“With [Joel] Embiid on the court, [Ben] Simmons shoots 60.9 percent from the floor and turns the ball over on just 10.4 percent of his possessions. With Embiid on the bench, Simmons shoots just 47.5 percent from the floor and turns it over on an astounding 16.0 percent of his possessions.”
That statistical nugget, from The Athletic’s Derek Bodner, reminded me of a topic I’ve been meaning to explore: who should be the leader in the Rookie of the Year race? These numbers suggest that Simmons, the preseason favorite on NBA betting sportsbooks like 888sport, has lived up to the expectations of a #1 overall pick. But he might be benefiting from having a star teammate on offense while Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell continues to build a comparable resume on his own. To get a better idea of an answer, let’s break it down over three categories and see how they compare with three weeks left in the regular season.
Situation: Donovan Mitchell Takes The Lead
Some argue Simmons shouldn’t be considered eligible for this award since he was a part of the 2016 draft and had the benefit of being around the NBA environment for a year after missing all of last season with a broken foot. That didn’t stop voters from choosing Blake Griffin as a ROY under the same circumstances, though, and the fact that Simmons has been able to bounce back from injury to post such a strong season is admirable in itself.
He has had to completely run the offense as a 21 year old “point guard” due to this year’s #1 pick, Markelle Fultz, only playing a total of 76 minutes so far. I put that position in quotation marks since the 6’10”, 230 pound playmaker adds a unique element to any lineup and started the season as something of a point forward next to combo guard Jerryd Bayless and shooting guard J.J. Redick, with the former’s lack of availability and effectiveness limiting him to just 11 starts and 39 games, furthering the load on Simmons. However, playing with an All-Star center like Embiid has drawn defenses’ main focus away from the rookie, as Bodner’s piece pointed out, and the big man carries a 33.6% usage rate compared to Simmons’ 22.5%.
Mitchell, on the other hand, has to use 28.8% of his team’s possessions and leads them in scoring by a strong margin. The 13th pick in this past draft is also 21 and has taken on a much larger load on offense than anyone would have expected after being known as more of a defensive prospect. Filling the void left after All-Star Gordon Hayward departed in free agency, he took hold of the starting shooting guard spot after an early season battle with the incumbent Rodney Hood, who was made expendable via trade. He has even filled in at point guard for Ricky Rubio on four occasions, with three wins in those games displaying just how much of the offense is run through him anyway. He does have an All-NBA teammate at center, as well, but Rudy Gobert makes more of an impact on the defensive end and has missed 26 games. Considering these elements, I give the edge here to Mitchell for impressing more in his situation.
Production: Ben Simmons Evens The Score
Basketball-Reference.com’s player comparison tool provides a helpful snapshot of their stats head to head. Let’s dig a bit.
With the minutes comparable, you can see that Mitchell shoots more often at a less efficient rate to score about four more points per game, and although launching seven 3’s a game helps provide much-needed spacing, his outside shot has gone cold of late (26.7% in March), bringing him below the league average. Simmons obviously needs to improve his shooting, but he does draw slightly more fouls and is such a deadly finisher at the rim (74.3%) that he’s still a respectable scoring threat. While he does turn the ball over more often, Simmons has more than double the rebounds, assists, and blocks to give him the advantage even before considering the advanced stats that are also all in his favor.
It’s not surprising to see that Simmons rebounds like a forward, but his lead in other defensive categories is perhaps the most interesting development of his debut campaign. Replacing Bayless in the lineup with breakout forward Dario Saric’s versatility has led to Simmons often defending opposing guards in a lineup that has a lot of switchability, adding to his value.
Team Success: Big Ben For The Win
While a lot of factors affect how their teams are doing, contributing to a winning season should count for something, and just a half game separates the 41-30 76ers and the 41-31 Jazz with both teams currently in the playoffs as of this writing.
Digging deeper into their influence on games, though, Philadelphia has a 108.7 offensive rating and 102.0 defensive rating with Simmons on the floor compared to 102.1 and 105.2 with him off, per NBA.com. It’s hard to suss out how much of that is directly due to playing 1,261 of his 2,401 minutes with Embiid versus them just complimenting each other well (Embiid without Simmons is in the positive but not by much), but that 9.8 difference in net rating is staggering nonetheless. Mitchell’s on/off splits aren’t quite as drastic with 106.5 and 101.4 ratings when he plays compared to 103.5 and 102.7 otherwise, a 4.3 difference in net rating. The impact of sharing the floor with Gobert is also notable in half of his minutes, especially on the defensive end, so it would seem that both candidates’ plus/minus are benefiting a bit from their star centers.
The difference is that during Simmons’ minutes overall, the 76ers go from the equivalent of the #27 offense and #12 defense to #7 and #4, respectively. The Jazz without Mitchell also fall to the bottom five in offense while maintaining a top four rank on defense, but they only jump to #14 and #2 with him on the floor. Thus, Simmons should be the favorite for the award. The way Mitchell provides scoring for a team in need of it is commendable, but Simmons is a transcendent talent with more impressive individual production while also notably impacting team success. That’s what I’m looking for in the Rookie of the Year.
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