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Five leading candidates for Rookie of the Year

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Rookies are unpredictable. How they will handle the athleticism and speed of the NBA, how ready they are the long grind of the season, how they handle pressure situations, and how tough they are (and become) mentally, they are all unknowns entering the season. It’s why guys like Malcolm Brogdon can catch everyone off guard and win Rookie of the Year (in what was a down year).

Predicting this year’s Rookie of the Year race is especially tough because a number of players will meet the traditional criteria — skilled players who will get a lot of minutes and touches on a team willing to ride their ups and downs. Here are the five guys we predict have the best chance.

(No, Celtics fans, Jayson Tatum is not on the list. He’s got skills as a scorer and will be solid, but in a limited role this season on a team that will win 50+ games and wants to challenge Cleveland. He’s not getting the same minutes, or the same make-mistakes-and-we-leave-you-in opportunities as these other players.)

1) Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers. He sat out last season due to injury, but like Blake Griffin he qualifies to win the award this season — and he should be the favorite. He is a 6’10” point forward who will have the ball in his hands and has shown through the preseason that he is a gifted passer who with his height can see and make dishes others can’t. Plus, he’s got shooters like J.J. Redick around him now to open things up and collect him dimes. If he (and Joel Embiid) can stay healthy and the Sixers start to look like a playoff team in the East with Simmons racking up 7ish assists a night, Simmons could be hard to beat. Will he put up much in terms of scoring numbers, however?

2) Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers. His ROY case will be as much about culture change as raw numbers — the Lonzo Ball effect is real. He pushes the ball ahead and finds the open man, and the result is the rest of the players — bigs in particular — run the floor, and everybody starts to share the rock. If Ball can help change the Lakers into the kind of team Luke Walton dreamed about, he will get serious ROY consideration. He will put up assist numbers, but will he score enough to keep defenses honest (and have the numbers to win the award)?

3) Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas Mavericks. He slid down the draft board last June, then came out in July at Summer League and blew everyone away with his explosiveness. He’s going to put up scoring numbers as a shoot-first point guard with the ball in his hands in Dallas — they think he can be special and he’s going to get a lot of rope. His efficiency will be an issue, he has to improve there. Dallas has other talented scorers — Dirk Nowitzki, Harrison Barnes — that Smith has to develop some chemistry with, Smith has to show he can be a floor general, too. Still, he will have a very legitimate shot at ROY.

4) Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia 76ers. The No. 1 pick with the all-around game is going to be playing off the ball more for the Sixers — Simmons will often have the rock — but he’s going to get a lot of run and opportunity. It’s a little concerning that he is shooting less than 30 percent in the preseason, he’s going to have to figure out how to fit his game into the NBA, but he’s got all the tools to do it. Just give him time, watch him improve as the season wears on.

5) Josh Jackson, Phoenix Suns. Incredibly athletic (and the guy NBA GMs picked to be the best in this class in five years), he will run on the wing next to Devin Booker, with Eric Bledsoe feeding them (for now) and he should be able to get some buckets basked on that. Part of Jackson’s case is that he should be the best defender of this rookie group and the Suns will test him on that end. Another player who is going to get a lot of minutes and a lot of chances.

Just missing the list: De’Aaron Fox (Sacramento), Jayson Tatum (Boston).

After months of hype, reality proves harsh for Lonzo Ball, Lakers in opener

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LOS ANGELES — Hollywood is built on hype. The Lakers know hype like no other NBA franchise.

Lonzo Ball has been at the heart of the Lakers’ hype all summer. From being drafted No. 2, through selling out Summer League games in Las Vegas and winning the league MVP, through selling out meaningless preseason games the Lonzo hype in Los Angeles has been on overdrive.

Thursday night it met reality.

Reality in the form of the Clippers’ Patrick Beverley being in his face from the opening tip, giving him no space or quarter. Reality in the form of Clippers defenders cutting off most of his look-ahead options in transition (although Ball had a few). Reality in the form of his shot not falling — he was 1-of-6 — and reality in the form of his teammates missing when Ball did make a good pass.

Reality in terms of a 108-92 loss where the Lakers were not competitive with Blake Griffin and the guys they share the building with.

“We got blown out, so I didn’t play too well,” Ball said.

“I just had to set the tone,” Beverley said of his physical play from the start. “I told him after the game, due to all the riffraff his dad brings he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. He’s got to be ready for that and I let him know after the game…

“(I had to) welcome his little young a** to the NBA.”

That’s cold — and it’s far kinder than what he yelled outside the Rockets’ locker room after the game.

Thanks to a combination of his father, his game, and the yearning of Lakers’ nation to have their next superstar, Ball entered the game with ridiculous amounts of hype — and unrealistic expectations. Magic Johnson was a national champion and a No. 1 pick when he first came to the Lakers, and he said there was far less hype around him.

“It wasn’t even close to this,” Johnson said pregame. “You didn’t have social media, you didn’t have talk shows like this….

“I was known, like he’s known, you know that whole high pick (thing). And the NBA played it up like they’re playing it up now. But it wasn’t even close to this. From the social media standpoint, and ESPN and Fox Sports and all if it, this is so much bigger than I can ever imagine. And then I wasn’t from here. This young man is from here, he wanted to be a Laker.”

Magic also won his first game (then ran over and hugged a surprised Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Lonzo’s Lakers got thumped.

Ball finished the night 1-of-6 from the floor, his one basket a three pointer in the middle of the second quarter. Ball sat the fourth quarter of the blowout. In half court, Clippers defenders were playing off Ball and daring him to shoot. He couldn’t drive around Austin Rivers a couple times in isolation. Ball did pull down nine rebounds, and he had four assists — he could have had more, but his teammates were missing. The Lakers were 11-of-42 outside the paint and desperately missedKentavious Caldwell-Pope’s outside shooting and floor spacing (he is suspended the first two games of the season due to a DUI). Look at the Lakers’ shot chart.

The problem with the young Lakers is those missed shots on offense got into their head on defense and they didn’t give the same effort on that end. It showed. Blake Griffin finished with 29 points on 23 shots, was 3-of-6 from beyond the arc, and had 12 boards in an impressive performance. DeAndre Jordan had 14 points and 24 rebounds, and Danilo Gallinari had 11.

It was a good win for a Clippers, team with playoff aspirations. They played hard, meshed well for a lot of new faces, and played pretty good defense for stretches.

After it was over, the Lakers chalked it up as a learning experience. They will have a lot of those this season.

“It was good for (Lonzo),” Lakers coach Luke Walton said of the rough first night. “Beverley is as good as anyone, if not the best, at the point guard position of getting into other people and getting under their skin. I thought Zo kept his composure.”

He needs to keep his composure because the hype and pressure aren’t going away. Not in Los Angeles. Not with Lakers fans, who consider contending for a title their birthright.

“That’s what happens when you play in L.A.,” Ball said. “Everybody expects you to do well, and i f you don’t they’ll get somebody else to do it…

“The good thing about the NBA is we have 81 more (games). We’re 0-1. It’s only one loss, tomorrow we can bounce back.”

The good news for Ball is the defense he faces should be a little softer Friday night against the Suns.

Watch Lonzo Ball’s first points as a Laker (VIDEO)

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LOS ANGELES — Lonzo Ball‘s welcome to the NBA was a bit rough. Patrick Beverleyas he said would happen before the game — was in Ball’s space and physical with him from the start. Clippers defenders got back and cut off those push the ball ahead passes Ball loves. In his first quarter as a Laker Ball 0-of-3 from the floor, missed two free throws, and didn’t pick up an assist.

But in the second quarter, Ball got his first bucket as a Laker. After Beverley and Blake Griffin miscommunicated on a screen, Ball got a clean look at a three and knocked it down. The Staples Center crowd erupted.

It was a rough first night for Ball in the NBA, with the defense focused on him. He’s got game, he can adapt, but there are going to be some rough learning experiences this season.

Fake Klay Thompson, James Harden, and Kobe Bryant emerge (PHOTO)

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Tuesday night was the start of the new NBA season and with the games came more of what we love from the NBA sphere: weird stuff you only see from the best fans on earth.

During the Golden State Warriors’ home opener against the Houston Rockets, a fan behind the bench came dressed as Klay Thompson complete with uniform, beard, and haircut.

This did not go unnoticed on social media, and Steve Kerr was even asked about the doppelgänger after the game. For the record Kerr said, “I thought it was a perfect metaphor for our conditioning level.”

Yikes, sweet coach burn.

In case you missed it, this is what that fan looked like:

Warriors would have won if coach put me in the game.

A post shared by Daws (@bigdawstv) on

That is YouTuber Big Daws, who of course was given free tickets to the game by SeatGeek. That video now has more than two million views and comes complete with a SeatGeek discount code. As is everything in 2017, even something you think is just a fun Halloween costume is actually an ad.

Culture begets culture and soon followed a new doppelgänger in Sacramento. Again, the Rockets were involved in this one as as a fan came dressed up as Houston guard James Harden. No word yet on whether this guy has a popular YouTube channel or what his offer code is, but here’s what he looked like:

This cultural phenomenon had folks looking for other NBA lookalikes around them this week, and someone came up with this Kobe Bryant twin:

This really is the best league. I can’t wait for that Big Daws guy to shave his goatee and cosplay as Ryan Anderson at a Rockets game.

Anyway, please stop by in the comment section below to get 15% off your next visit to NBCSports.com/NBA by using the code DOPPELGÄNGER at checkout.

LeBron James: “I’m out of shape” (VIDEO)

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LeBron James looked good in the opening night ceremony against the Boston Celtics. The Cleveland Cavaliers star put up a stat line of 29 points, 16 rebounds, and nine assists in the win over the Eastern Conference rival.

That doesn’t mean that James is done dealing with a nagging ankle injury that kept him out of all five of Cleveland’s preseason games. Speaking to reporters after practice on Thursday, The King said that he will indeed play on Friday against the Milwaukee Bucks, but he won’t do it under the circumstances he prefers.

Specifically, LeBron said that because of his injury, he’s been unable to get into the kind of shape he’d like to be in heading into the season.

Via ESPN:

“I just want to get to where I should be,” James said after participating in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ practice Thursday. “The ankle and the foot injury just kind of kept me out and set me back further than I would like, but I got some time now along the course of these games that we got. We got two back-to-backs coming up, so that’s going to help and we have some opportunity to get some practice time in as well.”

“I’m out of shape, very out of shape for my expectations,” James told TNT’s Kristen Ledlow during his on-court postgame interview Tuesday.

No doubt it will be tough to keep one of the most durable stars in NBA history out of of the regular season games they need to start this season off right. However, this is the kind of thing that slows down the careers of aging stars, and if I can play devil’s advocate here for a minute, this is what we’ve been looking for from James for some time.

I’m not saying this is the beginning of the end for LeBron, but it is an important enough thing to note and to keep a pin in for future reference.

Meanwhile, James is still doing great stuff off the court like this:

Aww.