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NBA Daily: The End of 2017 NBA Awards

With the new year upon us, Steve Kyler takes a look back at 2017 and who should get a 2017 award.

Steve Kyler

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The End of 2017 Awards

Given that the new calendar year is upon us, its only seems fitting to do something campy and end of the year themed, so lets spend a few minutes and hand out some end of 2017 awards.

Keep in mind, we’ve already seen the 2016-17 award winners, so those are done, but who are some of the notables so far into the 2017-18 season as we end 2017?

Executive of The Year

There are a few names to mention in this discussion, some that pulled off incredible roster moves, some that stole value in the draft and some that have simply put together dominating rosters.

You can make a case basically every year for Bob Myers of the Golden State Warriors. This summer he convinced basically the entire team to come back and keep the championship train rolling, and when you look at the Warriors league-leading 29-8 record, it hard to argue against the results.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey deserves a nod here, despite their recent struggles, the Rockets have been impressive all year. When you consider Morey turned roster parts into Chris Paul and the Rockets are still one of the elite teams in the NBA; Morey deserves a lot of credit.

New Cavalier GM Koby Altman deserves a nod as well. The Cavaliers have assembled arguably the most complimentary roster to surround and amplify LeBron James as any they have had in modern history. Not only are the Cavs and James surging, but their second unit has found some defense that was sorely lacking for the past couple of seasons.

While there are several deserving candidates, it’s hard to argue that Celtics president Danny Ainge doesn’t deserve the award this far. Not only did he flip roster parts into guard Kyrie Irving in trade, but he also lured in free agent Gordon Hayward, drafted rookie of the year candidate Jason Tatum, and has seen recent draft wildcards blossom into bona fide NBA stars like Jaylen Brown and reserve point guard Terry Rozier.

The Celtics stand at 29-10 on the season and are as good as anyone in basketball on both ends of the floor.

Most Improved Player

This award is always tough, because of how subjective the nature of measuring Most Improved.

There are a few players to mention in this discussion.

Boston’s Jaylen Brown is a deserving candidate. If you look at his progression as a player and his role on the team with Gordon Hayward going out to injury, he has seen his numbers jump up but more importantly his efficiency as a player on both ends of the floor has improved dramatically.

Brooklyn’s Spencer Dinwiddie deserves a nod as well. Dinwiddie was a castoff just a season ago and with the injury to Jeremy Lin he has found himself not only starting games for the Nets but really leading the team as a floor general. Dinwiddie’s production is up all over the board, and his efficiency is impressive as well.

There are a number of qualified candidate for the award all over the NBA from Chicago’s Kris Dunn to Charlotte’s Jeremy Lamb to Houston’s Clint Capella, but its hard to argue the biggest leap so far has to be Indiana’s Victor Oladipo.

Not only has Oladipo emerged as Indiana’s go-to guy, he posting career bests from the field and the three-point line while averaging almost 25 points a game. Oladipo is making a solid case for All-Star consideration, and that’s a huge jump for after-thought player in Oklahoma City a season ago.

Sixth Man of the Year

Again, there are some notable names to put into this crowded and always contentious discussion.

There are the mainstays of this conversation like Minnesota’s Jamal Crawford, and Clippers reserve turned starter Lou Williams. Both are having solid seasons. However there are a few new names in the field that seems to be getting better as the season moves on.

Memphis’ Tyreke Evans has seen a resurgence in his career in Memphis. Evans is posting his second-best scoring season as a pro for the Grizzlies while posting career highs from both the field and the three-point line. The problem for Evans is he has played so well he’s been in the starting line-up and may start his way out of qualifying.

Denver’s Will Barton has been in this discussion for the past two seasons, but this might be his most convincing season. He is averaging a career high in points and field goal percentage and his second best from the three-point line. Barton has become a force for the Nuggets and has started just eight games on the season.

Brooklyn’s Caris LaVert is also posting a pretty impressive case for the sixth man, although his numbers are not nearly as impressive as some others in the discussion.

The name that continues to be interesting in this discussion is Cleveland’s Dwyane Wade, mainly because the Cavs were a dumpster fire before Wade moved to the reserve role and anchored the second unit. Wade has started just three games for the Cavs and is posting 11.2 points per game on 44.5 percent field goal shooting and 36.5 percent three-point shooting. His raw numbers are not nearly as impressive as say Evans or even Barton, but its hard to argue with the results in Cleveland. That combined with the fact that Wade has the clout as a future Hall of Famer to force his way into the starting lineup if he really wanted to, makes him the award winner at this point in the season.

Coach of The Year

This one is also tough because there are three or four coaching jobs this season worth talking about in this context.

Indiana’s Nate McMillian is doing a tremendous job this season and it hard to argue with the results considering most expected this to be a rebuilding season.

Chicago’s Fred Hoiberg has found a groove in Chicago despite Bulls fans wishing for losses. Hoiberg’s system has allowed Kris Dunn to flourish, along with rookie Lauri Markkanen.

Neither are really the coaching award-winning kind of storyline but absolutely worth acknowledging.

You can toss Warriors coach Steve Kerr into this discussion virtually every year, but this year more so because of the injuries and slow start. What the Warriors have done so far is impressive but easy to dismiss because of the quality of the roster. But it’s not easy to keep that many star players happy and focused, and Kerr does not get nearly enough credit for how seamless he makes it look.

Houston’s Mike D’Antoni won this award last year and is posting an equally impressive campaign to be a “back to back” winner. The Rockets, despite their recent struggles, have been lights out offensively and have steadily improved defensively (which no one gives him credit for).

Toronto’s Dwane Casey is justified in this discussion as well. The Raptors have gone 13-1 at home which is tops in the NBA. They are third in the NBA in point differential. Fourth in the NBA in points per game and they have a 24-10 record. He may not win the award, but he should be mentioned in the discussion.

While there are several worthy and justified candidates is there really anyone who’s done a better coaching job than Boston’s Brad Stevens? He was a legit candidate for the award last year, and given all that played out in Boston, the job he has done is remarkable.

Not only are the Celtics 29-10 on the season, but they are also allowing the second-fewest points in the NBA while leaning on a roster loaded with players on rookie scale contracts. When you factor in losing Gordon Hayward 5 minutes into the season and the way the team has rallied, it might be one of the best coaching jobs of the decade, and as such gets the award at this point in the season.

Defensive Player of The Year

Normally there isn’t a lot of star power on the defensive side of the ball, or at least they don’t get a lot of credit for it. Normally any defensive player list is filled with specialists or centers that block a lot of shots or carry the title “rim protector.” This season might be the first time in a while that several of the NBA’s brightest stars could be in serious consideration for Defensive Player honors.

Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid is making a pretty good case to be in this discussion in a serious way. The big challenge for Embiid is the minute restrictions and the games the team seems to be forcing him to miss. His defensive production is incredible when he is in games, however, if others play more, it’s going to be hard to justify giving him the award, but he is absolutely in the discussion.

Lost in the struggles to find their way offensively is the pretty impressive season Oklahoma City Thunder swingman Paul George is posting defensively. George has been a monster in the deflections per game category leading the NBA with 4.9 per game. He also among the league leaders in loose balls recovered at 1.9 per game. The Thunder have one of the best defenses in basketball and George is a big reason why.

The Warriors could have two players in the running for Defensive Player this year with last year’s winner Draymond Green again making a case for DYOP honors, but the winner at this point in the season has to be Kevin Durant. Not only has Durant held things down in the Bay Area while Steph Curry recovered from an ankle injury, but he is also posting some of his best stats defensively.

Durant on the season has become one the more effective isolation defenders, as well as putting up some impressive defensive field goal percentages. There is a strong case for a number of players in this category, but what Durant has done this far earns the nod.

Rookie Of The Year

This award is 76ers guard Ben Simmons to lose, so there may not be much to debate on this one.

That said there are a couple of other rookies posting crazy seasons worth mentioning, even though Simmons seems to be the far and away winner.

Utah’s Donavan Mitchell continues to bring it at an incredible clip, leading all rookies in points per game. Mitchell has quickly become the Jazz’s go-to guy on a lot of fronts, and he delivers night after night. Not only is Mitchell breathtaking to watch at the basket, but he’s also becoming an interesting defender as well. We’re not putting him in the DYOP discussion, but for a player drafted 13th overall, he’s been extremely impressive.

Lakers swingman Kyle Kuzma has also been explosively impressive in his 33 games as a Laker. He is the second leading scorer in the rookie class and has been posting pretty insane numbers for a player drafted 27th overall. Kuzma on the season has posted 17.7 points per game on 47.9 percent field goal shooting and an impressive 38.4 percent three-point average on better than five threes a game.

Chicago’s Lauri Markkanen is also making a compelling case for the Rookie of The Year race. He is the fourth leading scorer in the rookie class at 14.7 per game. Among the rookie class leaders, Markkanen is posting the lowest field goal percentages and three-point percentages, but he is still a name to mention when talking ROY.

While the award has to go to Simmons, there is a real case for Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum too. Tatum has emerged not only as being highly productive; he’s doing it on a winning team. Its one thing to post crazy stats on a team going nowhere that is building around you for the future, it’s another thing to be posting 14.2 points per game on a team that’s leading a conference.

Tatum is also producing the highest field goal percentage and three-point percent of any of the players in this discussion while having played the most games in the rookie class.

This race needs to be a lot closer than it seems at this point in the season.

The Must Watch Player of 2017

There are a few players that have become must-watch on a nightly basis. While this isn’t a traditional postseason award it is a designation worth talking about in this regard; there are a lot of NBA games in the regular season and to stop and watch all of them for any one team or player takes something special.

Its hard to argue that Boston’s Kyrie Irving hasn’t lived up to everything said about him this summer when news of him asking for a trade out of Cleveland broke. He has been breathtaking with the ball, incredible offensively and for all of those people who said he wasn’t a quality defender he’s on the team with the second-best defense in basketball.

Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid has become one of “must watch” players too. Unfortunately, he misses a lot of games, but when he does play he not only posts incredible numbers, he has become sensational at making each matchup a personal score to settle. His Twitter and Instagram handles have become epic, and he backs it up on the court.

The season LeBron James is having in Cleveland is unbelievable for a player that just turned 33. The notion that this might be his best season as a professional isn’t too far off when you consider he is posting 37.8 points per night which is 3rd best in the NBA and fourth most in his career. James has become the poster child for poise, power, and control all in one player and his sheer dominance this season is breathtaking.

But the winner for must-watch has to be Golden State’s Steph Curry. Maybe its because he missed so many games, but watching a healthy Curry drop 38 points in a single game while making it seem so effortless, it is impressive. The Curry show isn’t anything new, but the way he can create offensively is uncanny. While you can easily throw James Harden or Giannis Antetokounmpo in this list for the same reasons, there may not be a better show in basketball than Curry.

The Most Valuable Player

This award is always highly contested, and in recent years the quality of play at the top of the NBA has made picking just one player increasingly more difficult. This year is no exception.

It’s easy to talk about the front-runners. Houston’s James Harden was arguably the leader last season and again has posted a season that is so MVP worthy it’s hard not to see him gaining a lot of votes when the end of the season award ballots is cast. The Rockets and Harden’s recent struggles may put something of a dent in his campaign this season, but its hard to imagine that Harden isn’t going to find his groove again and remain towards the top of the list.

Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo is posting an incredible season for the Bucks too, and his 29.1 points per game put him second in the NBA behind Harden’s 32.1. He is also posting a scorching 54.7 percent field goal percentage and leads the NBA in minutes per game at 38.1. Antetokounmpo may get lost in the hype on this award when its all said and done, but he is deserving of mention.

Golden State’s Kevin Durant should also be in the discussion, not just because of his 25.9 points per game or his 39.5 percent three-point average, but because his team is at the top of the standings again and he’s lead the way with Steph Curry being sidelined without missing a beat. Durant’s defensive prowess has put him in the discussion as one of the game’s best two-way players. Durant will forever be dinged in the MVP talk because of the strength and depth of his team, but the truth of the matter is he’s posting as MVP worthy a season as anyone.

As for the winner at this point in the season, can you really argue that it’s not LeBron James? Maybe it’s the drama of him turning 33. Maybe it’s the romance some want to place on the situation, but the numbers paint a very real picture. Among the top ten scorers in the NBA, James ranks third in points, second in field goal percentage and second in minutes played among the top scorers. His team is 24-12 on the season.

You may not agree, but for my money, James has been the MVP so far, this season. We’ll see what the balance of the season brings, but that’s who gets the vote.

From all of us here at Basketball Insiders we thank you for spending your time with us. We know there are dozens of places to get NBA news and insight and the fact you give us your time and attention is never lost on us.

We hope that 2018 brings you and your family prosperity and joy and we look forward to sharing the NBA season with you in 2018.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, and @Ben__Nadeau .

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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NBA

NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 1/17/18

Dennis Chambers updates the latest MVP watch rankings.

Dennis Chambers

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It’s been two weeks since we last checked in on the Most Valuable Player race in our beloved National Basketball Association.

Since then, the leader, James Harden, hasn’t played a minute of basketball. The man behind him, LeBron James, somehow having a career-year in his 15th go-around, even more surprisingly hasn’t completely blow Harden’s chances out of the water due to his Cleveland Cavaliers’ struggles as of late.

Steph Curry is back and better than ever for the Golden State Warriors, bolstering his chances at a third MVP award, while simultaneously hurting his teammate Kevin Durant’s chances.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is still a freak of the Greek variety, and DeMar DeRozan continues to be a master of the midrange.

Halfway through the NBA season, this race is getting as fun as ever. Let’s get into the current standings.

  1. Kyrie Irving

Since last checking in, Kyrie Irving hasn’t necessarily been knocking it out of the park with his performance, but the Boston Celtics are still winning, so that counts for something.

Despite being stuck in an obvious shooting slump over the last two weeks (36 percent from the field and 24 percent from beyond the arc), Irving has led the way to four straight Boston wins, along with a big come from behind victory against the Philadelphia 76ers over in London.

While Irving continues to put up dazzling performances, his slip as of late, coupled with the fact that Brad Stevens and Co. have found ways to win without him, have caused Irving to lose a bit of footing in the most recent update of the MVP race.

  1. DeMar DeRozan

Over the last two weeks, DeMar DeRozan has continued to put the Toronto Raptors on his back. Granted, the Raptors are just 4-3 during that span, but with one loss coming to the Golden State Warriors 127-125 after giving up 81 points in the first half. DeRozan was also left without Kyle Lowry for two of those contests.

With the continued evolution of DeRozan’s skill set, this season has been the star shooting guard’s best chance at an MVP trophy. Improved shooting from downtown turns DeRozan into a more modern version two-guard without sacrificing the midrange prowess that makes him nearly impossible to guard.

Toronto has morphed into arguably the second-best overall team in the entire league. With impressive showings on both ends of the court that result in top 10 ratings, the Raptors are quickly becoming the biggest threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Eastern Conference crown. None of that would be possible without the big steps DeRozan has made in his game this season.

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Greek Freak’s drop in the current rankings aren’t necessarily an indictment of his play, but more of a tipped cap to how strong Steph Curry has come on since returning from injury.

That being said, Antetokounmpo is still very much a part of the MVP race with his 28.3/10.1/4.5 averages. As Milwaukee clings to a bottom half playoff spot — their 23-20 record and 7th place standing is just a three-game advantage over the Sixers, who are currently out of the playoff picture — Antetokounmpo will need to continue to put the Bucks on his back as he’s done throughout his breakout season so far.

While his season has been more than impressive and certainly puts him on the radar across the league as one of the best players in the NBA, Antetokounmpo is still getting lost in the shuffle behind the top-tier contenders due to his team’s lack of dominant success.

  1. Steph Curry

What a return it’s been for Steph Curry. Since last checking in on our MVP standings, Curry has played in six games for the Warriors and sat out one. Golden State is 6-1 in that seven-game span, and I don’t need to spell it out for you which game they lost.

During his return, Curry is averaging 30.8 points, seven assists, nearly six rebounds and two steals per game, while also shooting 45 percent from three-point land.

His on/off rating for the Warriors is higher than any of his teammate’s, even Durant. The Chef is the Warriors’ main catalyst on offense, and despite their star-studded cast, when he isn’t on the court you can tell the difference.

I’ve always been one to say that because they’re both on the same team, it would be hard for either Curry or Durant to win this award, but given the absurd affect Curry has been having on his team’s success and offensive continuity, he’s forced himself right into the conversation. Should he keep it up at this current pace for the second half of the season, he may be the favorite.

  1. James Harden

James Harden has missed the last seven games, and the Houston Rockets are 3-4 in that time frame. Granted, one loss is to the Warriors, a team the Rockets hope to be able to compete against when at full strength.

While being sidelined, Harden’s importance to Houston’s sustained success has become more apparent than it was was before he went down with an injury. His numbers, were his season to end today, would be MVP-caliber if not for the number of games played. But it’s hard to keep a grasp on a lead when you’re not participating, which explains Harden’s drop on the ladder this time around.

Once The Beard returns, however, fully expect him to be right back in the thick of claiming his first ever MVP award.

  1. LeBron James

Since Harden’s injury, LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers haven’t necessarily set the world on fire to their best player a clear distance in the MVP race.

Amid a serious slump that has the rest of the league questioning if this Cavs team is capable of returning to a fourth straight NBA Finals appearance, James is currently searching for his fifth MVP award. While there has been a slight dip in The King’s numbers over the last few games, with the slump and the reintegration of Isaiah Thomas to the squad, he’s still been on the court and dominating in his 15th year. Until Harden can return to put up a fight, James is the current frontrunner despite the recent decline. His full-season body of work, this late in his career, speaks for itself.

But with Curry hot on his trail, Harden set to return, and his team floundering more and more by the day, James’ chances to win his latest award are currently at their bleakest point.

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Rookie Of The Year Watch – 01/17/18

Shane Rhodes checks in on a tightening Rookie of the Year race.

Shane Rhodes

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As the old adage goes, time flies when you’re having fun. And this NBA season sure has flown.

Not only has there been some great storylines this regular season, there has been even better basketball and, in recent days, plenty of petty fights or squabbles to satisfy the rowdiest of fans.

Still, nothing is more satisfying than winning. And while most rookies aren’t in a position to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy, they are in a position to take home another award; Rookie of The Year. The 2017 rookie class has been one of the more fun and exciting classes in a long time. But, at the season’s midpoint, who is leading the pack?

6. Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers

While the shot still isn’t there, Lonzo Ball pretty much does everything else well for the Los Angeles Lakers. Averaging a solid 10.2 points to go along with 7.1 rebounds and assists per game, Ball has been an all-around contributor for this young Laker squad and has done it all while playing under the crushing pressure of his father LaVar and the city of Los Angeles. He often tries to get everyone involved in the offense and is constantly pushing the tempo. While it hasn’t resulted in many Laker wins yet, it surely will in time.

However, when I say his shot isn’t there yet, it really isn’t there. Ball’s current shooting splits of 35.6/30.3/40.8 from the floor, three and the line, while improved on his early season numbers, are pretty much a disaster; certainly not what the Lakers expected when they took him second overall. While there have been flashes of the player that shot over 40 percent from beyond the arc at UCLA, Ball’s shooting has been streaky at best but those numbers, alongside his form, should continue to improve over time. The Lakers will need it to if they want to have any chance of climbing the Western Conference ladder in the near future.

5. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls

Lauri Markkanen has played a major role in the recent surge by the Chicago Bulls. While it may seem strange to say that a 17-27 team is surging, not many people thought the Bulls would win this many games over the course of the whole season after trading star Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the offseason.

Markkanen has averaged 15.5 points to go along with 7.6 rebounds per game this season while shooting 43 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from three. While those numbers have dipped since the beginning of the season, Markkanen still ranks fifth among rookies in three-point percentage. The return of guard Zach LaVine alongside the emergence of Kris Dunn — both acquired in the trade with Minnesota — should go along way in alleviating the offensive burden on the Finnish forward as well.

Markkanen’s defense is really the only thing holding back his game; 0.6 blocks per game seems a little too low for someone who stands at seven-feet tall, while his 108.4 defensive rating leaves a little something to be desired.

4. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers

At this point in the season, Kyle Kuzma is still, by far, the steal of the draft for the Lakers.

Averaging 16.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, Kuzma ranks third among rookies in scoring while he sits fifth and sixth in rebounding and three-point percentage, respectively. He has certainly forced his way into the Lakers’ future as a building block, but Kuzma needs to do more on the offensive end outside of scoring the ball. His assist percentage of 9.6 is among the lowest of the team’s regular rotation and could certainly stand to improve as the Lakers continue to push to become a more ball movement oriented team.

Kuzma’s defense, while not terrible, could use some improvement as well. Kuzma isn’t overly athletic, so he has trouble keeping up with smaller forwards and guards when switched onto them. Improving his agility and or quickness could go a long way here.

3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Most rookies in Jayson Tatum’s position — playing on a Conference contender — don’t have much of a shot at taking home Rookie of the Year. That fact alone makes what Tatum has done this season for the Boston Celtics that much more impressive.

Averaging 13.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, Tatum has played an integral role for the Celtics, who currently sit comfortably atop the Eastern Conference. He remains one of the most efficient rookies on offense, shooting 49.9 percent from the floor and 46 percent from three while maintaining in the poise of a veteran in late game situations. Tatum plays a large part in Boston’s elite, league-leading defense as well, and his defensive rating of 99.1 paces all rookies.

There hasn’t been much to complain about when it comes to Tatum outside his aggressiveness on the offensive end. As the Celtics’ fourth option, Tatum doesn’t really need to shoulder much of a load on offense, but it would still be nice to see him to at least attempt create his own shot on a consistent basis when he is running with the second unit.

2. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

There is no doubt about it, Donovan Mitchell has been the most explosive, if not most exciting, rookie in this class. His 18.9 points per game leads all rookies while his scoring and high-flying athletic ability have created more than a few highlights for the Utah Jazz in recent weeks. Mitchell is also second among rookies in total steals, registering 61 pickpockets on the season.

In the absence of Rudy Gobert, Mitchell has managed to keep the Jazz somewhat afloat in the tough Western Conference. The two should certainly form an interesting pick-and-roll tandem when Gobert returns and, sitting at 10th in the West with a 17-26 record, they are capable of making a late-season push into the bottom of the playoff picture.

The only problem with Mitchell, as it has been all season, is his efficiency. Mitchell is shooting just 44 percent from the field and 34.9 percent from three, but a lot of that has to do with his 28.4 percent usage rate. As the Jazz return Gobert and others, Mitchell’s usage rate should drop, which should coincide with a drop in field goal attempts and an uptick in his shooting percentages.

1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

For better or worse, this award is still Ben Simmons’ to lose. He hasn’t been the dominant player he was in the early season for the Philadelphia 76ers, but Simmons still has a leg up on most rookies thanks to his athletic ability, court vision and ball-handling skills. Simmons and his 16.8 points, eight rebounds and 7.1 assists per game are still a matchup nightmare against most teams due to his sheer size when compared to the average point guard as well.

Simmons is not without his faults, however. Whether it’s because he is shooting with the wrong hand or something else, Simmons’ jump shot needs plenty of work. While he’s shooting 51.3 percent from the field, most of his attempts are dunks or hooks close to the basket. He still has yet to make a three-point attempt, taking just 10 on the season. Simmons’ lack of shooting means defenses can almost completely ignore him outside the paint while the offense goes into a pit when fellow star Joel Embiid is on the bench; that will need to change if the 76ers want to be the powerhouse The Process has led them to believe they will become.

Again, Rookie of The Year is Simmons’ award to lose. However, if he is unable to adjust his offensive game — especially when Joel Embiid sits — he will begin to feel plenty of pressure from his fellow rookies who are on the rise.

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NBA Daily: Jayson Tatum: Boston’s X-Factor

Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum speaks to Michael Scotto about his early adjustments and success.

Michael Scotto

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When All-Star Gordon Hayward dislocated his ankle and fractured his tibia five minutes into the season, the outlook changed drastically for the Boston Celtics this season.

“I think our group, going into the season, there were a lot of expectations with Gordon [Hayward] and then the injury happens, and a lot of our younger guys had to grow up a lot quicker,” Celtics center Al Horford told Basketball Insiders on January 6 before facing the Brooklyn Nets. “It has given our team an opportunity to develop, to embrace the challenge that we have in front of us, and it’s opened up a lot of playing time for guys.

“I feel like we’re taking advantage of it. We’re growing as a group and, really, I feel like there’s no ceiling for our group. As long as we keep defending and keep doing the things that we need to do on the defensive end, I think it’s going to put us in a position to be successful.”

Those expectations included challenging the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Eastern Conference crown and potentially a championship.

In Hayward’s absence, the youngest player had to grow up the quickest: third overall pick Jayson Tatum.

“It just gave me more of an opportunity that I wouldn’t have had,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders in a video interview. “It’s definitely unfortunate that it had to come the way it did with one of our best players getting hurt, but we’ve all just had to contribute more, step up more losing him on the first night. We had 81 more games left, so we couldn’t make excuses for that.”

The 19-year-old forward has made the most of his opportunity as a full-time starter in his rookie campaign. Tatum is averaging 13.9 points while shooting 50 percent from the field, a league-leading 46 percent from beyond the arc, and 82 percent from the foul line as of January 16.

The 6-foot-8 forward has shown a penchant for coming through in the clutch halfway through the season. According to Basketball-Reference, Tatum has shot 60 percent from the field and 54 percent from beyond the arc in the fourth quarter.

The Eastern Conference December Rookie of the Month has taken some notes in the clutch from four-time All-Star Kyrie Irving.

“I grew up in high school and college seeing him on TV and now seeing it live on your own team,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders. “He’s one of the best players in the world, and he puts on a show each and every night.”

Tatum and Irving, both Duke alumni, played for coach Mike Krzyzewski and are in their first season under Celtics coach Brad Stevens.

Tatum notices differences between the two coaches who have molded the talented teenager.

“They’re both great terrific coaches,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders. “Coach K has been coaching for a long time, but they definitely both know a lot. Brad is a lot more chill, Coach (K) is a lot more fired up, slapping the floor and yelling at guys. I definitely respect them both, and it’s an honor to play for both of them.”

Stevens’ defensive system has helped Tatum realize the defensive potential that drew comparisons to Paul George from scouts and executives before the draft. According to Basketball-Reference, the rookie is tied for third in defensive win shares with George (2.5) and ranks eighth in defensive rating (101.5).

On offense, Tatum has put in time with trainer Drew Hanlen of Pure Sweat Basketball to work on his isolation moves and improve his 3-point shooting. Tatum shot a pedestrian 34 percent from 3-point range at Duke, but now leads the NBA shooting 46 percent from beyond the arc.

Thus far, Tatum has shown encouraging flashes of becoming the player he ultimately wants to be on both sides of the court.

“Just being in the All-Star game as many times as possible, win MVP, win a championship,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders. “Everyone wants to win a championship. Just play as long as possible. Hopefully, I can do that.”

If Tatum continues to be near the top of the Rookie of the Year conversation, rise to the occasion in the fourth quarter and remain a lockdown defender and 3-point shooter, maybe he and the Celtics can realize those heightened expectations after all.

Is that a lot to ask of a 19-year-old?

Absolutely.

However, as the NBA has learned, Tatum is no average teenager and the x-factor towards how far Boston can go this season.

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