Forecasting NBA Rookie of the Year Candidates

Left to right: Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Donovan Mitchell, Josh Jackson   Photos courtesy of NBA.com, The Salt Lake Tribune, & sportingnews.com

Left to right: Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Donovan Mitchell, Josh Jackson 

Photos courtesy of NBA.com, The Salt Lake Tribune, & sportingnews.com

By: Ryan Aceman

Many claims have been made about the apparent depth of the 2017 draft class, following perhaps the most hyped Summer League in NBA history.

Future Hall-of-Famer Dwyane Wade compared this year to his own draft in 2003, which also featured LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony. But outside of the top five, the 2003 draft class is not overly impressive. 2017's could turn out to be much deeper.

Featuring a handful of franchise changing point guards, versatile two-way wing players, and multitalented big men, this year’s group of draftees has a chance to be one of the best in recent memory.

Let’s take a look at some of the candidates to take home the NBA's Rookie of the Year (ROY) award, based on a combination of ability and opportunity with their new teams.

For example, although there's no doubt Jayson Tatum will be one of the best players drafted in the long run, I don’t think he’ll get enough touches/playing time in his rookie campaign to accumulate the stats to win the award. It's rare that a player of his calibre is drafted to an already-elite team, so his production could be held back solely based on his situation. 

Lonzo Ball, PG, Los Angeles Lakers

Ball has been given the keys to the Lakers’ franchise right out of the gate, and his contagious unselfishness should reinvigorate a franchise that’s been one of the league’s bottom feeders over the last handful of seasons. He's one of the best passers to enter the NBA in some time, and his best trait is making those around him better. 

Ball was arguably the best player in Summer League, taking home tournament MVP, averaging 16.3 points, 9.3 assists and 7.7 rebounds per game. While Ball's mere presence may not translate into a playoff spot in year one as predicted by his father, the Lakers will be fun to watch, and Ball will have a chance to rack up big numbers.

Watch Ball drop 36, 11 and eight in front of King James at Summer League: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTjP0C0RetM

Ben Simmons, PG/F, Philadelphia 76ers

Last year, the 76ers had two strong contenders for Rookie of the Year (Joel Embiid and Dario Saric). This year will be no different. Both Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz will have a chance to earn ROY honours – Simmons, who was selected first overall in 2016 out of LSU, missed his true rookie season with a broken foot.

The versatile, athletic and intelligent Simmons should be able to showcase his playmaking skills from the point guard spot should he be deployed there. He was one of my favourites to win the award last year before his injury, so it’s only right that we include him on this year’s list. He has rare vision and touch for a guy with power forward size, and could soon blossom into one of the NBA’s top young players.

Ben sees the floor in a way most guards can’t, and has ways of opening up passing lanes and finding the open [man] that are strikingly similar to LeBron James.
— https://thesixersense.com/2017/07/07/philadelphia-76ers-ben-simmons-passing-elite/

Check out Simmons stellar all-around play from last year’s Summer League: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cu9WVDHPpdg

Markelle Fultz, PG/SG, Philadelphia 76ers

After suffering an ankle injury that held him out of several Summer League games, some analysts and fans seem to have forgotten about Fultz. Let us remind you, he was the first overall pick for a reason. Fultz is a silky smooth, dynamic and long combo guard with great size (6’5 and nearly a 6’10 wingspan) to make an immediate impact.

I also think he’s the most polished freshman guard to enter the NBA since Kyrie Irving. He was the first player in over two decades to average 23 points, five rebounds and five assists per game in college – and he accomplished that as an 18-year old. Playing alongside Ben Simmons in the backcourt, Fultz should have lots of chances to score and distribute in high volume, as the 76ers continue processing.

Watch highlights from one of Fultz’ well-rounded (23, five and five) Summer League games: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kRIxwa9m7cE

Dennis Smith, Jr., PG, Dallas Mavericks

Smith Jr. is already one of the most explosive players in the NBA, and should be put in a position to succeed as the primary ball handler for a rebuilding Mavericks team. After a strong showing in the Summer showcase (17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.2 steals per game), Smith is turning heads with his combination of elite athleticism and high-level decision making. He's an absolute freak athlete and also possesses a sound perimeter game. 

It’s reasonable to expect a steep learning curve adjusting to the pace and 82-game schedule of national travel in the NBA, but this is the same for all rookies. Smith Jr. has beast written all over him. NBA Champion, Finals MVP, and 5-time All-Star Chauncey Billups had high praise for the NC State product: 

... I love him. I think he’s got the potential to be the rookie of the year in the league this year. I think he’s the most polished out of all the point guards that were out there this year.
— https://clutchpoints.com/chauncey-billups-says-dennis-smith-jr-potential-rookie-year/

Watch highlights from one of Smith Jr.’s best Summer League games: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nR71zrXRTmg

Josh Jackson, SF, Phoenix Suns

Jackson is a long, athletic, defensive stopper who with some minor tweaks to his offensive game can develop into a two-way star. With a cast of youth leading the way in Phoenix like many teams in discussion here, Jackson will have a chance to be a major contributor for the Suns and possibly be crowned the NBA’s top rookie.

Watch Jackson put up a monstrous 21 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks vs. Utah in Summer League: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Iw_vzflw0U

De’Aaron Fox, PG, Sacramento Kings

Fox is arguably the fastest player to enter the NBA since John Wall, and his explosiveness on both sides of the ball make him a player to watch for years to come. He's an elite defender and finisher on the fast break, and knows how to get his teammates involved.

While the Kings are best known as being a wasteland for young players, pairing Fox plus other prospects with savvy veterans George Hill, Zach Randolph, and Vince Carter could make the transition to the NBA a bit easier. Fox should be one of the King’s starters on opening day, and they desperately need his skill and athleticism.

Watch Fox drop 18 points and come away with five steals vs. Phoenix in Summer League: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DT8yufjUUY

Darkhorse Pick: Donovan Mitchell, PG, Utah Jazz

The 2017 13th overall pick had an eye-opening Summer League, displaying an ability to score in a variety of unique ways, play stout defense, and handle the ball under pressure. Albeit, this was against subpar competition, and real NBA games will be the true test of Mitchell's ability... But few people expected Mitchell to be as dynamic and impactful as he was even at this level. 

With Gordon Hayward out of the picture, Mitchell could be asked to serve a fairly substantial offensive role for Utah. Probably not a favourite to take home ROY, but he is someone who could surprise people by putting his name in the discussion with strong play.

Watch Mitchell’s 37 point and EIGHT steal explosion from Summer league: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pycn-KXAcSo


While this year's draft class is stacked with talent, only one player can take home Rookie of the Year. Who will it be? Time will tell, however the number of elite prospects entering the NBA should be exciting for NBA fans, owners and coaches alike. Many of these guys are projected to develop into star players, and the future of the league appears very promising.

Honorable mention: Jayson Tatum, Bam Adebayo, Lauri Markkanen, Malik Monk, Caleb Swanigan