Rookie of the Year: Key factors, frontrunners and sleepers

Anthony Edwards in NBA preseason
Who are the main contenders for NBA Rookie of the Year? Photo from West Central Tribune.

Without a doubt the NBA is in good hands. Basketball fans are witnessing greatness from the established NBA superstars – LeBron James headlining such a cast – but some have expressed concern that over the next few years, we may have to say goodbye to some elite talent.

The following names are all under the age of 25: Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, Trae Young, Luka Doncic, Jamal Murray, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The list goes on and on. The NBA is in good hands.

Will any of the rookies from the most recent 2020 draft class be able to establish themselves amongst the rest of the young stars? And which players look poised to announce themselves to the NBA in their rookie season?

Before we get to that, let’s remind ourselves of some unique challenges that the 2020 draft class have to face:

Unique Challenges

  • Shortened training camp

Traditionally NBA training camps are approximately 2-3 weeks, allowing older players to get back into shape and rookies to gradually get up to speed with their team-mates, roles and playbook.

This year, the NBA has been forced to make significant changes to the timetable, such as shorter camps, limiting the amount of time teams can scrimmage, and even limiting the number of practices per day. Whilst some of these changes mean a lesser workload on the current rookies, it could lead to some sloppy performances once the season gets started.

  • Minimal amount of pre-season games

A shortened off-season has led to some teams playing as many as 3 fewer pre-season games than in prior seasons. Ultimately such games are just a warm-up and can afford rookies a chance to find their feet in games that do not count for their seeding performance.

  • No NCAA Tournament

Kemba Walker, Shabazz Napier and Tyus Jones. All three of these players have one thing in common: their performance at the annual NCAA Men’s Division 1 Basketball Tournament led to receiving the Most Outstanding Player award.


In some cases, recipients of this award see their draft stock rise. At the very least, the NCAA tournament allows college players to play in games that matter, with millions watching. Thanks, Covid-19!

  • Season schedule

With the season starting late, the NBA has moved to try and pack in the schedule with most teams playing countless back-to-backs and 3 games in 4 nights.

This compact schedule could easily accentuate the famous ‘Rookie Wall’ and mean the 2020 draft class are the most rushed class ever.

In the past, there have been similar shortened seasons, like the lockout-shortened seasons of 1998-99 and 2011-12. In those years, Vince Carter and Kyrie Irving respectively won the award. It’s safe to say that both of those players have performed quite well through their time in the league! Let’s take a quick look at some of the leading candidates for this year’s ROTY award, hoping to overcome the aforementioned challenges.

Leading Rookie of the Year candidates

Since the inaugural Rookie of the Year was handed out in the 1952-53 season, over 79% of winners have been drafted in the top 5. The top 5 picks from the first ever virtual draft bring the following cases to the table.

An athletic guard with incredible defensive potential, there has been questions asked of Edwards’ commitment to the game, not helped by his own comments regarding his love of American football.

Playing alongside fringe All-Star talent in Karl Anthony-Towns and D’Angelo Russell could mean Edwards has limited usage in his time on the court.

An off-ball role could expose Edwards’ poor shooting (below 30% from 3 at Georgia). However, if Edwards applies himself, he could make a strong case based on his impressive transition game, his skill and finesse whilst finishing around the basket and his ability to perform highlight plays.

An incredible specimen of a big man, Wiseman only played 3 college games but was still considered to be a top pick.

His work ethic is impressive, as is his rebounding – he is the type of player who has a “nose” for the boards. Currently, Wiseman is projected to be a simple rim-runner at the 5 for the Warriors with the 2x MVP Stephen Curry as a pick-and-roll partner, be prepared for countless highlight dunks and alley-oops, strengthening his case for ROTY.

In case you have been living under a rock, LaVar Ball has successfully got another one of his sons drafted in the top 3, and all the reports are that LaMelo could be the best Ball brother yet.

Without a doubt, Ball has the best skill of any rookie this year – his passing is off the charts.

In pre-season games, he has already demonstrated incredible flair and playmaking. One weakness is his risk-taking, committing far too many turnovers in his career as a professional. He also struggles to shoot the ball from deep. However, there is no doubt that Ball has all of the star potential you could ask for from a ROTY.

Perhaps the most surprising pick in the top 5, Williams was not a starter in college.

Incredibly versatile, Williams can play either forward position at either end of the court and has already demonstrated his hard work and hustle for the Bulls. Williams has limitations to his game such as his poor assist-to-turnover ratio and his lack of a developed jump shot.

He may struggle for minutes due to the rotation in Chicago but could very easily end up as a player that finishes games thanks to his ability to fill various roles for his teams.

A hometown kid, Okoro already has one game-winning play under his belt in a pre-season game against the Indiana Pacers.

It has already been argued that he has been the most impressive rookie so far this pre-season.

Being surrounded by other young talent like Darius Garland, Collin Sexton & Kevin Porter Jr, it may be hard for Okoro to make a case for ROTY due to the lack of team success and the limited ability of the players around him.

Cleveland also is disadvantaged in being a small market team in a rebuilding phase. That being said, Okoro is a fantastic defender and makes smart plays on both ends of the court and could easily continue his impressive start all the way to the ROTY award.

Sleeper picks

Malcolm Brogdon won the ROTY award in 2017 despite being picked at the lowly position of 36. The following names are ones to keep your eyes on whom were picked outside the top 5.

Just like Luka Doncic, Avdija has already won a league MVP (The Israeli league MVP in 2019-20). Avdija truly is a gifted playmaker and could easily get plenty of minutes due to the Wizards being short at the forward position. Avdija is one to watch.

Widely regarded as a surprising pick at number 12, many draft experts had Haliburton a lot higher on their boards. Haliburton will likely start for the Kings and has such fine playmaking and shooting ability that there is a strong possibility he could be a leading candidate in the race.

  • Nico Mannion, G, Golden State Warriors – Pick 48

Thanks in no small part to yet another Klay Thompson injury, there are minutes up for grabs in the guard rotation for the Warriors. Whilst Mannion is limited in terms of his size, his ability to handle the ball and dictate offensive schemes could be invaluable to building the most surprising of ROTY cases.

What comes next

A lot can be made of the race to win Rookie of the Year, just ask Donovan Mitchell, still hurting from losing out to Ben Simmons in 2018.

In the long run, this award doesn’t necessarily mean a long and successful NBA career. Injuries affected players like Brandon Roy and Grant Hill. Early promise fizzled out for previous winners such as Tyreke Evans and Michael Carter-Williams. However, of those eligible, around half of previous ROTY winners end up in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Winning this award is an honour – especially in such a unique year as this. All NBA fans are hoping that more superstars emerge from this unprecedented draft class to continue and support the legacy of their peers, and provide entertainment for years to come.

The NBA is definitely in good hands.

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About Jared Bowie 2 Articles
An ashamed Chicago Bulls fan from the UK. I say ashamed but really I mean disappointed yet hopeful and optimistic. I've been a huge fan of the NBA for nearly 5 years now, watching as many games as I can and consuming multiple articles and podcasts each day. I thought it's high time I contribute to the conversation a bit more and have recently started a podcast and now some written work. Always appreciate comments and feedback, and hopefully you enjoy some of the nonsense I spout!

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