The 2017-18 NBA season is just over two weeks young, but that doesn’t mean it’s too early to start looking at the end-of-season awards. Today, Basketball Insiders looks at the Rookie of the Year Award and, while this list will likely change over the course of the season, the race looks like an exciting one. With one of the more hyped up rookie classes in recent memory all vying for the trophy, who has the upper hand at the start of the season?
6. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls
As the seventh overall pick in last June’s draft, Lauri Markkanen was met with a hefty amount of skepticism while the Chicago Bulls were bombarded with plenty of criticisms. Markkanen, however, has been quite the surprise for a Bulls team that is in desperate need of talent. Although the Bulls sit at 1-4 through their first five games, Markkanen has flashed the high-upside offensive ability that he so often displayed during his time at the University of Arizona, averaging 15.6 points and 9.6 rebounds with a field-goal percentage of 43.1 percent. Markkanen has looked more than comfortable from behind the arc as well, canning threes at 41.7 percent clip on over seven attempts per game.
With guard Zach LaVine likely on the mend until December, Markkanen, who currently holds a usage rate of 20.4 percent, should see a healthy number of touches as the most talented offensive option on the roster. However, there are plenty of areas Markkanen can improve his game, namely as a playmaker and defender. Through five games, Markkanen has totaled just two assists along with one steal and three blocks for ugly per game averages of 0.4, 0.2 and 0.6, respectively. These deficiencies have existed in his game since before his time with the Wildcats, but if Markkanen can manage to step up in even one of those areas he could very well see a rise in these rankings.
5. John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
Similar to Markkanen, John Collins has been a revelation for the Atlanta Hawks since his selection at 19th overall last June. Through seven games, Collins has averaged just 11.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per game while playing just a shade over 20 minutes per contest. Collins, however, has a dominating stat line of 20.4 points, 13 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per-36-minutes and, as the Hawks inevitably feed him more minutes, his per game numbers should see a nice boost. If he manages to play at least 60 games and sustain that per-36 stat line, Collins would join a list made up of just seven other players, including Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neal and Elgin Baylor, to do so in their rookie season. While it may be a stretch to expect that type of production from Collins across an entire season, it is encouraging nonetheless.
Something Collins needs to improve is his range; he has yet to take a shot from beyond the arc across 141 minutes this season. Collins has never been one for three-point shooting, attempting just one across two seasons at Wake Forrest, and typically finds himself within three feet of the basket with over 50 percent of his shots coming in this area. Developing any sort of outside game would be a major boon for the Hawks, while adding another wrinkle to Collins’ game would make it much harder for opposing defenses to gameplan for him down the line. Until that development, however, Collins likely won’t be able to make a major play for Rookie of the Year.
4. De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
While the Sacramento Kings may sit at 1-6, De’Aaron Fox’s play has been as good as advertised. Sitting behind George Hill, Fox has put up averages of 12.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and five assists across 26.7 minutes per game. Per-36-minutes, Fox has produced an encouraging line of 17.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 6.8 assists. His speed has been explosive and exciting to watch while his shooting stroke looks to be improved from his Kentucky days (small sample size alert). The extremely athletic Fox can be seen consistently hustling up and down the floor and, while his steal numbers are low now — Fox has just four steals on the season — they are certain to rise as he becomes more comfortable in his role after nabbing 53 steals across 36 games in his lone season at Kentucky. Fox has even been praised by another Kentucky alum, John Wall, who he was often compared to during the leadup to the draft. After years of searching, the Kings have seemingly found a keeper at the point guard position.
In order to push the others for Rookie of the Year, Fox will need to continue his progressions as a shooter. While his early free throw and three-point numbers have looked promising, he needs to sustain those numbers in order to remain a force on the offensive end. An improvement on his current -10.4 net rating and an eventual insertion into the Kings starting lineup would certainly help his case for the award as well.
3. Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers
As much as people may despise his father, it is hard to hate on the Los Angeles Lakers’ Lonzo Ball. Ball plays the game with a certain intensity and his team-first mentality is constantly on display via his passing. Through seven games, he is averaging 10 points, 7.5 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 1.1 steals per game. He boasts an assist percentage of 29.2 percent and is constantly trying to initiate offense as soon as he touches the ball, whether that be near the basket or on the opposite end of the floor. Ball’s defense hasn’t been bad either, posting a defensive rating of 102 points per 100 possessions.
Where Ball really struggles is his offensive game, outside his passing ability of course. Ball has been absolutely abysmal shooting the ball to start his career, registering a field goal percentage of 33.3, a three-point percentage of 28.3 and a free throw percentage of 55.6. While part of that is adjusting to NBA defenders, part of it lies in Ball’s wonky shooting motion. Until he adjusts, Ball will be forever flustered as a shooter and a scorer. Another problem Ball faces is the fact that he hasn’t really made the team better overall. While the “Lonzo Effect” was supposed to be a net positive for the Lakers, it has, in fact, been a net negative. When Ball has been on the court this season, the Lakers have a net rating of -11.7 but, when he is on the bench, that number jumps to a +14.7. While Ball is clearly a gifted passer, he has plenty of other kinks to work out of his game as the season goes along.
2. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Jayson Tatum was not supposed to be here, not yet. Coming into the NBA as a 19-year-old after the Boston Celtics drafted him third overall in June, Tatum was expected to mostly ride the pine early in the season, chipping in minutes here and there a la teammate Jaylen Brown a year ago. However, injuries have forced Tatum into the spotlight and he has performed more than admirably in the place of All-Star Gordon Hayward. On the year, Tatum boasts a stat line of 14 points, seven rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.1 blocks per game on 33.1 minutes per game with an offensive rating of 117. Tatum has played a crucial role in the Celtics turnaround after their early slump following Hayward’s injury and his presence on the glass is one that Boston desperately needed last season. His defense has been better than expected as well, going up against the likes of LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo yet still managing a defensive rating of 98.
Tatum still has his flaws, however. As the focal point of the offense at Duke a season ago, Tatum often found himself in ISO situations, going one-on-one against a defender. That ISO mentality can still be seen in Tatum’s offensive game and, when playing on a team with Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and, eventually, Hayward, that won’t fly. At other times, Tatum just does not take the open shot, making an extra unneeded pass or passing up an open three to move into two-point range. Tatum has shot well from three so far, hitting 10 of 20 attempts from downtown, but he’ll need to correct these mistakes as the season goes along as the Celtics make their inevitable Eastern Conference postseason run. That being said, Tatum would likely be the front-runner for Rookie of the Year if not for one point-forward.
1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Is this really a surprise? Ben Simmons has absolutely dominated for the Philadelphia 76ers and is the clear cut best rookie thus far. Averaging 35 minutes per contest, Simmons holds a ridiculous stat line of 18.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 1.4 steals per game. Simmons would be the first rookie to hold those averages since Oscar Robinson did so in 1960. His court vision is impeccable and, playing a majority of his minutes at the point guard position, his size and the physicality of his game can create a mismatch on almost any given play.
Simmons has his problems for sure. He is still not a great shooter; Simmons has taken just four three-pointers on the season and converted none of them. His overall field goal percentage looks nice — Simmons is shooting at a 53 percent clip — but that number is inflated by all of the shots he takes from the inside. While he still needs to become more comfortable shooting the ball outside of the paint, Simmons has a firm grip on the Rookie of the Year award and will continue to for the foreseeable future.
The 2017-18 rookie class looks like a special one, one that should make for a more than exciting race for Rookie of the Year. The season is still young, so expect all of these rookies, as well as others not on this list, to make a play for the top spot as the season goes along and they adjust, learn and improve their overall game.
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