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The Case For NBA Rookie Of The Year

A look at the NBA Rookie of the Year race, and who can challenge the frontrunner Andrew Wiggins.

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A funny thing happened along the way to determining the 2014-15 Rookie of the Year winner. Many people presumed that Andrew Wiggins winning the award was a foregone conclusion, but a legitimate race to the finish is underway with the emergence of other legitimate (and somewhat unexpected) candidates.

Make no mistake, as Wiggins has still been impressive for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Although he suddenly has plenty of company in this discussion, his current 16-PPG average still leads all rookies by a fairly wide margin and he remains the guy Minnesota asks to guard the high-scoring wings around the league.

Perhaps the player presenting the strongest case in challenging for the award is Chicago Bulls rookie forward Nikola Mirotic. His offensive productivity during this most recent stretch without the services of Derrick Rose has been one of the biggest reasons the Bulls have been able to maintain the three seed in the Eastern Conference. It may sound crazy – and absolutely no disrespect is intended to veterans like Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah or Jimmy Butler (slowed by injuries) – but Mirotic has arguably been Chicago’s best player over the second half of the season.

“I’d be careful calling [Mirotic] a rookie,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey recently said of Mirotic, according to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. “He has played a lot of basketball. He’s not your typical rookie, a lot like [Toni] Kukoc was when he first came in. With all the injuries they’ve had, he’s been a godsend for them.”

He’s already one of the league’s more versatile young forwards offensively, as Mirotic literally has a full array of moves and shots. For those unable to watch a lot of Bulls basketball this season, beyond being able to stretch the floor and promote spacing and ball movement, the 6’10 Mirotic can handle the ball, shoot off the pull-up, finish with a nice little floater in the paint and controls his body to attack and change directions in transition.

Plus, unlike Wiggins and other top rookies like Orlando’s Elfrid Payton or Philadelphia’s Nerlens Noel, Mirotic is actively contributing to a winning product and playing in games that mean something a bit more than his team’s eventual 2015 NBA Draft positioning. His Bulls are 14-10 down the stretch, including a 7-7 span here during Butler (11 games) and Rose’s (16 games) most recent absences where Mirotic is averaging 20.6 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks while shooting nearly 84 percent from the line.

To Payton’s credit, the former Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajun has been nothing short of fantastic for the Magic over the past couple months after what was a relatively inauspicious start. Our own Cody Taylor did a great job of breaking down all of the reasons why Payton absolutely deserves to be a part of this discussion. But, like Wiggins, it will be interesting to see if voters end up leaning toward stat-heavy productivity or a combination of being a significant part of a winning product while excelling individually.

Noel has also been impressive for a team with a poor record. His Sixers are playing competitively on most nights, and Noel has actually put up some head-turning numbers in the process. We knew, given the athleticism, he had the potential to carve out a niche for himself once he added some size and strength, but Noel is showing the type of defensive versatility head coach Brett Brown has to be excited about. Not only is Noel an excellent shot-blocker from the weakside, his on-ball defense is better than anticipated and he even plays the passing lanes and can slide his feet along the perimeter in order to stay in front of guards in pick-and-roll scenarios.

Other rookies like Jordan Clarkson (L.A. Lakers), Langston Galloway (New York Knicks) and Jusuf Nurkic (Denver Nuggets) have each shown flashes and been impressive over stretches, but the award will still likely come down to one of the four guys discussed throughout this article. Much like other awards, it is likely to boil down to which of these players made the biggest impact on voters. Unlike some of the other annual awards given out by the NBA (MVP in particular), voters tend to monitor the overall progress and development shown throughout the season, rather than focusing quite as much upon signature or defining matchups.

As a total body of work, Wiggins may still ultimately be the top choice, but given the compelling argument that can be made as a result of Mirotic contributing to a winner or large stretches of impressive basketball being played by guys like Payton and Noel, it certainly wouldn’t shock us to see the league’s first co-ROY since Elton Brand (Bulls) and Steve Francis (Rockets) shared the honor back following the 1999-00 season.

Jabari Davis is a senior NBA Writer and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the Pacific Division and NBA Social Media activity.

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