Justin Norris | Staff Writer
The rookie class that has headlined the 2017-18 NBA season is one of the deepest classes in recent memory. Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Kyle Kuzma, Lauri Markkanen, Lonzo Ball, Dennis Smith Jr. and others have all given their respective franchises hope about being potential cornerstones for years to come.
Despite the number of rookies having strong inaugural seasons, the race for the Rookie of the Year award has virtually been cut down to two. These men are Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz and Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers.
These two rookies have been the catalysts behind their teams reaching the playoffs in dominating fashion. After Gordon Hayward’s departure in free agency last summer, the Jazz were not expected to compete for a playoff spot in the highly competitive Western Conference. However, Mitchell stepped into Hayward’s role on offense and led the Jazz in scoring at 20.5 points per game. A rookie has not led a playoff team in scoring since 2004, when Carmelo Anthony accomplished that feat. Mitchell’s emergence as the go-to option for Utah inspired its turnaround from a non-contender to a team that nobody wants to play in the playoffs.
Ben Simmons has enjoyed one of the best all-around seasons the NBA has seen from a rookie in a long time. Simmons’ averages of 15.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 8.1 assists per game put him in the same class as his close friend and mentor LeBron James. Like James, Simmons has been blessed with the physique of a power forward with the speed and ball skills of a point guard, making him a matchup nightmare for opponents. ESPN writer Kevin Pelton went as far as to pose the question of “whether there has ever been a rookie — including LeBron James — as versatile as Simmons.”
Despite having an almost non-existent jump shot, he has helped lead the 76ers to the third seed in the Eastern Conference by using his overwhelming size and athleticism to create easy shots for himself and his teammates. On the defensive side of the ball, Simmons is constantly wreaking havoc, which often results in turnovers for the opposing team. Despite Joel Embiid being sidelined with a facial fracture, Simmons and the 76ers remained one of the hottest teams in the NBA by riding a 16-game winning streak into the playoffs.
The drama around the two primary candidates has increased over the past week. Mitchell sparked the debate by wearing a black hoodie with the definition of the word “rookie” on it. The definition read “an athlete playing his or her first season as a member of a professional sports team.” Mitchell’s argument is that because Simmons sat out his first season with a broken right foot last year, so he should not win Rookie of the Year.
On the opposite side, Simmons did not play at all last season, so he is still technically eligible for the award. This uncommon situation has precedent. In 2011, Blake Griffin unanimously won Rookie of the Year over John Wall despite being drafted in 2009 because he sat out the entire 2010 season with a broken kneecap.
With that being said, both rookies have had outstanding rookie seasons and exceeded even their loftiest expectations. In most seasons, Mitchell would have run away with the award. However, Simmons’ versatility and impact on both sides of the floor as a 6 foot 10 full time point guard is too much to ignore.