Ben Simmons

Where does Lauri Markkanen sit in early race for Rookie of the Year?

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USA TODAY

Where does Lauri Markkanen sit in early race for Rookie of the Year?

The NBA season is just three weeks old, but some rookies have emerged as early candidates for Rookie of the Year, including Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen.

Mark Schanowski ranked his top five rookies with the regular season just over 10 percent of the way finished. Watch the video in the embedded tweet below to see Schanowski explain his rankings and read on for more information on his top five.

5. Jayson Tatum, Boston

Key stats: 13.6 points per game, 6.3 rebounds per game, 51.7 percent 3-pointers

The No. 3 pick in the draft is in the top five among rookies in a number of categories and is getting plenty of playing time for a championship contender.

Schanowski: "After the Gordon Hayward injury, Tatum will be counted on to play major minutes on one of the Eastern Conference's best teams."

4. Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas

Key stats: 13.3 points per game, 4.6 assists per game

Smith has proven to be a bring spot at point guard for a struggling Dallas team despite shooting below 40 percent and having 3.7 turnovers per game so far.

Schanowski: Smith is "showing future All-Star potential with his explosive drives and long-range shooting."

3. Kyle Kuzma, LA Lakers

Key stats: 15.4 points per game, 6.3 rebounds per game, 56.3 percent field goal shooting

Kuzma was taken all the way down at No. 27 in the draft, but he is stealing some of the thunder from fellow Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball.

Schanowski: "Right now Kuzma looks like one of the steals of the draft."

2. Lauri Markkanen, Bulls

Key stats: 16.3 points per game, 9 rebounds per game, 37.9 percent 3-pointers

Markkanen is second among rookies in scoring and rebounds while proving to be the type of modern NBA big man with plenty of shooting range.

Schanowski: "Markkanen is showing a lot of versatily on offense and he's a better rebounder than advertised."

1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia

Key stats: 18 points per game, 9.8 rebounds per game, 8.2 assists per game

Simmons was the No. 1 pick last year, but was out with an injury the whole season. He is making his mark as a rookie this year with two triple-doubles already and leads rookies in scoring, rebounds and assists. If he comes close to maintaining this production, he will be a lock for Rookie of the Year.

Schanowski: "Ben Simmons is definitely proving to be worth the one-year wait in Philadelphia... He's looking like a more talented version of Lamar Odom."

MVP, Rookie of the Year, champions and more: Predicting the 2017-18 NBA season

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USA TODAY

MVP, Rookie of the Year, champions and more: Predicting the 2017-18 NBA season

It's the most wonderful time of the year!

Following the wildest offseason in recent memory (perhaps ever), when a record seven All-Stars from a year ago changed teams, the chase for the Larry O'Brien trophy begins tonight in Cleveland.

While the Warriors remain the class of the league and, barring significant injury, should repeat as NBA champions, there are dozens and dozens of other storylines to keep us intrigued from now until the third week of June.

But enough with introductions. Let's get into predicting how the NBA's 72nd season will play out.

MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

You've likely heard the statistic by now, but it bears repeating: Last season Antetokounmpo became the first player in NBA history to rank in the top-20 in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. He was also the fifth player ever to lead his team in those categories, joining Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen, Kevin Garnett and Michael Jordan. Pretty good company for a player who turned 22 in the middle of that extraordinary campaign (Cowens and Pippen were 29, Garnett was 26 and James was 24 when they respectively accomplished that feat). Simply put, Antetokounmpo checks all the boxes. He's got the skill (see: the stat you just read). He's durable, having missed just nine games in four seasons. He's got the personality (dad jokes FTW). And he's got the storyline, as sidekick Jabari Parker is sidelined with another ACL surgery. The Bucks should improve on their 42 wins from a year ago, but Russell Westbrook proved last year you don't need to be on a top-2 team in your conference to win the award. He's got competition to be sure, but last year's Most Improved Player will become this year's Most Valuable Player.

Runner-ups: LeBron James, Kevin Durant

Defensive Player of the Year: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

No other NBA award seems to have as much repetition and consistency as this one. Since the award was first handed out in 1983, there have been nine players to win the award in consecutive years (Dwight Howard won it three straight years from 2009-2011). Green will join that list after what should be yet another fantastic defensive campaign. The raw stats were impressive on their own: last year Green averaged a league-best 2.0 steals and added 1.4 blocks and 7.9 rebounds. He was second in the league in defensive efficiency and was the most talented defender on the league's best defense by a long shot. The Warriors return the same unit from a year ago, and assuming Kevin Durant doesn't miss 20+ games again the defense should only get better. Green can guard all five positions (he actually can, I'm not just helping you fill out your NBA Bingo card) and has an unmatched intensity that voters take note of. With Kawhi Leonard nursing a hamstring injury that could linger, and Rudy Gobert becoming a focal point offensively, Green should be in line to take home another trophy.

Runner-ups: Rudy Gobert, Kawhi Leonard

Sixth Man of the Year: Lou Williams, LA Clippers

Playing for his fifth team in as many seasons, Williams has changed uniforms but not his playing style. A finalist for the award last season (teammate Eric Gordon rightfully took home the honors), Williams averaged 17.5 points per game in just 24.6 minutes for the Lakers and Rockets. His efficiency dipped after he was dealt to Houston, as his 38.6/31.8/86.7 splits underwhelmed in the shot-happy Rockets system. A year later he finds himself in a terrific situation with the Clippers, who moved on from three-time Sixth Man winner Jamal Crawford this offseason. Williams will be tasked with being the leading scorer on a second unit that isn't exactly oozing with depth. The good news is that he'll have one hell of a passer alongside him in 30-year-old rookie Milos Teodosic. Teodosic averaged 5.5 assists in limited action for the Clips, and he'll be finding Williams early and often with that second group. Expect a bounce back campaign from Williams, with perhaps some added efficiency playing next to Teodosic.

Runner-ups: Eric Gordon, Tristan Thompson

Rookie of the Year: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

You've got 24 hours until the hype train leaves the station, so hop on board now or you'll be kicking yourself all season. The top pick in the 2016 NBA Draft will finally make his debut on Wednesday night, and when he does you'll see why the Sixers believe in him as a cornerstone for this franchise. He'll be listed as a forward but Brett Brown expects him to initiate just about all of Philly's offensive sets this season. In five preseason games he averaged 11.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.4 assists in just 22.8 minutes per game. The best news? He won't be on a minutes restriction after last year's broken foot. He's an absolute blur in transition, can finish with both hands and understands his limitations (his jumper is anything but reliable, yet he shot 57 percent from the field in the preseason). He's also going to be on a team that wins (see below), and the presence of Markelle Fultz, Joel Embiid and JJ Redick will provide ample opportunities for him to rack up numbers. Get on board, and get on quickly: Ben Simmons is about to jump to stardom in the next few seasons, and it begins with what will be a stellar rookie campaign.

Runner-ups: Dennis Smith Jr., John Collins

Most Improved Player: Gary Harris, Denver Nuggets

The casual NBA fan might not know who Gary Harris is. That will change this season. Fresh off a four-year max deal that could pay him up to $84 million, the Nuggets showed exactly how they feel about the 23-year-old wing. Injuries limited him to 57 games last season, but we'll bank on him playing closer to the 76 games he logged in 2015-16. And the Nuggets are going to give him plenty of run, which is good news: of the last 18 players to win the NBA's Most Improved Player award, none have averaged fewer than 32.2 minutes per game. After the All-Star break last season Harris averaged 16.8 points on 53 percenet shooting, and he was just as good on the defensive end. The Nuggets are going to have plenty of firepower around Harris, including Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap and Jamal Murray. But Harris is going to be a focal point in this system, and he could emerge in Year 4 as a legitimate All-Star candidate (note: the West is absolutely stacked; Harris will not be an All-Star; but his numbers could be worthy of consideration).

Runner-ups: Josh Richardson, Clint Capela

Coach of the Year: Mike Malone, Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets jumped to 33 victories in Malone's first year with the Nuggets, and last year made a seven-win jump and nearly made the postseason. Denver won't need to sweat out the final week of this season to see if they're playoff-bound. Their budding stars in Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray, while replacing Danilo Gallinari with four-time All-Star Paul Millsap, could potentially move them into the top-5 in the West. The Timberwolves will make headlines as the team expected to make "the jump," but watch out for Denver. Malone has taken an offense left for dead and improved them from 21st to 20th to 5th in offensive efficiency. There are certainly questions about their defense, which could be a recipe for disaster in the Western Conference, but expect Denver to flirt with 50 wins this season, making Malone an easy choice for Coach of the Year.

Runner-ups: Erik Spoelstra, Jason Kidd

Eastern Conference Standings (projected record)

1. Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25)
2. Boston (55-27)
3. Washington (51-31)
4. Toronto (46-36)
5. Milwaukee (45-37)
6. Miami (44-38)
7. Philadelphia (41-41)
8. Charlotte (38-44)
9. Detroit (35-47)
10. Atlanta (30-52)
11. Indiana (30-52)
12. Orlando (29-53)
13. Brooklyn (24-58)
14. New York (24-58)
15. Chicago Bulls (21-61)

Western Conference Standings (projected record)

1. Golden State (70-12)
2. Houston (60-22)
3. Oklahoma City (54-28)
4. San Antonio (53-29)
5. Denver (49-33)
6. Minnesota (47-35)
7. LA Clippers (45-37)
8. Utah (43-39)
9. Portland (41-41)
10. New Orleans (39-43)
11. Memphis (37-45)
12. Dallas (35-47)
13. Los Angeles Lakers (33-49)
14. Sacramento Kings (28-54)
15. Phoenix Suns (26-56)

NBA champions: Houston Rockets

Oh, come on. Picking the Warriors is no fun. Let's think outside the box for a change and act like Golden State won't win its third title in four seasons. That's too easy. Then again, it may not be too much of a stretch to consider that the Rockets could top them in a seven-game series. Let's start with the obvious: Chris Paul joining James Harden is going to make the Rockets one of the most efficient offenses in league history. Moving Harden off the ball means he won't lead the league in assists again, but he should improve his shooting efficiency (44.0/34.7/84.7 last season). Meanwhile, Paul continues to be overlooked as still one of the game's great point guards. Crack all the conference finals jokes you want; he just averaged 18.1 points and 9.2 assists in his 12th NBA season.

Moving to the wings, the Rockets shored up a defense that ranked 18th in efficiency by signing plus defenders in P.J. Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Add Trevor Ariza to that mix and the Rockets tout three capable defenders to counter small-ball lineups Golden State might deploy. It remains to be seen if Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon could be used significantly in a series against the Warriors, but Houston can cover up those defensive weaknesses with this offseason's moves.

Clint Capela shot 64 percent last season, obliterating defenses on pick-and-rolls with Harden. Now he gets Paul, the league's best pick-and-roll ball handler? Unfair. Depth could be a concern, but in the postseason Mike D'Antoni can try an eight-man rotation - or add someone at the trade deadline.

There's no easy way to beat the Warriors, and the last three seasons there hasn't been any way, really. The Rockets don't need to shoot the ball better than Golden State for 82 games. They need to shoot it better than Golden State for two weeks in late May. Chemistry shouldn't be an issue once the Western Conference Finals roll around, and D'Antoni will have found a good minutes stagger to utilize Paul and Harden best. Houston has sneaky flexibility with the aforementioned wings, and that's the only real way to stick with the Warriors and their abundance of rotation options.

Assuming Cleveland comes out of the East, the Cavs would make for an incredible test in the NBA Finals. But after toppling the defending champions, Harden and Paul would be playing with unprecedented confidence. They win it in seven games on their home floor.

Jimmy, D-Rose, Embiid, LeBron, Lonzo: 10 most intriguing games on the Bulls' 2017-18 schedule

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USA TODAY

Jimmy, D-Rose, Embiid, LeBron, Lonzo: 10 most intriguing games on the Bulls' 2017-18 schedule

The Bulls had as busy an offseason as any team in the NBA, which means there will be plenty of headliner games on their 2017-18 schedule, which the league announced Monday.

Here are 10 that all fans should have circled on their calendars:

1. Feb. 9, vs. Minnesota: This may be one of the most anticipated games featuring non-contenders of the season. Draft night's blockbuster deal that sent Jimmy Butler and the No. 16 pick to the Timberwolves for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 pick is just the tip of the iceberg. Tom Thibodeau is still at the helm, and Taj Gibson signed with Minnesota in July. On the other end, Dunn and LaVine (assuming he's ready to go by then) will get a chance at revenge on the team that traded them. Butler jokingly said he's going to try to score "like 5 points" against the Bulls, but our guess is he's especially up for this game. It's also the Bulls' only scheduled nationally televised game of the year. Long live the #TNTBulls.

2. Dec. 4 vs. Cleveland: It's always a big game when LeBron James comes to town for the first time, and for the last seven seasons that's meant the Eastern Conference champions arriving with him. But there's an added twist this year, as quite the familiar face will be joining King James in Chicago. Derrick Rose signed a one-year, veteran's minimum deal with the Cavs. It remains to be seen whether he or Kyrie Irving will start at the point when these teams meet, but it's sure to be awkward when Rose and LeBron run a fast break to perfection. This sure ain't 2015 anymore.

3. Dec. 18 vs. Philadelphia: We Trusted the Process, and now the Sixers look like legitimate contenders for a playoff spot in the East. And although Joel Embiid has been in Philly for two years and Ben Simmons for one, the Bulls didn't see either in their matchups last season. Expect that to change in December, when the Bulls get a dose of what a successsful rebuild looks like. With Embiid, Simmons, No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz and a host of other young talent in the mix, the Bulls will get all they can handle with this group. They'll also get the blueprint for how they should proceed with their own rebuild.

4. Oct. 21 vs. San Antonio: It's the home opener for the Bulls, and in recent years that's meant good news. Winners in eight of their last nine openers at the UC, the Bulls will have their hands full when Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and the Spurs come to town. Then again, the Bulls have managed to beat Gregg Popovich's group at the United Center in each of the last three seasons. They also had All-Star Jimmy Butler in those three matchups. The results may look different this time around, but recent records sure are on the Bulls' side.

5. Nov. 4 vs. New Orleans: It's always fun when hometown superstar Anthony Davis returns to Chicago. Last year The Brow dominated at the United Center, going for 36 points, 14 rebounds and 3 blocks in 39 minutes. Davis is back, and he's bringing DeMarcus Cousins with him this time. He's also bringing free-agent acquisition Rajon Rondo, who spent last season with the Bulls. Rondo originally was in the Bulls' near-future plans before they entered a rebuild, and it should be plenty of fun to watch him play against the young players he mentored last year. The last impression Bulls fans have of him was his absurd Games 1 and 2 against the Celtics, so expect Rondo to get a rousing applause in his return.

6. Nov. 24 at Golden State: There's never a fun time to play the Warriors. But this matchup is going to be brutally difficult. The Bulls begin their 2017 season playing 11 of their first 17 games on the road, and it ends with a trip to the defending champs' home court. The Warriors have been prone to ugly losses against lesser teams, but this might look something like last year's game in Oakland did (no Jimmy Butler, no Dwyane Wade meant a 31-point loss). Still, it's always incredible to watch this Warriors offense work, so it's making the list.

7. Oct. 19 at Toronto: So the Bulls no longer have their ridiculous winning streak against the Raptors that had spanned 11 games and four seasons. But this is the team's season opener, marking the official start of the rebuild in a place where they've had success in the past. It's unlikely Zach LaVine will be ready, but the Bulls will get to unwrap new toys in Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen and watch the development of guys like Bobby Portis, Denzel Valentine, Cameron Payne and others. From the Warriors to the Hawks to the Cavs to the Bulls, a season opener is a season opener. This one will be fun.

8. Nov. 21 at Los Angeles Lakers: You'll be hearing plenty about this, but Lonzo Ball is going to be must-see all year. He's the most exciting rookie point guard we've seen in quite some time, and the Lakers seem to be building something serious around him. Like Philadelphia, the Bulls can learn something from LA's rebuild that has seen them add players like Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Ivica Zubac and Kyle Kuzma. This game will be a solid test for the young Bulls, especially if they're still without Zach LaVine. But all eyes will be on Lonzo. 

9. Jan. 8 vs. Houston: There's a new superteam in town, and they're bringing their act to the Windy City right after the calendar flips to 2018. Chris Paul and James Harden have teamed up to form what should be one of the most fun offenses in the league to watch. There's a shot Carmelo Anthony is part of this roster by then, adding more intrigue to the game. Assuming the new-look Rockets (they also added PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute) hav worked out all the kinks this far into the season, this one could get ugly.

10. Nov. 19 at Phoenix: We're tossing this one on the list for a few reasons. There's an outside chance Kyrie Irving is the starting point guard by this time. Also, a Jimmy Butler trade certainly could have gone down with the Suns this offseason. It's a little game of "what if" when watching players like Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss or Dragan Bender, who could have been part of a rebuild. Past that, CSN's digital department is #TeamSuns, so it's making the cut.