Another week, another new perspective on the ever-changing Kia Rookie of the Year race. It’s a race that now includes two candidates moving gingerly to the end of the regular season with the third already done. And, there’s enough uncertainty in the final days of the schedule that it would be impossible to make anything close to an accurate prediction on the ROY chase in what has become an unexpectedly interesting ballot.
This much does seem to be clear after an informal straw poll and conversations with about a dozen voters from the media:
While some won’t consider Joel Embiid because he will have played just 38 percent of the games by the end of the season (31 appearances in all), others say the Philadelphia 76ers center is still at the top of their list. Maybe that changes in the final week. But Embiid remains a very large presence in all this despite not playing in 2½ months. He is the guy who could get first-place votes and also be left out off the ballot by others.
The race is not strictly Dario Saric vs. Embiid, to be decided on where the electorate falls on the 38 percent. The Milwaukee Bucks’ Malcolm Brogdon is getting real support for No. 1. While there is no way to know whether the unscientific feedback will translate into real time, the responses came from the media spread around the league, not central to any location or conference. If it projects to the actual vote, Brogdon is a legit threat.
Saric seems to be in the lead. Again, it’s a small sample size, but possibly also indicative.
Many are torn by what is perceived as a lack of good options — the guy who got hurt or the two others who don’t have award-winning numbers. Most surveyed has made a decision, albeit not happily, while others remain uncommitted with the stance that none of the three top candidates should be Rookie of the Year. All of the potential voters said they will reach a conclusion rather than return a blank ballot, but clearly what is an interesting race to some with the unique Embiid situation is having to pick the best bad option for others.
The invaluable Ladder endorsement will come next week as part of the final rankings. For now, there is finally a change at the top.
NBA Awards Show on June 26 on TNT
To this week’s rankings:
1. Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers
Last week: No. 2
Some timing for a promotion. The 76ers just announced Saric will be capped at 24 minutes through the end of the season while playing with a sore left heel that, barring a change of thinking or another injury, will get him to 82. But he was just awarded another Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month, joining with Joel Embiid to make Philadelphia the first team to ever have at least two players win multiple times. Saric should finish first in the class in scoring and second at worst in rebounding.
2. Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks
Last week: No. 3
The back injury that cost Brogdon the last three games could impact a lot more than Rookie of the Year. That’s how big he has become for the Bucks, to where his health with the playoffs a little more than a week away will be a key progress report in Milwaukee and throughout the East. Back trouble also cost him two games in early-March. While Brogdon has slipped to fourth in the class in 3-point percentage after leading or challenging for the top spot much of the season, he should hold off a charge from Yogi Ferrell to finish No. 1 in assists.
3. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Last week: No. 1
This is the first time he has not been No. 1 since the season-opening rankings of Oct. 29, 2016. He was fourth then, with the notation that health was the primary issue standing between Embiid and Rookie of the Year, instantly moved to the top in the first in-season Ladder and stayed there through rationed minutes, never playing both sides of a back-to-back and even after what turned out to be his final game on Jan. 20. Until now. The small resumé combined with the play of Saric and Brogdon finally forced the demotion.
4. Marquese Chriss, Phoenix Suns
Last week: No. 4
He is at 13 points, six rebounds, 50.5 percent from the field and 36.8 percent behind the arc in 22 games since the All-Star break, making Chriss and Brogdon the only rookies in that time to top 50/35 in shooting while averaging double-digit scoring. Chriss has a clear path to move into the top five in rebounding, with current No. 5 Ivica Zubac done for the season, and has a chance to reach the threshold in the final week as well. Chriss is also a possibility for second in blocks.
5. Willy Hernangomez, New York Knicks
Last week: No. 5
Even with just three rebounds Sunday against the Celtics and five the previous Monday against the Pistons, Hernangomez still has a good chance to finish in the top five in the league, not just rookies, in rebounds per 48 minutes. The huge selling point comes as he is about to take over first place in the class in overall rebounding, once Embiid falls below the qualifying minimum, while also 11th in scoring, fourth in shooting and tied for fifth in blocks.
6. Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings
Last week: No. 6
The 15.4 points the last 10 games and 14.4 points per game since the All-Star break has positioned Hield to catch Brogdon for third place among rookies in scoring. It’s not just firing away on a bad team, though. While the Western Conference Rookie of the Month probably won’t make the top 10 in shooting, despite the 48.5 percent since the break, he is sixth in 3-point accuracy and has a good chance for the top 10 in rebounding, too. It won’t get him into final Ladder top five, but Hield could go two months as one of the best rookies. That’s an accomplishment for anyone not named Embiid.
7. Yogi Ferrell, Dallas Mavericks
Last week: No. 7
He went from winning Rookie of the Month in the West for February to even better numbers in March in shooting, 3-point percentage, free-throw percentage and steals despite averaging about five minutes less per game. Hield won the award for March, but Ferrell topped 40 percent behind the arc a second month in a row, an important progress report in a season when he has struggled with his shot in general. Though just 23rd in the class in field-goal accuracy overall, he is up to fourth in 3-point percentage while also fifth in scoring, second in assists, fourth in steals and fourth in minutes, many of which were piled up when the Mavericks were still in playoff contention.
8. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
Last week: No. 8
The longer the Nuggets remain in the playoff conversation, continuing to pressure the Trail Blazers for No. 8 in the West, the better Murray looks as his role is increased to regularly logging high-20s/low-30s in minutes. The more the games matter, the more he plays. While no longer stringing together double-digit scoring contests as in March, this is someone who would have been a college sophomore contributing in a big way in crunch time and playing both backcourt spots. A late rally could move him into fifth place among rookies in scoring.
9. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
Last week: No. 9
The minutes are climbing again – 23 on Friday against the Magic and 27 on Sunday at New York after failing to break 20 in six of the previous eight, leading to 12 and 16 points, respectively. Keeping an integral role on one of the best teams has been critical to Brown’s chances of staying in the top 10. What hasn’t changed is that he has spent most of the season as a dependable shooter, at No. 11 in both field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage. He has earned the trust to get big minutes with home-court advantage through the conference portion of the playoffs on the line.
10. Rodney McGruder, Miami Heat
Last week: Not ranked
Like several others in the second five, the greatest credibility boost for McGruder is a prominent spot in the rotation at the most critical time of the season for a team digging for the playoffs. His 60 starts are the most by a Heat rookie since Mario Chalmers in 2008-09, he has made a big contribution on defense and on the whole handled the pressure of the push to the postseason. McGruder does not offer many flashy numbers, but is 11th among rookies in rebounding while mostly playing shooting guard.
Dropped out: Ivica Zubac (10).
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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