With the NBA Draft and summer-league games having come and gone, much of the offseason attention has involved the potential of incoming rookies. In the build up to the draft, scouts were quick to shower praise on some of next season's rising stars with No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns leading the way, along with D'Angelo Russell, Jahlil Okafor and the highly contentious Kristaps Porzingis also gaining traction. All are considered to have high ceilings as they enter their first year in the league.
But there can be only one Rookie of the Year, and each season there’s only a handful of candidates who are expected to make a serious run at one of the NBA’s most prestigious individual honors. A top contender for the award not only has to withstand the heavy travel strain that goes along with an 82-game season, but also needs to get playing time to showcase his skills.
That was certainly the case with last season’s winner Andrew Wiggins. The Minnesota Timberwolves forward joined a young, rebuilding roster in desperate need of scoring after the departure of Kevin Love. Wiggins led all rookies in points (16.9) and minutes (36.2) to win four out of the six Western Conference Rookie of the Month awards.
Wiggins would run away with the ROY honors last season, but this year's field should be more competitive. Here are the five candidates with an early head start on winning the award.
Karl-Anthony Towns, PF/C, Minnesota Timberwolves
The No. 1 overall pick is often the favorite for ROY honors, but Towns will need to improve on his freshman year at Kentucky. The versatile 6-foot-10 big man has all the tools necessary to succeed in the league right away. He has excellent range on his still-improving jump shot, and already has the body to bang down low for rebounds and defend other big men. Over five Las Vegas Summer League games, Towns put up 12.8 points and snagged 7.2 rebounds with 2.0 assists and 1.8 blocks per game -- all with a huge target on his back. Players hoping to earn a contract went at Towns strong, thinking any success against the best player in the draft class would boost their stock in the eyes of general managers and coaches.
Wiggins' growth may be Towns' biggest obstacle to win ROY. Last year’s top overall selection fully planted himself as the team’s go-to scorer and franchise cornerstone, and Wiggins is expected to put up most of the shots next season, leaving Towns to own the glass. Also, only three times in league history has a team possessed back-to-back ROYs and it was more than four decades ago. Bob McAdoo and Ernie DiGregorio took the award for the Buffalo Braves in 1973 and 1974, respectively. Prior to their wins, Geoff Petrie (1971) and Sidney Wicks (1972) won with the Portland Trail Blazers, and after the Baltimore Bullets’ Earl Monroe (1968) and Wes Unseld (1969).
Jahlil Okafor, C, Philadelphia 76ers
Sixers fans are still lamenting the questionable status of 7-footer Joel Embiid, but his season-ending foot injury may open the door for Okafor to rule Philadelphia’s inside game. Okafor's defense at Duke was panned by scouts, but with Embiid out and Nerlens Noel coming off a somewhat low-scoring rookie season (9.9 ppg), Okafor could get plenty of touches in the paint in 2015-2016.
Okafor has plenty of post moves, a long wingspan to get offensive rebounds and strong basketball instincts to score on broken plays. Those abilities can take him far next season in the Eastern Conference, which is devoid of elite big men.
According to chart below, four of the Sixers top five leading scorers worked out of the backcourt, which can open up doors for Okafor.
Emmanuel Mudiay, PG, Denver Nuggets
Another guy who benefits from unfortunate events is Mudiay. Former Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson was on the trading block leading up to the draft, but nothing materialized until he was busted for a DUI for the second time in less than six months. Now he’s in Houston, and the offense-loaded Nuggets are in need of a new floor general.
Enter the explosive and raw Mudiay. He has the total package for a point guard in today’s league, though he has to work on his outside shot. He shot only 38.5 percent from the field, but over four Summer League games he put up 12 points and 5.8 assists with 1.3 steals in 30.5 minutes. He showed lightning speed with and without the ball, while demonstrating good handles, court vision and got teammates involved rather than looking for his own shot. Mudiay will likely play with a chip on his shoulder after he was projected to go as high as No. 2 in the draft, but slipped to No. 7.
Myles Turner, C, Indiana Pacers
How does a 6'11 big man with a solid outside shot, excellent shot-blocking skills and plenty of athleticism drop to No. 11 in the draft? It’s possible the Pacers and the rest of the league will look back and wonder why Turner wasn't drafted higher.
Right now it seems reasonable for why Turner went so low. First and for most, while he has the height to rebound he only averaged 6.9 boards a game for Texas, and started only seven games. With size often ruling the college game, Turner didn’t show the type of aggressiveness necessary on the glass. But he is only 19, and will have the chance to excel in Indiana. He already flashed his upside with 18.7 points and 8.3 boards in Summer League.
The Pacers parted ways with center Roy Hibbert, and Turner’s main competition for starting duties are fellow rookie Shayne Whittington, who played 5.4 minutes in the development league last season, and French 7-footer Ian Mahinimi, a seven year veteran with 21 total stars in his career. Former Lakers power forward Jordan Hill could start over Turner if Frank Vogel decides to play a small lineup, but it's doubtful the Pacers keep their prized rookie on the bench for too long.
Stanley Johnson, SF, Detroit Pistons
The only wing on this list, Johnson has plenty of athleticism and skill. He can score from anywhere on the court, and showed at Arizona that he can be a serious defensive presence and a surprisingly effective rebounder.
Johnson’s a worker who could win head coach Stan Van Gundy’s approval right away with his scoring, after putting up 16.2 points per game on 57.7 percent shooting this summer. He wasn't scared to penetrate and did a good job of stepping into the passing lanes. The Pistons aren't exactly loaded with talent, and are somewhat thin at small forward and shooting guard. It's possible that Johnson will be called upon for extra minutes if players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Danny Granger struggle.
With the Pistons expected to miss the postseason, Van Gundy may be wise to play Johnson at least 20 minutes a game to let him develop. Johnson is a long-shot candidate to win ROY, but don't be surprised if he at least turns some heads next season.