What a difference a year can make.
This time last year, the NBA was suffering from one of its most boring Rookie of the Year races seen in quite some time. Joel Embiid was finished for the season, playing just 31 games, despite putting up obscene numbers. Dario Saric was inconsistent and failed to string together a full season of competent play. Malcolm Brogdon wasn’t flashy by any means, but the second round pick was a key glue-guy for the playoff-bound Milwaukee Bucks. Eventually, that was enough to get Brogdon the nod over the two Philadelphia 76ers players.
None of that is the case this season, however, as two rookies are putting on a show for the ages and invigorating life and debate into an awards race that seemed all but locked up a month ago.
Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell?
It’s not a black-and-white question, and it certainly doesn’t have a black-and-white answer. But let’s attempt to clear up some of the gray area.
We’ll start with Mitchell.
Before the season, the likes of Simmons, Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum, and Dennis Smith Jr. were considered the leaders for the Rookie of the Year award. In fact, all of them were listed ahead of Mitchell at odds by Bovada. Scroll past those names, and a few others, and you would finally come across the Louisville product, with the ninth-best odds to win, at 20/1.
Following a forgettable first two weeks of the season for Mitchell, the 13th overall pick took off like a rocket, and hasn’t looked back since.
For the season, Mitchell is averaging a smooth 19.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 3.4 assists with a 54.4 true shooting percentage. Even more impressive, he’s doing so as the Utah Jazz’s first option.
When Gordon Hayward jumped ship for Boston, many assumed Rodney Hood would take a big leap forward offensively this season in Utah. Instead, the Jazz’s lottery pick took over so quickly and effectively that Hood now resides in Cleveland. Talk about life coming at you fast.
As Mitchell continued to pour in steady solid performances throughout this season, his candidacy for this award was always kept afloat. Even when Mitchell and the Jazz lost their star center, Rudy Gobert, to injury. In fact, without Gobert on the floor, Mitchell benefits from an ultra-green light on offense that correlates to his offensive rating spiking up to 108.9. That’s 2.3 points higher than his season average number and 6.7 points higher than when he shares the court with Gobert.
Because Mitchell has such an advanced repertoire on offense, he can keep Utah in games despite missing their defensive anchor. His individual defensive rating also jumps to 108.9 without Gobert, giving him a nearly even net rating mainly due to his ability to light up the scoreboard.
Coupled with his numbers, Mitchell has the Jazz smack dab in the middle of playoff contention. Amidst their current 11-game winning streak, Mitchell has led the team in scoring — the first rookie ever to accomplish such a feat during a stretch of that kind.
All of these statistics paint a pretty clear picture that Mitchell is without a doubt an impactful player in today’s NBA, despite being a rookie. In most other years, he’d likely run away with the Rookie of the Year award.
Unfortunately for him, and the player he’s jostling for the award, this isn’t one of those years.
Right off the bat, it’s clear offensively that Simmons doesn’t have the scoring prowess Mitchell benefits from. He’s taken just 35 shots this entire season between 15 and 24 feet on the court, making 13 of them. Simmons lives in the paint, and it’s no secret.
Despite refusing to take jump shots on most nights, with opponents very aware of his limitations, Simmons manages to average 16.5 points per game, and even more impressively, finishes his shots around the rim at a 73.5 percent clip. For reference, LeBron James wasn’t that effective inside the restricted area until his seventh year in the NBA.
Scoring isn’t what is going to win Simmons the award, though. Everything else he does on the court will. Like averaging 7.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists a night as the team’s point guard, while leading the league (not just rookies) in touches. At 21 years old, the Sixers handed the keys to the offense of a player who before this season never played point guard in his life.
For Philadelphia, that seems to be working out just fine. The Sixers are 30-25 heading into the All-Star break in large part because of the way Simmons orchestrates their offense.
Like Mitchell, though, Simmons benefits from a star big man on the block. With Embiid and Simmons on the court, the Sixers possess one of the league’s top defenses. In fact, the duo holds the lowest opponent field goal percentage in the league, at 40.9 percent.
When Embiid is off of the floor, Simmons’ impact shifts, pretty apparently too. That’s the main narrative that gives way to Mitchell placing himself so heavily in the conversation. Without his 7-foot-2 big man, Simmons’ offensive rating dips from his usual 106.5 to 100.9 (eight points lower than Mitchell without Gobert). Simmons’ defensive rating jumps a bit as well, as one would expect given his workload in the post increasing as Embiid sits. That number bumps up from 101.5 to 105.
As noted above, Mitchell’s ability to score at will keeps things close in the advanced metrics for the Jazz. Simmons doesn’t have that luxury, and it’s reflected in the numbers. But it’s key to point out that while Simmons dips below his usual numbers when Embiid is off of the floor, so does Mitchell when he misses Gobert.
Simmons’ defensive rating, with and without his big man, is still superior to Mitchell’s. Along with an array of other advanced statistics. Simmons leads Mitchell in Box Plus-Minus (3.4 to 0.8), Defensive Real Plus-Minus (1.91 to -0.33), and Real Plus-Minus Wins (6.32 to 4.23).
Those numbers account for an individual’s impact across an average of 100 possessions, taking into account the points their responsible for in reflection to their team’s success.
But if you don’t want to bored with nerdy advanced numbers, we can take it old school as well.
In NBA history 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.
At his current pace, Simmons would become the seventh player to do so. That’s elite company.
With his triple-double Wednesday night against the Miami HEAT, in a game without Embiid that saw the Sixers come back from a 23-point halftime deficit, Simmons notched his sixth such game this season. Since 1980, only one other rookie has eclipsed that number. That was Johnson, who finished the season with seven triple-doubles. Simmons has 27 more chances to beat Johnson’s total.
Statistics are important. So are teammates. Basketball isn’t an individual sport. What Mitchell and Simmons have both been able to accomplish thus far this season cannot be understated. Their incredible performances are main reasons as to why their teams are in the playoff hunt.
It’s unclear which player will be better five years from now; honestly, it’s unclear at times which player is better right now. Mitchell can score in bunches, and his shots from beyond the arc are sexy. There’s no denying his ability.
But what Simmons is doing this season is historic and unprecedented, not only for his age or rookie status, but in general. That at the moment gives him the edge.
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