Rookie of the Year Predictions, Post-2014 Las Vegas NBA Summer League

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistJuly 20, 2014

Rookie of the Year Predictions, Post-2014 Las Vegas NBA Summer League

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    Being the No. 1 overall pick hardly guarantees Rookie of the Year honors. Andrew Wiggins need only ask teammate Anthony Bennett. 

    Wiggins may have a better shot at the award, especially if he finds himself traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves and their inevitable rebuild. But he'll have plenty of competition from a draft class that included loads of NBA-ready talent and a few guys bound to surprise us.

    It's early to make predictions, but summer leagues in Orlando and Las Vegas have given us a taste of what we can expect from this season's top rookies. 

    Based on the latest performances and reactions, here are projections for the 2015 Rookie of the Year.

Long Shots

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    Julius Randle, Los Angeles Lakers

    Taken with the No. 7 overall pick, Julius Randle may be this draft's most NBA-ready power forward. He's already a skilled scorer (15 points per game last season with Kentucky) and has a pro's body. 

    The problem for Randle will be finding minutes alongside this summer's acquisitions, Carlos Boozer and Ed Davis. Boozer and Davis bring experience to the table, and their presence alone suggests that Los Angeles is in no mood to spend this season rebuilding. That could cost Randle playing time.

    Randle was steady but unremarkable during summer league play, averaging 12.5 points and 4.3 rebounds through four games.

     

    T.J. Warren, Phoenix Suns

    T.J. Warren helped his Rookie of the Year stock as much as anyone during summer league play. He scored at least 22 points in three of his five games, including a 28-point, 11-rebound outburst against the Philadelphia 76ers.

    The other good news for Warren is that the Suns could use some help on the wing. Even with Gerald Green and P.J. Tucker on board, the team needed another scorer, and that's exactly what it has in Warren. He won't wow as much as some top rookies, but he always seems to find a way to consistently get buckets.

     

    Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic

    Though he was taken with the fourth overall pick, Gordon has a long way to go before he realizes his potential. He still isn't a good shooter, and his offensive game will initially be limited largely to cuts toward the basket, fast breaks and hustle points.

    All of that showed during summer league, as he averaged just 7.8 points and 5.0 rebounds in five games.

    That's not a Rookie of the Year formula. But it's worth mentioning that Gordon brings a number of intangibles to the table—along with top-shelf defense. He'll find ways to impact games, and that could garner some attention.

5. Elfrid Payton

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    The Orlando Magic's Elfrid Payton filled up the stat sheet during summer league play.

    He averaged 9.2 points, 7.0 assists and 5.2 rebounds in five games. In his fifth game, Payton tallied 18 points, eight assists, four rebounds and four steals—a reminder that we're talking about a very good two-way player with definite star potential.

    Orlando will look to him right away, needing a point guard and having the patience to let a rookie develop. It's a good fit for the two sides.

    At 6'4", Payton has excellent length at the point, part of what makes him such a legitimate defensive presence on the perimeter. He also excels in the open court and boasts elite athleticism.

    The problem is his jump-shooting. DraftExpress' Matt Kamalsky explains:

    Although he attempted just 3.2 jump shots in the half court per-game, the 4th least in this sample of players, he made a group low 25.7% of those attempts. His 18.2% conversion rate on catch and shoot jump shots obviously leaves a lot to be desired, and as we saw in our workout interview with the tall, athletic young guard, that is an aspect of his game that he's focusing on improving ahead of his rookie year.

    Payton made 59.3 percent of his field-goal attempts during summer league play, but he didn't take a lot of shots. As he expands his game, we could see a little more scoring. With or without that scoring, though, Payton impacts the game in a lot of ways and will have plenty of opportunities to do so with Orlando.

    He could be this season's top sleeper pick.

4. Dante Exum

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    Dante Exum's summer league performance left something to be desired. He didn't have a single spectacular game and rarely looked like the centerpiece of the Utah Jazz offense. 

    But it's early, and appearances can be deceiving. 

    The biggest problem was that Exum just never got into much of a shooting rhythm. Over the course of five games, he made just 30.8 percent of his field-goal attempts. He was 4-of-19 during the final two games. That suggests Exum is still something of a project.

    Nevertheless, he should get pretty consistent playing time in Utah. The organization is early into the rebuilding process and didn't hesitate to extend minutes to point guard Trey Burke last season. Once Exum figures out how to coexist with Burke, he should settle in and produce.

    He can impact the game in a lot of ways, too. Exum averaged 1.4 steals and 2.8 assists during summer league play, showing flashes of his defense and playmaking ability. And the box scores don't tell the full story here. Exum had his moments, and he spent many of the games playing off the ball while Burke ran the point.

    That could change in time.

    "It has been an adjustment, [but] not too much of an adjustment," Exum said during summer league play, per SB Nation's Tyler Lashbrook. "Basketball is basketball wherever you go. It's just kind of the different styles of play and the physicality. It's just about slowing down and looking for the best option, rather than try to play fast paced all the time."

    Don't overstate the NBA Summer League numbers. Just watch some of the highlights and remember Exum will have a long 82-game season to grow.

3. Andrew Wiggins

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    Wiggins' Rookie of the Year prospects depend largely on where he's playing in 2014-15.

    Should he remain with the Cleveland Cavaliers, touches will be somewhat limited. With LeBron James on board, the Cavs have instantly been transformed from a rebuilding enterprise into a would-be contender attempting to win now.

    If, however, Wiggins is packaged and sent to the Minnesota Timberwolves, everything changes.

    In Minnesota, Wiggins would become a focal point, one of the team's chief building blocks. He'd get more touches, shots and opportunities to do the kinds of things he did during summer league play.

    The 19-year-old averaged 15.5 points through four games, posting 21 against the Houston Rockets when he made 15 of 20 free-throw attempts.

    Wiggins may yet emerge as the most talented member of this draft class. His upside is virtually limitless thanks to uncanny length and athleticism. If and when his skills catch up to the physical tools, Wiggins could be a superstar.

    For now, though, the near-future is too murky for a firm Rookie of the Year endorsement.

2. Jabari Parker

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    Jabari Parker didn't quite turn heads throughout much of summer league, but he finished strong with a 20-point, 15-rebound performance against the Golden State Warriors. 

    Otherwise, he was solid. 

    Through five summer league games, Parker averaged 15.6 points and 8.2 boards. He gave us a taste of what's to come.

    Over the course of the season, Parker should have plenty of opportunities to settle into a rhythm and improve his approach to NBA-caliber defenders. The Milwaukee Bucks needed help on the wing and at power forward, both positions where Parker should be able to help.

    At small forward, he could share minutes with the versatile Giannis Antetokounmpo and 2012 second-round pick Khris Middleton. At the 4, he could potentially start over Ersan Ilyasova, a stretch 4 who made just 28.2 percent of his three-point attempts last season.

    Parker's biggest challenge will be translating his strong post game to the NBA level, overcoming longer and thicker defenders.

    Per ESPN Insider's Bradford Doolittle (subscription required), Parker recently said, "If I can get position close to the basket, it can get me high-percentage shots. That's something I learned at Duke, and I'm proud to own."

    Whether Parker comes by those high-percentage shots easily in the NBA, he should remain a steady scorer for the Bucks. Maybe steady enough for Rookie of the Year honors.

1. Nerlens Noel

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    Chances are no NBA rookie will have more impact on the defensive end. That should count for something.

    Nerlens Noel was taken sixth overall last summer by the New Orleans Pelicans and subsequently traded to the Philadelphia 76ers in a deal for Jrue Holiday. He never stepped on the floor during the 2013-14 campaign while recovering from an ACL injury, so this will be his real rookie season.

    It could be a good one. Noel has essentially waited a year to show what he's got.

    "I was so frustrated," he told Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix. "Being on the road, being so involved in the film sessions, working out before the game and then having to put on a suit and sit on the bench, that was really tough. Thinking back, though, it was probably the best thing for me."

    The wait is over.

    Noel tallied 19 points, four steals and three assists in his first summer league game. Over his next two games, he scored a combined 22 points, collected 15 rebounds and notched eight blocks. He averaged just 25 minutes over the course of those three games in Orlando.

    In his first Vegas outing, another four blocks.

    According to NBCSports.com's Kurt Helin, Sixers summer league coach Chad Iske framed Noel as an energetic contributor with plenty of work to do:

    He’s active, he’s all over the place. He’s trying to do everything, he’s trying to do too much on both ends. The hard part is do you want to just settle him down or do you want him to play with that aggressiveness? I don’t want to give him too much and cloud him, and then he’s thinking instead of playing. I think we just have to get out there and find the happy balance between him being within our rules and him being himself.

    Mannix described Noel as a "defensive-minded human pogo stick."

    As of late June, only Wiggins, Parker and Randle had better Vegas odds of winning Rookie of the Year, per Philly.com's Justin Klugh.

    But a careful analysis suggests that Noel's chances should be even better. The 76ers are still deep into a rebuilding effort that will afford Noel plenty of time. Fellow big man (and rookie) Joel Embiid will miss most if not all of the season. Minutes will be there for the taking.

    Philadelphia also plays at a break-neck pace, ensuring that Noel will have plenty of opportunities to rack up stats—including the defensive statistics that are likely to define him. There will be plenty of blocks and double-doubles in Noel's near-future, perhaps enough to claim Rookie of the Year recognition.