Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
As we move into the league’s “second half” — truly a misnomer considering every team has played somewhere between between 55 (Philadelphia) and 61 (Minnesota) games — it’s time to once again evaluate the NBA’s rookie class.
A number of first-year talents were on display in Los Angeles, highlighted, of course, by Dunk Contest champion Donovan Mitchell, who’s single-handedly transformed the Rookie of the Year conversation. With the Jazz entering the break on an 11-game winning streak, Mitchell has rapidly closed the gap on Ben Simmons, who was a virtual lock to take home the award not two months ago.
Jayson Tatum and the Celtics have each faded in recent weeks, as have ancillary challengers Kyle Kuzma and Lauri Markkanen, to some degree. All three are enjoying impressive seasons in their own right, but let’s be honest: It’s a two-horse race.
Beyond the top two, however, there’s plenty of room for debate. Would Tatum be this good without Brad Stevens? What if Gordon Hayward were healthy? Are the Suns ruining Josh Jackson? Will John Collins forever be stuck in the shadow of Ersan Ilyasova? All legitimate questions.
While past iterations of this column have briefly highlighted a handful of rookies in an admittedly arbitrary fashion, this time around they’ll be ranked in terms of where they’d stand on my personal ballot if the Rookie of the Year vote took place today.
1. Ben Simmons, 76ers
If you agree with the good folks in Las Vegas — I happen to — this is still Simmons’ award to lose. It feels like Mitchell has all of the momentum heading out of the break, but Simmons’ overall body of work remains more impressive. Yes, I would like to take this outside.
Simmons still leads all rookies in assists (7.3), rebounds (7.8), and steals (1.9) per game, while ranking second to Mitchell in scoring (16.4 PPG) and third behind Collins and Jordan Bell in blocks (0.9). Working against Simmons is the fact that his worst stretch of the season, from late-December to mid-January, happened to coincide with one of Mitchell’s best, though Simmons is putting up 16.8 points, 7.8 assists, 7.4 rebounds, 2.0 steals and shooting just under 60 percent from the field in his last 12 games.
Simmons doesn’t have two 40-point performances — plus a handful of 30-point outings — to his name, but on the other hand Mitchell hasn’t thrown up any 19-17-14 games, a line only eight players, not rookies, in NBA history — including Wilt Chamberlain 10 times — have matched. Almost without exception, if Wilt Chamberlain has done something that many times, you’re in good company.
2. Donovan Mitchell, Jazz
Forget everything you just read. Due in part to where he was drafted, Mitchell is having one of the most captivating rookie seasons in recent memory. Looking back, he’d probably be the favorite to win at least four of the last eight Rookie of the Year awards, but in most of those years we’d be having a similar debate: Mitchell or Towns? Mitchell or Lillard? Mitchell or Kyrie? What about Mitchell or Michael Carter-Williams (kidding, kidding).
Yes, he’s leading all rookies in scoring and yes the Jazz have won 11 straight games, but it’s fair to say that the player averaging 19.6 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists is having a slightly worse season than the player averaging 16.4 points, 7.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists. Both teams have 30 wins. Both teams are very much on the playoff bubble.
All that said, for the most part, Mitchell has improved with each passing month. Not that Simmons hasn’t gotten better, but he’s essentially the same player in mid-February as he was in mid-October.
Since Christmas, Mitchell is averaging nearly 22 points per game, and a late-season surge could very well vault him past Simmons — particularly if Utah is able to claw past the Pelicans and Clippers and grab the eight seed.
3. Lauri Markkanen, Bulls
I take full responsibility for the healthy archive of Markkanen slander, both of the audio and written word variety, that exists under my name.
While I’m not necessarily surprised Markkanen has shot the ball well, I expected him to be exposed on the glass and on defense. He’s never going to be Kevin Garnett on that end, but as I described to James Anderson recently on the RotoWire NBA Podcast, the fact that no one is even talking about Markkanen’s defense is probably a good sign.
As a rebounder, Markkanen is much further along than anticipated. He still has nights when he spends too much time on the perimeter, but he’s averaging over eight boards per contest since Jan. 1, an 18-game span that includes six games with double-digit rebounds.
4. Jayson Tatum, Celtics
Playing within the constraints of an offense that mostly features him as the third option, at best, Tatum has never truly been in the same conversation as Simmons and Mitchell. That’s not to say he hasn’t made the best of a unique situation. Tatum has been a productive piece for the second-best team in the East, leading all rookies in win shares and sitting atop the league in three-point efficiency for the better part of the first half. He’s cooled off in that department — 33.3% 3PT since Jan. 1 — but still ranks 12th in the NBA in three-point percentage for the season, ahead of the likes of Kevin Durant, C.J. McCollum and Steph Curry (and behind E’Twaun Moore).
If there’s an argument against Tatum, it’s the notion that his job is easy. He’s in the best pure basketball situation a rookie could imagine. He joined what was already a top-three in the East, the All-Star in front of him blew out his ankle 10 minutes into opening night, and he plays for the best strategist in basketball.
All of that is true, but not just any rookie can step in and contribute on both ends at age 19 the way Tatum has. Perhaps the best argument for Tatum is that it’s pretty easy to imagine him putting up Mitchell-like numbers if he were in a situation that demanded more individual offense.
5. Dennis Smith, Mavericks
Smith is one of at least five players on this list who might have unanimously won the Rookie of the Year award last season. Playing on an 18-win team, Smith has been partially overshadowed by Mitchell but has quietly put together a strong all-around campaign.
Smith ranks fifth among rookies in scoring (14.8 PPG) and fourth in assists (4.9 APG), despite averaging just over 29 minutes per game, a relatively low number for a rookie on a bad team. Consider that Damian Lillard, Tyreke Evans, Derrick Rose and Chris Paul each averaged at least 36 minutes per game as rookies.
Perhaps that’s just the Mavs being cautious given Smith isn’t all that far removed from a torn ACL, or maybe it’s just Rick Carlisle being Rick Carlisle. Either way, Smith has been given a longer leash of late, topping the 30-minute mark in each of his last 17 games.
he NC State product has looked noticeably more comfortable, and he entered the All-Star break riding a 22-game double-digit scoring streak dating back to late-December. During that span, Smith is averaging 16.7 points, 6.0 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 40.2 percent from the floor and a very palatable, by rookie point guard standards, 33.1 percent from three.
6. Kyle Kuzma, Lakers
Fortunately for the women of the greater LA area, Kuzmania has faded a bit after nearing dangerous levels before Christmas. After averaging 34.0 minutes per game from the start of November through the end of December, Kuzma has sunk back into a lesser, bench role over the past month-and-a-half. He’s still been plenty productive — 12.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.6 made threes — but he’s playing nearly 10 fewer minutes per game (25.0 MPG since Jan. 1) and is shooting just over 30 percent from three during that span.
7. Lonzo Ball, Lakers
There isn’t much to say since Ball hasn’t played in more than a month, but his counting stats, which historically weigh heavily in the Rookie of the Year discussion, are difficult to ignore. For the season, Ball holds averages of 10.2 points, 7.1 assists and 7.1 rebounds per game, and while his shooting percentages are dreadfully low, he showed major signs of progress before going down with a knee injury on Jan. 13.
Over his last 20 games, Ball is shooting a hair under 40 percent from the field, while knocking down 35 percent of his 6.0 three-point attempts per game. If Ball returns shortly after the All-Star break and keeps up that level of shooting for the next month-and-a-half, he’ll have a chance to change the public perception of his rookie season heading into what will be a massively important summer for his long-term development.