When the Rookie of the Year is discussed, the name that comes to mind first is usually Sixers guard/forward combo Ben Simmons – and deservedly so. He is averaging 16.4 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.4 assists along with 3.2 win shares and a 17.1 player efficiency rating. Simmons also plays 35 minutes per game while shooting 50% from the field. He’s no slouch on the defensive end either, averaging three deflections, 1.8 steals and almost a block a game. However, I think that another member of the 2017 NBA draft class deserves to win the award
My choice for the ROY would be Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell. The 6’3” playmaker is Utah’s starting shooting guard and leading scorer. He averages 31.9 minutes per game and makes good use of every one of them. Mitchell is scoring 19.1 points per game to go along with 3.4 assists, 3.4 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 2.3 deflections. His stats on the less-glamourous end rank him among the top 30 players in the league defensively. What’s impressive about that is the fact that Mitchell is able to read the spacing and keep up with the speed of the NBA game. This enables him to defend at an elite level as a rookie. His large frame (211 lbs with a seven-foot wingspan) also helps him disrupt passing lanes and shut down smaller guards while holding his own against bigger perimeter players.
At first, the easy comparison for Mitchell was Dwayne Wade. Both are uber-athletic guards whose first instinct is to attack the basket. Another description for the young guard was “three-and-D” – a label assigned to players who lock down the perimeter and space the floor. The label works for Mitchell because he is a well above-average wing defender and shoots 51.4% on corner threes. However, he is so much more than that. Mitchell’s usage rate is 28.7% and 81.3% of his shots made are unassisted. This means that the ball is in his hands more often than not and that he usually has to create his own shot. Now, take into account the fact that he is the Jazz’s leading scorer and that his true shooting percentage is 55%. To be that efficient while scoring in volume is impressive for anyone and even more so for a first-year NBA player.
“Clutch time” in the NBA is defined as the final five minutes of the fourth quarter with a five-point or less difference between the teams (http://www.nbaminer.com/clutch-time-stats/). In 45 games this year, Mitchell has scored 44 points in clutch time on 17-38 shooting – good for a 44.7% field goal percentage. He has taken the most shots and scored the most points for his team by a large margin. The next closest is Rubio with 26 points and only six shots taken (most of the points come from free throws). This shows Jazz head coach Quin Snyder’s confidence in his young guard and Mitchell’s willingness to call his own number in late game situations. By comparison, Simmons has scored 56 points on 17-25 shooting (68%). However, his scoring total is skewed by the “hack-a-Simmons” strategy that some teams have implemented this year. For reference, Simmons is shooting 56.1% from the charity stripe this year. Also, his high FG% is a result of him having actual perimeter threats spacing the floor and opening the lane for him. Mitchell, on the other hand, is the primary perimeter threat for the Jazz and teams know that.
There is no denying that Simmons is a transcendent talent. He is borderline unstoppable on the break and possesses otherworldly vison for someone who stands 6’11”. He is rewriting how the NBA defines the guard position. However, I would argue that the Rookie of the Year award should go to the best rookie in the NBA and that player is not Ben Simmons. While his numbers are good, they are boosted by his surrounding cast. Simmons steps on the court with one of the best centers in the game, a lights-out sharpshooter with a lightning-quick release and an elite three-and-D wing who is only improving. These players, in order, are Joel Embiid, J.J. Reddick and Robert Covington. Mitchell on the other hand is surrounded by role players. Jazz point guard Ricky Rubio is notorious for not being able to shoot a jump shot. This leaves Mitchell as the only floor spacer in the backcourt. Joe Ingles, Thabo Sefelosha and Derrick Favors are all good players, but not game-changing talents. Stud center Rudy Gobert and swingman Rodney Hood have both missed significant time this year due to injury. Night in and night out, Mitchell is the primary offensive threat for the opposition and he has stood up to the test. His lack of a supporting cast, two-way ability and clutch-time scoring set him apart from the rest of his class. That’s why he is my choice for Rookie of the Year.
All stats courtesy of https://www.basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted.