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2019 NBA Rookie of the Year Rankings: Crowning the winner

In a stacked rookie class, who took the crown?

Our last post covered rookies four through ten, and today, we’re crowning the Warm the Bench rookie of the year, brought to you by our patent pending z-scoring methodology. For anyone new, the scoring system looks at how a rookie did, relative to every rookie since 2000, and scores their marks for several key per game and advanced statistics. Summing all of those scores up generates one composite score, which attempts to show which rookie had the biggest impact on the game his first year, agnostic of position or role.

Now, let’s highlight the three best rookies of the 2019-2020 season. All data included is from the invaluable Basketball Reference.

The under-appreciated top pick

Deandre Ayton3rd out of 29Total Score: 16.53Rookie proxies: Kenneth Faried, LeBron James, Tyreke Evans, Andre Drummond

Poor Ayton. I can’t promise you that I’ve watched too many Suns games, but from what I have I’ve gathered that Ayton’s a thoughtful, dedicated guy stuck in the NBA purgatory that captured all of Devin Booker for the last few seasons. He’s creating a positive impact across the board, but you quickly see where he can go to improve in the upcoming season. Ayton doesn’t shoot enough free throws, with a low free throw rate, and he’s turning the ball over a bit too much.

Yet, he’s still the third best rookie, and, for a guy averaging 16 and 10 with a PER above 20, he’s somehow completely excluded from the ROY conversation. Ayton’s total production fits right between two previous rookie of the year winners in LeBron and Tyreke Evans, and while his defense does need improvement (shout out to the Open Floor podcast for keeping me informed on all fuego Suns takes), he would be in the ROY conversation in a ton of other seasons. Instead, he’s been chasing the next guy all year.

The guy who probably wins it in real life

Luka Doncic2nd out of 29Total score: 20.33Rookie proxies: Joel Embiid, Mitchell Robinson, Nikola Jokic, Anthony Davis

I joined a ridiculous fantasy basketball dynasty league last season, and I thank past Mike for his decision to trade for Luka every time I watch him play. Doncic came in this year as a 19-year old with an unbelievable pedigree in Europe, and he’s been nothing but stellar since day one. He set the record for triple doubles for a teenager, convinced the Mavericks to accelerate a rebuild with the big Kristaps Porzingis trade, and created endless adorable moments with Dirk. Luka takes on an incredible burden offensively for the team while still involving his teammates, and his total statline has few peers. Per Basketball Reference, Oscar Robertson is the only other rookie, ever, who scored over 20 points, gathered 7+ rebounds, and dished out 5+ assists.

Yet, somehow, our scoring has him as the silver medalist in the ROY race. Who wins the prize?

A fun, exciting surprise at the top

Mitchell Robinson1st out of 29Total score: 21.04Rookie proxies: Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic

Spoiled a bit by the Luka proxies, Robinson ekes out the top spot in the 2019 rookie rankings. Big Meech stands next to “cap space” as the most promising asset for the Knicks in a particularly brutal season, and the 2nd round pick has shown game-breaking promise on both ends of the court. Robinson’s block rate is four full standard deviations above the mean for rookies, the second-best score for blocks for any rookie since 2000, after Joel Embiid. He’s incredibly efficient, albeit on a small possession usage, and he’s adored by the advanced metrics–even in a cataclysmically bad Knicks season, he still has the highest box score plus/minus of any rookie in my dataset.

Don’t take just my word for it. Mike Vorkunov profiled the young phenom in this great piece, diving into the thought process behind his defensive acumen. The Knicks’ subreddit now traffics almost exclusively in Robinson fandom. Tommy Beer wrote up some other statistical breakdowns for Robinson, stoking the hype even higher. Mitch combines a nearly endless upside on the defensive end with glimpses of offensive effectivity, and for a second round pick, the Knicks found a gem.

Are you seriously saying he’s a better prospect than Luka?

Let me take off my Nate Robinson Kryptonate jersey and assure you that no, I am not arguing that Mitch should win over Luka. He will not, and I’d be shocked if he even places third in the final tally. Instead, I’m fascinated by how our scoring system would rank Mitch ever so slightly above Luka in this rankings, and how some of my bias in creating the methodology, or just fun statistical oddities, could generate these results.

Let’s look at the two players side-by-side (shoutout to reader Jeff for his feedback on getting more comparison graphs into the mix).

You quickly see that both guys trend in similar directions across most stats. Robinson’s insane blocks per game matches Luka’s scoring prowess, and both bring above-average impact to the box score differential and PER.

Yet, this graph accentuates a couple data points that actually make Luka’s case for him. Luka has a usage rate three deviations above the average rookie, third only to Joel Embiid and somehow Ben Gordon in my dataset. He’s asked to do a ton for the Mavericks, but he’s still able to play effectively. with a high true shooting rate, and produce a well-rounded statline; his high marks for assists, steals, and rebounds hint at the all-around game that inspired my favorite Ringer song. Really, the only mark that brings our boy down is his incredibly high turnover rate. Like his counterpart Trae Young, Luka’s high offensive workload produces more turnovers than the typical rookie, and with a bit more seasoning and an improved surrounding cast, he’ll be poised to right the ship in 2020.

Luka and Mitch represent similar total scores, but their value is derived in fascinatingly different ways. Mitch projects as a Rudy Gobert/Clint Capela style big, wreaking havoc on opposing offenses and scoring efficiently when he’s called into action. Luka’s a bit more challenging to predict: every time I watch, I’m convinced he’s James Harden without the foul rate, and if you catch me on the right triple double night, I’ll swear we’re watching a version of a less powerful LeBron with a deadly jumpshot.

Either way, I’m incredibly excited to watch both players grow and evolve, and we’re blessed to have yet another fantastic draft class. Check out the list of all rookies here, and be sure to subscribe for our next contentious analysis: who’s the MVP?