NBA Rookie of the Year candidates

2017 NBA draft had much higher expectations than 2016. Some experts thought that the league would be complemented with especially talented players like it was in 1996 or 2003 drafts.

However, almost all of the top ten draft picks have disappointed: first pick Markelle Fultz has played just one game, Lonzo Ball is frustrated with constant injuries, while other highly picked rookies – Josh Jackson, De’Aaron Fox, Jonathan Isaac – are showing mediocre level playing in a weak teams.

Clear exception is the third pick – Jayson Tatum from Boston Celtics who plays a solid basketball in a championship level team. Speaking about the Rookie of the Year Award, Tatum is the only rookie from the top ten who is a real threat for Ben Simmons (he missed entire 2016-2017 season) from Philadelphia 76ers to win the award.

Fortunately, alongside Simmons and Tatum are two serious contenders – both of them were underrated in the draft – no. 13 Donovan Mitchell from Utah Jazz and no. 27 Kyle Kuzma from Los Angeles Lakers. They both became scoring leaders in their teams and serious candidates for the Rookie of the Year award. It looks like this race will be a four-man battle.

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1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

Ben Simmons missed the entire 2016-2017 season because of injury, but it seems that he used that time to get stronger both physically and mentally. At the beginning of the 2017-2018 season Ben Simmons became (and still is) the force behind the Philadelphia 76ers. He showed that he belongs to the rare type of players – those who almost can play in five different positions like LeBron James or legendary Magic Johnson.

In his rookie year he boasts of 16 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists, 1.7 steals and almost 1 block per game – all these numbers point to the phenomenal talent who Ben Simmons really is. His strength and height allows him to compete with bigs above the rim, while on the other hand his agility keeps him up with smaller guards. His lack of defense from his time at Louisiana State University immediately vanished after entering NBA court and he has no problem guarding much smaller and quicker players.

Despite his height of 6ft 10in (210 cm) his dribbling skills and court vision look incredible. But the most interesting part of his game is that everything he has done offensively he did without a normal jump shot. So far he makes almost all of his points from short distances either in the paint or around the rim. He hasn’t made any three-pointers yet and with a 57 free-throw percentage stands alongside other weak free-throw shooters such as DeAndre Jordan or Andre Drummond.

Many experts believe that the problem is simple – Simmons is shooting with the wrong hand. He was born-right handed, but his father made him left-handed shooter early in life. One episode from Simmons career shows that switching shooting hand could improve his jump shot – at LSU “82 percent of his non-jump shots were attempted with his right hand” (Kevin O’Connor).

In summary, if Ben Simmons remains healthy and improves his jump shot he will be a future hall of fame.

Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

Photo: Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

2. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

In 2017 offseason when a long-time Utah Jazz All-star Gordon Hayward decided to resume his career in Boston Celtics many experts, when speaking about the Jazz future, believed that a difficult period has come. But suddenly everything changed due to one man – Donovan Mitchell. The player who came almost from nowhere surprised many – including himself – with his outstanding and solid games. His unexpected success put him into the Rookie of the Year discussion.

On December 1st, Donovan Mitchell when playing against New Orleans Pelicans reached memorable achievement – with 41 points he set the new Jazz rookie’s scoring record. And what is more important – Mitchell leads all rookies in scoring (20.3). Although his scoring percentage is not conditionally high – 43.5 field goal and 34 three-point percentage – but it is the evidence how the Utah Jazz depends on his offensive abilities and leadership.

He immediately undertook the role as the Utah Jazz’s leading scorer and coped with all the barriers rookies experience in their debut year. His numbers over the first few months of the season show that by trading their no. 13 pick to the Utah Jazz the Nuggets made a severe mistake, meanwhile the Jazz got an All-star type of player.

In every Jazz’s game Mitchell demonstrates his ability to score from all the spots and his incredible athleticism around the rim makes him dominant. One of the most important parts of his game is “decision-making ability as a pick-and-roll ball-handler – something that doesn’t always come quickly for young players” (Colin Ward-Henninger).

To sum up, without any doubts Donovan Mitchell is going to be a superstar of the Utah Jazz for years to come.

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3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

While other top rookies are trying to get their teams in playoffs Jayson Tatum is the only from our list who plays in a championship contender team. In 2017 NBA Draft the Boston Celtics picked Tatum with an intention that he would be a reliable small-forward who plays from the the bench with the second unit.

But after a severe Gordon Hayward’s injury in the first game of the season the Celtics coach Brad Stevens had no choice but to put Jason Tatum into the starting lineup. At Duke university Tatum lacked defensive intensity but had no problem in adjusting to Brad Stevens’ high demanding defensive system.

Speaking about his offensive abilities – still at only 20 years of age Tatum is one of the best three-point shooters in the league with 43 percent. At free-throw line he demonstrates high 82 percentage. As a small forward Tatum is a good ball handler and has no problems with finishing at the rim.

He’s averaging almost 14 points – it is the lowest average among the top rookies, but on the other hand it is very solid number knowing that he plays alongside All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. So far Jayson Tatum is not a great ball distributor – just 1.5 assists per game.

Speaking about Tatum’s possibility to win the Rookie of the Year Award – he can get the trophy under two conditions: firstly, he must increase his assists number, secondly, the Celtics must reach the first or at least the second place in the Eastern Conference.

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4. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers

Kyle Kuzma is one of the oldest players of the first round selection and at the same time one the most undervalued players of the 2017-2018 NBA Draft. The 22-year-old rookie was selected no. 27 by the Los Angeles Lakers with an intention to be the bench player most of the season. All the attention was concentrated on the other Lakers’ rookie-star Lonzo Ball who was picked no. 2.

But beginning of the season showed that Kuzma’s doubters have stumbled – he is a way better player than many expected. He is not only more steady player than his teammate Lonzo Ball but could easily stand in one line with newcomers who are top scorers in their teams, including Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons – players who were taken before him.

As a debutant Kyle Kuzma shows solid numbers – 16 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2 assists and three-point percentage of 37. Seeing these numbers and his maturity on the court the question then arises, “Why was Kuzma selected almost at the bottom of the first round?”.

According to NBA executives and experts who studied his career at the University of Utah, “he just didn’t make much of an impact in 96 college games” (Mitch Lawrence). Nevertheless in his early stage of his career Kyle Kuzma is showing that he has a big future in the NBA and can be not only a starter, but even the leader of the Los Angels Lakers in the years to come.