Let’s get this out of the way early: if you believe that Zion Williamson is going to come in and more or less do what he’s supposed to do as a rookie, no lack of value should get you to bypass that bet.
First overall picks are like Marvel movies. If it is what it purports to be, it’s going to make a billion dollars, regardless of what else gets released while it’s out. Similarly, if a top pick spends his rookie year looking and feeling as a top pick should, little else matters. There’s no need for perfection (see: Avengers: Age of Ultron/Andrew Wiggins), only basic competence, usually in the form of counting stats.
Let’s get even simpler. Over the last 30 years, half of the first overall picks have started their NBA careers by averaging at least 16.5 points per game (this includes Blake Griffin and David Robinson, neither of whom played in the year immediately after being drafted). Of those, 14 have won Rookie of the Year, with Glenn Robinson being the only exception.
On the flip side, the only first overall pick that averaged under 16.5 points per game to win the award is Ben Simmons, and he put up 16, 8 & 8.
So yeah…if you think Zion comes in, flirts with 20 and 10 and isn’t beset by any major injury, go ahead and find the most favorable line you can (good luck getting anything close to even money). This column isn’t for you.
If, however, you think there’s a chance either a) the weight/conditioning thing is an issue that takes at least the year to sort out, and it causes him to miss some games and/or hinders his performance, b) he simply won’t be able to get to the rim with the ease he did at Duke, and his jumper will take some time to translate, or c) he simply isn’t that good (does anyone actually think this?), keep reading.
Need a little extra motivation? How’s this nugget, courtesy of SportsBettingDime.com: in eight of the past 11 years, the Rookie of the Year award has gone to a primary ball-handler, the exceptions being Blake Griffin, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Had Griffin not missed a year due to injury, John Wall might have made that nine out of 11.
This shouldn’t come as a shock. The league has been steadily moving away from post players and out to the perimeter for two decades now, and the trend will only continue. Zion, of course, was drafted in part because of his ability to handle the rock, if not as the nominal point guard, then as the de facto one when it matters most.
That isn’t likely to take shape immediately though, not with Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday (not to mention Brandon Ingram, another player who works best with the ball in his hands) in the starting lineup.
There’s also been a lot of buzz about Michael Porter Jr., but for as much as nearly 20-to-1 odds represent enticing value, I’m fading him for the same reason as Zion. The Denver offense flows through Jokic, and when it doesn’t, Jamal Murray, Paul Milsap and Gary Harris get their fair share of action.
You might think that Porter could get the benefit of being a really good, albeit low-usage rookie on a winning team, but there’s a few issues with that. Primarily, low-usage rookies rarely take home this prize. Only five times in the 44 years we’ve been recording the stat has a ROY winner had a usage rate under 21. Brogdon, the only such example in the last 18 years, had the benefit of being a part of perhaps the worst rookie class this century, with Joel Embiid nearly beating him despite missing 51 games.
Mostly though, thinking that Porter (or Zion, for that matter) are going to win because they’re contributing to winning teams hasn’t really held true of late. Of the past ten winners, only two – Brogdon and Ben Simmons – played for teams over .500. On the flip side, four newbies have won despite being part of fairly terrible outfits: Tyreke Evans on the 25-win Kings, Kyrie Irving on the 21-win Cavs, Michael Carter-Williams on the 19-win Sixers, and Andrew Wiggins on the 16-win Wolves.
It should be noted that Irving, Wiggins and MCW beat a fairly anemic field, but then again, this rookie class has been touted as one of the weakest in recent memory outside of the top three…which gets us to the most interesting bet on the board: Coby White.
Given the precedent that winners need not be part of good teams but that they should have the ball in their hands an awful lot, White fits the bill. He’s nowhere near as likely as either Ja Morant (+300) or RJ Barrett (+550) to shine, but at +1800, the risk is baked into the price.
Is White any good? Your guess is as good as mine, but he’s playing for a Bulls team that should offer ample spacing with Otto Porter and Lauri Markkanen in the starting lineup. Wendell Carter Jr. should also provide a strong pick and roll partner and will do the little things to help his Carolina rival look good. The two red flags here (besides whether or not White is actually a pro point guard and can, you know…shoot) are the presence of noted ball hog Zach LaVine and possible competitor for the starting job Tomas Satoransky.
I’d still throw a dart for the hell of it. Kris Dunn was not good, so White simply being competent will be seen as a huge step up.
As for Morant and Barrett, each has some very real plusses but also bring enough reason not to pay the premium.
Barrett is already being touted by the Knicks and the organization is incredibly high on him. He also handled the ball a lot in Summer League. That said, if he starts, he’s going to be playing along two high usage players in Julius Randle and (in all likelihood) Dennis Smith Jr. I’m just not sure there’s going to be enough possessions for him to put up the 16, 6 & 6 stat line he’d need to be a serious contender (as a Knicks fan, I very much hope I’m wrong).
As for Morant, +300 is just a bit too rich for my blood. His shot needs serious work and he’s simply not going to be able to get to the rim like he did in college. His defense will likely be only a tad better than Trae Young, so he’d really need to excel as a passer to tip the scales. That said, only five rookies since 1982 have averaged 16 points and seven dimes per game. Three (Damon Stoudamire, Allen Iverson and Chris Paul) won Rookie of the Year, while the other two (Wall and Young) finished second. Morant could get there.