Trying to predict who will win the 2021 NBA Rookie of the Year award before any rookies have played a single game isn’t exactly fair. Mix in the fact that this year’s entire draft class had a much longer than anticipated layoff due to the COVID-19 pandemic and just joined their respective teams last month (rather than having an entire summer to spend working out at team facilities and meeting new teammates), should make this year’s race one of the most unpredictable in recent memory.
Being drafted No. 1 overall certainly helps any rookie’s chances of winning the award, and with five of the last 10 winners being No. 1 picks, that certainly bodes well for Anthony Edwards, who was taken first overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves. But a lot of factors go into how good a season first-year players are able to have, including minutes, quality of teammates, and stability of the franchises they’re drafted to.
Edwards joins a Minnesota team where he should be the team’s starter at shooting guard. But that’s not a guarantee. The team re-signed Malik Beasley in the offseason, and Beasley performed well after the team acquired him from Denver last season, hitting 40 percent of his three-pointers and spacing the floor for stars Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell. Towns and Russell are also factors in just how big a role Edwards will have. Both players are high-volume scorers, so if they’re dominating the number of touches and shots for the team, few could be left over for Edwards. Edwards shot 2-for-9 off the bench in the team’s first preseason game.
In determining who has the best NBA odds for rookie of the year, looking at players who are in lower pressure situations with roles big enough to put up the stats necessary to win the award is key. Here are four players besides Edwards who could be in those spots as the season opens.
Obi Toppin : New York Knicks
Toppin has a couple of things working in his favor: he plays for a team with no clear-cut star and he should receive a lot of playing time as a rookie. Toppin was the Naismith Player of the Year in college basketball last year before the Knicks took him eighth overall. At 22, he’s a bit older than some of the other top prospects from the draft, but that should also help him as a rookie – he’ll be more mature and able to handle a NBA travel schedule, and he’s also physically stronger than some of the younger draftees and better equipped to handle the physicality of NBA competition.
In two preseason games so far, he’s been up and down. He had 11 points and 7 rebounds in one game, and four points on 1-for-9 shooting in the other. He came off the bench in both games. The Knicks do have veteran Julius Randle in front of him on the depth chart, but Toppin likely figures more into the team’s long-term plans than Randle does, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Toppin supplant him at some point in the season. If he does, expect him to have a role large enough to put up impressive numbers.
Killian Hayes : Detroit Pistons
Hayes, picked seventh overall, was taken one spot ahead of Toppin, and he’s much more of an unknown. He’s an international player and he’s only 19-years-old. He’s joining a Pistons team that has veteran star Derrick Rose at point guard, and another veteran who can play the position in Delon Wright. Wright also has the advantage of having previously played for Pistons coach Dwane Casey in Toronto.
But despite the presences of those players, Casey seems committed to letting Hayes have a prominent role and playing through his mistakes. In two preseason games, Hayes has shot poorly – he’s just 4-for-18 from the floor. But Casey has remained committed to his development ad said the team will “throw him in the deep end.” Hayes has started both games and leads the team in the preseason with 46 minutes played. Casey also was quick to praise Hayes’ ability to identify – and learn from – mistakes he’s made in the first two games.
Hayes likely won’t be a big-time scorer in his rookie season, but if he plays a lot of minutes and runs a competent offense, that could be enough to separate him from other rookies in his draft class.
LaMelo Ball : Charlotte Hornets
Ball was considered by some to be the best prospect in the NBA Draft. But the two teams picking in the top two slots, Minnesota and Golden State, were set at the point guard position, so they passed on Ball.
The Hornets arguably were deep at that position as well, but that didn’t stop them from taking Ball. Ball might have a bit tougher path to the award because he’s not a big-time scorer the way that some recent winners have been. But he does a bit of everything on offense, and showed that in his preseason debut. He scored no points and shot 0-for-5, but he had 10 rebounds and four assists in 16 minutes. He did turn it over four times, something he’ll have to improve if he wants to cut into the playing time of the point guards in front of him.
Last year, Devonte Graham was one of the most improved players in the league and Terry Rozier was a big offseason acquisition for the team. Ball will have to out-play at least one of them to earn big enough minutes to be in the Rookie of the Year conversation.
James Wiseman : Golden State Warriors
From an organizational standpoint, Wiseman might be in the best position of any top rookie. He joined a title contender with a strong culture and locker room, and he’s also in a position where he can get minutes immediately without having the pressure of having to be one of the team’s biggest contributors.
The Warriors had a hole at the center position that Wiseman fits neatly into. With Steph Curry and Draymond Green both healthy, the team has proven stars who will shoulder most of the offensive burden, but both are also great shot creators. Both should get Wiseman plenty of easy baskets around the rim. Wiseman and Green reportedly had “instant chemistry” in practice.
Not being asked to do too much but still being in a position to get a lot of easy shots should be a big advantage for Wiseman, and could propel him to the Rookie of the Year award.
Here is a look at the last 10 NBA Rookie of the Year winners: