When Philadelphia 76ers prodigy Ben Simmons broke his foot last Friday, the 2016-17 NBA Rookie of the Year race veered in a new direction. The widespread favorite reportedly may not return for three months or more, so the award is within reach for other contenders.
The trophy usually goes to the newcomer who posts the best per-game stats, but voters have started to value advanced metrics. Only a handful of newcomers have the skills and optimal situation to make a big enough impact.
Most major oddsmakers pegged Simmons as the preseason favorite for ROY. Now that he’s sidelined, the competition is wide open. A couple of Simmons’ teammates have a legitimate chance to climb the mountain, along with three highly skilled Western Conference youngsters.
Assuming Simmons doesn’t return in time to build a ROY resume, who has the greatest edge?
5. Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers F
Vitals: 6’10”, 22 years old, drafted 12th in 2014
Why he’s a contender: With Simmons out, Saric will get more touches and more chances to create off the bounce. The 22-year-old Croatian could stuff the stat sheet as a scorer, rebounder and passer thanks to his 6’10” frame and diverse skill set. Saric displays terrific instincts when attacking in the open floor, along with a polished three-point stroke (he shot 41 percent from the international arc in 2015-16). Saric isn’t an explosive athlete, but he competes on every possession and has sharp positional awareness.
A huge reason Saric is on the ROY short list is experience. He’s encountered high-level international competition in the Adriatic League, Turkish BSL League and Croatia’s FIBA squad. Those tests have prepared him for a greater immediate NBA impact than most college prospects:
Potential downfall: It may take Philadelphia awhile to trade one of its big men, so Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid will gobble up a ton of usage. Saric might be more of a role player than a substantial cog in year one, in which case he wouldn’t score enough to garner ROY votes.
Projected Stats: 27.7 MPG, 12.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 3.7 APG, 44% FG, 36% 3FG
4. Kris Dunn, Minnesota Timberwolves PG
Vitals: 6’4″, 22 years old, drafted 5th in 2016
Why he’s a contender: Early NBA success is often (but not always) easier for skilled guards than it is for big men. Recent examples include John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and Michael Carter-Williams. Dunn could be the next versatile guard in line to hoist the ROY trophy, as he’s equipped with offensive creativity and defensive intensity.
Dunn won back-to-back Big East Conference Player of the Year honors at Providence by slashing and dropping dimes in the pick-and-roll. He also incrementally improved his jump shot throughout his college career and hit 37 percent from distance in 2015-16. If he can keep opponents honest by connecting from the perimeter, the rest of his attack game will open up. And although he might not be an instantly dominant NBA defender, expect a bevy of explosive plays on that end.
The Wolves have shopped Ricky Rubio on and off recently. If they finally trade him, expect Dunn’s ROY odds to spike.
Potential downfall: If Rubio sticks around and cuts into Dunn’s minutes, then Dunn might have trouble getting enough production. Also, a drastically inefficient shooting campaign would hinder his chances.
Projected Stats: 28.8 MPG, 12.9 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 5.4 APG, 42% FG, 31% 3FG
3. Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers F
Vitals: 6’9″, 19 years old, drafted 2nd in 2016
Why he’s a contender: Ingram is by far the youngest ROY contender in the field, but he has a special mix of length and scoring finesse. He shined at Duke because he rose up and shot over everyone, and that luxury will quickly turn him into an NBA force.
He shot 41 percent from three-land as a freshman, and he showed promising sequences of shooting and slashing during Summer League. Luke Walton could put him in some great off-ball situations this year, collaborating with D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson. If Ingram sees 25-30 minutes as a secondary offensive weapon, he could score between 13 and 16 points per game.
While Ingram went 0-of-5 from the field in L.A.’s preseason opener, Ingram turned heads with his defensive playmaking. He rejected two shots, altered a few others and grabbed a steal. His ranginess closed out several defensive possessions and contributed to his box plus/minus of plus-20:
Brandon Ingram making his presence felt on the defensive end pic.twitter.com/Ce4mOD7hVJ
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) October 5, 2016
If Ingram’s strong presence on defense continues, he could earn more playing time and make a push for ROY.
Potential downfall: It might be tricky for Ingram to get enough touches and shots to put up ROY-caliber stats. He’s coming off the bench right now, and even when he’s in the game, he’s sharing the rock with ball-dominant players like Clarkson, Russell and Julius Randle.
Projected Stats: 29.8 MPG, 15.4 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.1 BPG, 44% FG, 35% 3FG
2. Buddy Hield, New Orleans Pelicans SG
Vitals: 6’4″, 22 years old, drafted 6th in 2016
Why he’s a contender: Buddy can fill up the hoop better than almost any NBA newcomer. Few players in college or pro basketball can get off accurate shots as quickly as him. New Orleans’ backcourt is talent-starved, especially with Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans absent in the near future. It’s Hield’s chance to shine.
In his first two preseason games, Hield has uncorked encouraging scoring prowess off the bench. He notched 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting against the Mavericks, followed by 18 points on 7-of-14 shooting against the Pacers. Hield’s exhibited a nice mixture of catch-and-shoot missiles with decisive, creative pull-ups off the bounce. If the Pelicans generate 12-14 quality shot attempts for Hield every night, he’ll be a strong challenger for ROY:
Potential downfall: The only thing that could bump Hield out of the running is poor shooting percentages or a dent in playing time. If Holiday and Evans return and Hield’s all-around game isn’t convincing, he could lose just enough minutes to miss ROY honors.
Projected Stats: 31.1 MPG, 16.1 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.5 APG, 43% FG, 38% 3FG
1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers PF/C
Vitals: 7’2″, 22 years old, drafted 3rd in 2014
Why he’s a contender: Few big-man prospects have Embiid’s combination of physical gifts, smooth skills and basketball instincts. Pre-and-post draft foot complications dampened his stock, but now he’s healthy and active after a two-year hiatus.
He only played 13 minutes in Tuesday’s exhibition against the Boston Celtics, but he showed why he’s a potent two-way weapon. Embiid mixed strong post-up moves with outside shooting and towering rim protection:
Embiid has the highest ceiling among Philly’s three centers. He could be a first or second scoring option on a playoff team, as well as a top-shelf defender. As such, the Sixers have shopped Noel and Okafor in recent months. If they do pull off a trade in the near future, it would open up time and space for Embiid to enjoy mountainous production this season.
Potential downfall: Embiid’s two potential obstacles to ROY are clear: Philly may struggle to move Noel or Okafor, and Embiid’s foot injuries could crop up again. Navicular bone injuries have derailed the careers of big men before, so it wouldn’t be shocking if he encounters problems again.
Projected Stats: 29.4 MPG. 16.1 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 2.0 APG, 2.2 BPG, 49% FG, 30% 3FG