There's no Andrew Wiggins or Julius Randle in this year's rookie class, which people have been calling "weak" for well over a year. The No. 1 overall pick (Anthony Bennett) was a surprise to many. Nerlens Noel, who got most of the attention coming into the draft, may be held out all season as he recovers from ACL surgery. There isn't a real front-runner for Rookie of the Year, at least at the start of the season.
Right now, the two guys getting the best odds in Las Vegas are Trey Burke and Victor Oladipo. Burke is currently out with a broken finger and Oladipo may end up coming off the bench if Jameer Nelson is healthy and spry. Unless the Magic make a trade or Nelson is phased into a smaller role immediately, it's hard to see Oladipo putting up the stats necessary to win the Rookie of the Year. The award is not about long-term potential; it's about the guy with the most NBA-ready game who plays the most minutes. In 2004, Emeka Okafor beat out Dwight Howard.
Last season, Damian Lillard ran away with Rookie of the Year, although few (I think?) would argue that he's likely to have a better career than Anthony Davis. In looking for this year's winner, we want to find a rookie in a situation similar to Lillard, who played four years at Weber State and then started all 82 games for Portland.
Here's my guess at which guys will be in the best position to make a run at the award.
1. Cody Zeller
Zeller played as a center at Indiana, but is moving to his more natural position of power forward in the NBA. There will be plenty of minutes for him in Charlotte. Besides Zeller, the only power forwards on their roster are Josh McRoberts and Anthony Tolliver. If being the guy who replaces a legend is the toughest job in sports, being the guy who replaces Byron Mullens has to be the easiest.
On offense, Zeller will benefit from the attention that Al Jefferson receives. At 7'0 and 240 pounds, Zeller is a smart player who knows how to move without the ball. Unlike most players his size, he can catch the ball, finish around the rim and hit the 18-foot jumper. Zeller and Jefferson will be killed on the defensive end, but since the Bobcats were dead last in defensive efficiency last season anyway, they can hardly be worse.
2. Trey Burke
Despite his struggles in the Orlando Summer League, Burke was my favorite to win the award before he broke his finger, which will sideline him for the beginning of the season. He played at an extremely high level last season, carrying Michigan to the NCAA championship game and winning the Wooden Award. Jimmer Fredette is an example of that not meaning much, but Fredette has not been asked to the same things in Sacramento that he did at BYU, where he was the focal point of the offense.
When he returns, Burke will be the starting point guard, although Utah runs a different offense than Michigan. Burke should be able to adapt. He's a complete player, a true point guard who can shoot, create his own shot and run the pick-and-roll. He slipped to No. 9 because of concerns about his upside, not his ability to transition to the NBA. The big concern for Burke, like any rookie point guard, is his decision-making.
As a rookie on a team that might win 15 games, Carter-Williams will have no shortage of opportunities. His biggest challenge, other than not getting beaten down by the losing, is that he's a pass-first guard without many players to pass to. He will have to fight the temptation to try to take over games as a scorer. Last season at Syracuse, he shot 39 percent from the field and 29 percent from 3.
Philadelphia doesn't have much shooting, which will make half-court offense really difficult. The key for Carter-Williams will be speeding up the tempo and getting out in transition as much as possible. His size (6'6 and 185 pounds) will help, both on the defensive glass and jumping passing lanes. It's a good thing he's in a rap group called WHOP (We Handle Our Problems), because the 76ers will have a lot of them.
4. Ben McLemore
McLemore struggled in the Las Vegas Summer League, but that wasn't a setting conducive to his strengths as a player. At this point in his career, he's not a guy who can create his own shot off the dribble and carry the offense. He didn't do that at Kansas, where he was the only freshman in a starting lineup with four seniors. He shot 49.5 percent from the field and 42 percent from 3. He was essentially J.J. Redick with a 42-inch vertical.
That should be closer to his role with Sacramento, where the offense will run through DeMarcus Cousins and its two point guards, Greivis Vasquez and Isaiah Thomas. Fredette and Marcus Thornton are his main competition for minutes, so he should see plenty of floor time, especially as the year goes on. His Rookie of the Year chances will probably come down to whether he can learn Mike Malone's defensive schemes quickly enough.
5. Kelly Olynyk
Olynyk, like the other rookies at the top of this list, will have the opportunity to play big minutes right away. The Celtics' frontcourt rotation is a disaster. Brandon Bass and Kris Humphries are the only veteran big men on their roster, so there's nothing preventing Olynyk from playing a huge role this season. At 7'0 and 240 pounds, he's a skilled player who can post up smaller defenders and stretch the floor.
The defense is the real problem. Olynyk is not a shot-blocker and he doesn't have the foot speed to guard NBA players on the perimeter. Brad Stevens probably won't keep Olynyk and Jared Sullinger on the floor at the same time, if only for his sanity as a defensive-minded coach. When Rondo returns, Olynyk will make a killing on the pick-and-pop. Until then, he could struggle.
6. Victor Oladipo
I'm surprised Oladipo has been pegged as the odds-on favorite to win Rookie of the Year. The immediate problem is playing time. Arron Afflalo, Orlando's best player, is entrenched at shooting guard. Jameer Nelson, the team's highest-paid and longest-tenured player, is at point guard. Tobias Harris and Maurice Harkless, both of whom showed flashes of greatness last season, will take minutes on the wings.
Nor is Oladipo necessarily ready for a featured role in an NBA offense. The Magic are planning on moving him to point guard, a big transition for a guy who averaged 2.1 assists and 2.3 turnovers last season. Russell Westbrook had twice as many assists in his last year at UCLA, for example.
As long as Oladipo maintains his three-point shooting numbers, he should be an effective reserve. Expecting much more may be expecting too much.
7. Anthony Bennett
I didn't have a problem with Cleveland's selection of Bennett, but I'm not sure he'll get enough playing time to make a serious run at Rookie of the Year. If Anderson Varejao can stay healthy, Tristan Thompson will play the majority of his minutes at power forward, Bennett's position in college. While he could handle playing as a small forward for stretches, Mike Brown will probably want to minimize the need for him to defend on the perimeter.
When he does get on the floor, Bennett should have an impact offensively. At 6'8 and 256 pounds, he can shoot, handle and play above the rim and he isn't shy about putting shots up. Once he develops some chemistry with Kyrie Irving, they will be an excellent pick-and-roll combination. However, with the Cavs making a playoff push, his defensive issues will cut into his playing time.
8. Alex Len
The Marcin Gortat trade opened up playing time for the No. 5 overall pick, but the Suns will likely bring along Len slowly after offseason ankle surgery. Len has the size to at least hold his own at the position, but the 20-year-old center is in for a rude awakening about the physicality in the paint. Len vs. Nerlens Noel was one of the biggest debates headed into the draft, but we won't get an answer for 3-5 years.
Caldwell-Pope is the most intriguing of the long-shot candidates. Chauncey Billups and Rodney Stuckey are ahead of him in the rotation, but neither has his combination of size and shooting ability. The Pistons need perimeter players who can stretch the floor and open up room for their big men. If Caldwell-Pope can shoot as well as he did at Georgia (37 percent from 3 despite many contested looks), he could be a valuable weapon as a rookie.
10. Shabazz Muhammad
Chase Budinger's injury opens up the possibility of playing time for Shabazz, although he will probably be out of the rotation to start the season. For all the knocks on him, no one has doubted his ability to score. If he can extend his range out to the three-point line, he could thrive next to Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic. However, with Kevin Martin entrenched at shooting guard, the other wing will have to play defense.
11. Otto Porter
Porter's lingering hip flexor injury, which kept him out of the entire preseason, is more concerning than his struggles in the Las Vegas Summer League. He has the length and basketball IQ to carve out a spot in the rotation as a reserve, but he may not be able to unseat Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza for a spot in the rotation as a 3-and-D small forward, particularly on a Wizards team desperate for a playoff berth.
12. C.J. McCollum
A broken foot in training camp probably ended any realistic chance of McCollum giving Portland back-to-back Rookie of the Year winners. Since it's the same foot he broke as a senior at Lehigh, the Trail Blazers will be very careful in bringing him back. When he does return, he'll be the third small guard in the rotation, behind Lillard and Mo Williams. Williams does all the things McCollum does, except he's a 10-year veteran and a former All-Star.