Top 10 NBA Rookie of the Year candidates
Ben Simmons entered the 2017-18 season as Vegas’ favorite to win that year’s Rookie of the Year award – and he made the sportsbooks look wise. Simmons looked ready to dominate at the ripe age of 21, averaging 15.8 points, 8.2 assists, and 8.1 rebounds per game and helping the Sixers mount a late charge for East supremacy.
Many predicted the Aussie would claim that award, but few expected he’d be jockeying for the honor with Donovan Mitchell, who inexplicably fell to No. 13 in the 2017 draft. Jayson Tatum (the No. 3 pick) came in third, and though a fourth finalist wasn’t announced, we imagine Kyle Kuzma (No. 27) would’ve checked in next on the list.
So, which young star will shine the brightest this year? Here are 10 incoming rookies we think have the best shot of taking home the hardware in June 2019.
10. Harry Giles, Sacramento Kings
It seems everyone has forgotten about Giles, a top-three recruit in the Class of 2016 (the others at the top: Lonzo Ball and Josh Jackson). Everyone, that is, except for the Kings, who have sung his praises this offseason. After sitting out his rookie season, Giles made his debut at Summer League and performed well, consistently posting double-doubles and showing impressive ability to protect the rim. Vince Carter, who spent last season with Giles, recently told me he was surprised the Kings would go after another big (Marvin Bagley III) because Giles is going to be a problem. Expect a Harry Giles comeback story this season.
9. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Los Angeles Clippers
Gilgeous-Alexander was my favorite player on the 2017-18 Kentucky team; while the Wildcats’ season was all over the place, Gilgeous-Alexander stood out. He played like a veteran and commanded his teammates’ respect. The Toronto native, who especially shined in the NCAA tournament, has unusual physical tools — he’s a 6-foot-6 point guard with promising ability to get to the rim. The Clippers acquired Shai on draft night (the Hornets picked him No. 11), and rumors indicated they weren’t the only team hoping to make a move for Gilgeous-Alexander. He had a strong Summer League, averaging 19.0 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game. He’ll have to earn minutes in a crowded Clips backcourt.
8. Mohamed Bamba, Orlando Magic
Bamba No. 5! It’s true: he picked that jersey number. Bamba is the most articulate prospect to enter the league in years, and he has tantalizing physical potential: he’s a 7-foot-1 floor-runner with devastating abilities at the rim. Bamba clocked in with the longest wingspan (7-foot-10) ever recorded at the NBA Combine, breaking Rudy Gobert’s record. He’s rebuilt his jumper this summer, and adding that dimension to his game would make Magic fans giddy. But the Texas product still is a bit of a project, and he doesn’t strike me as a perfect fit in Orlando. New coach Steve Clifford will aim to turn Bamba into a rich man’s Clint Capela.
7. Grayson Allen, Utah Jazz
Is there really anyone out there who thinks Grayson Allen is going to suck in the NBA? Sure, he has a tendency to play dirty, but there should be no question about his ability. Allen was a stud all four years at Duke and accepted whatever role Coach K asked him to accept. As a sophomore, the Blue Devils needed scoring, so he put up 21.6 points per game. As a junior and senior, they needed leadership, so he took a backseat and let Jayson Tatum and Marvin Bagley III shine. Allen’s team-first mentality will be perfect in Utah, and he seems to already have chemistry with former ACC foe Donovan Mitchell. In Summer League, Allen posted averages of 16.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game. He should be an off-the-bench spark for the upstart Jazz.
6. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
Ah, Trae Young. What more is there to say? After bursting onto the scene in November and December, Young got the full-on ESPN blowout treatment, to the point that by February people were sick of hearing about him. Young, however, is a great kid, and the Hawks landed a point guard eager to prove his doubters wrong. Yes, he’s small. Yes, he’ll have trouble creating his own shot. But he’s working on addressing his deficiencies, and if he can figure it out, he may blossom into one of the most offensively dynamic players in the league. (We won’t talk about his defense.) I like the Hawks’ trade for Jeremy Lin and signing of Carter – two veterans who should show the Oklahoma product the ropes.
5. Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
Jackson was an odd prospect in the draft: the son of former pro player Jaren Jackson was a top-eight recruit, and his ability to stretch the floor was truly impressive, but he played only 22.2 minutes per game in Tom Izzo’s system. Could scouts trust such a small sample size? Clearly they felt they could, as Jackson’s stock rose consistently until Memphis snagged him No. 4. The 6-foot-11 forward swatted away 3.2 blocks per game and earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, so he should fit in with the Grind City mentality. Look for J.B Bickerstaff to ease Jackson into the lineup behind Dillon Brooks, JaMychal Green, and Marc Gasol.
4. DeAndre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
Ayton and Luka Doncic received the top NBA 2K overall rating among rookies: 79. If the video game says they’ll be the best right off the bat, that has to count for something, right? Ayton had a tumultous season at Arizona, but he shined despite the Sean Miller-FBI recruiting scandal. Ayton earned Pac-12 Player of the Year after posting impressive averages of 20.1 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game. Many called him out after Buffalo seemingly exposed him in the first round of the tournament, but the truth is, the Bulls were a terrible matchup for the Wildcats, who insisted on playing two bigs. Ayton’s game is suited to the NBA level, and he’ll benefit from learning under consummate pro Tyson Chandler. The Suns could be a sneaky-fun team this year.
3. Kevin Knox, New York Knicks
Knox’s freshman season at Kentucky did not go as planned. The Wildcats had little to no outside shooting beyond Knox, and as a result, their offense never looked in sync. Knox posted decent numbers — 15.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per game while shooting 34 percent from outside — but he never quite looked like the top-10 recruit we expected to see. Not to worry: the 6-foot-9 Phoenix native looked every bit himself in Summer League. He had the fourth-highest scoring average (21.3 points), the highest mark among first-year players, while playing the fifth-most minutes (32.3 per game) of any athlete. Kristaps Porzingis may miss the early portion of the 2018-19 season, and Knox should get plenty of touches in his stead.
2. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
The draft-night deal between the Atlanta Hawks and Mavs – Doncic for Trae Young and a protected 2019 first-round pick – could impact the league for years to come. While Young has the potential to blossom into a stud, Doncic looks like a sure thing. One thing is clear: he’s ready to contribute immediately. Doncic spent three years with Real Madrid and, in addition to claiming the league’s MVP this season, he led the team to the title. He wasn’t just a rising star; he was the EuroLeague’s best player. The 6-foot-7 Slovenian enters an interesting situation in Dallas, where he’ll compete for playing time with Wesley Matthews and for scoring opportunities with Dennis Smith Jr. He may not post huge scoring numbers, but we expect Doncic will fill up the stat sheet. Bold prediction: he’ll have the best PER of any rookie.
1. Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento Kings
Bagley has jockeyed with Ayton for the top spot in the Class of 2017 since their prep days. Though Ayton ended up impressing scouts enough to rise to the No. 1 pick, and both performed well during their lone NCAA campaign, Bagley had arguably the better season. He put up 21.0 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, standing out among a loaded Duke starting five. Bagley runs the floor fluidly and has an impressive outside game; though he didn’t pull the trigger from beyond the arc frequently (1.8 attempts per game), he shot 40 percent from outside. Expect Bagley to get an opportunity as the Kings’ go-to guy from Game One. That opportunity is the reason he’s our favorite to claim the 2019 Rookie of the Year award.
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 [email protected]