10 early NBA Rookie of the Year candidates
We’re a third of the way through the NBA season, and a number of players have staked an early claim for postseason hardware. Recently, we reviewed 10 early candidates for MVP.
Though no rookie will enter that conversation this season (the last rookie to win the award was Wes Unseld in 1968-69), a few first-year players look like future MVP candidates. Here are 10 rookies who have gotten off to a hot start – the leading candidates, at this point, to win Rookie of the Year.
10. Miles Bridges, Charlotte Hornets
Bridges made an interesting decision choosing to return to Michigan State for his sophomore year. Though he had a solid season, he didn’t help his draft stock, and he may have hurt it slightly. A top prospect out of high school, he fell to No. 12 in the draft. In his rookie campaign, Bridges isn’t putting up jaw-dropping numbers — 7.5 points and 3.9 rebounds per game. But he’s playing 20 minutes a night for a surprisingly good Charlotte team (currently No. 6 in the East), and he’s shooting 48.4 percent from the field. Last week, he dropped a career-high 16 points and connected on three of his six three-point attempts. Look for his role in James Borrego’s offense to continue to increase.
9. Kevin Knox, New York Knicks
Knox was a favorite to win Rookie of the Year heading into the season, as the Knicks lacked a clear No. 1 scoring option with Kristaps Porzingis out for the foreseeable future. Knox hasn’t been great, but he’s had more opportunity than most rookies. He’s playing 21.4 minutes per game. Though he’s had some off nights (like a 1 for 7 showing against Detroit in late November), and his Player Efficiency Rating is only 9.5, Knox seems to be finding his groove. In his last two games, he’s put up 26 points and 15 rebounds (against Charlotte) and 19 points and seven rebounds (against Cleveland). Another Knicks rookie who narrowly missed this list: the surprising Allonzo Trier, who went undrafted out of Arizona.
8. Wendell Carter Jr., Chicago Bulls
Carter has been exactly as expected: consistent. The Duke product was ready to play from the second he stepped onto an NBA court. Though the Bulls have had a miserable season and coach Fred Hoiberg was canned, Carter has been a bright spot. His PER of 15.9 is seventh-best among rookies. In a recent game at Detroit, he scored 28 points and grabbed seven rebounds. He has five double-doubles this season. Carter is taking fewer shots now that Lauri Markkanen is back, and he’ll need to develop a better outside shot to take that ‘next step’ – but early signs are overwhelmingly positive. Bulls fans should be encouraged.
7. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Los Angeles Clippers
Gilgeous-Alexander was one of my favorite prospects in the draft. Watching him in his lone season at Kentucky, he just seemed to “get it” – and he had the ability to really turn it on when the moment was biggest, as we saw in the NCAA tournament. “Man, he got the midrange down,” Kevin Durant recently said of Gilgeous-Alexander. “His midrange is so good…he’s probably the guy that stood out the most because I never watched him in college…he got confidence on him.” After dealing Chris Paul, the Clippers have found their point guard of the future. Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 10.6 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game, with only 1.8 turnovers.
6. Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavs are another team having a miserable season. At 7-21, the post-LeBron era (Part II) is off to a rough start. Like Chicago, Cleveland has already moved on from its coach. But, like the Bulls, the Cavs should be encouraged by the play of their first-round pick. He’s another guy who’s not afraid of the moment. In a recent battle with Steph Curry, he scored 21 points. With 15.8 points per game, Sexton is third among rookies. His three-point shot has been better than advertised, too. Though he doesn’t attempt many jumpers from downtown, he’s connecting on 43.6 percent of his attempts. After coming off of the bench for the first 10 games of the season, he’s become a permanent fixture in the Cavs’ starting lineup.
5. Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento Kings
I placed Bagley No. 1 on my summer list of Rookie-of-the-Year candidates. He just seemed “pro ready.” And, for the most part, he has been. The lefty is putting up impressive numbers of 13.0 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. Dig a little deeper and his performance becomes more impressive. His PER of 18.4 is second among rookies (behind only his long-time rival Deandre Ayton). The Kings are undergoing a renaissance, and with studs like Bagley, De’Aaron Fox, and Buddy Hield, their fans have reason to be optimistic. Bagley has missed some time with back spasms, and he has yet to start a game, but he’s played a key role in Sacramento racing to the West’s No. 8 seed.
4. Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
I love this guy. He has “All-Star” written all over him. A 6-foot-11 big with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, Jackson can do it all. He’s an explosive scorer. He recently dropped 36 on the Nets, shooting 13 for 22 from the field and adding eight rebounds. He’s received praise from his teammates, with Mike Conley Jr. saying the former Spartan has “the gene to make the big shots in the big time” and is “built for it.” Jackson has jockeyed for minutes with JaMychal Green. One thing Jackson needs to work on: his foul rate. He’s averaging nearly four fouls per game, which has inhibited his ability to stay on the court.
3. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
Young received perhaps more flack than any other prospect leading up to the draft -– a result of the “ESPN treatment” he received during his freshman season at Oklahoma -– and he has continued to be under the spotlight as a rookie. He’s had an up-and-down season. In his last game, at Dallas, he dropped 24 points on 11-for-20 shooting and added 10 assists. Dallas came out on top, but Young impressed. You’d better believe Young had that game circled on his calendar, given that the Mavs traded Young for Luka Doncic on draft night. Young still is shooting poorly from outside (24.7 percent), but you have to think he’ll figure that out. His stroke is too pretty for him to continue shooting so inefficiently, and the rest of his game has been better than expected.
2. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
Is Ayton the league’s next dominant big man? That remains to be seen. He has, like Young, had highs and lows. But one thing is for sure: Phoenix got a good one. This guy is going to be an excellent player. The advanced statistics tell the story. He’s the only rookie with a PER over 20 (20.4), and his Value Added of 126.7 is head and shoulders above the competition (Jaren Jackson is second at 68.9). Further, his Estimated Wins Added score of 4.2 is also tops in the league among rookies. With 15.8 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, he’s started 27 of 28 games this season, and he’s been one of the best players on a miserable Suns team.
1. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
The Mavs are, like the Kings, one of the league’s early surprising teams. At 15-12, they’re currently No. 7 in the West, and they’ve won three straight. They’re really fun to watch. During Wednesday’s battle with Young and the Hawks, Doncic played the most minutes (35) of any Dallas player. He dropped 24 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. This guy is amazing. He’s out there getting buckets and hanging with veterans while wearing jersey number 77 — what a time. Though, like pretty much every rookie on this list, he’s had some bad games, he’s also been more consistent than any other first-year player. His 32.4 minutes per game leads the Mavericks, and his 18.0 points per game is tied with Harrison Barnes for the team lead. Expect to see him in an All-Star Game in the next two years.
Aaron Mansfield is a freelance sports writer whose work has appeared in Complex, USA Today, and the New York Times. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.