The NBA offseason melee is finally over. The draft is history, Summer League is in the books, and now we can start to dream about this rookie class and what all the new reconstructed NBA rosters will look like. And that means we can begin thinking about Zion Williamson as Rookie of the Year, too. But will he win the award?
What do we know about recent Rookie of the Year selections?
We know that the award is pretty predictable – it simply goes to the guy with the best counting stats. Narrative helps if it’s close, but the media just gives Rookie of the Year to the player with lots of points, rebounds, and assists. If you look back at the last 16 NBA seasons, all but one Rookie of the Year scored at least 15 points a game. The lone exception was Malcolm Brogdon in a weak 2017 class when he stole Joel Embiid’s award. And it’s not just points. In 13 of those 16 seasons, the Rookie of the Year had at least 8 rebounds and assists combined. Brogdon was an exception there too, along with Andrew Wiggins and Kevin Durant.
The typical Rookie of the Year since LeBron James won it 16 years ago averages 17.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 4.9 assists a game. So we need a rookie that can fill up the box score with a little bit of everything. Voters don’t typically seem to care much about shooting efficiency or defense or even winning with Rookie of the Year. Just get the numbers, stupid.
Zion is the favorite, of course, but will he win it? Let’s look at Zion’s odds along with eight other contenders for the 2019–20 Rookie of the Year, with odds from Bovada.
Zion Williamson, New Orleans -135
Yes, Zion Williamson is the favorite. And he is a massive favorite, at -135 odds, an implied probability of 57.4% chance of Zion winning Rookie of the Year. Heck, Bovada even offers MVP odds for Williamson, if you’re bold (read: dumb) enough. He currently comes in at +10000, even odds with Detroit’s Blake Griffin. Zion’s not going to win MVP… not this year, at least. But is he worth your bet at cost to be the next Rookie of the Year?
You may want to save your money. New Orleans is actually one of the deepest rosters in the NBA, as far as playable bodies. Zion will probably start next to Derrick Favors, but fellow rookie Jaxson Hayes will play and so will new international signing Nicolo Melli, plus Brandon Ingram might steal some minutes at the four. New Orleans GM David Griffin has preached patience with Zion. Look at Summer League – Williamson played one quarter of ball, bumped his knee, then sat the rest of the summer. He’s already withdrawn from a Team USA invitation too.
Expect Griffin to be overly cautious with Zion all year. Think something in the 25- to 28-minute range, and watch for some load management too as Williamson gets into better shape and sits a little more than needed when he picks up a nick here and there. Zion averaged 22.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 2.1 assists in 30 minutes a game at Duke. He’s not going to overwhelm with counting numbers. It’s the steals and the blocks, the shooting efficiency, and the insane highlights that get you with Zion. Those numbers should slip a bit with fewer minutes and fewer easy buckets against NBA talent. If Zion puts up 18/8/2 and misses 20 games, is he really the Rookie of the Year?
And the answer is…. yeah, maybe. He’ll still be on SportsCenter every night, and he’ll still have all the media hype and the narrative. He might win. And he deserves to be the favorite. But are you sure you want to bet Zion against the field when you’re giving odds? Let’s take a look at our other options…
De’Andre Hunter, Atlanta +2500
Hunter was one of two wings selected by the Hawks in the first round of this year’s draft, joining Duke’s Cam Reddish. Hunter was the higher pick as Atlanta traded up for him at #4, giving up four picks to move up for the national champion from Virginia. Hunter is polished and excellent defensively and should have the clearer path to playing time between the two, and Bovada agrees, setting Reddish’s line at +5000, twice as unlikely to win Rookie of the Year.
But Hunter seems quite unlikely all on his own. Atlanta may have plenty of playing time for Hunter, but there aren’t as many shots. Trae Young will hoist plenty, and Kevin Huerter and John Collins will get a lot of shots up too. If anything, the whole point of De’Andre Hunter is to balance the Hawks lineup by taking fewer, more efficient shots and playing lots of defense and team basketball. That’s good for the wins column but not so sexy in a Rookie of the Year race. Don’t be surprised if Reddish has the better stat line this season, but neither of them has any real chance at ROY.
Jarrett Culver, Minnesota +2500
Culver is very good, and his mature game and defensive abilities should put him in line for playing time early for Minnesota. But it’s hard to map out a road to Rookie of the Year. Karl-Anthony Towns is the man for the Wolves, and he should have a monster year. Andrew Wiggins is not the man anymore but doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere anytime soon, and Wiggins may not be efficient but he puts up a ton of shots and points. With KAT and Wiggins around, there’s not a ton of numbers left for Culver.
Culver also has to fight Robert Covington, Josh Okogie, and Jake Layman for playing time (along with Wiggins), and he doesn’t really have a game that translates to big numbers. He may have a nice rookie season, but he’s not going to win Rookie of the Year.
Rui Hachimura, Washington +2500
Unlike many of the other rookies on this list, Rui Hachimura should have no hurdles to his playing time. The Wizards are in terrible shape and lack talent badly outside of Bradley Beal, with John Wall expected to miss most or all of the season. Washington shouldn’t be in the playoff hunt for long, and Beal may not last the season either if he gets traded.
The Wizards brought in veterans like C.J. Miles, Davis Bertans, Ish Smith, and Isaiah Thomas, but when this season goes south – and it’s definitely when, and not if – those aren’t the guys they’ll want getting the touches. It will be Hachimura and last year’s pick Troy Brown. Hachimura is a natural scorer and could easily average 15+ points a game. If Beal is traded early enough, he could even approach 20 or more over a closing stretch of the season.
Hachimura’s numbers probably won’t be super efficient, and he’s not going to do much on defense or in passing, and his numbers won’t come in meaningful time. Still, something like 18 points and 8 rebounds could be in play, plus Hachimura is the first-ever Japanese-born first-round pick, so he has some narrative in his favor too. Can he win the entire award? That might need some help from the three favorites ahead of him too, but he’s a decent long shot.
Coby White, Chicago +1800
It’s always difficult for rookie point guards to succeed in the NBA, but it’s less difficult for them to put up big numbers in a losing effort and find their way into the Rookie of the Year race. That’s the path for Coby White this season. Even in a weak East, the Bulls will likely be on the outside of the playoff race with all of their youngsters. Chicago could turn the keys over to their spark plug rookie point guard and let him run.
Of course, that may take some time. Bulls coach Jim Boylen isn’t exactly known for playing up pace, and White probably won’t even start, at least early in the year, with the newly signed Tomas Satoransky getting the nod. Add in plenty of shots for Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen plus empty numbers on a bad Bulls team, and it’s hard to see Coby White finding the right numbers or narrative to build a real ROY case.
Michael Porter Jr., Denver +1800
Porter will be many bettor’s favorite sleeper as the forgotten rookie, going in the 2018 lottery before sitting out a year injured. We’ve still yet to see him play any NBA ball, even at Summer League, as Porter sat out last summer and then suffered a minor injury on the eve of summer play this year. Still, MPJ was one of the top recruits out of high school and brings a long body and a sweet shot that could quickly translate to playing time and scoring if he can stay healthy.
The problem is the team. The Denver Nuggets are just too darn good to give Michael Porter Jr. enough minutes to put up Rookie of the Year numbers. Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic aren’t going anywhere from the starting lineup. Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee will take all the bench big men minutes, while Monte Morris and Malik Beasley might be the best bench backcourt in the league.
Could Porter take the starting small forward job? Maybe. He’d have to beat out Will Barton and Torrey Craig, and that seems plausible enough. But even if he does, he’ll cede plenty of rotation minutes to the duo, and he probably won’t get much chance this year to play the four, where he might fit best long term. That may come a year from now with both Millsap and Grant impending free agents, but that doesn’t do us much good betting ROY right now. Porter just doesn’t have a path to the shots or narrative to stay in this race. Expect Denver to bring him along slowly and let him find his way.
Darius Garland, Cleveland +1600
It’s unclear for now what Cleveland’s guard rotation will look like. The Cavs said in the draft that they expect to play Garland together with last year’s top 10 pick Collin Sexton, despite both of them being point guards by trade, comparing them to Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in Portland. If that’s the case, Garland will probably be McCollum in this case, as the better shooter and more valuable off ballplayer.
Regardless of the guard rotation, Cleveland’s offense will run through Kevin Love for the time being. We can also expect a more egalitarian offense with John Beilein running the show, so more shared ball for everyone. That’s good for team ball but less so for numbers. Garland may also not walk into a starting job, since Jordan Clarkson could block his path, and fellow rookie Kevin Porter Jr. will be vying for playing time and time on the ball too. There’s a path here to big numbers, but they’ll come for a pretty bad team and there might be too many young mouths to feed in Cleveland. It feels like it could take an injury to open up a path for Garland to seriously contend for ROY.
Ja Morant, Memphis +300
If Zion Williamson doesn’t win Rookie of the Year, then Ja Morant or R.J. Barrett appear to be next in line for the award. Morant is bettors’ second choice after Zion, and he was the #2 pick in the draft, too. He joins Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke in a super talented young trio that should lead the Grizzlies for years to come.
Morant should be a starter from day one. The Grizzlies added young point guards Tyus Jones and De’Anthony Melton over the summer too, but this is Morant’s team and he should get the keys from the get-go. That should mean an opportunity for big-time numbers. Morant averaged 24.5 points, 10.0 assists, and 5.7 assists at Murray State and was good for plenty of highlights too. His passing ability should translate immediately at an NBA level, and his athleticism will get him some easy buckets, though teams will surely force him to prove the shot early on. Expect a season similar to Trae Young’s a year ago; a rough start over the first half with some ugly shooting lines and plenty of turnovers, then a strong finish with teams overlooking Memphis while Morant catches up to game speed and puts up some big second-half numbers.
In some years, that could be enough for Rookie of the Year. It was almost enough last year for Trae Young, even with an outstanding all-around season from Luka Doncic. This was a weak overall rookie class, and a strong finish and a bunch of 20/10 games from Morant will push him into contention. His +300 odds look about right, though you might be able to get longer odds later if he starts the season slow as most rookie point guards do.
R.J. Barrett, New York +550
The Knicks are going to be bad, and R.J. Barrett is certain to go through his ups and downs. But he has a very real shot at winning Rookie of the Year. The path is very easy for Barrett. First of all, he’s going to get the playing time. Barrett should be a lock to start as many games as he can play since his only real competition on the wing is Kevin Knox and Allonzo Trier. Even better, he’s likely going to have the ball in his hands A LOT. The Knicks don’t exactly have a point guard worth having the ball. Elfrid Payton was signed and will likely start, and Dennis Smith Jr. is still around to get some time, but this is a roster that looks set to put the ball in Barrett’s hands a lot.
That’s going to make for ugly basketball at times with a 19-year-old making decisions, but it’s also going to give Barrett a ton of opportunities for numbers. He’s going to take a lot of shots. Some of them will go in. He’s also an excellent rebounder for his position, so those numbers will be there. And with the ball in his hands so much, that should leave plenty of playmaking opportunities. Barrett’s passing and decision making may be his swing skill in the NBA. When he played a de facto point guard and ran the offense both at Duke and at Summer League, Barrett put up big assist numbers. He nearly had a triple-double in the Summer League finale, and he’ll likely record multiple triple-doubles his rookie season. Barrett has a good chance to lead the Knicks in points and assists. Don’t be shocked if he puts up a line something like 17 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists a game – maybe even higher. Those numbers will put him in the conversation, even if they’re inefficient and backed by hoards of turnovers.
There’s one more thing in Barrett’s favor: the possible narrative. Like many others on the list, Barrett’s numbers will probably be empty, playing for a lottery-bound losing team. But his will happen in Madison Square Garden, and the media always gets on board with a Knicks story. The team will too. New York needs any win it can get. If Barrett is even remotely in the Rookie of the Year race, the Knicks might put their whole season into winning him the award. And who does Barrett have to beat to steal it? Why, his old teammate from Duke, Zion Williamson, the very one that out-hyped him and got drafted before him! Can you see the narrative building? It’s out there.
Will R.J. Barrett be the best rookie from the 2019 class?
That’s an article for another day and an entirely different question. But could he win 2019–20 Rookie of the Year? That looks very much in play, and at +550 odds, he’s the best bet on the board.
Long shot ROY odds from Bovada:
Cam Reddish, Bol Bol, Tyler Herro, Mfiondu Kabengele +5000
Jaxson Hayes +5500
P.J. Washington, Keldon Johnson, Nickeil Alexander-Walker +10000
(written by Brandon Anderson)