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Ranking NBA’s Rookie of the Year candidates heading into 2017-18

Dallas Mavericks team owner Mark Cuban, left, laughs as he jokes with first-round draft selectee Dennis Smith Jr, right, during a news conference, Friday, June 23, 2017, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

The NBA’s 2016-17 Rookie of the Year race was no fun. Thanks to injuries to the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and a very weak 2016 draft class, there was very little competition for the award.

The Milwaukee Bucks’ Malcolm Brogdon ended up swooping in for the win by playing solid minutes at both backcourt spots. He was good, but his play wouldn’t have been good enough to win ROY in almost any other year.

In 2017-18, the competition should be much tougher. The 2017 draft class was deep, and gets a boost from some European imports and Simmons. Many first-year players will earn big roles with their squads, and there are several players who realistically have a chance to bring home the hardware.

Who will ultimately earn the Rookie of the Year award? Let’s count down the top-five candidates after offering some honorable mentions.

Honorable mentions: Josh Jackson (Phoenix Suns), Malik Monk (Charlotte Hornets), Bogdan Bogdanovic (Sacramento Kings), Lauri Markkanen (Chicago Bulls), Donovan Mitchell (Utah Jazz), Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics), John Collins (Atlanta Hawks), De’Aaron Fox (Sacramento Kings), OG Anunoby (Toronto Raptors), Frank Ntilikina (New York Knicks)

5. MILOS TEODOSIC, LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

2016-17 per-game statistics (for CSKA Moscow): 25.1 minutes, 14.1 points, 2.2 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.1 blocks, 20.6 PER, 0.256 Win Shares per 48 minutes

Teodosic is kind of the forgotten man in rookie of the year discussions. He’s 30 years old, has never been an NBA draft pick and has been a pro for 13 years — he certainly won’t play like a first-year NBA guy.

However, the dazzling floor general will qualify as a rookie in 2017-18, and he has a chance to make a significant impact for the Clippers in his first year. It’s still unknown whether he’ll get a starting nod in a backcourt that includes Patrick Beverley, Austin Rivers and Lou Williams, but he’ll definitely get his minutes.

Whether he starts or not, he looks like a great fit offensively next to Danilo Gallinari, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. He can almost be a poor man’s Chris Paul on that end with his solid shooting, steady ballhandling and passing wizardry. He’ll be sure to get all three guys plenty of easy looks without dominating the ball too much.

Teodosic’s chances to actually win ROY will depend on whether he can limit his turnovers and whether he can avoid being a total liability on defense. I have more confidence in him doing the former than the latter.

Projected 2017-18 per-game statistics: 26.4 minutes, 11.1 points, 2.0 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 0.6 steals, 0 blocks, 15.6 PER, 0.119 Win Shares per 48 minutes

4. MARKELLE FULTZ, PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

2016-17 per-game statistics (for Washington): 35.7 minutes, 23.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.2 blocks, 27.9 PER, 0.172 Win Shares per 48 minutes

Fultz is an NBA-ready scorer who can get his shot in a variety of ways. Expect him to be a nightly double-digit scorer from the get-go.

The main thing holding him back from truly exploding in his rookie year is that the Sixers may still run their offense primarily through Simmons and, to a lesser extent, Embiid. Simmons is undoubtedly the most talented facilitator on the team’s roster already, and Embiid showed a bunch of outlier skills for big man last season when he was healthy.

Another thing to be watching for is Fultz’s defense. He’s generally projected as an average to below-average defender in the pros because of laziness, but it’s his first year and he’ll have to guard a bunch of dynamic players at the point guard position. Can he step up on the defensive end?

Projected 2017-18 per-game statistics: 31.5 minutes, 15.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1 steal, 0.5 blocks, 16.5 PER, 0.098 Win Shares per 48 minutes

3. BEN SIMMONS, PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

2015-16 per-game statistics (for LSU): 34.9 minutes, 19.2 points, 11.2 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.8 blocks, 29.0 PER, 0.207 Win Shares per 48 minutes

By all accounts, Simmons’ foot has fully recovered. He was cleared for 5-on-5 action more than four months ago, but he didn’t play in Summer League, which means he should be itching to get back on the floor in a real game situation.

The athletic point forward might be a little bit rusty early on in the season, but it shouldn’t last long. He’s in a great situation in Philadelphia next to players who can help support him on the offensive end (Fultz, J.J. Redick, Embiid and Dario Saric) and the defensive end (Robert Covington and Embiid).

Philly also might impose a minutes limit on him, though it should be a less restrictive one than Embiid’s last season. The most important variable here is Simmons’ tantalizing combination of a diverse skill set and excellent physical tools, which should make him a net positive on the floor right from the start.

Projected 2017-18 per-game statistics: 30.2 minutes, 13.0 points, 7.2 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.8 blocks, 17.7 PER, 0.112 Win Shares per 48 minutes

2. LONZO BALL, LOS ANGELES LAKERS

2016-17 per-game statistics (for UCLA): 35.1 minutes, 14.1 points, 6.0 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.8 blocks, 24.7 PER, 0.214 Win Shares per 48 minutes

The Lakers are handing their offense over to Ball, who will endear himself to teammates right away with his special passing ability. Teammates will be motivated to fly out in transition and cut to the basket when No. 2 is handling the ball.

Don’t be surprised if Los Angeles uses Ball on the glass like the Oklahoma City Thunder did with Russell Westbrook last season, allowing Ball to get uncontested rebounds to speed up its transition attack. This could be the best way to utilize the rookie’s outlet passing abilities:

When the Lakers can’t play off a miss, I do worry about Ball’s ability in half-court settings. He has no mid-range game, and NBA teams will know better how to disrupt the funky release on his shot. He’ll probably commit quite a few turnovers.

But Ball will still get Los Angeles lots of quick points before defenses can set up. The Lakers started being a little bit fun to watch last season; this season it’ll reach a whole new level.

Projected 2017-18 per-game statistics: 33.3 minutes, 11.4 points, 5.7 rebounds, 8.3 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.4 blocks, 16.6 PER, 0.093 Win Shares per 48 minutes

1. DENNIS SMITH JR., DALLAS MAVERICKS

2016-17 per-game statistics (for NC State): 31.4 minutes, 18.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.4 blocks, 23.1 PER, 0.142 Win Shares per 48 minutes

Smith already looks like one of the biggest steals of the draft, going No. 9 to the Mavs before a dynamite showing in Summer League. I’m aware that Rick Carlisle is usually somewhat stingy with rookies on playing time, but this first-year point guard will be an exception.

The difference between Smith and the other candidates for ROY is that the Dallas floor general is the only player who has a decent chance at being both his team’s top scoring and playmaking option right away. In other words, the rock will be in Smith’s hands A LOT.

Damian Lillard seems like a solid comparison for Smith, with the rookie being a bit less capable from downtown, but more explosive than the Portland Trail Blazers star. Both are confident, athletic ballhandlers with the ability to score on all three levels.

The two will end up with very similar rookie seasons. Lillard’s campaign got him a Rookie of the Year award, and so will Smith’s.

Projected 2017-18 per-game statistics: 33 minutes, 18 points, 3.9 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.3 blocks, 18.3 PER, 0.101 Win Shares per 48 minutes

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