Zion Williamson was the prospective Rookie of the Year but that conversation abruptly stopped when he had a knee injury before the regular season even started. He will be considered one of the top prospectives to win this award when he comes back because of his points per game in the summer league. As of now, Ja Morant is the top prospect for this award because of his amazing playmaking ability. His skill set pushed him to the front of Rookie of the Year talk over the first two months of the season, but the recent back spasm flare-up will keep him out from week to week. Even if Morant only misses half of December, the NBA’s Rookie of the Year conversation could shift. Already, several candidates have inched closer behind him in the chase for the honor; they will have the opportunity to burnish their cases in the upcoming weeks.
Below are five rookies who, as of Dec. 8, who is most likely to win Rookie of the Year — if Morant doesn’t claim it.
NBA Rookie of the Year Candidate:
1. Kendrick Nunn
Miami Heat rookie Kendrick Nunn has been one of the pleasant surprises of the season, averaging 16.9 points, 3.3 assists and 1.3 steals in 29.4 minutes per game, shooting 48.9 percent from three and 40.7 percent from three. Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic and Justise Winslow have missed significant time with injuries and Nunn has been able to step up. Although he is slightly undersized at 6-2, he has compensated these shortcomings with on-ball speed and great outside shooting (39.8 percent from deep). His rise to starter for the 12-4 Heat has been one of the better stories of the young season. Nunn went undrafted in 2018 and spent all of last year in the G League for Golden State’s affiliate, the Santa Cruz Warriors. After averaging 19.3 points per game for Santa Cruz, he was signed by Miami in April. The Heat have trusted him enough to start him in all 16 of their games this season, and Nunn believes he deserves to be considered the front-runner for Rookie of the Year. In an interview with Stadium, he says “I definitely feel like I’m the Rookie of the Year.”
2. RJ Barrett
Barrett, picked No. 3 overall by New York, is in many ways the opposite of Nunn. He played only played college ball for one season at Duke, unlike Nunn who completed four years between Oakland and Illinois. Barrett’s physical tools are elite at the wing. He has an impressive vertical jump and is surprisingly strong when he burrows his way into the paint. He is able to outrebound many players in the league and dish out assists. The long-term jumper remains a work in progress, but in the interim, Barrett can rely on his strength and savvy to potentially lead all rookies in scoring. Barrett is playing all the minutes he can handle on a woeful Knicks team, which have just fired their head coach. In the long run, his scoring average should past Nunn. The problem for him is efficiency — taking more than 15 shots per game to average around 15 points is ultimately not very valuable to the Knicks. He needs to cut into his reputation as a volume chucker in order to be a serious ROY contender, something he still has plenty of time to work out.
3. Tyler Herro
Tyler Herro has been able to up his game to produce immaculate results. Along with rookie Kendrick Nunn, Herro has been a pleasant surprise for Erik Spoelstra this year. His ability to run off screens, make three-pointers, and even perform in the clutch will be critical to the Heat who only have Jimmy Butler as their star player. While his lateral movement needs to improve in order to stay in front of his man, he has already shown great instinct for stealing the ball, averaging 1.5 steals per game in five games. Herro can be one of the best offensive options beyond Jimmy Butler, and the rookie with the most impact on a team that is looking towards the playoffs. Herro currently has the fourth-best jump shot percentage in the NBA at 44.3 percent, a huge testament to his special ability to shoot the basketball efficiently. He was also voted as the “Best Shooter,” in the league receiving 33 percent of the total votes. Herro is lucky enough to have two All-Star caliber teammates who he shares the court with on a nightly basis in Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic. Both of these players have been around the league for a long time and bring a lot of experience to the table.
4. Rui Hachimura
The Wizards received a fair amount of criticism for taking Hachimura ninth overall in June. His ceiling of a modern-day forward who could guard multiple positions, space the floor and attack mismatches is very enticing. However, questions about his shooting range, lateral quickness and strength inside had plenty of draft experts skeptical. So far, Hachimura has looked really good. His three-point stroke hasn’t come along yet, and seems to be most comfortable when operating in the midrange. There’s no hesitation to his game as he stops and shoots whenever he feels he’s at a distance he’s comfortable with. He has a quicker first step for a guy his size and shows burst when cutting through the lane. Most teams know he likes the midrange and therefore try to make him put the ball on the floor or force him to step back to three-point range. Hachimura has been able to get some easy buckets by countering with a quick pump fake and explosion to the basket. Once Hachimura learns how to finish through contact and figure out his spots on the floor, he’s going to be dangerous screening for Bradley Beal.
5. Eric Paschall
With D’Angelo Russell missing the last few weeks, Draymond Green out numerous games, and Klay Thompson still rehabbing his torn ACL, Paschall has had a prime chance, even as a rookie, to take over as the team’s leader; he’s done just that. He just might struggle to gain national recognition considering his lack of draft hype and his bottom-dwelling squad. Paschall is averaging 17.3 points, second among rookies, on 51% shooting. He also tacks on 5.4 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game. He has the best field goal percentage of rookies that have shot over 150 field goal attempts. Given his efficiency, there’s no reason Paschall shouldn’t be the ultimate favorite. The decision for rookie of the year is hard because undrafted rookie Kendrick Nunn, No. 3 overall pick RJ Barrett and lottery pick Tyler Herro have all been playing outstanding basketball with Nunn and Herro the only two on a team that may actually reach the playoffs.
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