By Harrison Liao
Some college reunions take place at a pub or a restaurant. Some, like that of former Duke teammates RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson on Friday night, take place floating over 10 feet in the air on national television.
In the third quarter of the 2020 NBA Rising Stars Challenge, which Team USA won 151-131, Barrett streaked down the court to greet his friend by doing the impossible: Stop the tsunami that is a Williamson fast break.
Barrett and Williamson rose up together, like a wide receiver and a cornerback leaping for a jump ball, and it was Barrett that won the duel. The United Center crowd groaned and booed as they realized what had happened: Barrett had robbed them of what they came for, a gravity-defying, rim bending, Williamson alley-oop.
“When he went out and stopped me on that fastbreak,” Williamson said with a smile, “I was like, ‘Man, you’re the last person I thought would do that.’”
“Right before that play,” Barrett said, “I shot a three in the corner. I don’t know if it was Zion or what, but somebody on the court was talking trash and I missed it. So, when I saw him running the break, I was like, ‘Nah. He’s not about to dunk this.’”
The NBA Rising Stars Challenge is a snapshot of the league’s future, the 20 players that are the best bet to make it to Sunday’s marquee event, the All-Star Game. But for a lot of players this year, like Barrett and Williamson, it was a basketball reunion.
For Miles Bridges, who earned Rising Stars MVP honors, the game was a chance to reflect on the growth he’s seen in former Michigan State teammate, Jaren Jackson Jr.
“Jaren has definitely added a lot to his game since we turned pro,” Bridges said. “He can shoot better, he’s more patient on offense and he has more confidence. He’s going to be an All-Star very soon.”
Bridges said and Jackson Jr dreamed of this moment back in East Lansing.
“We always talked about being on the same team,” Bridges said. “It’s a blessing to be able to share the court with him again.”
Jackson Jr, meanwhile, mused on the more unsavory memories he has of living with Bridges.
“What do I not miss about those days?” Jackson Jr said about his Michigan State roommate. “Sharing a bathroom. We had two bathrooms [for four guys], and when Miles goes to the bathroom, I’ve got to give it like 25 minutes.”
For Devonte Graham and former Kansas teammate Svi Mykhailiuk, becoming a Rising Star puts in perspective just how far they’ve come to get to All-Star Weekend.
As seniors at Kansas, Graham and Mykhailiuk were both mid-to-late second round draft prospects. When they did make it to the league last season, they hardly played. Now, the two are part of only 20 players ordained with the label of being “next” in the NBA.
“I definitely could not have imagined being here right now,” Graham said. “You see it all the time as a kid, All-Star Weekend. For me and Svi to be part of it our second year, I don’t think a lot of people saw us having this moment. It’s a dream come true.”
“Especially for me, coming from Ukraine,” Mykhailiuk said. “I didn’t even know what All-Star Weekend was until I was 12 or 13 years old. So, I definitely didn’t think about this, and as Devonte said, nobody really thought we would be here.”
For the NBA, the Rising Stars Challenge is a celebration of fresh talent and an appetizer for the entrée of the weekend’s festivities. For the players, it is a reminder that everything changes when you try and translate love for basketball into a professional career. They aren’t playing for an NCAA championship anymore. Some guys have families or side investments to think about. Others still haven’t established themselves as long-term NBA talent. Being named a Rising Star can be just as much about the end of who these players were as college athletes as it is about their futures as a pros.
But while everything else for a Rising Star may be in a constant state of upheaval, the bonds built with their college teammates seem unwavered.
“Just brothers messing around,” Williamson said about facing Barrett on that fastbreak.
“Oh yeah,” Graham said when asked if he, Mykhailiuk and the rest of his Kansas teammates still talk. “We’ll always keep in touch.”