Leading up to Bulls media day on Sept. 28, Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill and Mark Strotman will preview the upcoming NBA season with daily features on everything related to the Association. Today the pair analyze which players have the best chance to earn Rookie of the Year honors for the upcoming season.
Mark Strotman: Last year's rookie class was an absolute mess. Tabbed by many as the best incoming crop of players since 1996 - hell, they got the '96 SLAM cover treatment - they were decimated by injury. Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid and Julius Randle all suffered season-ending injuries (the latter two didn't play a single game) while Andrew Wiggins, Nerlens Noel (2013 Draft) and Nikola Mirotic salvaged an otherwise poor showing from the rooks - I'd also toss Elfrid Payton in there.
2015 appears to be a rookie class where opportunity will be ample. And no one will be thrown into the fire as quickly or given a larger role than Chicago native Jahlil Okafor. With Embiid on the pine for a second straight year, Okafor will be tasked with improving a Sixers offense that had an abysmal 93.0 offensive rating last year, far and away worst in the league. We've debated on Okafor's ceiling in the league, but there's no argument against him being ready to contribute from Day 1 offensively. His low-post game is as NBA-ready as we've seen in years, and I could see him having similar numbers as DeMarcus Cousins' rookie year (14.1 points on 43 percent shooting) with an uptick in his shooting percentage. Some of his glaring defensive deficiencies will be covered by Noel's prowess, which will only help Okafor's case. The fact that he'll be rolled out there at center every night as the main option for Brett Brown makes him the easy favorite to bring home Rookie of the Year honors.
Vincent Goodwill: Not to think this would have a Chicago bent to it, but Okafor is tagged with the stink of playing for the Philadelphia 76ers, the worst professional franchise in sports (no exaggeration). So either he’ll get hurt or play well enough to get traded for future draft picks.
As for another candidate, consider this: Since Derrick Rose’s rookie year (2008-09), five of the seven Rookie of the Year award winners have been point guards or in Tyreke Evans’ case in 2010, a lead guard.
Andrew Wiggins and Blake Griffin are the anomaly’s, and rightfully so. But Lakers rookie guard D’Angelo Russell, the player chosen ahead of Okafor, appears to have “star” written all over him.
He’ll have to share a backcourt with the retiring (?) Kobe Bryant while Jordan Clarkston won’t just cede into the background. Sharing the ball with the ball-dominant Bryant isn’t the easiest task in the world, ask Steve Nash.
But if Bryant accepts a lesser role and allows Russell to flourish, he could be special. He has exceptional court vision and his jump shot is set up by a handle that will embarrass more than a few defenders.
And, let’s be honest. The Lakers will stink. Julius Randle and a few other pieces are just learning at this level. So he’ll have plenty of freedom to play through mistakes and since there aren’t championship expectations, he can play loose.
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He’s been compared to Jason Kidd coming out of college and although the production can’t be predicted yet, his handle and jumper are worlds ahead of Kidd’s at this formative stage.
MS: And it makes sense that point guards have hogged Rookie of the Year honors lately; teams in need of a floor general put him to use right away. There's two wings and two frontcourt positions, but just one point guard. If your team is lacking at the spot, prepare to go against live fire from Day 1.
It's the same reason I really believe Emmanuel Mudiay is in a great position. We discussed it a little with our potential breakout players, but a lot of the time Rookie of the Year comes down to guys who simply got the minutes to log volume numbers. Well, with Ty Lawson off to Houston the depth chart in Denver is Mudiay, Jameer Nelson and Erick Green. Seriously.
We don't know as much about Mudiay and how his game will translate after a year in China, but we do know he's lightning quick in transition - good for the Western Conference - is an excellent passer - good for Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari - and a stout defender at 6-foot-5, which will come in handy against the lethal West point guard class.
There are concerns about his jump shot and whether he'll hit the ground running at 19 years old, but with a rock-solid head coach in Michael Malone, a decent supporting cast and a distinct role as the future of the Nuggets, I wouldn't be surprised if Mudiay puts together a Rookie of the Year campaign averaging 30+ minutes a night.
VG: Mudiay comes with the Larry Brown stamp of approval, considering he was slated to play for the Hall of Fame coach before going to play in China for a year. If you don’t go to college, it’s like you don’t exist for a segment of fans, i.e. Brandon Jennings. But Mudiay would’ve turned the college world on its ear last season and he happens to be drafted by the Nuggets, another team with low expectations, setting up an easy situation to excel.
But when I think about a player who did attend college and turned it on its ear, I’m thinking of the guy who inexplicably slipped in the draft, Miami Heat rookie Justise Winslow. Winslow was lost in the Duke shuffle last season, the ensemble cast that won the national championship. His stats didn’t overwhelm many but his play certainly did, which is why it was so shocking to see him drop to 10th in the draft.
He won’t be starting, considering Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng are the starting swingmen for the Heat. But when you talk skill level and pro readiness, he’s at the top of the list. Winslow plays with a control and a maturity to his game that’s beyond his years. He won’t overwhelm you athletically, which could be a big impediment in the college-to-pro transition. But his ball handling skills and ability to get to the lane with his perimeter footwork will translate well. And if Miami has any injury issues, he’ll step right in, and will have major minutes anyways.
He won’t have the best stats but if the Heat rise back near the top of the East after missing the playoffs last year and Winslow is a big part of it, he’ll receive a groundswell of support for the award—and could wind up as the best non-big in the draft regardless.