The NBA Rookie of the Year race has become a four-man steel-cage death match. Any of Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, Boston’s Jayson Tatum, Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, or the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma could feasibly win this year’s iteration of the award. Each would need a certain amount of luck to fall their direction to emerge as a frontrunner, however, and this is an examination into what needs to happen for each rookie to be able to add to their trophy case.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Keep on keeping on. Simmons holds possibly the highest potential ceiling of any rookie this season, and the potential he’s already tapped is breathtaking. Simmons is averaging a statline of 16-8-7. The only other rookie to match that was Oscar Robertson in 1960-61. In fact, that statline has only been met by any player only 15 times prior to this season. Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and LeBron James all reached the plateau last season, with James and Westbrook on pace to repeat it this year. That’s some dashingly good company for Simmons to be involved with so early in his career.
This is Simmons’ award to lose at this point of the season, though that could change if Philly continues to struggle as mightily as they have recently. But the Australian is putting up absolutely garish numbers and has the backstory to match. Simmons is the end result of The Process, the culmination of Hinkie’s systemic losing. If the Sixers can show even a modest improvement upon their previous seasons and find their way into the postseason, Simmons should have plenty of support to take home Rookie of the Year. Perhaps the only things that could derail his candidacy would be injury or another contender catapulting themselves onto Simmons’ level.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
What Tatum lacks in statistical prowess compared to Simmons, he makes up for in overall success. While the Sixers and Jazz will be fighting to simply make the playoffs and the Lakers will be looking towards the lottery, the Celtics will be involved in a heavyweight contest for the top seed in the East with Cleveland and Toronto. That may or may not carry a ton of weight for awards voters at season’s end, but Tatum’s response to being in those critical situation might. Tatum is averaging over 22 points per 36 minutes in “clutch” situations, or when the game is within five points in the last five minutes or overtime. He’s shooting over 70 percent from the field in those situations, and an unbelievable 80 percent from 3-point territory, while his net rating in such situations is +21, the highest net rating of any rookie this season. Tatum’s late-game effectiveness has been a large reason for his heavy involvement in Boston’s offense throughout the first half of the season.
Tatum’s success is spread across all 48 minutes, however. He’s already at 5 full win shares for the season, over two full wins more than Simmons and three more than Mitchell. The Celtics have been far better with Tatum on the floor, with the team rating over six points better per 100 possessions with the 19-year-old playing. Tatum’s accelerated development has helped Boston mask the loss of Gordon Hayward on opening night, and such will be the basis of Tatum’s case for Rookie of the Year. For Tatum to be able to steal the trophy from Simmons, the Celtics have to remain in contention for first place in the East, if not be running away with it. Tatum will also have to increase his assist totals and become more of a playmaker in the Celtics’ offense to improve his chances.
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
Mitchell is up against three players from three large-market teams, which might be the biggest impediment to his Rookie of the Year campaign. But every posterization Mitchell throws down helps to close that gap. His steady improvement over the first few months of the season has thrust Mitchell into the Rookie of the Year conversation as well as into the heart of the Jazz’ identity. Even after a paltry opening to the season, Mitchell’s stats have climbed to a line of 18-3-3, and his December averages of 23-3-4 would put him pretty well in line with rookie seasons of players like Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, and OJ Mayo. Mitchell could easily have ridden his strong Summer League performance through his rookie season without much criticism. Scoring 41 points at home versus the Pelicans has Jazz fans already clamoring for a statue.
Mitchell is already one of the most exciting players in the league, rookie or otherwise, and has the propensity to catch fire on any given night. The story of Mitchell arriving in Utah after former crowd-favorite Gordon Hayward’s departure is blatant, but Mitchell’s success extends beyond such stale storylines. In any normal year, Mitchell’s combination of highlight dunks and offensive showcases would have him running away with this award. This season, that won’t be enough. Mitchell’s best opportunity to win over enough voters would be to go on a late-season tear, a multi-week stretch of 30+ point games a la Linsanity that helps push the Jazz into the postseason. Jazz fans may not get the adulation of a Rookie of the Year winner, but having Mitchell under team control for at least the next seven years should quell most of those complaints.
Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers
NBA Rookie of the Year ballots feature three choices arranged into first, second, and third place. Basically, every voter this season will have to jip one of these four guys, and Kuzma may fall victim to such practices come voting time. Much like Mitchell, Kuzma could be running away with this award in any other season. Kuzma’s line of 17-6-1.5 is basically Keith Van Horn in his rookie year and isn’t too far off from players like Bob McAdoo, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and even Joel Embiid’s averages from last season. But the Lakers’ apparent decision to tank for this year’s draft will undoubtedly drag his campaign down, and with Simmons, Mitchell, and Tatum all competing for the Rookie of the Year award, playing on a 25-win team may be a deciding factor on a number of ballots. Kuzma’s chances may ultimately depend on if the Lakers decide to pursue anyone at the trade deadline. Whether Kuzma’s chances would be improved by the Lakers’ trajectory improving or by Kuzma switching teams, I’m not sure, but it’s tough to see Kuzma winning the award without some drastic change coming in the near future.