Most early award predictions carry familiar names and faces. However, predicting Rookie of the Year candidacy is much more difficult based on many variables and factors. Because these players are drafted very young, it’s difficult to forecast a player’s output on any given team. Essentially, every rookie is a free agent coming into a new team and a new system, hoping to make an impact. But hoping can only get you so far in the NBA. Players who’ve previously been stars and played entire games from elementary school to college have to deal with a limited role. Some can take the emotional and physical toll immediately, while it takes others more time to acclimate to the NBA.
That’s what makes forecasting for Rookie of the Year so difficult. The past two seasons, the number one overall pick has taken home the award. But prior to that, it hasn’t been as cut and dried. Michael Carter-Williams won the award as the 11th pick in the 2013-2014 campaign, while Damian Lillard, the sixth overall pick, won it in 2012-2013. In fact, over the past ten seasons only five Rookie of the Year recipients have also been the number one pick.
Rookie of the Year is not like the MVP, where you’re looking for a rookie who’s on a winning team. In fact, in the past 10 seasons no rookie of the year has led their team to a winning record in their first season. Needless to say, winning isn’t a factor when it comes to winning the award.
So what are the common denominators that add up to winning the award? Well, statistics show us that every recipient since Mike Miller (2000-2001) has played over 30 minutes per game. Along with that, no rookie of the year has averaged single digits in points, and for the past 14 seasons we haven’t seen anyone who averaged fewer than 15 points per game win the award.
As much as we’d think injuries would be a disqualifier from the award, they haven’t been. Two recent examples are Kyrie Irving and Brandon Roy: They only played 51 and 57 games respectively, yet still managed to win the award. We’ve seen only three players in the past 13 seasons play all 82 games.
Coming into this season, there are several legitimate candidates for the award. We’ve listed seven players that we think could win Rookie of the Year based on some of the facts listed above.
- Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers
Embiid is someone who probably wouldn’t be on this list three weeks ago. But due to Ben Simmons’ recent foot injury and Embiid’s strong preseason performances, he is definitely in the mix. Embiid, who was injured all of last season, looks revitalized and more mobile than anticipated. The third overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft, Embiid has been through two season-ending injuries and has never played in a regular season game, so while he’s older than just about every other candidate, he’s still technically eligible for the award.
The seven-foot center has been working out all summer and it has shown in preseason. Although he’s on a minutes restriction for good reason, he’s still been impressive. Most recently, he posted a double-double against the Washington Wizards in only 14 minutes.
It’s going to be hard for people to see him as a Rookie of the Year candidate when they’ve only seen him play five preseason games, but Embiid has a ton of potential on a team that needs him. While the front court has a backlog of talent, Embiid is clearly one of the best two-way centers they have. If the team can increase his minutes to over 25 per game and Embiid can manage to stay healthy, he can seriously challenge for the crown.
- Buddy Hield – New Orleans Pelicans
Hield is subject to a lot of criticism. His Summer League play was sub-par and his age begs the question: how much more can he develop and grow? At 22 years old, he’s older than a lot of players drafted in the 2013 and 2014’s draft classes.
The shooting guard out of Oklahoma was one of the most efficient scorers in NCAA history, but it took him 4 years to really develop into the talent he became. It’s good to see the progressive development year over year (7.8 points his freshman year to 25 points his senior year), but his ceiling is probably lower than other top-end players selected early in this year’s draft because of his age.
The great thing about Hield is the team he went to. New Orleans desperately needed shooting and they got it with Hield.
Hield’s ability to create his own shot off the dribble isn’t amazing, but his catch-and-shoot ability can be. It’s a good thing for New Orleans, because they already have multiple players that need the ball in their hands. Hield seems to work well in Gentry’s system and he should receive a steady number of minutes. As long as he shows progression throughout the year and receives the minutes we expect, it’s hard to believe he wont be in contention for Rookie of the Year.
- Brandon Ingram
New Lakers coach Luke Walton has already confirmed that Ingram won’t be starting. The former Duke standout has tons of potential, but many see him as an extreme work in progress. Of course, Ingram could find himself starting sooner rather than later if he shows that he can produce even with the learning curve ahead. But starting or not, he’s bound to see a lot of time. With his size and shooting ability, don’t be surprised to see him get into the race.
After playing 28 minutes in his most recent preseason game, it’s apparent Ingram still has a lot of growing to do. He had seven points, two assists, and two rebounds in that game, but has yet to get into double figures in any statistical category throughout preseason. Given the amount of time he’s played, his numbers are a little underwhelming. But we should have confidence that he’ll improve game by game.
The early comparisons to Kevin Durant is a reach to say the least. No one should expect Ingram to average 20 points, 2.4 assists, and 4.4 rebounds like Durant in his rookie year. But it wouldn’t be far-fetched to see Ingram develop quickly and make significant growth as a double-digit scorer for the Lakers.
- Jamal Murray – Denver Nuggets
Murray, the 6’4 shooting guard out of Kentucky, is bound to get an opportunity with the Nuggets. With fellow starting shooting guard Gary Harris out with a groin injury, we may see Murray get more minutes early on.
In preseason, Murray is averaging 11.3 points on 41 percent shooting. With the ability to create shots off the dribble and rebound efficiently, he’ll be a prime candidate to win Rookie of the Year.
While Will Barton and fellow rookie Malik Beasley may take minutes from Murray, he still seems in line for a hefty workload. At only 19, Murray still has loads of potential to go along with a primary scorer’s skill set.
Remember, Murray averaged 20 points and five rebounds per game in college on a team that’s produced the most NBA talent in the country over the past 10 seasons. If he can get a hold of a starting role while playing close to 30 minutes a game, put Murray up there as a contender for the award.
- Kris Dunn – Minnesota Timberwolves
Dunn lit up the Summer League with 24 points per game on 54 percent shooting. Even though it was Summer League, the efficiency and ability were clearly there.
However, preseason has certainly changed that mentality for Dunn. Averaging 24 minutes in preseason, you would’ve thought Dunn’s output would be better than 4.7 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. He’s shooting 18.5 percent from the field and with Rubio on the roster, some fear Dunn may not get much playing time early on.
Even if he doesn’t start, Dunn should still ultimately average about 24 minutes a night. Currently, Rubio may be the known commodity and a safer bet. But if Dunn can regain some of his confidence and return to a more efficient game, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him starting eventually.
The other added element is that Rubio has been subject to many trade rumors. If Rubio were to be traded, Dunn would immediately see an increase in minutes.
So while Dunn isn’t a surefire ROY candidate, it’s hard to see him outside of contention because of his situation. He’s got a coach with a great reputation in Tom Thibodeau, and a team that’s got a lot of young talent. Both are extremely hard to come by when you’re a high lottery pick.
- Ben Simmons – Philadelphia 76ers
This should have an asterisk next to him because of his most recent injury. Simmons won’t be able to compete in an NBA game for at least the next three months. The number one overall pick and consensus pick for rookie of the year suffered a significant foot injury that will likely keep him sidelined for the majority of the season.
If he can beat the odds in his rehab, Simmons could likely make an immediate impact for the 76ers. His physical ability, vision, and size are something very few players possess. While he may not be an efficient scorer, he still has the makings of an extremely unique NBA talent.
- Thon Maker – Milwaukee Bucks
Maker came into the draft with so many question marks. From his true age to his raw ability, there were many “red flags.” Even so, the Bucks felt confident enough to take him with the No. 10 pick in this year’s draft. Boasting the highest no-step vertical (32″) of any player over 6’11 in NBA draft history, Maker clearly has tremendous potential.
In Summer League, Maker made opposing teams feel guilty for not putting him on their draft boards. He averaged 14.6 points and 9.6 rebounds in Summer League, becoming a standout due to his size and production.
This preseason, though, it’s been a clear learning curve for him. Maker has averaged 5.5 points and three rebounds per outing in 19.5 minutes a night. While this isn’t great, it isn’t bad either. The 19-year old Maker has tons of potential and room to grow in Milwaukee, but he’ll need to work through his mistakes and continue to be given opportunities to succeed.
Maker can become a double-double machine on the Bucks, but Milwaukee will need to let him play through mistakes in order to keep him confident. With Greg Monroe on the outside looking in and Jabari Parker, Miles Plumlee, and John Henson in the frontcourt, it won’t be easy for Maker to make an impact. But if he can, we may see him breakout and turn into the Rookie of the Year.
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.