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The Dark-Horse Rookie of the Year Candidates to Keep an Eye On

Lonzo Ball and others may take the spotlight, but these three players have a chance to finish at the top of the 2017 draft class

Frank Ntilikina, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Jarrett Allen Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Malcolm Brogdon’s 2016-17 NBA Rookie of the Year win was a shocker. As the no. 36 pick, the Bucks guard was the lowest-drafted player to ever win the award. The last non-lottery pick to win was Mark Jackson, way back in 1987-88. The last second-rounder to win came at a time when the NBA had only enough teams to count on two hands.

How unusual (and weak) last season’s rookie class was becomes more apparent when looking at minute distribution. Only four times in NBA history has a Rookie of the Year logged fewer than 51 percent of available minutes for his team. Patrick Ewing, Brandon Roy, Kyrie Irving, and Brogdon are the outliers. Of the 68 Rookie of the Year winners, 52 played in at least two-thirds of possible minutes. Injuries to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons opened the door for Brogdon, as did the underachievement of heavy favorites like Brandon Ingram, Buddy Hield, and Kris Dunn.

The 2017-18 season should return to normal. Lonzo Ball already has all eyes on the Lakers. Simmons and Markelle Fultz should shine with the opportunities they’ll be provided. Dennis Smith Jr. and De’Aaron Fox will start. Josh Jackson and Jonathan Isaac should get heavy reps.

Odds are an overlooked rookie won’t steal the award like Brogdon did. But underdogs can still make a run at it. Minutes and opportunity aren’t restricted to just lottery picks and big-name prospects. With that in mind, here are three dark-horse candidates to keep tabs on this season:

Frank Ntilikina, Knicks

You’d think a rookie drafted in the lottery by a franchise in one of the world’s biggest cities would be receiving Rookie of the Year hype, but that’s not the case with Ntilikina. He’s unlisted on most betting sites and, at best, has 50-1 odds to win. He didn’t even collect a single vote for any category in NBA.com’s annual rookie survey.

Phil Jackson was (finally!) fired soon after drafting the French guard eighth overall to be the point guard for his precious triangle offense, and then Ntilikina hurt his knee during his first practice with the team and missed all of summer league. Dennis Smith Jr. and Donovan Mitchell, meanwhile, became summer sensations for the Mavs and Jazz, respectively. Malik Monk, his agent, and his family all thought Monk would be drafted by the Knicks. John Calipari, his coach at Kentucky, also liked the fit: “I wanted Malik in New York because I thought he would light it up,” Calipari said to ESPN on draft night. “It would be back on. But they must’ve liked the French kid. I’ve not seen him enough. But I hear he’s really good.”

Calipari’s quote sums up the public opinion on Ntilikina (for the record, we here at The Ringer call him Frankie Nicotine or Frankie Smokes. Frank works, too) these days. But Coach Cal did hear right: Frank is “really good.”

The hurdle for young players trying to earn minutes is defense. Though just 19, Frank comes ready-made to defend, with a strong, muscular 6-foot-5 frame and a long wingspan.

Ntilikina doesn’t take his athletic gifts for granted; he plays with a particular intensity and focus not often found in players his age. He puts his body on the line and has a knack for making winning plays by diving for loose balls, jumping passing lanes, or stepping up to take a charge.

There are no guarantees that Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek will hand Ntilikina the starting point guard spot, but he should eventually earn it over Ron Baker. (Ron! Freaking! Baker! No wonder Melo pines to play with Chris Paul and James Harden even more than Kristaps Porzingis thirsts for Instagram models.) There’s no doubt Ntilikina has vision. His height creates passing angles that other point guards can only dream of. The ingredients are there for Frank to be a hard-to-stop pick-and-roll playmaker. He already can make slick passes like this:

It remains to be seen how long Carmelo Anthony will remain in New York, but for as long as he does, the ball will spend a lot of time out of Frank’s hands. Both Melo and Tim Hardaway Jr. should get a lot of touches, which should help Ntilikina get buckets, considering he shot 38 percent from 3 last season, per DraftExpress.

Ntilikina needs reps. He’s an unreliable shooter off the dribble, and, though his passing vision is sweet, highlights can be terribly misleading. The more you watched Frank play last season for Strasbourg, the more you’d find mishaps where even slight pressure forced him into bad decisions, like he was channeling Mark Sanchez.

There was a narrative prior to the draft that Frank isn’t a true point guard because his handle is loose and he occasionally sails the ball out of the back of the end zone. That’s true today. But it doesn’t mean it will be two years from now or five years from now. With good coaching (which he will hopefully receive in New York) and a good attitude and diligent work ethic (which I’m told he has) his technical skills can be improved.

New York’s focus should be on player development, which means Ntilikina should receive heavy minutes and usage. Even if his efficiency is low, the volume should thrust his name into the Rookie of the Year debate.

Jarrett Allen, Nets

Allen should be able to breathe in Brooklyn. More than 70 percent of the possessions he played as a freshman at Texas came with a second big man on the floor, per data derived from Hoop Lens. This meant Allen was forced to play a lot of power forward and was not in lineups that featured him as a rim-rolling center who scored off cuts and dives with the floor spread:

Allen has enormous hands that allow him to palm the basketball like a grapefruit and finish with power or touch around the rim. The Nets played last season with only one traditional big on the floor the majority of the time, so Allen should get plenty of time at center—especially when his only competitors for minutes are Timofey Mozgov and Tyler Zeller. Of the players selected in the back half of the first round, Allen, the no. 22 overall pick, could realistically receive the most opportunity. It’ll also help that Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell will be tossing him passes, rather than the collection of inexperienced point guards at Texas.

“When I started watching [Allen’s] games I was immediately … you know. It's like when you see a beautiful girl. Wow,” Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson said at Allen’s introductory press conference. “You walk in there, ‘Wow. This guy’s really good.’” Atkinson went on to say that Allen does “everything we want in a big player,” like run the court, defend the rim, and play with feel and timing. “He’s a system fit,” the coach added. “I’m up here pinching myself. We got a heck of a player, heck of a young man.”

With the Nets focused on development, Allen will get plenty of chances to turn weaknesses into strengths. It’s crucial that he improves his defensive fundamentals, particularly when sliding his feet laterally on the perimeter, and plays with more physicality. But for the most part, Allen swatting shots away with his big mitts will be a welcome sight in Brooklyn:

If you’re a Nets fan thinking of placing a bet on Allen to win Rookie of the Year, hold off until media day, at least. If there are rumblings from Allen, Atkinson, or Nets general manager Sean Marks that Allen has added a jumper, move forward.

It wouldn’t be too surprising if, with the help of shooting coach Adam Harrington, the Nets try to turn Allen into a shooter. Even though Allen shot only 56.4 percent from the line, missed all seven of his 3s, and shot just 35.6 percent on midrange jumpers (per Synergy) at Texas, the rookie does have a soft touch and correctable mechanics.

Given that the Nets turned Brook Lopez into a high-volume shooter as part of their analytics-driven shot selection, Allen could be next. Allen has a surprisingly smooth handle when attacking the rim, so if his shot develops, lanes will open for him to take opponents off the bounce.

There are many possible outcomes for a player as raw as Allen, who still has question marks regarding his feel and intangibles. He could flame out. But Allen fell into a perfect low-pressure situation that’ll provide him opportunities and under a coach that does a great job of putting his players in positions to succeed. Maybe he’ll play a big part in getting Brooklyn back on track sooner than anyone expects.

Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kings

With all eyes on Fox, Justin Jackson, and Harry Giles, the Kings’ fourth first-round rookie, Bogdanovic, isn’t getting nearly enough attention. Bogdanovic was a Euro-stash after being drafted 27th by the Suns in 2014. He’s been hidden for years.

FIBA EuroBasket isn’t popular in the U.S., though Bogdanovic is helping carry Serbia in this year’s tournament, averaging 19.7 points. Hield’s emergence to close last season has fans more excited about what they already know. No one took Sacramento GM Vlade Divac seriously when he called Bogdanovic “definitely [the] number one player in Europe” in 2016 after trading for him on draft night.

Divac’s statement was hyperbolic, but Bogdanovic is indeed one of the top European prospects. He was the back-to-back EuroLeague Rising Star in 2013-14 and 2014-15, and he’s since become the leading scorer on Fenerbahce, a team filled with former NBA players like Gigi Datome, Ekpe Udoh, and Jan Vesely. Bogdanovic, 25, is well seasoned and has loads of big-game experience. Plug “Bogdan Bogdanovic clutch” into YouTube and you’ll be flooded with videos of ice-cold game winners.

The Kings have a glut of youngsters who will vie for minutes along with old heads George Hill, Vince Carter, and Garrett Temple. But there’s enough room for the Serbian rookie to get playing time. I like Hield, but are we sure he’s better than Bogdanovic? Bogdanovic could end up starting next to Hill, with Fox and Hield coming off the bench.

Bogdanovic will also need to cut down on careless turnovers, and he’s not big enough, in an ideal world, to play small forward. So what? The Kings gave him the most lucrative rookie contract in NBA history (three years, $27 million total) because he’s a trained scoring assassin.

Bogdanovic’s limitless range, advanced shooting stroke, and lack of a conscience give him a baseline for success. But he’s capable of more. Last season Bogdanovic was a central figure of Fenerbahce’s heavy pick-and-roll attack:

Bogdanovic isn’t a primary ball handler by any means. His handle is still far too loose, though he’s done a good job over the years of adding his left hand. Nonetheless, he’s perfectly capable of making defenders pay for going under screens in pick-and-roll situations or attacking the basket. A few years ago, Bogdanovic didn’t have much of an in-between game, but he’s added floaters and pull-ups that make him a more dynamic threat.

With a diverse scoring skill set, Bogdanovic has developed accordingly as a secondary playmaker.

At 6-foot-6 with long arms, Bogdanovic has a length advantage that enables him to make some tough passes. He takes frustrating risks, but simple entry passes and lobs come easy at this stage of his career. Dealing with the length and physicality of the NBA will be an adjustment for Bogdanovic, as it is for any rookie. But the building blocks are there for him to be a longtime contributor for the Kings.