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The Desperate Search for a Worthy NBA Rookie of the Year

After Joel Embiid’s season-ending injury, the ROY field has gotten mighty thin. Does anyone deserve the award this year?

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Technically, the NBA doesn’t have to give out a Rookie of the Year Award. There’s probably still time for the league to call up the person who makes its trophies and tell him/her it won’t need one for the rookies this year. Considering how difficult it must be to suspend an NBA logo in glass like this frozen Scooby-Doo caveman, canceling this year’s award could save the NBA hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dollars it could put toward rent, or a down payment on a new car.

Healthy Joel Embiid was the obvious front-runner for the trophy: Among rookies who have played at least five games, he leads in points per game, rebounds per game, blocks per game, and PER. His per-minute stats are off the charts: Among players who have played at least five games, he’s fourth in points per 36 minutes, behind just Russell Westbrook, Isaiah Thomas, and DeMarcus Cousins, and he leads in blocks per 36 minutes. He’s still second among all rookies in total points scored, despite playing just 31 games with minutes restrictions.

But now he’s done for the year, as an injury we were told in January was a sore knee that would keep him out a few days is now a torn meniscus that has ended his season. (This sort of thing has a history of happening with the Sixers, and with Embiid specifically.)

No Rookie of the Year winner has ever played fewer than 50 games in his debut season. But few seasons have been so devoid of quality performances by rookies. Embiid is averaging 20.2 points per game; no other rookie is averaging more than 12.

While it’s too early to say the 2016 draft was a bad one, the early returns have not been good, particularly from last year’s first-round crop. Last season, seven of the top 10 rookies in win shares were players drafted in the first 12 picks of the previous draft. In 2014, the top six rookies in win shares were all first-rounders. In 2013, eight of the top 10 were first-rounders. This season, none of the top eight rookies in win shares was drafted in the first round of last year’s draft. So, the few rookies who are actually playing well are not the players anybody expected to make a ROY-level impact.

So with Embiid out for the year, who wins the trophy? Let’s take a look at the options.

Dario Saric

Saric wasn’t expected to come over from Turkey this year, but he did, and he’s been pretty good! He’s second in the league to Embiid in points and rebounds per game amongst rookies. To recap: The best two rookies in this year’s class were both selected in the 2014 NBA draft.

Though our faith in the Process may waver as the team trades young talent and rings up another batch of injuries, the Sixers have still got Embiid, Saric, Ben Simmons, and either one or two high lottery picks to build from.

But Saric would still be a pretty bad Rookie of the Year. He’s averaging only 11.3 points per game, which would be the lowest total of any winner since Don “Monk” Meineke won it in 1952–53, the first year the trophy was awarded. Saric’s PPG will likely increase with Embiid out. If Saric looks like a starting-caliber player for the rest of the year, he’s probably the ROY.

Malcolm Brogdon

The Bucks weren’t counting on anything spectacular out of Brogdon, a then-23-year-old out of college basketball’s vortex of boring, the University of Virginia — maybe a reasonably developed player who could fill in for Matthew Dellavedova without losing much.

Brogdon’s been so much more than that: He’s shooting 42.3 percent from 3, about two percentage points higher than Steph Curry, and he’s dunking on everybody. He got LeBron and Kyrie in the same game, and if any Sixers fans are reading this post to see what I said about Saric, maybe this can make you feel better about losing Nerlens Noel:

But it would still be mighty weird for Brogdon to be Rookie of the Year. He’s averaging 9.8 points per game right now, so if he wins he’d be the first ROY to average under 10 points a game. And, as the 36th pick in the draft, he’d be the first ROY not taken in the top 18 since eighth-round pick Woody Sauldsberry in 1957–58. (Back then, they just kept picking players until teams wanted to stop: The St. Louis Hawks had the only picks in the 13th and 14th rounds in that draft, but nobody taken past the ninth ever made the league.) In fact, the Rookie of the Year has been taken in the top 10 of the draft every year since 1990 with the exception of 2014, when it was Michael Carter-Williams. A Brogdon win would be an indictment of every team that picked in the first round.

Marquese Chriss

Chriss is one of only a few rookies who has started most of the season — only Domantas Sabonis has more starts. With the Suns’ season more or less over, they’ll be giving Chriss plenty of run: Kevin O’Connor says he’s one of the 15 most important players in the Western Conference for the rest of the season. But as of right now, Chriss is averaging only 7.9 points per game. He busted out 27 in February against the Bucks, so he has the potential to bump that average up to a number that could put him into ROY contention.

Yogi Ferrell?!?!?!

Did you know that Rookie of the Year is actually short for “Rookie Who Had the Best Game of Any Rookie of the Year?” It’s not, but if it was, Ferrell would be the easy winner thanks to the 32-point, nine-3 performance that earned him a starting gig after he came to the Mavs on a 10-day contract. But even if he plays the rest of the year, he’ll still have played only 36 games for the Mavs, and he hasn’t been as good as Embiid was in his 31, so I’ve run out of actual serious contenders.

Jamal Murray

Murray hit nine 3s in the NBA Rising Stars Challenge, earning MVP of the game. So, doesn’t that already make him kinda the MVP of all rookies? Which is basically the Rookie of the Year? Look, I’m trying here.

Buddy Hield

If you ask Vivek Ranadivé, Hield is as good as DeMarcus Cousins and/or Steph Curry, both of whom would easily win Rookie of the Year if they were rookies this year. Ranadivé is very rich and could hypothetically pay off all the Rookie of the Year voters to make his investment in Hield look worthwhile. Hield’s scored in double digits in three of four games since coming to Sacramento, which is actually sort of impressive for these rookies.

Joel Embiid

It would be a break from tradition to give the Rookie of the Year to somebody who played in so few games. It would also be a break from tradition to give the Rookie of the Year Award to players as unimpressive as the non-Embiid crop.

But at least Embiid did something spectacular in his 31 games, which seems more important than the players who broached mediocrity over the course of 82. Embiid was the best rookie this year, even if all that goodness was smushed into a tiny amount of time.

Embiid’s lower body has betrayed him in each of his three years in the NBA, which makes me fret about his future. In his first three seasons, he’s played far fewer games than Greg Oden, the poster boy for heavily injured young centers. But no matter what happens, we know from his 31 games this year that Embiid is capable of spectacular play when all of his bones, tendons, and ligaments are intact. We should give him this trophy, since we don’t know what his body will take from him.