Handicapping 2014-15 Rookie of the Year Race After Summer League

D.J. FosterContributor IJuly 22, 2014

Handicapping 2014-15 Rookie of the Year Race After Summer League

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    The 2014-15 race for NBA Rookie of the Year should be one of the most interesting we've had in a long time. The depth of this year's field is the best it has been recently, and with some debate about who should have been selected with the first pick overall, this could get interesting.

    Very rarely does a prized rookie get to team up with the best player in the NBA, but that's the case with Andrew Wiggins joining LeBron James in Cleveland. Will he get the chances offensively in Cleveland, or would Wiggins be better off being a true offensive focal point for the Minnesota Timberwolves via a Kevin Love trade?

    Point guards always seem to have a leg up on the competition because the ball is in their hands so much. Will Dante Exum take that role even with Trey Burke in place for the Utah Jazz? What about dark-horse candidate Elfrid Payton for the Orlando Magic?

    Again, with so much talent across the board, let's narrow down the list to the top five candidates to win the Rookie of the Year award.

    Remember, this isn't necessarily who will be the best player or who has the brightest future, but instead who has the best chance of putting up the kind of stats to win the award.

    With that in mind, let's handicap the favorites as they stand after summer league.

5) Elfrid Payton

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    One thing you have to consider when handicapping the Rookie of the Year race is playing time. Guys like Los Angeles Lakers power forward Julius Randle and Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart have looked great and should be fine pros, but given the roster composition of both teams, substantial and consistent playing time may be hard to come by.

    That shouldn't be a problem for Orlando Magic guard Elfrid Payton, who should have point guard duties all to himself from day one. The Magic released Jameer Nelson to clear that path, and although he'll share some ball-handling duties with Victor Oladipo, it's difficult to imagine Payton getting squeezed out of the rotation no matter how poorly he plays.

    It's not hard to imagine Payton putting up solid numbers, either, even if he doesn't score or shoot all that well. Defensively, he should have a real impact, and the assist and rebounding totals should be there. Again, the minutes are likely going to make the numbers look more impressive than those of better players who aren't getting as much burn.

    Orlando is unlikely to be deterred by a bad start, both for Payton and the team, and point guards naturally have the ball in their hands a ton. This choice is all about opportunity, and if Payton can fulfill some of his Rajon Rondo-type box score-stuffing potential right away, he could be a real threat to win it should the more highly touted rookies fail to put up huge numbers.

4) Jabari Parker

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    Despite the narrative of Jabari Parker being the most "NBA-ready" prospect in the draft, he still has a lot of room for improvement, as we saw in the summer league. Parker's jumper still isn't all that consistent, and he's prone to getting tunnel vision when going to the hole and ignoring help defenders.

    That doesn't mean Parker won't have a solid rookie season, though. He may not get the full load of minutes other rookies will since both John Henson and Ersan Ilyasova are also at the 4. But Parker should get plenty of touches when he's on the floor.

    Probably the biggest question is whether the Bucks can provide Parker with the space he needs to operate. Ideally, Parker would get lots of post touches and face up and attack off the dribble, but to be really effective at that, the floor needs to be spread. Milwaukee might not have enough shooting to do that, which could turn Parker into a predictable mid-range shooter.

    He has natural gifts to thrive. Parker is quick, strong and makes decisive moves more often than not. He's unquestionably one of the best scorers in this draft class, and points per game factors heavily into this particular race.

    So long as Jason Kidd plays Parker enough, and so long as his teammates can give him space to operate, Parker should have a nice rookie season. Both those things just might not be a given, though.

3) Andrew Wiggins

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    Andrew Wiggins won't put up big numbers right away. He'll likely take a lesser role offensively and focus on the defensive end, where he can use his tremendous athleticism and length to make plays.

    Think of Wiggins almost like a Luol Deng-type, and you can get a feel for the type of production he may have right away. He should defend and rebound well, but the primary source of offense should come from mid-range jumpers, as that's a shot he showed an affinity for both in college and summer league.

    Wiggins is particularly fond of the step-back jumper, but it may be interesting to see how the presence of LeBron James impacts his development. James has played with so many guys who camp out and bomb from three, and we know he can consistently create open looks for shooters. Will Wiggins spot up and wait to be spoon-fed like Ray Allen or take matters into his own hands like Dwyane Wade?

    Ultimately, it seems like Wiggins would be a clear-cut third option in Cleveland, which probably means he won't put up gaudy enough numbers for Rookie of the Year consideration. That said, voters may award Wiggins for being on a winning team, so long as he stays in Cleveland.

    If Wiggins is dealt to the Minnesota Timberwolves, that changes things. He'll step into a huge scoring role offensively from day one, and he'll have pass-happy Ricky Rubio setting him up instead of score-first Kyrie Irving. He'd move up this list if he's traded to Minnesota. 

2) Dante Exum

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    Guards naturally have an advantage in this race, and Exum displayed the unique combination of a lightning-quick first step and natural pick-and-roll ability at summer league that leads you to believe he can be a high usage player right out of the gate.

    Although you get the impression he wants to distribute first and foremost, Exum can get into the lane and score with regularity. Given that Utah isn't stocked with big-time scorers in the least bit, you could feasibly see him leading the Jazz in points per game despite his youth.

    Exum's three-point shooting might be the one hole in his game. If defenders start playing off him and going under screens, some of his other abilities might be taken away.

    Even with that said, there's just too much potential for greatness here to be ignored. Exum has the size and vision to fill up the rest of the stat sheet, and there is little question that he'll get as many minutes as he can handle for a young Jazz team.

    So long as he stays aggressive and realizes he can take offensive ownership of the team, Exum has a great chance at winning Rookie of the Year. He'd be the favorite if it weren't for...

1) Nerlens Noel

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    Did you forget about him? Noel was taken in the 2013 draft, but because he didn't play a single game, he's still eligible for this year's Rookie of the Year award.

    That extra year of seasoning and practice with an NBA team should help, but there is more to it than that. Noel has one of the highest floors of any rookie mainly because he already looks like an elite shot-blocker who can rebound and protect the rim.

    While other guys are more dependent on scoring or shooting, Noel can do his best work regardless of who is out there with him, and he doesn't need the ball.

    With that in mind, though, Noel should get plenty of opportunities on both ends. The Philadelphia 76ers don't appear to have any serious intentions of competing, so Noel will get lots of touches to speed along his development.

    Speaking of speed, it's important to remember that no team played at a faster pace than the 76ers did last year. That should help Noel's overall stats tremendously, as there will be more possessions and chances to pile up numbers.

    Like we saw with last year's winner and teammate Michael Carter-Williams, a stat friendly system with plenty of playing time can be more than enough to win it. Noel plays with high energy and has tons of athletic ability.

    As long as he can stay healthy, he should be considered the favorite to win the 2014-15 Rookie of the Year award.