Zion Williamson, who most expected to lead the way in the Rookie of the Year race, has yet to set foot in an NBA game after tearing his meniscus in October. His absence has opened the race up to the rest of the 2019 draft class, shifting the spotlight to players picked much later in the draft. This year’s class has been underwhelming, with many first round picks riding their team’s bench or even getting sent to the G-League. But a few have stepped up and made meaningful contributions in pivotal roles, and they’ll be part of an increasingly close ROY race this year.
5. Brandon Clarke
Clarke is the best rookie no one is talking about right now. The forward from Gonzaga dominated in college due to his efficiency in the paint and athleticism on defense, and those skills have translated beautifully in his first year with the Grizzlies. Though Clarke is only playing 21.4 minutes per game, he’s averaging 12.8 points and 5.6 rebounds while shooting a ridiculous 64.4 percent from the field. His three seasons of college experience have paid off, turning him into a polished product ready to contribute right away.
4. R.J. Barrett
Barrett has had a solid start to his rookie campaign, though he hasn’t lifted the Knicks from the depths of the Eastern Conference just yet. He’s contributing 13.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.7 assists, but his shooting remains a concern. Barrett is shooting 38.5 percent from the field and 31.9 percent from three, showing no improvement upon his one obvious flaw from his time at Duke. He’s also on a New York team that already has plenty of guards that aren’t threats from outside. Still, if Barrett expands his range and takes on a bigger role within the Knicks’ offense, he could steal the ROY award.
3. Tyler Herro
Herro, the draft’s 13th pick, has proven himself to be the biggest steal thus far. He’s played a significant role for the Miami Heat, who are now in third place in the Eastern Conference. At the moment, he’s putting up 13.7 points and 4.2 rebounds per contest while shooting 42.2 percent from the field and 39 percent from outside. But the biggest surprise is Herro’s 28.7 minutes per game on an experienced Heat team led by Eric Spoelstra. Regardless of whether or not he wins the award, Herro is one of 2019’s best rookies.
2. Kendrick Nunn
Nunn easily has the most interesting story of any rookie in this race. The 24-year-old is playing on a real NBA roster for the first time after going undrafted in 2018 and playing one season in the G-League for the Santa Cruz Warriors. He got an opportunity with the Heat due to Goran Dragic’s injury issues and has turned heads since entering the rotation. The point guard from Oakland University is currently averaging 15.7 points and 3.7 assists per game while shooting 44 percent from the field and 34 percent from three. Dragic is back now, but Nunn will undoubtedly play a crucial role for the Heat as they prepare for a playoff run.
1. Ja Morant
Morant, the phenom from Murray State who drew comparisons to Russell Westbrook leading up to the draft, has lived up to the hype so far. The second overall pick is scoring 17.6 points and dishing out 6.5 assists per game despite playing for a rebuilding Grizzlies team in the East. Not only that, but he’s already expanded his game to the outside, shooting the three at an efficient 40.9 percent clip. Morant has shown the flashes of athleticism and explosive dunks that made him famous in college, but he’s also developed a surprisingly balanced skill set for a rookie point guard. At the moment, the Rookie of the Year award is his to lose.