Let’s be honest: Donovan Mitchell has been amazing this season. He truly has. At various points over the past few months, I have watched the Utah Jazz and been amazed with their rookie point guard's play. The most pressing recollection that ignites my mind, occurred when the Jazz visited San Antonio in late March.
Over the first three quarters, Mitchell was a circumspect 8 of 22 from the field for his 19 points, before exploding in the fourth. He poured in 14 points in the final term, of a pivotal game with severe playoff implications. There were a flurry of jaw-dropping jumpers that left me yelling “Kobe!” from my living room. Mitchell’s heroics dragged Utah back from the brink, and were punctuated with a 26-foot, three pointer with 3.6 seconds left to send the game into overtime.
While Utah ultimately lost this game in overtime, the story arc witnessed on an autumn night in Texas perfectly represents how Mitchell has helped Utah catapult right up the Western conference. After a dire struggle through the first half of this season, the guard has powered a Jazz team that has since turned into the NBA’s best post All-Star storyline.
Mitchell is fantastic. He’s been pivotal to Utah’s success, and in virtually any other year, he would be the sure-fire Rookie of the Year. But this isn’t your regular NBA season, and Ben Simmons is not your average rookie.
Simmons is the NBA Rookie of the Year. With upmost apologies to Mitchell and the army of Utah Jazz fans holding pitchforks on the internet, Simmons is clearly the NBA’s best rookie. In fact, the Australian is the Usain Bolt of rookies; his impact is unmatched and his rookie campaign is unimpeachable. Once again, this is in no way an indictment of Mitchell, everything he has achieved and what to expect over the coming years. Just like his most recent visit to San Antonio, Mitchell’s greatness, however eye-catching it may be, is not enough. Simmons has simply had a better season than his Jazz counterpart.
But is Simmons a rookie?
By NBA rules, Simmons is a rookie. That is where this discussion should end. Barroom debates over Mitchell being the ‘pure’ rookie, or Twitter threads lessening Simmons’ value because he spent last season under an NBA care and maintenance program are interesting. They are legitimately fascinating discussions points within a nonstop NBA news cycle, yet for the purposes of this discussion, they are irrelevant.
Anyone who trumpets this argument is cheating the system to finagle a result that suits his or her agenda. Yes, Mitchell is clearly the best-performing player from his draft class. And yes, like Blake Griffin and Joel Embiid before him, Simmons intuitively benefited from a redshirt season. Both facts are interesting topics that drive wider league discussion, but they do not contribute to this debate.
Simmons versus the record books
Simmons’ maiden NBA campaign has been historical and is quite literally, an assault on the record books. The 6’10” Melbourne native has put forth one of the greatest rookie seasons in NBA history. Here are just a few (of many) statistical measures that justify Simmons’ standing, as one of the best rookies basketball has ever seen.
Oscar Robertson is the only rookie in NBA history to average at least 15 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists. Even if you take scoring out of the equation, no one besides Robertson has even averaged 8 rebounds and 8 assists as a rookie.
Remove the rookie moniker, and Simmons’ stat line looks even more remarkable. Here is a full list of players to ever average 15, 8, and 8 during a single regular season: Robertson, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. If the NBA kept a VIP list, these seven names would be near the very top. Simmons is in illustrious company.
Let's move on to stature. Simmons, who stands at 6'10", is the tallest rookie who's averaged at least 5 assists per game; he's averaging 8.2 right now.
In fact, Magic is the only other rookie, standing at 6’7” or taller, to average at least 7 assists. Chamberlain is the only other person in NBA history, standing at 6’10” or taller, who average 7 assists per game for an entire season.
It has been 50 years since Chamberlain achieved the feat. Let that sink in for a moment. Such a passing display, from someone of Simmons’ size, hasn’t been seen in half a century. His season is a historical outlier, not just for rookies, but for NBA history.
When it comes to triple doubles, Simmons has quickly joined Westbrook as the NBA’s most diverse stat sheet stuffer. Here are three astonishing factoids in the wake of Simmons’ triple double barrage:
Simmons’ 12 triple doubles are the most by an NBA rookie during the three-point era (since 1979).
Only 11 players have ever recorded 12 triple doubles in a single season.
After just 80 NBA games, Simmons is now eighth among active players for triple doubles.
Triple-doubles aren’t anywhere as impactful as the mainstream narrative suggests - Westbrook’s blatant stat chasing has made the metric somewhat immaterial, well for me anyway – but they still remains a simplistic way of showing impact across a number of categories. The ease at which Simmons racks them up is striking.
Simmons has put forth a season that would be astonishing for a five-year NBA veteran. He just happens to be doing it as a rookie.
What about Mitchell?
There are a flurry of scoring metrics that can be used to boost Mitchell’s campaign. When you really dig into the numbers, however, Mitchell’s performance isn’t quite the historical outlier many will want you to believe.
For instance, Mitchell is the first rookie guard since Jordan to average 20 points per game, with an effective field goal percentage of 50% or greater. That instinctively sounds impressive. Any rookie being compared with His Airness is an impressive feat, although the comparison is extremely unjust to players of a bygone era.
Comparing effective field goal percentage from a player in 2018 to a player in 1984 is completely nonsensical; the game has changed dramatically. 76 guards have an effective field goal percentage of at least 50% this season, per Basketball Reference. In 1984, only 25 guards met this threshold. The ‘average’ shooter these days is much more proficient than their counterparts decades ago.
Mitchell is a product of his generation. His shooting splits are boosted because he is taking the most effective shots the sport has ever seen. This represents basketball intelligence on his part, but simply performing to the latest industry standards isn’t some gaudy historical accomplishment.
For what it’s worth, Jordan shot 51% from the field as a rookie, taking only 52 of his 1625 attempts from beyond the arc. Mitchell (with one game remaining) has converted on 44% of his field goal attempts, while taking 550 of his 1362 attempts from three.
Does scoring equal winning?
Mitchell is one of 47 rookies to ever average 20 points per game, per Basketball-Reference. Of this bunch, Mitchell ranks 38th in win shares, indicating his scoring, as wonderful as it may be, isn’t enough of an historical outlier to overcome the other weaknesses of his game.
Zoom out a little and 164 rookies have averaged 15 points per game. Simmons ranks 35th for win shares, whilst Mitchell is 84rd. A singular metric could never simplify an entire award race, but this one is a glimpse into the differences between the pair of rookies. Mitchell is a volume scorer who has evidenced competent play across some other facets of basketball; Simmons is an efficient scorer armed with a diverse skillset, that translates into winning basketball.
During the regular season, Simmons has more rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, win shares and win shares per 48 minutes than Mitchell. He rates better by virtually every analytical measure - true shooting, real plus minus, box plus minus, value over replacement player and PER, just to name a few.
As for Mitchell, he leads the 76ers rookie in just one noteworthy category: scoring. He averages an extra 4.7 points per game.
Scoring the ball
Mitchell has the reputation of being the better ‘pure’ scorer. Instinctively, this notion makes sense. Mitchell is a poster child for the three-point revolution. He has taken, made and missed more three pointers than any other rookie in NBA history, en route to a shooting profile that matches what we’ve come to expect within a pace-and-space NBA.
On the other hand, Simmons is an ode to the good old days. At first, it was confronting to see an elite ball-handler, like Simmons, completely ignore the three ball. Like that modern remix to your favourite song, the natural inclination was to point in disgust at the Australian as he refused to shoot outside of 15 feet. Simmons shooting graph looks like something out of the 1980s, but that doesn’t discredit the fact he sticks to what he excels at.
Mitchell’s raw scoring numbers outweigh those of Simmons, but he belabours the point in getting there. The volume is present, and Mitchell deserves credit for carrying the scoring load on a Jazz offence that improved as the season progressed, but he scores at a below average clip. His effective field goal percentage is 3.9 points behind that of Simmons, a damning fact considering this builds in all the inherent benefits of attempting three-point field goals. It doesn’t come with the grace and flair of Stephen Curry, but Simmons is obviously the more efficient scorer.
Scoring is Mitchell’s best skill and he is barely league-average at it. Scoring is one of Simmons’ lesser talents and, in totality, his performance this season isn’t far away from Mitchell’s. If you see scoring with a #MambaMentality and reward volume above all else, then Mitchell is the choice. Even then, the advantage isn’t as superior as you would think.
Passing the ball
Simmons is already one of the NBA’s best passers. He ranks first league wide in passes made (74.1 per game), fourth in potential assists (17.1), third in secondary assists (1.0) and sixth in assists (8.2). Simmons leads all rookies in every passing metric, and doubles up Mitchell across each category.
If you like simple stats that boil everything down to scoring, Simmons collects an extra 4.5 assists per game than Mitchell, meaning he creates, at least, nine more points per game via his assists. This more that makes up the difference in personal scoring.
With all due respect to Mitchell, Simmons is leaps and bounds ahead as a passer. The Australian has performed at the level of an all-time facilitator during his rookie season. This is one of his tremendous assets.
What about team success and those around them?
From a holistic sense, the Jazz and 76ers own strikingly similar resumes. With one day left in the regular season, Philadelphia has won 51 games and owns the fourth best net rating in basketball, while Utah has won 48 games and possess the fifth highest rating, per Cleaning The Glass. The 76ers have secured a top four seed and home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, while the Jazz can finish no lower than fifth in the Western Conference.
If personal head-to-head is something that you value, a Simmons led 76ers outfit defeated the Jazz in both meetings this season. November’s victory in Salt Lake City was especially impressive given Embiid didn’t play due to a leg ailment.
Both rookies enjoy the benefits of playing with an elite interior presence. Simmons has Embiid, while Mitchell has Rudy Gobert as his running mate. Gobert and Embiid have been the two best defensive players in basketball this season. The pair will very likely be the leading vote getters for Defensive Player of the Year.
Unsurprisingly, both Simmons and Mitchell perform better when they share the court with an All-Star center.
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The Simmons-Embiid pairing has a higher ceiling than the Mitchell-Gobert alignment, but each duo is intimidating in their own right. Mitchell has done a slightly better job at treading water without his big behemoth in the middle, although Simmons hardly stumbled without Embiid. The Australian is 7-8 in games played without Embiid, while Mitchell is 11-15 without Gobert by his side.
What about narrative? As in, could Mitchell actually win?
Notwithstanding everything we have mentioned, narrative will play a role in the race. It always does. In that sense, it could be similar to the All-Star selection process that angered many Australians.
Did Ben Simmons perform as one of the 12 - and then 16, given the flurry of injuries - best players in the Eastern Conference prior to February? Most likely. Was he good enough to overcome the narrative of an international rookie, with a broken jump shot, doing what LeBron James and Kevin Durant couldn’t? No, the answer is that simple. Award races in the NBA are never as simple as assessing performance on the court. A selection of media members will vote on Rookie of the Year, and like any sample of human beings, personal biases and agendas are free to run wild.
I asked Taurean Prince to discuss the Rookie of the Year race at All-Star Weekend, and his response stuck with me.
“It’s tough,” Prince responded, when quizzed on Simmons versus Mitchell. “It just depends on what your mindset is and what your outlook is as an MVP. If it’s stats then obviously you need to go with Ben. He’s all-around. He pretty much has it for the taking.
“But if you feel like the team wouldn’t be who they are without Donovan, then you have to go with him in terms of value.”
Now, some would argue Prince, who averages 30 minutes a game for the tanktastic Atlanta Hawks, is in no position to swing NBA ballots. That would be true. While he doesn’t command the cache to be considered a central voice on the topic, his message should be heard. The better narrative, within American media circles, rests with Mitchell. He is the overlooked rookie, who fell to the 13th draft pick, only to lead a Utah Jazz franchise back from oblivion in the season after Gordon Hayward departed for Boston. This is a seductive narrative. I’d virtually guarantee that some voters use it as a justification for selecting Mitchell.
Those who trumpeted Mitchell early in the season also have a vested interest in his success. A Mitchell victory allows them to shout from the clouds and boast that they predicted his meteoric rise. Simmons, on the other hand, has been reliably great all season. His campaign doesn’t have the Hollywood-esque storyline, as there is an inherently high level of expectation that comes from being the first player chosen.
Simmons’ consistent greatness should – I repeat, should – be the deciding factor for voters. I expect Simmons to claim the award, but the voting process will be closer than many Australian basketball fans would like.
Statistically, Ben Simmons was dominant beyond a level that has been seen in decades, and his unquantifiable impact on the court, was equally striking.
In a season full of extravagant performances, there is one that jumps out above the rest. On a dull February evening in Philadelphia, Simmons led the 76ers to a landmark comeback victory over the Miami Heat. With Embiid wrapped in cotton wool and the All-Star break looming, there was every incentive for the 76ers to roll over. The Australian wouldn’t let it happen. He was an irrepressible force of nature. Simmons elevated those around him to what was, at the time, the most impressive victory of his professional career.
On that evening against Miami, Simmons wasn’t just the most talented player on the floor. He was the 76ers’ intellectual leader, their floor general. He showed a level of assurance that surpassed his neophyte status. Over the past six months, such a showing has been anything but isolated. Extreme dominance quickly became the norm for Simmons, as he completed his maiden voyage around the Association.
Simmons has been the driving force behind a developmental outfit that graduated from The Process into the championship discussion. A slew of NBA luminaries have compared his season to the very greatest players to ever played the game. He isn’t your typical NBA rookie. He isn’t conventional and, for good and bad, he is without parallel. He is an amazing talent who has displayed endless potential throughout his rookie season.
Ben Simmons is performing like an NBA superstar and that is something no other rookie can match.