For most NBA fans, the exciting part of the season is thinking about which contenders will go head-to-head once the postseason starts.
The NBA is a star-studded league and the brightest and most entertaining future stars are often ones leading their teams deep into the postseason to compete for the championship. Not every franchise’s outlook can be optimistic heading into a season. Many fans turn their attention toward the younger players when their team is expected to be uncompetitive.
With the cynical nature of the NBA’s power structure and the way the draft lottery is set up, bad teams are usually presented with a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a top draft pick. The top draftees represent the chance for a franchise to draft the next big thing and the future superstar who will one day lead a currently bad team to the promised land.
Usually that future is a few years down the road so expectations for first-year players are often confined to the Rookie of the Year race. These players will not reach their full potential in the first year, but watching the rookies find their footing is always an intriguing part of any NBA season.
Heading into the 2017-18 NBA playoffs, a crowded Rookie of the Year race takes center stage.
One rookie who has taken over for a team in desperate need of a scorer and playmaker to the point that some believe he is the current favorite to win the award is Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz. His winning performance at the 2018 Slam Dunk Contest certainly did not hurt his chances.
Mitchell grabbed back-to-back Rookie of the Month awards in the Western Conference while leading all rookies in points with 19.6 per game. That average comes with a 16.80 player efficiency rating which is sixth among qualified rookies, and Mitchell’s usage rate of 29.0 is 19th in the league right behind Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Anthony Davis.
What makes Mitchell’s rookie year so impressive is that he has become the primary scorer for the Jazz team that is competing for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Losing Gordon Hayward in the offseason left the Jazz without a source for offensive creation, but Mitchell has somehow filled that void in his first season. He was a highly rated prospect but no one could have predicted the numbers he has put up.
The frontrunner is Ben Simmons from the Philadelphia 76ers. Simmons is having a rookie season for the ages, The 6-10 point guard out of LSU has drawn comparisons to Magic Johnson not only for the similarities in size and mobility but also for his court vision.
Simmons is averaging 7.7 rebounds, 7.4 assists and 1.8 steals in 34 minutes per game, leading all rookies in those categories. He is also second in points per game (16.7) and third in player efficiency rating (19.16). What makes his rookie season so incredible is immense success with an old-school style.
Simmons’ outside game is nonexistent. He has not made a three-pointer this year on 10 attempts and is shooting 56.9 percent from the free throw line. Teams dare him to shoot from the outside, but he continues to consistently get to the basket and shoot 53.3 percent from the field.
I can’t forget about Jayson Tatum from the Boston Celtics. His numbers don’t necessarily jump off the page. He is averaging 13.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game. Both Simmons and Mitchell have more eye-popping stats, but their roles require them to produce where Tatum doesn’t. Tatum has started all games and is a valuable contributor as they compete for a championship.
Honorable mention is Kyle Kuzma, the rookie who has come out of nowhere. The 27th overall pick was an after thought when the Los Angeles Lakers drafted him. But Kuzma has overshadowed the second overall pick, Lonzo Ball, while becoming a go-to scorer.
He spent more time in college, developed himself and contributed out the gate, averaging 15.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game. He’s definitely been impressive.
Shaquita Newton is a sports blogger. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.