NBA Rookie of Year Preview, Predictions, Picks: How Do First-Year Players Rate?

Morant: NBA Rookie of Year predictionsMany pundits saw the 2019 NBA draft class as a weak one. However, the class has produced many strong contributors in the 2019-20 season, including some guys who were selected outside the draft or even went undrafted.

Let’s rate the top five rookies from this season while also acknowledging some honorable mentions who have shown a lot of promise in their first pro season. Here are our NBA Rookie of the Year predictions and top picks for this preview:

Top Rookie of the Year Candidates for 2019-20

1. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

Morant at No. 1 is the only pick here that shouldn’t be controversial whatsoever. The 20-year-old point guard is averaging 17.6 points and 6.9 assists on respectable efficiency for a Grizzlies team that is surprisingly in playoff positioning. Memphis was supposed to be one of the worst teams in the NBA this season. Morant’s athleticism, skill and craftiness have been a major factor in the Grizzlies’ surprising campaign.

All that to say, Morant definitely has things to work on. He is somewhat turnover-prone (3.2 miscues per game), his three-point jump shot isn’t a frequent weapon for him and he often lands dangerously after jumping very high for dunk attempts.

Especially considering how hard it is to play the point guard position as an NBA rookie, Morant is the no-brainer choice for this season’s Rookie of the Year.

2. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

Nineteen games. 19! That’s how many regular season contests Williamson has played this year. The fact that he is all the way up at No. 2 on this list should tell you how amazing of a campaign he has had.

Zion is putting up 23.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists in only 29.7 minutes per game and his true-shooting percentage is a sparkling 62.4. The Pelicans have outscored opponents by 10.1 points per 100 possessions in the 565 minutes Zion has played this year. In the other non-Zion minutes the Pelicans have played this season, opponents have outscored them by 3.5 points per 100 possessions.

Defensively, the 6’6” Williamson has a lot to learn. At the college basketball level, he was able to dominate on that end because of his instincts, bulk and otherworldly athleticism. However, at the NBA level, players are bigger, stronger, faster and smarter. They are not afraid to challenge the undersized Zion at the rim.

Ultimately, Williamson has still made All-Star level impact for the Pelicans since returning from injury in January, so he deserves a high ranking here.

3. Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat

The Miami Heat are on a 52-win pace over a traditional 82-game season. Nunn has started 62 of the team’s 65 games this year. Only three rookies in the past 18 years have started at least 60 games on a 50-win team: Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum and OG Anunoby.

While Nunn isn’t at the level of those first two stars, and Anunoby is a quickly rising defensive stalwart, the Heat’s 24-year-old rookie guard is having a season worth talking about. Nunn is putting up 15.6 points and 3.4 assists while playing both guard spots for a Miami squad that is above average on both ends of the floor.

Nunn won’t blow you away in any one area of the game, but he is a solid all-around contributor who knows how to put the ball in the hoop and who throws off defenders as a left-hander. It will always be a wonder that he went undrafted in 2018 and didn’t get a real NBA opportunity until more than a year later.

4. Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies

If advanced statistics were the primary measure used to select this award, Clarke might be the best rookie in the league. The 23-year-old forward from Gonzaga is an efficiency monster who boasts a spectacular 67 percent true-shooting mark, hardly turns the ball over and frequently makes positive plays on defense.

Indeed, I personally might put Clarke all the way at No. 2 on this list, after only his teammate Morant. He has been that helpful to the Grizzlies’ solid season. He has missed some games (15, to be exact), and his role on offense is relatively simple compared to the other players on this list. More than 83 percent of his baskets have been assisted by teammates and he has not asked to do too much with the ball. Those two factors will hurt his standing with voters.

While I think Clarke’s advanced numbers are a bit inflated, he is still a very helpful player to have on both ends of the floor. He is going to be an elite role player in the NBA for many years, which is a fantastic outcome for a guy selected 21st overall in his draft.

5. Eric Paschall, Golden State Warriors

This season has essentially been a throwaway year for the Warriors. With Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson basically missing the entire year and several other injuries and trades impacting the roster, it is hard to put much stock into the team’s season and its NBA-worst 15-50 record.

One thing we can take away from this season for the Warriors is the fact that Paschall was an absolute steal for the Warriors when he was picked No. 41 in the 2019 NBA Draft. The 6’6”, 255-pound power forward has drawn comparisons to teammate Draymond Green for their body types and mobility. Though Paschall is more comfortable as a scorer and Green is vastly superior as a defender, rebounder and passer.

However, Paschall’s passing ability did start to shine through after the All-Star break. In 10 games since the break, he has averaged 17.5 points, 4.1 rebounds and 4.2 assists on 56.5 percent shooting from the floor.

It is hard to reward players on the Warriors too much when the team is faring so poorly in the standings, but Paschall’s performance has stood out in a great way.

  • Honorable mentions: PJ Washington (Charlotte Hornets)Rui Hachimura (Washington Wizards), Terence Davis (Toronto Raptors), RJ Barrett (New York Knicks), Tyler Herro (Miami Heat), Matisse Thybulle (Philadelphia 76ers), Michael Porter Jr. (Denver Nuggets).