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Dark Horses for the NBA’s 2014-15 Rookie of the Year Award

A look at some of the dark horses to win the 2014-15 Rookie of the Year, including Nerlens Noel, Zach LaVine and more!

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The 2014 NBA draft class was well-documented as being one of the deepest classes in recent years and this year’s Rookie of the Year race could be very competitive. The award often comes down to minutes, scoring and opportunity. While players like Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker will likely be the front runners, here are six rookies (in no particular order) who could play major roles with their teams, get extended minutes and have an opportunity to compete for next season’s Rookie of the Year Award.

Nerlens Noel – Philadelphia 76ers

After sitting out last season with a knee injury, Nerlens Noel finally made it back to the court in the Summer League. In six games between Orlando and Las Vegas, Noel averaged 13 points, 5.5 rebounds and two blocks per game against the Summer League competition. While it’s hard to judge just how well a player’s game will translate from college to the NBA in Summer League, Noel flashed signs of what he can do at the next level.

The 76ers were rightfully careful with how many minutes Noel saw over the summer, but he showed very little rust in his first minutes in the NBA. Given his size, Noel still has the ability to play both ends of the floor and he showed the speed and quickness needed to make a difference in the NBA.

The only thing that may hinder Noel’s chances at winning the Rookie of the Year award is just how careful the 76ers are in limiting him this season. The 76ers may not be in win-now mode and if their pick of Joel Embiid is any indication about this season’s plans, the playoffs may not be in the picture so they may not be in a hurry to rush him back too soon. The starting frontcourt of Noel and Embiid in years to come could be devastating for teams should the two remain healthy.

Dante Exum – Utah Jazz

Following June’s draft, many pegged the Utah Jazz as having the best draft after selecting Dante Exum and Rodney Hood. The Jazz have one of the better up-and-coming young cores in the league and will be able to afford Exum the necessary minutes needed to compete for the Rookie of the Year Award.

Exum didn’t turn in a great performance at Summer League, averaging 7.2 points on 31 percent shooting in five games, but still managed to give Jazz fans something to be hopeful for. He flashed the athleticism that was so widely talked about prior to the draft as he averaged 1.4 steals per game and held his own on the defensive side of the ball. His shooting percentage shouldn’t be that alarming as that was one of his biggest flaws coming into the draft and one of the things that will be a work in progress during the season.

Exum played a lot his minutes off of the ball playing next to Trey Burke so that will be an adjustment he’ll have to make throughout the season. The coaching staff in Utah is confident those two players will be able to play with each other. The Jazz figure to play an up-tempo offense this season that will feature a lot of ball movement and that style fits directly with the type of player that Exum is.

Elfrid Payton – Orlando Magic

After a strong showing in the Summer League, Orlando Magic point guard Elfrid Payton should see an opportunity to make a name for himself during his rookie season. As his play in the Summer League indicates, Payton could be a guy filling up stat sheets on a Rajon Rondo-like level as he nearly had two triple-doubles in five games and averaged 9.2 points, seven assists, 5.2 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game.

Magic head coach Jacque Vaughn will welcome competition for the starting lineup, but four out of the five spots should already be locked in with Payton starting at point guard, Victor Oladipo at shooting guard and Nikola Vucevic and Channing Frye at center and power forward. Vaughn’s toughest decision should come at small forward, with it coming down to Maurice Harkless and Tobias Harris.

Regardless of who starts where, Payton should be starting from Game 1 and could present the biggest challenge for Parker and Wiggins at ROY. Payton isn’t the type of scorer that the Magic want to see yet, but is a guy that will play both sides of the floor. At 6’4, Payton has great length at his position and will see his share of steals as his numbers in the Summer League indicate. Payton’s chances of winning the ROY could improve should the Magic be able stay in the hunt for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. With the balance of power shifting around in the East and the increased experience of the Magic’s core players, the team could find itself in the hunt after the All-Star break, somewhere they haven’t been in a few seasons.

Zach LaVine – Minnesota Timberwolves

Zach LaVine will surely be one of the top beneficiaries of the reported trade between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Cleveland Cavaliers. The deal will reportedly send Kevin Love to the Cavaliers in exchange for Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a protected 2015 first-round draft pick. The combination of LaVine and Wiggins on the court will give the Timberwolves unprecedented athleticism which will help the team on both ends of the floor.

LaVine has previously stated that he is a confident player and that confidence showed in the Summer League. In six games, LaVine averaged 15.7 points on 40 percent shooting, 4.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists. One accolade LaVine may have already locked up is a spot in the Dunk Contest next season but that athleticism will also help him potentially make a name for himself in the ROY race. With Ricky Rubio running the show in Minnesota, LaVine will benefit greatly by Rubio’s passing and should be featured heavily on the highlight reels.

The reported deal with the Cavaliers will change the Wolves’ starting five a little bit, but only time will tell whether or not LaVine would be starting right away. The initial thought on LaVine would be to come off of the bench with players like Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and Ricky Rubio remaining in the starting lineup. Regardless, LaVine should still see plenty of minutes and have his chance to shine.

Julius Randle – Los Angeles Lakers

Julius Randle is viewed as one of the building blocks of the future for the Lakers, but he might have the opportunity to be productive in his first season and play himself into the ROY discussion. The 6’9 big man was viewed as the most NBA-ready power forward in the draft by many and was recently compared to Zach Randolph by new Lakers head coach Byron Scott. The Lakers missed out on the top-tier free agents over the summer and have four power forwards on the team competing for the two frontcourt spots.

Randle can score in the post, shoot the mid-range shot, rebound the ball and play both ends of the floor with his above-average athleticism. During the Summer League, Randle averaged 12.5 points on 42 percent shooting, 4.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists in four games.  Still the biggest thing that could limit Randle’s time is the presence of Carlos Boozer and Ed Davis, who could be favorites for the two frontcourt spots. Scott may be more inclined to give those two starting spots to the more experienced players over Randle but he could still see significant minutes off of the bench.

T.J. Warren – Phoenix Suns

Phoenix Suns forward T.J. Warren turned a lot of heads during the Vegas Summer League, averaging 17.8 points on 54 percent shooting and 4.8 rebounds per game. In three out of his five games, Warren scored at least 22 points and looked to be one of the best rookies. The Suns were in need of some help on the wing and addressed that need by drafting Warren.

With some of the best scoring instincts of any perimeter option and a really adept understanding of how to work off of the ball, Warren could quickly work his way up the depth chart and provide an instant impact in year one.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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