Handicapping NBA rookie of year race

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There is no such thing as a sure thing, but being a -715 favorite to win NBA Rookie of the Year is as close as one can get. That is where the Hornets’ LaMelo Ball sat on the odds board at DraftKings before falling on his right wrist in a loss to the Clippers on Saturday that has ended his season. The implied probability of a favorite like that is 87.7%, but as of today oddsmakers believe that the once-overwhelming favorite has just a 33.3% (+ 200) chance to win.

The new odds-on favorite at DraftKings, FanDuel and PointsBet is Anthony Edwards of the Timberwolves. FanDuel is the highest on Edwards’ chances, listing him as a -210 (67.7%) favorite. Edwards is having a very solid season, but should his odds be this high when just 10 days ago one global shop put his odds at 18-1 (5.3%)?

In my opinion, absolutely not.

On the surface, Edwards’ 16.7-point average looks like a player who should be in contention for best of his class, but a deeper dive shows some real flaws. Through the first 32 games, Edwards struggled. He averaged just 14.1 points on 37.1% shooting. He pulled in only 3.7 rebounds and totaled 2.5 assists per game. He also shot just 31.6% on 5.8 3-point attempts per game. Lately, though, his game has come along. Over his last 10 games, he’s averaging 24.9 points on 41.4% shooting. His shooting is not much improved at 32.6%, but he has averaged 6.2 rebounds over this stretch. This culminated in a 42-point game Thursday against the Suns in which he shot 15 of 31 while leading a Timberwolves victory.

Edwards undeniably has improved, but I question the leap in his odds to win this award, especially when other quality candidates have been much more consistent. In a recent appearance on Zach Lowe’s podcast, “The Lowe Post,” fellow ESPN analyst Kevin Pelton had this to say about Edwards’ potential place on the NBA’s All-Rookie first team:

“I think Edwards is more debatable. To me, (Tyrese) Haliburton, (Immanuel) Quickley and Ball you can kind of rubber-stamp. Edwards we at least need to look closely at.”

That is the opinion of one NBA analyst, but a respected one. If Edwards is not even a cinch to make the All-Rookie first team, how in the world is he a $2 favorite to win Rookie of the Year? Those other names have fantastic cases in their own right.

Right now, the best price on Haliburton is + 500 at FanDuel and DraftKings. The Kings rookie averages just 12.4 points, but he has been much more efficient in his time on the floor than Edwards. Haliburton takes the second-most 3-point attempts per game for Sacramento at 5.8 and leads the team in shooting at 41.0%. Among rookies who have played in at least 30 games, he has taken the fifth-most 3-point attempts (188) and is tied for third in shooting percentage. Haliburton also averages the third-most minutes per game among rookies, coming in behind Isaac Okoro and Edwards. Haliburton is also the key to one of Sacramento’s best lineups. When he is on the floor with De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes and Richaun Holmes, the Kings outscore opponents by 11.7 points every 100 possessions. Take Haliburton out of that group, and they get outscored by 20.7 points every 100 possessions.

Quickley, who is as high as 24-1 at FanDuel to win the award, is second on the Knicks in usage rate (27.9%) and first in turnover rate (8.0%). He has taken the third-most shots among all rookies (384) and ranks higher than Edwards in overall field-goal percentage (39.3%) and 3-point percentage (37.1%). Quickley is also an important piece on what looks like a playoff team. Does that count toward a player’s resume? I would argue it does, and that puts Quickley and Ball above the other rookies

Which brings us back to LaMelo Ball.

In the last five years, two Rookie of the Year races were similar to the situation that is about to unfold. In 2016-17, Malcolm Brogdon won the award over Joel Embiid because the latter appeared in just 31 of Philadelphia’s 82 games. Last year, Ja Morant took the award despite a narrative push behind Zion Williamson because the Pelicans star appeared in just 19 games before the league went on hiatus due to COVID-19.

Ball will have appeared in 41 of 72 games when all is said and done, or about 57% of his team’s contests, which is obviously much more than Embiid or Williamson in their rookie campaigns. Patrick Ewing and Vince Carter won Rookie of the Year while playing in just 50 of 82 games, which equates to about 60% of the schedule, so a precedent exists for Ball. I believe Ball has done enough to win despite the time he will miss, which gives us a betting opportunity.

Over the next month and a half, Ball’s odds to win can only go up, which means there is no point in betting him now. Bettors might be able to get something closer to 5-1 before the odds are taken off the board, so the strategy is to wait until the last moment to pounce on an inflated number. It is no sure thing, but I like my chances.

 

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