2010-11 promises to provide us with one of the most entertaining Rookie of the Year battles in recent memory. Because 2009 No. 1 overall selections Blake Griffin missed his entire first professional campaign, this year's crop of NBA newcomers includes a pair of top picks as well as last year's most honored NCAA Player of the Year, Evan Turner, and Basketball Prospectus' choice for runner-up. As if that weren't enough, we also have the best rookie to make the trip across the pond in years. With help from the SCHOENE projection system, let's take a look at the top contenders to bring home the hardware.
Blake Griffin, L.A. Clippers (projection: 14.0 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 6.1 WARP)
Slowly, the Griffin for ROY campaign is gaining some preseason traction. He has shown no ill effects of the fractured patella that sidelined him for all of 2009-10 and has instead displayed the explosiveness that allowed him to dominate the Big 12, reminding everyone why Griffin was such a big deal a year ago. Our projection for Griffin's playing time (30 minutes a night) might be a little conservative. We had him slated for 36 minutes per last season and Griffin has averaged 29.5 minutes during the preseason, allowing him to put up 17.3 points and 12.3 rebounds on 59.1 percent shooting.
Griffin is a near-lock to average a double-double and has a chance to lead the league in rebounds per game (only Dwight Howard, at 13.2, bested Griffin's preseason average during 2009-10). That kind of production is going to be hard for voters to ignore.
ON GRIFFIN'S HEELS
John Wall, Washington (projection: 10.4 ppg, 6.1 apg, 3.5 rpg, -1.4 WARP)
Will Wall really rate below replacement level as a rookie? Probably not. SCHOENE undersold both Tyreke Evans (projected for 0.3 WARP) and Derrick Rose (0.8 WARP). In general, point guards tend to perform better than their translated NCAA stats would indicate because of the way the NBA's rules favor quickness by limiting contact on the perimeter. Wall might be even quicker than his John Calipari predecessors, which is a scary thought for the rest of the league. In addition to scoring more efficiently, both players used more plays than their college numbers portended. Rose's projection called for him to average just 9.1 points per game; he nearly doubled that (16.8 ppg). So don't be alarmed by Wall's poor projected scoring average.
Still, Wall's lone season at Kentucky reveals some weaknesses in his game, at least at this stage of his development. His poor jump shooting will limit him (he's made only one three-pointer in 13 attempts so far in the preseason) and Wall stands an excellent chance of leading the league in turnovers (he's coughing it up nearly four times a night so far). These factors are speedbumps on the road to superstardom, but they might keep Wall from winning Rookie of the Year.
DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento (projection: 13.1 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 1.4 bpg, 4.7 WARP)
The Kings have a reasonable chance of producing back-to-back Rookies of the Year, something last done by the Buffalo Braves way back in 1972-73 (Bob McAdoo) and 1973-74 (Ernie DiGregorio). Cousins' translated NCAA stats suggest he too will threaten a rookie double-double, something that has been accomplished just twice in the last decade (Dwight Howard and Emeka Okafor both averaging double-doubles in 2004-05).
Cousins' stats so far during the preseason (16.0 ppg, 8.7 rpg) are similar to his projections. On a less positive note, he's averaging five fouls a game. In one of its more humorous projections, SCHOENE has Cousins averaging 5.7 fouls per game, which would mean fouling out of at least 55 of the 76 games projected for him. Cousins could hack with little repercussion in college because of Kentucky's frontcourt depth. At some point here, he's going to have to cut back a little lest he spend his entire season in foul trouble.
Evan Turner, Philadelphia (projection: 12.5 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 5.7 apg, 2.5 WARP)
If Turner was to live up to his projection, he would immediately become one of the league's best-rounded contributors. Alas, Turner is unlikely to match that assist total (or his projection of 3.2 turnovers per game) because he will spend far more time off the ball after playing the point at Ohio State. Turner has averaged just 3.7 assists per game during the preseason. More problematic is the fact that Turner is shooting 31.1 percent from the field and has appeared uncomfortable with the longer three-point line, trying just one triple. Turner previously struggled in summer league. While neither effort is critical, the combination is a troubling sign for Turner's NBA future.
Tiago Splitter, San Antonio (projection: 12.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.1 bpg, 4.3 WARP)
Would Rookie of the Year voters really consider Splitter? Pau Gasol is the lone European import to win Rookie of the Year, but he was 21 at the time. Splitter will turn 26 during the season and is an experienced international player, which might be held against him. Splitter's bigger problem in terms of Rookie of the Year voting is that his balanced, solid stat line is unlikely to capture the league's fancy. Splitter's WARP projection, which ranks third among rookies, is more telling. His adjustment to the NBA game will be slowed by a strained muscle in his right calf that has sidelined Splitter for the entire preseason. He is unlikely to be back in time for the Spurs' opener.
Wesley Johnson, Minnesota (projection: 9.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.5 WARP)
Already, we're starting to reach in terms of legitimate Rookie of the Year contenders. James Anderson, Ed Davis and Greg Monroe round out the field of players projected to be worth at least one win above replacement. Johnson is ready to contribute, but any real chance of contending for hardware was lost when Michael Beasley solidified the starting job at small forward for the Timberwolves. Johnson will be battling Martell Webster and Wayne Ellington for wing minutes off the bench and has averaged just 7.9 points and 2.7 rebounds per game during the preseason.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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