Looking forward to the 2020-2021 season, there’s a lot of uncertainty. We don’t even know if the season will be completed amidst the ongoing pandemic, so it’s difficult to make predictions for how players and teams will respond to these difficult times.
Whether it’s decreased practice time or risk of COVID-19 transmission, this year’s rookie class is facing a particularly difficult start to their careers. With this in mind, I’ll look at recent trends in the league and make my predictions on who will win 2020-21 NBA Rookie of the Year award.
Four Major Factors
1. Draft Position
Unsurprisingly, the biggest indicator of rookie success is draft position, as players who are drafted earlier are considered better talents. Generally speaking, the earlier you are drafted, the higher chance you have of winning the ROY award, though this relationship is far from linear. Here are the three biggest stats to know about draft position and its relationship with rookie-year success:
- 15 out of the last 20 ROYs were top 5 picks
- 5 of the last 10 ROYs were the top overall pick.
- Since the three-point shot was implemented, 38 of the last 40 ROYs were lottery picks.
Based on these numbers, it makes sense that Anthony Edwards has been considered a front-runner for Rookie of the Year. This is an award that has traditionally favored top overall picks, though it should be mentioned that Edwards is widely regarded as the weakest prospect to go number one since perhaps Anthony Bennett.
2. Basketball Position
Here are two more interesting stats:
- 4 of the last 5 ROYs were guards.
- 11 of the last 15 ROYs were guards.
In the era of spacing and small-ball, players themselves have trended on the smaller side. While this may have originally been a league of centers (19 of 20 MVPs were centers at one point), guards have overwhelmingly dominated this award.
Based on this, LaMelo Ball and Anthony Edwards look like even stronger favorites to win this award, with Killian Hayes, Devin Vassell, Tyrese Haliburton, and Kira Lewis also seemingly in a position to contend.
3. International Talent
There’s been an influx of talent from outside of the United States, and this has been especially apparent in the Rookie of the Year award winners. There have only been 5 international players who have been ROY, and 4 of them won within the last 6 years. Ja Morant broke the streak this year, but I think that this “international” trend is here to stay.
In this year’s draft, Killian Hayes grew up in France, while LaMelo Ball played a post-graduate year in Australia. Neither is foreign-born but they are in a strong position to continue the streak.
4. Strength of the Draft
This is the biggest and probably the most underrated aspect of the Rookie of the Year Race. The strength of the rookie class definitely has a major impact on the winner of the award. Based on my analysis, the weakest draft classes are the ones where a non-top 5 pick wins the award.
Remember how I said that 15 out of the last 20 ROYs were top 5 picks? The five years where this did not hold true were 2002, 2006, 2012, 2013, and 2016. Each of these draft classes is considered extraordinarily weak by nearly all analysts.
How can we use this information? Well, 2020 is up there as one of the weakest drafts ever. As a result, this is as good of a year as any for a Rookie of the Year surprise. Another Malcolm Brogdon situation is unlikely, but a player selected in the late-lottery could be in a better position to win than in previous years.
That being said, there’s also a higher chance that a non-guard wins the award given the variance. Should this hold true, Isaac Okoro and Obi Toppin look like the best bets at the forward position to emerge as real ROY contenders. I don’t really see James Wiseman doing enough for the Warriors, but if he makes a big impact out of the gate, I could easily be wrong.
Based on these factors, I think that LaMelo Ball has the best chance to win Rookie of the Year. Based on the historic success of number one overall picks, Anthony Edwards has to be up there as well with a really good shot of winning as well, though he may be limited in the Timberwolves offense.
However, these are industry favorites. One guy who is getting massively overlooked is Killian Hayes. He fits all the boxes as a guard who played internationally, and with the weak 2020 draft class, Hayes is in a prime position to take control of the ROY race. LaMelo might have the higher odds, but Hayes is my dark-horse candidate to take home the Rookie of the Year Award.
Tyrese Haliburton is another guy who could make a surprise run at the award. He has a very NBA-ready game, and he should step into a solid role alongside De’Aaron Fox on the Kings. If his jump shot holds up and he continues his elite creation, he will at least finish on the All-Rookie team.
Chuma Okeke was my favorite prospect in the 2019 NBA Draft, and he’s finally eligible to play in the NBA following a redshirt season with the Orlando Magic. He’s a versatile defender with a smooth shot, so he’ll contribute right away for a Magic team with few established wings. He might surprise some people on his way to a Michael Porter Jr-esque season.
2021 Rookie Of the Year
Last but not least, we have to consider a “Malcolm Brogdon” situation. Three guys who fit this mold instantly come to mind: Payton Pritchard, Malachi Flynn, and Theo Maledon. Pritchard and Flynn both play for contending teams, and Pritchard in particular will likely be forced to take a bigger role with the indefinite absence of Kemba Walker. If Stevens puts his trust in him rather than Teague, and if Pritchard’s shot translates to the next level, he could be a real difference-maker for a Celtics team that’s very shallow at the guard position.
Flynn is another guy who has a very similar profile to Brogdon, as both were older prospects that were hard-working defensive savants with limited athleticism. Flynn’s athletic shortcomings are far too overblown, especially with his insane defensive motor. Additionally, he’ll develop well with the Raptors, one of the best organizations in sports. If Kyle Lowry misses time with injury, Flynn could step in and put up some big numbers. He’s a mature guy with a high floor and underrated ceiling.
Meanwhile, Theo Maledon is my favorite deep sleeper for the ROY award. Maledon checks all the boxes that I mentioned before (guard, international, later pick). I had him ranked as a lottery talent but he somehow slipped to the mid-second round. Maledon is on a Thunder team that just needs bodies at any position. They probably aren’t winning that many games, so there’s a good chance that Maledon plays a major role on the team.
Overall, expect Ball or Edwards to win, but don’t be surprised if my personal favorite Killian Hayes or either Tyrese Haliburton and Chuma Okeke emerge victorious. Furthermore, Maledon, Pritchard, and Flynn are currently being given no chance of winning ROY (+10000) but they could steal a couple of votes. Maybe they pull off a Malcolm Brogdon season? Given the variability of the season thus far, perhaps it’s not too big of a stretch. Whether or not a Flynn/Maledon/Pritchard longshot ROY actually happens, however, the 2020-21 NBA Rookie of the Year race is looking to be one of the most exciting in recent years.