Ben Simmons vs. Donovan Mitchell Rookie of the Year debate comes down to one question

Of all the major NBA awards this season, the Rookie of the Year race is by far the most intriguing. Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell? If the question is simply who has performed better this year, there is no wrong answer. But as this race has heated up, and especially now as it comes down to the wire, it has been a different question dominating the conversation, one that has nothing to do with the on-court results:

Is Ben Simmons actually a rookie?

If you aren't entirely familiar with Simmons' short career path, it's simple: After being drafted No. 1 overall in 2016, the Philadelphia 76ers' 6-foot-10 point guard proceeded to sit out the entire 2016-17 season with a foot injury. The NBA has deemed him a rookie this season, in accordance with the rulebook and standard protocol, because he didn't log any minutes last season. Blake Griffin unanimously won the 2010-11 Rookie of the Year Award after sitting out a season because of injury, with no one really questioning his rookie status.

Mitchell, for his part, sees it a bit differently. Per ESPN's Chris Haynes:

"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?" Mitchell said. "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."

In other words, while Simmons didn't actually log any NBA minutes last season, he did travel with, and practice with, and work out with, NBA players, and he did receive a year's worth of NBA coaching and film study, and that kind of experience cannot be replicated in college, which, of course, is where Mitchell spent last season playing. Mitchell threw more gas on the fire when he rolled into the arena Wednesday night rocking a sweatshirt displaying the literal definition of a rookie across the front:

Simmons, predictably, fired right back at Mitchell.

For all the fun Mitchell appears to be having with the debate, the Jazz star has consistently downplayed the importance of winning the award. Simmons, meanwhile, has made no secret of the fact that he covets Rookie of the Year status and feels that he "100 percent" deserves to take home the hardware. It's hard to argue with him. He's in line to average 15 points, eight assists, eight rebounds and one steal for the year, which would make him the first "rookie" to do that in NBA history. 

By the same token, Mitchell has already set a rookie record for the most 3-pointers in a season with 186, and he still has another game to play. He is also the first rookie since David Robinson with the Spurs in 1989-90 to be the leading scorer on a team with at least 46 wins. While Simmons has been afforded the luxury of playing next to an MVP-level player in Joel Embiid, Mitchell has been Utah's go-to guy all season long. To bear that kind of scoring burden, to produce 46 (and counting) 20-point games when NBA defenses are geared up specifically to stop you, is another level of production. They're both also really good defenders, though I'd give Simmons the clear edge there. 

In the end, Draymond Green summed it up well when he said in a perfect world, Simmons and Mitchell would tie for Rookie of the Year. I don't think many people would argue with co-winners in a situation like this. But Green also said that if he had a say, Mitchell would get his vote because he's a "true" rookie

Here's why I agree: 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. 

So how, at the same time, can he be a rookie?

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