Welcome back to the latest installment in our potential-end-of-season award series. For each of the NBA’s major gongs I’ll be making a case as to why a player from the Magic should be the one taking home the hardware. We’ve already seen Evan Fournier claim the MVP, Jonathan Isaac the DPOY, MCW the Sixth Man, and Markelle Fultz the Most Improved. Today we turn our attention to … Rookie of the Year?! Are we genuinely talking about someone in pinstripes claiming the crown? You bet we are!
A quick disclaimer: although I’m building a (largely) serious case for each individual award winner, please understand that this is not a totally serious endeavor. The Magic won’t be bringing home any awards come season’s end. However, in my world I’m letting my Floridian bias shine. So strap on those Magic-tinged glasses, keep those faces straight, and join me as we envision a world in which Orlando claim award after award after award. Let’s dive in and have some fun!
Rookie of the Year - Chuma Okeke
Okay, this one’s going to be tough.
The 2019 draft class may not have the immediate wow factor that some years have possessed, but it does feature some absolute top-end talent at its head. Ja Morant and Zion Williamson have both built impressive cases in Memphis and New Orleans respectively, reducing the award race to a two-man sprint in many eyes. Beyond this duo, however, there are also a number of other rookie performances worth acknowledging, including Michael Porter Jr. in Denver, Morant’s Grizzlies running mate Brandon Clarke, and Miami’s pair of first year gems, Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn. There’s surprising depth to this season’s bunch.
So where does Chuma Okeke figure into this debate? Let’s begin by addressing the elephant in the room. All of the players listed above (and dozens more, besides) have one irrefutable piece of evidence working in their favor and against that of the Magic’s young forward: games played. Morant, Zion and other potential contenders have all made basketball contributions this season, a component of resume building that simply didn’t occur in Orlando. It’s a factor that will need to be overcome.
While it’s true that Okeke didn’t see the court in Year One, don’t let that minor triviality discount the tangible virtues he did demonstrate, virtues that are demonstrative evidence of a place of preeminence among rookies. You see, the sixteenth overall pick proved his value when he sacrificed something very few professional athletes have ever willingly given up. His major contribution in 2019/20 was to forego money.
The Magic and Okeke passed on the signing of his rookie scale deal after the draft, redshirting the season and sending him down to Lakeland to rehab the torn ACL he suffered towards the end of his college career. It gave the player a chance to focus on injury recovery away from the NBA’s spotlight, and the team a chance to use the resulting cap maneuverability to strengthen the roster. When Okeke does sign this offseason for a slightly larger figure (thanks to the estimated increase in rookie scale deals) it might just be a win-win scenario for both parties.
Such sacrifice isn’t common in the NBA. It’s long been the case for international prospects but the domestic draft and stash just hasn’t caught on that much. In all likelihood, it’s because of the dollars involved. Sports can be a fickle career so for athletes it’s prudent to make as much money as quickly as possible, knowing that the end could come at any time. For teams, you can’t risk alienating agents and by extension their clients.
Okeke’s circumstances were a perfect confluence for such an arrangement. If he hadn’t been injured during the NCAA tournament he likely would have been a lottery pick; as it was, most projections instead had him pegged as a late-first or early-second rounder. This deal required both sides to assume some risk, while at the same time providing the club with some enviable upside and the player with some — albeit deferred — financial security. As previously mentioned, win-win.
Okeke’s contributions to the Magic can be measured by the current state of the roster. With his dollars coming off the books, Orlando were able to comfortably re-sign both Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross, an incumbent All-Star and genuine Sixth Man candidate, as well as back-up big Khem Birch and reserve guard Michael Carter-Williams. It allowed the team to add Al-Farouq Aminu via free agency, while also keeping Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac around for an extended look at the pairing. Maintaining the core of the playoff participating side was aided by Okeke’s sacrifice.
No other freshmen in the race for Rookie of the Year can claim to have willingly given up something the magnitude of what Okeke did. No other first-year player can claim to see so much of their sacrifice running through the veins of their team’s DNA. We don’t yet know what Orlando’s most recent draft pick will do on the court — for an interesting take on this read OPP’s conversation with the College and Magnolia blog — but we’ve already seen what he’s selflessly capable of off it. It’s an unorthodox case befitting an unorthodox season, but the outcome should be clear: Chuma Okeke is the 2019/20 Rookie of the Year.
And, well, if I didn’t make the case for him it would have had to have been Fran Vasquez, right?
Locking in a fifth award winner for Orlando brings the latest installment in this very serious series to an end. Be sure to come back in a few days time to find out how the Magic can claim Coach of the Year and secure accolade number six. The award season sweep is on!