Breaking Down the NBA’s Rookie of the Year Race

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The 2014 NBA draft class was one of the most hyped classes in recent memory, and last year’s lottery teams are expecting big time production from their newly acquired rookies heading into next season. That being said, this year’s Rookie of the Year race promises to be much more intense than last season’s, with more rookies projecting into featured roles on their teams.

When you start to examine the players, I think a pretty clear top-8 emerges. Where those players rank within that top tier is up for debate, as variables beyond the scope of this article (mainly injuries) will undoubtedly play a huge role in the end result.

I will rank the players from No. 8 to No. 1 based on the current evidence that exists including talent, team roster, college stats, injury concerns, summer league performance and other variables.

8. Doug McDermott, SF, Chicago Bulls

First of all, I’m not sure if McDermott is an NBA caliber talent. The draft is always a crapshoot on some level, and there are some red flags with McDermott. First of all, McDermott didn’t really improve statistically in any meaningful way outside of his scoring totals during his four years at Creighton.

Generally, good NBA players dominate at the college level in every facet of the game, but despite McDermott’s elite scoring numbers, he wasn’t particularly good in any other category. He’s also not very big (about 6’8″ with a 6’9″ wingspan) and he’s a decent athlete at best.

Although there have been some rumblings that McDermott could be a stretch four in the NBA, I think he’s a small forward. He’s not long, he’s not quick, and he projects as an average rebounder if that (383rd in DReb% last season per KenPom.com). In the end he’ll probably be a below average defender regardless of his position, but despite all this, McDermott has a chance to be a contributor at the NBA level right away because of his elite shooting ability.

McDermott made 45% of his threes last season on about six attempts per game, and I think he’ll be able to transition to the NBA three-point line better than anyone else in this class. The Bulls really need shooting, meaning McDermott might have a chance to get on the floor right away.

McDermott looked great for the Bulls in summer league play, averaging 18-4-3 with 44/44/96 shooting splits in four games. McDermott was a dangerous shooter from behind the NBA arc and if that continues into the season, he will be an asset to the team.

There are two main problems with McDermott’s ROY candidacy at the moment. The first reason is simple. Head coach Tom Thibodeau is a defense first coach, and if McDermott can’t compete on that end of the floor, Thibodeau will be reluctant to play him.

The second is the logjam the Bulls have on the wings. At this point it’s unclear whether newcomer Nikola Mirotic will ultimately play more at the 3 or the 4 (with Taj Gibson and Pau Gasol on board there may not be much room at the four), but either way they already have Mike Dunleavy Jr., Jimmy Butler and last year’s first round pick Tony Snell possibly in the rotation. There just aren’t enough minutes to go around for McDermott to be a top candidate for the ROY right now.

7. Dante Exum, G, Utah Jazz

At this point it’s hard to project exactly how good Exum will be next season because of the limited information available, but his skill set seems pretty solid.

Exum played terribly in the summer league, but he just turned 19, there wasn’t much practice time, and he seemed out of shape. I actually watched Exum play in Las Vegas, and despite his mediocre production he showed some intriguing flashes of athleticism and playmaking.

The main reason why Exum is on this list is his potential for playing time. If Exum can even be a replacement level player it’s very possible he could receive starter level minutes. The Jazz aren’t going to make the playoffs next year, which could mean a lot of minutes for Exum down the stretch.

Exum is probably a better long term prospect than ROY candidate because of the adjustment period he will have to undergo to transition to the NBA, but he’s a possibility nonetheless.

6. Marcus Smart, G, Boston Celtics

Marcus Smart is a huge wildcard in this race right now because of the wide range of outcomes possible for his rookie season. I don’t think there is any question that Smart will be productive next season, but there are some things he will definitely struggle with early on.

Obviously, Smart wasn’t a good shooter in college (30% from the college line on 5.3 attempts/game last season) and considering his 29.4% FG% in the Orlando Summer League, it’s not inconceivable that he will struggle to score early on. He could be a decent finisher, but he will probably be a terrible shooter.

Despite his scoring woes, I do expect Smart to collect a lot of steals, assists and rebounds next season. Last year he ranked 6th in the NCAA in Steal%, 75th in Assist Rate, and was 3rd on his team in DReb% (14.9%) all per KenPom.com. Those numbers should translate pretty well considering Smart’s strength and size. However, in a field as competitive as this one, his lack of scoring will hurt him.

The main reason for the wide variance in Smart’s ROY stock is the uncertainty surrounding his playing time. For now it looks like the starting backcourt will be Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley, but both of those guys have struggled with injuries recently (especially Bradley) and Rondo may or may not be on the market.

Who knows what this roster will look like by the end of the season. This makes it really tough to project Smart’s minutes, which will obviously have a huge impact on his overall production. If Rondo were to be traded or if one of the guards were to get hurt, Smart could find himself in the running. For now though, it’s more of a wait and see.

5. Julius Randle, PF, LA Lakers

Randle was an absolute beast last year at Kentucky, ranking in the top-50 in both OReb% and DReb% (KenPom) and leading Kentucky all the way to the national championship game.

He was dominant inside offensively, scoring in all types of different ways at the rim and drawing a ton of fouls while shooting a very respectable 70.6% from the line.

Randle is technically a little undersized as an NBA power forward (6’9″ with a 7’0″ wingspan) but he makes up for it with his bulk and brute strength. If not for the signing of the amnestied Carlos Boozer, Randle might be as high as No. 2 on this list, but Boozer’s presence limits Randle’s ROY upside as they play comparable roles, which basically means that neither one of them is going to play any position but power forward.

Between Boozer, Randle, Ed Davis, Ryan Kelly, Robert Sacre and Jordan Hill it’s hard to tell how the frontcourt minutes will be split up, but it’s a safe bet that all of them will get a decent share of playing time.

Randle is going to be a good NBA player, but I think different parts of his game will develop at different rates. I expect Randle to struggle to finish inside at first, as he just won’t be able to physically dominate the way he did in college. He won’t be a bad scorer, but there will be some tough nights.

As a rebounder, it wouldn’t surprise me if Randle dominated right away on both ends. There is no doubt he knows how to get rebounds, and if he were to end up in a starting role, I think 14-9-1 while shooting just under 50% is a reasonable projection. That might not win him the award, but it would certainly keep him on the short list.

There are some injury concerns with Randle’s foot, but it’s hard to tell if that will come into play or not. For now, I consider Randle to be a solid candidate. He has a chance to win but at this point he’s probably a bit of a long shot.

4. Nerlens Noel, C, Philadelphia 76ers

Noel sat out all of last season recovering from a knee injury he suffered during his only year at Kentucky. This season he’s back and he’s in line for a big share of minutes on the lowly 76ers.

Noel looked really explosive during both the Orlando and Vegas Summer Leagues, leading the former in both blocks and steals per game.

Noel was much more dominant in his season at Kentucky than people realize, ranking 90th in DReb%, 10th in BLK% and 73rd in STL% per KenPom, all elite numbers. He also shot 59% from the floor, finishing at a very high clip.

Noel is huge (7’0″ and a 7’4″ wingspan) and extremely athletic. He may not score that much next season, but he will be efficient from the field, put up solid rebounding numbers and record a ton of blocks and steals.

The 76ers fast paced style will boost Noel’s stats and sadly enough, he may end up being the team’s second best player.

Like Exum, Noel will probably take a few years to hit his stride as a pro, but his early playing time and athleticism make him a contender for the ROY.

3. Elfrid Payton, PG, Orlando Magic

Payton probably isn’t considered a top-3 candidate for the ROY in most circles, but I think he’s a great dark horse for this award for a few reasons.

First of all, Payton started school so early that he played most of his freshman year at Lafayette as a 17 year old, which is just absurd. Payton was not a highly sought after recruit in high school because he didn’t have a major growth spurt until after his junior season…when he would have been 15 years old. He also claims to have been growing throughout college, and to have just filled into his frame during his sophomore season.

He didn’t go to Lafayette because he wasn’t a good prospect; he went to Lafayette because he wasn’t even done with puberty until well into his college career. He’s now 6’4” with a very large 79-inch wingspan. This is a player that is extremely talented, and had he played with his age group, he may have been drafted higher than No. 10. He simply slipped through the cracks, and he’s going to be a surprisingly good NBA player.

The numbers he put up this season were absolutely insane. 21 points, 6.8 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 2.5 steals per 40 minutes definitely counts as filling it up. In addition, he attempted 9.6 free throws per 40 minutes. Payton can’t really shoot at all yet, but he’s by far the best bet out of this rookie crop of point guards to become an elite NBA finisher. He absolutely dominates in transition and with NBA spacing he could be a devastating finisher and passer out of the pick and roll.

He’s also going to be at least a neutral defender right away with a chance to become a lockdown defender at either guard position. He’s very physical and he’s obviously a good athlete. The bottom line is that Payton is a good player, and it looks like Orlando is handing him the keys to the offense. If you haven’t watched his video breakdown on DraftExpress, you definitely should.

The Magic traded a decent package of assets to move up just two spots to get his rights from Philly, and they got rid of incumbent starter Jameer Nelson. The only other true point guard on the roster is Luke Ridnour, and I just can’t imagine them benching Payton for Ridnour in a year when they’re probably not trying to make the playoffs.

A combination of being underrated player and opportunity make Payton a strong under the radar pick.

2. Andrew Wiggins, G/F, Minnesota Timberwolves

While Wiggins did make it into the top-2, it’s more by default than because I think he’s a strong candidate. Wiggins is going to be a good NBA player, but it may not show up in the stat sheet right away. He’s going to get big time minutes, but it’s hard to say exactly how productive he will be.

First of all, it’s clear Wiggins’ shot is still a work in progress. While I do think he will ultimately be a solid spot up shooter in the league, his summer league performance left a lot to be desired as he shot just 2-13 from deep after shooting 34% from behind the college line at Kansas last season.

Wiggins is going to be dangerous in transition, but he’s definitely going to struggle in the half court. He has no left hand yet and he hasn’t been able to create off the dribble, especially for others (he recorded just one assist in four summer league games). His assist rate at Kansas was lower than Joel Embiid’s, per KenPom.

For the purposes of his rookie production, Wiggins would be much better off playing on a team with ball dominant players he could work around. However, in Minnesota, he simply won’t have that luxury.

Ricky Rubio is a good offensive creator, but for reasons I explained in an article I published last week, he’s not a player you can completely rely on to run an offense through. Minnesota is going to try to put the ball in Wiggins’ hands as much as possible, and there are definitely going to be some growing pains involved.

That being said, Wiggins will get a boost from his overall defensive impact as well as his steal and block numbers. And like I said earlier, he will be deadly in transition. Minnesota will be looking to get out and run as much as possible, and Wiggins will be a huge part of that strategy.

I expect Wiggins to struggle early on, but he should find his footing and figure out how to contribute as the season progresses. If I had to project Wiggins’ numbers right now, I’d say 14-6-1-1-1 with 42/30/75 splits sounds about right. Those numbers are probably not winning him the ROY, but his upside is high enough to the point where he probably has the second best odds right now. His No. 1 overall pick status will not be lost on voters while they are casting their ballots.

1. Jabari Parker

To put this in perspective, I would argue that No. 6 Marcus Smart is closer to No. 2 Andrew Wiggins than Wiggins is to Jabari in terms of odds. All of the guys from 2-6 have relatively similar odds to win, but Jabari is far ahead of the field for one main reason. He’s just better.

Jabari is easily the best rookie right now and he should be able to contribute right away as the No. 1 scoring option for the Bucks. Not only will he play, he will be asked to carry a lot of the offensive burden for the team immediately.

Jabari can create his own shot with ease and handle in transition better than any player in this class by far. Watching him in Vegas, he’s clearly a physical specimen. Last season at Duke he played on a guard heavy team that required him to play both inside and out. This season, he will hopefully be taking on a bigger share of the ball handling and running the offense at times.

Jabari had an extremely high usage rate at Duke last season, ranking 24th in the nation in possessions used per KenPom, however, he still managed reasonable efficiency on a high degree of difficulty as he created a lot of his own shots. He also drew a ton of fouls and was a solid rebounder.

Jabari’s game should translate extremely well to the NBA, and not many teams will be able to match up with him properly. He’s way too big for most small forwards to contain but he’s way too quick for bigger power forwards to stay in front of. There’s no doubt he will be a nightmare matchup.

I expect Jabari to average between 17-19 points per game while adding about seven rebounds and three assists on something like 45/34/75 splits. Efficiency will come with time, but the raw numbers will be there right away, making him the clear-cut ROY frontrunner.

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