The incoming crop of NBA rookies looks to be one of the more promising groups in recent memory. Unlike the 2013 Draft which was looked at as an overall weak group of players, the 2014 Draft was looked at as arguably the strongest since 2003; the same draft that produced James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh. If that wasn’t enough, last year’s No. 6 overall pick, Nerlens Noel, is considered a rookie after sitting out all of last year as he recovered from a torn ACL.
To put it in its simplest terms, this year’s rookie class is loaded with future stars, and a number of them are in a position to succeed early in their professional careers.
Last season, Sixers guard Michael Carter-Williams ran away with the award, but a nearly unanimous vote in 2014-2015 seems highly unlikely. There’s just too much talent in this crop. With that in mind, here are 10 NBA rookies who have a shot at winning this award, ranked in ascending order of the likelihood they win.
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10. Nick Johnson – SG, Houston Rockets
The only reason Nick Johnson fell to the second round of the NBA Draft is because of his size. He has first round talent, but ended up getting drafted into the perfect situation with the Rockets.
The Rockets have had a tumultuous offseason thus far, striking out in their attempts to lure another superstar to team up with Dwight Howard and James Harden. The team had to part ways with backup point guard Jeremy Lin to clear cap space, which leaves a glaring hole in the team’s backcourt. Cue Johnson, who has the versatility to play point guard if need be for short stretches, even if his natural position is shooting guard. Losing Lin hurts the Rockets depth, but it also allows Kevin McHale to play the former Arizona Wildcat more often.
Johnson is an athletic monster who will be an immediate contributor defensively for Houston. In McHale’s up-tempo system, Johnson should be able to get up and down the floor, leading to easy transition buckets. If he can knock down his three-point attempts on a semi-regular basis, it’ll be tough to keep him on the bench.
Johnson isn’t going to put up eye-popping numbers, but he has a chance to be a valuable role player on a Western Conference contender from the get-go.
2014-2015 Stats Prediction: 7.4 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists per game
9. Dante Exum – PG, Utah Jazz
Dante Exum is still a complete mystery. Before Summer League, he hadn’t played a competitive game in nearly 12 months, and it showed in his Las Vegas performance. Exum displayed flashes of the enormous potential scouts had been drooling about all summer, but they were few and far between. In five games, he averaged just 7.2 points per game while shooting a horrific 31 percent from the field.
Exum should continue to improve as he gets back into the flow of the competitive game, but taking 12 months off for any player is a tough obstacle to overcome, but it’s especially hard for a player making the leap to the NBA after playing in a smaller Australian league beforehand.
Exum has all the tools to be a dynamic point guard at this level. At 6-6, Exum towers over most point guards and he’s a terrific athlete. His first step is as quick as any other rookie’s, and that combined with an arsenal of dribble moves makes him nearly impossible to stay in front of. Exum is best in the open court, where he can finish with either hand at the rim or dish it to his open teammate.
Despite these unbelievable athletic gifts, Exum is still a work in progress, and it might get ugly at times early in the season. He’s in for a big surprise when it comes to the strength, physicality, and speed of the NBA game, and it may cause him to struggle. When Exum does figure it all out though, he has a chance to be a special player, and could put up some solid numbers for a Jazz team that desperately needs another scorer.
2014-2015 Stats Projection: 9.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists per game
8. Cleanthony Early – SF, New York Knicks
The Knicks got the steal of the draft when they scooped up Wichita State’s Cleanthony Early with the No. 34 pick. Early is about as NBA-ready of a prospect as they come, and he fills a major need for the team.
Derek Fisher is looking to implement the triangle system in New York, which requires shooters in the corners to keep the high post area open. As a team, the Knicks shot 37 percent from beyond the arc, but having too many shooters is never a bad thing. Early’s biggest contribution may come from his abilities on the other side of the court though, as the Knicks need a lock-down perimeter defender and Early has the length and athleticism to be a plus defender on the professional level.
Much like Johnson in Houston, Early ended up falling into an ideal situation with the Knicks. He won’t be relied on as a go-to scorer, but he’ll have plenty of opportunities to go after his defender in isolation situations. Look for Early to get his fair share of offensive rebounds and put-backs as well, which will only add to his stat line.
2014-2015 Stats Projection: 8.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists per game