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NBA Rookie Of The Year Watch – 3/27/18

With only a few weeks remaining in the 2017-18 season, a check-in on this strong rookie class is long overdue.

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Two fantastic rookies have entered the proverbial ring and only one can emerge victorious at season’s end — but will it be Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell? The last time Basketball Insiders weighed in on the Rookie of the Year race, it was just over a month ago — so what has changed since then? Honestly, both everything and nothing. Do you prefer the 6-foot-10 point forward nearly averaging a triple-double or the high-scoring, high-flying guard that finishes games like a five-time All-Star? There is truly no wrong answer.

Although the top two contenders for the award are signed, sealed and delivered, earning an honorable mention is nothing to scoff at either. From playing considerably large roles on playoff-bound teams to filling up the box score, this rookie class has emerged as one of the strongest in recent memory. With that in mind, let’s check in on some of the league’s most impressive youngsters heading into the final few weeks of their inaugural seasons.

6. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls

With the Bulls’ season all but over, it’s been understandably easy to forget about Markkanen and his pitch-perfect style of play at times. The Finnish 7-footer has been consistently stellar since October, however, averaging 14.8 points and 7.6 rebounds over 61 games and contributing those numbers from day one. From his long-range forte, Markkanen is tallying two three-pointers per contest, which ranks just him ahead of the perennially great Kristaps Porzingis (1.9), Khris Middleton (1.8) and LeBron James (1.8).

Furthermore, Markkanen’s statistically solid resume ranks him 4th in scoring, 2nd in rebounding and 2nd in three-point makes per game for all rookies. Alongside Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, the Bulls have certainly acquired some intriguing pieces to build around — but Markkanen is undoubtedly the crown jewel. It’s been a turbulent season for Chicago, so Markkanen’s name has unsurprisingly fizzled from the conversation, but he absolutely looks like a franchise cornerstone and a force for years to come.

5. Josh Jackson, Phoenix Suns

As of late, Josh Jackson is scorching hot and everybody is more than happy to watch him smolder.

With the Suns currently leading the race to the bottom, Jackson has been officially unleashed. Through the first half of the season, Jackson scored 15 or more points on just five occasions. But since the calendar flipped to the new year, Jackson has reached that mark in 23 of the Suns’ last 33 games. While he’s not even close to the shooter Devin Booker currently is — Jackson still just shoots 26 percent from three-point range — the 21-year-old forward has bloomed with purpose. Last week, Jackson dropped 36 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals on 60.9 percent shooting against Golden State, often using his hyper-athleticism to exploit a battered Warriors side.

In March alone, Jackson has averaged 15.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.5 steals on 44 percent shooting. Beyond his burgeoning offensive skills, Jackson is often long enough to defend most guards, but athletic enough to bang in the paint with those bigger and stronger than him. All in all, things have started to slow down for the high-energy prospect and Phoenix has reaped the benefits. Should the Suns land a blue-chip rookie like Luka Doncic or Marvin Bagley in the upcoming draft, things could finally take off for this slumping franchise.

Either way, Jackson will be at the forefront of Phoenix’s future indefinitely.

4. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers

While Kyle Kuzma certainly went through a mid-season rough patch, the talented scorer has still been a major asset to an overachieving Los Angeles outfit.

Averaging 15.8 points and 6.2 rebounds, Kuzma has logged important minutes alongside Julius Randle, Brook Lopez and, until February, Larry Nance Jr., in a crowded backcourt. And since the latter was moved to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kuzma’s playing time has skyrocketed even higher. Kuzma has reached the 20-point plateau in half of Los Angeles’ games this month and he looks like he’ll finish the season the same way he started it.

On an individually strong Lakers roster, Kuzma ranks 3rd in scoring, 4th in rebounding and 4th in three-point percentage — an impressive showing for the former No. 27 overall selection. Before the season began, the Lakers were expected to find themselves at home in the conference basement once again. Instead, Los Angeles is currently closer to the eighth seed (10 GB) than they are from the league-worst Phoenix Suns (14 GB) — this achievement falls squarely on the early development of Kuzma.

While Kuzma deserves plenty of rookie praise, he won’t win the biggest prize — but that’s perfectly fine. He’ll have to settle for a likely berth on the NBA All-Rookie Team — oh well!

3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

The early season injury to Gordon Hayward obviously thrust Jayson Tatum into the spotlight back in October, but the Celtics haven’t stopped leaning on their impressive rookie since — and rightfully so. Through 11 games in March, Tatum has averaged 16.1 points and 6.1 rebounds on 50 percent from the floor. With Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart both sustaining major injuries since the All-Star break, a heavy load has been asked of Tatum — and, more or less, he’s delivered. Tatum has played in all 74 games this season and the just-turned 20-year-old has helped keep Boston locked-in to the conference’s second-best record.

Although he’s no longer making half of his three-point attempts, 42.5 percent is still a considerable asset for this determined Celtics squad. That remarkable conversion rate ranks Tatum at No. 13 in three-point percentage league-wide, just narrowly ahead of All-Stars like Stephen Curry (42.3), Karl-Anthony Towns (42.7) and veteran teammate Al Horford (42.9) — not bad for a rookie, huh?

T-1. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

Lately, the fiery debate between Donovan Mitchell or Ben Simmons for the No. 1 rookie slot has only gotten stronger. While Simmons is still likely the frontrunner, it would be simply unwise to dismiss Mitchell’s monster performances along the way. Mitchell has scored 20 or more points in six straight contests, a streak exists within a crucial 11-2 stretch that has kept the Jazz alive in the cutthroat postseason chase. Capped off by an electric 35-point effort — albeit in a four-point loss to the forever-tough San Antonio Spurs — Mitchell has continued to lay serious claim to Simmons’ crown.

Mitchell currently sports a 28.8 percent usage rate, good for 23rd across the entire NBA and ahead of both John Wall and Kemba Walker. For a rookie, that’s nearly unheard of. Naturally, much has been made about Mitchell’s shooting percentages, but it’s also hard to argue with the win-loss column too much. Since Rudy Gobert returned from a month-long PCL injury in mid-January, Utah owns a record of 24-6 — you can thank Mitchell for that as well.

The polarizing differences between the two top rookies have made for a compelling race down the stretch, but particularly so now that Mitchell has the Jazz within striking distance of the playoffs. Mitchell’s 20.3 points per game lead all rookies and he undeniably has a strong case for taking home this award.

T-1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

In the other corner, of course, is Ben Simmons, the do-it-all point forward that is a triple-double threat every night. Simmons has tallied 16 points, 7.9 rebounds, 8.1 assists and 1.7 steals per game on an extra-efficient 53.8 from the floor. Although he’ll have to improve on his range this offseason — 77.8 percent of his shots have come within 0-10 feet — it’s been wildly entertaining to watch Simmons let the game come to him. His 10 triple-doubles only trail LeBron James (16) and Russell Westbrook (23), the latter of whom just won MVP last year for averaging one over an entire season.

As a 21-year-old, Simmons has come pretty close to that mark himself.

And as Basketball Insiders’ Dennis Chambers pointed out during a deeper discussion last month, history is also very much on Simmons’ side: “Just six players have finished a season averaging at least 16 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists per game while shooting 50 percent from the field: LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, and Wilt Chamberlain.”

For rookies, Simmons is 2nd in points, 1st in rebounds, 1st in assists and 1st in steals — if that’s not Rookie of the Year worthy, what is? With Simmons leading the way, the 76ers have gone 10-3 and risen from postseason pests to potential owners of home-court advantage in the first round. Simmons will likely terrorize the NBA for years to come — that much seems evidently clear already — but he’ll have to hold off Mitchell’s strong chase to close the season out.

And this may seem like a total cop-out — but why not both?

The dual-winning selection has only happened three times in NBA history: Dave Cowens and Geoff Petrie split the honors back in 1970-71; Grant Hill and Jason Kidd did so in 1994-95; and, finally, Elton Brand and Steve Francis in 1999-00. You’d be hard-pressed to find any fans — casual or crazed — that can’t appreciate the artistic abilities of both Mitchell and Simmons, no matter how difficult this looming decision may seem.

Either way, whatever happens over these final two weeks, this rookie class is shaping up to be one of the finest versions yet.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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