2017 NBA Rookie Ladder: Who Can Challenge Joel Embiid?

It’s early in the 2016-17 NBA season but it already looks like Joel Embiid is the clear favorite for Rookie of the Year. Who are his top challengers?

Nov 19, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) reacts after a defensive stop against the Phoenix Suns during the second half at Wells Fargo Center. The Philadelphia 76ers won 120-105. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not common to see NBA rookie classes with elite depth like last year.

Top-heavy prospects like Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis headlined a stacked talent base. Late lottery picks like Devin Booker helped to cement last year’s draft class as one of the best in years.

While this year doesn’t have waves of guys who can greatly impact the league (at least not yet), there’s one guy at the top who’s impressed everyone around him and then some.

Joel Embiid hasn’t just surprised his coaches and training staff. He’s given Philadelphia 76ers fans serious hope.

And he’s become a League Pass darling, something no one’s been in Philadelphia in recent memory.

While he’s established himself as the top rookie so far, who are the top challengers to his Rookie of the Year crown?

Nov 20, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Glenn Robinson III (40) shoots the ball in front of Oklahoma City Thunder forward Domantas Sabonis (3) during the first quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

10. Domantas Sabonis, Oklahoma City Thunder

Domantas Sabonis earned a starting spot with the Oklahoma City Thunder from the start of the season. That’s impressive considering the number of veteran big men on the roster.

When the Thunder traded Ersan Ilyasova to the 76ers, it opened the door for more minutes for Sabonis. He hasn’t been the most efficient big man, but he’s made the most of his playing time.

In 22.1 minutes per game, he’s averaged 7.1 points and 3.4 rebounds per game with a slash line of .432/.390/.500.

The most surprising aspect of his game so far has been the 3-point shot. Sabonis showed touch around the post in college, but few knew that he had a legitimate outside shot.

Unfortunately his free throw shooting hasn’t been anything to advertise. But those numbers are likely to raise a little higher given the fact that his mechanics aren’t broken.

He’s a capable outside scorer so he’ll come around at the charity stripe eventually. For now Oklahoma City has to be happy about its early return on Sabonis.

Nov 12, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Kris Dunn (3) dribbles in the third quarter against the Los Angeles Clippers at Target Center. The Los Angeles Clippers beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 119-105. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

9. Kris Dunn, Minnesota Timberwolves

Kris Dunn got a chance to start for the Minnesota Timberwolves in the wake of a Ricky Rubio injury, but he didn’t take the NBA by storm like some expected him to.

His 31.4 percent shooting from the field suggests serious issues finishing, particularly at the rim. We knew Dunn’s outside shot was a work in progress, but he’s had trouble converting from everywhere on the floor.

That’s a huge issue given the fact he was marketed as a better scoring option than Rubio. His playmaking skills aren’t there yet, and neither is his defense.

Still, he’s had his moments and a few highlight plays to suggest he’ll come around, potentially this season.

Not many guys can explode to the rim off the bounce the way he can. His size for the point guard position combined with his dynamic athleticism give him a chance to do serious damage in his career.

For now though he’s a raw prospect who needs time to develop behind Rubio. He’s still young, but considering he was in school for four years that’ s a little disappointing.

Dunn was thought to be one of the more NBA-ready prospects in the draft. He even backed up that notion with impressive play in two games in the Summer League.

That’s not the conclusion here at the start of the regular season. But his ceiling is still just as high.

Nov 12, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Pelicans guard Buddy Hield (24) drives past Los Angeles Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell (1) during the second half of a game at the Smoothie King Center. The Lakers defeated the Pelicans 126-99. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

8. Buddy Hield, New Orleans Pelicans

The legend of “Buddy Buckets” has been anything but to start the sesaon.

Buddy Hield hasn’t made the most of his opportunities, which is depressing considering the New Orleans Pelicans‘ backcourt situation.

Many expected him to come into camp and snag the starting shooting guard spot. That didn’t happen, as E’twaun Moore and Langston Galloway snagged those minutes.

He’s gotten better as the season’s gone on. He even had an 18-point outing against the Los Angeles Lakers when he shot 8-of-13 from the field.

But let’s call it for what it is: Hield isn’t a good NBA 3-point marksman. Yet.

His 24.6 percent shooting from beyond the arc has disappointed many who thought more of his outside shot in college.

Hield’s adjustment to the professional game hasn’t gone according to plan, but he’s still young. Jrue Holiday is finding his way back in the Pelicans rotation and Galloway and Moore are still getting major minutes.

Eventually Hield will earn himself more opportunities to shine. For now, look for him to show improvement game-by-game in the form of flashes.

Nov 19, 2016; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) looks for a shot against Milwaukee Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon (13) in the first quarter at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

7. Malcolm Brogden, Milwaukee Bucks

Now is where we start getting into a few guys who have surprised so far this season.

Malcolm Brogden wasn’t drafted among most of his peers on this list. In fact, he’s the first second-round selection in these rankings.

Still, the fact that he’s an NBA player has prevailed in his early play for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Yes 6.8 points per game 36 percent shooting from the field won’t set the world on fire. But it’s how he’s getting those points that’s encouraging.

He’s shown the ability to convert from the free throw line and beyond the NBA arc. Those were two main concerns with him coming out of college. He shot a remarkable percentage from deep in his last season at Virginia, but scouts wanted to be sure that wasn’t just a mirage.

The overall numbers haven’t been extremely optimistic regarding efficiency as a shooter.

But he just started playing in the world’s toughest professional basketball league. Naturally he’ll continue to adjust his shot and timing to get things just right.

What he’s done in his minutes more importantly is play defense. He could end up as the team’s top wing defender next to Giannis Antetokounmpo by the end of the year.

Brogdon has excellent size and length for his position, and he has the lateral quickness to switch and keep his man in front of him.

Head coach Jason Kidd wants to switch on defense as much as possible. Brogdon helps him do that each possession while not completely compromising the team on offense.

He has a high ceiling as a “3-and-D” player in the NBA. Now he just needs to find consistency on offense.

Nov 18, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Tyler Ulis (8) looks to dribble the ball while Indiana Pacers guard Aaron Brooks (00) defends in the second half of the game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Phoenix Suns beat the Indiana Pacers 116-96. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

6. Tyler Ulis, Phoenix Suns

Tyler Ulis just started earning real minutes in the Phoenix Suns‘ rotation. His overall play, however, is too good to not have him in the first real edition of the ladder.

Ulis just knows how to play the game. There’s no way around it.

When he’s on the floor he’s always finding ways to make a positive impact on both ends.

Offensively he’s a gifted passer and steady hand at the point guard position. He’s been an efficient scorer from the field (43.3 percent shooting), and he has yet to turn the ball over for the Suns.

Don’t take that last sentence lightly. Ulis is an undersized rookie guard and he has yet to turn the ball over. That’s as impressive of a stat as anyone could throw out about such a young player.

The thought behind not taking him higher in the draft was that his lack of size and elite athleticism would hold him back from impacting the game at a strong level.

That notion started to go out the window after fantastic play in Summer League.

Now that it’s carried over to the regular season, there’s no denying Phoenix needs to find him more minutes.

And we didn’t even get to his defense. Ulis is a steals machine averaging almost two per game early on in the season (1.63).

He plays his man as hard as anyone else, and is an absolute bulldog on defense.

He’s been the most impressive rookie between offseason and in-season play and should’ve been drafted higher.

Nov 20, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) reacts during the second half against the Utah Jazz at Pepsi Center. The Nuggets won 105-91. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

5. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

Jamal Murray didn’t turn any heads at the start of the season, but he’s started to really come around.

He’s had two 18-plus point outings in the last week and he’s been on fire shooting the ball. His slash line on the year isn’t the greatest (.371/.396/.733), but he’s lit it up from outside.

In his last five games he’s 12-of-22 from 3-point range and 20-of-39 from the field overall.

The biggest knock on Murray coming out of college was his lack of elite athleticism. Many felt this would impact his upside, especially his ability to finish inside against quicker and tougher defenders.

That’s been a concern early here, as his overall field goal percentage suggests he’s suffering from those very struggles.

But he’s converted on his 3-pointers and shots from the free throw line. He’s found ways to be effective, and he’ll only get better as he learns to better pick his shots as a spot-up threat.

Defensively he’s been a train wreck, as many expected. He’s not nearly the level of defender that Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris and Will Barton are at the guard spots for the Denver Nuggets.

That won’t hold him back from getting minutes, however. His shooting on offense is too important to the Nuggets’ success, as they’re not a great outside team.

Murray gives Denver a dynamic it’s missed the last few seasons. Him and Mudiay should form a deadly guard tandem in time.

For now he’s a good sixth man off the bench as a combo guard who knows his role. His ceiling is still high as a shooter and scorer in the NBA.

Nov 11, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) stands on the court in the first half against the Charlotte Hornets at Spectrum Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

4. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

Here’s the biggest surprise of this draft class by far.

Few expected Pascal Siakam to compete for starting minutes on a playoff team right away, let alone actually win the job.

Many didn’t even know who he was when he was drafted by the Toronto Raptors in the first round.

Siakam’s role as a power forward who can protect the rim and stretch the floor has been invaluable to Toronto’s success so far.

The Raptors have a few guys who can play the 4 and shoot from deep in DeMarre Carroll and Patrick Patterson.

But neither have the overall athleticism and defensive ability that Siakam has.

He’s a bouncy forward who opens up the floor on offense for Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to have enough driving lanes to the basket.

His 5.5 points and 4.1 rebounds per game don’t suggest stardom. But he’s been consistent and steady for a team contending in the Eastern Conference.

Most of these rookies have had to earn minutes on terrible teams, which isn’t the most daunting of tasks. The fact that Siakam earned a spot in the starting rotation this early for as good of a team as Toronto is telling.

His biggest game even came against the Golden State Warriors Wednesday night. Siakam played 30 minutes and scored 10 points and grabbed nine rebounds.

What impressed me from that game was his willingness to guard Kevin Durant. Not only did he take the challenge but he made Durant work for his points inside the arc.

KD needed a series of step-backs to get shots up over Siakam. It was simply a case of better offense, not poor defense.

His future is bright for the Raptors, and it looks like the team has found its starting four man for years to come.

Nov 13, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Brandon Ingram (14) shoots in the first quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

3. Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers

Brandon Ingram‘s raw numbers don’t back up his placement here in these rankings.

He’s only averaging 6.7 points per game on 38.3 percent shooting from the field for the Los Angeles Lakers.

He hasn’t shot the ball particularly well from the field and hasn’t emerged as a go-to scoring threat like his second overall spot in the drat suggested.

But that’s not what head coach Luke Walton has asked him to do.

When Walton said before the year that he wasn’t going to make Ingram a scoring focus, he meant it.

Even though he was such a high draft pick, Ingram doesn’t start for the Lakers. He’s a key role player off the bench who provides playmaking and defense.

That last sentence doesn’t line up with a lot of major college scouting reports from last year. But Ingram’s worked hard to fit into the role that his coach wants him to play.

He brings the ball up the floor at times and initiates offense. He also goes out and guards the other team’s best guy on the court at the time.

Ingram is developing his game in exciting ways. Superstar players don’t just do one thing well, but rather everything.

That’s what he’s on his way to doing. There’s plenty of time for him to become a more efficient outside shooter. And his stroke and mechanics aren’t broken. In fact, he’s had times where he’s looked great on offense as a scorer.

Getting a high pick to buy in like Walton’s done with Ingram can’t be easy. But he did it, and now Ingram is rounding out his game at an alarming rate.

Those superstar projections aren’t out of the question anymore.

Nov 14, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Philadelphia 76ers forward Dario Saric (9) drives to the basket as Houston Rockets forward Ryan Anderson (3) defends during the second quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

2. Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers

Dario Saric isn’t the flashiest rookie in the field, but he’s been as steady as anyone else. He’s impressed as a scoring option and shooter for the 76ers next to Embiid.

A few scouts questioned how he would adjust to the NBA game given his lack of supreme athleticism and lateral quickness, particularly on the defensive end.

He hasn’t been a lockdown defender, but he’s been average. That’s better than what he was projected to be in his first year, so the 76ers have to be encouraged.

Offensively he’s been everything he advertised in the Olympics. A playmaking power forward with a little shooting touch and the ability to initiate offense at times is exactly what the doctor ordered for Philadelphia.

Unfortunately once Ben Simmons comes back his role won’t be as clear. He’ll likely transition to a sixth man role, but he’ll still have plenty of minutes to work with.

His 41.9 percent shooting from 3-point range and 75.0 percent shooting from the free throw line are good signs. He has a future as a stretch forward in the NBA after his early performance this year.

Nov 19, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) reacts after a defensive stop against the Phoenix Suns during the second half at Wells Fargo Center. The Philadelphia 76ers won 120-105. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

No rookie will likely take Rookie of the Year away from Joel Embiid, he’s just too talented.

The only rookies that can stand up to him in terms of skill as a big man in recent memory are Towns and Anthony Davis. Embiid is in that class of player and could even rise above them.

His injury history and future are questionable to say the least, but he’s healthy at the moment.

And man is he taking advantage of the opportunities in front of him. His 18.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in just 22.2 minutes per game are breathtaking. Few players could put up numbers like that in such a short amount of time.

What will happen when he gets real minutes for the 76ers? Who knows what kind of dominance he’ll exert.

For now though, it’s been fun to watch Embiid do everything from score in the low post to shoot the lights out from beyond the arc. There’s little he can’t do at this point in his career in terms of scoring.

Where Embiid needs to improve the most is in his passing game. He’s a capable distributor but he doesn’t have great recognition of those situations quite yet. He still feels the need to force looks against double and triple teams resulting in turnovers.

He’ll learn how to pass effectively out of traffic in time. That’ll open up his game so much to the point that he’ll have defenses cornered. There won’t be any way to play him effectively.

Philly’s future is as bright as any team’s in the league thanks to Embiid. He’s a future superstar provided he stays healthy, and that might not even be enough of a word to describe his potential.

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