Joel Embiid is Definitely Your NBA Rookie of the Year
So what if he lapped the entire field in only half a season?
For as hotly contested as the 2017 NBA MVP and Defensive Player of the Year races have been, Rookie of the Year has been the polar opposite. This has been a complete dud of a rookie class. Number one pick Ben Simmons sat out all year. Brandon Ingram, Dragan Bender, and Kris Dunn all went in the top five and look terrible. Jaylen Brown is the one “successful” top-five pick and he’s scoring 6.6 points a game in 17 minutes. Domantas Sabonis has been “successful” because he started all year for Oklahoma City with the worst starter metrics in the entire league. Only two players in the entire draft class are averaging double digit points-per-game. One was mocked as the centerpiece of the DeMarcus Cousins trade, and the other is somehow the chic favorite to win Rookie of the Year.
The 2017 Rookie of the Year race is like the triple jump at your sixth-grade track meet. A bunch of people participated and someone has to be named the winner, but that doesn’t mean anyone was any good or had any idea what they were doing. Thankfully we saw two additional rookies this season thanks to The Process providing two Philadelphia rookies that were drafted three years ago in Joel Embiid and Dario Saric. Imagine how awful this ROY race would look without those two.
Joel Embiid was one of the season’s high points in a year with plenty of them. He is the definitive 2017 NBA Rookie of the Year, 31 games and all, and I’m going to tell you why.
Joel Embiid was the best rookie by far
You know how everyone argues over MVP about what it means to be the most valuable? Rookie of the Year carries no such confusion. Let’s break it down. Rookie: someone playing in the NBA for the first time. Year: one NBA season. Joel Embiid first played in the NBA in 2017. Yep, checks out!
Casting all that deep confusion aside, is there any question that Joel Embiid was the best rookie of the 2016–17 NBA season?
Embiid averaged 20 points, eight rebounds, two assists, a steal, and two-and-a-half blocks. Here’s the complete list of other players in the NBA to reach those numbers this season: Anthony Davis… and that’s it. The last player to hit them before Davis was Yao Ming a decade ago. That’s how good Joel Embiid was this season. He was fantastic. He was outstanding.
Here’s the list of rookies in NBA history to average 20 points and 7 rebounds their first season: Wilt, Kareem, Duncan, Bird, Shaq, Hakeem, Baylor, Oscar, Admiral, Pettit, Barry, Bellamy, Dantley, Hayes, Mourning, Sampson, Brand, Griffin, King, Cartwright, Cummings, Kellogg, Dischinger, Weeks, and Embiid. You may not know those last couple guys but I bet you’ve heard of the rest. Joel Embiid ranks sixth among those players in PER. Most of the list played around 50% more minutes than Embiid. If Embiid had matched their minutes load, his numbers extrapolate to 30 points and 12 boards a game. Embiid probably would have made the All-Star Game if he didn’t get injured a couple weeks beforehand. The last ten rookies to play in the All-Star Game are Blake, Yao, Duncan, Hill, Shaq, Dikembe, Admiral, Hakeem, Ewing, and Jordan.
Embiid ranked 15th this season in PER. That’s one spot behind reigning unanimous MVP Stephen Curry and just ahead of Damian Lillard, Rudy Gobert, and John Wall. He seems pretty good. But PER and points-per-game only really measure offensive impact. What about the other end of the court?
Embiid was one of the best defenders in the league
For all of Embiid’s impressive stat lines, his bigger impact was on the other end of the court. Basketball Reference uses Defensive Rating as a measure of points allowed per 100 possessions while a player is on the court. Rudy Gobert and Draymond Green are fighting for this year’s Defensive Player of the Year award. Both sit at a Drtg of 99. The human sharktopus Kawhi Leonard is at 101. Joel Embiid’s Defensive Rating this season was 102.
Embiid had a better block rate than Gobert, Drummond, Whiteside, and Jordan. He had a better steal rate than all of them but Drummond. He had the second best Defensive Box Plus/Minus among that crew, all while his offensive usage was more than double each of them. Had Joel Embiid played all season, he would be a real Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He’d be third on my ballot, ahead of Kawhi Leonard. That’s how good he’s been.
In January, Embiid’s final month, his Defensive Rating dropped to an absurdly low 93, which would rank among the all-time elite defensive seasons over a full year. Rookies aren’t normally good at defense. In general, they tend to rank anywhere from bad to miserable, and it’s why so many of them struggle to stay on the court as they adjust. Embiid took Nik Stauskus, T.J. McConnell, Ersan Ilyasova, and Robert Covington and turned them into a top defense.
Opposing players this season shot under 41% with Joel Embiid guarding them. That’s 7% worse than the league average. Opponents shot a terrible 44% within six feet of the hoop. That’s a full 18% below the league average! Joel Embiid was really good on defense this year. Absurdly good.
Embiid was getting even better as the year went on
One of the remarkable things about Joel Embiid’s freshman season at Kansas was how much he learned and developed as the season went on. The same was true during his rookie season.
Each month Embiid played in the NBA, he got better and better. Take a look at the numbers below. His points-per-game went up each successive month. So did his assists. So did his Offensive Rating and his overall plus/minus rating.
The improvement showed in the standings as well. The 76ers started out 5–16 in Embiid’s first 21 games. That sounds bad, and it is, but it’s basically in line with how bad the Sixers had been the past three seasons. Then when Embiid’s numbers took a leap, Philadelphia did too. Embiid won eight of his final ten games and helped the 76ers go 10–5 in January. They won as many games in one month as all of last season! Embiid was the lone reason Philadelphia had their first winning month since November 2012, a full 26 NBA months before. He finished the season 13–18, a 33-win pace. Philadelphia averaged fewer than half that many wins over the past three years.
Heck, Philadelphia was so good in January that Joel Embiid redeemed the entire “Process” narrative. He turned Sam Hinkie from zero to hero. He did something no one had been able to do for four years in Philadelphia: win.
But did he do it enough?
Embiid played only 31 games, and that’s a problem
But wait!! You can already hear the detractors. Embiid “would have” and “probably” and “might have” but he didn’t, because he played only 31 games and that’s not okay. No, it’s not okay. A healthy Joel Embiid might have a brighter future than even Karl-Anthony Towns or Nikola Jokic, and it’s not okay that he’s hurt. The NBA needs a healthy Joel Embiid, not Greg Oden 2.0.
But that’s not the point. The point is 31 games isn’t enough to constitute a full season, right? The point is that it’s called Rookie of the Year, not Rookie of the Half Year, right? That’s correct. But if Joel Embiid was far better in only half of the same full year everyone else has, why can’t he win the award?
Yeah, Joel Embiid hasn’t played since January. He’s also still 7th in the entire league among points scored by rookies. He’s 8th in rookie rebounds, and he’s still 1st in both free throws and blocks. How good do you have to be to lap the competition in half as many games? That’s how good Joel Embiid is. Maybe his lack of playing time should not be a detraction but rather a magnifying glass that shows just how incredible those 31 games were.
Embiid started only 31 games, but Rookie of the Year competitors Dario Saric and Malcolm Brogdon started just 36 and 27, respectively. “You can’t reward a guy for three good months!!” you say? Saric put up 18 points and 7 boards for two months and just 10/6 the other five. Brogdon averaged 12 points and 4.5 assists during that same stretch, just 9/4 during the rest. What if Brogdon and Saric had their two good months before Christmas and Embiid was a supernova the second half of the season instead? Do you really think we’d be having this conversation?
Embiid was the best rookie for 31 out of 82 games. Saric was the best rookie for around 20. Brogdon was the best for a handful. Buddy Hield, Jamal Murray, Tyler Ulis and others have been the best a few games. Are we really going to reward one of those guys because they put in mediocre bench minutes on poor teams the rest of the season? Pretend Embiid plays injured 30 additional games with an inefficient 12/6 in limited minutes. Now he’s your Rookie of the Year because he still averaged 16/7 over the whole season despite sucking for half of it? That’s what you value?
Embiid was Rookie of the Month all three months he played. He has the most ROM awards this season. Saric won twice, Brogdon none at all, and neither will win it this month. Only once in the past 30 years has a Rookie of the Year not led the league in ROM awards — and that was Tyreke Evans over Steph Curry. How can Malcolm Brogdon be the best rookie for an entire season if he was never even the best rookie for a single month?
Embiid simply has no other viable competition
Playing only 31 games could knock Joel Embiid out of the Rookie of the Year race in most seasons, but most seasons don’t present us with the most inept rookie class since the historically bad 2000 draft.
Basketball Reference combines a player’s stats into a single Game Score as a way to measure games against one another. Joel Embiid had the single best game of any rookie. He also had two of the top-5, three of the top-10, four of the top-15, five of the top-20, and eleven of the top-50 rookie games. Dario Saric had two of the top-20 rookie games played this season. Brogdon had none. It was closer among top-50 games with nine for Saric and five for Brogdon, but Embiid was still better despite playing half as many games.
Saric’s 13/6/2 stat line is similar to rookies like 2009 Marc Gasol, 2006 Charlie Villanueva, and 2005 Luol Deng. His best comps are 2003 Drew Gooden and 2001 Kenyon Martin. None of those players won Rookie of the Year, and only two of them even finished in the top four. Martin couldn’t even win the award among the worst draft class in NBA history.
Brogdon’s 10/4/3 is similar to 2016 D’Angelo Russell, 2015 Jordan Clarkson, and 2008 Mike Conley, all of whom finished seventh or lower in the voting. His best comps might be 2006 Deron Williams or 2011 Gary Neal, two guys that put up decent numbers in a limited role on a playoff team. Do you really want to make Gary Neal your Rookie of the Year?
91 rookies in NBA history have put up ten points and four assists a game like Brogdon, and 198 24-year-olds have done it. What makes Brogdon so special? He’s the seventh best player on a .500 team in a watered-down conference. His 14.9 PER labels him a replacement player. Drafting a replacement-level player in the second round is valuable, but it doesn’t make someone Rookie of the Year. Brogdon is a pleasant surprise, but he’s not even one of the hundred most interesting players this season. Heck, he’s had a -5.1 point differential post-All-Star-break while the Bucks have made their playoff push, and he’s done it mostly from the bench. That’s your Rookie of the Year?
Expand the player comps beyond just rookies. Dario Saric compares reasonably to Philly Evan Turner, Washington Markieff Morris, and Phoenix Luis Scola. Malcolm Brogdon is similar to Dallas J.J. Barea, Chicago Kirk Hinrich, Indiana C.J. Watson, or Toronto Cory Joseph. Those are nice enough players. But has anyone ever wanted to give them an award? Joel Embiid’s stat line this season compares best to Minnesota Kevin Love, young Blake Griffin, or Miami Chris Bosh. Now that’s a season worth rewarding.
Joel Embiid probably doesn’t deserve to win Rookie of the Year for playing only 31 games, but the embarrassing truth is that his 31 games were far better than 80 from any other rookie. Stop trying to talk yourself into Brogdon or Saric or these other terrible candidates. There is no perfect candidate for this year’s Rookie of the Year. So why not give it to the guy who was definitely the best rookie on both ends of the court, the one rookie you’ll always think of when you remember the 2017 season?
If not, maybe just cancel the 2017 Rookie of the Year award, roll it over to next season, and we’ll give out two awards. With Ben Simmons back and a loaded incoming draft class, there’s sure to be more than enough deserving winners.
But since you apparently don’t count Joel Embiid as a rookie this year, he gets to compete for next year’s award. My money’s on him winning it then, too.