8 Dark Horse Candidates for 2012-13 NBA Rookie of the Year

Dave Leonardis@@FrontPageDaveContributor IIIAugust 18, 2012

8 Dark Horse Candidates for 2012-13 NBA Rookie of the Year

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    Every award race needs a dark horse candidate for fans to keep an eye and make things interesting for the favorites. Thanks to the depth of this year's rookie class, there's a number of unheralded prospects who can make a run at the Rookie of the Year award.

    No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis is the odds-on favorite to be this year's top rookie. With his outstanding shot-blocking ability and athleticism, Davis has been the most talked about rookie in years. Davis' college teammate Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has the second-best odds to win the Rookie of the Year.  Kidd-Gilchrist went No. 2 overall to Charlotte.

    Rounding out the top five favorites are Washington's Bradley Beal, Golden State's Harrison Barnes and Sacramento's Thomas Robinson. A legitimate case can be made for any of these top prospects to win the award.

    However, with so much focus on the guys at the top of the draft, it's time some of the lesser-known prospects get some love. This draft had a weird knack for letting prospects fall to the teams that were the most desperate for their talents.

    The Hornets needed a new franchise face to replace Chris Paul. They won the lottery and nabbed Anthony Davis. The Blazers have been searching for a point guard and a center for years. Lucky for Portland, Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard fell right into their lap.

    It is those fortunate situations that give the eight men that made this list a puncher's chance of stealing this award from the heavy favorites. This is Davis' award to lose and these eight dark horses are going to see to it that The Unibrow does just that.

Damian Lillard, PG, Portland Trailblazers

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    Damian Lillard took Vegas by storm and led all Summer League participants in scoring. He averaged 26.5 points per game and shot close to 44 percent from the field. He also threw in an average of 5.3 assists per game.

    Lillard is the epitome of unheralded underdog. He didn't have the luxury of going to a big school and becoming a household name on national television like many of his rookie brethren. Instead, Lillard dominated at Weber State.

    He parlayed that illustrious career into being the sixth pick of the draft. It's been years since Portland has had a point guard with this kind of talent. Lillard's ability to put up points is a huge boost for a Blazers team that doesn't have many proven scorers.

    At 6'3" and 191 pounds, Lillard has good size for a point guard. He showed the capabilities of being a solid defender in college and his ability to create his own shot is a plus. Lillard also has a good mid-range game and can stroke it from deep.

    Vegas odds have Lillard's chances of winning Rookie of the Year at 30-to-1. However, Lillard is going to be the floor general for a rising Blazers team. He showed in the Summer League that he can score and his assist numbers in Vegas show he has some promise as a passer.

    It will be a huge transition for him going from a mid-major to the pros. If Lillard can find the right balance between being a scorer and facilitator, he has as much of a chance as anyone at being this year's best rookie.

Andre Drummond, C, Detroit Pistons

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    With his physical tools and athletic ability, Andre Drummond has drawn comparisons to New York Knicks forward Amar'e Stoudemire. Like Stoudemire, Drummond enters the NBA as an extremely raw prospect who can become a star with some polish and fire. Drummond also has the kind of power and explosiveness to be a factor right away if he wants it as bad as Stoudemire wanted it as a rookie with the Suns.

    Like Amar'e, Drummond could end his rookie season as the NBA Rookie of the Year. Drummond's ceiling is as high as any prospect in this rookie class. It is just a matter of desire. If Drummond is motivated to use his gifts to dominate the NBA, he can tear through this league like a wrecking ball.

    Drummond has the luxury of playing next to another talented young big man in Greg Monroe. Monroe has developed into one of the NBA's rising stars and the attention paid to him will make life easier for the rookie out of UConn.

    Still, it comes down to how bad Drummond wants it. In the Summer League, Drummond didn't exactly turn heads. He averaged 7.4 points and 5.4 rebounds a game. He threw in two blocks per game for good measure.

    The Pistons are a young team that are a couple years away from even being in the playoffs. Drummond's best years may not be for a while. However, it comes down to simple math. Amar'e Stoudemire made an easy transition from high school phenom to the pros. Andre Drummond reminds scouts of Stoudemire. So, Drummond should have what it takes to be the best rookie in this class like Amar'e was, right?

    It will be interesting to watch which Drummond shows up. Will it be the guy who appeared to go through the motions at times while at UConn or will we see the athletic freak that made scouts jaws drop?

    Vegas has Drummond at 30-to-1 to win the Rookie of the Year. All it will take is a little bit of fire to make that a safe bet.

Terrence Ross, SG, Toronto Raptors

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    I really liked Terrence Ross as a sleeper for the Rookie of the Year. Then, Toronto signed Landry Fields and that put a wrench in the chances of Ross starting right away. With DeMar DeRozan already on the roster, Ross will either have to beat out Fields or come off the bench for playing time.

    Lucky for Ross, he has the scoring ability that Fields lacks. Ross has the size to play shooting guard or small forward at 6'7". He's an excellent athlete who can really be a factor in transition. He will benefit from having talent around him in the form of DeRozan and point guard Kyle Lowry.

    Ross averaged 14.4 points per game in the Summer League. While he didn't really show it in Vegas, Ross is a very capable shooter. He also has good court vision to get others around him involved and has the length to be a solid defender.

    It will come down to whether he'll have the opportunity. The team signed Fields to a three-year, $18.7 million offer, which the Knicks declined to match. That kind of price tag would presumably make Fields the starter at shooting guard.

    It's up to Ross to show off his ability to put up points and warrant some playing time. Ross can also take the job from Fields by proving to be a good defender. Fields' specialty is defense but, if Ross can prove to be a two-way player, it will be hard to justify having Fields in the starting lineup over Ross.

    Ross is another exciting young prospect on a Raptors team that has some intriguing young talent. Toronto could make some noise this year and sneak their way into the playoffs. If Ross can be a huge factor in that, it will certainly help his chances of winning Rookie of the Year.

    The former Washington standout's chances are around 35-to-1. Ross has the tools to be an excellent shooting guard. He just has to find a way to emerge from a crowded backcourt.

Jonas Valanciunas, C, Toronto Raptors

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    Jonas Valanciunas was actually the fifth overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. After playing overseas last season, the 20-year old Lithuanian is ready to make his mark in the NBA.

    Valanciunas didn't put up much of a show in the Olympics, especially against an United States team lacking size up front. In a close preliminary round matchup, Valanciunas only contributed four points and a rebound against the Americans.

    Hopefully, that's not a sign of things to come.

    An international player hasn't won the Rookie of the Year since Pau Gasol did it in 2001. Valanciunas is still very raw but he has great size and rebounding instincts. His offensive game needs a little bit of work but he can get his points early on off of dunks and tip-ins. Jonas also has the defensive acumen to be a factor in the paint.

    Despite all his faults and the tough transition to the pros, Valanaciunas' odds for winning Rookie of the Year are 10-to-1. Like fellow rookie Terrence Ross, Valanciunas will benefit from being on a promising Raptors team with a lot of young talent on the roster.

    He may not have lived up to the hype in London but he has 82 games to make doubters into believers. He's a talented center in a league that lacks quality big men. He'll need to provide some kind of offense to have a chance at the award, but his skills on the boards and blocking shots can only help his cause.

Jared Sullinger, PF, Boston Celtics

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    There is a lot to like with former Ohio State standout Jared Sullinger. A couple years ago, Sullinger looked like a sure-fire lottery pick. He, instead, opted to stay another year with the Buckeyes.

    That extra year turned out to cost his draft stock dearly. Scouts now had more time to pick apart Sullinger's game. They knocked him for his lack of ideal size and athleticism. During the draft workouts, concerns were raised about his back.

    All of those drawbacks forced Sullinger to fall into Boston's hands at pick No. 21. It also allowed Sullinger to become a feel-good underdog story that could make a run at the Rookie of the Year.

    Lost in all the nitpicking of Sullinger's game was the fact that the 6'8", 270-pound Sullinger was a double-double machine at Ohio State. He may not move like the more athletically gifted forwards in the league but he's a big guy who can punish defenders in the post.

    Sullinger showed the league what he can do in the Summer League. He averaged 13.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. On an aging Celtics team, Sullinger's young legs will come in handy. Veteran big man Kevin Garnett is getting long in the tooth and the team could rely on Sullinger to keep "The Big Ticket" rested for a playoff run.

    The slide on draft night and all of the knocks are ammunition for Sullinger to go out and prove the doubters wrong. He was successful in college. He was successful in Vegas. Now, he gets to be a solid contributor on a team that need guys with his kind of drive and ability.

    The league has been littered with stories of hard-working overachievers who had productive careers when the skeptics were quick to bury them. Jared Sullinger has an opportunity to join that list. Sullinger reminds some of Carlos Boozer. Boozer was a second-round pick who emerged into one of the game's best power forwards.

    There's 30-to-1 odds that Sullinger ends the season as the league's top rookie. It's just another slight to add to the NBA's newest underdog story.

Dion Waiters, SG, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Dion Waiters was a top five pick who probably should have been drafted a little later. After all, Waiters didn't even start at Syracuse and he's a bit undersized for an NBA shooting guard.

    The Cavaliers clearly saw enough of him to pair him with last year's Rookie of the Year, Kyrie Irving, in their backcourt. Waiters' 12.3 points per game in the Summer League was eerily similar to his scoring numbers as a sophomore at Syracuse.

    While there will always be debates as to whether Waiters was the right pick, the fact is he does bring something to the table for Cleveland. The Cavs don't have many proven scorers and Waiters can provide offense for a team that desperately needs it.

    He'll also benefit from playing alongside one of the game's best point guards. Irving missed a few games last year thanks to a series of ailments but still manage to take home top rookie honors. Because of that, defenses will pay more attention to the former Duke phenom.

    That opens the door for Waiters to do his thing. Waiters has the athleticism to attack the rim and he's an excellent finisher. He also has decent range on his jumper. Defensively, Waiters showed quick hands at Syracuse and he could develop into one of the league's best pickpockets.

    The Cavs aren't exactly loaded at shooting guard. Waiters has a good chance at cracking the starting lineup and he can take advantage of Irving's presence. The opportunity is there for Waiters to justify his surprising draft slot. If he can be a factor on both ends of the court, Waiters could defy the 20-to-1 odds he has of winning Rookie of the Year.

Royce White, PF, Houston Rockets

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    Royce White is an intriguing prospect with a wide body who is athletic enough to be a solid NBA player. He's a good rebounder and shows an uncanny court vision for a forward. He has a good mid-range jumper and handles the ball well for a big man. In a lot of ways, he's like a poor man's Lamar Odom.

    Those are the positives.

    The negatives for Royce White is that he's a bit of a tweener. He doesn't possess the ideal height for an NBA power forward and he might be too big to play small forward. It also doesn't help that White is trapped on a Rockets' depth chart smothered with forward prospects.

    Outside of White, fellow rookies Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones help compose Houston's roster. The Rockets also have Patrick Peterson, Marcus Morris and Chandler Parsons vying for playing time. Unlike some of those guys, White didn't stand out in the Summer League.

    White still showed some promise in Vegas though. He averaged 8.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. He also dished nearly four assists per game. White's standing as a jack-of-all-trades cries out for the Rockets to find some way to utilize him. He could use his big body in the paint or pick defenses apart with his passing acumen and shooting touch.

    Those talents are enough to make him a solid role player. For him to be Rookie of the Year, he'll have to make the most of his playing time on a stacked Rockets roster. Houston isn't going to win a lot of games this year so it's imperative that White finds a way to stand out.

    He'll be competing for the Rookie of the Year with three other rookies on his own team. All three of which can make legitimate cases for being the league's best rookie if given the right opportunity. Motiejunas opened eyes in Vegas. Jones scored 18 points per game. Shooting guard Jeremy Lamb led all Rockets in scoring.

    None of those guys possess White's ability to fill up so many categories on a stat sheet though. White's odds of being ROTY are around 25-to-1. If he can bypass Patterson or Parsons for one of the starting forward spots, he might be crafty enough to make his own case for top rookie honors.

Jeremy Lamb, SG, Houston Rockets

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    Jeremy Lamb was one of many young Houston Rockets who made noise in Vegas at the Summer League. He averaged 20 points per game and looked like the best of a good crop of Houston rookies.

    Much like Royce White however, Lamb is hindered by the talent ahead of him on the depth chart. More specifically, Lamb is trapped behind arguably the team's best player in Kevin Martin. Martin is in the final year of a deal that will pay him close to $13 million this season.

    With the team in rebuilding mode, the Rockets could opt to trade Martin in hopes of getting something back for a talented veteran scorer. That would allow Houston to see what it has in Lamb, who would no doubt take Martin's spot in the starting lineup next year anyway.

    Lamb is 6'5" but possesses a 6'11" wingspan. He has good athleticism and is a dynamic scorer. While he has good range on his jumper, his shooting percentages from behind the arc leave a lot to be desired. Still, Lamb can provide instant offense whether he starts or comes off the bench.

    Lamb's Rookie of the Year chances are around 30-to-1 but those odds become more favorable if Martin is sent packing. With a chance to start, Lamb becomes a very viable candidate to be the league's best rookie. He doesn't have the defensive skills that Anthony Davis or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist do but he makes up for it with his offense.

    Lamb is the Rockets' future at shooting guard. If he's going to stand a chance at winning Rookie of the Year, the future has to be now.

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