Handicapping The Rookie of the Year Race (Post-Ben Simmons)

Rookie of the Year is always one of the most fun award races to track every year. These prospects who were studs on our favorite college teams or underdogs that have risen to the moment in a new setting or players from different countries we’ve never seen before.

Each year there’s a new batch and they give us hope of a more promising future.

This year’s class lacked some of the marquee names that have elevated past drafts, but what they do have is depth. Arguably, anyone selected after the top ten picks is likely to be on equal footing talent wise.

In the lead up to the 2016 NBA Draft, all the talk was centered around Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. Who should go first? Is Simmons a once-in-a-generation talent? Can Ingram become the next Kevin Durant? Does Simmons have the killer instinct? Will Ingram ever put on weight? Should Simmons be the face of a franchise? Which is the better fit for Philly?

However, aside from a titillating (read: poor) matchup in the Las Vegas Summer League, neither rookie has been able to rise to the top of their class this preseason. Simmons has been sidelined with a Jones fracture in his right foot that he suffered in training camp. Ingram has been playing, but not that well. He’s yet to find his stroke. Through five games he’s shooting 71.4 percent from the free throw line, 41.2 percent from the field, and 25 percent from three.

With Simmons possibly missing the entire season and Ingram in a slump, the race for Rookie of the Year in 2016 is wide open. Let’s breakdown the players with the best shot of bringing home the hardware this season.

Jaylen Brown

The latest lottery pick to get booed on draft night is the Boston Celtics Jaylen Brown. Since then he’s done nothing but become one of the most beloved players on the roster. His versatility has been his calling card so far and that has blended in perfectly with Brad Stevens’ style of play.

The amount of players that can be shuffled up and down and across the floor feels like it’s endless for Boston, with players like Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Jonas Jerebko, Terry Rozier, and Marcus Smart on the roster.

Brown’s IQ–both on and off the court–are top of the line and the fact that he’ll be 20 years old before the season begins give him an advantage over most other rookies. Brown’s an impressive prospect, his six-foot-seven frame is well-built and he has the strength at 220 pounds to handle the rigors and physicality of the NBA game already.

And being ready is going to lead to Stevens putting him in the game and expecting him to contribute. If he can meet, or even exceed, these expectations, then he has as good of a chance as anyone in being named Rookie of the Year.

Really, the only thing missing in Brown’s game is shooting. He might be the only rookie having a worse preseason than Ingram in regards to his shot (64.7 percent from the free throw line, 44 percent from the field, and 21.4 percent from three). If only Danny Ainge could figure out a way to splice together Brown and James Young he finally would have the superstar that he’s been hoarding assets for since dealing Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn.

Jamal Murray/Kris Dunn

Next I will be hedging my bet, probably not be the best move, but let me explain. Both these players, Murray and Dunn, are on young teams with hopes of making the jump from lottery to postseason. They also are on teams that have a lot of depth at the guard positions.

Dunn will start the year behind Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine and Murray is in line behind Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris (when he returns from injury), and Will Barton in the Denver Nuggets rotation.

At this moment Murray has the edge because Denver is down a guard with Harris’ injury. That moves Barton into the starting lineup and clears the way for Murray to get more playing time right away. Through five games, Murray is averaging nearly 30 minutes a game and there’s a good shot that the number will only dip down to a 20-25 minute range once the season gets underway.

Dunn is playing a tick below 27 minutes nightly in the Timberwolves first five games, but we all know how much Tom Thibodeau loves to siphon minutes from the bench to give to his starters, and while Rubio is in town that means Dunn will see a big drop in his playing time in the regular season.

Murray is a scorer in the truest sense of the word. Dunn’s likely to be a perennial All-Defensive team selection over the course of his career. Both will make an impact in the NBA, but for this upcoming year whoever is given more time on the floor will make noise and have a shot to claim the Rookie of the Year trophy for himself.

Domantas Sabonis

Russell Westbrook’s play is going to dominate storylines for the Oklahoma City Thunder all year, but in the preseason it’s been the play of rookie Domantas Sabonis that has stood out.

Sabonis was sent to OKC as part of the Victor Oladipo for Serge Ibaka draft day trade. With Ibaka now a mainstay at Disney World it’s opened a spot in the Thunder’s starting lineup for a second big man. Westbrook, Steven Adamas, and Andre Roberson are definites to start and it seems like the team wants to keep Enes Kanter in his sixth man role again.

In all of the Thunder’s preseason games Sabonis has started as the second big. The team is clearly confident in his potential and believe he can contribute right away. With Billy Donovan’s offense placing more of a burden on the big men to be playmakers, Sabonis is a perfect fit. He’s comfortable with the ball in his hands and possesses a guard’s feel for facilitating. His assist percentage of 14.69 percent is great for a non-guard.

Sabonis has also displayed a soft touch from the perimeter and a dearth of post moves and heady footwork. The opportunity is there for Sabonis and usually that is one of the biggest prerequisites for this award. If the Thunder are able to remain a postseason team it will only help to bolster his resume.

Buddy Hield

After a poor showing in Summer League, by his own standards, Buddy Hield has been on fire during the preseason. The reemergence of “Buddy Buckets” has been one of my favorite things about the preseason–my favorite thing will be documented later in the post.

Hield found himself in almost the perfect situation.

He doesn’t have to worry about being the face of the franchise; that’s Anthony Davis’ job. He’ll get early playing time; Jrue Holiday’s absence, the departure of Eric Gordon, and the injury to Tyreke Evans all open minutes for the rookie. He is in a system that values perimeter shooting on a team sorely lacking it; Alvin Gentry is a member of the Mike D’Antoni and Steve Kerr coaching tree and the Pelicans shot 36 percent (seventh in the NBA) last year, but lost Gordon (38.4 percent) and Ryan Anderson (36.6 percent).

If Hield can avoid a poor shooting run like we saw from him in Vegas, than there is no reason that he should not be getting 20-25 minutes regularly this year.

Anthony Davis is a top five player in the NBA, and with a little help this team could find themselves back in the postseason after missing out last year. Contributing on a successful team could go a long way in the minds of the voting public.

Hield has his fans in the media and amongst his peers. His hard work over four years at Oklahoma got him selected in the lottery and now he’ll need to work even harder if he hopes to find similar success in the NBA. As of now, all signs point to him doing just that.

Joel Embiid

“The Process” worked.

Playing just 12 minutes a night in his first form of true basketball action in three years, Joel Embiid is showing glimpses of being the player many thought he could be after one year at Kansas. Embiid has been nothing short of spectacular.

According to Max Rappaport, his Per 36 numbers are: 26.3 PPG (55.7 True Shooting Percentage), 14.0 RPG and 2.5 BPG. Those aren’t just Rookie of the Year stats, that’s First Team All-NBA level production.

While he slowly works his way up in his minutes restriction Embiid has displayed endless amounts of hope for the Sixers’ future. Before the preseason, reports were rampant that Embiid would be held out from back-to-backs and now Philadelphia 76ers head coach, Brett Brown, has come out and said that the team is going to reevaluate that. We could possibly get 82 games of Joel Embiid–that’s the happiest I’ve been writing a sentence in a long time.

Embiid is a legit seven-foot-three and a solid 275 pounds. Not since Yao Ming came over from China has the league seen a player with similar measurements. Embiid has a deep arsenal of post moves, great footwork, a smooth shot, defensive awareness, athleticism and is oozing with potential. Sam Hinkie’s Twitter feed has been silent through all of this, but it is impossible to not imagine him smiling to himself as we all revel in the genius of his tanking.

As long as Embiid remains healthy and consistent, he is going to get every chance possible to lay claim to Rookie of the Year honors. The Sixers are looking to be more respectable this season, but remember, this is a team that somehow got Michael Carter-Williams to win this same honor in 2013.


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