NBA Rookie of the Year award isn’t for everyone. In fact, it is only for one person in the whole world, once per year. Only 68 humans have ever won this award, and no one has won this award more than once, not even Michael Jordan. Unfortunately, last year’s ROTY race was a snooze. The most compelling storyline was whether or not Joel Embiid should win the award after suiting up for only 31 professional basketball games. Luckily, it was heavily overshadowed by one of the best NBA MVP discussions of all time. It seemed fitting that Malcolm Brogdon won the award as the first ever non-first round pick to win with his defensive-minded game and modestly good, consistent stat lines. He is a great example of excelling in a system that highlights his strengths with the Milwaukee Bucks. In an NBA where someone as talented as Mike Conley will probably never experience an All-Star game, it was refreshing to see a similar type of player in Brogdon get honored with this award. With that being said, expect this season’s ROTY to trounce Brogdon’s influence and statline of 10.2 ppg, 4.2 apg, 2.8 rpg. A deeply talented rookie class featuring polarizing personalities, playmakers, scorers, and athletic superheroes headline what is shaping up to be the most influential ROTY platform since the 2003-04 NBA season that featured LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Kirk Hinrich.
There are a few main factors when predicting potential Rookie of the Year candidates. The first two to consider are playing time and current skill level. Many prospects are drafted as long-term projects or to teams that only have 15-20 minutes per game available for their newcomer. These players will not win the award barring several unlikely events that would sideline potential teammates and other rookies. Another quality that a typical ROTY shows is the ability to either score greater than 15 ppg or display transcendent passing or rebounding abilities. It doesn’t have to be efficient or pretty (ex: Michael Carter-Williams, 2013-14), but in the past 15 years only two players have averaged fewer points per game and won the award; Brogdon in a weak rookie class and double-double connoisseur Amare Stoudemire back in 2002-03. The human factor and exposure also play a role as it can subconsciously influence the 100 individual voting media members. The voting media members are generally greatly informed and educated, so this is marginal on the outcome. However, there are still outliers who may vote on a subjective basis due to social media and national TV exposure of certain teams and players. In a tight ROTY race this could be the difference between first and second place. Unlike the MVP award, a winning team does not play a huge role in ROTY voting, but it could be affect the outcome as a tiebreaker. This probably worked to Brogdon’s advantage last season over ROTY runner-up Dario Saric.
With a broad picture painted, let’s take a look at the current Rookie of the Year odds and attempt to decipher who might come home with the hardware for the 2017-18 NBA season (as of 8/1/17 from Bovada):
Lonzo Ball (LAL) +225
Dennis Smith (DAL) +300
Ben Simmons (PHI) +500
Jayson Tatum (BOS) +500
Markelle Fultz (PHI) +800
De’Aaron Fox (SAC) +1200
Malik Monk (CHA) +1800
Josh Jackson (PHX) +2000
Jonathan Isaac (ORL) +3300
Justin Jackson (SAC) +3300
Lauri Markkanan (CHI) +3300
John Collins (ATL) +3300
Frank Ntilikina (NYK) N/A
Zach Collins (POR) N/A
Donovan Mitchell (UTA) N/A
Bam Abedayo (MIA) N/A
Trust The Process… of Elimination
Based on the criteria considered above, we can eliminate a few rookies right off the bat. Lauri Markkanen (+3300), selected by the Chicago Bulls as the 7th overall pick, is in a terrible situation for anything resembling a reasonable ROTY campaign. Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis precede him on the depth chart at the power forward position. Anyone not named Dwyane Wade is going to have trouble getting Markkanen open catch and shoot opportunities on the perimeter, which is the main strength in his game right now. The silver lining for Markkanen is that the Bulls front office has proven itself incompetent, and he may find himself in greener pastures at some point before the trade deadline.
Jonathan Isaac (+3300) is on a weirdly formulated Orlando Magic roster that is primed for the highly coveted, annual battle for the tenth seed in the Eastern Conference. He will also be coming off the bench behind Aaron Gordon, Orlando’s franchise darling for the meantime, which limits Isaac’s playing time and scoring role within the team for this upcoming season. The Magic did not draft Isaac to arrive averaging 15 ppg in hot pursuit of the ROTY award. He will be a project that we won’t know the outcome of for at least a couple years.
Justin Jackson (+3300) will have a respectable rookie season for Sacramento Kings as the 15th overall pick. There is playing time available, he can score, and he has three years of college experience. With that being said, this season’s ROTY winner is going to have to do something special, and I can’t think of how Jackson can fill that void. He will probably average 10-15 ppg on inefficient shooting splits with around 2 apg. Jackson would actually be a nice sleeper candidate in a season like last year. For reference, Buddy Hield received one second place vote and 18 third place votes on similar numbers. Unfortunately, Jackson probably may not even make the cut for second team All-Rookie this season up against a strong rookie class.
Zach Collins (POR), Donovan Mitchell (UTA), and Bam Abedayo (MIA) are three other lottery picks that were not listed in the Rookie of the Year odds. For that reason, I am out!
Limited Role/Playing Time
As I mentioned earlier, the 2017-18 ROTY will have to either average at least over 15 ppg OR something like 10 apg (eg. Lonzo Ball, Ben Simmons). The following guys are going to have trouble breaking 15 ppg, but not due to their talent. It is rather their current playing time situation. I believe any of the following guys, if given 30 minutes per game, would have a legitimate shot at ROTY.
Jayson Tatum is primed for elimination by virtue of the playing time constraint. Sitting at +500, this would be a terrible bet. Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, and Jae Crowder are all wedged between Tatum and consistent playing time. Hayward will eat some minutes at shooting guard, while Morris and Crowder will do the same at power forward, but the opportunity for playing time will be more constrained than most of his peers drafted in the lottery. For perspective, Jaylen Brown averaged only 17.2 mpg last season, so expect something similar for Tatum this season. The Celtics also will be looking to repeat as the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference, so playing time will be earned, not given. If you switch Tatum’s situation with say, Justin Jackson in Sacramento, Tatum instantly becomes a top three candidate for ROTY. I think Tatum’s rookie season will be viewed overall as a success by the end of the season, but it will not be enough to land the ROTY award.
What De’Aaron Fox’s lacks in shooting and size, he makes up for in other areas of his game. He wants to be the leader. He wants to be in the spotlight. He wants to be the first guy on the floor diving for loose balls. Pair this with his impeccable speed and playmaking ability and you have a strong case for a ROTY candidate, right? Well, the Sacramento Kings decided to sign George Hill, a veteran in his prime who happens to play the same position as Fox at point guard. This was a great basketball signing by the Kings, but it will greatly hinder Fox’s ability to run for President of the Rookie Club. Next!
Josh Jackson is facing a similar positional logjam in Phoenix as De’Aaron Fox. TJ Warren will be the starting small forward for the Phoenix Suns heading into the season and will be entering his age 24 season after averaging 14.4 ppg last season. Warren is set to be the first restricted free agent on the Suns’ rebuild next offseason, which means a payday is coming soon. If Phoenix doesn’t see him being a cornerstone of their future, they could flip him for assets at the trade deadline to open up room for Jackson to develop and maintain cap flexibility. This would give Jackson about 25 games to prove he is ROTY. Even in this best outcome scenario, it will not be enough time for a late season push.
Money Makers & Breakers
Now that you have made it through a collection of meaningless words about professional athletes that will not make you a single dollar while they make millions, let’s talk about the guys that COULD help pay off that crippling credit card debt, next month’s rent, or even your beloved child’s diapers and food. After all, that’s why we gamble, right?
It’s crazy to think a healthy #1 overall pick could be a value pick for ROTY at this point in the offseason, right? Well, at +800 this feels like a bet worth taking. I understand the potential shortcomings. He may not even be the best rookie on his team, and he may play off ball frequently with Ben Simmons running point forward. However, Fultz was the top prospect taken in the draft after averaging 23.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg, and 5.9 apg in his freshman year of college. Yes, his team sucked, but the PAC-12 is strong enough to realize these numbers are still insane! He will also begin the season as the Sixers starting point guard, while the Sixers will push for their first playoff berth since 2012. Check out his highlights from his one Summer League game. This feels like it should be in the +500 range alongside Jayson Tatum, and he may start creeping towards that as we progress through the offseason (has already risen from +900 to +800 in last week of July).
FRANK NTILINKA! Ok, give me a second. Ntilinka is a mysterious prospect and project for the Knicks. His odds are not listed, he skipped out on Summer League, and no one has seen him play against college or NBA level talent. BUT, he is a 6’5 point guard on a team that has no other point guards (Michael Carter-Williams anyone?) currently on their roster. For reference, MCW averaged 16.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 6.3 apg on terrible shooting and high turnover rates during his ROTY campaign. As it stands, Ntilinka could play 30 minutes per game, have several National TV opportunities in New York, and shamelessly command the tank for the Knicks while shooting 35%. If this hits, you will be carried Rudy style straight down the strip in Vegas and treated as a prophet with the opportunity to even possibly form your own religion. Think about it! Of course, a Carmelo Anthony trade or veteran point guard signing could swing the pendulum at any minute rendering this whole argument useless.
I like Malik Monk at +1800. His shooting will receive a warm welcome from a Charlotte Hornets team that will start two of the worst shooters in the NBA, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Dwight Howard. He was honored with SEC Player of the Year as a freshman averaging 19.8 ppg on a deep Kentucky team per usual. This pick is heavily dependent on how Steve Clifford decides to run his offense and rotations, but it wouldn’t be out the question to see Monk average around 18-20 ppg. It is more likely that he will play the role of Marco Belinelli off the bench who averaged 24 mpg and 10.3 ppg last season, as the Hornets fight the Magic for the tenth seed in the Eastern Conference. Similar to Ntilinka, keep an eye on this once training camp/preseason rolls around though.
The Atlanta Hawks are in clear rebuild right now, and John Collins (+3300) has the perfect opportunity to become a double-double machine for the Atlanta Hawks. He averaged 15.4 ppg and 9.2 rpg during Summer League showing several different facets of his game including incredible athleticism. His impressively athletic dunks will give him momentum via social media, and he is primed to lead the rookie class in double-doubles. It’s possible that dunks and arbitrary stats like double-doubles could take him a long way when it comes to award voting, but the Hawks will probably only earn only a couple National TV spots. During Summer League, Collins seemed to always be at the right place at the right time. He found gaps in the defense, had great instincts on the offensive boards, dunked nearly everything, and worked well as the roll guy in the pick and roll. Ersan Ilyasova may start over Collins to begin the season, but that does not change the fact that the Hawks are somehow going to need to average close to 100 points per game after losing three of their top four scorers from last season. There will be scoring chances for everyone on the Hawks. At +3300 Collins probably won’t win Rookie of the Year, but he will have every opportunity necessary.
These are the picks for the people who invest their money in low risk hedge funds to secure a safe, predictable future for yourself and those around you. It’s for the people who buy generic store brand to save a few pennies. Yes, you may be smart and practical, but are you fun to be around? Lonzo Ball, Dennis Smith, and Ben Simmons are the heavy favorites for 2017-18 Rookie of the Year, and the odds accurately reflect that. Each player has an interesting case, and you can’t go wrong picking any of these guys.
Lonzo Ball is the safest bet on the board, which is why he sits at +225. Ball has a distinct, intangible skill that all of the historically great players possess to some degree. He makes everyone around him a better basketball player. It was evident in Summer League and should carry over to the regular season. This is one intangible skill that holds weight when evaluating players, because it is easier to grasp as teams exceed expectations and role players consistently have career years as teammates. If you take a look back at the 1994-1995 ROTY race, Jason Kidd won the award in a tie with Grant Hill averaging only 11.7 ppg, which is the lowest point total for any ROTY in the modern NBA era. We could see a similar result this season. Ball does not need to average many points to remain at the top of the ROTY race. His value lies within his ability to create for others and make his team better, and voters already know that about his game. To put into perspective how valuable his passing is, Ball already has a four and a half minute montage of passing highlights based on six games from Summer League. At this point, this is his trophy to lose. Oh! Not to mention, Lonzo Ball is also has one of the most reputable sporting brands in the world working in his favor, the Los Angeles Lakers.
If you were to bet on Dennis Smith, the time to do it would have been before Summer League as he started at +1400. At +300 he is probably slightly overvalued at this point, but he is still a strong candidate due to his current skillset, scoring ability and available playing time. This doesn’t come as a surprise for many people following the recruiting process as Dennis Smith would have been a top five pick if not for his injury history and rumors swirling about potential character issues. There was also an aspect of supply/demand in play with five point guards being drafted in the top ten spots this draft in what is already widely regarded as the deepest position in the NBA. Smith will have every opportunity to assert himself as the offensive leader for the Dallas Mavericks as Dirk fades into the corner – figuratively and literally. He should be a great addition to Harrison Barnes and Nerlens Noel’s more passive offensive skillsets while Seth Curry, Wes Matthews, and Dirk stretch the floor. His Westbrook-like athleticism will land him valuable social media time that should help his exposure throughout the season as well, since the Mavericks aren’t expected to have more than a handful of national TV slots. Two extra reasons outside of Smith’s obvious opportunities is that: 1. Rick Carlisle is a great coach. He will find an effective way to use Smith with the team. 2. Yogi Ferrell will be his backup point guard after earning a multi-year contract from the Mavericks as a rookie. Dennis Smith will start as the Mavericks point guard, but Ferrell will make certain Smith earns it throughout training camp and preseason.
This leaves us with Ben Simmons at +500. In many ways, Simmons is a similar type of player to Lonzo Ball in that he won’t need to average over 15 ppg to win ROTY. The optimist in me glances back to the 2010-2011 season when Blake Griffin stormed through his rookie season after sitting out his first season due to injury. Joel Embiid is another recent player that greatly benefitted from missing two full seasons to injury while developing his game and growing into his body. He was barely recognizable from his freshman season at Kansas. At LSU, Simmons was passive and seemingly uninterested at times but still averaged 19.2 ppg with mostly layups and dunks. A year of shooting practice should serve Simmons well, and he could run away with this award granted he shows up with anything resembling a reliable jumpshot. Robert Covington and the addition of JJ Redick will keep the floor spaced for the Sixers, not to mention that Dario Saric and Embiid can step out to the corners or top of the key when needed. The Sixers also have flexibility in their lineup to run the offense through Simmons at the small forward or power forward position depending on matchups. I think people have forgotten over the last year just how hyped up Simmons was before his injury. Simmons and Fultz at +900 are my two favorite bets. Unfortunately, they may steal votes from each other playing on the same team.
It’s obvious the race for Rookie of the Year this season will be of greater magnitude than last. This rookie class is deep and talented enough to sustain itself through a few injuries and underachievers unlike last season. Malcolm Brogdon completed an impressive challenge last year by becoming the first ever non-first round pick to win the Rookie of the Year award. However, don’t be surprised if someone like a Malik Monk or Justin Jackson post comparable statistics this season to Brogdon but fail to finish in the top five in ROTY voting. Saddle up! It’s going to be a fun ride!