This should have been the simplest Rookie of the Year race imaginable. Philadelphia 76ers rookie Joel Embiid was by far the best first-year player in the NBA this season. Statistically, you could argue he's the best rookie ever. He made the Hakeem Olajuwon comparisons he earned at Kansas look smart, showed off legitimate 3-point range and was one of the best defenders in the entire league. Opponents were scared of driving at the rim when he was near it from Day 1, and over the course of a few months he made giant strides as a pick-and-roll defender. His passing got much better, too.
Unfortunately for Embiid, the Sixers and, well, anyone who appreciates basketball, his season ended after 31 games. That made choosing the winner of this award complicated, but most would agree there are three main candidates:
- Embiid: Some people have outright disqualified him from consideration, given that he logged a grand total of 786 minutes -- as a point of reference, Raptors guard Kyle Lowry played 766 minutes in three playoff rounds last season. How much, though, do you weigh per-minute production and value to a team against total output? That's a tricky question, but every voter had to answer it implicitly.
- Dario Saric: There's a school of thought that Saric started carrying a bigger offensive burden because of Embiid's absence in the second half of the season, but he really turned the corner when Philadelphia traded Ersan Ilyasova. As soon as Saric started playing heavy minutes and handling the ball more, his confidence soared. In the first month after the All-Star break, Saric averaged typical Rookie of the Year numbers -- 19.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists -- in a 16-game stretch. But then he started dealing with heal soreness, which turned out to be plantar fasciitis, and he finished the season shooting poorly and on a minutes restriction.
- Malcolm Brogdon: Unlike Embiid, he never looked like a superstar. Unlike Saric, he didn't have a season-defining stretch as a No. 1 option. Brogdon's greatest strength was his consistency -- whether he was starting or coming off the bench, he was a steadying influence for a playoff team that counted on his playmaking, spot-up shooting and defense. He had his share of big games, clutch shots and highlight moments, but his value was more about the way he played his role. This is an unusual candidate for Rookie of the Year, but there is a real argument to be made that he had the best season.
In the end, I picked Brogdon. I also profiled him. This isn't to say it's inherently harder to play a small role on a good team than a big role on a bad one -- if Saric had been his best self for more than a month or so, I would have probably went with him. I'm not sure what arbitrary number of games it would have taken for me to go with Embiid, but I decided 31 wasn't enough. Reasonable people will vote for each of them, but I don't think any rookie did more to help his team win games over the course of the season than Brogdon did.
What follows are my final rookie rankings, in which I will make up for the fact I called Embiid "by far the best first-year player in the NBA" at the beginning of this story and then argued for someone else as ROY. Consider 1-5 to be the All-Rookie first team and 6-10 to be the second team.
Joel Embiid Philadelphia C
Per-36 stats: 28.7 pts, 11.1 reb, 3.0 ast, 3.5 blk, 1.2 stl, 58.4 TS%, 24.1 PER
The man nicknamed himself "The Process" and justified the two full seasons the Sixers spent waiting for him to be healthy. In his first game, he rejected Russell Westbrook, earned "M-V-P" and "Trust The Process" chants and hit a clutch jumper over Steven Adams. In his last game, he had a driving dunk over Nene, a chasedown block on James Harden and four 3-pointers. Every moment he played in between was a joy for Sixers fans, aside from for all those nasty falls he had a habit of taking. Oh, and Philadelphia performed like a playoff team with him on the court.
Malcolm Brogdon Milwaukee SG
Per-36 stats: 13.9 pts, 3.9 reb, 5.8 ast, 1.5 stl, 55.5 TS%, 14.9 PER
"The President" doesn't care that much about winning Rookie of the Year, but there will be a bunch of older college players rooting for him. He seemed like a possible steal when the Bucks took him No. 36, but who knew he'd be a reliable floor spacer and crunchtime playmaker immediately? It's amazing so many teams passed on him because I can't think of a single place where he'd be a bad fit.
Dario Saric Philadelphia PF
Per-36 stats: 17.6 pts, 8.7 reb, 3.1 ast, 1.0 stl, 50.8 TS%, 12.8 PER
He was advertised as a point forward who made hustle plays and could space the floor, and he became exactly that as soon as he was empowered in February. While his outside shot wasn't consistent, Saric proved that he's capable of both starting and finishing plays in the Sixers' offense. He's clearly best as a 4, which means he might be headed back to the bench next year, but I'm curious to see how he and Ben Simmons play together. If Philadelphia drafts a point guard, playmaking will quickly go from its main weakness to a huge strength.
Willy Hernangomez New York C
Per-36 stats: 16.0 pts, 13.6 reb, 2.6 ast, 1.0 blk, 1.1 stl, 56.6 TS%, 19.0 PER
He has strides to make on defense, but with the Knicks he wasn't in a system that camouflaged individual defenders' weaknesses in the slightest. Hernangomez is a skilled big man who was productive in limited minutes early on and managed to sustain his output when given more time and touches. He's a bit of a throwback because he likes to post up, but he's nimble enough that I'm intrigued by his potential as a defender. Easily the best rebounder in the class.
Jaylen Brown Boston SF
Per-36 stats: 13.8 pts, 5.9 reb, 1.7 ast, 0.9 stl, 53.9 TS%, 10.3 PER
The stats don't wow you, but Brown earned a meaningful role on the No. 1 team in the East. Given the Celtics' depth and versatility, that was far from guaranteed. On a different team he'd be showing off more of his off-the-dribble game and taking stepback jumpers, skills that he only shows off occasionally in Boston. Credit him for focusing on defense, cutting and making open jumpers. He's one of the biggest reasons the Celtics' future is so bright.
Marquese Chriss Phoenix PF
Per-36 stats: 15.6 pts, 7.2 reb, 1.2 ast, 1.4 blk, 1.4 stl, 52.9 TS%, 12.3 PER
Marquese Chriss was as raw as everybody expected, and perhaps even more talented. He's already one of the best alley-oop targets in the league, and he sometimes makes disruptive defensive plays by accident just based on his length and activity. I'm not sure he'd get any time whatsoever on a playoff team, but the Suns were smart to let him play through mistakes -- he rewarded them with real development late in the season.
Jamal Murray Denver SG
Per-36 stats: 16.6 pts, 4.4 reb, 3.5 ast, 1.1 stl, 51.9 TS%, 12.0 PER
The efficiency isn't there yet, but it's hard not to get excited when you see Jamal Murray play. He wants to take big shots, he's crafty in the pick-and-roll and he's a better passer than he was given credit for when he was coming out of college. Denver is extremely high on him, which makes the future of Emmanuel Mudiay fascinating. The two should be able to play together, but with Gary Harris, Will Barton and Malik Beasley on the wing, something has to give.
Buddy Hield Sacramento SG
Per-36 stats: 16.5 pts, 5.1 reb, 2.3 ast, 0.7 stl, 54.0 TS%, 11.8 PER
That true shooting percentage ticked up to 60 percent in Sacramento, where he was one of the most productive and consistent rookies in the league. Hield was given much more freedom to be himself with the Kings, and he responded by shooting much better from the perimeter and expanding his off-the-dribble game. If this was a truer reflection of what kind of player he's going to be than his time in New Orleans, then Sacramento has a keeper.
Caris LeVert Brooklyn SG
Per-36 stats: 13.6 pts, 5.5 reb, 3.2 ast, 1.4 stl, 55.6 TS%, 12.2 PER
If not for three (!) foot surgeries, Caris LeVert would have never been available for the Nets with the No. 20 pick last June. Brooklyn gave up Thaddeus Young for the right to select him, and the front office is looking pretty smart for doing so. Every team wants athletic wings who can guard multiple positions, and coach Kenny Atkinson challenged him to run pick-and-rolls and defend stars, too. The results were encouraging, especially considering he missed training camp and the first 20 games of the season.
Rodney McGruder Miami SG
Per-36 stats: 9.1 pts, 4.7 reb, 2.3 ast, 0.8 stl, 50.6 TS%, 9.1 PER
Please ignore the PER here. McGruder edged more gifted offensive players because he was a crucial part of the league's No. 5 defense. Undrafted in 2013, he was playing in Hungary two years ago and the D-League last season. Now he's found a home with the Heat, and they're happy to have him hounding people on the perimeter. He started 65 games for a team that just barely missed the playoffs.
Honorable mentions are in order to five rookies in particular. Until I sat down to make my list, I thought these guys would make the cut:
- Skal Labissiere: He's so much more skilled than several of the players who made the cut, and his per-possession numbers are awesome. Labissiere made the most of his opportunities after the Kings traded DeMarcus Cousins, but before that he barely got to play. Sacramento's front office gets a lot of deserved criticism, but it should also be praised for nabbing him with the No. 28 pick.
- Juan Hernangomez: It kills me to leave him off because I value his defense and his 3-point shooting so much. I wish the Nuggets had played him more, but they had a major logjam and he ended up having to accept a limited, often fluctuating role. Hernangomez hit 40.7 percent of his 3-pointers and had a 27-point, 10-rebound game against the Warriors.
- Yogi Ferrell: Like Brogdon and McGruder, this dude has an awesome story. He was undrafted and then waived by the worst team in the league, the Nets, before catching on with Dallas on a 10-day contract. He hit nine triples on a magical night in Portland, then proved it wasn't a fluke by contributing for the rest of the season.
- Thon Maker: Who thought that he would be starting on a playoff team? OK, he's not a traditional starter because he sometimes only plays 12 or 13 minutes, but still: Maker got a chance to play about halfway through the season and performed well enough to earn coach Jason Kidd's trust. Teammates rave about his attitude, and it's impossible not to love his upside.
- Tyler Ulis: He played 35-45 minutes a night late in the year because the Suns were tanking, but not only because the Suns were tanking. Ulis' production has been as good as any rookie's lately, and perhaps the most impressive part was his ability to run the offense without turning the ball over. When given a big opportunity, he showed he was ready for the responsibility that came with it.