The NBA’s annual awards aren’t handed out until after the regular season. But when Joel Embiid opened his NBA career on Oct. 26 with 20 points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots, the rookie of the year race was essentially deemed over. After spending two years laboring through a series of injuries that prevented him from playing, Embiid proved the Philadelphia 76ers were smart to be patient with the 7-footer, who immediately looked like one of the NBA’s elite players — let alone one of its best rookies.
As the season dragged on, however, Embiid began to miss more and more time. Already locked into missing one half of each of Philadelphia’s back-to-back sets this season, he began to miss time due to injury as well, before eventually getting shut down for the season last week because of a meniscus tear in his left knee.
Embiid’s season averages — 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.5 blocks per game, while shooting 46.6 percent from the floor, 36.7 percent from three-point range and 78.3 percent from the foul line — have clearly made him the league’s best rookie.
But then one looks at the “games played” column, and the debate about the worthiness of his candidacy begins.
If Embiid were to win the award, his 31 games played — and his 786 total minutes — would easily rank as the fewest among past winners. And in a normal season, Embiid’s brief stretches of greatness wouldn’t be enough to win it.
Take last season, for instance. Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and Nikola Jokic would have easily beaten out Embiid, thanks to their strong debut seasons and games played.
Those types of candidates, however, just aren’t there this season. And that’s why Embiid, despite his limited time on the court, deserves to win.
Disagree? Go ahead and find a candidate to back in the race. It isn’t easy.
The popular name being cited as a worthy challenger to Embiid is his teammate, Dario Saric. Ironically, like Embiid, Saric was taken in the 2014 NBA Draft, but he chose to remain overseas for two seasons.
And, since the all-star break, Saric has been excellent, averaging 19.0 points, 9.0 rebounds and 4.6 assists in eight games. But Saric’s numbers before the break — 10.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.9 assists — are far more ordinary. And on a team devoid of either scorers or creators, rewarding Saric for putting up hollow numbers for six weeks — particularly when he wasn’t anywhere close to Embiid in terms of impact when he was healthy — is hard to justify.
The best candidate might be Malcolm Brogdon, the former Virginia star who was a second-round pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. Brogdon has stepped into a prominent role for the Bucks, playing close to 26 minutes per game and starting 17 times while taking plenty of minutes from prominent free agent signing Matthew Dellavedova. But while Brogdon immediately looked like he belonged in the league, it’s hard to argue he’s had anywhere near the same impact Embiid has.
As for the players taken at the top of the 2016 NBA draft? Good luck finding a candidate among them. Simmons was expected to win the award if Embiid didn’t before the season started, but he’s missed the entire season after breaking his foot in the opening week of training camp. The second pick, Brandon Ingram, has had minimal impact on the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the NBA’s worst teams. Jaylen Brown has become a nice role player on a strong Boston Celtics team, but hasn’t gotten a chance to show he can do more.
Of the lottery picks, Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray has been the most impressive, showing flashes of being a strong lead guard to pair with Jokic in the Mile High City moving forward. But, like the rest of these names, his statistical profile — 9.0 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.9 assists — just doesn’t measure up.
So yes, Joel Embiid’s season was unfortunately cut short by injury, leaving the door open for someone else to step in front of him and claim the rookie of the year award. A look at the possible candidates to do so, however, should leave anyone arguing against Embiid’s candidacy with one conclusion: They don’t have a leg to stand on.