RBI’s David-Scott and James Holas give their heated takes on which star-studded rookie deserves the ultimate freshman award the NBA has to offer — Rookie of the Year.
Envision the raw talent and ultra-competitive nature needed to single-handedly carry your team in the treacherous, wild-west of the NBA — all the while being a twenty-one year old rookie shooting guard.
That is Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz.
Picked 13th overall in the 2017 NBA Draft, and immediately traded to the Jazz from the Nuggets, Mitchell has ruthlessly taken the league by surprise. Once looked at as a project guard with future NBA potential, Mitchell has earned himself the title of a true basketball phenom… and he ISN’T going away. It would be to my absolute surprise if Donovan Mitchell doesn’t win the 2017-2018 NBA Rookie Of The Year.
After an impressive showcase at the 2017 Summer League, which included a jaw-dropping 37 point game against the Grizzlies, Mitchell inserted himself as a challenger to any of the guards in the league.
On December 1st, he dropped 41 points in a win over the Pelicans, immediately setting a scoring record for a Utah rookie as well as becoming the first rookie to drop over 40 points in seven years.
Becoming a slam dunk contest winner, holding the most 20+ point games as a rookie in history, and a Conference Rookie of the Month are all accolades that Mitchell has proudly claimed. But when stacked against the numbers of Philadelphia’s very own Ben Simmons, does Mitchell still exit the season as a clear victor of the ROTY award?
The numbers don’t lie, and though Mitchell has proven himself to be an absolute stud on the court, he isn’t flawless. His three-point shooting is near AWFUL. He’s struggled his entire career behind the arc, and stands as one of his most obvious issues that will need addressing over the course of his development years.
So what comes out as a clear decision maker over Simmons? His ability to score in the (what may be) one of the most competitive conferences in NBA history. Currently Mitchell is averaging 19.6 points, 3.5 total rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game. And though Ben Simmons is far more talented with dishing out assists and snatching rebounds, both the Per 100 Possessions and the Per 36 Minutes stat-lines point to Mitchell as well.
In the Per 100 category, the two share extremely similar offensive and defensive ratings (Mitchell with a 103 & 107 respectively, and Simmons with a 106 & 103). BUT, Mitchell averages almost a full EIGHT points more than Simmons over the course of 100 team possessions. During a period of 36 minutes, Simmons averages a whole turnover more than Mitchell, and struggles HEAVILY at the free throw line. His 56.5% free throw completion rate stands out as one of the worst of any of the rookie standouts of the past few years — especially when compared to Mitchell’s thriving 83%.
Take a fine look at the Jazz’s past schedule and you’ll be even more shocked to see even more clear-cut results. Mid-February the Jazz managed a shocking ELEVEN game winning streak, with impressive wins against the Raptors, Spurs, Pistons, and a 30 point blow out against the Golden State Warriors.
It’s plain and simple — Donovan Mitchell is making more of a lasting impact on the Utah Jazz’s success (in a far more competitive conference) than Simmons is with the Sixers, AND Mitchell has established the Jazz as a true underdog squad with the ability to upset the current super-teams of the NBA.
James Holas’ Take:
Donovan Mitchell is the upstart, the explosive firebrand who’s taken the league by surprise; Ben Simmons is the stone faced yin to Mitchell’s explosive yang. The 6’10”, chiseled framed Simmons plays with a cool ferocity, moving with a shifty speed that shouldn’t be possible for a guy his size. Simmons hit the ground running this season, putting up just a hair under 19-9-8 through his first 17 games as the Sixers ran out to a 10-7 start.
Today’s NBA is all about versatility and athleticism, and Simmons is the prototypical modern NBA player- long enough to defend power forwards and even some centers, quick enough to match up on the perimeter, and aggressive enough to overcome his lack of shooting range (according to basketball-reference.com, 77% of Simmons’ field goal attempts have come within 10 feet of the bucket; 95% have come from 16 feet or closer).
Most impressively, questions coming out of college about his lack of defensive intensity and “aloofness” have proven laughably groundless- Simmons has been one of the best perimeter defenders, not just among rookies, but in the NBA. Simmons has the length and speed to slam shut passing lanes, baiting offenses into thinking angles exist that he erases in a blink, and the next level athleticism to challenge even the most hulking behemoth at the rim or catch speedsters from behind to eradicate shot attempts.
Steals and blocks, by themselves, aren’t always an indicator of good defense, but in Simmons’ case, his .89 blocks and 1.83 steals per game put him in elite company. In the past 20 seasons, only 12 players have finished a season averaging at least 0.85 blocks and 1.8 steals a game– the list is studded with defensive stalwarts like prime Shawn Marion, Gerald Wallace, Kawhi Leonard, Andrei Kirilenko, Draymond Green…and as of now, Ben Simmons.
Mitchell has come on strong as of late, but one can’t just ignore his first 19 games when it comes to Rookie of the Year resume: 14,3 ppg on 37% shooting, including 31.8% from deep on almost six attempts a night. Hard to justify an award for a year when a guy spent a quarter of the season playing like a late second rounder in summer league.
After taking a bump into the “rookie wall” (Simmons spent 5 weeks averaging “only” 13.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, 6.5 assists with 4 turnovers a night), he’s come on strong since, and the Sixers have too. Since an ugly loss to a bad Memphis team on January 22nd, Simmons has been on a tear: 17.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 7.9 assists and only 2.6 turnovers a game. His Sixers have gone 10-5 since.
There’s no denying that both Mitchell and Simmons are a cut above the rest of the rookie class, but the similarities end there. Mitchell has all the makings of an NBA star, and his explosive scoring and ability to bust defenses are impressive. Simmons isn’t just an offensive player- he IS the offensive and defensive backbone for the Sixers. Their respective net on/off court ratings comparisons are telling. For Mitchell, the Jazz offense is 1.5 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the court, the defense a fraction of a point worse (105.7 on, 106.3 off); his +1.7 net rating is mark of a good, productive player.
Simmons? With him on the floor, Philly’s defense allows 105.3 points per 100 possessions, which is in 4th in the league over a full year. When he sits, the defensive rating balloons to 108.5, in line with the 15th ranked Clippers; his +5.7 net rating is that of an all star.
NBA.com calculates net rating differently, but the story it tells is the same. Among rookies (that have played at least 50 games and play at least 15 minutes a night), Simmons’ +4.9 net rating is good for 3rd, behind Jayson Tatum and OG Anunoby. Among all rookies, Simmons is second (to Mitchell) in scoring, but is first in minutes per game, rebounding, assists, steals, and is fifth in blocks.
Donovan Mitchell is having an amazing year and he’s great for a rookie; his 19.6 points per game put him on decent 47 person rookie list with guys like Blake Griffin, LeBron James, and Carmelo Anthony (and Tyreke Evans, and Ron Harper, and Terry Cummings). Ben Simmons’ season, rookie or not, is rarefied air- the only players ever to put up at least 16.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 7.4 assists, and shoot 53% from the floor are Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, LeBron James….and Ben Simmons.
It’s fun to act like there’s an actual conversation for who’s the leader in the Rookie Of the Year race, and Donovan Mitchell is having a fine season. Take a deep breath and look at the big picture, and with his consistency, all around production, defensive impact, and historic numbers, it’s as clear as the crack on the Liberty bell that the ROY is going to rest in Philly.