Thursday, September 24, 2015

2015-16 Season Preview: Picking the Rookie of the Year

From Don Meineke in the 1952-53 season to Andrew Wiggins last year, the NBA has crowned a top first-year player as Rookie of the Year.  A total of 24 Hall of Famers have taken home the award, including Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Lew Alcindor, Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain.  Some of the game's greatest started asserting their dominance from year one, and it's always fun to watch which young players look like they could be the next greats.  Two years off of a watered down rookie class that produced Michael Carter-Williams as one of the weakest ROY winners of all-time, the 2015 draft class should give us an intriguing race for the Eddie Gottlieb trophy.  Any of the 2015 draft's top three picks seem like they'll take aim at winning the award, and several other top ten picks, namely Stanley Johnson and Emmanuel Mudiay, should get a chance too.  Of course, it's also possible that someone from outside the top ten takes home the honor, but that's proven to be a very rare occasion.  Since Mark Jackson (18th pick) won Rookie of the Year in 1987-88 for the Knicks, only one player (Carter-Williams, 11th pick) chosen outside the top ten has been recognized as the league's best rookie.  Here's my take on the ten rookies most likely to get their hands on the Gottlieb trophy:

1: Jahlil Okafor - C - Philadelphia 76ers - 3rd pick

For most of his freshman season, Okafor was seen as a likely #1 overall pick.  He happened to fall to Philadelphia at #3 come draft night, but that shouldn't affect his ROY case one bit.  Among the top picks in the draft, Okafor figures to shoulder the biggest load, as he plays on a Sixers team without any established weapons.  That means that even if Okafor's efficiency numbers aren't great, he should catch the eyes of voters who like to see big numbers in the PPG and RPG columns.  DeMarcus Cousins put up 14.1 PPG and 8.6 RPG, and I think that's something similar to what we'll see from Okafor, although I'd put him on the high side of that PPG mark.

2: D'Angelo Russell - G - Los Angeles Lakers - 2nd pick

Russell lands slightly ahead of Towns on this list because his game should translate a little bit cleaner than Towns'.  Rookies generally struggle to shoot the ball, but even if Russell can't connect consistently from the outside, he should still fill the box score with points, rebounds and assists.  If he didn't have to defer to Kobe Bryant, he may just be my pick for ROY.  That's not to say I like his upside better than Towns or Okafor, but the Lakers, much like the Sixers are lacking in clear options that are better than Russell.  Russell Westbrook basically averaged 15 PPG, 5 APG, 5 RPG as a rookie, and that could be a rough idea of what we see D'Angelo Russell put on the board. 

3: Karl-Anthony Towns - F/C - Minnesota Timberwolves - 1st pick

I feel like no matter where I place Towns in the top three, I could regret it.  He certainly doesn't belong any lower than this though.  Towns is going to score some points, block some shots and grab some rebounds, but what is going to be his level of responsibility within the Wolves' offense?  They've got the reigning ROY in Andrew Wiggins and a couple other more established options in Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin and possibly Nikola Pekovic.  Even if he's a second or third option on the offensive end, I expect he'll probably put up something like 14 PPG, give or take a point or two on either side.  The other stuff he does should be the main determinants in his ROY argument.  If he can put up 2.0+ BPG and somewhere around 8-10 RPG, he'll have a real shot.  If he can put up some assists too, that would put him in Chris Webber and Pau Gasol rookie season territory, and both of those two took home the Gottlieb hardware.

4: Emmanuel Mudiay - G - Denver Nuggets - 7th pick

After Ty Lawson was shipped to Houston this offseason, Mudiay's chances at ROY increased significantly.  There's no other options in Denver that should keep him out of the starting lineup, and that means Mudiay should have the ball in his hands plenty.  There are legitimate questions about his ability to shoot the ball, but if his athleticism can help him generate good looks at the rim and even better looks for his teammates, Mudiay will produce.  On the top end, he could also produce a season similar to the one that Westbrook notched as a rookie.  On the bottom end, he could produce a rookie season similar to Jason Williams (12.8 PPG, 6.0 APG, poor efficiency measures).

5: Stanley Johnson - SF - Detroit Pistons - 8th pick

I wouldn't disagree if you placed Johnson as high as 2nd on this list, because he figures to play big minutes for the Pistons this season.  What's going to determine his level of success is how efficient he can be with the offensive numbers he puts up.  Most expect Johnson to contribute at the defensive end, and to make the hustle plays that he made for the Arizona Wildcats last season.  However, what's not certain is if he can consistently connect on threes and if he can finish at the rim.  If he does those things well, I think we're looking at a season similar to Shane Battier's rookie year, when he put up 14.4 PPG, 5.4 RPG and 2.8 APG.  That performance got Battier an All-Rookie first team selection, but he didn't get a single Rookie of the Year vote, strangely enough.  If his rookie season doesn't go well, chip off a few PPG and an assist and rebound each and you've probably got his production.

6: Myles Turner - F/C - Indiana Pacers - 11th pick

Turner had an inconsistent year as a freshman at Texas, but he has all the tools to make an impact in the NBA.  He's got long arms, is in the process of developing an outside shot, and is physical enough that he won't have to make a huge adjustment to the NBA.  On top of that, the Pacers' frontcourt lost David West and Roy Hibbert, but didn't add any established veterans to replace them.  I'd be pretty surprised if Turner finishes in the top three of the voting, but it's not out of the question.  There haven't really been a whole of shot blocking, three point shooting big men, so there's not an easy comparison available for Turner.

7: Justise Winslow - SF - Miami Heat - 10th pick

Winslow was everyone's first choice when it came time to talk about guys who were steals in the draft.  Some thought he would go as high as 4th to the Knicks, but nobody thought he would make it past the Pistons at 8.  Whether that motivates him is yet to be seen, but even if he did have the extra motivation, he may just not get the minutes to put up big enough numbers to win ROY.  There's no path to major minutes for Winslow, unless Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng both go down.  Plus, Gerald Green may suck up some of his minutes if Winslow doesn't start off hot.  I could regret putting Winslow this low on the list, because I do like his game, but I just don't think his role is conducive to winning ROY.

8: Kristaps Porzingis - F/C - New York Knicks - 4th pick

Yes, he's extremely raw, but the Knicks are bad enough that his lack of polish isn't going to keep him from getting consistent playing time.  Most think it will be a few years until Porzingis is truly making a an impact, but if he starts showing flashes this year, he could make a run at Rookie of the Year.  I'm not willing to predict that Porzingis averages even 10 PPG, but he's going to have eyes on him all year long, because he plays in New York and has some mystery surrounding him.

9: Mario Hezonja - G/F - Orlando Magic - 5th pick

Hezonja is also extremely raw, but his path to legitimate playing time is less clear.  Orlando has enough talent on the wings that they won't have to just toss Hezonja into the deep end.  If he does get playing time, the thing to watch will be his consistency.  He has the natural talent of someone who could challenge for a spot as the top rookie, but I don't think he'll get the run or the results to be in the discussion.

10: Willie Cauley-Stein - C - Sacramento Kings - 6th pick

Right or wrong, the Rookie of the Year award generally goes to a player with the gaudiest offensive stats.  So while it's possible that WCS puts his stamp on the game on the defensive end, it's not likely that he'll get outright recognized for it.

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