For those concerned with personal well-being, there were easier jobs in 2014 than being an NBA rookie. There was Joel Embiid’s foot, Aaron Gordon’s foot, Jabari Parker’s knee, Julius Randle’s leg, and Marcus Smart’s ankle—and those were just the ailments of the top seven picks. The only survivors of that high-lottery bloodbath were Dante Exum, who tore his ACL in August with the Australian national team, incidentally, and Andrew Wiggins, who managed to play all 82 games and went on to win Rookie of the Year.
Winning the award takes some luck, but handicapping the race falls largely on identifying the right blend of talent and opportunity. Last season, Wiggins benefited from a high volume of looks on a bad team in desperate need of a wing scorer, and on a broader level, a savior to stake its future on. Similarly, though it’s been somewhat forgotten, Michael Carter-Williams was also a recipient of heavy touches who won the award as a member of the Sixers in 2014.
Out of the 10 award-winners before Carter-Williams, all but two have made at least one All-Star game, the exceptions being Emeka Okafor, who legitimately beat out Dwight Howard in 2005, and Tyreke Evans, who only had to fight Kevin Martin for shots and became Sacramento’s leading scorer right away. The rest of that list is a who’s who of today’s league: LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, Kyrie Irving, and Damian Lillard (the last member is Brandon Roy, whose career was cut far too short due to injuries). It goes without saying that all were blue-chip talents stepping into major roles.
Taking that a step further, since the NBA’s two-round draft format was instituted in 1989, no player selected outside the lottery has ever won the award. In the modern era, only Mark Jackson (18th overall in ‘87) completed that feat. Before him, only three non-top 14 selections had won the honors, including the first-ever winner, Don “Monk” Meineke in 1953. So, setting the field of contenders, despite some interesting players that fell out of the lottery, is fairly predictable. With the history and variables in mind, here’s how SI.com breaks down the race.
So you’re saying there’s a chance
There are two major factors working against Cauley-Stein: his offensive skill level isn’t quite up to NBA speed, and it’s anyone’s guess what Sacramento’s rotation will look like. It’s a prerequisite to score points to win the award—the lowest mark for a winner since 2000 is Mike Miller with 11.9 points in 2001, and Cauley-Stein peaked in college with 8.9 per game last season at Kentucky. His scoring around the basket off of rebounds and assists should eventually translate, but the volume of looks may not be there yet. There’s a scenario where they unleash him defensively as cover for DeMarcus Cousins and he logs enough time to make a case, but he’ll have to earn that trust in the midst of an unpredictable situation in Sacramento. Plus, that’s a role off-season addition Kosta Koufos already plays.
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If the Knicks truly stand by their long-term plan, Porzingis will play enough minutes and have the opportunity to make an impact as a rookie. Whether he’s ready or not is a different question, but given the years he spent in Liga ACB in Spain as a teenager, Porzingis isn’t quite as wide-eyed as some would think. Regardless, he’s probably not prepared for the full workload needed to win the award, not to mention that the team around him has yet to prove itself functional.
Hezonja enters with a reputation as a bit of a hot-head, but he’s as strong a combination of experience and talent as there is in this class, and there should be playing time to go around in Orlando. He’ll have playmakers to blend with in Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo and will be needed to shoot and space the floor. But with a coach in Scott Skiles who’s new to the team, looking to establish a culture, and stakes his name to defense and discipline, Hezonja must make sure he can stay on the floor and on his boss’s good side, first and foremost.
Justise Winslow, Heat
It’s unclear what type of role he’ll play on a veteran team in a playoffs-or-bust situation, but Winslow is physically ready and likely a motivated man after falling to the No. 10 pick. He’s not much of a shooter but could see time as a defensive-oriented reserve offering Miami lineup flexibility. If Winslow makes the most of those opportunities, a strong debut could be in order, but it could take an injury or two for him to get the minutes needed to play himself into the award conversation.
Johnson had a strong summer league showing and should be ticketed for minutes early on in Detroit. He’s a key piece of their rebuild and it’s not crazy to think he could be a starter by the end of the season. Johnson will do a bit of everything—he even filled in at point guard in practice last week after some Pistons injuries—and should get all the work he can handle. His talent plus the opportunity places him firmly in the preseason mix for the award, perhaps even ahead of tier-mates Russell and Towns.
D’Angelo Russell, Lakers
The Lakers believed in Russell enough to take him at No. 2, and then they went and signed Lou Williams to create a strange mix of possession-eating guards that include Kobe Bryant and Nick Young, a combination that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense on a personnel level. Jordan Clarkson, a breakout rookie himself last season, will also need to be in the mix. L.A. could and probably should play a lot of three-guard lineups, but even then, it doesn’t guarantee shots for Russell. Expect assists and an altogether positive impact from the lefty playmaker, but in a developmental year, his scoring could take a bit of a backseat and hurt his chances at taking home the honors.
Towns will play a lot, has the chops to chip in early, and steps into a favorable situation in Minnesota, where another player will need to take some of the load off Wiggins and where the youth will be empowered to play aggressively. His back-to-the-basket skills may not be there quite yet, but Towns has some versatility on offense and will benefit from guards that should understand how to get him the ball in Ricky Rubio, Andre Miller, and fellow rookie Tyus Jones. He’s not a finished product, but Minneapolis doesn’t need him to be just yet. If he’s further along than expected, he should be in this conversation.
The clubhouse leaders
In wake of the Ty Lawson deal, Mudiay has the starting job all to himself and the size, quickness, and skill to make the Nuggets exciting this year. He’ll have the ball in his hands and be tasked with scoring and distributing to a decent group of role players. Sometimes the keys to the offense is all it takes for an elite rookie talent to put together a statistical statement. Considering what Carter-Williams did two years ago (16.7 points, 6.3 assists, 40% shooting), that territory could be within Mudiay’s reach, although he’s not the same type of rebounder or defender. Either way, by the end of the year, the odds are teams will regret passing on him whether he wins the award or not.
The Sixers are going to be bad again, and someone is going to have to put the ball in the basket. All signs point to that person being Okafor, the most consistent scorer in the draft, who will be able to put up numbers from the low block right away. Playing for a good team isn’t a prerequisite to win the award, and as long as he handles the heavy workload and rigors of the full season, Okafor has an inside track. He’s inevitably going to get double-teamed, and there’s a good chance he shoots closer to 40% than 50% as a result, but he’s dealt with heavy attention his entire life. The points and rebounds should be there regardless, and noone will be surprised to see that trophy on Okafor’s mantle come July.