SALT LAKE CITY — There’s a debate underway surrounding the NBA Rookie of the Year Award, with the Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell and the 76ers’ Ben Simmons in the middle of it.
Both candidates present such compelling cases that the argument has really settled on one question: Is Simmons really a rookie?
Simmons, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft, missed all of his first (rookie) season with a foot injury. For this reason, the NBA considers him a rookie, and there is precedence for this. Blake Griffin won the award in 2010-11 after missing his first rookie) season with an injury.
But is this fair? Should rookies get a redshirt year?
Before we answer that, let’s digress. Simmons did not play for the 76ers last season, but he was part of the team. He traveled with the team. He watched film with the team. He observed practice. He trained with the team. He learned to be a professional by being around the team.
Even though he wasn’t on the court, he learned much about navigating the NBA off the court, if not on the court as well. The NBA thinks that learning to adjust to life in the big leagues is so important that each year the league holds a four-day rookie orientation camp. They discuss nutrition, media, the pitfalls of social media, finances, stress and the usual political correctness lectures.
"The NBA is tough enough as it is, but coming in without any guidance, coming in without understanding the resources that are readily available to you, coming in really just not having a lot of that important information, it’s like swimming against the tide," former player Purvis Short told USA Today.
It’s a big part of succeeding as an NBA player, and Simmons had a year to make the transition.
As Mitchell himself explained to ESPN: “So, let’s say you have an exam to take on June 1, and you have a whole year to study for that exam, you're going to get a pretty good grade on it, aren't you? But some people may not have all that time to prepare for that exam. So, that's how I look at it and I hope that puts it in perspective for people."
Mitchell had to adjust to life in the NBA on the fly while also playing an 82-game schedule, plus training camp and exhibition games. He didn’t have the luxury of time. Three months after he was finished with the college game he was employed by the NBA at the age of 20, and three months later he was in training camp, dealing with the pressure, notoriety, wealth and everything else that comes with it.
The decision on Simmons’ rookie status is about all that separates the two when it comes to their first season in the league. Simmons played in 81 games for a playoff-bound team, Mitchell 79 for a playoff-bound team. Simmons averaged 33.7 minutes per game, Mitchell 33.4. Simmons scored 15.8 points per game, Mitchell 20.5. Simmons shot 54.5 percent from the field, Mitchell 50.6 while taking 539 more shots than his rival from 3-point range.
Simmons made no 3-point shots in 11 attempts; Mitchell made an NBA rookie record of 187 in 550 attempts. Simmons made 56 percent of his free throws, Mitchell 80.5. The 6-foot-10 Simmons averaged 8.1 rebounds per game, the 6-4 Mitchell 3.7. Simmons averaged 1.7 steals and .9 blocks per game, Mitchell 1.5 and .3. Simmons averaged 3.4 turnovers per game, Mitchell 2.7.
Mitchell and Simmons have been selected as conference Rookie of the Month four times each — the last four months for Mitchell, the last three for Simmons.
In the last 14 games of the regular season, Simmons averaged 12.1 points per game, Mitchell 23.9. On the other hand, in the last 17 games Simmons reached double figures in rebounds 10 times and assists 11 times, marks that Mitchell didn’t achieve once all season.
Mitchell is a much better shooter than Simmons, as evidenced by the latter's awful free-throw shooting stats. Simmons is a much more productive rebounder and passer.
So who do you like?
Simmons, borrowing from the LeBron James self-promotion book, said he would vote for himself “100 percent.” He also noted that no other rookie has impressed him this season. A few days later, Mitchell showed up at the arena wearing a shirt that bore the definition of a rookie — “An athlete playing his or her first season as a member of a professional sports team.” Simmons’ rebuttal: “If his argument is I’m not a rookie, if that’s his only argument, I’m in pretty good shape.”
But others are also backing Mitchell’s argument, such as it is. Draymond Green said he would vote for Mitchell because he’s a true rookie. CBS reporter Brad Botkin agreed: “In the NBA, players are eligible for a contact extension after three years in the league. Simmons will be eligible for this extension after next season, which, if you're following here, means that the league, by at least one measure, feels Simmons has been an NBA player for two years already.”