With the 2017-2018 rookie class shaping up to be one of the best in years, the Rookie of the Year crown will be a tough one to hand out. Will it be Philadelphia’s phenom Ben Simmons? Or the Lakers’ passing wizard Lonzo Ball? Or perhaps the NBA will look kindly on the two pure scorers: Chicago’s Lauri Markkanen or Utah’s Donovan Mitchell. The Reckoner makes its arguments for these four stellar rookies.
Ben “I’m not really a rookie” Simmons
True, Ben Simmons was not apart of the 2017 draft class. Now that it’s out of the way, remember that since coming off of a serious foot injury that sidetracked him for a year, this season is the first time that he’s officially playing for the Philadelphia 76ers – and he’s playing well at that. Well enough to be one of the strongest candidates for the Rookie of the Year award.
Out of all other contenders for ROY, Simmons is arguably one of the most well-rounded players on both ends of the floor if not the most well-rounded player. Standing at 6’10, Ben Simmons is a capable and diverse defender for nearly all of the five positions, averaging almost a block per game and leading all other first-time players in rebounds with 7.8 boards a game. He also leads the rookie class in steals with 1.87 per game and solid defense at the rim. In term of team impact, Simmons also performs better defensively than Lonzo Ball, Donovan Mitchell and Lauri Markkanen . When he is off the floor, the 76ers have a defensive rating of 105.2 per 100 possessions compared to 101.5 when he is on the court. In contrast to Donovan Mitchell, the one other rookie near him in terms of defense, the Utah Jazz have a lower per 100 rating when he is not playing on the court.
Similarly, Simmons is a strong force on the offensive end as the primary playmaker on his team and has led the Philadelphia team to be playing at a much more competitive level than previous years. His 7.4 assists is the most among rookies but also notably sets him at fourth in the entire league – behind only Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Lebron James. The 407 dimes that Simmons has accumulated is nearly 150 more than his closest rookie competitor, Lonzo Ball. With a solid 16.7 points per game and 53% from the field, Ben Simmons is great in transition when coupled with fellow first pick, Joel Embiid, and is a strong impact in the young Philadelphia core.
The one area that Simmons could work on is emphasized in his inability to take shots from the outside, which at the moment, he simply just doesn’t do at all. The ones that he has attempted have been way beyond the three point line and unfeasible. Through this aspect may seem damaging, it’s important to remember that as widespread as having a good three-pointer is in today’s NBA, players like Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge also don’t opt for many outside shots either.
Aside from this, Simmons’ versatility is emphasized again in his total of six triple doubles and twenty-three double doubles made. The six triple doubles puts him as the third best for rookies of all time, only shortly behind Magic Johnson’s seven and Oscar Robertson’s 26 (but we all know that’s inflated). It can’t be emphasized enough that Ben Simmons is only going to get better and better as he gains more experience in the NBA. Ben Simmons plays a strong role in the 76ers’ sitting at number seven in the highly competitive Western Conference and really, and if he consistently improves and performs as he’s done so far, the Rookie of the Year award just may be his to take home.
Donovan “11 Game Win Streak” Mitchell
When’s the last time that a rookie can come into the league and instantly become the alpha male on a team contending for a playoff spot? Unlike other contenders for this year’s Rookie of the Year award, Donovan Mitchell is the centerpiece of his team on the offensive side of the floor, and is potentially the most crucial piece to the Jazz’s playoff hopes.
During the 2017 offseason, the Utah Jazz lost Gordon Hayward, their only all-star since Deron Williams in 2011. Many believed this spelled the end for Utah’s near future, and had serious questions concerning their offensive schemes. But Donovan Mitchell has stepped up his game and is putting up nearly identical numbers to the all-star he replaced. The dynamic shooting guard leads all rookies in scoring with nearly 20 points per game, while also putting up 3.5 assists and 3.5 rebounds a night. Compared to Hayward’s splits in 2017 of 21.9/3.5/5.4, it’s evident that in his first year in the league, Donovan Mitchell has nearly replicated an all-star level season as a rookie. No other actual rookie (sorry Ben Simmons) has even come close to putting together a season of that level–much less in the loaded Western Conference.
Maybe even more impressive than the volume of his scoring is the way in which he racks up points. He shoots league average from three but has recently been improving in that area. In the month of February, his three-point percentage has jumped from 35% to 40%. He plays well off-ball, hitting 42% of his spot-up threes on the season. He’s also an elite finisher at the rim–he’s shooting nearly 65% within two feet of the hoop. All this has combined to make him a versatile and dynamic scorer with an effective field goal percentage of 51%. That’s a number comparable to all-stars DeMar DeRozan and Kemba Walker.
Beyond the stats, perhaps the most impressive thing about Mitchell are his electric performances that indicate his potential to become an elite, dynamic scorer for years to come. Already this season, he’s dropped 30 or more points six times. This includes a 41-point game against New Orleans in December, a feat that was followed up by another 40-point game against Phoenix in February. No rookie since Blake Griffin seven years ago has been able to score 40+ points twice in a season — that is, until Donovan Mitchell showed up. These flashes of brilliance are no joke – only seven active players have managed to score 40 points in their rookie season, including Lebron, Steph, and Melo.
Donovan Mitchell has already exceeded all expectations. As a rookie, he’s coming close to putting together an all-star type season. And with his amazing, unexpected scoring leading the way, a Utah Jazz team that seemed lottery-bound one summer ago is now trying to push its way into the postseason. He’s efficient, versatile, and has already proven to be a capable number one option on a playoff team. And if Donovan Mitchell can keep it up, the dunk contest won’t be the only award he’s winning this year.
Lonzo “Big Baller” Ball
There are house league players with better shot form than Lonzo Ball, but internet memes aside, the number 2 overall pick in last year’s draft has quietly put himself in contention for the Rookie of the Year award.
Most voters would only look at points scored, see that his 10.2 ppg is inferior to most of the competition (Donovan Mitchell, Lauri Markkanen, Ben Simmons, Kyle Kuzma, and Dennis Smith Jr. to name a few), and instantly be turned away. However, being an advanced statistics darling like Jason Kidd, it takes a keen eye to discern just how crucial he is to the Lakers’ limited success.
The Lakers with Lonzo post the highest PACE scores of any team in the NBA. In fact, in his 15-game absence, the Lakers possession performance dropped from 105.2 possessions per game, 1st in the NBA, to a mere 98.9, good for only 24th. More possessions signify fast break opportunities that are only available because of Lonzo’s amazing vision and passing skills. His ability to push the Lakers for easy buckets absolutely make them a better team. He is no slouch defensively either. He posts a defensive rating of 103.0, the best on the Lakers. He also rebounds 18.3% of available rebounds when is on the floor, which is better than Julius Randle and Brook Lopez, the two dedicated rebounders on the team.
Simply put, he is the do-it-all point guard who takes massive amounts of pressure off his teammates. The team, however, holds him back on all fronts.
Lonzo also assists on 28.7% of the Lakers baskets, with an estimated assist percentage of 39%, which would’ve been better than Simmons, if his teammates played up to replacement level. Replacement. The Lakers’ other four apparently are worse than most benches in the NBA. Lonzo is also the only Laker who has posted a respectable +/-, with +1. Meanwhile, Brandon Ingram, the Lakers star second year player, has a dreadful -104.
Percentage-wise, Lonzo’s stats blow the other contenders out of the water because Simmons, Mitchell, and Markkanen don’t have monkeys for teammates. Lonzo Ball is doing more, with less.
Lauri “The Finnisher” Markkanen
Lauri Markkanen is the ideal stretch 4 who can play some small-ball 5 when you need him to. He’s only shooting a league-average 35% from 3 so far this year, but make no mistake, he’s a dead-eye marksman. (His numbers are only going to go up. He shot a blistering 42% last year in college.) His range drags opposing big men out well beyond the three-point line to guard him and he’s got a snappy release, never afraid to pull the trigger. We should just start calling him Lauri Marksman-en. The best part about him? If the defence closes out on his shot, he has a skilled handle, allowing him to take the ball all the way to the rim before throwing down some ferocious dunks. The Finnisher already put the Knicks’ Enes Kanter on a poster, and he’s out looking for his next victim.
Beyond the shooting, Markkanen is great on the glass as well. He ranks second amongst all rookies (by only 0.1!), averaging 7.7 rebounds a game. His 1.2 offensive rebounds per game are also impressive considering Markkanen spends most offensive possessions well away from the rim and out along the three-point line. He’s also shown himself to be a solid screen setter. In the few games the Bulls have played with a healthy Zach Lavine they have looked formidable as a pick-and-pop duo, using Markkanen’s gravity and Lavine’s athleticism to generate easy buckets. On the defensive end, he’s shown promise, banging down-low in the post and using his quick feet to switch out and stay in front of smaller, quicker guards.
Lauri Markkanen is the best real rookie this year (Ben Simmons was basically in the league for a year and got to adjust to the NBA life), and sure to be a stud in the future. He had huge expectations on him after being the centrepiece of Chicago’s haul in return for Jimmy Butler and he’s lived up to all of it, giving Bulls’ fan the hope they need to get behind their young team.