While it’s still very early, the race for the 2015-16 Rookie of the Year is shaping up to be the deepest and most competitive in years. Just a few weeks into the new season, four rising stars are making spirited cases for top rookie honors: the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns, New York Knicks’ Kristaps Porzingis, Philadelphia 76ers’ Jahlil Okafor and Denver Nuggets’ Emmanuel Mudiay. Other rookies such as the Detroit Pistons’ Stanley Johnson, Miami Heat’s Justise Winslow and undrafted Sixers surprise story T.J. McConnell are also starting to make a name for themselves.
While the last decade or so of draft classes has produced a majority of today’s hardwood elite, Rookie of the Year races have traditionally ended in landslides. Last season, Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins snatched nearly 100 more first-place votes than the rest of the competition and soared past the likes of Nikola Mirotic, Nerlens Noel and Elfrid Payton. The year before, Michael-Carter Williams paced a weak group that saw Mason Plumlee finish fourth despite averaging just 7.4 points and 4.4 boards for the Brooklyn Nets. In 2007-08, Kevin Durant predictably took home top rookie honors, but not many expected Luis Scola and Al Thornton to finish third and fourth, respectively. That same year, Jamario Moon received votes over notable names such as Mike Conley, Joakim Noah and Thaddeus Young. Chris Paul winning Rookie of the Year in 2005-06 shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but what if I told you the second-place finisher was Charlie Villanueva and not Deron Williams?
In the last 12 seasons, only three ROTY races can be considered hotly-contested. In 2009-10, then-Sacramento Kings guard Tyreke Evans put together solid all-around numbers (20.1 points, 5.8 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 1.5 steals) to edge out Stephen Curry, Brandon Jennings and James Harden. Dwight Howard didn’t have the best debut season in 2004-05. Instead, it came down to a battle between former UConn teammates Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon. The year before, a high school phenom named LeBron James managed to live up to his immense hype and reign supreme over an elite draft class that included eventual teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but faced serious competition from rival Carmelo Anthony.
With time, this year’s crop has the chance to be mentioned in the same breath as some of these other great draft classes. To get a better idea of what to expect going forward, let’s take a deeper look at 2015-16’s top candidates so far.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Center, Minnesota Timberwolves
Towns and Okafor were considered the top two players in this year’s draft and the next generation of franchise big men. Okafor’s polished offensive game made him the more NBA-ready option, while Towns’s combination of size, quickness, shooting touch and defensive acumen presented more upside.
Towns got the nod as the No. 1 pick, and as it turns out, the learning curve wasn’t as steep as initially expected. The former Kentucky sensation has been a hit at both ends of the court. He’s averaging 16.4 points and 10 rebounds per game, while his 2.4 blocks are good for sixth-best in the league:
Additionally, while Towns doesn’t get to the free throw line often (3.3 attempts per game), he’s converting an astonishing 90.7 percent of his takes from the charity stripe. Much like his predecessor at Kentucky, Anthony Davis, Towns will become even more of a weapon once he gains more experience and gains more confidence in his three-point stroke.
Kristaps Porzingis, Forward, New York Knicks
We all remember ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith flying off the handle on draft night when New York used the No. 4 overall pick on Porzingis, right? After all, for all of his physical tools and as great as his pre-draft workout was, the Latvian seven-footer was considered a project joining a Knicks squad determined to win now. What was Phil Jackson thinking?
As it turns out, one shouldn’t question The Zen Master. 14 games into his debut season, Zinger is an instant hit with the MSG faithful, churning out a stat line of 13.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks for an 8-6 Knicks team. After dropping 24 points, 14 boards and seven blocks in a win over the Houston Rockets, Porzingis became just the fifth rookie in the last 20 years to post at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and seven rejections in a single game:
While the 20-year-old still has room to grow, he’s managed to get by thanks to an awesome array of offensive moves in the post. Even with his slight frame, he can get wherever wants to inside and his hook shot is rapidly becoming a solid go-to move. Like Towns, Porzingis will be a greater asset once he improves his deep stroke, but his 30.8 percent mark from deep is decent enough that defenses need to respect him on the outside.
Jahlil Okafor, Center, Philadelphia 76ers
While Towns and Porzingis are generating most of the buzz, Okafor is the one leading all rookies in scoring with 17.9 points per game. The scoring shouldn’t come as much of a shock to anyone who watched Okafor during his time at Duke, nor should his 7.7 rebounds per game, which trail only Towns and Porzingis among this year’s newbies.
The rookie has predictably had some struggles on the defensive end of the floor, but he’s done some nice things as a rim protector. Okafor is blocking 1.6 shots per game and is allowing just 44.3 percent shooting at the rim, per SportVU.
Okafor came into this season as the prohibitive favorite to take home the Rookie of the Year award, but his candidacy will be hindered by the now 0-14 Sixers’ unwillingness to play competitive basketball. Fortunately, Okafor has a nightly green light to apply ink on the stat sheet. That means even as the losses pile up, the big man will at least make the games entertaining with plays like this:
Emmanuel Mudiay, Point Guard, Denver Nuggets
How good has the 19-year-old Mudiay been so far? Jason Kidd, one of the greatest point guards to ever grace the court, already believes the Mudiay will be better than him someday, if he isn’t already (via The Denver Post):
“He’s better already. Being able to run an NBA team at 19 is not easy. You look at some of the greats — Magic (Johnson) was able to do it. And you’re looking at this kid Mudiay, who has the opportunity to do something special. So, I would encourage him to be better than me, and I think he will be at the end of the day.”
Mudiay is putting in work all across the stat sheet. He’s averaging 12.5 points and 6.3 assists, while his 0.92 blocks per game is second only to John Wall among NBA point guards. His most notable rejection came when he chased down Damian Lillard to help preserve a win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Nov. 9:
If there are reasons to be less impressed with Mudiay’s start, it’s his sub-par shooting (33.3 percent from the field, 27.7 from three) and his penchant for turning the ball over (4.4 turnovers per game, third-most in basketball). Still, it’s hard not to be intrigued by Mudiay’s blend of size (6’5″, 200 lbs), speed (averages 4.39 MPH in all movements on the court) and court vision. If he can become a more efficient scorer, he might live up to J-Kidd’s high praise.
There’s still plenty of season left for other contenders to emerge, but it’s hard not to be wowed from what we’ve seen out of a rookie class that was supposed to take more time to develop. Regardless of who wins the award when the smoke clears, basketball fans should rejoice over what could be one of the best ROTY races in recent memory.