For the second year in a row, LeBron James not only served as a team captain of the annual NBA All-Star Game, he also debuted a new pair of his signature Nike sneakers just in time for tipoff.
The NBA mandates that brands send at least two pairs of each player's All-Star sneakers ahead of time, to eventually be housed in the locker room, photographed and approved for game use. These days, almost anything is approved.
Players often will also wear their All-Star Game sneakers early at Saturday's light practice session, serving as a preview of sorts for the main event. James took his own approach, wearing a Nike Air Safari-inspired iteration of his new LeBron 16 shoe for practice, then sticking with them for much of Sunday evening's pregame activities.
Just before the NBA's 68th annual All-Star Game began, James jettisoned the prior pair and slipped into a "Watch The Throne"-inspired edition of his newest sneaker. Nicknamed after the 2012 title of Kanye West and Jay-Z's joint album, the black, gold and floral print design was first seen on the LeBron 9 sneaker at the time, made in only a few dozen pairs and given to a select circle. They can often fetch north of $5,000 each, during the rare instances a pair is spotted for sale.
As part of James' ongoing #LeBronWatch campaign over the past two seasons, Nike has been reflecting on some of the most coveted colorways from his career, inspiring new looks and executions for the current LeBron 16 model. He's expected to begin rotating through a variety of #LeBronWatch tribute editions to close the season, tying back to iconic colorways from his own line, other Nike athletes and some of the brand's most known models. Though the energy around James' debut speaks to the following his sneaker line has amassed during his 16 seasons, another debut during the game marked the start of a new chapter.
After agreeing to terms in late November on a multiyear shoe deal that'll include his own signature sneaker and apparel down the road, Kawhi Leonard debuted for the first time on court in New Balance.
Wearing the brand's first new basketball model in almost a decade, dubbed the OMN1S, the knit shoe features two different "KL2" lettered logos along the tongue and inner collar. Leonard is expected to wear dozens of new colorways throughout the rest of season, as New Balance will begin to market him in its new "Game Speaks For Itself" campaign, that quite plainly takes shots at rival All-Stars.
"Kawhi doesn't need the cameras. He doesn't need your hot takes. He doesn't need to chase fouls. He doesn't need to sweat comments or take selfies," the brand's new spot reads. With Leonard not expected to tout the shoes himself as a pitchman anytime soon -- he doesn't have any social media presence -- New Balance will look to take a no-frills, performance-first approach as Leonard looks to land his first regular-season MVP award.
Another newcomer is Puma, which took its own unique approach and has enjoyed seeing all three of its active rookies being named to the Rising Stars Game. Before looking to sign veteran players this past fall, the brand inked five players likely to go in the top half of the first round of June's draft.
"It's validation, but it's about a young brand betting on youth," said Adam Petrick, Puma's global director of brand and marketing.
During the Rising Stars Game, Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III and Kevin Knox each helped to debut the Puma Uproad, its new model for the second half of the season. Designed with a split-style upper, the pair bridges the host city's two NBA franchise color schemes. It's probably the first and last time that the Charlotte Bobcats will help to inspire a limited edition shoe.
"We thought that was funny, ridiculous and such an insane thing," Petrick said. "It's not the most serious story in the world, so let's give it a shot. We're going to be experimental and try to do something interesting that's going to get people talking."
While Michael Jordan of course enjoyed the obvious Hornets tie through a series of shoe launches all weekend, Charlotte native Stephen Curry surprised on All-Star Saturday with a nod to his father Dell's 1990s ties to the franchise.
When the older Curry appeared in the league's 1992 3-Point Contest, a young Stephen enjoyed sitting along the bench on his father's lap, donning a multicolor track jacket that coincidentally now blends both the Hornets and Warriors colors. While seated along the sideline over two decades later Saturday, Under Armour created a reimagined version of the jacket for Curry, along with a linking-themed pair of his new Curry 6 sneakers.
Elsewhere throughout the weekend, rising sophomore De'Aaron Fox tracked down a decade-old pair of the gold and white "All-Star" LeBron 4, originally worn by James at the 2007 All-Star Game in Las Vegas. Damian Lillard donned a NASCAR-themed checkered edition of his fifth Adidas sneaker, tying back to the host city's longtime racing history.
Giannis Antetokounmpo penned a tribute to his older brother along his Kobe 4 Protro. "Thanks Thanasis for sharing," read the inscription, alluding to their days as teenage basketball hopefuls who couldn't each afford their own pairs of sneakers. Later this year, the Antetokounmpo family will surely be celebrating, as Nike plans to launch the debut model of Giannis' upcoming "Freak" signature series.
Check out the best dozen pairs from throughout the weekend's festivities and vote for your favorite pair below. To keep tabs on the best sneakers around the league all season long, be sure to join our SneakerCenter Facebook group.