The first half of the 2011 Rookie/Sophomore challenge only vaguely resembled basketball. None of the players on either side of the court even pretended to play defense, and stood under the basket and watch their opponents launch threes. Fast-break dunks after made baskets were common. Alley-oops were being thrown down every minute or so.
In the second half, the teams began to treat the game with the smallest dollop of respect and actually began to contest each other’s shots from time to time, but the rookies were able to pull away thanks to DeMarcus Cousins, who dominated the paint and put up 23 points and nine rebounds in the second half alone.
Blake Griffin, who will participate in the dunk contest tomorrow night and the All-Star game on Sunday, was the clear crowd favorite and provided some spectacular dunks, but only played 14 minutes and sat out the last part of the game. (The crowd started up a “We want Blake!” chant late in the contest, but Griffin stayed seated on the bench.) Fortunately for the crowd, John Wall was able to deliver a masterful performance in Griffin’s semi-absence.
Wall was named the game’s MVP and recorded a challenge record 22 assists, with the majority of those assists leading to alley-oop slams. Wall’s most spectacular assist was one to remember; on a fast-break, Wall stopped at the three-point line and bounced the ball over Steph Curry’s head to find Blake Griffin, who was there to slam the ball home. Before the game, Wall talked about how excited he was to throw lobs to Griffin, and the game showed that he was right to be enthusiastic.
Wall didn’t face much defense on Friday night, but he showed that he’s an unselfish player who would rather set a teammate up for a spectacular play than try too hard to make one himself. Winning the rookie/challenge game isn’t a huge accomplishment on its own, but Wall was able to show the world that he has a rare combination of athleticism, creativity, and unselfishness. If he continues to work on his game, particularly his jump shot, it won’t be long before he’s having huge performances against teams that are actually trying to play defense.