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What Does Winning Rookie of the Year Really Mean?

It might not be a poisoned chalice, but winning the award comes with baggage. With Luka Doncic putting distance between himself and the field this year, here’s a look back on past ROY winners and how winning the award helped and hurt them.

Michael Carter-Williams, Donovan Mitchell, Ben Simmons, and Luka Doncic Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s no secret that Magic Johnson has always liked point guards, but one evening he was so smitten with a particular player that he made a public prediction. This was back in late October 2013. The NBA season had barely begun, and Johnson had seen only one game—but that was all he needed to see.

In retrospect, that tweet seems silly, but it was also prescient. Michael Carter-Williams did indeed win Rookie of the Year that season, but since then we’ve been disabused of the notion that the award portended sustained success for MCW. Since winning ROY, Carter-Williams’s career has been in sharp decline; last week, the Rockets traded him to the Bulls, who promptly cut him rather than guaranteeing the remainder of his (relatively) paltry $1.76 million salary for the rest of the season.

More than five years removed from Magic’s endorsement, it might be hard for some people to reconcile the Carter-Williams of today with the one who inspired so much enthusiasm back then. I covered that first game, and in Johnson’s defense, he wasn’t the only one who was blown away by MCW’s debut. I remember marveling at the box score and texting my friends that the Sixers might have stumbled onto something with their rookie point guard, whom they selected 11th overall. That night, in an unlikely win over LeBron James and the Miami Heat, Carter-Williams was spectacular. He had 22 points, 12 assists, nine steals, and seven rebounds. More impressive still: He showed none of the shooting struggles that later derailed his career. MCW went 6-for-10 from the floor that evening, including 4-for-6 from 3, and hit six of his eight free throws. According to Basketball-Reference, his game score was 34.7. By that metric, it was the best debut in NBA history—not by a little, by a lot. After MCW, the highest first-game game score was Lamar Odom (25.1 in 1999), followed by LeBron (24.7 in 2003). Some other notable names on that list include Allen Iverson (22.3 in 1996), Blake Griffin (20.6 in 2010), and Magic Johnson himself (20.1 in 1979).

That season, Carter-Williams played 70 games and averaged 34.5 minutes, 16.7 points, 6.3 assists, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.9 steals. He was named Rookie of the Month in November, January, March, and April, and the gaudy counting stats carried him to an an easy win in the Rookie of the Year voting. MCW beat out Victor Oladipo (who finished second), Tim Hardaway Jr. (fifth), and Steven Adams and Giannis Antetokounmpo (who tied for seventh), among others. But while his contemporaries got better, MCW’s game regressed. To borrow from Bossman Bill, he was the very definition of a good-stats/bad-team guy. His shooting, in particular, never developed. That was a big concern for him coming out of college. After the Sixers drafted him, I specifically asked then–Sixers president Sam Hinkie about Carter-Williams’s marksmanship (or lack thereof). Hinkie said it could be improved by MCW spending “lots of time” in the gym.

It never worked out that way; through 303 career games, MCW is shooting 40.2 percent from the floor, 25.4 percent from 3 (on 1.8 attempts per game), and 70.1 percent from the line (on 3.3 attempts). That works out to an unsightly 47.1 TS percentage. In a league that has placed ever-increasing emphasis on long-range shooting and spacing, his struggles from deep ultimately doomed him. Not even a year after winning ROY, the Sixers shipped MCW to Milwaukee as part of a three-team trade that netted Philadelphia a future Lakers first-round pick in return. (It finally conveyed in 2018 when the Sixers took Mikal Bridges before trading him to the Suns.) Not long after that move, as part of my job in a former life, I was on a TV show for NBC Sports Philly along with Charles Barkley. Not surprisingly, Barkley was incredulous that the Sixers would trade the Rookie of the Year for an unknown commodity down the line. Barkley didn’t understand why I defended the trade. My position was pretty simple: MCW couldn’t shoot, and I wasn’t optimistic that would change. Barkley thought that was ridiculous. It was perfectly on-brand with his anti-jump-shooting stance of the day, though he’s since softened his position on that front.

Since then, MCW’s perceived value has continued to dip. In October 2016, 20 months after acquiring him, the Bucks traded Carter-Williams to Chicago for Tony Snell. In July 2017, MCW signed with the Hornets. Then, last offseason, Carter-Williams landed with the Rockets on a one-year minimum salary, which seemed like a curious fit for both sides considering how Houston loves to launch 3s and MCW does not. It wasn’t surprising, then, that Daryl Morey pulled the plug on that experiment, though it said quite a bit about how far Carter-Williams has fallen that the Rockets chose to save themselves $2.6 million in luxury-tax payments rather than guaranteeing the former Rookie of the Year’s salary and keep him in the fold. According to Adrian Wojnarowski, Houston even paid the Bulls $1 million to pull off the maneuver.

Carter-Williams is currently searching for another opportunity to prove himself. I hope he finds it. I always enjoyed talking to him in Philly. (Through a representative, MCW declined to speak with me for this story while he’s still figuring out what comes next.) I’ve watched his career closely for lots of reasons, but lately I’ve wondered whether it might have been different, maybe even easier for him, if he didn’t have to haul around the added expectations that come with winning Rookie of the Year.

We tend to think of the award not just as a stamp of approval of present-day ability, but also as a signal of success yet to come. Accordingly, Carter-Williams is held up as an outlier—someone who won in a down year for the award against a field of not-too-stiff competition. Except the more I talked to people around the league and the more I looked at the voting over the last decade or so, the more I think we (or maybe just I) overvalue the award. MCW is an extreme example, but I’m not sure the Rookie of the Year award tells us as much about a player—or his future—as we might believe.

Ben Simmons was about to play Utah, and he was clearly annoyed. It was notable because he doesn’t often put his emotions on public display. After the Sixers drafted him, I asked someone in the organization about Simmons’s personality, and the person told me he was so even-keeled you’d “have to put a mirror under his nose to see if he’s breathing.” But in late December 2018, Simmons was as close to fuming as we’re likely to witness.

The Sixers were set to the play the Utah Jazz for the second time since Simmons beat out Donovan Mitchell for Rookie of the Year. As rivalries go, those two have a weird one. Last April, Mitchell wore a sweatshirt that questioned Simmons’s rookie status. Simmons was not amused.

Simmons wasn’t thrilled when the topic was broached last month, either. When asked by a reporter about last year’s ROY race, Simmons replied, “It wasn’t a [expletive] race. You saw the votes, right? … Did you see the votes? So what’s the question?” That’s the quote as it appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune. I wasn’t there, but I have some ideas about which expletive he picked. The best part about the whole exchange was that it gave Jimmy Butler some excellent ball-busting material.

Simmons came off as a bit huffy about the whole thing, but he wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t a race. On the 101 recorded ballots, Simmons received 90 first-place votes; Mitchell just 11. On the points system, Simmons won 481 to 323. I’m still not sure why he was so aggravated by the question though.

When I asked around the league about how the award is perceived and what kind of importance it actually carries, various executives provided different takes. One exec said it holds a certain prestige among players (“Guys notice. It’s a dick-measuring thing.”), while another mentioned the marketing and monetary benefits (“It’s good for bonuses and branding”). There’s truth to all of that, and judging by the attention paid to this year’s rookie class, Luka Doncic is well positioned to capitalize on those perks.

Doncic isn’t just the runaway favorite to win Rookie of the Year; he’s the inspiration for what has become (I’m assuming) an international chart-topping song and one of the leading vote-getters for the All-Star Game. In the latest returns, Doncic had more Western Conference votes than Steph Curry, James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Anthony Davis. In fact, Doncic had more votes than everyone in the entire league, save LeBron, Giannis, and Kyrie. If he makes it, Doncic would join a select group of rookies to be named All-Stars. This century, only Blake Griffin and Yao Ming have managed it, and the rest of the lottery-era players to do it are awfully good company to keep. As my colleague Jason Concepcion put it, “Luka has reached ‘He’s just 19’–level good.”

But while everyone loves Luka, and while he appears certain to win Rookie of the Year, he’s not necessarily destined for greatness. In a recent piece for The Ringer, Zach Kram outlined the five best player comparisons for everyone selected in the 2018 lottery. As he is wont to do, Kram relied heavily on formulas and graphs and math for his methodology, which he explains better in his story than I ever could. Before reading the piece, and given all the hype around Luka, I was certain his top-five comps would be LeBron’s name listed three times and Michael Jordan’s twice. Which is why I was surprised that his comps were, in order, Tyreke Evans, Brandon Roy, Steve Francis, Damian Lillard, and—avert your eyes, Mavs fans—Carmelo Anthony. That is … something. (Somewhere, Stevie Franchise fist-pumps and screams “Vindication!” to no one in particular.)

Doncic could certainly end up being better than all of those comps. He might be a transformative player who gets better as he gets older and is hailed as the top talent in his draft class when all their careers are over. Or he could win ROY, only to have someone (or several someones) he beat out eventually surpass him in terms of stats and public perception. It happens. To that end, one longtime league exec framed the ROY in an interesting way. The source told me the award is sort of like those old high school yearbook senior superlatives. They’re far closer to a snapshot of the moment than a window into the future. “How often,” I was asked, “does the ‘most likely to succeed’ end up doing so?”

With apologies to Malcolm Brogdon, who won the 2016-17 ROY, I don’t like his chances of having a better career than Joel Embiid, who finished third that season—or even Jamal Murray (tied for fifth) or Jaylen Brown (tied for eighth). Andrew Wiggins won easily in 2014-15 against a fairly weak field (Nikola Mirotic finished second, followed by Nerlens Noel, Elfrid Payton, Marcus Smart, and Jusuf Nurkic), but Wiggins has hardly looked worthy of his max-money deal since signing that contract. Not to mention that his draft class also included players who didn’t crack the ROY voting but are almost certainly more coveted today than Wiggins: Aaron Gordon, Julius Randle, Zach LaVine, Gary Harris, Clint Capela, and Spencer Dinwiddie among them. And in 2009-10, Tyreke Evans won a fairly close race with 67 first-place votes—over Steph Curry, who got 43.

In fairness to MCW, Wiggins, Evans, and others, there’s so much that’s out of their control when it comes to succeeding or failing over the course of a career. Nurture is every bit as important as nature when it comes to sustained development. The right situation can buoy a player just as the wrong one could potentially sink him at any moment. MCW didn’t ask to become another experiment in the maddest science lab in league history. Wiggins didn’t ask to be coached by the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket during a critical time in his maturation. Evans didn’t ask to be stranded in the land of the lost, not to mention all the injuries he had to overcome to fight for his NBA survival. With a little luck and different circumstances, their trajectories might have been altered—which is yet another reason to pump the brakes on the runaway enthusiasm that comes with winning Rookie of the Year.

Even in years when the voters seemingly got it right, the award still frequently fails as a predictive model for growth. Kyrie Irving won a crowded contest in 2011-12. That same year, Kawhi Leonard finished a distant fourth—behind Ricky Rubio and Kenneth Faried. Klay Thompson was sixth; he got beat out for fifth by Iman Shumpert. Meanwhile, Kemba Walker finished behind Isaiah Thomas, Brandon Knight, Chandler Parsons, and MarShon (not Dillon) Brooks, coming in 11th.

Damian Lillard won the award the next season. He earned it, and I wouldn’t take Bradley Beal over him then or now. Same goes for Andre Drummond, who finished fourth, and Dion Waiters, who came in fifth. I’d probably have to at least think about that season’s second-place finisher, though: Anthony Davis.

The point here isn’t that the Rookie of the Year award is useless. As previously mentioned, it comes with certain tangible and intangible benefits. But I do think we tend to overvalue the award in the moment. I hate to write this in a space where my Philly friends and family might read it, but it’s probably too soon to call who will have the better career out of the Simmons–Mitchell–Jayson Tatum 2017-18 ROY win-place-show grouping. What if Simmons, like MCW before him, never develops a jump shot? Simmons is a much more talented player than Carter-Williams in every possible way, but if Big Ben struggles to extend his range, there’s a universe where Tatum or Mitchell would overtake him if they continue to improve and add things to their games.

Same goes for the 2015-16 race. Karl-Anthony Towns won that season. He was a monster in a pre–Tom Thibodeau world, and it looks like he is once more in his new post-Thibs existence. But there is still a conversation to be had about how his career will measure up when compared with Kristaps Porzingis’s (who finished second) and Nikola Jokic’s (third). (I can feel the fury of all seven Phoenix Suns fans for not including Devin Booker there; he finished fourth.)

Maybe we simply ought to think about the Rookie of the Year award for what it is: a nice honor in the moment that’s not always a good indication of the true alpha(s) in a given peer group over the long term. Maybe when attempting to determine the top-tier talent in any given class, we need the kind of perspective that only time can afford. And to do that, we probably need a little of what MCW said he needed a couple of months ago when trying to get his career back on track: “some patience.”