This season’s NBA rookie of the year race was supposed to be too close to call.
No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons would have been the clear choice but he fractured his left foot in a scrimmage before the season, so Buddy Hield, selected by the New Orleans Pelicans with the sixth overall pick, became the preseason favorite. The Minnesota Timberwolves’ Kris Dunn (No. 5 overall) was also deemed to be NBA-ready in his first season, despite playing behind Ricky Rubio. After Simmons went down, there was no consensus choice.
Instead, the race hasn’t been a race at all. Joel Embiid, selected third overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2014 NBA draft but finally debuting this year, appears to have it locked up.
Despite a minutes restriction after two foot surgeries and two missed seasons, Embiid is averaging 18.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in just 22.8 minutes a night. His average game score of 12.1 this season — a metric created by John Hollinger to give a rough measure of a player’s productivity for a single game — is the fifth highest for a center’s first 12 games since 1983, behind legendary big men David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Dikembe Mutombo and Hakeem Olajuwon. Embiid is also being used on a team-high 37.6 percent of possessions, the most ever by a rookie at any position since the introduction of the three-point line back during the 1979-80 season. (Interesting trivia: the next-highest rookie season on that possessions list is Ben Gordon, at 30.4 percent with the Chicago Bulls in 2004-05.)
Despite his minutes restriction, Joel Embiid is fifth in the league in scoring per 36 minutes w/ an average of 28.6p, along w/ 12.2r & 3.8b pic.twitter.com/cSElOLo5xk
— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) November 30, 2016
And Embiid’s importance to the 76ers cannot be overstated. When he’s on the court, Philadelphia has a net rating of minus-2.2, similar to what we are seeing from the Indiana Pacers this year (minus-1.9). With Embiid on the bench, the team’s net rating drops to minus-14.2, worse than either the 76ers or Los Angeles Lakers were last year.
If Embiid can stay healthy — and that’s a big if — he should be a unanimous rookie of the year winner. But the race behind him is fascinating. If Embiid should struggle or fall to injury, here are a few other first-year players who could rise to the top and steal the award.
Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
Murray struggled to find his shots during the first 10 games of the season, hitting 25 of 73 (43.2 percent) overall and 13 for 37 (35.1 percent) from behind the three-point line. Over his last seven games, he has improved on both counts, raising his true shooting percentage from 45.5 to 59.9 percent over that split.
Murray still needs to improve as the ballhandler during pick and rolls (0.49 points per possession with a 27.7 percent turnover rate) but has excelled coming off screens (1.19 PPP) and hitting his no-dribble jumper (1.65 PPP). Only Bradley Beal and Kemba Walker have been more efficient on these baskets (minimum 20 shots).
Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks
Like Murray, Brogdon has had to deal with some shooting slumps but has taken good care of the ball, producing a 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio from 46.5 touches per game. His passing out of the pick and roll has been sensational, producing 1.06 points per possession, good enough to put him in the top 20 percent of the league.
His jump shots off the dribble need work (10 for 30 this year) but his vision in transition has been very productive, resulting in 18 points and eight assists on 24 possessions.
Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers
An injury to Julius Randle opened the door for Ingram in the starting lineup and while his performance hasn’t been consistent, Ingram contributes to the team’s wins column in a variety of ways. He’s averaging 7.6 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game while shooting 12 for 40 behind the arc and hasn’t shied away from playing down low in the post. On those possessions, he is almost automatic on the left block.
Out of all the candidates, Ingram might have the most upside. He is struggling as the ballhandler in the pick and roll and in isolation while hitting just 17.4 percent of his shots in the paint. All three of those aspects of his game should improve as he gets more comfortable at the NBA level.
Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
Siakam, a late first-round pick in the 2016 draft, isn’t scoring like some of the other front-runners (5.6 points per game) but he is grabbing 51.5 percent of the team’s rebound chances with 1.6 contested rebounds per game for the second-best team in the Eastern conference. Siakam is also showing some hustle, contesting 8.1 shots (third-most among rookies) and deflecting 1.4 balls (fifth most among rookies) per game in addition to being credited with 16 screen assists, fourth-most among first-year players.
That grit comes in handy when he is asked to be the big defender against the pick and roll — opponents have made just 4 of 15 shots against him with 11 turnovers this season.
“He’s being thrown into the fire from the jump,” teammate Patrick Patterson told Blake Murphy of Vice Sports. “He’s guarding different types of guys with different games, different bodies, different mindsets, so his basketball mind-set, his defensive presence changes every single game pretty much. He’s got to learn to adapt and change, and he’s been doing a great job at it.”