In the end, there can be only one.
And I’ll just come right out and say it: Luka Doncic is my pick to win this year’s Kia Rookie of the Year.
There’s no reason to beat around the bush or put off the announcement. Doncic came out of the gate firing (and hitting), so why shouldn’t I?
The Slovenian, whom the Mavericks landed last June in a Draft-night trade with Atlanta (for, of course, fellow rookie Trae Young), arrived as a 19-year-old with three years of experience playing alongside seasoned professionals with Spain’s Real Madrid.
And it showed. Doncic displayed no fear or trepidation and captured the nation’s hearts with his step-back three-pointers, floaters in the lane, and all-around game that was far from what we’re used to seeing from rookies. He was a game-changer, and the Mavericks have a transcendent player to take the reins after Dirk Nowizki’s 21-year reign in Dallas.
Sure, Young caught fire after the All-Star break to make things interesting, and he had some performances to remember. He had an incredible 49-point, 16-assist showing in a loss to the Chicago Bulls, becoming just the third rookie with a 40-10 game (joining LeBron James and Michael Jordan). He also had seven 30-point, 10-assist games, surpassing Stephen Curry and LeBron James for most ever by a rookie.
By almost every metric, Doncic outpaced the field. He led all rookies in scoring while becoming the only rookie to average 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists since Oscar Robertson did it in 1961. He finished the season with eight triple-doubles, good enough for third-most by a rookie, behind Robertson and the reigning Kia ROY, the Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons. And despite cooling off at the end of the season, he’ll still finish with better effective field-goal and true shooting percentages than what Young boasts.
But in the end, Young’s slow start was just too much to overcome. He definitely made things interesting, and he should grab some votes, but Doncic gets my vote in what turned out to be a closer-than-expected race for Kia Rookie of the Year.
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1. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Last week: No. 2
After falling to second for the last four Rookie Ladders, Doncic takes the top rung when it matters most. This piece gives extra weight to recent play, so Young deserved the first spot down the stretch. He was playing at a level that Doncic wasn’t quite matching. But when you look at the body of work, which this final Rookie Ladder does, Doncic gets the final nod. Among his notable statistics, he finishes the season with eight triple-doubles, good enough for third most by a rookie (trailing only Robertson and Simmons). Years from now, when Doncic is a perennial All-Star and potential Kia MVP candidate, we’ll look back at this rookie campaign fondly. It was a fun ride, and it was fun watching Doncic bring joy and passion to the court every night.
2. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
Last week: No. 1
If there was an award given to the best rookie after the All-Star break, Young would easily get it. What Young did offensively after the All-Star break was inspiring, and the fact that he actually made people reconsider Doncic for the top spot is worth praising. Young averaged 24.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 9.2 assists per game while shooting 44.2 percent from the field (34.8 percent on 3-pointers). The Hawks were 10-14 after the All-Star break and the signs are there that Young — alongside John Collins and whomever comes in the 2019 draft — and the Hawks have a bright future. “Besides the one month (November) I didn’t shoot the ball well, I think I had a really good season as far as making plays, getting my teammates involved and scoring when needed,” Young told USA TODAY Sports. “One thing I wanted to do was bring life back to the city of Atlanta, and we’ve done a great job of doing that.”
3. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
Last week: Not ranked
Ayton had moments when he could disappear, but when you look at his whole rookie season, the numbers show the Suns have a potential All-Star big man they can build around. In 71 games, the No. 1 pick averaged 16.3 ppg (fourth) and 10.3 rpg (first) while shooting 58.5 percent. His defense is a work in progress, but he still managed to get a block and steal per game. “I think I’ve seen the trenches a little bit, but I won’t say I went through all bad,” Ayton said in his Suns exit interview. “We did a lot of great things, learned a lot of great things. I feel I definitely got better, stronger. Stronger mentally as well.”
4. Marvin Bagley, Sacramento Kings
Last week: No. 3
The Kings were in playoff contention for most of the season, and Bagley’s contributions off the bench were a big reason. Sacramento sought a long-term fit when they took Bagley second overall, and he proved his worth, especially down the stretch. He’ll finish fifth among rookies in scoring (14.9 ppg) and third in rebounding (7.6) and his numbers after the All-Star break show his improvement (18.5 ppg and 9.2 rpg). Kings fans might always wonder what could have been if they’d grabbed Doncic, but if Bagley’s first year is any indication, the Kings’ fortunes are only going to improve with time.
5. Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers
Last week: No. 5
Sexton looked lost early in the season, leading many to wonder if he had what it took to be an NBA point guard. But by the end of March, those concerns were put to rest and Sexton proved he has a future as a scoring point guard. While he never put up big assist numbers (3.0 apg), Sexton will finish third among rookies in scoring (16.7 ppg) thanks to a March that saw him average 22.4 points on 51 percent shooting (44.7 on 3s). For the season (he played all 82 games), his shooting numbers are excellent — 43 percent overall, 40.2 on three-pointers (first among rookies), 83.9 on free throws (1st) — and actually better than both Doncic and Young.
Just missed the cut:
Jaren Jackson, Memphis Grizzlies
Jackson only played 58 games (starting 56), before being sidelined in February by a right quad injury, but what he did in that time will earn him plenty of All-Rookie first team love. The lanky No. 4 pick averaged 13.8 points (sixth) and 4.7 rebounds (eighth) on 50.6 percent shooting (35.9 on three-pointers) in 26.2 minutes per game. But Jackson also proved to be one of the best rookie defenders, getting 1.4 bpg (second) and 0.9 spg and will be a force on both ends for years to come.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, LA Clippers
The point guard out of Kentucky was steady all season and was a big reason the Clippers are in the playoffs. He finishes ninth in scoring (10.8 points), but he was effective in getting his points, hitting at a 47.6 percent clip (36.7 on three-pointers). He played all 82 games, starting 73 and got better as the season progressed. “I was high on him,” Rivers told The Athletic. “I said it when we drafted him. I said, ‘He’s gonna be a star.’ Then in camp, I was really high on him because you could just see it. I didn’t know where he was going this year or when he was gonna get there. But he’s gonna be really good. He’s just going to keep getting better.”
Landry Shamet, LA Clippers
Shamet’s scoring numbers aren’t staggering, but he was the best shooter of this class and did it for two playoff teams (the Sixers, then the Clippers after a midseason trade). He averaged 9.1 points while leading all rookies in three-point shooting (42.2 percent, 11th among all players). With the Clippers facing the Golden State Warriors in the first round, he’ll be on a big stage while most other rookies are left watching.
Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks
The Knicks had several rookies leave their mark. Kevin Knox had his ups and downs and finished as one of the Top 10 scorers. Allonzo Trier also ended up in the Top 10. But the Knicks’ best rookie may have been Robinson, who emerged as a defensive force, leading all rookies in blocks (2.4 per game, No. 2 overall in NBA) while grabbing 6.4 rebounds per game (fifth) and scoring 7.3 points on 69.7 percent shooting. For a second-round pick, he might end up being a steal for New York.