Most years in the NBA, there’s one or two rookies who tend to stand out and run away with Rookie of the Year — and typically they were drafted in the top portion of the lottery. Whether it was Ja Morant in 2019-20 or Scottie Barnes last year, there tends to be a pretty clear favorite. This year, with one of the deepest draft classes in recent history and No. 2 pick Chet Holmgren out for the year, there’s less clarity. Even at this early moment in the year, DC Sports discusses who they think will take home the hardware.
Associate Sports Editor
Jabari Smith Jr.
Once considered a lock to go to the Orlando Magic as the No. 1 overall pick, Smith instead took a draft day fall to No. 3. After a lackluster opener that saw the Houston Rocket shoot 6-17, Smith has been much more efficient, although he eclipsed that 17 shots mark just once in his four tries. Although he’s yet to record more than two assists, Smith has surpassed seven boards in three of his four games. Smith had a particularly impressive showing in a win against the then-undefeated Utah Jazz in his most recent game, where he notched 21 points to go along with nine boards and three blocks. Aside from the fact that he’s won a game, it’s a tough argument to pick Smith over Banchero given the statistical disparities so far. But luckily for Smith, he has 78 more games to make up for the first four.
I’ve been really intrigued by Ivey since his time at Purdue, and I think everything could really come together for him in Detroit. While the Pistons have struck out on a ton of prospects, I think they hit it out of the park with Ivey’s selection. He’s an electric guard who’s going to score at a high rate — which he’s already shown in just a few games this season — and he’s averaging a solid 1.5 steals which should get even better throughout his season and career. That combination of offensive versatility and defensive prowess gives me confidence that Ivey may just win the Rookie of the Year award, even with guys like Cade Cunningham and Saddiq Bey getting lots of playing time in Detroit.
If I really wanted to go that far, I would have picked Tyrese Martin. Instead, I am going to err on the side of reality. After his 27-point performance against the Detroit Pistons last Saturday, I realized that Mathurin has All-NBA potential. It may be a little too early to make that prediction, but I think most people have not realized this because of East Coast bias, given that he played at Arizona alongside Kerr Kriisa. Mathurin may not have a start under his belt, but he has scored in double figures in all four of the Indiana Pacers’ games so far. That has led to him averaging 22.3 points a game in 27.8 minutes off the bench. The Pacers may not realize it yet, but they have their core three players in Mathurin, Chris Duarte and Tyrese Haliburton (why the Sacramento Kings traded him is beyond me). Even though they are not a playoff team this year, Mathurin is one of the key pieces in place to help the Pacers be competitive.
It feels a little cheap to use the first overall pick as my choice, but the stats back it up. Banchero leads rookies so far in points per game (22.8) and minutes per game (34.0) while also ranking second among rookies in rebounds per game (7.5). The former Duke Blue Devils forward has yet to win his first NBA game, and his Orlando Magic have already faced a lot of injuries already this season. Players such as Markelle Fultz, Gary Harris, and the elusive Jonathan Isaac fill the injury report regularly; however, Banchero has been able to produce solid numbers. The Magic are staging a rebuild at the moment and are acquiring talents such as Banchero for the future and his early season production provides some hope for the organization. As long as Orlando does better than the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats, I feel there’s a strong chance the award is handed to Banchero.