The tight two-man race for the Rookie of the Year award just turned controversial on Monday when the Philadelphia 76ers’ first-year point guard Ben Simmons decided to add fuel to the fire by dismissing his closest competition. Donovan Mitchell, the exciting rookie from the Utah Jazz, is as deserving as Simmons to win the freshman honors despite not being recognized by his fellow rookie as competition.
In an interview with ESPN’s Chris Haynes, Simmons was asked who he believes should win the once-in-a-lifetime prestigious award for best rookie.
“Who would I pick? Me, 100 percent,” Simmons told Haynes. “I think I have been playing solid all year. If you look at the numbers, you will see. People who know the game know.”
The numbers do support the Sixers’ rookie to be named the winner at the end but the numbers support Mitchell, too. In any given year, voters would say that Mitchell is hands down the winner of this award if not for the presence of Simmons. And that’s also true vice versa. In fact, if you look at the list of past rookie winners over the last 10 years, either one of them could have challenged each of the awardees and would have won in some years had they played back then. Yes, these two rookies are that good.
But as good as they both are, one of them has to be named Rookie of the Year eventually. So who should it be—Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell?
Is Simmons a “True” Rookie?
First, let’s address this fallacy in some fans’ thinking.
Simmons was taken by the Sixers with the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft but had to sit out the 2016-17 season due to a fracture of the fifth metatarsal bone of his right foot. Though he was only expected to be out for a few months, he was ultimately ruled out for the season and had to wait the next year to play his first game in the league.
In Haynes’ article, he mentioned that some folks “within NBA circles subscribe to the notion that Simmons is not a true rookie and shouldn't be eligible to win the award.”
When the idea that he wasn’t a “true” rookie was presented to him, the Louisiana State University alum was ready with a defense.
“Coming off a broken foot is definitely not an edge, but people are always going to say what they want to say,” Simmons said. “But at the end of the day, this is my first year in the league. If you're a guy coming from overseas, you're still a rookie and you can be 30 years old. So there's a rule in there.”
He's right and history proves that you can miss a year or two after being drafted and still be eligible to win the rookie award.
L.A. Clippers forward Blake Griffin missed out on his actual rookie season (2009-10), because of an injury and came back the following season to win the 2010-11 Rookie of the Year honors. The San Antonio Spurs’ selected David Robinson with the first pick in the 1987 Draft but because of a two-year commitment with the Navy, he wasn’t able to play in the league until the 1989-90 season. He also won ROTY despite the fact that a certain “true” rookie named Tim Hardaway was deserving of the award as well.
And then there’s Larry Bird.
The Boston Celtics took him with the sixth pick in the 1978 draft but he didn’t sign with them ‘til the 1979-80 season, the same season that a magical rookie entered the NBA by the name of Earvin Johnson. A case could have been made for Magic to win the award because Bird wasn’t a “true” rookie. But guess who was voted as ROTY? Yup, it was Bird.
The Case for Ben Simmons
We’ve seen a player similar to Simmons before. At 6-foot-10 (he’s actually closer to seven feet now if he isn’t already), he is the tallest point guard in the history of the league. The precursor to the Sixers’ humongous playmaker is none other than Magic Johnson. Inasmuch as he is being compared to LeBron James, Simmons looks a lot more like the Lakers’ legend.
Simmons is enjoying a historic first season, surpassing Johnson’s triple-double total of eight in his rookie season. He is now in second place with 12 behind Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson who had 26.
The Sixers are benefitting from Simmons’ mature game, averaging 16.0 points, 8.1 rebounds and 8.2 assists per contest. To put those numbers into perspective, there have been only six players to put up similar averages for a season and they are either Hall of Famers or are on their way— Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Among those luminaries, only Robertson has been able to accomplish the feat as a rookie until Simmons came along.
The Australia native has been quarterbacking arguably the NBA’s most exciting young team and playing an all-around game comparable to James, who didn’t average eight rebounds and eight assists in a single season until last year which was his 14th year in the league.
On Friday, Simmons went up against James, his idol and mentor. In that game between the Sixers and the Cavs, the two players dueled to a standstill until the end. Unfortunately, a team had to lose and it was Philly that came out on top with a close 132-130 win.
The rookie had 27 points, 15 rebounds and 13 assists while the 15-year veteran recorded 44 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds. It was the only time that a LeBron James opponent had a triple-double in the same game as he did. With the win, the Sixers wrested the third seed in the Eastern Conference from the Cavs who fell to fourth.
Philadelphia is on a 14-game winning streak, the league’s current longest. Additionally, the Sixers have now won 50 games, a feat that the team hasn’t accomplished since Allen Iverson was still playing for the team in the 2000-01 season. To make this winning streak all the more improbable, Simmons has been leading the team to six of those wins without All-Star center Joel Embiid who is out with an eye injury.
Philadelphia is a playoff team for the first time in six years thanks to their rookie phenom.
Simmons acknowledges that it was head coach Brett Brown who should be credited for thrusting him into the playmaking role.
“He put me in position as the point guard, and I don't think he thought it would work out this well as it has,” he said. “I think it is a lot of credit to Coach for sticking me in that position and trusting me.”
Simmons is also playing well on the defensive end. He can handle big men in the post and switch on to the smaller, quicker players on the perimeter. There are only a few players who can guard all five positions and Simmons is one of them. Not only can he make the switch defensively, he is also able to play all five positions on the court on offense.
His only real weakness is his lack of shooting from long range. He avoids shooting from the three-point line except for those half-court heaves or longer threes at the end of quarters.
Otherwise, Simmons is playing an all-around game worthy of the all-time greats.
The Case for Donovan Mitchell
Mitchell was taken by the Denver Nuggets with the 13th pick of the 2017 draft but was traded to the Jazz on draft night for the 24th pick (Tyler Lydon), and Trey Lyles. The Nuggets are reportedly continuing to kick themselves for letting Mitchell go.
The former Louisville Cardinals sensation is playing an astounding rookie season, carrying his team to the fourth seed in the tough and competitive Western Conference. Though undersized as a shooting guard at 6-foot-3, Mitchell is a handful for many NBA players.
He leads all rookies in scoring at 20.5 points per game while taking over in the clutch to carry his team to victory time and time again. According to NBA.com’s Advanced Stats, Mitchell has 94 points in clutch situations, tied for 19th best in the entire NBA and the only rookie to appear in the top 30.
A gifted offensive player, Mitchell has been on fire late in the season, averaging 23.0 points in March and 23.5 in April. Unlike Simmons, Mitchell isn’t gun-shy about taking long jumpers all the way to the three-point area where he is second all-time in makes from that distance for a rookie with 182. The Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard holds the rookie record with 185. With only two games left, Mitchell only needs three three-pointers to tie and four to break Lillard’s record.
The Jazz rookie also became the fastest first-year player in NBA history to drain 150 three-pointers, hitting the mark after only 63 games.
Mitchell is the first rookie to lead a playoff-bound team in scoring since Carmelo Anthony (21.0 points) led the Denver Nuggets to the postseason in the 2003-04 season.
SB Nation’s Tim Cato notes that Mitchell’s True Shooting Percentage is “worse than Simmons’, but also comes with tougher shots. Utah is an elite defensive team, but they have heavily leaned on Mitchell to score. Much of their offense comes from well-run sets, but only Mitchell stands out on their roster as a shot creator who can take on anyone one-on-one.”
According to Lakers Nation’s Harrison Faigen, Los Angeles Lakers’ rookie Josh Hart compared guarding Mitchell to Cleveland’s James and the Houston Rockets’ James Harden.
“Don is very crafty. I think that’s the biggest thing with him. You don’t realize how crafty he is,” Hart said. “He’s a top offensive talent in the league. He’s proven that. He’s had 40-point games, he’s the leading scorer of a playoff team, and for a lot of the year carried a playoff team in his rookie year.
“Judging him on his body of work this season, he definitely (belongs in the same conversation as Harden and James). And he has the potential to be a great player in the league.”
The young combo guard has also shown that he is more than capable of playing outstanding defense. Mike Sorensen of the Desert News wrote a piece focusing on Mitchell’s defensive tenacity with a couple of quotes from Jazz coach Quin Snyder.
“He’s so aggressive defensively, we were kidding him the other day he almost fouled out during practice, which is hard to do,” Snyder said.
On an earlier occasion, Snyder explained Mitchell’s mindset on defense.
“Donovan’s defense — if you’re on the wing and trying to get open, you better be ready, because he’s going to make it hard for you to catch the ball,” he said.
Who Should Win ROTY?
After the Blazers lost to the Jazz in mid-February, Lillard was convinced Mitchell should win Rookie of the Year.
“I think he should be rookie of the year, for sure,” he said. “Not just because of his numbers, but his impact on their team. He’s basically leading them. It’s special to see a rookie be able to do what he’s doing out there.”
On the other hand, Simmons’ fellow Australian Andrew Bogut told ESPN on Monday said that the Sixers guard should win the award.
“I don't even think it's a conversation,” Bogut said. “Obviously Mitchell is having a great year but Ben is night and day ahead and I think 99 percent of people would agree with me. If he doesn't win it I'm calling a conspiracy theory or something.”
Though Bogut is likely biased in his opinion, he’s not wrong.
Simmons should win Rookie of the Year as he has been putting up numbers that are being compared to the all-time greats. While Mitchell would be a great choice to win the award in any other year, Simmons’ rookie performance conjures up images of legends who are now in the Hall of Fame.
Though a case can be made for Mitchell’s team playing in the more competitive Western Conference, the Jazz have a veteran point guard in Ricky Rubio running the show to make things easier for him. The defensive-minded Jazz started tearing up the league when Rudy Gobert returned to the lineup in mid-January. Since he came back, the Jazz have gone 29-7 as their perimeter defense has been able to funnel players to their shot-blocking center.
More than any player on their roster, it’s Gobert that really makes the Jazz one of the toughest teams to face and his presence in the paint has notably coincided with their strong showing since he came back from an injury.
As great as Mitchell is, he is just one of the cogs in the Jazz machinery albeit one of the most important ones. That’s not a knock on Mitchell. It’s just a fact.
Not so with Simmons whose team rises and falls with his play. It’s a more difficult transition for a rookie point guard to play in the NBA compared to other positions. Their decisions on the floor greatly impact the team’s performance as they become de facto leaders the moment they’re given free rein to run the offense.
Just when everyone thought that the Sixers would miss a beat after Embiid went down with an injury, Simmons made sure that it wouldn’t happen, keeping their winning streak alive perhaps until the end of the season.
The best thing that can happen for Simmons and Mitchell is that they both win the award as co-Rookies of the Year as they both deserve it. The last time it happened was in the 1994-95 season when the Detroit Pistons’ Grant Hill and the Dallas Mavericks’ Jason Kidd shared the award.
However, that rarely happens as Hill and Kidd were only the second set of rookies to end up in a tie at the end of the ROTY race. So if I had a vote as to which player should win the award, I’d take Simmons.
The Rookie of the Year award won’t be revealed until the NBA postseason awards on June 25.