The top three draft picks have won the rookie of the year award 66% of the time since 1980 with four of the past five winners being selected in the top three picks. This year the top three picks are Zion Williamson (New Orleans), Ja Morant (Memphis) and RJ Barrett (New York). The major storyline is following Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett as the two Duke teammates try and make immediate impacts in the NBA while Ja Morant was the leader in assists last year in the NCAA while also averaging 24 PPG. I’m going to try and focus on players outside these three that have a legitimate opportunity to win rookie of the year this upcoming season.
5. Dylan Windler – Cleveland Cavaliers
I was contemplating putting 5th overall pick Darius Garland into this spot for the Cavaliers but Garland will have more difficulty finding minutes than Windler. The Cavs selected Garland with their 5th pick even though they have a couple very strong guards in Collin Sexton and Jordan Clarkson. I think Sexton and Clarkson will start this season with Garland coming off the bench with Matthew Dellavedova and Brandon Knight. The Cavaliers have a bit of an opening at small forward as Cedi Osman is currently the competition for Windler and Osman did start last year averaging 13 PPG, 4.7 RPG and 2.6 APG while shooting 34.8% from three. I think Osman will be the starter at the beginning of the year but I can easily see Windler taking over that position. The 22 year old Belmont alumni spent four years in college and averaged 21.3 PPG, 10.8 RPG and 1.4 SPG during his last season while shooting 42.9% from three and 54% from the field. He is NBA ready with a strong jump shot and good athleticism but his experience and discipline will be critical for him in getting minutes. He is a darkhorse to win rookie of the year because of his three point shooting and his rebounding numbers have always been good for his position.
4. Cameron Johnson – Phoenix Suns
Another very experienced player in the draft was Cameron Johnson as the 23 year old spent five years in College while finishing his final two seasons at North Carolina. During his senior year he averaged 16.9 PPG, 5.8 RPG and 2.4 APG while shooting 45.7% from three and 50.5% from the field. He might have difficulty on the Suns getting minutes over Kelly Oubre Jr. assuming the Suns run a line-up where Devin Booker plays at shooting guard and Oubre plays at small forward. I could see Cameron Johnson making the line-up however based on his offensive abilities as he is one of the best shooters in the draft with great offensive awareness and leadership. He needs to improve his defensive game so the Suns can trust him as a 3-and-D wing.
3. PJ Washington – Charlotte Hornets
The 12th overall pick from Kentucky is coming off a terrific sophomore season where he was first team All-SEC averaging 15.2 PPG, 7.6 RPG and 1.8 APG while shooting 42.3% from three and 52.2% from the field. He is undersized at power forward at 6’8” but he uses his strength and athleticism to work in the paint. He has great basketball IQ and court vision for his position and his maturity and leadership will serve him well heading into his rookie season. The Hornets have Marvin Williams as their starting power forward next season but Williams is 33 years old and I think the Hornets should transition the former 2nd overall pick into more of a leadership bench role. Besides Williams the Hornets have nobody else at power forward unless they move either Miles Bridges or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist down to play that role. I think PJ Washington splits minutes with Marvin Williams for the majority of the season but that should be enough to put up good numbers.
2. De’Andre Hunter – Atlanta Hawks
The 4th overall pick is set up as the starter for next season in Atlanta at small forward but he has three other players to share minutes with at that position. Fellow rookie Cam Reddish, veteran Chandler Parsons and future hall of famer Vince Carter are the other three players battling for minutes at small forward. De’Andre Hunter averaged 15.2 PPG, 5.1 RPG and 2 APG while shooting 43.8% from three and 52% from the field last season in college. He was a very strong wing defender at Virginia and his offensive game is very developed as he can drive to the basket and pull up from three at an impressive 43.8% rate. He isn’t the strongest rebounder or post presence but De’Andre Hunter is still a beast and will definitely be in contention for the rookie of the year award.
1. Rui Hachimura – Washington Wizards
The Gonzaga forward was drafted 9th overall by the Wizards and he is set up for success this season given their line-up. He should be the starter all season unless David Bertans, Jemerrio Jones or Admiral Schofield manage to steal his role but in reality the Wizards are trusting Hachimura with the starting role. He averaged 19.7 PPG, 6.5 RPG and 1.5 APG while shooting 41.7% from three and 59.1% from the field last season in his third year at Gonzaga. He plays for Japan internationally and is relied upon heavily for his country so there isn’t any concern regarding his ability to create his own offense heading into this season. He has terrific basketball IQ, good speed and offensive abilities with a solid jump shot and post game. He needs to work on his ball handling and passing abilities but Hachimura is a great prospect and I think he will find a lot of success this season with the Wizards.