This season’s top rookie prize is either a no-brainer or an ethical debate of participation. Through December, clearly, the top candidate for Rookie of the Year was Joel Embiid. A season-ending injury in February after only playing 31 games has brought into question whether his dynamic play in such limited time warrants an end of the season award.
In his absence, other candidates have emerged in the form of Milwaukee Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon and Embiid’s frontcourt teammate Dario Saric. With the cases already being made all season, let’s dig into what ROY voters are considering with these three candidates.
Malcolm Brogdon snuck up on everyone including the Bucks, drafting him with the 36th overall pick in last year’s draft. If they would have known he would be this productive they probably wouldn’t have signed Matthew Dellavedova for a four-year deal worth 38 million dollars.
Brogdon has been steady with his play putting in 10 points a night with four assists with a shooting line of 45/40/86. Rarely do rookies enter the league shooting 40% from three especially with the volume that Brogdon has shot the three with. His ability to both space the floor and act as a secondary ball handler has complemented Bucks’ star Giannis Antetokounmpo perfectly.
With Brogdon on the court, the Bucks have a 111 offensive rating. If that were sustained over an entire season where Brogdon, the Bucks would have ranked behind only the Rockets and Warriors as the 3rd best offense in the league. Brogdon isn’t the flashiest player and does not have exceptional skills one area, but unlike most rookies, he has mastered the art of not making mistakes.
Among players that average 20 minutes per game, Brogdon ranks in the top 15 in assist to turnover ratio at 2.78. That number surpasses 2017 All-Star guards John Wall (2.58), Kemba Walker (2.58), and Kyle Lowry (2.44). Brogdon’s case for Rookie of the Year rests on him not playing like a rookie and he playing like a 25-year old that has provided a veteran presence as a four year man out of Virginia.
The knock against Brogdon will be that no one since the inception of the award in 1953 has ever won Rookie of the Year averaging 10 points. His season compared to Mike Miller’s rookie season in 2002 where he averaged 11 points on 40% three-point shooting and won Rookie of the Year works to Brogdon’s benefit as a precedent to be followed especially on a playoff team.
Dario Saric is another rookie that does not play like a rookie and has shown to be more than that over the course of this season. Early on Saric showed flashes of being a crafty playmaker with an outside shot in the mold of Hedo Turkoglu back in his Orlando days. Since Embiid was injured February 27, Saric has upped his game and flashed some major potential averaging 17.7 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 3.1 assists.
Saric has had games late in the season where he looks like he’s been playing professionally since the age of 16 and not like a deer lost in headlights like most international rookie prospects. His play afforded Philadelphia the luxury of trading Nerlens Noel and shutting down Jahlil Okafor for the season as he has proven worthy of being Philly’s frontcourt center piece alongside Embiid. Offensively he has the skills to be a playmaking 4 in the NBA, but defensively he has much to prove. The Sixers are a slightly better defensive team with Saric off the court with an opposing 108.5 offensive rating compared to 109.8 with him on. If you take into account how bad the Philadelphia defense has been without Joel Embiid, Saric’s slow footed perimeter defense and lack of strength on the interior are further exposed without Embiid.
With that being said, if you’re of the camp of not voting for Embiid because he only played 31 games, Saric would be your best since he is second behind Embiid in rookie scoring averaging 12.8 points per game.
The Voldemort of the Rookie of the Year discussion is the Twitter sensation and Philadelphia revelation Joel Embiid. Embiid’s rookie averages of 20.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks are rivaled by the likes of Tim Duncan and David Robinson in their respective rookie campaigns.
Philly has desperately needed Embiid, not only to win but to establish credibility to a franchise that justified losing under the contrived vision of “The Process.” If Embiid is the result of “The Process”, then Sixers fans have endured losing long enough. For a moment, Sixers were the talk of the league as they slowly rose from the Eastern Conference hell at the bottom of the standings to purgatory, fighting with the Magic, Knicks, and Pistons, for a chance at the eight seed.
In the 31 games Embiid played the Sixers were 13-18, a 41% winning percentage that surpassed anything they suffered through during the days of Sam Hinkie. Without him they have gone 15-35 and have lost their last seven games. Just off the 31 game sample size he has a better PER than Rudy Gobert and DeAndre Jordan and lead all Centers in usage with a whopping 33.6 usage rate.
Still, the only number that matters to some people is the 31 games played. The fewest games a Rookie of the Year has played was 51 games back in 2011-12, but that was in a strike shortened season. Historically, Rookie of the Year honors have been given to the highest scoring rookie, but Embiid brings that into question.
Being as elite as Embiid is in advanced stats will not work in his favor for the NBA purists that appreciate playing in all 82 games, which could open the door for Brogdon or Saric to come away with the prize. For the NBA awards voters, Rookie of the Year will be the first of many balloting dilemmas they face when dealing out award hardware.