We are living in an age of heavy three point shooting and positionless basketball in the NBA where atypical seven footers rarely play like the human behemoths they are.
Long departed from standing close to the rim to protect it, big men in the modern game guard as far out as the three point line and also score from the same spot.
In the modern age of NBA basketball, several first year players in the league are contesting for the age category’s top prize.
Just a few seasons ago, John Wall easily run away with the Rookie of the Year Award despite not particularly impressing in his debut season for Washington Wizards.
Minnesota Timberwolves Center-modern type at that- Karl-Anthony Towns impressed in season 2015-2016 and topped his draft mates performances that campaign.
In recent times, the closest Rookie of the Year race has to be last season’s version which had Joel Embiid, Dario Saric and Malcom Brogdon as frontrunners; Brogdon from Milwaukee Bucks was voted as the winner.
However, this season’s Rookie title race has to go down as one of the best ever considering almost half a dozen players can be picked as deserved winners.
Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, and Kyle Kuzma have electrified their teams fan base and got the league to notice their undeniable talents. With a little bump of luck, the likes of Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox and Markelle Fultz would have produced more than they did in the past regular season to tighten the race further. But the world isn’t complaining about what the 2017 draft class has done and is still doing.
Helping their teams make surprise semifinal playoff runs put Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons a cut above the rest and in a tough sprint for the award. While technically not a rookie due to his status as the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, Simmons has slotted seamlessly into life in the NBA and executed brilliantly at the league’s toughest position.
The Australian super sized Guard ended the regular season averaging 15 points, eight rebounds and eight assists spearheading Philadelphia Sixers unforeseen advancement to the second round of the playoffs. In the Western Conference, Mitchell has stepped in the scoring role left behind by Boston Celtics Forward Gordon Hayward and delivered admirably.
The 2017 13th pick averaged 20 points per game in his first regular season and has been sensational in Utah’s series win over the much fancied Oklahoma City Thunder. In the process of kicking OKC out, Mitchell scored at least 20 points in the six game series matching Lew Alcindor or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s feat with the Bucks over three decades ago.
Despite scoring 17 points in Game 2 of the semifinals against Houston Rockets, Mitchell’s production (11 assists) as lead Point Guard in place of injured Ricky Rubio, it proved to be enough to get Utah a win in Houston. Scoring 17 was the first time he scored below 20 points in the playoffs.
However, his sub 20 point performance in Game 3 of the series had major implications as Jazz lost to the Rockets to fall 1-2 in the series. Mitchell scored 10 points, grabbed a rebound and assisted three baskets; he attempted 16 shots and converted just four.
In the East, Simmons had a horror show in Game 2 against Boston Celtics registering just a point, grabbing five rebounds and recording seven assists. While he did improve in Game 3 producing 16 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, he committed crucial turnovers that hurt Philadelphia. Usually cerebral with the ball, Simmons uncharacteristically attempted a shot after grabbing a rebound with Sixers holding a 98-96 lead with 20 seconds remaining in overtime.
Dribbling the ball to wind down the clock or attracting a foul would have been the right play but the first year 6 foot 10 inch Guard went for glory and squandered a big opportunity. For either player, they are playing like rookies at the worst time of the season when there is a lot at stake. Both players looked nothing like first year players who were overcome by new surroundings and the intense level of scrutiny and physicality all season.
As brightly as they shone together, Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons are falling together and it continues to make the race to anoint the best first year player in the league more compelling.
By Yaw Adjei-mintah
@YawMintYM on Twitter