yet the all-star newcomers arrive here 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 behind James — 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 Kyle Lowry and Ben Simmons to earn his starting nod.
The 25-year-old Siakam has replaced the departed Kawhi Leonard as the leader of the Toronto Raptors, averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks 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 (24.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game) has approximated Durant’s production at the same age (27.7 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game in 2010-11). 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 game. That exhibition for first- and second-year players, which pits a World team against a USA team, will also include Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, two sensational rookies who appear to be on track to become perennial all-stars.
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 also will 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."