NBA

NBA PM: Joel Embiid Still Favorite for Rookie of the Year

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On Wednesday, the Philadelphia 76ers announced that Joel Embiid would be sidelined for the remainder of the season after an MRI scan showed more damage to his meniscus than the team had realized. With that announcement, the NBA lost this season’s most dynamic rookie. The loss of Embiid is tough for 76er fans who have already been robbed of Embiid’s first two seasons and who recently learned that this year’s No.1 overall pick, Ben Simmons, is out for the season as well.

Despite the unfortunate setback, 76ers fans should be excited that Embiid established himself as a star player and potential superstar. Embiid started the season on a time restriction and sat on the second of back-to-back games. With these limitations in place, Embiid still managed to average 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.5 blocks per game while shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 36.7 percent from distance (on 3.2 three-point attempts per game). These numbers are impressive, but they don’t represent just how productive Embiid was on a per-minute basis.

Per 36 minutes, Embiid averaged 28.7 points, 11.1 rebounds, three assists, 1.2 steals and 3.5 blocks per game. Those are superstar numbers and are coming from a 22-year-old who has 786 minutes of NBA experience under his belt. By comparison, Karl-Anthony Towns, projected by many to be the best young center in the NBA, averaged 20.6 points, 11.7 rebounds, 2.2 assist and 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes in his rookie season.

While Embiid’s box score numbers are impressive, what’s even more exciting is the fact that just about every metric shows that Embiid’s production isn’t hollow. Players like Zach Randolph (earlier in his career) have been accused of putting up big numbers without having any real positive impact for their respective teams. This same allegation can’t be made against Embiid, whose presence alone turned a rudderless 76ers team into a competitive unit. Embiid is Philadelphia’s only player with a positive on-court net rating this season (+3.2) and it was his defensive presence that had the biggest impact for the 76ers.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Embiid’s game is the fact that he’s a near perfect blend of an old-school back to the basket center and a modern floor-spacing big. Need a bucket in isolation? Embiid has the size and moves to score against double-teams in the post. Need a three-pointer? Embiid is already one of the better three-point shooting big men in the league. Need a weak side block when a teammate gets burned on the perimeter? Embiid has the burst and timing to swat away that potential layup.

Embiid only played in 31 games this season, but he played at a high enough level that it’s almost a foregone certainty that he will win Rookie of the Year. Additionally, the rest of the rookie class has been underwhelming, and only a handful of players are even in striking range of catching Embiid.

Embiid’s teammate, Dario Saric, has come to life recently. Over his last 15 games, Saric is averaging 15.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game while shooting 44.9 percent from the field and 26 percent from distance. While Saric’s shooting percentages have been up and down this season, his production has been solid and his potential apparent. He’s not a great defender, but he has solid instincts, isn’t completely lost within the team’s schemes like some of his teammates are and he has a diverse offensive skill set. However, Saric simply hasn’t been consistent enough or produced enough over 60 games to take over his teammate in the Rookie of the Year race. Nevertheless, Saric arguably has as good of a shot as any other rookie to gain some ground on Embiid over the next month or so.

Another player to keep an eye on is Malcolm Brogdon of the Milwaukee Bucks. In the month of February, Brogdon averaged 11.7 points, 4.6 assists and 2.1 rebounds while shooting 48.9 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from three-point range. Brogdon’s numbers have been steadily climbing all season and he is, aside from Yogi Ferrell, the most surprising rookie out of this year’s class. Brogdon was picked 36th overall but has outperformed a huge majority of the players drafted ahead of him. Brogdon likely won’t be able to take the award away from Embiid, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that he’s had a terrific rookie season for the Bucks.

Some other players who have had nice moments throughout their rookie seasons include Jamal Murray, Marquese Chriss, Willy Hernangomez, Brandon Ingram and Yogi Ferrell. None of these players has, up to this point, done enough to take over Embiid as the favorite to win Rookie of the Year, but each has shown flashes of their respective potential. Murray, in particular, has shown significant improvement lately as Denver Nuggets head coach Mike Malone has started giving him more minutes at point guard.

This year’s rookie class has been pretty underwhelming collectively. Embiid is the standout and though he only played in 32 games, his historic per-minute production and ability to positively impact the game make him the clear choice for Rookie of the Year.

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About Jesse Blancarte

Jesse Blancarte

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.