Ricky Rubio's invitation to NBA All-Star Weekend as a rookie last year was more than a sign of affirmation.
It was an opportunity to see stars -- up close and personal -- he had watched all his life on television.
"Shaquille O'Neal," Rubio said, "it was great to see how huge he was."
Rubio returned to play in the Rising Stars Challenge again this year, this time accompanied by rookie teammate Alexey Shved. They took a flight together to Houston for Friday night's game that kicks off the All-Star Weekend festivities.
He hasn't earned his way to Sunday's big game yet, but being chosen twice to play in a game that features the league's up-and-coming rookies and sophomores is a stepping stone along the way.
This time, Rubio was a "commissioner's pick," a late addition to the game by TNT analyst Kenny Smith.
He and Shved will play on Team Chuck, the team chosen by Charles Barkley in a TNT Thursday Night draft last week with O'Neal's Team Shaq.
"Being there, an All-Star, you realize you are in the NBA," Rubio said. "You're around all the stars. Even if we're not playing the All-Star Game, we are around all the show. You know, it's good to be there."
Wolves forward Andrei Kirilenko played alongside Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, Joe Johnson and Shane Battier on the rookie team in 2002, just like Shved will play with Rubio, Kenneth Faried, Anthony Davis and Bradley Beal, among others, on Team Chuck this year.
Like it did for him a decade ago, Kirilenko predicts Shved's participation will provide further confirmation that a kid raised in Russia belongs in the NBA.
"It kind of gets you more welcome to the league," Kirilenko said. "I think he's well deserved that reputation. He's playing on that level, not a rookie level but solid-player level. He still makes some mistakes, some room for improvement, but already he's establish himself at some kind of level. He can't drop now. The only way now is up."
Shved will be accompanied by his girlfriend, brother and agent -- his parents visited him in Minnesota last month and can't get away from work again. He had thought about visiting an American city during the five-day break but is glad to change plans.
"This is good," he said. "I'm second Russian player to do this, just A.K. before me. We will see. I have only seen it on TV. I don't know what I can tell right now. I need to see this. It is much better than sit and do nothing."
A year ago, Rubio showed off his playmaking panache in a game suited for such a thing by dribbling the ball through the legs of Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins and then lobbing it to the Clippers' Blake Griffin for a slam.
Rubio said Cousins has never mentioned that play to him since then, but ...
"I think he actually did something like that after I did that to him," Rubio said. "He did it in a game, an NBA game."
He dribbled through Cousins' legs, visited with O'Neal, a full weekend.
"I met a lot of people," Rubio said. "Shaq, he was funny. All those guys were there. They're legends. I watched all of them on the TV and it's amazing to say hi to them."