The recipe for winning the NBA Rookie of the Year award is a mixture of ability and opportunity. A player has to demonstrate immense talent that then results in solid numbers to separate himself from the pack. Of course, in order to stand out as the best rookie in the league, the player has to be in a situation where he can get considerable playing time. All coaches deal with allocating minutes to rookies differently, so the situation has to be right for the rookie to get the opportunity to shine.
These 10 rookies will have plenty of chances to prove they belong in the league. Whether they were brought in to fill an immediate need or are in a situation where they can grow organically with other young talent, these guys will be looking to continue their strong Summer League and preseason play into the games that actually count.
Like all NBA awards at this point, numbers matter. While many of these guys may have great rookie seasons, the award is going to go the player that demonstrates, without a doubt, that they’re the best there is.
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10. Donatas Motiejunas, Houston
The Houston Rockets had to wait a year for Lithuanian big man Donatas Motiejunas. Taken with the 20th pick in the 2011 draft, the 7-footer played in Poland during the lockout-shortened season, winning the Polish Championship with Asseco Prokom Gdnyia. Motiejunas had a strong showing at the guard-dominated NBA Summer League in July, averaging 16 points and eight rebounds in only 25 minutes a contest. He showed that he’s extremely comfortable with the ball in his hands and has a variety of polished moves in the post. Watch the game film from Vegas and you’ll have difficulty finding an time he wasn’t the best big man on the court.
Although he is a more natural four, he’ll likely see a lot of time at center this season. He has decent range and is an excellent ballhandler for his size. It will be interesting to see if the Rockets use him to initiate the offense for their second unit as he has the ball skills to be a point-forward type of player.
Motiejunas shot the ball well in the preseason (51 percent from the floor and 40 percent from deep) and averaged 9.4 points in about 19 minutes a game. He does lack the muscle to bang down low with the more physical bigs in the league, but Houston didn’t draft him for his defensive prowess. He’ll be able to utilize his several years of professional experience to be an immediate contributor for the young Rockets.
9. Tyler Zeller, Cleveland
Say you’re thinking about buying a used car. You see an ad for a sexy little sports car that’s actually in your price range, but it hasn’t been started in three years and you may end up pouring buckets of cash and time into it with no guarantee that it will ever be reliable. Or, you can buy the cared-for economy sedan with a 10,000 mile warranty. When Cleveland selected Tyler Zeller with the 17th pick in the draft, they went the safe route and picked the sedan over the high risk/high reward sports car â€” which may end up being a great decision for this year’s Cavaliers.
Zeller has the tools to be an immediate impact player for the Cavs. He runs the floor well and is an efficient scoring big man. The former Tar Heel had a solid (yet unsensational) Summer League showing, where he averaged 12 points, seven boards and one block in 22 minutes a game. He did shoot a blistering 90 percent from the charity stripe — a strength that will be a huge asset to the Cavs and will help keep him on the court this season. His 55 percent shooting during the preseason has to please head coach Byron Scott as he’ll be forced to rely on Zeller right away to help anchor an iffy second unit. A four-year college standout, Zeller is ready today to step in and produce.
While he may not be featured in many highlight plays his rookie season, Zeller should be a consistent inside presence and will be ready to step in and start should the Cavs suffer any injuries in their frontcourt. Scott is hoping that a consistent Zeller off the bench will push Tristan Thompson to be more aggressive and active as a starter. If he’s not, look for Zeller to syphon some of Thompson’s minutes as the season goes on.
8. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist doesn’t exactly have recent history on his side. Derrick Williams. Evan Turner. Hasheem Thabeet. Michael Beasley. Marvin Williams. Darko Milicic. The No. 2 pick in the draft hasn’t been a sure thing since 2007, when the Trail Blazers gave the Sonics the greatest early Christmas gift in the history of the modern world. While Kidd-Gilchrist has boatloads of potential, I don’t think the Hornets were as generous.
Kidd-Gilchrist hasn’t been spectacular this preseason. He’s averaged six points and five boards in 21 minutes a game (in six starts) and the Bobcats finished preseason play with a very Bobcats-esque record of one win and seven losses. Not surprisingly, their lone victory came on Kidd-Gilchrist’s best game. His 12-point, six-rebound and three-steal performance on Oct. 7 is the kind of multi-faceted production the Bobcats are expecting on a nightly basis from their rookie. He’s probably not going to light up the scoreboard early on, but Kidd-Gilchrist has the motor to affect the game without scoring. In his last preseason game, he went 0-5 from the field, but managed to corral 10 boards and got to the line for eight foul shots (making seven).
Kidd-Gilchrist, the youngest player in the NBA, will have some shaky nights as he’ll be thrown to the wolves right away for a Bobcats team that desperately needs his spark. There’s no question he’ll get plenty of opportunity to make a name for himself and stuff the box score every night.
7. Terrence Jones, Houston
Fresh off a national championship with Kentucky in his sophomore season, rookie Terrence Jones will face a more difficult road with the Houston Rockets. General Manager Daryl Morey spent this last offseason trying to find a creative way to land a disgruntled Dwight Howard from the Magic. However, instead of snagging the superstar center, the Rockets acquired three, mid-first round draft picks and look poised for another trying season in Houston. With Jeremy Lamb now in Oklahoma City via the trade to bring James Harden to Houston, and Royce White‘s unique travel situation, the Rockets will lean heavily on the rookie Jones to be productive from day one.
There were several instances at Summer League when Jones looked like a top five-level talent. He averaged 18 points and nearly nine boards a game while shooting 50 percent from the floor. He ran the floor well, shot the ball well and showed off his impressive ball handling skills for a big man (and I’m not using the term ‘big man’ lightly — he looked huge). There is no question that he’s a unique talent and he has shown the potential to one day be a star.
Against stronger competition during preseason play, Jones averaged a respectable 10.5 points and five boards in about 26 minutes a game. The Rockets are hoping he doesn’t fall too deeply in love with the three-ball (he shot an atrocious one for 12 from deep in the preseason) and will expect him to use his size and skill as a ballhandler to punish opponents. Jones’ role doesn’t nearly seem set as opening day approaches, but he’ll be given a chance to produce, whether he wins the starting power forward spot or comes off the bench as an offensive boost for the second unit.
6. Harrison Barnes, Golden State
There was a time, not long ago, when Harrison Barnes was unequivocally the man. The No. 1 prospect coming out of high school was a 17-year-old kid with a tailor-made body for an NBA small forward. A sure thing one-and-done superstar for the Tar Heels and a likely number one overall pick for a lucky franchise, right? Then he played his freshman season in North Carolina and all hell broke… Wait, what? He actually played pretty well as a freshman? Sixteen points and six rebounds a game as an 18-year-old in the ACC? Surely something must have happened for him to be labeled overrated and overhyped so early in his career … oh, he just wasn’t as dominant as people thought he should have been? Gotcha.
Barnes is going to be a good pro. Hell, there’s a good chance he’ll be a great pro. He has a sweet stroke, a big body and underrated athleticism (he opened a few eyes at the draft combine last June when he posted a 39.5 inch vertical jump). In eight preseason games with the Warriors (six starts), Barnes averaged 10 points in about 25 minutes. Not spectacular. The exciting part is that he shot 49 percent from the field, including 48 percent from downtown (12 for 25). That’s spectacular.
Barnes will be battling both Richard Jefferson and Brandon Rush for minutes come opening night, but he’ll definitely be in the rotation and could be a starter under coach Mark Jackson. If he can be the efficient scorer he’s shown this preseason when the games actually count, he’ll not only be a big contributor for the burgeoning Warriors, but he’ll also receive his share of Rookie of the Year votes next Spring.
5. Bradley Beal, Washington
The Washington Wizards selected shooting guard Bradley Beal with the third pick to solidify an exciting, young and unaccomplished backcourt. Beal immediately bolsters the Wizards guard rotation and will be able to grow organically alongside third-year burgeoning star point guard John Wall.
Perhaps mislabeled as a knockdown shooter, Beal has been unfairly compared to all-time three-point leader and future Hall of Famer Ray Allen. Beal certainly loves taking the three (he launched five per game during his freshman year at Florida), but his pedestrian average of 33.9 percent reveals that his range may need some work. Many people point to the nearly perfect form he has on his jumper and preach patience, saying the three ball will fall for him as a pro. So far, not quite so good for Beal. He shot 30 percent from deep at Summer League and an even worse 28 percent in eight preseason games.
Beal should be able to score in the NBA right away as he makes up for his lack of height with a strong frame and great athleticism, and like his new backcourt mate Wall, he can get to the rack when he needs to and will not shy from contact (he got to the free-throw line more than seven times a game in Vegas). He averaged double-digit points in Summer League and in preseason play and should get plenty of shot opportunities right away for the Wizards.
He’ll be near the top of rookie wings in both rebounds and steals this year, which will help fill the stat sheet and gain attention for his Rookie of the Year campaign. However, if Beal wants to walk away with the Rookie of the Year hardware next spring, he’s going to need to put up big points on a nightly basis, as he has to deal with the stiff competition from the rest of the top-five guys on this list.
4. Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto
Like Motiejunas, Toronto Raptors big man Jonas Valanciunas is a giant Lithuanian making his rookie debut a year after being drafted in 2011. After being selected fifth overall in 2011, Valanciunas absolutely dominated the Fiba U19 World Championships in Latvia. He averaged 23 points and 14 rebounds — including a 26-point, 24-rebound performance and a 36-point showing in the championship game to lead Lithuania to the title.
Valanciunas has the skills to be a dominant big man in the NBA. He has the potential to be a defensive force inside but can also step out and knock down a mid-range jumper. He has a soft touch around the basket and is an solid free-throw shooter. He attacks the glass with good rebounding instincts and is not afraid to be physical down low.
In six preseason games (five starts), Valanciunas looked sharp, averaging eight points and seven boards. But the most exciting stat for Raptors fans is that he blocked nearly two shots a game in only 23 minutes a contest.
The 6-10 rookie is part of a great situation in Toronto. He’ll likely be the starting center on opening night and will have the opportunity to share the frontcourt with an elite scoring power forward in Andrea Bargnani. Yes, he will face a lot of pressure and high expectations, but he will be expected to contribute within the flow of the game. He’ll be expected to protect the rim, set solid screens and rebound the basketball. Everything else will be a bonus for the Raptors, and should come easily as the big man learns the speed of the NBA game.
3. Jared Sullinger, Boston
Medical red flags can sometimes benefit good NBA teams. When news of DeJuan Blair‘s ACL-less knees made the rounds in 2009, the Spurs were able to snag an incredibly effective big man in the second round. A 100-percent healthy Blair would have certainly been scooped up much sooner. Former Buckeye Jared Sullinger, once considered a top-three pick before he returned for his sophomore season, faced a similar situation before this past June’s draft. Tests on Sullinger’s back at the combine caused enough alarm among NBA general managers to send the talented big man slipping down the draft board.
The Celtics were waiting with open arms and smiling faces with pick No. 21.
After averaging nearly a double-double in Summer League (both Vegas and Orlando), Sullinger continued his strong play during the preseason, where he averaged 11 points and seven boards in 26 minutes a game, while shooting 56 percent from the floor and 85 percent from the stripe. Head coach Doc Rivers chose to start him in five of the eight preseason contests and could give him the nod over Brandon Bass come opening day.
Sullinger has shown during this exhibition season that he deserves to be on the floor. More importantly, however, is that he’s shown he belongs alongside superstars Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett because he’s an excellent rebounder, a great free-throw shooter and a smooth operator with his feet and passing with the ball in his hands in the post. Sullinger has the chance to learn the NBA game from Garnett, one of the best to ever play the power forward position, and Boston has added a young low post scorer as they gear up for another postseason run. It’s a win-win situation in Beantown.
2. Anthony Davis, New Orleans
This is where the list gets a little tricky. Anthony Davis, the consensus number one pick since his first game at Kentucky, is going to be an incredible professional basketball player, even a superstar. He’s an elite rebounder and shot blocker, a solid ballhandler for a big man and a capable (albeit unrefined at getting his own shot) scorer. There is no question that he is going to have an immediate effect on the Hornets from the first whistle of his first NBA game.
While the rest of this list was beating up on each other in meaningless games in Vegas, Davis was in London winning a gold freaking medal with Team USA. Actually, let’s go ahead take a look at the 19-year-old’s already crowded trophy case. Olympic gold medal? Check. NCAA championship? Check. Naismith Trophy for being the 2012 NCAA Player of the year? Check. John R. Wooden Player of the Year Trophy? AP Player of the Year? Adolph Rupp Trophy? Check them all off.
Rookie of the Year Trophy? He’s got a hell of a chance for that one too.
No rookie may mean as much to his team than Davis does to the Hornets. Not only will he be expected to contribute right away, but he’ll be expected to play well consistently. He’s an opening day starter and if the preseason is any indication, will get as many minutes as any other rookie in the league. He averaged a virtual double-double in seven preseason games (13 points and 9.9 boards), while tacking on nearly two blocks a contest. In a game against the Mavs where he didn’t shoot the ball well (just 2-for-12 from the floor), he went ahead and scooped up 17 rebounds and dished a couple assists.
Davis is clearly as good as advertised and will be a delight for NBA fans this season.
1. Damian Lillard, Portland
Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard is the only rookie that may see more court time than Davis. Pegged as the future of the position in Portland before he finished shaking David Stern‘s hand on draft night, no other rookie will shoulder the amount of responsibility this season as Lillard. The keys to the offense? New coach Terry Stotts has already given Lillard the keys, two spare tires, a GPS system and a AAA membership. Part of this is because of Lillard’s impressive ability to control a game. The other part is due to Nolan Smith and Ronnie Price being the only other point guards on the Blazers roster.
Lillard shot up draft boards due to impressive pre-draft workouts and a strong showing at the combine. He tested well physically and shot the ball arguably better than any other prospect. When he got to Vegas in July, it didn’t take long for the entire league to take notice of the rookie from Weber State. He didn’t just play well in Vegas, he completely tore up the Strip. With averages of 26 points, five assists and four boards, Lillard demonstrated that he could excel against non-Big Sky Conference talent, taking home co-MVP honors.
Unlike Jerryd Bayless muscling his way to the foul line for 30 points a game at Summer League in 2008, Lillard got his points from all over the court and within the flow of the offense. He sought his shot when it was there and looked to set up his teammates when it was not. In six preseason games, Lillard averaged a rookie-best 16 points and a solid six assists. He shot 46 percent from the floor, 36 percent from deep and 95 percent from line, doing it all with a poise beyond his years.
Nobody really questioned Lillard’s scoring prowess coming out of college, but many have underestimated his ability to distribute. He may never average double digit assists in a season, but he is an excellent pick-and-roll ball handler and has a knack for pushing the ball and finding the open man. A two-man game with Lillard and All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge should be a thing of beauty for many years in Rip City.
Who should be the Rookie of the Year?
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