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Essay: Betting On Rookie Of The Year

Predicting who will win Rookie of the Year this season is monotonous. Soft arguments can be made for more than one player, but if you had to bet your life on it, Anthony Davis is the only answer. He’s a special talent, storming into the league as the most obvious number one pick since Derrick Rose. But picking him would make for a super boring column, so, before writing this piece I decided to take a look at the award’s odds recently posted around the internet on various sports books. Instead of “Who’s winning Rookie of the Year?”, I tried answering a more enjoyable question: If someone gave me a $100 bill with instructions to turn it into the most money possible by betting on one of the prodigious man-child freak athletes about to enter the NBA, who would it be?

Predicting which rookie will perform better than every other rookie long before any of them have played a single minute in the NBA is probably the most difficult basic basketball related prop bet a gambler can make. But when no actual money is involved, it’s actually kinda fun.

Apart from the once-in-a-generation “sure thing” who invites every general manager employed by a crappy team to drive their season off a cliff in the hopes of receiving as many ping-pong balls as possible, the rookie is mostly a visionless gamble. The truth of the matter is that nobody on Earth knows what kind of production any given collegiate or foreign teenager will offer in his first season, including the player in question. It’s all one big guess.

All rookies come into the league with no professional data to analyze, and no relevant game tape capable of revealing how they’ll adjust to the NBA’s intensified speed, or how much they’ll sweat playing under the brightest lights in all of basketball’s known universe. In an attempt to make this prediction as educated as possible, I took the liberty of examining several Rookie of the Year winners from the past.

Upon combing through their first year statistics, two important commonalities popped up. First and foremost, the Rookie of the Year pretty much has to average at least 30 minutes a night. Coming to the conclusion that a rookie needs to play a ton of minutes in order to win this award might seem obvious at first, but combining the fact that not too many first year players crack the 30 minute barrier with knowledge that only two winners in the history of the league (Tommy Heinsohn and Mike Miller) averaged fewer than 30 minutes of playing time each night, we may have ourselves a helpful slice of information. Knowing this, before the season even starts we can already cross off a healthy number of newbies who due to contextual situations or roster construction won’t come close to sniffing that much time.

Here’s the second stat: It may seem like an arbitrary number (in large part because it is), but if a rookie isn’t averaging at least 16 points per game, there’s virtually no chance he’s getting serious attention from voters. Only five player since 1987 walked away winning Rookie of the Year without averaging at least 16 points a night: Jason Kidd, Mark Jackson, Emeka Okafor, Amar’e Stoudemire, and, you guessed it, Mike Miller. Scoring is important. Got it? Great.

And on that note, let’s take a look at how we should be spending that imaginary Franklin.

Rooting For Paint To Dry: Anthony Davis (19/10)

In all likelihood, the type of person who’d put significant money down on Anthony Davis to win Rookie of the Year doesn’t have any tattoos. They’ve never dyed their hair, had their nose pierced, or been asked to enter a Fantasy Football league by a hypothetical group of friends they probably don’t have. This is a boring person. A safe person. An annoying person.

The whole point of gambling (from what I understand) is to chase a high, momentarily teleporting your psyche to an alternate universe where everyone breathes to bow at your feet—before eventually crashing back to reality and realizing all the winnings still won’t cover 75% of next month’s cable bill.

Anthony Davis will probably win Rookie of the Year because he’s the best player. That’s simple enough, isn’t it? Taking it a step further, from the last 15 drafts, here’s a list of players who would have all but guaranteed an unnatural demise for their respective general managers had they not been selected with the first overall pick: Tim Duncan, Elton Brand, Yao Ming, LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, and John Wall. Dwight Howard and Greg Oden weren’t included because of Emeka Okafor and Kevin Durant. Kwame Brown wasn’t included because nobody likes him.

Only two players on that list failed to win Rookie of the Year. The first was Yao Ming, who lost to Amar’e Stoudemire. (Side tangent: I’m still not sure why this happened. Yao played two fewer minutes per game yet the two both averaged exactly 13.5 points a night. Yao also boasted a higher FG%, FT%, blocks per game average, assists per game average, and averaged 8.2 to Stoudemire’s 8.8 rebounds. If that weren’t enough, Amar’e’s Suns made a solid eight game jump in the standings while Yao’s Rockets saw their win total skyrocket up 15. Looking back, that has to be one of the most baffling Rookie of the Year decisions of all time. Especially when you factor in Yao’s immense international fame and cultural significance.)

The other was John Wall, who lost it to Blake Griffin, another undisputed number one pick spotted on the list. (As you’re certainly aware, Griffin sat out his real rookie season with a busted  knee cap.) Davis is going to get minutes, he’s going to score points, and every time he blocks a shot, you’ll see it on SportsCenter.

Candy For Dinner!: Harrison Barnes (12/1), Dion Waiters (15/1)

Both Barnes and Waiters figure to be guys with the ball in their hands in scoring situations throughout the season. Both of their teams will likely spend the year competing for their respective conference’s 8th playoff seed, and if either guy is able to string together a serious stretch of ridiculous scoring efforts to help get their team in the playoffs, it wouldn’t be totally insane to see them get more than a few Rookie of the Year votes. The odds certainly make them juicier picks than guys like Bradley Beal or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but the chances of either Barnes or Waiters actually having better debut seasons is small.

Waiters has to deal with a scoring point guard on his team and a stubborn, paranoid head coach who’s repeatedly said this preseason that he doesn’t plan on giving a guy heavy minutes just because he was selected with the fourth overall pick. To me, that sounds like a warning to his impatient fanbase.

If I had to go with one of the two, I’d probably select Barnes. He’s battling the likes of Brandon Rush and Richard Jefferson for playing time (two players he’s clearly better than already), and it shouldn’t be long before he cracks the starting lineup.

You’ll Probably Die, But It Might Be Glorious: Austin Rivers (30/1), Donatas Motiejunas (50/1)

At nearly six times the payout of fellow rookie Damian Lillard, Austin Rivers is a damn good value. With a similarly aggressive style of play, it’s tough to say one player is FAR better than the other at this point, and with an unfair recognizable name advantage, Rivers will be in the spotlight more than he probably deserves.

That being said, playing time and shot attempts on New Orleans will be relatively fewer and farther between thanks to the likes of Greivis Vasquez and Eric Gordon crowding the team’s backcourt. (Also, unless he gets injured, there’s pretty much no chance in hell any rookie not named Anthony Davis is winning rookie of the year on the Hornets.) If Rivers and Lillard were to swap teams, their odds might even out a little bit, but as it stands Rivers would need a ton of chips to fall in his favor in order to win.

Donatas Motiejunas on the other hand, that could be a stick of dynamite. Am I basing a good chuck of my reasoning on roughly 20 minutes of a dominant Summer League stretch? Maybe. But if Motiejunas can get on Kevin McHale’s good side and become a regular starter in what should be a permeable Rockets rotation, those statistics could explode, especially if he develops some chemistry running the pick and roll with Jeremy Lin.

The Underdog Favorite Grand Slam Special: Damian Lillard (11/2)

If I could only place one bet with the sole intention of winning the most possible money, this would be my guy. Going down the line of check points that run through the past 15 Rookie of the Year award winners, Lillard fits the mark in several areas. 1) He’s a point guard. Five of the past 15 ROY winners were point guards, more than any other position. 2) He’s going to start from opening day on a team currently mired in a rebuilding effort. All of the past 15 ROY winners sans Mike Miller have averaged at least 30 minutes per game. 3) He’s a damn good scorer, averaging 26.5 points per game in Summer League and pacing college basketball last season with nearly 25 points an outing. 12 of the 15 ROY winners averaged at least 16 points.

Obviously, the past can only tell us so much. Lillard is going up against this year’s crop of rookies, not Steve Francis, Kyrie Irving, or Derrick Rose. But if you studied the rough data sample and had to pick one player, Lillard best fits the mold of what you’d want. And with $55 to every $10 you submit, it’s not that terrible of a pay out.

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