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Saturday, June 23, 2018

Top 10 NBA Rookie of the Year candidates

Malik Monk

One year ago, who would have guessed the 2016-17 NBA Rookie of the Year would be awarded to Malcolm Brogdon?

The Bucks swingman had a nice career at Virginia, of course, but the odds were stacked against him. He was the 36th pick in the draft, and the award traditionally goes to a top pick. Additionally, Brogdon isn’t a flashy offensive player, and he doesn’t put up jaw-dropping numbers. He’s not a spotlight grabber. He’s more of a “glue guy.”

Brogdon’s charge to Rookie of the Year may have been the most surprising in NBA history — it was certainly the most unexpected in my lifetime.

As we look ahead to the upcoming NBA season, will we have another shocker this year? Or will Rookie of the Year go to a top pick, as it does most years?

Below are my top 10 candidates, as it stands today, to claim 2017-18 NBA Rookie of the Year. Just missing the cut: Josh Jackson, Caleb Swanigan, Bam Adebayo, and Luke Kennard.

10. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers

Kuzma surprised a lot of people in Vegas this summer. The No. 27 overall pick averaged 21.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, and he played with incredible efficiency. He shot 51.4 percent from the field and 48 percent (!) from deep. The 22-year-old forward from Utah was named the Summer League’s Finals MVP and second-team All-Summer League.

Though Kuzma was overshadowed by Lonzo Ball in Summer League and will continue to play in Ball’s shadow throughout this season, he’s looking like an early candidate for “Steal of the Draft.” Additionally, the two look like they may form a dynamic young duo for the Lake Show. Ball and Kuzma ran the floor well together, and Kuzma’s ability to stretch the floor made him a weapon even when he didn’t touch the ball.

The 6-foot-9 Kuzma is also versatile on defense; early indications are that he can switch most positions on the floor. Though the Lakers are a bit log-jammed on the wing (with Brandon Ingram, Luol Deng and Corey Brewer), Kuzma in Summer League looked like a guy who will get minutes for Los Angeles.

9. John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

The 19th overall pick improved tremendously from his freshman to sophomore years at Wake Forest, and he stood out in Vegas.

During Summer League he averaged 15.4 points and 9.2 rebounds — but get this: he did it in 23 minutes per game. Those are some impressive numbers. Lonzo Ball averaged 32.5 minutes per game and Jayson Tatum got 32.0. Think about the gaudy stats Collins could have put up if he had played 10 more minutes a game.

In addition to his impressive all-around showing, Collins absolutely posterized New Orleans’ Cheick Diallo and Keith Benson. He put the internet on alert: pay attention to Collins this year, because he might blow up Twitter.

Also helping Collins’ candidacy for ROY: he’ll have an opportunity to play in Atlanta. The Hawks traded Dwight Howard and let Paul Millsap leave for Utah as a free agent. There might even be an opportunity for Collins to start, depending on how the Hawks plan to utilize their weak 3 spot.

8. Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia 76ers

Though you can’t blame Fultz for missing much of Summer League due to a sprained ankle, it was a little scary to see yet another 76ers top pick miss time with a lower leg injury. With that being said, shutting him down seemed like a precaution, and we have no reason to believe he’ll miss time this year.

The pendulum on Fultz has swung quite a bit this offseason: first he was the consensus No. 1 (he’s the next great!), then the Celtics traded the pick and everyone wondered why they didn’t want Fultz (something must be wrong with him, it’s his jump shot!), and now popular opinion seems to be somewhere in the middle.

Fultz is a shifty athlete reminiscent of James Harden, and he has a similarly zoned-out mentality, which has caused some analysts to nitpick at his game.

The reality is that Fultz was picked first in a loaded draft for a reason. He’s going to be great, and he fits beautifully with Philadelphia’s roster. Though he might not post head-turning numbers now that he’s surrounded by other competent players, Fultz should be an immediate contributor.

7. De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings

Fox is another guy who’s seen his stock go up and down this summer. The No. 5 overall pick had an OK Summer League — not great but not terrible. A few times he showed the impressive burst that we watched with amazement during his year at Kentucky. He had five steals in his first game.

In Vegas, Fox averaged 11.8 points, three assists, and 2.3 rebounds in 21.3 minutes per game. He shot only 1-for-8 from three-point range, but that’s a limited sample size, and we already knew outside shooting wasn’t the biggest strength of Fox’s game.

What people love most about Fox, besides his freakish speed and fearless game at the rim, is his fire. He cried in the locker room after UNC eliminated Kentucky from the NCAA Tournament. In a day and age when many guys want to look cool on the court, Fox brings the passion.

That’s why so many have compared him to Russell Westbrook. Like Westbrook, it might take Fox a year or two to figure out his game as he adjusts to the NBA.

6. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Is Jayson Tatum Paul Pierce 2.0? It might be too early to make such a bold declaration, but the guy has an incredible offensive repertoire that is certainly reminiscent of “The Truth.” Though Tatum’s defensive abilities will probably always leave something to be desired, he was excellent offensively in Summer League.

Tatum, a 6-foot-8 forward, averaged 18.7 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. He had eight turnovers in three games, and his plus-minus was -20, but all in all Tatum played wonderfully, and he gave Celtics fans plenty of reason to be excited.

With the clock winding down and his team trailing by one, Tatum went off the dribble and hit the game-winner in his debut.

Though he’s an explosive athlete, Tatum has an old-man game around the basket; he really knows how to maneuver his body and create open lanes. And though his shot wasn’t really falling in Summer League, Tatum is a reliable scorer. Given the Celtics’ depth chart, it seems likelier that Tatum will break out down the stretch this year (like Jaylen Brown last season) or in his second year.

See Nos. 5-1 on Page 2

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