NBA Rookie of the Year: Karl-Anthony Towns still paces race at midseason
We’re more than halfway through the season, the landscape of the league is more or less apparent, and as I sat down to type this out, Kristaps Porzingis appeared out of nowhere and jammed a putback over Serge Ibaka at Madison Square Garden. It’s been that kind of year for the 2015 rookie class as a whole, which has enjoyed some type of karmic assist from their injury-riddled sophomore predecessors and largely exceeded expectations.
Nearly four months ago, I tried to handicap the Rookie of the Year race. Despite the greatest and most logical of intentions, those predictions were, predictably, not infallible. So let’s revisit that exercise.
We bid farewell to Willie Cauley-Stein and Mario Hezonja, the former showing flashes but limited by injury in Sacramento, and the latter lacking opportunity thus far in a sound Orlando rotation. Let’s also note that Frank Kaminsky has started answering questions about his fit in Charlotte, that Brooklyn’s Rondae Hollis-Jefferson looked viable before injury, and that Larry Nance Jr. has often been the Lakers’ top rookie. Devin Booker’s already a useful shooter for Phoenix, Trey Lyles has gotten important minutes in Utah, and Myles Turner has just begun to come on for Indiana.
Below you’ll find the preseason and midseason take for each player. It’s certainly a great-looking class—and next year’s group will pale in comparison—so prepare to appreciate these guys for a little while.
Missing the mark
D’Angelo Russell, Lakers
Stats: 12.2 points/3.3 assists/3.6 rebounds
What we said: “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…”
This turned out to be pretty accurate, although the “positive impact” part is still hard to fully quantify because the Lakers have been such a wreck. What we didn’t predict was Byron Scott jerking him in and out of the lineup, benching him, and otherwise playing the “how can I possibly screw up my prized rookie’s career arc” game right off the bat. That said, Russell was also the victim of inflated expectations. He may never become the superstar he was tagged as, but there’s a nice player in there. Give him some time.
Stats: 11 points/5.7 assists/3.7 turnovers
What we said: “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.”
I’m still very much behind Mudiay’s talent and outlook, but he is still figuring things out after returning from injury. High turnovers are a common affliction for rookie point guards, and what we should have accounted for was an adjustment to the speed of the game, given that he came straight from the Chinese League. The shooting struggles also aren’t a surprise, as his unique strengths will always be his slashing and playmaking. Mudiay’s future remains bright nonetheless. It’s worth noting how well fellow rookie Nikola Jokic has played, too.
Stats: 5.7 points/3.7 rebounds/61.5% shooting (8.5 minutes per game)
What we said: We didn’t.
This guy. Man.
Boban Marjanovic has become a sensation for his garbage-time performances, standing 7’3” with savvy, skills, and surprising athleticism. Since the 27-year-old was drafted by the Spurs out of Europe, it was reasonable to guess he’d be good. But still.
Stats: 8.2 points/3.9 rebounds/1.4 assists
What we said: “His talent plus the opportunity places him firmly in the preseason mix for the award…”
It’s been a good start to Johnson’s career, and the Pistons have taken a step forward and been a nice, competitive surprise. That said, it’s kind of frustrating to see him playing just 22 minutes per game when the illustrious Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Marcus Morris remain in the league’s Top 10 in minutes played.
He’s shot the ball well from a couple of spots, but done most of his work from three, and he’s an increased role and extra work away from showing exactly how he profiles offensively. Still, we were a little too bullish here.
The defensive ace
Stats: 5.5 points/4.7 rebounds/97.1 defensive rating (team points allowed per 100 possessions while on court)
What we said: “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.”
Very on-point, if I say so myself. I’d venture we’ve gotten close to Winslow’s best-case scenario. He’s very much a non-shooter, and spends most of his time hiding in the corner on offense, but the defense? Way, way better than we thought. He’s already doing good work on opponents’ top wing players, with good strength and instincts making up for what he lacks in size. It’s tough to assess if his impressive defensive rating is more a result of playing against bench units or the Heat’s team defense—probably some of both—but he passes the eye test and has star potential if he figures out, you know, how to score in the halfcourt.
If only his team was better
Jahlil Okafor, Sixers
Stats: 17.4 points/7.3 rebounds/1.1 blocks
What we said: 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.
Four years spent scouting Okafor as a prep player in Chicago paid off: it was never a secret where he’d make his money, what his struggles would be, or how bad the Sixers are. He was the front-runner for the award and would have a great case most years if not for how impressive the other two guys ahead of him have been and the futility of his team. He leads the class with a 27.6% usage rate, but also holds the lowest net rating (-15.7). He’s already among the league’s most efficient post-up guys. Now we’ll see where he fits in a highly-amorphous rebuild.
Stats: 14 points/7.8 rebounds/2.0 blocks
What we said: “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.”
I would like to think I correctly predicted the Porzingis phenomenon, but alas. Porzingis is already a burgeoning star who does just about everything well, and he’s not yet 21 years old. Porzingis has been written about at length (including this profile from SI’s Lee Jenkins), hit with every superlative, and won over Knicks fans to hyperbolic degrees, so we don’t need to mince any more words. But if we re-drafted the entire class, he’d have a real case to go first. If the Knicks make a stealth run into the playoffs, Kristaps has a real shot at the award.
Stats: 16.1 points/9.7 rebounds/1.8 blocks
What we said: “Towns will play a lot, has the chops to chip in early and steps into a favorable situation...another player will need to take some of the load off Wiggins…[their] 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.”
Speaking of Wiggins, Towns is already Minnesota’s best prospect and player, so let’s move forward accordingly. I completely underestimated Towns’s skill level and maturity, and it’s funny to imagine what might have happened last year at Kentucky if they’d played him more than 21 minutes per game. If you had to built out what the modern center should look like, his skillset would be a similar amalgam to Towns, who’s learning impressively on the fly and will probably win this award. Less certain is the future of his team, who now have Towns as a likely star, Andrew Wiggins as a guy with a definite chance, and a bunch of parts with unclear fits in their future plans.