Naming Buddy Hield of the Pelicans the favorite for Rookie of the Year in the final countdown to the start of the regular season is flying in the face of history. A strange history that defies logic, a history that contradicts conventional wisdom, but, yes, history.
Experience does not translate. Of the last 10 top newcomers, six were in the NBA after one-and-done college fly-bys and two stuck it out for two seasons while only two stayed the full four, 2012-13 winner Damian Lillard and Brandon Roy from 2006-07. The last two years, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns both went directly from NCAA freshmen to Rookie of the Year with the Timberwolves, with runaway victories in the ballot box.
But it is impossible to ignore that two of the leading contenders for 2016-17, Hield and Kris Dunn in his attempt at a Minnesota three-peat, are arguably the most NBA-ready of the prospects. Philadelphia’s Dario Saric is in the conversation at 22 years old and with five seasons of experience against pros in Europe, the last two with a prominent role in Turkey and Euroleague action, except that Saric doesn’t figure to have the same star billing Hield will be offered in New Orleans and Dunn may have for the Timberwolves. Taurean Prince of the Hawks and Denzel Valentine of the Bulls left college as seniors, but need to prove they will be more than complementary players in 2016-17.
The Hield edge is that he combines background – 22 years old, four seasons at Oklahoma, sixth in the NCAA in three-point percentage as a senior – with present-day opportunity. The Pelicans need air cover if they are to make defenses pay for sending extra bodies at Anthony Davis, and they need it just because. Hield, the No. 6 pick in June, will have the chance for an immediate impact.
Dunn, meanwhile, is more of a maybe. Not in level of preparation – 22 years old, already a physical presence as a 6-4, 205-pound point guard, four seasons at Providence, though with one mostly lost to a shoulder injury – but in opportunity. While the Wolves obviously like his future, enough to spend the fifth pick on him, the Wolves still have Ricky Rubio and require someone who can get Towns and Wiggins the ball in the right spot at the right time. Even if Dunn plays a lot, history shows reserves do not win Rookie of the Year.
A couple of rookie details as opening night approaches: Ben Simmons, the likely No. 1 under normal circumstances, opens out of the top 10 because of the fractured left foot suffered in a 76ers scrimmage. Playing about half the season probably ruins his chances at ROY, unless it’s a monster second half and no other candidates are impressing, but it’s possible for Simmons to climb back into the rankings. And, there is no Rookie Ladder next week because only one night of games will have been played, then returns Nov. 2 and every following Wednesday except for the All-Star break.
1. Buddy Hield, New Orleans Pelicans
This sets up perfectly for Hield. He is a shooter who arrived just before the Pelicans parted with Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, first and second on the team in 3-point attempts last season. And now Jrue Holiday (taking care of his sick wife, Lauren) and Tyreke Evans (knee surgery, blood clot) will miss at least the start of the season. Meanwhile, Anthony Davis is scheduled to be back sometime around opening night after spraining an ankle in exhibition play, a return that would help Hield get better looks.
2. Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers
Even if new coach Luke Walton does bring him off the bench in favor of Luol Deng, Ingram has the ability, especially on offense, to make it a temporary decision. Much of that depends on whether Ingram, at 6-9 and 190, bulks up, and how fast. And even if Walton keeps him a reserve role, Ingram can still make enough of an impact as a rookie, with the potential to score from the perimeter and in transition.
3. Kris Dunn, Minnesota Timberwolves
Fellow newcomers picked Dunn to win Rookie of the Year in the annual NBA.com survey in August, slightly ahead of Ingram. (Ben Simmons was third in balloting in August, before Simmons’ foot injury.) Then general managers agreed in the GM poll released this week. The reasoning was understandable. Dunn has the maturity, frame and defense of a veteran. Turnovers are the concern. Whether he starts or comes off the bench could become a factor if he is in contention for ROY, but Dunn will get big minutes either way.
4. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
All clear? Is it really safe to get our hopes up? Embiid wasn’t playing big minutes in the exhibition schedule, but the restrictions were being eased to where he was up to 20 minutes on Saturday amid the additional important development that he will probably be able to play in back-to-backs. If Embiid stays healthy, always the key after missing the last two seasons with foot injuries as the No. 3 pick in 2014, and gets to where he is averaging high-20s in minutes, he could become a contender.
5. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets have immediately gone to work to develop the versatility they, and many other teams, saw on draft night, giving him time at shooting guard and point guard. His minutes will jump if the approach carries over from exhibition games and practices into the regular season. More chances will come if his success behind the arc in the one-and-done at Kentucky continues in the NBA and on a team that finished 26th last season in 3-point percentage.
6. Domantas Sabonis, Oklahoma City Thunder
The unexpected name. But Sabonis could start at power forward and be an immediate complementary fit for the Thunder with basketball IQ, defense and passing, even if being the son of the great Arvydas means the No. 11 pick will always be the second-best big man in the family. While it doesn’t put him in the conversation for Rookie of the Year, being dependable and playing an important role in several areas for a potential playoff team will keep Sabonis in the rankings.
7. Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers
He has the valuable Euroleague background and is a player who moves the ball well joining a team that needs people who move the ball, a priority anyway but especially with Simmons out. The question is the same as with current Ladder neighbor Sabonis: Will Saric become more than a solid contributor (without the Sabonis benefit of being on a good team)? It wouldn’t be bad if that is his ceiling, as projected since he went 12th in 2014. But it would limit the chances of climbing into the Rookie of the Year conversation.
8. Marquese Chriss, Phoenix Suns
The fouls were a problem last season as a freshman at Washington and the fouls were a problem during the exhibition schedule, the reminder that he is still very raw and could cost himself minutes. But the No. 8 pick could still have a big role early for a team in need of a power forward, maybe, if not probably, a bigger role than No. 4 pick Dragan Bender at the same position in Phoenix. Chriss will score a lot on lobs and on the break. If his perimeter game comes along quickly, he could become one of the top offensive threats in the class.
9. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
The No. 3 pick went from longshot to make the season-opening list to immediate Ladder resident by averaging 22.6 minutes his first six exhibition appearances, including 22, 25 and 20 the last three at a time when coaches are generally locking into regular-season rotations. Brown may need all of a couple weeks to disprove post-draft predictions that he would have a limited role as a 20 year old (on Oct. 24) needing time to develop on a team in win-now mode. He will back up Jae Crowder at small forward and may also play power forward when the Celtics go small.
10. Taurean Prince, Atlanta Hawks
Prince probably won’t jump out. He may not fill up a stat sheet, especially on a roster with All-Stars and experience. But it’s easy to see someone with his versatility, defense and potential 3-point range making the rotation and playing meaningful minutes, a sizeable compliment for a rookie on a team aiming for a long postseason run. Playing four seasons at Baylor is good background for making the transition.
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