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Handicapping the 2018-19 NBA Rookie of the Year Race

The NBA draft has come and gone, but it’s not too late to offer up bold predictions about this year’s class. Presenting: a wildly speculative breakdown of the Rookie of the Year field, from Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic to … Grayson Allen and Kostas Antetokounmpo.

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With the 2018 NBA draft in the books and the league’s awards ceremony behind us, it’s time, at long last, for the nation to turn its attention to the questions surrounding the 2018-19 season. You know, questions like: Will the Warriors finish with over or under 75.5 wins? Which team will LeBron be playing for when the Warriors kick his ass in the playoffs? Will the Warriors sweep the Finals yet again, or will they get pushed to five games? And which Warriors player will be named Finals MVP? Nobody has any idea what the answers to these questions will be, which is why the upcoming season promises to be full of twists and turns … before it ends with Golden State lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

As compelling as these questions are, however, no question has my attention as much as forecasting who will be named 2018-19 Rookie of the Year. This rookie class is fascinating, both because it’s anchored by big men in an era when bigs feel increasingly obsolete, and because the class’s two premier perimeter players are a noodle-armed chucker who doesn’t play defense (Trae Young) and a Slovenian import who looks like he has 20 percent body fat (Luka Doncic). And if that didn’t make the 2018-19 ROY race feel wide open enough, recent seasons have proved that players drafted outside the top 10 (Michael Carter-Williams, Malcolm Brogdon, Dario Saric, and Donovan Mitchell) can make a serious run at the award.

One thing we know for sure is that summer is officially here, and that means it’s time to offer up way-too-early basketball projections that will inevitably be rendered moot by the time the season rolls around. With that in mind, let’s slot the 2018-19 ROY candidates into tiers.

The Meme Team

Grayson Allen (Jazz)

Remember when EA Sports put Peyton Hillis on the cover of Madden 12 because it opened up voting to the public and 4chan spammed the shit out of it? Well, that’s basically Allen’s path to becoming Rookie of the Year. It’s within the realm of possibility that NBA Twitter, which is fueled by memes and has somehow become an entity legitimized by the league itself, could band together in an effort to make a total mockery of the award.

Maybe NBA Twitter could decide to protest Ben Simmons winning 2017-18 ROY, because last season really represented the Sixers star’s second year in the pros. Or maybe NBA Twitter could protest the fact the league’s regular-season awards show takes place two and a half months after the regular season ends. All that matters is that media people who cover the NBA want nothing more than to be loved by NBA Twitter, so there’s a chance that NBA Twitter could pump out memes all season and convince the media to turn the 2018-19 ROY voting into a joke by campaigning for the funniest possible candidate. Enter: the white guy who launched a billion college basketball memes and will probably average fewer than five points per game for the Jazz next season.

Jevon Carter (Grizzlies)

Carter going to the Grizzlies is the best stylistic pairing of prospect and franchise since the Raptors drafted actual raptor Chris Bosh with the fourth overall pick in 2003. The West Virginia product has the tools to emerge as a solid rotation player in the league for years to come, but that probably won’t be enough to win him ROY. Instead, his path is similar to Allen’s, in that he needs some sort of campaign centered on how perfectly he embodies Memphis’s old “Grit ’n’ Grind” mantra. Granted, a campaign along these lines would work much better at the college level, where fans go bonkers for players who draw charges, embrace physical defense, dive on the floor, and have an intangible sense of leadership. Still, if NBA Twitter wants to meme someone to a ROY award and Allen becomes ineligible because he’s thrown in jail for tripping too many people, Carter is the obvious second option.

Kostas Antetokounmpo (Mavericks)

The notion of the 60th pick in the NBA draft winning Rookie of the Year seems ridiculous, but it has been done before. Who could forget about Woody Sauldsberry in 1958? And while the odds of Giannis’s younger brother even making a 2018-19 NBA roster seem slim, a bizarro ROY campaign isn’t that difficult to envision.

Maybe Giannis will turn in an MVP-caliber season and voters will get confused, accidentally casting a ROY vote for Kostas instead of an MVP vote for Giannis. Maybe Mavericks fans will launch a sarcastic campaign to help their star European win ROY, with the punch line being that the campaign is for Kostas instead of Luka Doncic. Or maybe Giannis will use some of his $24 million salary to bribe various Rookie of the Year voters.

I suppose Kostas could also never make it onto an NBA court next season, and these hypotheticals could remain in play entering 2019-20. Speaking of which …

Harry Giles
Harry Giles
Julie Jacobson/AP Photo

The Redshirts

Harry Giles (Kings)

The Michael Porter Jr. of the 2017 draft was considered a better player than Jayson Tatum as recently as two years ago, before knee problems hampered him throughout his lone season at Duke and then kept him off the floor for the entire 2017-18 NBA season. Now that Giles is completely healthy (and apparently has been for months), though, there’s no telling how good he can be. Skeptics will point to his struggles in college, his background of tearing his ACL in both knees in high school, and the fact he was technically drafted by the Trail Blazers as proof that Giles is destined to be injury prone for his whole career. Yet those who have seen Giles practice with the Kings seem convinced that he is going to be a star, and that his past injury problems won’t limit him long term.

I’m not saying that Giles will ever be considered a superior talent to Tatum again. I’m just saying that if you told me a rookie big man from Duke who now plays for the Kings was going to take the NBA by storm next season, I wouldn’t be sure whether you were referring to Giles or Marvin Bagley III.

Frank Jackson (Pelicans)

Admit it: You forgot that Frank Jackson exists. It’s OK. I sometimes do, too. Let me help you out. Remember the 2016-17 Duke team, the one that was BACK and then NOT BACK and then BACK a million different times before the NCAA tournament started? There were countless reasons that team was such a mess, but its biggest on-court problem was that it lacked a true point guard. In a perfect world, Jackson would have filled this role, but he selfishly decided to focus on being a great athlete who could score from anywhere instead of bringing the ball up and funneling it to Tatum and Luke Kennard. So Grayson Allen tried to assume point guard duties for Duke, but that was a problem because he’s a shooting guard who ... uh, was going through some things that season.

The point is this: Jackson is really talented and didn’t get the best opportunity to show all he was capable of at Duke. That’s not to say the Pelicans should run their offense through Jackson, who missed all of last season with a fractured right foot. But he should have a better chance to showcase his abilities with New Orleans’s second unit than he did at Duke, given all of the chaos that surrounded his only season in college.

The Players Who Are Good Enough to Win It … If They Were on a Different Team

Jaren Jackson Jr. (Grizzlies)

Jackson has all the talent in the world, as well as an ideal skill set to stretch the floor as a two-way player at the five position. But he’s way too passive to step into an NBA lineup and dominate to the extent necessary to win ROY. This much was evident last season at Michigan State, where he was always the best or second-best player on the floor (depending on which version of Miles Bridges showed up), yet averaged only 6.6 field goal attempts and 5.8 rebounds per game. (To be fair, he did play out of position all year.)

Had Jackson been drafted by a young and/or rebuilding team, thrown into the fire, and tasked with carrying a significant load, I maybe could see him coming out of his shell and putting up monster numbers. Instead, he’ll step into a situation where Mike Conley and Marc Gasol have run things forever. And while that’s great in the sense that Jackson won’t be forced to do too much, it will drastically decrease his Rookie of the Year odds.

Moritz Wagner (Lakers)

I would have liked Wagner’s ROY chances much better had he been drafted by the Lakers a year ago instead of at a time when the franchise is preparing to back up a Brink’s truck to entice every free agent who has ever made an All-Star Game. There’s a world in which Wagner will fit in nicely alongside Julius Randle, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, and Lonzo Ball. There’s a world in which he’ll average something like 11 points and seven rebounds per game, all the other big-name rookies get hurt and/or take longer than expected to develop, and Wagner is named ROY because the Lakers win 10 more games in 2018-19 than they did in 2017-18. But there’s also a much more plausible world in which the Lakers will add Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James in the coming weeks, LeBron will bring Chris Bosh, Mike Miller, James Jones, and Shane Battier out of retirement to join them, and Wagner’s ass will get firmly planted on the bench.

Donte DiVincenzo (Bucks)

I originally put DiVincenzo in this tier because he’s now on the same team as Giannis, who had one of the highest usage rates in the NBA last season. But I’ve given it some more thought and changed my mind. The truth is that DiVincenzo isn’t worried about his role on a team. This is a man, after all, who was named the 2018 Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player after dropping 31 points off the bench in the national title game against one of the best defenses in college basketball. Whether an offense is designed to run through him or whether he touches the ball only five times per game, the Big Ragu has his mind on one thing and one thing only: getting buckets. More often than not, that’s exactly what he does.

I can’t believe I thought there might be a scenario in which DiVincenzo wouldn’t be able to make his presence felt. Let’s forget this ever happened and move on.

Mikal Bridges
Mikal Bridges
Chris Szagola/AP Photo

The Chip-on-the-Shoulder Candidates

Mikal Bridges (Suns)

The 76ers drafting Bridges—who has spent his entire life in the greater Philadelphia area and whose mother works for the team’s ownership group—only to turn around and trade him to Phoenix might be the coldest NBA draft move of all time. Especially since the trade wasn’t announced until about 45 minutes after Bridges was drafted, leaving the Villanova star to do interviews while under the impression that he would play for his hometown team. I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but this feels like the origin story for a villain in a superhero movie, which is why I wouldn’t be surprised if Bridges has been sharpening a knife in a dark room and plotting to burn the league to the ground ever since draft night ended.

Collin Sexton (Cavaliers)

Sexton was born with a chip on his shoulder, which is a polite way of saying that he plays out of his goddamn mind in the most likable way possible. He works his ass off every second he’s on the court; he loves to wave off his teammates and go one-on-one when he feels like a defender deserves to be humiliated; and he’s already on pace to be one of the greatest shit-talkers the game has ever seen. He loves being challenged so much that when Maria Taylor asked him to make a pitch for LeBron to stay in Cleveland on ESPN’s draft broadcast, I half expected Sexton to say, “Screw that. I don’t need LeBron. I don’t need Kevin Love. I barely even need teammates at all.”

No matter what happens with LeBron, Sexton is in a good spot. If James stays in Cleveland, I have a feeling Sexton will quickly become his favorite Cavs teammate. But if LeBron ends up leaving like everyone seems to think, Sexton should have the perfect combination of opportunity, attitude, and talent to vie for Rookie of the Year.

Michael Porter Jr. (Nuggets)

The man who was a lock to be a top-three pick and possibly go no. 1 overall as recently as last year almost slid out of the lottery completely because of medical concerns. He had back surgery and was sidelined for all but three games of his freshman season at Missouri. The great news for Porter is that he now faces virtually no pressure. Plenty of analysts think his NBA career is dead on arrival (especially since it’s still not entirely clear whether he’s healthy), which should prompt him to put a chip on his shoulder and set out to prove everyone wrong. The bad news, however, is that this chip on his shoulder could very well turn out to be a dislodged piece of his spine.

The Dark-Horse Candidates

Trae Young (Hawks)

If you would have asked me before the draft to name three players on the Hawks, I’m not sure I could have done it. I maybe could have come up with Dennis Schröder, but my other two guesses probably would have been Joe Johnson (collecting checks on a shitty Atlanta team during the twilight of his career just feels right) and Ish Smith (he has played for virtually every other franchise, so it only makes sense that he’d find his way to the Hawks). That is to say this: These Hawks are a perfect fit for Young, if for no other reason than he should have the freedom to shoot as often as he pleases.

That’s exactly what Young’s path to winning ROY requires. He needs as long a leash as possible so he can throw the ball all over the gym, jack up air balls from 35 feet, and forget to play defense. Because if he’s given the green light to do all of that without holding onto the fear of getting benched, some absurd stat lines and incredible moments are sure to follow.

Mo Bamba (Magic)

I’ll be honest: I never really loved Bamba during his one season at Texas. I understood why he kept showing up near the top of mock drafts, and the stats he put up (12.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 3.7 blocks per game) were nothing to scoff at. But I could never shake the feeling that he was basically Jaren Jackson Jr. if Jackson were a worse shooter who played for a lesser team. Bamba’s potential was there, but that was the thing: He wasn’t a star in my eyes because it was obvious that he remained a work in progress.

But then I saw a 31-second video of Bamba absolutely destroying a 6-foot-2 white guy. That changed everything. The man has clearly been putting in work to develop his game, and it has me convinced that the player I thought was raw has now transformed into a total beast. I know this might sound like a stretch, but that video is all the proof I need to declare that Bamba is definitely good enough to lead the Magic to a YMCA men’s league title.

Kevin Knox (Knicks)

Knox is a 6-foot-9 scoring machine who rebounds well and has unlimited range when he gets hot. He already has name recognition by virtue of having played for the biggest and most valuable brand in college basketball (Kentucky). Now he’s going to play for the New York Knicks. Knox might already be the second-best player on his team without ever playing a second of professional basketball, which means he should have every opportunity to put up solid numbers. It also means he could become a focal point for an NBA prestige franchise that plays in the media capital of the world.

Knox has a tendency to be inconsistent, and has room for improvement with his defense and ballhandling. But forget all that. Reread everything I wrote in the first paragraph and tell me with a straight face that Knox doesn’t have a realistic shot at being named Rookie of the Year.

Deandre Ayton
Deandre Ayton
Ralph Freso/AP Photo

The Contenders (a.k.a. the Guys Who Will Be Considered Busts If They Aren’t Averaging Double-Doubles Through Their First 10 Games)

Deandre Ayton (Suns)

I don’t need to waste your time explaining why the draft’s no. 1 overall pick is a ROY candidate, seeing as all the reasons that convinced Phoenix to take Ayton over everyone else are the same ones that make him a favorite to bring home the hardware. But here’s some historical context that doesn’t bode well for Ayton’s candidacy: Players who were selected fifth have won more Rookie of the Year awards throughout NBA history than those who were drafted first. If that tidbit comes as a surprise, it’s probably because it’s complete bullshit that I just made up. The truth is that no. 1 picks win ROY all the time. In fact, in the past 35 years, no. 1 picks have been named Rookie of the Year 17 times, including Simmons just last season. And get this: No. 2 picks have won the award with the second-most frequency over that span, with no. 3, no. 4, and no. 5 picks tying for third-most frequency. I’ll need to collect more data to confirm, but I’m starting to think there’s a direct correlation between the order in which players are drafted and their basketball-playing abilities.

Marvin Bagley III (Kings)

Everything I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how Bagley was the most dominant force in college basketball last season represents exactly why he’s my pick to win 2018-19 Rookie of the Year. Here’s the gist: He’s an athletic freak who was the most NBA-ready college player in the draft; he has a tireless work ethic and a nose for the ball; and he’s perfectly built to thrive in modern NBA offenses. The concerns surrounding Bagley (read: his defense suuuuuucks) heading into the draft were valid, but they’re only worth worrying about when projecting whether he’ll eventually become an MVP-caliber player. We can cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, know that Bagley is poised to be an immediate double-double machine for what is quickly becoming the league’s most fun rebuilding team. That’s the kind of ROY candidate I can get behind.

The Golden Boy

Luka Doncic (Mavericks)

Ah, who are we kidding—Doncic already has the 2018-19 Rookie of the Year award locked up. After all, ROY is voted on by media members, and NBA media members looooooooove Doncic. I mean, they worship the guy. Sure, most of them have never seen one of his games, but why does that matter? You know what they have seen? That he won EuroLeague MVP at age 19. What else needs to be said? While Doncic was shredding ADULT MEN in Europe, every other prominent rookie was in college going against players who didn’t even smoke cigarettes in the locker room at halftime. In fact, not only am I certain that Luka will win Rookie of the Year, I’d bet dollars to donuts that he’ll win multiple ROY awards in his career. He’s that good. (Not sure if you heard, but he won EuroLeague MVP as a 19-year-old.)

Truth be told, the only real Rookie of the Year competition Doncic should face will come from inside the Dallas organization. Because if the 2017-18 college basketball season taught us anything, it’s that every major award is Jalen Brunson’s to lose if he can simply find a way to be the fourth-best player on his own team.