Two fantastic rookies have entered the proverbial ring and only one can emerge victorious at season’s end — but will it be Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell? The last time Basketball Insiders weighed in on the Rookie of the Year race, it was just over a month ago — so what has changed since then? Honestly, both everything and nothing. Do you prefer the 6-foot-10 point forward nearly averaging a triple-double or the high-scoring, high-flying guard that finishes games like a five-time All-Star? There is truly no wrong answer.
Although the top two contenders for the award are signed, sealed and delivered, earning an honorable mention is nothing to scoff at either. From playing considerably large roles on playoff-bound teams to filling up the box score, this rookie class has emerged as one of the strongest in recent memory. With that in mind, let’s check in on some of the league’s most impressive youngsters heading into the final few weeks of their inaugural seasons.
6. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls
With the Bulls’ season all but over, it’s been understandably easy to forget about Markkanen and his pitch-perfect style of play at times. The Finnish 7-footer has been consistently stellar since October, however, averaging 14.8 points and 7.6 rebounds over 61 games and contributing those numbers from day one. From his long-range forte, Markkanen is tallying two three-pointers per contest, which ranks just him ahead of the perennially great Kristaps Porzingis (1.9), Khris Middleton (1.8) and LeBron James (1.8).
Furthermore, Markkanen’s statistically solid resume ranks him 4th in scoring, 2nd in rebounding and 2nd in three-point makes per game for all rookies. Alongside Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, the Bulls have certainly acquired some intriguing pieces to build around — but Markkanen is undoubtedly the crown jewel. It’s been a turbulent season for Chicago, so Markkanen’s name has unsurprisingly fizzled from the conversation, but he absolutely looks like a franchise cornerstone and a force for years to come.
5. Josh Jackson, Phoenix Suns
As of late, Josh Jackson is scorching hot and everybody is more than happy to watch him smolder.
With the Suns currently leading the race to the bottom, Jackson has been officially unleashed. Through the first half of the season, Jackson scored 15 or more points on just five occasions. But since the calendar flipped to the new year, Jackson has reached that mark in 23 of the Suns’ last 33 games. While he’s not even close to the shooter Devin Booker currently is — Jackson still just shoots 26 percent from three-point range — the 21-year-old forward has bloomed with purpose. Last week, Jackson dropped 36 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals on 60.9 percent shooting against Golden State, often using his hyper-athleticism to exploit a battered Warriors side.
In March alone, Jackson has averaged 15.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.5 steals on 44 percent shooting. Beyond his burgeoning offensive skills, Jackson is often long enough to defend most guards, but athletic enough to bang in the paint with those bigger and stronger than him. All in all, things have started to slow down for the high-energy prospect and Phoenix has reaped the benefits. Should the Suns land a blue-chip rookie like Luka Doncic or Marvin Bagley in the upcoming draft, things could finally take off for this slumping franchise.
Either way, Jackson will be at the forefront of Phoenix’s future indefinitely.
4. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers
While Kyle Kuzma certainly went through a mid-season rough patch, the talented scorer has still been a major asset to an overachieving Los Angeles outfit.
Averaging 15.8 points and 6.2 rebounds, Kuzma has logged important minutes alongside Julius Randle, Brook Lopez and, until February, Larry Nance Jr., in a crowded backcourt. And since the latter was moved to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kuzma’s playing time has skyrocketed even higher. Kuzma has reached the 20-point plateau in half of Los Angeles’ games this month and he looks like he’ll finish the season the same way he started it.
On an individually strong Lakers roster, Kuzma ranks 3rd in scoring, 4th in rebounding and 4th in three-point percentage — an impressive showing for the former No. 27 overall selection. Before the season began, the Lakers were expected to find themselves at home in the conference basement once again. Instead, Los Angeles is currently closer to the eighth seed (10 GB) than they are from the league-worst Phoenix Suns (14 GB) — this achievement falls squarely on the early development of Kuzma.
While Kuzma deserves plenty of rookie praise, he won’t win the biggest prize — but that’s perfectly fine. He’ll have to settle for a likely berth on the NBA All-Rookie Team — oh well!
3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
The early season injury to Gordon Hayward obviously thrust Jayson Tatum into the spotlight back in October, but the Celtics haven’t stopped leaning on their impressive rookie since — and rightfully so. Through 11 games in March, Tatum has averaged 16.1 points and 6.1 rebounds on 50 percent from the floor. With Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart both sustaining major injuries since the All-Star break, a heavy load has been asked of Tatum — and, more or less, he’s delivered. Tatum has played in all 74 games this season and the just-turned 20-year-old has helped keep Boston locked-in to the conference’s second-best record.
Although he’s no longer making half of his three-point attempts, 42.5 percent is still a considerable asset for this determined Celtics squad. That remarkable conversion rate ranks Tatum at No. 13 in three-point percentage league-wide, just narrowly ahead of All-Stars like Stephen Curry (42.3), Karl-Anthony Towns (42.7) and veteran teammate Al Horford (42.9) — not bad for a rookie, huh?
T-1. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
Lately, the fiery debate between Donovan Mitchell or Ben Simmons for the No. 1 rookie slot has only gotten stronger. While Simmons is still likely the frontrunner, it would be simply unwise to dismiss Mitchell’s monster performances along the way. Mitchell has scored 20 or more points in six straight contests, a streak exists within a crucial 11-2 stretch that has kept the Jazz alive in the cutthroat postseason chase. Capped off by an electric 35-point effort — albeit in a four-point loss to the forever-tough San Antonio Spurs — Mitchell has continued to lay serious claim to Simmons’ crown.
Mitchell currently sports a 28.8 percent usage rate, good for 23rd across the entire NBA and ahead of both John Wall and Kemba Walker. For a rookie, that’s nearly unheard of. Naturally, much has been made about Mitchell’s shooting percentages, but it’s also hard to argue with the win-loss column too much. Since Rudy Gobert returned from a month-long PCL injury in mid-January, Utah owns a record of 24-6 — you can thank Mitchell for that as well.
The polarizing differences between the two top rookies have made for a compelling race down the stretch, but particularly so now that Mitchell has the Jazz within striking distance of the playoffs. Mitchell’s 20.3 points per game lead all rookies and he undeniably has a strong case for taking home this award.
T-1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
In the other corner, of course, is Ben Simmons, the do-it-all point forward that is a triple-double threat every night. Simmons has tallied 16 points, 7.9 rebounds, 8.1 assists and 1.7 steals per game on an extra-efficient 53.8 from the floor. Although he’ll have to improve on his range this offseason — 77.8 percent of his shots have come within 0-10 feet — it’s been wildly entertaining to watch Simmons let the game come to him. His 10 triple-doubles only trail LeBron James (16) and Russell Westbrook (23), the latter of whom just won MVP last year for averaging one over an entire season.
As a 21-year-old, Simmons has come pretty close to that mark himself.
And as Basketball Insiders’ Dennis Chambers pointed out during a deeper discussion last month, history is also very much on Simmons’ side: “Just six players have finished a season averaging at least 16 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists per game while shooting 50 percent from the field: LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, and Wilt Chamberlain.”
For rookies, Simmons is 2nd in points, 1st in rebounds, 1st in assists and 1st in steals — if that’s not Rookie of the Year worthy, what is? With Simmons leading the way, the 76ers have gone 10-3 and risen from postseason pests to potential owners of home-court advantage in the first round. Simmons will likely terrorize the NBA for years to come — that much seems evidently clear already — but he’ll have to hold off Mitchell’s strong chase to close the season out.
And this may seem like a total cop-out — but why not both?
The dual-winning selection has only happened three times in NBA history: Dave Cowens and Geoff Petrie split the honors back in 1970-71; Grant Hill and Jason Kidd did so in 1994-95; and, finally, Elton Brand and Steve Francis in 1999-00. You’d be hard-pressed to find any fans — casual or crazed — that can’t appreciate the artistic abilities of both Mitchell and Simmons, no matter how difficult this looming decision may seem.
Either way, whatever happens over these final two weeks, this rookie class is shaping up to be one of the finest versions yet.
NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks
Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.
Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.
So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.
Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.
But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.
Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?
John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.
Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.
But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.
So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.
He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.
Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans
The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.
Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.
But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.
Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.
Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets
Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.
Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.
That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.
But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.
But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.
The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.
NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key
Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.
The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure.
Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders.
Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.
Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them.
Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll.
Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.
Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well.
Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.
The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA.
Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.
As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.
NBA Daily: Defensive Player of the Year Watch
An inside look-in at the early frontrunners for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
In this fresh edition for Basketball Insiders, there are a few players that should be finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Of course, this prestigious award is given to the contributor who makes the biggest impact on the floor for their team on the defensive side of the ball. In two out of the last three seasons, the award has gone to Rudy Gobert, the rim-protecting center for the Utah Jazz. This past season, Giannis Antetokounmpo won both the DPotY award, as well as Most Valuable Player for a second straight year. Over the past few years, the trending group of finalists for the award has been consistent no matter what the order ends up being.
Can anyone new break in this year?
Anthony Davis will always be in the conversation for this award as he has shown throughout his career that he is one of the league’s most ferocious game-changers. Despite never winning the award before, he has made four NBA All-Defensive teams as well as being the NBA’s leader in blocks on three occasions. Davis’s block numbers are a little lower than they usually are at 1.9 blocks per game this season – compared to 2.4 for his career, per Basketball-Reference. This could be due to the addition of Marc Gasol to the Lakers’ frontcourt, a move that has boosted the team’s rim protection. If Davis can raise his numbers again, he should be in consideration for the award purely based on his defensive presence on the court – but he should still finish among the top five in voting.
The center for the Indiana Pacers – the former potential centerpiece of a Gordon Hayward trade with the Boston Celtics – has continued to show why the team would not package another one of its top players with him. Turner is the current league leader in blocks with 4.2 blocks per game, elevating his game beyond any doubt in 2020-21. He is one of the more underrated rim protectors in basketball, as he has only one top-five finish in the DPotY voting in his career. Turner has also improved his steals metrics this season by averaging 1.5 per game, thus providing a strong defensive presence alongside All-Star frontcourt mate, Domantas Sabonis. Turner should be the frontrunner for the award as things stand right now, but that could change as the season progresses, especially as his injury impacts proceedings.
The reigning two-time MVP should always be in the conversation for the DPotY award as he revolutionizes the defensive side of the floor at an elite level. Currently, Antetokunmpo is averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game to go along with a 106.5 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. It goes without saying, but Antetokounmpo is a chase-down block artist, always there to contest shots around the rim with his long frame. The 6-foot-11 power forward is one of the league’s top five players due to his exceptional play on both sides of the ball and will always be considered for the DPotY award as long as he in the NBA.
The Los Angeles Clippers’ superstar has been arguably the best defensive small forward in the game over the past few years. He first gained major recognition for his defense during the 2014 NBA Finals against the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT. Since then, Leonard has racked up six All-Defensive team nominations to go along with two Defensive Player of the Year awards. This season, Leonard remains an elite defender for the championship-hopeful Clippers with 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game – but his defensive rating is the highest of his ten-year career at 107.8.
The current league leader in rebounds for the Cleveland Cavaliers is having a monster season thus far. In a contract year, Andre Drummond is currently putting up 19.3 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, 1.7 steals per game and 1.6 blocks per game. He also has a very stellar defensive rating of 105.0, a culmination of points allowed per 100 possessions. Drummond is not on a very good team, but that should not take away from the impact he makes when he is on the floor. As a pure rim protector and rebounding machine, he should finish higher up in the voting results than usual, even if his season doesn’t end with Cleveland.
Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris
The Philadelphia 76ers have started the season on a very high note at 9-5, all despite loads of COVID health and safety protocols preventing their full team from taking the floor. Tobias Harris has played a major part in their early-season success leading the NBA in defensive win shares among starters who have played at least 10 games with 0.184, per NBA Advanced Stats. Along with that, Harris is also second in defensive rating among qualified starters at 99.6. The veteran forward has averaged 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. So if the 76ers want to remain at the top of the Eastern Conference, Harris’ overall play will be a huge reason for that success.
As the old saying goes, defense wins championships – and these players are the type of players that can change the result of a game every night. Keep an eye on these players as the season moves along as they should garner consideration for both All-Defensive team nominations and the DPotY award.