Rookie of the Year
1. Luka Doncic | 2. Jaren Jackson Jr. | 3. Deandre Ayton
Luka Doncic has swept through NBA circles like a harrowing disease, leaving those in his wake breathless, salivating and prone to hyperactive delusions. The Slovenian Wonderboy has delivered on the pre-draft hype and the Dallas Mavericks’ draft day trade gamble right out of the gate, leading the team to a winning record and an above-average offense after years of directionless and uninspiring play. He’s done it with both flash and substance, draining gorgeous step-back threes that regularly go viral and taking on playmaking duties that allow veterans Harrison Barnes and DeAndre Jordan to settle comfortably into supporting roles. The 19-year-old Doncic leads the 2018 class in scoring, and he possesses the feel, timing and body control of a much older player. So far, concerns about his physique and athleticism largely look overblown.
But some of Doncic’s most feverish supporters might also be getting a little bit ahead of themselves. The Mavericks perform better on both offense and defense when Doncic is off the court, and his night-to-night consistency as a scorer must improve. He really shows his age as a decision-maker, ranking in the top 10 leaguewide for turnovers because he takes unnecessary risks, struggles to work himself out of tight quarters, and sometimes overestimates his own ability. Even so, it’s easy to see why Doncic inspires such devotion. His 18.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game stat line has only been matched by two other players at age-20 or younger: Magic Johnson and LeBron James. Although it remains to be seen whether Doncic will develop into a Hall of Famer like those two, his stellar early returns suggest that Dallas has landed the new franchise cornerstone it has sought throughout Dirk Nowitzki’s twilight.
The Memphis Grizzlies’ Jaren Jackson Jr. can be forgiven for his less than jaw-dropping stats (13.9 points, 4.6 rebounds per game): The Grizzlies play at the league’s slowest pace, and he occupies a tertiary offensive role as a starter alongside the well-oiled Mike Conley/Marc Gasol machine. The 19-year-old forward is an eye-test darling, deploying his length, quickness and strong instincts to excellent effect. There’s an Anthony Davis-like quality to Jackson’s defense, as he floats and roams from the paint to the perimeter and back, blowing up passing lanes and blocking shots along the way. Offensively, Jackson is still developing, but he’s comfortable shooting the three and his wingspan makes him a tricky cover when he attacks off the dribble. His next steps — to exhibit greater discipline on defense and shoulder a heavier burden on offense — should unfold naturally as he matures.
Unfortunately, Deandre Ayton’s promising start has been clouded by overwhelming pity. While the No. 1 pick is averaging a double-double (16 points, 10.2 rebounds per game), he is stuck playing for the Suns, who have a strong case as the NBA’s worst team and a Grand Canyon-sized hole at point guard. Phoenix already has seven losses by 20-plus points and just four wins by any margin, meaning that Ayton has spent a huge chunk of his rookie season compiling stats in garbage time. It’s unfair to ask any player — let alone a 20-year-old center — to turn around such a dysfunctional organization, but Ayton must significantly improve his timing and his understanding of spacing on defense if he is to become a franchise-changing talent. No matter how dominant he is as a finisher around the basket, there will be no way to justify his status as the top pick in such a loaded draft if he remains a non-shooter from three and a subpar defensive anchor.
Sixth Man of the Year
1. Montrezl Harrell | 2. Domantas Sabonis | 3. Derrick Rose
The same team has produced two different sixth man of the year selections in back-to-back years just once in NBA history, when the Boston Celtics’ Kevin McHale and Bill Walton won the award in 1985 and 1986, respectively. If the Los Angeles Clippers keep up their hot start, they have a real chance to match that feat. Scoring guard Lou Williams took home the 2018 sixth man award, but his scoring and efficiency are down slightly after his career year. The good news for Coach Doc Rivers: Montrezl Harrell, a key reserve big man, has stepped up to deliver a career year of his own for L.A., averaging 16.1 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game.
While the silky Williams has been dubbed “Sweet Lou” and the hard-charging Harrell relies more on brute force and physicality, they nonetheless share a fearlessness and all-business approach that has driven the Clippers' early success. Los Angeles has the league’s top-scoring bench unit thanks largely to the inside/outside duo, and Harrell leads all sixth man candidates in win shares due to his high-efficiency finishing and better-than-advertised defense. Acquired from the Rockets in the Chris Paul trade, Harrell isn’t just one of the NBA’s best bench players, he’s also one of its biggest bargains. This past summer, L.A. re-signed the former second-round pick and G-League standout to a contract that pays him just $12 million over two years.
Like Harrell, Domantas Sabonis of the Indiana Pacers has far exceeded expectations after being tossed into a trade for a superstar. Victor Oladipo’s breakthrough was the Pacers' headline story last year, and Sabonis’s continued growth has only made it easier for the franchise to move on from Paul George. It’s no surprise that Sabonis has proven to be skilled with the ball given his bloodline, but his efficiency has been outrageous. Through 23 games, he averaged 14.3 points and 10.1 rebounds per game while shooting 63.9 percent from the floor, doing most of his damage by outworking opponents in the basket area. While his father, Lithuanian legend Arvydas Sabonis, was best known for his breathtaking passing and three-point range during his late-career NBA stint, the younger Sabonis succeeds with boundless energy, well-honed low-post technique and a controlled faceup game from the midrange.
Derrick Rose’s Minnesota renaissance is arguably the craziest story of this NBA season. Now 30, the embattled point guard is having his healthiest and most productive season since his 2011 MVP campaign. The signature moment of his season came when Rose dumped 50 points on the Utah Jazz on Halloween, but even his harshest skeptics must acknowledge that he hasn’t been a one-hit wonder. Rose is averaging 18.3 points and 4.3 assists per game, repaying Coach Tom Thibodeau for what seemed like blind loyalty when he reunited with his former Chicago Bulls star last spring. After being dumped by the Cleveland Cavaliers and waived by the Jazz, Rose has been a truly consistent contributor for the first time since knee injuries derailed his career in 2012, boasting the best net rating of any Timberwolves player that was on the opening night roster.
Most Improved Player
1. Pascal Siakam | 2. De’Aaron Fox | 3. Nikola Vucevic
Toronto Raptors General Manager Masai Ujiri must be considered the favorite to win executive of the year given Kawhi Leonard’s seamless acclimation, Danny Green’s resurgence and Coach Nick Nurse’s quick learning curve. That strong case is bolstered by Pascal Siakam’s breakthrough. As a relatively unheralded prospect who spent two seasons at New Mexico State, Siakam slipped to Toronto at No. 27 in the 2016 draft. Remarkably, eight different players drafted ahead of him have yet to log 600 minutes total through three seasons.
Yet Siakam has burst onto the scene this season, stepping in as a full-time starter for Nurse and averaging 14.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game, all career-highs. There’s a lot to love with his game: he’s a strong finisher, an improved shooter, and a tireless multi-positional defender. Siakam exists comfortably in both big and small lineups, and his activity level and willingness to do the dirty work make him the perfect complement to the team’s stars, Leonard and Kyle Lowry. While he’s showing new layers to his offensive package by the week — including a trusty spin move — Siakam’s calling card is his ability to make his team function more effectively together by keeping the ball moving, taking on tough defensive assignments, and never quitting on plays. Not surprisingly, he ranks in the top 20 by real plus-minus and boasts a sterling plus-14.9 net rating.
Compared to Siakam, De’Aaron Fox’s rise in Sacramento has been more traditional. A highly-regarded top-five pick in 2017, Fox struggled to adjust to the NBA game as a rookie given his slight frame and limited shooting ability. With a year of experience under his belt and a clear mandate from Coach Dave Joerger to push the tempo, Fox has turned the Kings into the most entertaining team that no one saw coming. Viewed as one of the league’s fastest end-to-end players when he was drafted, the 20-year-old point guard has improved at shifting gears in transition, generating good looks in the half-court and getting to the free throw line. As a result, Fox is averaging 17.3 points and 7.5 assists per game while leading Sacramento to the No. 11 offense, up from No. 29 last season. The most intriguing development, though, has been Fox’s outside shooting, as he’s hit 38.2 percent on three three-point attempts per game this season. If that substantial progress holds or scales up further, the Kings could have a future all-star.
Much like Fox, Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic has been the driving force for one of the league’s biggest surprise teams. At 28 and in the final year of his current contract, the 7-foot center has picked a perfect time to turn in a career year. Only six players this season are averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid and Vucevic. In other words, five 2018 all-stars and Vucevic, who has posted 21 points and 11.4 rebounds per game while shooting a scorching 41.3 percent on three-pointers. In addition to making the long ball a real weapon for the first time in his career, Vucevic has been a plus defender, ranking third among centers in Real plus-minus. It’s fair to wonder whether this exceptional run of individual play can continue, but Vucevic has clearly taken his game to impressive new heights this season.