Until February, the leading choice for Rookie of the Year was cut and dry, the runner-ups just a formality in a race that was seemingly locked up. After waiting two years for Joel Embiid’s debut, the center quickly became one of the league’s must-watch entities this season.
But when Embiid was shelved for the season with a meniscus tear in his left knee, the league’s most wrapped up award was suddenly wide-open again. While none of the names on this list have come close to replicating Embiid’s unicorn average of 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in just 25.4 minutes per game, it’s difficult to give the award to a rookie that only played in 31 games.
So, if not him, then who?
10. Yogi Ferrell, Dallas Mavericks
Now that Yogi-Mania has calmed down, the Dallas Mavericks’ point guard has finally settled into a comfortable position in the offense alongside Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes and Dirk Nowitzki. After going undrafted last June, Ferrell was waived twice by the Brooklyn Nets before signing with the Mavericks in late January and promptly lit the league on fire. For a Mavericks team dealing with injuries at the position, Ferrell performed so well that both sides skipped the potential second 10-day contract in lieu of a two-year, partially guaranteed deal.
While he’s certainly cooled down as of late, Ferrell has become an important guard for the Mavericks, particularly so after waiving Deron Williams following the trade deadline. J.J. Barea’s recent return will continue to take playing time away from Ferrell, but there’s plenty of tricks to learn from his fellow undersized teammate.
Ferrell has averaged 11.6 points and 4.6 assists per game since joining the Mavericks, but his highlight of the season came against the Portland Trail Blazers in early February. Up against Damian Lillard, Ferrell exploded for 32 points on nine three-pointers on 11 attempts to officially announce his permanent arrival to the NBA. There’s a good chance his height will keep him from being anything more than a serviceable rotation guard in the NBA, but if the Boston Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas has taught the league anything, Ferrell isn’t a player worth betting against.
9. Willy Hernangomez, New York Knicks
Even though Derrick Rose’s super team statement quickly soured, the New York Knicks have done a great job of collecting cheap, young talent this season — most notably with Willy Hernangomez. Now filling in for the injured Joakim Noah, the Spanish international has shown flashes of a future piece worth putting next to Kristaps Porzingis. On the season, Hernangomez has averaged just 7.2 points and 6.5 rebounds over 17 minutes per game, but he often shines brightly when given the opportunity to do so.
Against Indiana Pacers last week, Hernangomez tallied 13 points and 16 rebounds in 31 minutes, but his minutes have been juggled all season by head coach Jeff Hornacek ass he evaluates the best route forward. His per-36 numbers are more than encouraging at 15.2 points and 13.8 rebounds, and if he can average anywhere close to that in his career, the Knicks will be thrilled to have scooped him up with an early second-round pick. As an athletic bruiser, Hernangomez has the potential to be a game-changer for the Knicks as they head into a crucial offseason. Even better, his emergence as a quality big will allow the franchise to potentially draft the point guard of the future in June’s draft — a win-win for all parties involved.
8. Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets
After missing the first month of the season due to a foot injury, Caris LeVert has quickly become the Brooklyn Nets’ saving grace. In another season full of disappointment and injury, LeVert’s growth has been intriguing alongside rookie head coach Kenny Atkinson. LeVert joined the Nets’ starting lineup following the All-Star Break and has been effective from the perimeter and as a slasher in the lane.
While he’s still acclimating to the deeper three-point line, shooting just 30.6 percent from there thus far, LeVert has already notched 11 games with two or more three-pointers — a necessity on a Nets roster that shoots 32 of them per game. When the Nets traded Thaddeus Young for the Pacers’ No. 20 pick last summer, many were skeptical of LeVert’s potential as a four-year senior coming off of a serious injury, but he has turned many of those skeptics into believers.
As his first season in the NBA winds down, LeVert will have plenty to work on this offseason, but he’s been one of the Nets’ few bright spots in 2017. Outside of his sticky hands, LeVert has proven capable of stuffing the stat sheet, evidence by the 17 points, five rebounds, six assists and three three-pointers he posted against the New Orleans Pelicans in late January.
Turns out, there may just be a reason why his nickname is “Baby Durant.”
7. Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings
When the Sacramento Kings’ deadline deal sent away franchise center DeMarcus Cousins, it made rookie Buddy Hield an unfortunate punch line across social media platforms, but he’s fast made a name for himself on the West Coast. As a member of the Pelicans, Hield often suffered through offensive slumps, but the sharpshooter has found his groove in Sacramento.
Against the San Antonio Spurs last night, Hield posted 18 points, five rebounds and five assists in 32 minutes, but his improvement hasn’t stopped there either. He’s now scored 15 or more points on 17 different occasions in 2016-17, and his 9.5 points per game average ranks him fifth among rookies. With Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere freed up following Cousins’ departure, the trio makes for an intriguing foundation in Sacramento.
Hield’s been handed the keys to the Kings’ franchise and the 23-year-old has shown promise with his new-found responsibilities. Though it’ll take some time before he becomes the next Stephen Curry, Hield has had himself a fine month for the Kings, shooting 50 percent from the floor over the last 10 games.
6. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
Jamal Murray has been one of the league’s best rookies in 2016-17 but hasn’t nearly gotten as much coverage as many of his competitors have. Outside of his 36-point Rising Stars Challenge breakout performance, Murray has been quietly making waves for a Nuggets team trying to make a late playoff push. As Basketball Insiders’ Jesse Blancarte wrote over the weekend, Murray is a player that deserves more Rookie of the Year chatter, growing well into his role after leapfrogging Emmanuel Mudiay in the rotation.
He’s shooting just 34.1 percent from deep this season, but there’s reason to believe Murray could turn into one of the draft’s purest shooters. His strongest performance to date may have come in November — 24 points, six rebounds, two assists and three three-pointers — but Murray has proven himself as a capable ball handler as well, averaging just 1.3 turnovers per game. Additionally, Murray is one of the few players on this list currently entrenched in a playoff battle, so head coach Mike Malone’s confidence in the 20-year-old should not go unnoticed much longer.
5. Marquese Chriss, Phoenix Suns
With Dragan Bender and Tyson Chandler both done for the year, it’s been a coming out party for Marquese Chriss in Phoenix as of late. Under head coach Earl Watson, the high-flying rookie’s minutes have fluctuated throughout the season as the Suns pushed for one of the Western Conference’s final playoff berths early on.
But as those expectations dwindled, Chriss has been set loose on unsuspecting defenses and he’s lived up to his high draft selection thus far. At just 19 years old, Chriss has provided a handful of jaw-dropping moments and his five-block effort against the Kings last month signified the type of rim protection he can offer moving forward. Although he’s been a streaky shooter from deep so far at just 32.6 percent, the athletic forward certainly fits the mold of the NBA’s new prototypical big man with range.
Paired with Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker and the aforementioned Bender, the Suns arguably remain just one piece away from impacting the conference’s playoff race moving forward. After one full offseason, expect Chriss to come back stronger, bigger and with a refined three-point stroke — then the league will truly see what this freakishly athletic pogo stick is capable of.
4. Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks
For many, the Milwaukee Bucks’ Malcolm Brogdon, a second-round selection out of the University of Virginia, has been a pleasant surprise, coming on strong right out of the gate in November. Under the tutelage of future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd, Brogdon has been a game-changer on both sides of the ball for a franchise still trying to secure one of the Eastern Conference’s final seeds, proving that he can step into most situations and contribute.
In college, Brogdon was one of the country’s best defenders, but it’s been his playmaking and shooting that has most helped the Bucks. Brogdon is averaging 10 points, 2.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.1 steals over 26.2 minutes per game, providing some much-needed energy for the Bucks all season. He won’t beat out either of the Sixers’ rookies, but Brogdon is certainly a name worth remembering.
3. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
While the two rookies for the 76ers remain ahead of Jaylen Brown right now, it may not be for much longer. The Boston Celtics’ Brown has not only earned playing time in head coach Brad Stevens’ loaded rotation, but he’s run with the opportunity and provided tremendous production for the conference’s newly-minted contender. The No. 3 overall pick was key in the Celtics’ wins over the Los Angeles Lakers (16 points, eight rebounds), Cleveland Cavaliers (eight points, six rebounds) and Chicago Bulls (11 points) this month and is primed for some important minutes in his first upcoming postseason.
Filling in for an injured Avery Bradley, Brown joined the starting lineup and responded with a scorching hot streak from three-point range, his biggest knock as a prospect coming into the NBA.
From going at LeBron James without fear to defending some of the opposing teams’ best players, Brown has proven that he belongs in this conversation as well. All of a sudden, the former Cal standout is making significant contributions to a roster that’s making a late push for home court advantage until the NBA Finals — that alone should elevate Brown past most of his competition.
2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Alas, what could have been.
Once the NBA experienced Joel Embiid’s considerable talent, it was tough to let go again. Conquering this year’s notoriously weak draft class, Embiid was the shining star that could often stuff a layup attempt on one end and then dribble into a three-pointer on the other. With the hype well-met and Embiid playing out of his mind, the former Jayhawk even made a serious run at one of the Eastern Conference’s final All-Star spots as a rookie, almost becoming the first to do so since Blake Griffin in 2011 and Yao Ming in 2003.
In a word, Embiid was simply remarkable, delivering on a huge portion of his considerable potential and then some through the first three months of the season. Statistically, Embiid blew the class away, but, again, it’s tough to give the honors to somebody that played in only 31 games.
However, if Embiid can stay healthy, he’ll be earning bigger and better awards before long — so hopefully this is the last major setback in a long and fruitful career.
1. Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers
According to Embiid himself, the answer for Rookie of the Year is obvious:
— Jake Hyman (@RealJakeHyman) March 13, 2017
Over the course of the season, Dario Saric has averaged just 12.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists on 41 percent shooting, but it’s been an entirely different story since Embiid went down it a knee injury. Since the injury, Saric has significantly bumped his per-game numbers to 18 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists, successfully taking the reins from his teammate as the odds-on leader for the award. Since his move to power forward, Saric has helped the Sixers to three wins in their last five games, including a staggering 42-point victory against the Dallas Mavericks last week.
Saric has improved drastically as the team’s new go-to scorer (he’s averaged 15.1 FGA per game since February, up from his season average of 11.1), and often has the ball in his hands in the biggest moments. The new fan-favorite turns just 23 years old in early April, but his years dominating in Europe have obviously carried over as he’s a crafty, creative forward that was well worth the wait.
Even better, Saric has the attention of the best European player of all-time, Dirk Nowitzki. Before the Mavericks lost to the 76ers last week, Nowitzki told Mike Sielski of The Philadelphia Inquirer that he was impressed with the Croatian’s strong rookie season.
“It feels like they run a lot of stuff to him now,” Nowitzki said. His specialty is that he can go both ways. He’s a good driver. He can create contact. He can finish. He can get to the foul line. He’s able to step out and knock down that three-point shot, and that really opens up the drives for him. In big situations, they give him the ball to create.”
With just 12 games remaining, Saric has a great opportunity to fill up the box score for a Philadelphia squad that will do plenty of experimenting under head coach Brett Brown to finish the season. Even with the slow start, Saric has proven worthy for the game’s biggest moments and should be a fantastic piece to pair with Simmons, Embiid and another high draft pick this summer.
Ultimately, the voting will come down to a battle of statistical impact versus the value of winning: Saric’s numbers pass the eye test, but don’t count out the voters’ acknowledgment of Brown’s contributions to a potential 50-win Celtics team.
NBA Daily: Credit Ujiri And Raptors For Taking The Risk
Perhaps emboldened by OKC’s ability to retain Paul George, the Raptors are taking a gamble of their own.
In any given NBA season, at the most, there are only five legitimate title contenders in play. The rest of the league could be considered as either on the rise, middle of the pack or in the hunt for a lottery pick.
There are far too many teams around the league that are content with solely making the playoffs while not seriously contending for a title. This is why the Toronto Raptors organization along with team president Masai Ujiri should be given credit for taking the ultimate gamble in acquiring a top-five player, even one who could amount to a one-year rental.
The Raptors shipped four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan, center Jakob Poeltl and a protected first-round pick to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for former NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and veteran wing Danny Green.
The move is the ultimate gamble for an organization that has turned itself into a perennial playoff presence with five consecutive postseason appearances and three straight 50-win campaigns. DeRozan, 28, was locked under contract the next three seasons and the organization could have theoretically decided to ride the DeRozan and fellow All-Star guard Kyle Lowry duo until the proverbial wheels fell off.
But instead, Ujiri unexpectedly shipped their star player, who wanted to be in Toronto long-term, to acquire Leonard who reportedly has his eyes dead set on joining one of the Los Angeles franchises once he hits free agency in 2019.
Think about this for a moment.
While Toronto has served as LeBron James’ playoff punching bag as of late, make no mistake, Raptors basketball is undoubtedly experiencing the peak of its golden era.
Sure, the team’s former stars such as Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh will likely go down in history considered better than DeRozan (and Lowry). But none of the aforementioned players led the franchise to a 50-win season while with the organization. None of those guys led the Raptors to a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. DeRozan was a vital cog in breaking new ground while with the team, defiantly re-signing with the Raptors despite overtures from his hometown Los Angeles Lakers in 2016.
Perhaps emboldened by the success the Oklahoma City Thunder recently had in taking a similar risk last summer, the Raptors took the gamble. The Thunder traded for All-Star forward Paul George, who also reportedly also had Los Angeles dreams, last summer, and were able to convince the wing to re-sign earlier this month to a long-term deal.
Toronto has never been a free agency hot spot and the aforementioned stars all forced their way out of town early in their careers. What if Leonard doesn’t buy the soup Ujiri is cooking? There are already some reports stating the forward has no desire to play with the Raptors at all.
Even if this is the case, Ujiri and company still have options. Leonard can still be dealt before next February’s trade deadline. Ujiri could theoretically create a bidding war between the Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers for Leonard’s services with an attractive.
At the bare minimum, the Raptors are all-in this season for a championship run in an Eastern Conference no longer facing the talents of LeBron James. If things don’t work out, DeRozan’s $54 million owed after this season is off the books. Lowry will be owed $33 million in 2020 but could potentially be an attractive expiring contract. All of this to say, the Raptors are simultaneously preparing for a title run and bracing for a rebuild of their current roster.
Far too many teams become content with just making the playoffs and not rocking the boat. Ujiri took his shot to boost the Raptors up the league’s hierarchy. The ultimate risk. Much respect for taking it.
NBA Daily: Quality Free Agents Still Available
Many quality free agents are still available nearly three weeks into free agency, writes James Blancarte.
With the NBA Summer League over and training camps a few months away, the NBA would normally be quiet this time of year. Apparently the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors didn’t get the memo as they agreed to a trade centered around Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan. Additionally, Carmelo Anthony has finally been traded to relieve the Oklahoma City Thunder from a tremendous tax burden.
As the dust settles from these trades, many free agents continue to wait in the wings. The list includes many talented players who will eventually make their way back onto an NBA team’s roster. Some will return to the team they played for last year, which is especially likely for restricted free agents (e.g., Marcus Smart). Some may, for a variety of reasons, not return to an NBA roster. Last year Rodney Stuckey sat the year out and used the time to improve his health in order to make a comeback this year. Former All-Star center Roy Hibbert just announced his retirement at age 31 after not being active last season.
The list of available restricted free agents has seriously dwindled now nearly three weeks into the free agency period. RFAs such as Marcus Smart (back to the Boston Celtics) and Jabari Parker (to the Chicago Bulls) have recently signed new contracts. These signings, among others, leaves Houston Rockets RFA center Clint Capela and Los Angeles Clippers RFA center Montrezl Harrell as two of the bigger names left on the board.
Available Restricted Free Agents:
Clint Capela is coming off of his best and most efficient season averaging 13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds, 1.9 blocks in 27.5 minutes a game (all career highs) and he is only 24 years old. Capela also spearheaded a defense that, when combined with James Harden’s offensive mastery, pushed the Golden State Warriors to the brink in the Western Conference Finals. Reports are that Capela has turned down an initial offer to re-sign for well below his max. While the clock ticks on the Rockets and Capela, Capela finds himself in what remains a punitive free agent market. The Sacramento Kings is the only other team capable of immediately signing Capela to a competitive contract to lure him away from the Rockets. To make matters worse, the Kings have been committed to stocking their roster with as many big men as possible making them a less-than-ideal suitor for Capela’s services.
Montrezl Harrell won’t generate as many headlines as the other RFAs that have been in the news lately but don’t sleep on him. In a season that never went according to plan for the Clippers, Harrell was one of the bright spots for the team. Harrell, acquired by the Clippers in the Chris Paul trade, showed tenacity on offense as he served as a strong offensive rebounder, floor runner and helped the Clippers weather a five-game stretch where center DeAndre Jordan was unavailable. Harrell played especially well in place of Jordan. However, working against Harrell is the Clipper’s roster crunch. The team has 18 players on the roster, not counting Harrell. If the Clippers do ultimately decide to bring back Harrell, the Clippers will have to make several moves to clear roster spots.
Cleveland Cavaliers RFA wing Rodney Hood also remains available. Utah Jazz fans can relate to the ups and downs of cheering for Hood who has flashes of brilliant play but remains inconsistent. Hood was acquired during last season to help bolster the Cavaliers’ championship run. However, Hood’s scoring, three-point shooting, overall statistics and minutes went down significantly due to his uneven play. While Hood is still a capable player, his time with the Cavaliers did not end well, which has impacted his stock around the league. It didn’t help Hood’s cause when he was benched in the postseason and he subsequently refused to enter the game when instructed to. The Kings, in need of help on the wing, could be a suitor for Hood’s services. However, Cleveland could match any such offer as the franchise continues to build a new team after the loss of LeBron James.
Available Unrestricted Free Agents:
The group of remaining unrestricted free agents is a mixed bag. As mentioned above, there is at least a chance that one of these players may not even make a roster when the dust settles this offseason. Dwyane Wade has bounced around the league the last few years with stints with the Bulls, Cavaliers and a most recent return to the Miami HEAT under his belt. Wade remains capable of spurts of offense and is a fan favorite in Miami. The most obvious result here is a return to Miami. However, Wade himself commented regarding a potential return or possibly retirement.
“When I get back from China, I’ll focus on that [decision],” Wade said while in China. “The basketball will take care of itself. I’ll sit down and figure that out once I get back from this tour at some point.”
Michael Beasley remains unsigned despite a strong outing last season for the New York Knicks. Beasley started 30 of 74 games played. His numbers don’t jump off the boxscore: 13.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.7 assists in 22.3 minutes. However, these are some of the best numbers he’s put up in years and the most consistent he has played since 2012-13. The Knicks may likely move on from Beasley but he remains a viable scorer who could come off the bench and start in a pinch for many teams if the price is right.
Jamal Crawford and Nick Young
Jamal Crawford and Nick Young remain unsigned veterans who offer potential teams a scoring punch off the bench. Young has the benefit of showing that he contributed in spurts to the Warrior’s championship season while not becoming a distraction. Both are known for knocking down difficult outside shots but can be inefficient scorers and potential liabilities on defense.
A few notable big men remain available as well. Phoenix Center Alex Len never became the elite big man the Suns had hoped for when they used the fifth pick in the 2013 draft to acquire him. However he remains a serviceable player. For his career, Len averages 7.2 points and 6.2 rebounds in 19.9 minutes. He is somewhat mobile and could be a strong option for a team looking for a backup center. Centers Al Jefferson and Jahill Okafor can both score the basketball but have to directly combat the notion that they have become antiquated. The modern game calls for mobile centers that shoot reliably from the outside to stretch the floor, are efficient on offense, can guard the rim as well as being at least somewhat capale of covering ball handlers on switches. Okafar and Jefferson don’t fit that profile and will have to convince potential suitors that despite their meager contributions over the last few seasons that they can sufficiently adapt to the modern game and make a positive impact.
NBA: Kawhi Leonard for DeMar DeRozan Makes Sense
In an unexpected move, DeMar DeRozan and Kawhi Leonard swapped teams, and it makes complete sense.
The Kawhi Leonard saga in San Antonio is finally over.
In the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday, news broke via Twitter that Leonard was about to be shipped across the Canadian border to the Toronto Raptors for — get this — DeMar DeRozan.
Leonard, and his deteriorated relationship with the San Antonio Spurs, dominated the offseason headlines, and while reports constantly whizzed around about where the All-Star small forward would wind up — maybe Los Angeles, maybe Philadelphia, maybe Boston — his final destination is one that came completely out of left field (despite the current odds).
While many people viewed the situation with Leonard as a chance for San Antonio to start fresh and plan for the future, the Spurs appeared to have no interest in that avenue. The entirety of the deal, Leonard and Danny Green for DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a top-20 protected 2019 first-round pick displays a win-now outcome for each party.
After winning 59 games and obtaining the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference, the Raptors eventually were bounced by the Cleveland Cavaliers in a sweeping fashion. Dwane Casey, the 2017-18 Coach of the Year, was fired after not being able to extend the franchises’ best season to an NBA Finals appearance. It appeared, with LeBron moving West, that the Raptors were going to run it back one more time to see if they could finally break through to the game’s biggest stage.
On the other side, the Spurs were coming off of a season in which they won 47 games and were two games out of the Western Conference’s third seed — all of which they achieved without Leonard. In the waning years of Gregg Popovich’s career, it appeared his team was still talented enough, and system still effective enough, to make relevant noise in the playoffs without a superstar player.
At its core, this deal comes down to each team swapping their best player for the other’s. Leonard gets out of San Antonio, to a team whose core won 59 games in the East. DeRozan gets the benefit of fitting into a system with the best head coach in the league, on a very competitive roster.
Now, it remains to be seen how happy each player will be in their situations. Reports surfaced early Wednesday morning that both players were dissatisfied with the trade outcome. But, as we all know, winning cures everything.
On the Spurs’ front, it’s interesting how little they considered trade packages for future picks and quality role players. ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported San Antonio rebuffed offers from the Sixers and Celtics that were centered around future assets, in turn focusing their trade efforts on the likes of Ben Simmons, and the Celtics’ young core. Instead of landing a handful of assets or players that may not materialize until Popovich is gone, the Spurs reeled in a player who is a year removed from averaging 27 points per game. Oh, by the way, he’s also under contract for the next three seasons.
DeRozan keeps the Spurs relevant. Maybe he doesn’t help them beat the Golden State Warriors (in fact, he most certainly doesn’t), but he allows his new team the chance to win meaningful games in the postseason over the next three years.
From everything that’s been reported, there was no way Popovich was going to commit the final few years of his NBA life to a rebuild. With a man like that at the helm, and a star player like DeRozan under contract, who knows what other tricks San Antonio might have up its sleeve.
Up in Toronto, if the Raptors can convince Leonard to play this season, their core plus an upgrade on the wing might finally be enough to break through to the Finals. New head coach Nick Nurse suddenly has a player widely regarded as a top-five talent in the league on his roster to accompany a deep and talented core. Although, just like in San Antonio, Leonard might not add enough to the Raptors to dethrone the Warriors. However, he suddenly has a better supporting cast to try and give Golden State a run for its money.
Plus, given Toronto’s inability to get out of the East, a Finals appearance in its own right would be considered a success next season.
All around, maybe this wasn’t the deal we expected to get Leonard out of San Antonio, but digesting the move from all angles, it appears to be the most sensible.