The Milwaukee Bucks have written the most surprising narrative of the 2014-15 NBA season. They have broken and re-calibrated projections, sequenced late-game heroics into the franchise’s DNA, and are still the only team in the league with a baby-faced Greek up-and-coming whose parents came from Nigeria. In short, the team has crashed the party and is unwilling to leave (think: Iggy Azalea circa 2013).
BMO Harris Bradley Center officials had almost certainly readied the arena’s trophy case on account of Jabari Parker’s ostensibly clear path to the 2014-15 rookie of the year award. But a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Parker’s left knee ended the widely considered front-runner’s stake.
Re-calibrating the rookie of the year race is easy, though, because the team that won it last season seems ready to keep the award in-house.
The last three ROY winners are guards and all ranked first in scoring among first-year players (last that didn’t was, surprisingly, Derrick Rose who finished second). A common thread for all award winners is data, or how one’s contributions can be quantified, if only slightly.
Blake Griffin led all rookies in scoring and rebounding in 2010-11 — give it to him. Kyrie Irving led first-years in scoring, field goal percentage and free throw percentage — give it to him. Michael Carter-Williams led all rookies in scoring, rebounding and assists; the third player since 1950-51 to do so — give it to him.
And around and around the carousel spins.
Fashioning an eerily similar story arc as Griffin did four years ago, Philadelphia’s Nerlens Noel has played remarkably well in his rookie season, after missing what would have been his first year rehabbing his knee. He’s had an entire season to work on conditioning, be around the team, embrace the culture, and drink Muscle Milk to his heart’s content. The 20-year-old absolutely decimated the NBA summer league and hasn’t slowed since.
In 21 games this season Noel is shooting the third-highest field goal percentage (.462) among rookies, trailing just Parker and Houston’s Tarik Black; Noel has nearly twice as many field goal attempts at Black, for context. Philadelphia’s big man with the glorious hi-top fade also leads all rookie forwards/centers in scoring (8.1 points per game) and plays the second-most minutes of all first-year players (30.4 minutes per game). He has a rookie-high three double-doubles this season and leads the crop of first-years in rebounding (6.5 rebounds per game).
His primary competition comes from the 2014 No. 1 overall pick, Andrew Wiggins, who has numbers to boast, as well — including a usage rate of 21.8 (Noel’s is 15.5). These two, if both remain healthy, will almost certainly be the top two in votes come season’s end. They both play for teams drifting out to sea, further from the playoff picture each night, which means, since they’re the faces of their respective franchises, they’ll garner even more touches and opportunities to accrue numbers as the season progresses.
There isn’t a blueprint for winning the NBA’s rookie of the year award. It seems to be dolled out to those who can excel in more than one of the primary analytical categories a primitive box score provides: points, rebounds, assists, blocks, field goal percentage, etc. Wiggins will need to drastically improve his facilitation (1.4 assists per game to Noel’s 1.7 assists per game, on a team that ranks last in the league in scoring — last!), and shooting percentage (39.6 percent compared to Noel’s 46 percent) to stick with Noel.
Noel, as of now, has a full arsenal at his disposal, and every game he looks to be getting more confident on the court (to backtrack to the earlier analogy: Noel is becoming Iggy Azalea circa “Work”), and is clearly the buoy that Philadelphia will desperately hold onto as the ship encapsulating their season continues to sink. He can fill the stat sheet, which, at the end of the season, is what’ll land the city of Philadelphia its second consecutive NBA Rookie of the Year Award, which is something of a participation ribbon for a team hurdling toward the worst record of any in the league.
Josh Planos has had his work featured at the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Vice, CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. He’s currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer. Let him know on Twitter (@JPlanos) how baseless his work is.