NBA Rookie of the Year Ladder: Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell Continue Their Epic Battle
All Rookie of the Year odds come via BetFair. Please be extra mindful of checking these lines before deciding on or placing a wager. The numbers will move with each passing game since the season is drawing to a close. Some sportsbooks will soon stop offering Rookie of the Year bets as a result. If you want to check out February’s edition of the NBA ladder, you can do that here.
3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics (+190)
Jayson Tatum isn’t afforded the same freedoms and general on-court liberties of his Rookie of the Year peers. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford control a lot of the offense when they’re on the floor, and while only Irving really tops him in the pecking order, Tatum has become dependent on passes coming from his veteran teammates.
That sort of kills the anecdotal side of his argument. So many consider him to be a product of the Celtics’ system and depth. That’s probably true to some extent. He’s shooting over 43 percent from beyond the arc, a ridiculous mark for a newbie, and he ranks as one of the NBA’s most efficient players in transition.
But Irving’s recent knee injury has taught us a lot more about Tatum’s potential. He will one day be that go-to guy. There are times even now when he can carry that type of burden over a smaller period. The Celtics have tested him out as the primary ball-handler during Irving’s absences, and head coach Brad Stevens remains unafraid to have him lead bency-heavy units.
Though sturdy defensive stands tend to be the identity for those lineups, Tatum puts in work on the offensive side. He’s averaging 18.2 points and 2.6 assists per 36 minutes while shooting 46 percent overall and 46.3 percent from downtown in the time he’s played without both Horford and Irving in the game. His trips to the free-throw line have skyrocketed during these stretches as well.
So yes, we can still ticket Tatum for stardom. He just hasn’t quite created enough of a season-long buzz or shouldered enough responsibility to overtake the peers in front of him.
2. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz (+100)
Donovan Mitchell advocates are growing in overwhelming number. And it’s not hard to see why.
Mitchell has effectively become the No. 1 option for a playoff team, which is essentially unheard of when talking specifically about a rookie. He has one of the highest usage rates ever among first-year players and is a big part of why Utah has been, perhaps, the NBA’s hottest squad since the middle of January.
Still, putting him in the first-place spot reads too much into a more focused picture of success. He didn’t get the green-light nod until a few weeks into the season. Ben Simmons has been carrying a lifeline’s burden all year.
Plus, even though Mitchell has been wildly impressive at the offensive end. he appears to have hit something of a rookie wall. He’s shooting under 41 percent overall and just north of 30 percent through his last 24 appearances. And while he’s an extremely valuable offensive player anyway, particularly for a Jazz contingent continuously light on face-up explosion, he’s not an especially transcendent passer right now.
Rookie of the Year awards are, indeed, more about measuring the season in progress. But they’re also about identifying the next potential megastar—the most likely one anyway. Mitchell could be that guy. But without that raw assist volume, he’ll forever trail the man in front.
Think of it like comparing Dwyane Wade to LeBron James. Both are great stars—some of the best to ever play the game. But there’s really no comparison. LeBron is better. Much better. You kind of get the feeling it’ll be that way between Mitchell and Simmons as they get deeper into their careers.
1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (-650)
The biggest knock against Ben Simmons—one specifically favored by Donovan Mitchell supporters—continues to lean on the Philadelphia 76ers’ performance whenever he plays without Joel Embiid. That’s not entirely unfounded.
It is, however, wildly outdated.
In the 1,000-plus minutes Simmons has played without Embiid, the Sixers are being outscored by 0.6 points per 100 possessions. That’s…not bad. Tell any team they could play their opponents to a borderline stalemate with their best player off the floor and a rookie running the show, and they’d take it in a hearbeat.
What’s more: The Sixers haven’t even had to deal with that dilemma in recent weeks. Since Feb. 1, they’re pummeling enemy teams by 9.7 points per 100 possessions when Simmons goes it alone. That’s akin to having the best net rating in the league.
And to be clear, we’re not working with a small sample size. Embiid is dealing with his own injury right now—an orbital fracture of the eye that required surgery. Simmons has played almost as many minutes without him as he has with him during this span.
Mitchell deserves all the credit in the world. He’s shattered expectations. But so has Simmons. The voting process will be close, because certain people are seduced by anecdotal build-ups and takedowns. Mitchell has benefitted from both.
In reality, though, this is no longer an exhaustive conversation. Mitchell—and to a lesser extent Tatum—have made this race interesting, but Simmons should still be considered the likely, if inevitable, choice among the majority.
He also just so happens to be the correct one.
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