Is Jayson Tatum a legit candidate for Rookie of the Year?

When it comes to Rookie of the Year, it goes without saying the winner is going to be one of the brightest prospects coming into the league that season.

If that were the only criterion, it'd be pretty easy to guess which players would be the likely winner - it'd almost always be a top lottery pick, simply because that's where the top talent is almost always taken. However, from time to time, one of those players gets taken by a team who managed to get control over another team's draft pick, and ends up on a competent-to-great team that didn't have the record (and the roster) that got that team's pick so high. This in turn results in that player having experienced and usually talented players as teammates, and more often than not that translates into less playing time and lower stat lines.

Talent may be important to getting the stat lines a legitimate Rookie of the Year (ROY) candidate needs, but so is playing time, and teams with high-usage veterans and other talented rookies almost always means such players are just not going to get the run they need to build a case for the award regardless of the talent they possess, so early on, it seemed like the Boston Celtics' newest diaper dandy Jayson Tatum had no chance at all.

This is not to say he's lacking in talent - he very well may be the most talented player in this draft, at least based on early results - but on a team loaded  with veterans and talented young players, many of them wings, it just didn't seem to be in the cards for young Jayson. Then, the unthinkable happened with Gordon Hayward's gruesome injury, and the landscape of the Eastern Conference shifted in countless ways just minutes into the young season. Most of the ways things changed were obviously negatives, and not just for Boston - the East is so bad now, we might have a competitor for the NBA G-League, for example - but there were a few minor silver linings to be found. Jayson Tatum getting more run as a result (and becoming a more realistic candidate for ROY) was certainly one of them. But who else is he facing?


As I alluded to above, the candidates with a good shot at winning the award need to at minimum 1) have never played in the league before (we can debate whether it's fair for Joel Embiid or players who have played pro ball in competitive leagues overseas belong another time), 2) get a fair amount of playing time (I'd say at minimum about 20 minutes per game on average), and 3) score consistently in the double digits plus have an elite skill (passing, rebounding, blocking, and so on) or scoring more than 15 points per game most of the season. They also need to play close to half the games of the season, and closer to the full slate, so injury-prone players or guys who start the season hurt are going to be less likely to get there.

But who are the players at the top of the list? Apart from Tatum, I'd offer up these other six candidates:

Ben Simmons (Philadelphia 76ers): Why he might: He might not be a rookie as far as some of us our concerned, but the time off to heal also gave him time to learn the NBA game mentally, and to condition himself and familiarize himself with the league. Add increased knowledge of both his team and opponents to his elite passing and high basketball IQ, and he could be a monster of a "rookie". Why he won't: This team is kind of a mess early on, with veterans who don't lead, and young guys who don't seem to know how to. The whole team has a lot to figure out, and if Simmons has learned in his recovery, it hasn't translated to winning with the team's 0-3 start.

Dennis Smith Jr. (Dallas Mavericks): Why he might: He fell to a team that has little in the way of competent floor generalship, but has a coach who will be more than capable of molding the young guard into an effective player if anyone can in Rick Carlisle. Why he won't: Players with a history of knee injuries - like Smith Jr. - who show sudden signs of swelling in said joint and have to sit the first week of the season don't exactly make the most likely candidates for the award. Hopefully, it's just the stress of a shorter preseason.

Lonzo Ball (Los Angeles Lakers): Why he might: Love him or hate him, LaVar Ball managed to turn his fatherly bluster into Lonzo landing with maybe the perfect team for his talents, especially after trading away D'Angelo Russell - Ball can score well enough despite his funky mechanics to qualify for the award when he flirts with double-doubles, as his showing against the Phoenix Suns shows he may. Why he won't: That fatherly bluster has made Lonzo a fair share of enemies before he ever played a real NBA game, and sometimes that makes the young rook something of a targeted man in the league, as his disastrous debut versus the Los Angeles Clippers and Patrick Beverly demonstrated.

Markelle Fultz (Philadelphia 76ers): Why he might: Anointed as the obvious choice early on in the lead-up to the 2017 NBA Draft, more than a few heads spun when Danny Ainge passed on the young talent to take Tatum, as the kid can score from anywhere on the floor when healthy, despite double and sometimes triple coverage. Heading to a team with little in the way of good guards or scoring options, he seemed poised to have a solid run at the award. Why he won't: He's been awful so far, changing his form because of a shoulder injury, resulting in him shooting .348 from the field with precisely zero attempts beyond the arc - and more concerningly, 50% from the stripe. Granted, he's injured, but this is not especially auspicious, particularly considering he'll be losing votes to his teammate Ben, and vice-versa. We think.

DeAaron Fox (Sacramento Kings): Why he might: Fox is in a good position to win the award, as he'll get run on the Kings, devoid of backcourt talent of note apart from veteran George Hill, who has been playing roughly the same minutes - about 30, or just under - per game. A notoriously bad three-point shooter, he's hitting a surprising 50% of his shots from beyond the arc over three games. Why he won't: About those three-pointers - he's only tried four of them, and with all the big men clogging the paint, that's going to depress his scoring, particularly competing for minutes at the one with Hill. George could work on this team with Fox with the right staggering approach, but the combination of his presence and Fox's lack of spacing means his strengths won't be working in his favor with the King's archaic roster make-up.

Josh Jackson (Phoenix Suns): Why he might: On such a bad roster - one of the worst in the league - there should be ample opportunity for Jackson to get the run he needs and the chance to put points on the board with gusto, especially with him connecting 45% of his shots from deep, one of the biggest concerns about his game coming into the league. Why he won't: The biggest obstacle facing Jackson is that much of the team's scoring talent is concentrated in two players more likely to be trusted with the ball (Devin Booker and Eric Bledsoe), or competing for minutes at the same position (TJ Warren). If Jackson had another elite skill to speak of, he'd be in a better position to win, but at least for now, he's going to have to carve out a distinct scoring role or elevate his pick-pocket skills to have a shot at winning, and scoring and defense are rarely complimentary skills for rookies to develop in the same season.


When he was looking at backing up Hayward and competing for minutes against Jaylen Brown and a bevvy of young guys who are about the same height and play the evolving "swing" role used by Brad Stevens and other modern coaches along with minimal "bigs" and "ballhandlers" (as opposed to the classic 1-5 positional approach), it seemed reasonable to expect Tatum to play about 15 minutes a game for most of the season, particularly accounting for the steep defensive learning curve required to stay on the floor with a competitive team like Boston.

But, the Hayward injury and Tatum's surprising success on both ends of the floor have put him squarely in the conversation, averaging just over 12 points per game, with nine boards, almost two assists and a block thrown in for good measure over roughly 35 minutes per game. His biggest weakness is three-point shooting - he's hitting only 20% of them - but that's a minor part of his game on a team with room for a mid-range specialist who can create second-chance opportunities through solid defense and great rebounding. And he's spent time guarding some of the best offensive players in the game in his very brief NBA career, too. It may be too early to have a real look at who might be anointed the Rookie of the Year just yet - but if you ask me, the odds are as good for Jayson as anyone else so far - and probably better.

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Image: AP Photo/Tony Dejak
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