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NBA Rookie of the Year Watch

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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:

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.

Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.


About Benny Nadeau

Benny Nadeau

Benny Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his first year with Basketball Insiders. For the last five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.