There’s a formula for who often wins the Rookie of the year. They have to be a good player, certainly. More than that, he needs to be a player with the ball in his hands and on a team where he is going to be asked to take on a lot of responsibility.
Damian Lillard was a perfect example last season in Portland. Before him Kyrie Irving, Tyreke Evans, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Brandon Roy, Chris Paul all fit the mold — that accounts for seven of the last eight ROY winners. (Blake Griffin was a bit of an anomaly in that the ball wasn’t in his hands, but he was pretty spectacular as a rookie.)
So who are the favorites this year? It feels a little more wide open than other seasons, but here are my top five in order of :
1) Trey Burke, Utah Jazz. He fits the formula perfectly — he is a point guard going to a team that desperately needs a point guard, and he has some young but potentially impressive talent around him (Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter). Burke is going to be asked to do a lot in Utah and he should put up good numbers as a rookie. He needs to be steadier from the outside, we’ll see how he defends, but he is the preseason favorite.
2) Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic. He’s not a point guard (we saw that in Summer League) but he is a guy going to get a real opportunity to learn on the job and play a role in the Orlando offense. The question is does he sit a little behind Aaron Afflalo, still he should be able to carve out space to put up numbers, particularly in transition. He could be the best defender of the top rookies.
3) Ben McLemore, Sacramento Kings. Yes there was an extended shooting slump during Summer League, and because he’s a rookie there likely will be one during the season. But he remains a good pure shooter on a team where he will get chances to space the floor and finish in transition. Once he gets comfortable he could put up big numbers.
4) Anthony Bennett, Cleveland Cavaliers. You have to put the No. 1 overall pick on the list. It will be interesting to see how Cleveland uses an undersized four on a team with Anderson Varejao, but he’s got the athleticism to score in the post and he has Irving feeding him the rock. He could find a groove in the offense and put up good numbers.
5) Cody Zeller, Charlotte Bobcats. Charlotte is going to have Al Jefferson setting up camp in the post, which means Zeller is going to have to be a four who can work off the ball, space the floor with a midrange shot, then crash the glass hard when the opportunity presents itself. He showed all those skills in Summer League. How many touches he gets on the court with Jefferson and Kemba Walker remains to be seen, but he could surprise with nice numbers.
Bonus Dark Horse: Kelly Olynyk, Boston Celtics. He looked fantastic for a stretch in the Orlando Summer League. He is certainly going to get minutes along the Celtics front line and he’s shown a real ability to score. If he can keep doing that against the more athletic men of the NBA he could sneak into the race. It is possible Otto Porter and C.J. McCollum could as well.