Anthony Davis, the uncontroversial No. 1 pick in June's NBA Draft, will certainly be the favorite for 2012-13 Rookie of the Year when the season begins -- pretty much every No. 1 pick enters as the top candidate, with a couple of exceptions. But recent history and a judgment of Davis' style give off a strong suspicion that the big man from Chicago will see a challenge because of one facet of his game.
I took a look at the past 10 years of rookies in the NBA. I wanted to see what the strong indicator was in R.O.Y. voting. You'll be unsurprised to learn that it was scoring. This is pretty frequent in all NBA award voting. The top scorers are usually the top contenders for MVP. The top bench scorers typically compete for the Sixth Man award. The All-NBA teams are filled with 20-point scorers. The Most Improved Player has typically seen his points per game shoot up. The All-Star MVP is usually the top scorer on the winning team. The Finals MVP is usually the top scorer on the winning team. To win trophies for individual achievement in the NBA, you need to score. The one exception is, of course, Defensive Player of the Year, where often being a scorer is actually a disadvantage. Being a pure defender has always appears to offer a small advantage, Dwight Howard's string notwithstanding.
In seven of the 10 past R.O.Y. races, the top rookie in points per game also won the award. There are three exceptions: Amar'e Stoudemire in 2003, who was the No. 2 scorer behind Caron Butler by 2 points per game; LeBron James in 2004, who was the No. 2 scorer behind Carmelo Anthony by 0.1 points per game; and Derrick Rose in 2009, who was the No. 2 scorer behind O.J. Mayo by 2 points per game. So in the past decade, all Rookies of the Year were one of the top two rookie per-game scorers. Two of the three top rookie scorers who didn't win R.O.Y. lost to the overall No. 1 pick in relatively uncontroversial votes. (There was a 'Melo contingent in '04. There was not, to my knowledge, a serious Mayo contingent in '09.)
Is Anthony Davis going to be one of the top two scorers among rookies next season? That's a two-pronged question: How much will Davis score, and how much will other rookies score? A bit stunningly given his reputation and the depth of talent, Davis was the top scorer at Kentucky last season, averaging 14 points per game. In New Orleans, he'll be playing with Eric Gordon (who is a high scorer but has co-existed with a R.O.Y. before), Austin Rivers (gunner extraordinaire at Duke) and Ryan Anderson (high scorer) under a slow-down coach in Monty Williams. Given that Davis' 14 ppg came in 32 minutes per contest at UK, and that it's unlikely he'll play more than that in New Orleans, 14-15 points a game seems like a safe estimate in either direction.
Now what about the other rookies? Jonas Valanciunas is the top Rubio candidate (player from previous draft class) this year, but he won't be scoring a ton around Andrea Bargnani, Linas Kleiza, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. No. 2 pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will get tons of minutes and looks, and despite what one Summer League game showed us, doesn't drive most of his value from scoring. He could surprise us, but note that he was No. 4 in scoring at Kentucky behind Davis, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones. The big boost for Gilly could be Charlotte's dearth of options: were I Mike Dunlap, MKG might have a green light from Day 1.
The No. 3 pick was Bradley Beal, who scored a bit more than Davis last season. Beal should get as many or more minutes than A.D., and Washington has only John Wall as a true high scorer. Nick Young was the Wizards' leading scorer last season. Beal has a great opportunity to score 18 points or so as a rookie if he's a little selfish and Nene, Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza continue to be defense-first roleplayers despite their substantial salaries.
Dion Waiters was the No. 4 pick, and extrapolating anything from a Syracusian is dangerous. But Waiters did score a point every two minutes, and the Cavaliers are shallow on scorers outside of Kyrie Irving, so stranger things have happened. We could see Waiters over 15 points per game if he's a quick study and Byron Scott loosens the reins a bit. (Byron Scott loosening the reins? Well, there goes that idea.)
Thomas Robinson will likely enter the season behind Jason Thompson on the depth chart, and is a better rebounder than scorer anyway. Over the past decade, the correlation between scoring and R.O.Y. votes is more than twice as strong as rebounding and R.O.Y. votes. In fact, minutes per game is twice the indicator that rebounds per game has been. So unfortunately, my favorite rookie is not likely to be a serious candidate without even accounting for all of the shots that DeMarcus Cousins, Tyreke Evans and Marcus Thornton will be soaking up.
But in my opinion, the real dark horse challenger to Davis other than Beal or Waiters and based on this mini-study of what makes a R.O.Y. is Damian Lillard, the No. 6 pick. Lillard is known for his scoring -- he averaged 24 points per game (in 34 minutes) at Weber State last season, and was at 19 ppg as a sophomore. At Summer League, he upped that to 26 points per game. In Portland, he'll be the undisputed No. 1 point guard, and will be sharing shots with LaMarcus Aldridge (a 21-ppg scorer) and Nicolas Batum (a sub-15 guy). Lillard is going to score. He might even join Blake Griffin, Tyreke Evans, Kevin Durant, 'Melo and LeBron as the only 20-ppg rookies of the past decade. All of those 20-ppg rookies, by the way, won R.O.Y., excepting 'Melo, who lost to the 20-ppg LeBron.
Let's put this another way: If Lillard is a reasonable estimate to score 20 points per game as a rookie, and it looks like Anthony Davis tops out around 15 or 16, and if scoring is by far the strongest indicator in R.O.Y. voting, doesn't it stand to reason that Lillard has the R.O.Y. advantage on Davis going into the season? This isn't to say that we haven't been fooled by what little excellent performance we've seen from Dame, or that Davis held back his trigger finger at Kentucky. But based on recent history and these players' make-ups, that's what I'm seeing as the season approaches. Lillard -- or Beal, or Waiters -- could really throw a wrench in Davis' storybook rise.
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.