Wednesday, December 6, 2023

NBA Rookie of the Year odds, picks: Why Scoot Henderson is the best pick on the board

There is a vast divide between the three Rookie of the Year favorites and the field. Victor Wembanyama, Chet Holmgren and Scoot Henderson are all sitting at +275 odds or shorter. Everyone else has odds of at least +1600. In context, it’s hard to argue with Vegas on that one.

The past six Rookie of the Year winners have been top-five picks. Seven of the past 15 winners have gone No. 1 overall. Go back to this award’s origins and there have been more winners picked in the top-two (38) than in every other slot combined (32). Most of the time, this award is going to one of the top picks in the draft. Unsurprisingly, our three favorites this year are the No. 1 overall pick (Wembanyama), the No. 3 overall pick (Henderson) and the No. 2 overall pick in the 2022 draft (Holmgren).

Of course, draft position isn’t the only determinant of this award. Here are a few other trends to keep in mind:

  • This is a ball-handler’s award. Since LeBron James won the award in 2004, the only true big men to win it have been Emeka Okafor in 2004, Blake Griffin in 2011 and Karl-Anthony Towns in 2015. Forward-sized players like James, Kevin Durant and Paolo Banchero have won, but all three did so leading their teams in usage. This is a counting stats award.
  • Defense rarely plays into the voting for this award. Since 2004, only six of the 20 winners have posted a positive Defensive Box Plus-Minus metric. Only two of those players, Ben Simmons and Chris Paul, had a DBPM above 1. This is even true of the big men who have won it, as Griffin (-0.3), Towns (-0.4) and Okafor (-1.3) all rated badly by this metric. Of course, most rookies rate poorly by most defensive metrics. Strong defensive rookies are a rarity, and even when they exist, the best rookies are typically drafted by bad teams, and most bad teams have bad defenses, so their hard work often goes unrewarded.
  • Winning rarely matters for Rookie of the Year. This is, again, intuitive. The worst teams usually have the highest picks. Only four of the past 20 winners have made the playoffs, five if you include Ja Morant’s brief play-in trip in 2020. Banchero beat out Jalen Williams last season despite largely being out of the play-in race while Williams helped Oklahoma City sneak in as a No. 10 seed.

With that in mind, here are Sam Quinn and Ameer Tyree’s favorite preseason bets for Rookie of the Year sorted into two categories: those three favorites and everyone else.

The Favorites

Quinn: I hope you got your Scoot Henderson tickets in early. At points this offseason, you could find him at +450 at certain books. Now that Damian Lillard has officially been traded, he’s down to +225 at Caesars. He’s clearly the best candidate of the three favorites, and is therefore the best on the board. He’ll likely have the ball far more than either of the big men, and in light of the Lillard drama this summer, the Blazers would probably love the good press that would come with his replacement winning Rookie of the Year. 

Guards tend to have an easier time staying healthy, and even if the new 65-game awards minimum doesn’t apply to Rookie of the Year, that will matter here as well. The Blazers won’t be contenders, but they’re not outright tankers, either. With Jerami Grant and the newly acquired Deandre Ayton and Robert Williams in place, Portland should at least have a solid, veteran front-court this season. If Henderson can win the Blazers 30-35 games on the sort of numbers we expect, it would be hard to keep the award away from him.

Wembanyama (-125) vs. Holmgren (+275) for second place is a bit trickier. Wembanyama will probably see a lot more of the ball, but will he have it enough to post significant individual scoring numbers? And how much will his defense stand out on an otherwise limited roster? As we’ve covered, defense tends not to dictate Rookie of the Year voting, but it almost has to in the Holmgren vs. Wembayama debate. If Holmgren is slightly worse, but on a far better team defense that likely contends for a playoff spot, won’t he at least be more noticeable?

Ultimately, the odds are the difference here. I’d rather have the defense-first candidate sitting at +275 than the one at -125. Betting minus-money on a player we’ve never seen in an NBA setting is simply too great a risk for too minimal a reward.

Tyree: Wemby is the clear runaway favorite here. The San Antonio Spurs forward could very well lead the San Antonio Spurs in points and rebounds while serving as a defensive anchor in his first NBA season. While San Antonio might not be very competitive, Wenbanyama is sure to take over the internet with ridiculous highlights on both ends of the court. All eyes will be on him from day one, as many think he’ll eventually be the best player in the world. There hasn’t been a safer bet for Rookie of the Year in a long time, so gamblers should feel pretty confident about putting their money on him.

Henderson was my second-favorite option before the Damian Lillard trade and he’s in a better situation now than when he was drafted. The Portland Trail Blazers’ guard dynamics could be interesting with Anfernee Simons and Shaedon Sharpe in the mix, but Henderson has a shot to run the offense for his team early on. He’s already competed against high-level NBA hopefuls for a year in the G-League. Holmgren and Brandon Miller (+1600) likely won’t be handling the ball nearly as often because of how much Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and LaMelo Ball need to touch the rock. Things get pretty shakey once you get outside of the three players with the best odds.

The Longshots

Quinn: The top picks outside of our three favorites are all unfortunately in positions in which they are unlikely to see the ball enough to meaningfully compete for this award. Brandon Miller is on a team with LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward. Amen Thompson is behind Jalen Green and Fred VanVleet. Ausar Thompson is behind Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey. Few rookies are guaranteed touches, so we’re going to have to find situations in which touches are at least plausible.

How about Utah’s simultaneously crowded and thin backcourt? Jordan Clarkson, Collin Sexton, Ochai Agbaji and Talen Horton-Tucker are all in line for minutes, but none of them have done enough to guarantee high-usage roles. If Summer League standout Keyonte George (+2500) can earn minutes, he’ll have a shot to compete for this award. The trouble, as Walker Kessler discovered last season, is that non-lottery picks often take so long to work their way into the rotation that they’re forced to play catch up all season. George is a nice sleeper, but you’d have to be very confident in his ability to play right away. Monitor training camp updates before making this bet, even if it means sacrificing a bit of value.

A lottery pick who almost certainly will get minutes is Grady Dick. The Raptors ranked 28th in 3-point percentage last season, and that was with Fred VanVleet on the roster. Now that he’s gone, Toronto is going to have to play Dick a ton of minutes just to keep its half-court offense afloat. If he is among the NBA’s 3-point leaders, he’ll be a worthwhile fringe candidate.

Tyree: While being on the ball helps ROY buzz quite a bit, there’s one longshot I don’t think needs a ton to be in the mix. Ausar Thompon (+2200) was considered to be a lesser prospect than his twin brother on draft night but could help turn around the league’s fourth-worst scoring defense from last season with his versatility. He projects to be more of a wing than his brother, Amen. He showcased an impressive all-around game at NBA Summer League, averaging 13.5 points and 10.0 rebounds across four games before being shut down. He has excellent playmaking around him and could be a starter alongside some great playmakers. 

I don’t like Jarace Walker’s odds (+2000) as much as Thompson’s, but I think he could be worth a flier. I’d feel more confident about his ROY chances had the Indiana Pacers not brought Benedict Mathurin off the pine for most of his rookie campaign and traded for Obi Toppin over the offseason. However, they drafted him to shore up their suspect frontcourt by pairing another strong defender with Myles Turner. There’s a chance he’ll split time down the middle with Toppin but might establish himself as a force early on with the starting unit.

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