Halfway through the season, NBA fans have been given a treat with this year’s rookie class. Namely, there are four guys who have helped put together the most impressive rookie campaign we’ve seen in quite some time. The question is, who’s bringing home that Eddie Gottlieb trophy in June?
I’m not a betting man, but if I had to put my money on it, I’d say none other than Australia’s own Ben Simmons.
However, let’s first discuss his biggest threats to winning this award.
First, Donovan Mitchell has been putting together one hell of a season being a leader for the Utah Jazz. Through 39 games, he’s currently averaging 18.5 PPG on 43.9% shooting, 3.4 APG and 3.3 RPG. Granted, his team is eight games below .500 at 16-24, which isn’t too sexy.
However, in addition to his numbers, what is impressive is his timing. Coming into this season Jazz Fans didn’t have much to be excited about after losing their cornerstone player, Gordon Hayward, to free agency this summer.
Fast-forward to about a month into the season, the Jazz were hovering around .500, spending the majority of it below. Then their next best player, Rudy Gobert, went down with a bone bruise in his right knee, which sidelined him for four to six weeks. This is when Mitchell stepped onto the scene, going on the tear that he went on.
In just about a month and a half’s time Mitchell has become very well respected around the league, and doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.
“Kid got a lot of game. They’ve been riding that wave all season since they realized what they actually got,” said LeBron James. “He’s not afraid of the moment. He just goes out and plays ball.”
Next is Jayson Tatum. The 19-year-old Duke product has not had much of a learning curve in what’s been almost three months into his rookie season. Tatum has found himself as a vital role player for the Boston Celtics, who sit atop the East at 33-10. Since the gruesome injury that Gordon Hayward suffered on opening night, it was crucial that someone was going to have to embrace that “next man up” mentality and fill the void that was going to be in the offense.
Luckily for the Celtics, they had two guys on the roster who were more than ready. Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who also is holding his own in his second year in the league.
Now back to the rookie. Through 43 games Tatum is averaging 13.9 PPG on 49.8 FG%, 5.5 RPG and is shooting 46.2% from behind the arc. Fortunately he has a similar playing style to Hayward. The only difference is that he’s more of a slasher while Hayward is more of a shooter.
Even though this is Tatum’s first year, you wouldn’t be able to tell by the way he plays according to some.
“Tatum is a guy who’s playing efficient basketball for a rookie. That’s kind of unheard of,” said Kevin Durant. “I think it comes from a combination of skill, confidence but also a winning environment that preaches always being a sponge, always soaking up information trying to get better.”
Another solid rookie is the Finnish Lauri Markkanen of the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls are another team that had low expectations going into this year after an offseason that wasn’t kind to them. They lost one of the best two-way players in the game in Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo as well as some others.
At the beginning of the season the Bulls lived up to their expectations, going 3-20 in their first 23 games. Then something happened that no one saw coming. They won seven games in a row. Throughout that stretch, Markkanen only played four games but in those games he averaged 14.5 PPG on 44% shooting and 7.5 RPG.
In the 37 games he played this season he’s averaged 14.9 PPG on 42.3% shooting and 7.5 RPG. From opening night until now he’s maintained a consistent jump shot and has also earned high praise from some vets, including fellow European big man, Dirk Nowitzki.
“I didn’t know he was really that athletic. He shoots it easy, can move his feet. Can play above the rim,” said Nowitzki. “He’s going to be great for a long, long time.”
Lastly, my pick for Rookie of the Year (provided that every player stays the course) is Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons. Coming into the league people put expectations on his career as being “the second coming of LeBron” (as well as a few other expectations). Luckily for him, he’s been playing like it in his first season that he’s been able to play. He was drafted in the 2016 NBA draft but was sidelined for what was supposed to be his whole rookie season.
Throughout 39 games, Simmons has averaged 16.9 PPG on 51% shooting, 7.5 APG and 8.4 RPG.
He came into the league being a very skilled passer, but has improved other parts of his game such as scoring and his defense. Therefore it makes sense why people look at his game as similar to LeBron’s. Not throwing shade here but he’s part of the new age of players (such as LeBron and James Harden) who are well rounded and don’t just worry about shooting like the Kobe Bryants and Gerald Greens of the league.
As if Simmons’ numbers weren’t impressive enough, it’s even more impressive that he’s done so in record-breaking fashion. In just his ninth game he recorded his second triple-double. Only two other players have done that in NBA history. Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson. Good company to say the least.
“He’s definitely a matchup problem and a challenge for most teams. He’s definitely figured out what works for him and he’s sticking to it,” said Dwyane Wade.
“He’s something I’ve never seen before as far as really playing a point guard. At that height and that speed and that strength,” said Kevin Durant. “That’s going to mean well for the Sixers down the line.”
In addition to his numbers, two things have me convinced that he’ll win Rookie of the Year; his aggressiveness and his maturity.
If you look back at Ben Simmons when he was playing in the summer league he seemed reluctant to score and was only interested in doing what he already proved he could do, pass. Now he’s added to his repertoire by mastering both his scoring and rebounding abilities.
In terms of his maturity that has stuck out to me more than anything because whilst working on his scoring ability he has never seemed like he was forcing it. Him shooting 51% from the field is proof of that. In addition to that what’s even more impressive to me is his 3P%. It’s 0%. Yes, you heard that right. That’s impressive to me because throughout 38 games he’s only taken 10 threes. In a league where the least three point shooting team shoots 20 three pointers a game that’s notable.
Once again it’s only half way through the season, but no matter who takes home the trophy, one thing is for certain, the future of the league is looking bright.