The 2017 rookie class is one of the deepest in recent history, and that creates a lot of talk around the Rookie of the Year race.
If we’re getting specific, the 2017 class is the most talented since 2003. Because of the star potential, this campaign’s battle for the Rookie of the Year award should be considerably more intense than its predecessor, where it was a two-horse race between Malcolm Brogdon and Dario Saric. Joel Embiid, who had the best season of the three, was in the conversation but also out of it because he only suited up for 31 games.
It was a reflection of the class, which had some star power but not nearly as much as 2017. Ben Simmons, the Australian phenom, didn’t suit up at all during his rookie season. Because of this, he’ll be one of the favorites to take home the award this year. Simmons, however, isn’t going to have an easy path and, as of July 20, Bovada doesn’t even have him as the favorite. That nod goes to Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball, who got picked second overall and is one of the franchise-altering players taken this year.
Unlike the MVP, which is the end goal for all NBA players, the Rookie of the Year weighs production more than team success. Brogdon became the 26th player to win the award and also play in a playoff game that same year. Before him, the last was Derrick Rose in 2009. In total, there have been 68 Rookies of the Year. If you’re in the MVP race and your team has a bad season, it’s an indictment against you.
It’s different with first-year guys. The transition into the NBA is rigorous, and a lot of them need a year to gain traction. Those who can make an immediate impact are on the right trajectory.
What makes this class so special is that a handful of guys have that one skill that separated them from their peers, and they’re going to have to exploit that if they want to be Malcolm Brogdon’s successor.
(Quick note: the players are listed based on their odds to be named Rookie of the Year, which are courtesy of Bovada.)
Lonzo Ball, Lakers – Master Puppeteer
I don’t know if you’ve heard this before — Lonzo Ball passes the basketball very well. He did it at UCLA; he did it in the summer league. Now, he’s going to do it in Los Angeles. One of the reasons the Lakers plucked him is because he has a feel for the game that no one can teach; a sixth sense that only the greats like Magic Johnson, Jason Kidd and Chris Paul have.
With the Bruins, Ball averaged 7.6 assists, and that ballooned to 9.3 in Las Vegas. He routinely connected with teammates on alley-oops and touchdown passes, but that’s not even where Lonzo has his biggest impact.
When you play with someone as unselfish as Ball, it’s contagious. Everyone on the team thinks, “hey, passing is fun!” That extra feed gets made more often, creating easier buckets, and Lonzo is the one orchestrating the entire thing. Another thing I noticed when watching him was how effortlessly he did everything.
Ball made the easy pass. He also made the intermediate pass. After the first game, even the hard plays looked natural. Ball brought home the summer league MVP without a damning offense (16.3 points, 38.2 percent shooting), and that’s a testament to how lethal he is with moving the basketball.
Los Angeles is looking at him to lead their rebuild, and they have a solid supporting cast around him who are going to love getting put on a pedestal by the Big Baller.
Dennis Smith Jr., Mavericks – Controlled Chaos
In my way-too-early pick for Rookie of the Year, I have Dennis Smith. I love his game. Ever since his high school days, Smith’s fascinated us with high-flying acrobatics that quickly made him a mixtape legend. Since then, he’s matured. In his lone campaign at N.C. State and six-game stint in Vegas, Smith’s shown us that he can stay composed while also being reckless.
Here’s the easiest way to describe it: a more controlled version of a young Derrick Rose. When Smith puts the ball on the floor, he gets to his spots with ease but isn’t throwing himself at the basket. Whether it’s a hop step, Eurostep or two-footed plant for a dunk, Smith forces the defender to adjust to his speed and capitalizes if he doesn’t. That’s how point guards are supposed to play. Except they aren’t expected to pair it with nuclear athleticism.
My favorite aspect of his game is the edge he brings. Even though Smith’s been a premier player all of his life, he attacks each possession like an undrafted rookie from a small school — with an insatiable hunger that won’t disappear until he demoralizes you. And then it comes back right away. It’s the same mentality that Russell Westbrook has. And Smith has the potential to be a player of a similar caliber.
The former Wolfpack leader has a polished jumper, a firm handle and footwork that allows him to counter the contests of longer defenders once he gets into the paint. It’s a perfect storm, and the Dallas Mavericks are waiting for the chance to hand him the reigns.
Ben Simmons, 76ers – Overgrown Point Guard
It sucks we didn’t get to see Simmons last year. Some are going to place more pressure on Simmons to produce, but we don’t have to worry about that. He’s an extraordinary talent with an exceptional gift — his vision. At 6-10 (or 6-11), Simmons can see plays develop in a way no big man has, thus spawning the “overgrown point guard” title.
When guards make the same plays as Simmons, we’re astonished but numb. They’re expected to deliver passes that no one else can. Simmons isn’t supposed to have that ability, and it’s what created a lot of his hype coming out of LSU. His size already gives him an advantage in regards to seeing the floor, but, pair that with his strength, you have a beast that we’ve only seen in NBA 2K.
I may be overhyping Simmons. He hasn’t played a game, so I’m apprehensive as I write this. However, the tape and the numbers back it up.
The Sixers roster is also advantageous to Simmons. He’s surrounded by guys who can work off each other and still be effective: Markelle Fultz, J.J. Redick, Joel Embiid and Dario Saric. He can facilitate the action and not worry about his teammates getting upset with a lack of touches. Anyone would kill to play with Simmons.
You can run sets knowing he’s going to reward you if you’re open, and that’s all the incentive guys need to cut just a little bit harder.
Jayson Tatum, Celtics – Polished Isolator
At just 19-years-old, Tatum has a game well beyond his years. He’s the best isolation scorer in the draft, and it starts with his impeccable footwork. As the NBA has begun to change, players with the Carmelo Anthony style of play don’t come around as often because it’s not easy to assimilate to a pace-and-space offense.
Typically, mid-range triple threat guys eat up clock and slow down the game. It’s not ideal if your coach wants you to run. In the summer league, however, it worked perfectly. Tatum put up 18.2 points while shooting 44.6 percent overall. He hit tough shot after tough shot, and it’s clear why Danny Ainge wanted him so badly. He’ll be able to come off the bench and be a go-to scorer, but how long that takes remains to be seen.
I’m not high on Tatum bringing home this award because of how the Celtics are constructed. Most teams who are in the midst of contending don’t get high lottery picks, and I see Boston’s end goal directly impacting Tatum’s usage.
If Isaiah Thomas, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford are your first three options, would you look for Tatum? I also believe he’s going to struggle for half of the year while he tries to expand his game, a situation similar to what Brandon Ingram went through.
Markelle Fultz, 76ers – Three-Level Scorer
We didn’t get to see much of Fultz during the summer, but his freshman year at Washington more than sufficed. During that short (and dreadful) campaign, Fultz completed his evolution and became the consensus first overall pick. There aren’t many holes in his game.
He scores from all over, and that’s where he’s going to have the most impact. Fultz went 6-of-13 from three in two games in Salt Lake City, and he had no issues adapting to the deeper arc. That opened up the floor, where he utilizes deceptive athleticism to knife through defenders and get to the cup. Philly is going to need that outside threat to grab attention Joel Embiid, and the arrows point to it being Fultz.
Sure, Redick can occupy that. But he can’t create off the bounce as Fultz does, and that’s where the point guard skills come into play. Fultz was noticeably less passive in the summer league, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the coaches told him to focus less on passing. He’s a better scorer. That game plan makes sense.
Much like Tatum, I don’t know where Fultz is going to land in the race. He also has talent alongside him, but the pecking order is still being worked out. Regardless, Fultz is built to play in the modern NBA. Having an outside shot means the defense will have to account for him, and the Sixers know they can look at him to be a secondary ball handler.
De’Aaron Fox, Kings – Neck-Breaking Speed
No lottery pick saw their stock rise faster than Fox’s. After torching Lonzo Ball and the UCLA Bruins during the NCAA Tournament, we watched him as intently as anyone else. And with good reason. Not only is Fox a pick-and-roll maestro with electrifying athleticism, but he’s also the best defensive guard in his class and one of the most dynamic two-way players overall.
Fox has a baseline-to-baseline speed that’s as jaw-dropping as his vertical. There were few — if any — college players last year who could outrun him, and, of course, he used that to his advantage.
Kentucky wasn’t the most aggressive team defensively, but Fox’s quick hands and anticipation created turnovers which became points because he’d lose everyone after turning on the jets. It’s easy to burn everyone in transition, but the greatest guards change gears seamlessly in the halfcourt. Fox can do that.
His ability to stop on a dime and change direction is what makes him lethal coming off screens; once Fox gets the step, it’s either a layup or free throws. The biggest factor in his run at Rookie of the Year is developing a jump shot. Fox got away with it in college, but NBA defenses are going to sag off as much as they need to force him to shoot.
There’s also George Hill, who the Kings brought on this summer. It’s unclear how the coaches are going to split the rotation, but I wouldn’t count on Sacramento just giving Fox more minutes just for the fun of it.
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