On Oct. 29, 2013, the NBA regular season will commence with three games welcoming in the new campaign. All eyes will be on the returns of superstar players such as Kobe Bryant, Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose, but we shouldn't lose sight of the first-year players who will usher in a new era of basketball.
The question is, which first-year players have the best shot at winning postseason awards?
Everyone is looking for the instant rise of a young player, but even the best in the NBA have gone through grace periods. Only one can win Rookie of the Year and, more times than not, some of the most promising athletes go through a full first season without hardware.
Here are the players who have the best shot at walking away with an award.
Rookie of the Year: Ben McLemore, Sacramento Kings
Position: Shooting Guard
Clinching Factor: Scoring
He may not be my pick to win Rookie of the Year, but if any player should be considered the front-runner, it's Ben McLemore of the Sacramento Kings. McLemore is easily the most NBA-ready scorer in this draft class and will have no shortage of opportunities to prove just that.
To make things easier, McLemore will play alongside Greivis Vasquez—the player who ranked No. 3 in assists per game in 2012-13.
If nothing else, McLemore will be a high-quality scorer who makes noise as a jump-shooter while taking passes from Vasquez. With DeMarcus Cousins working down low, opposing defenses will inevitably collapse and enable the former Kansas Jayhawks star to receive even more open looks.
All in all, Sacramento is the perfect team to provide McLemore with an opportunity to shine from the opening tip.
There are other options for Rookie of the Year, but McLemore projects to have the greatest scoring season among first-year players. Say what you will about that statistic being misleading, but there's one fact you can't deny:
Seven of the past eight Rookie of the Year award winners led first-year players in scoring. McLemore projects to be 2013's rookie leader in points per game, and that makes him the front-runner.
Sixth Man of the Year: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Detroit Pistons
Position: Shooting Guard
Clinching Factor: Scoring and Defense
Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum suffered a broken foot and is out indefinitely, per Joe Freeman of The Oregonian. As a result, the odds of a rookie becoming a Sixth Man of the Year award candidate took a hit.
If any other player could do it, it's Kentavious Caldwell-Pope of the Detroit Pistons.
According to Vince Ellis of The Detroit Free Press, Pistons head coach Maurice Cheeks has stated that KCP is unlikely to start in 2013-14. Things could change as the season progresses, but all signs point toward veteran Rodney Stuckey getting the nod.
That makes Caldwell-Pope a genuine threat for Sixth Man of the Year.
Caldwell-Pope will make his money as a defender in the NBA, using his length and athleticism to disrupt players at all three perimeter positions. What could make the reigning SEC Player of the Year a star is the fact that he's a well-rounded offensive threat.
Such was evident during the 2012-13 college basketball season, as KCP averaged 18.5 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 2.0 steals on 37.3 percent shooting from beyond the arc. The latter number is what makes him such a valuable weapon for Detroit.
The Pistons ranked 21st in three-point field goals made per game in 2012-13, and thus, Caldwell-Pope's status as a contender exists.
Rookie of the Year: Cody Zeller, Charlotte Bobcats
Position: Power Forward
Clinching Factor: Offensive Versatility
If I told you that the most explosive big man of the year was eligible in the 2013 draft, you'd likely consider him a future star. If I told you that said player was also the most fundamentally sound offensive player at his position, you'd call him a top-five lock.
So why are people so reluctant to believe the Cody Zeller hype?
Zeller has made significant strides from a physical perspective, bulking up to 7'0" and 240 pounds. Criticized by many as a reach at No. 4 overall, Zeller will now receive the opportunity to prove that he's worth the hype as a member of the Charlotte Bobcats.
For those that forget, Chad Ford of ESPN Insider reported that Zeller recorded the type of vertical that few have ever been able to rival at his position.
He's taller than projected, continues to put on weight, moves as smoothly as any big man around, has an abundance of offensive skills and boasts an unparalleled vertical. Go ahead, give me a reason why Zeller will fail.
Zeller should have no trouble getting involved in a Bobcats offense that will need a jump-shooting big man to space the floor for Al Jefferson. With Jefferson off the floor, Zeller will also see a rise in touches due to the fact that Charlotte is without another viable interior scorer.
Zeller will be one of the top five rookie scorers in 2013, and if he can improve his work on the glass, he could win Rookie of the Year. He's my pick to do so.
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