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).