Rookie of the Year Sleeper Picks

The 2020 NBA Draft was filled with risky lottery picks, but many of the players selected in the following rounds indicate a considerably deep draft.

To be clear, I believe this year’s Rookie of the Year Award is James Wiseman’s to lose. The generational big-man recorded freak averages of 25.8 PPG, 14.8 RPG, and 5.5 BPG as an All-American high school senior. Unfortunately, he was limited to only three collegiate appearances for the Memphis Tigers due to an eligibility controversy. Wiseman will arrive to the Warriors set for a prominent role, as he provides the dynasty an impactful revitalization at the centre position. Taking both individual assets and situation into account, Wiseman should be top-dog among rookies next year.

LaMelo Ball and Anthony Edwards are the betting favourites in Vegas, and I agree that both players present an elite ceiling. However, rather than feed into mainstream debate, I will present my list of underrated rookie talent entering the league. Although they remain unlikely to win Rookie of the Year, keep an eye on the following players to exceed expectations and potentially earn a nomination.


Killian Hayes +700


Hayes is another rookie who will benefit from a clear path to the starting lineup. Being selected 7th overall by the Detroit Pistons, the French combo-guard will form a decent backcourt duo with Derrick Rose. Hayes expressed immediate excitement to play alongside the former MVP, planning to absorb as much expertise as possible. Additionally, the duo will be passing to frontcourt players like Blake Griffin, Jerami Grant, and fellow rookies Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey. In an underwhelming Eastern Conference, this group has potential for a relative degree of success.

Head Coach Dwane Casey has demonstrated his flaws, but working-up young talent is certainly not one. For eight seasons, Raptors’ fans watched him closely develop and guide Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan into All-Star careers. With a plethora of rookie talent entering Detroit this year, it should bring out his best coaching qualities.

Like many international phenomes, Hayes began his professional playing career as an early teenager; being only 15-years-old. Within two seasons, he climbed to the top division of the Euro League, playing the most competitive basketball outside the NBA. Last season only lasted 10 games, yet he still recorded 12.8 PPG, 6.2 APG, 2.3 RPG, and 1.5 SPG while shooting 45.5% from the field, 39% from three on 4.1 attempts a game, and 90.9% from the free-throw line. Clearly a skilled prospect, he also brings desirable size to the point-guard position; standing at 6’5” with a 6’8” wingspan.

A modern comparison for Hayes has been D’Angelo Russell, bonded by similar physical measurements and playing style. Dwane Casey echoes this optimism, but likens him to retired star guard Jason Kidd. Beyond obvious shooting ability, Hayes’ game is equally marked by crafty ball-handling and IQ plays. Although his footwork is a major strength, scouts criticize a lack of next-level athleticism and bounce. Thankfully, Killian is passing to a frontcourt of physical rim-players and is paired alongside the speed of Derrick Rose, meaning he can assume a more natural offensive role.

I was really high on Hayes pre-draft, and Detroit landing him should only be mutually beneficial. He offers everything the Pistons are currently lacking, and will arrive more accustomed to NBA-level competition than other NCAA rookies. As a non-contender playing in the East, the Pistons will look to devolve a lot of leadership to their talented youth. I expect an improved season for Detroit, and that Killian Hayes becomes the centrepiece of team success and growth.   


Tyrell Terry +10000


At risk of discrediting myself, I should mention this was one of the only two correct projections I made on draft night… Albeit disappointing, I was happy to see that my thinking, at least in some form, was shared by the Mavericks front office in drafting Terry.

As a freshmen starter at Stanford, he averaged 14.6 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 3.1 APG while connecting on 41% of his 4.9 three-pointer attempts per game. Despite being regarded as a lights-out shooter, the inherent risk associated to an undersized, one-dimensional prospect kept him on the board until the final pick of round one. As I predicted, it was the draft position and assets of the Mavericks which could ultimately permit taking such a risk.

First-and-foremost; the guy is not winning Rookie of the Year, but is poised to exceed his low expectations and become part of the Mavericks long-term plans. Moments after selecting him, the team shipped out current marksmen Seth Curry in return for a second-round pick and Josh Richardson. Not only is this a shooting downgrade, but Richardson only has 1-year remaining on his contract. Additionally, Dallas brought back undersized 36-year-old guard J.J. Barea for a single season. These moves are clearly linked to 2021 free agency, but will have an impact on the team starting now and moving forward.

Based upon those roster changes, it appears the Mavericks are openly high on Terry’s ability to keep draining shots at the next level. His skill-set alone is attractive, but he also impressed by setting the NBA record for a pre-draft IQ test record. He claims a love of academics led him to Stanford over other top college programs, and I believe his enhanced critical thinking capacity will accelerate his transition to the pros. 

He certainly has no shortage of talent to learn from in Dallas. Additionally, by virtue of their size advantaged team, Coach Rick Carlisle has many potential lineups that Terry could sneak into. Furthermore, teammates such as Luca Doncic, Jalen Brunson, and Trey Burke have the playmaking vision to find Tyrell Terry his shots. In my opinion, he should be poaching most of Barea’s valuable minutes by mid-season.

Size is becoming less of a prerequisite in the NBA, as the foul-sensitive, three-pointer volume era has given way to more skill-oriented players. Terry is a testament to this trend, and the Mavericks’ development team should craft a serviceable player out of him. Watch for Tyrell Terry to become a potential storyline at times this year, as he should be good for a few wild performances and an overall solid rookie campaign.   


Bol Bol +3600


This has to be the ultimate sleeper pick for Rookie of the Year.

To date, there has only been five players to win the award in their ‘second’ season, featuring an elite list of names in Ben Simmons, Blake Griffin, David Robinson, Larry Bird, and Jerry Lucas. From this perspective, it seems unlikely that Bol Bol will follow suit as the 44th overall pick from last year, especially with such a competitive incoming class. However, Bol has only showed-out when given the chance.

The 7’2” centre made his debut in the Bubble, where he averaged 5.7 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.0 BPG in a very limited seven appearances. Previously, Bol had been battling a series of nagging lower-body injuries; including an ankle injury which sidelined his freshman year at Oregon only nine games in. A stress fracture in his foot then prevented a full recovery, and ultimately cost him an entire regular season with the Denver Nuggets. Without these unfortunate set-backs, Bol was anticipated by many scouts to land somewhere among the early lottery picks of the 2019 Draft.

In nine appearances, the freshman Duck was averaging 21.0 PPG, 9.6 RPB, 2.7 BPG, while attempting 2.8 threes per game and hitting an insane 52% of them... Bol covers a ton of space on the court, and is a defensive game-changer with his menacing 7’8” wingspan. He can thank his NBA legend father Manute Bol for those genetics, as he stands at 7’6” himself and is among the best shot-blockers of all-time.

There is so much promising about Bol, but injuries have consistently delayed his inevitable coming-out party on the next stage. Just this past week, he went viral because of videos posted from a Nugget’s practice; depicting the big-man knocking down crazy pull-up threes mid-scrimmage. Statistics and health concerns aside; this prospect aces the eye-test in every manner.  

Obviously Denver is a wagon, and there is a ton of bodies ahead of Bol which he will need to compete with. Notably, incoming rookie forward Zeke Nnaji is a quality product that will further crowd their frontcourt. In a more open situation, I would consider Bol a potential front-runner for the award… However, he will have to integrate with an already established, flourishing team dynamic.

The success of the Nuggets is a double-edged sword for Bol. Although playing time is scarce, the quality of internal competition and experience on the team has definitely complemented his recovery. Not only is he a year older now, but he’s mentally ahead of other rookies in terms of professional routine and mindset. Bol has been steadily practicing with Denver for months now, and is poised for a breakout rookie year. 


Honourable Mentions


Obi Toppin +500


The reigning winner of the Naismith College Player of the Year for the Dayton Flyers, Obi Toppin is a talented, tenacious volume scoring forward.

I am personally high on him, and additionally thrilled to see him selected by his hometown team. Unfortunately, that team happens to be the New York Knicks. This storyline can go one of a few ways, but I simply don’t trust the Knicks development system to maximize the potential of their prospects. Furthermore, as much of a steal he’s considered to be at eight overall, the Knicks did the farthest thing from address positional needs on the team. Top guards such as Tyrese Haliburton and Devin Vassell remained available as well, but I ultimately do respect the Knick’s decision.

Obi was driven to tears by the joy of joining their team; something probably never seen in the modern era of basketball. Plus, he was the best talent available. In terms of Rookie of the Year contention, I don’t see an efficient first year for Obi. The Knicks only got more discombobulated this off-season, and things will remain that way with Dolan heading operations. Obi could produce during this upcoming year, but the lack of floor spacing on the Knicks will limit his ability to take-over in the paint.


Patrick Williams +2400


There is something about Pat Williams that we clearly do not know.

Buzz surrounding the 6’8” 225lbs forward really picked up on draft day, leading the Chicago Bulls to select him 4th overall. He is one of the youngest players available, and was previously forecasted to be a late top-10 gamble pick. However, I trust that NBA executives have gained some promising insight on the prospect.

As a true freshman on a stacked Florida State team, he recorded averages of 9.2 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.0 AST, 1.0 BPG, and 1.0 steals in 22.5 MPG coming off the bench. These numbers earned him ACC All-Freshman honours and Six Man of the Year award, helping to push his team to an impressive 26-5 record. This pick was mostly surprising because of how unproven Williams is as a next-level primary scoring option.

Williams is a great post-defender, but really struggled last year in college to cover guards when switched onto them in space. In addition to lacking some lateral 1-on-1 quickness, he also needs to improve his ability to shoot off the dribble. His ball handling is actually quite good, however. He should boost Chicago’s pick-n-roll game, as he is both a great rim-finisher and facilitator for his position.

I wouldn’t say I am drinking the Patrick Williams Kool-Aid yet, but he’s an honourable mention among sleeper Rookie of the Year candidates based upon the mysterious allure of his potential. Williams is transitioning from a talent rich, cohesive offensive scheme to the 27th ranked offense in the NBA. As a young player who struggles at times to create his own shot, I imagine his development with the Bulls will be gradual.   

Regardless of my opinion, basketball insiders keep going crazy about Williams, who describe him as a rich man’s Al-Farouq Aminu, even comparing him to Kawhi Leonard. Admittedly, there could be something I’m overlooking, but I wouldn’t even consider Williams a probable nominee at this point. His last-minute draft day ascension may also inject tough pressure and expectation into the young players’ early career.


Onyeka Okongwu +3000


As crazy as it may seem, this is a prospect that many scouts pushed as the best available talent in the entire 2020 Draft.

Atlanta pounced on the opportunity to secure a special player in drafting him 6th overall. Some fans can recall Onyeka from his iconic beginnings with the Chino Hills Huskies, completing an undefeated season alongside all three Ball brothers as a freshman. Last year he recorded 16.2 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 2.7 BPG and 1.2 steals per game for Southern California, earning All-Pac 12 honours. I am a big fan of Onyeka, and hope to see him bounce-back from his current foot injury and contribute right away.

He should turn out to be a stud in the league, as he defends extremely well at 6’9” and 245lbs. He is formally listed as a forward, but I see him having a similar ceiling to a player like Jonathon Isaac. That is a huge testament to his defensive upside, and I remain very confident on this one…

The only factor restricting Onyeka to honorable mention is off-seasons acquisitions made by Atlanta, who completely overcrowd an already talented frontcourt. I suppose this is a good problem to have, especially considering their backcourt counterpart of Trae Young and Bogdan Bogdanovic. Although Onyeka is bound to rise the ranks, he will be forced to do so against names like Clint Capela, John Collins, Danilo Gallinari, Kris Dunn, and De’Andre Hunter during his rookie campaign.

Once Atlanta establishes a pecking order and rhythm, I think Onyeka will turn into a machine on both ends of the floor. He could potentially anchor a top-end NBA defense, but I don’t think it happens this upcoming season. There are simply too many mouths to feed for the Hawks right now, so I cannot surely predict Onyeka in the ROY race.  


Malachi Flynn +6500


Despite a heavy Raptor bias, the acquisition of Malachi Flynn should be briefly noted as a great steal from this NBA Draft. I see him as an investment piece for Toronto, but he also provides immediate play-making off the bench. With Fred fully moved into the starting line-up, the second unit greatly missed his assist contributions.

I’ve already written on the commonalities between VanVleet and Flynn, as they possess similar strengths; most notably a hard-nosed demeanour. The 22-year-old led the 30-2 Aztecs in averages of 17.6 PPG, 4.1 APG, 1.8 SPG, while adding a decent 4.5 RPG. He was also deemed the Mountain West Division Defensive Player of the Year, which is an insane accomplishment for any 6’1” player.

Flynn already dropped a few projection places to land with the Raptors, and his stock was set to soar prior to cancellation of the NCAA March Madness Tournament. San Diego State University was gearing up for a deep run, and Flynn was the one directly leading that charge all season. I expect him to keep playing with a chip on his shoulder, and eventually integrate well with Toronto.

Unfortunately, the Raptors’ guard core is far too deep for Malachi to make a Rookie of the Year push. I could see him having a similar rookie impact to Kendrick Nunn last year on Miami, although he will not be starting games or playing as much. Regardless, Flynn will soak up everything veterans Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet have to offer, and I think fans will be surprised by his ability to run with Toronto’s dogs.

Comment Section

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Ryan31 December 12, 2020 12:11 a.m.

I think Flynn is going to excel with the raps and avg around 10ppg 4apg

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