Good games, weird data

2019 NBA Rookie of the Year Rankings: 4 - 10

Finding the honorable mentions in a great rookie class.

2019 NBA Rookie of the Year Rankings: 4 - 10
Photo Credit: Erik Drost [CC BY 2.0 (]

With this NBA season winding to its typical frantic conclusion, we turn now to the awards. Few accolades inspire Twitter venom and Reddit debates like Rookie of the Year. Last year, we watched Donovan Mitchell subtweet and subsweater his way into the conversation with Ben Simmons. This yea, we face a somewhat similar dialogue about two rookies forever connected by their draft day trade. Luka Doncic, the frontrunner since day one, and Trae Young, a fire-breathing, pint-sized point guard. Young overcame a tough start to hurdle himself into a healthy amount of second place votes. We’ll look to discover exactly they stack up against each other in our 2019 NBA rookie scoring model.

Doncic and Young lead what has become an incredibly promising draft class. I built out a methodology to try and grade rookies holistically with one unified score, finding their z-score, or standard deviation above or below the mean, for several key stats broken out in this post. This dataset looks at every rookie season since 2000 with at least fifteen minutes a game in twenty games. By measuring these rookies against their counterparts across twenty seasons, we can identify truly great performers while still adjusting for the challenges of being a rookie in this insanely difficult league. 

I updated the dataset through game seventy-four of this season and reran all calculations. We’ll look at what our model scores rookies four through ten, along with some honorable mentions for a couple who missed the cut. For each rookie discussed, I’ll include the four guys with scores closest to them as proxies for performance; I didn’t adjust for position to try and measure the impact agnostic of assignment, much like the score’s intention. These proxies are not projections or player analogues, but more a showcase of how their rookie impact stacked up. As always, thanks to Basketball Reference for the data used in this scoring model.

Honorable mentions

Kevin Knox
27th out of 29 rookies
Total Score: -8.63
Rookie proxies: Kostas Papanikolaou, Wayne Ellington, Corey Brewer, Paul Zipser

Collin Sexton
21st out of 29 rookies
Total Score: -4.73
Rookie proxies: Monta Ellis, Donte DiVincenzo, Matt Barnes, J.R. Smith

It hurts to see my boy Kevin in this list, and his rookie analogues do not inspire much confidence. He’s struggled to find his efficiency this season, impacted perhaps by the chaotic tanking of the Knicks and their shuffling of starting lineups. This article from Posting and Toasting dives a bit deeper into Knox’s issues and is definitely worth a read. 

For most of the season, Sexton sat firmly in the bottom of both the 2019 rookie rankings and the entire dataset. He, like Knox, failed to produce anything efficiently, and advanced stats dragged his score down across every metric. Yet, in the last few weeks, Sexton has recovered nicely and started to pull himself out of the cellar. Chris Herring’s profile of Sexton analyzes this growth and paints a nice picture for Cavs fans. 

Both players score at a higher rate than the average rookie, but struggle immensely on any advanced statistic. Their path forward is paved with better shooting, improvements on the defensive end, and general team growth.

The promising works in progress

Mikal Bridges
10th out of 29 rookies
Total Score: 2.97
Rookie Proxies: Paul George, Klay Thompson, Jusuf Nurkic, Ivica Zubac

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
9th out of 29 rookies
Total score: 3.26
Rookie proxies: Tony Allen, Michael Beasley, Jorge Garbajosa, Craig Smith

Both Shai and Mikal show above-average results, but I will say I chuckled at the proxies for Mikal. His rookie output mirrors the then relatively-unheralded outputs of Paul George and Klay Thompson, two current stars with careers that any Suns fan would be thrilled to see for Mikal. Both of those current All-Stars had mediocre rookie seasons before blossoming into hyper-efficient studs. Bridges has an incredibly high steal rate (nearly 2.5 full deviations above the average rookie rate) and brings a higher than average value over replacement player. He has a small role offensively, with a subpar usage rate, but by being near the average on other vital stats, he ends up in our top ten for 2019 rookies.

Shai has been producing on the surprising playoff-bound Clippers, and his well-rounded game shows up well in our methodology. His struggles with turnovers befit a playmaking rookie point guard, but his efforts defensively and high efficiency show great potential for future growth.

Injured bigs with high sophomore hopes

Mo Bamba
8th out of 29
Total Score: 4.28
Rookie proxies: Marc Jackson, Matt Bonner, Nick Collison, Mike Miller

Wendell Carter
7th out of 29
Total Score: 6.13
Rookie proxies: Ben Gordon, Bam Adebayo, Ty Lawson, Anderson Varejao

Both Carter and Bamba had their rookie seasons cut short by injury. Their block rate is roughly two standard deviations better than their peers, and both players add above-average rebounds, PER, VORP, and win shares per 48 minutes. 

A path for improvement is clear for both guys. Bamba needs to get more productive on the offensive end, scoring, assisting, and using possessions at a lower rate than an average rookie. Some of his restrictions stem from his team situation.

Bamba faces a logjammed Orlando frontcourt with an unclear path to playing time. For Carter, he’s already above-average in nearly every major stat. Another season of health should help propel him toward a great sophomore season.

The controversial rank

Trae Young
6th out of 29
Total Score: 7.29
Rookie proxies: Emeka Okafor, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Patrick Beverley

Trae might have my favorite graph out of any of the rookies I’ve analyzed, a zigging and zagging depiction of exactly how elite he can be in some categories and how he struggles in others. His assist rate rivals Chris Paul’s unparalleled rookie performance -he’s actually the 5th best rookie since 2000 at assists per game. Yet, Trae turns the ball over the most out of any rookie, a full four standard deviations above average. You see the scorer potential. Young ended his early season shooting slump to land around average for true-shooting. He produced more points and a higher usage rate than average. Having Harden and Durant as his proxies, two uber-effective scorers now who battled early career inefficiencies, is a fitting and poetic way to show Young’s upside and room for growth.

My model definitely weights advanced stats and efficiency highly, which explains why Young doesn’t crack the top five. If Young can cut his turnovers, draw more fouls on his drives, and make his current shooting form the norm, he’s well on his way to stardom. 

The Blue Chip Bigs

Jaren Jackson
5th out of 29
Total Score: 11.17
Rookie proxies: Jamario Moon, Marvin Bagley, Damian Lillard, Paul Millsap

Marvin Bagley
4th out of 29
Total Score: 11.22
Rookie proxy: Rudy Fernandez, Jamario Moon, Jaren Jackson, Damian Lillard

Statistically, these two have had nearly identical total impacts on their team, as their proxies are mirror images of each other. Yet, there’s slight differences in their game that show the strengths and weakness of each top prospect. Certain advanced stats love Bagley, as he has the 18th best rookie PER in my entire dataset, while Jackson outproduces him on VORP and box score plus/minus.

Both used a higher percentage of possessions than the average rookie, and Bagley’s elite rebound rate mirrors Jackson’s ability to block the hell out of a shot. We’re entering nitpicking territory here, but both players could look to add a bit more playmaking to their repertoire in 2020 as they aim to take the leap. Regardless, we NBA fans are spoiled with all of these exciting young bigs with such diverse skillsets.

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Jamie Larson