I’m sure you’ve already read like 5 “midseason awards” articles (as I have), so I decided to change it up a little bit and do a rookie version of NBA midseason awards! Since no rookies currently fulfill the 6th man role for their teams, and doing a most improved player award doesn’t make much sense (There’s only so much improvement that can be made during the course of half a season), I decided to nullify those awards. No need to worry, though, because I will instead be giving out awards for “Most Playoff Ready” and “Biggest Sophomore Jump”! To be considered for these awards, you have to have played more than 15 games and average more than 10 minutes per game.
MVP: Lamelo Ball (CHA)
This was by far the easiest decision of these awards. Lamelo Ball is not only the most valuable rookie, but he is the most valuable player on his team and is already hurdling the line of becoming a star. Perhaps it’s because Ball is literally in his blood (pun intended), or perhaps it’s because he’s already had a year of professional basketball experience, but any way you slice it, this kid is a stud and will be here for a LONG time. He leads all rookies in virtually every stat (points, rebounds, assists, steals, double doubles, assist percentage, player impact estimate). Stats don’t really capture what Lamelo brings to the table, though. His unique style of play puts an immense amount of pressure on the defense at all times; you can never get caught sleeping or Lamelo will make you pay for it. As soon as the ball is rebounded (either by Ball or a teammate), Ball’s eyes are up and he is looking to make that patented baseball pass. It’s important to note that this unselfish style of play gives his teammates an incentive to run the court HARD; if you have even the slightest inch of space, Lamelo will find you. What’s more impressive, though, is what Lamelo does when the shot is made. If you’ve watched his high school highlights, you know that he likes to push the ball at any opportunity he gets. But this is pretty rare in the NBA, so Lamelo is really able to take advantage of the defense sleeping. He gets probably 3-7 easy baskets a game for either himself or his teammates simply from pushing the ball on made shots. He pairs this incredible vision and speed with solid shooting ability as well; he’s shooting 36% from three and I only see that improving once he refines his shot selection and gets more comfortable picking his spots. I also love the way Lamelo finishes at the rim; he’s able to use both hands and has great touch when moving at full speed. If you’re still not convinced that Lamelo is the rookie MVP, look at what he’s done to the Hornets franchise. He’s made the Charlotte Hornets - yes the CHARLOTTE Hornets - must see basketball. I think that pretty much speaks for itself.
Defensive Player Of The Year: Devin Vassell (SAS)
We already knew that Vassell was one of the best defenders in this rookie class, but he has outperformed even the high expectations we had for him on the defensive end. He came in ready to be an NBA defender on day 1, and he’s shown that every step of the way (he leads rookies in defensive rating). Standing at 6’7 with a 6’10 wingspan, Vassell has the build of a prototype NBA wing defender, and he’s a springy athlete that has above average lateral quickness, especially for his size. These tools allow Vassell to guard 1-4; he’s quick enough to stay with quick point guards but strong and long enough to hang with taller and bigger players. Even though he’s only a rookie, there aren’t many people with his size that can move their feet like him. He kind of reminds me of Robert Covington in that sense, but that’s a story for a different article. Although Vassell is a great on-ball defender, what he does off the ball excites me a lot more. He has some of the best defensive instincts that I have seen. Not for a rookie... for anyone! He’s unbelievable at jumping in the passing lanes and getting steals (4th in steals and 3rd in deflection for rookies), and he is a special help side defender. He knows exactly where to be and is never a step late. Sure, this isn’t the most flashy of skills and it certainly won’t wow you as much as Lamelo’s passing ability or Anthony Edwards athleticism, but there’s no question that Vassell’s defense is incredibly helpful to ANY team. Once he pairs these defensive skills with a more reliable 3 point shot, Vassell will become one of the best 3 and D players in the league. And that’s assuming he never figures out how to create his own shot!
Coach Of The Year: Steve Nash (BKN)
I know what you’re thinking. How can Steve Nash be the most impressive rookie coach so far when he has three of the NBA’s 10 best players on his roster, as well as a slew of solid role players? Even though it is true that he has 3 of the best players in the game on his squad, KD, Kyrie, and Harden are all gifted isolation scorers, and for that reason there was a lot of skepticism about how these 3 ball-dominant players would connect on the court. Many thought they would turn into a pickup team and fail to move the ball effectively and play together. Brooklyn has put those suspicions to rest by playing some of the best team basketball in the NBA; they have the number three assist percentage in the NBA and the number 1 offensive rating. People have really commended James Harden’s ability to focus on being a facilitator, but I find it very hard to believe that Steve Nash, one of the best passers of all time, had nothing to do with that decision. People were also very concerned about the meshing of personalities; so far, though, it seems like the previously distracted Irving is as locked in as he’s been in awhile. Finally, it seems like Nash has done a really good job with the role players on that team. It’s not impossible to imagine a scenario where the addition of Harden to an already star studded duo of KD and Kyrie would frustrate some of the role players on the team; perhaps it could annoy them that literally all of the attention is focused on those three. However, guys like Joe Harris, Bruce Brown, TLC, Jeff Green, Claxton, and a bunch of others have really stepped into their roles and performed well in them. They have all bought into the system that Nash has implemented, despite the preseason rumors and click bait that suggested Nash would barely even be a coach for them and that it would instead be a coach-by-committee situation a-la Lebron James and Ty Lue in Cleveland. Nash clearly didn't let those rumors affect him, though, instead leading his team to a 23-13 record and the second best record in the Eastern Conference.
Most Playoff Ready: Tyrese Haliburton (SAC)
Most Playoff Ready has to go to someone who I feel like could be dropped in a high intensity NBA playoff game tomorrow and not poop their pants. This player needs to be composed and strong while getting pressured. They need to be able to hit shots when the game is on the line. They need to consistently make high-IQ plays no matter what the time or score is. That player is Tyrese Haliburton. Standing at 6’5 with a 6’7.5 wingspan and great quickness, Tyrese has all the physical tools to be a great NBA combo guard. What electrifies me most about Haliburton is his already elite level IQ. He always makes the right play; whenever the ball is swung to him, he is in an athletic position, ready to catch the ball and make a quick decision to either shoot, dribble, or pass. You never see him hold the ball on the perimeter and stall the offense, instead he’s always a step ahead of the defense and knows exactly when and how to attack the paint depending on how he’s being defended. He’s number 2 in assist percentage and number 1 in assist to turnover ratio out of all qualifying rookies, so that pretty much tells the story of how good of a ball mover and piece to the King’s offense he is. Haliburton is also an excellent shooter, despite the consistent hate he gets regarding his awkward shot release; he has the second best 3 point percentage of all rookies and he takes 5.5 a game. He also has the ability to drive really effectively (4th most drives for rookies) and he finishes quite well when he gets to the hoop (58% - 2nd among rookies); he uses his long frame and good off-hand ability to finish in a wide array of ways at the rim. I’ve now highlighted Haliburton’s passing ability, driving ability, and shooting ability as strengths of his game, so it’s pretty safe to say he’s an extremely well-rounded player. I was, however, shocked to see that he has the worst defensive rating of all qualifying rookies; Whenever I’ve watched Tyrese, which has been a lot, I’ve felt like he’s been a fundamentally sound defensive player. He knows where to be, he moves his feet well, he has great hands, and he plays very hard. Truly not sure how he has the worst defensive rating; my guess is that his rating will improve drastically as the year goes on.
Biggest Sophomore Season Leap: Patrick Williams (CHI)
I think Patrick Williams will make the biggest sophomore leap of any rookie for the sole reason that he made a massive jump (the biggest jump of any rookie in my opinion) from his previous college season at FSU to his rookie season with the Bulls, and I expect him to do the same between this year and next. He’s unbelievably raw as a basketball player; at 6’8 with a near 7 foot wingspan, he’s incredibly versatile on the defensive end. But we knew that his body and defensive capabilities would translate from the start. What we didn’t know, however, was that Patrick Williams would deepen his bag so aggressively between college and the pros that he would look like a totally new player. He uses his strength and length to finish athletically at the rim with both hands, and he’s a MUCH improved shooter. He’s shooting 38% from three this season on 2 attempts per game, but his mechanics look a lot better and I’m confident he’ll improve from there in year two. He’s also developed a really good pull up game. He’s able to drive hard to the elbows and simply elevate, using his incredible leaping ability, to get his shot off effortlessly over the defender. He reminds me a lot of Jaylen Brown in this sense, who also made rapid developments to his game throughout his first few seasons. Both players are able to pick a spot on the floor, make an aggressive move towards that spot, and elevate over the defender with ease. The strength of both of their games, at least early in their careers, is/was their ability to drive to the hoop and use their athleticism to finish over defenders. As we’ve seen, though, Jaylen got in the gym and improved the other parts of his game (pull up, 3 point shot, dribbling) immensely over his first few seasons, and I expect Patrick Williams to do the same. He’s only 19 years old, so the future is VERY bright for this young man.