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Nerlens Vs. The Other Rooks: Sizing Up The Cases

For the rest of this week, we're dedicating most of our empty airtime (the Sixers only play on Wednesday and Saturday) to talking about Nerlens Noel's chances at winning the Rookie of the Year Award. We start with the competition, go into statistical trends and the likelihood of his victory, talk about his NBA future, and maybe play a bit of devil's advocate.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Let's talk about Nerlens Noel's rookie of the year bid. Sure, having a ROY winner two years in a row would be awesome, something of a validation of The Process(TM) and the Sixers' record of player development. On the other hand, the first ROY award winner of the Sam Hinkie era received a one-way ticket to the middle of nowhere (sorry, Milwaukee).

I hope Noel does not meet the same fate.

Unlike last year, where the ROY race was a race to the bottom, and arguments centered around topic such as: "wait, you really think Tim Hardaway Jr. is in this, don't you?" and "Future Sixer Robert Covington played 35 minutes: I think that's enough for second-team" this year's race features a decent crop of rookies, though while decimated by injuries, actually made some positive impacts. Cream rose, per se, and we have an interesting race for anyone who dives deep into researching it.

The four prominent rookies are: Noel (obviously), Andrew Wiggins (ditto), Nikola Mirotic, and Elfrid Payton. Voting on any of them might be a matter of taste. Do you want a good player playing excellent basketball down the stretch on a winning team? A highlight-reel dunker and rookie-sophomore game MVP who's trade has been the center of most of the league's conversation for about six months? The class's best, and one of the NBA's best, defenders? Or a do-it-all rookie with funky hair and great team impacts?

Those questions, and how you weigh the impacts (statistical, competitive, or conversational) would guide your selection. Let's make some cases for and against each, starting with the guy we all know best.

Nerlens Noel

Notable Achievements: Top 10 in the NBA in blocks (7th) and steals (9th), leads all rookies in rebounds

The Case For: The Nerlens case is built on two things: being by far the most valuable defensive rookie (and maybe one of the best ever) and rapid offensive improvement throughout the year. The defense comprises most of the argument. Noel stood at the center of an NBA defense which ranks 11th in defensive efficiency despite limited talent and experience surrounding him. He has stretches where, between the hugely valuable steals and violence-bringing at the rim, he looks like the best defender in the NBA. He's 20 years old.

The offense has come around, too. Nerlens averaged 14.3 points on over 20% usage and 53.4% true shooting in March - for a center in the modern NBA, it's an excellent mark. Overcoming early season yips, or anxiety, or whatever caused his hands to mysteriously disappear and for him to not have full coordination at all times, Noel turned from offensive pumpkin into a decent pick-and-roll diver. A change in point guards may have spurred the improvement, as well.

PER's a flawed stat in general - it looks good when you excel at it, though. And it accounts for defensive numbers, like steals and blocks, but not for general competence, which Nerlens clearly displays.

The Case Against: To be continued - this feels like a full Friday post.

Andrew Wiggins

Notable Achievements: MVP of the rookie-sophomore game, number one overall pick, leads all rookies in scoring and minutes played.

The Case For: Wiggins has played far more often than anyone else on this list, flashes the most offensive star potential, and has scored the most points. He's likely going to win, no matter how much anyone wants to make this a debate. And unlike prior years, including last year, he's having a good season for a rookie, and it would be difficult to fault someone for noticing how good he can become.

Wiggins scores at a below league-average efficiency (but not too inefficient - 51.4%) as a rookie, with an above-average usage rate, and he's not even 20-years-old. He's shed the label of a passive player in less than a year, and his numbers are deflated through playing in a system which maximizes Wiggins's opportunity to be inefficient.

Wiggins also excels at perimeter defense - he does not make nearly the impact of Noel, but it can't be ignored, either. He's a better defender right now than Mirotic and Payton.

Maybe more importantly, you can argue that ROY isn't like MVP - where valuable is in the name of the NBA MVP award and should be determined by value, the ROY is more of a "hey, look at this guy" display. By that, I mean that giving the award to someone who runs highlight reels daily, is willing to dunk on anyone, has probably the highest future ceiling as a potential mega-star, and who plays the part of international ambassador and media darling should be rewarded for that. Wiggins is the most notable rookie, and maybe that should carry him.

The Case Against: All that being said, this argument exists because Wiggins has not been the most valuable rookie by most non-volume scoring statistical measures. Wiggins started off the season by being one of the least valuable players ever, prompting this unfortunate post from FiveThirtyEight's Neil Paine (formerly of basketball-reference). Since almost the exact timing of that post, Wiggins exploded in the scoring column, so that didn't create a great look. Burrito journalism and all.

(Neil Paine is great, by the way, I really think his article was just a case of relying too much on the numbers at hand and really, really unlucky timing)

He plays heavy minutes for a bad team and does not significantly improve his team, compared to his replacements (net on/off rating of -1.7). He does not rebound or pass well for a perimeter player, and he had a severe case of tunnel-vision early in the season, telegraphing moves that should be unstoppable and giving defenses a chance while freezing out teammates. He is a work in progress still, and though he's already a decent scorer, he has a long way to superstardom.

Nikola Mirotic

Notable Achievements: March Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month

The Case For: Mirotic has had the best extended stretch of basketball among all rookies, and he's doing it as potentially the most important cog on the third best team in the Eastern Conference. He averaged 20 points and 8 rebounds per game in the month of March, and has shot an efficient 55.3% TS% on the season (significantly better than the other three rookies included here) on a higher usage rate than Wiggins, Noel, or Payton.

If you haven't seen Mirotic, the best comparison is a bigger Hedo Turkoglu, circa 2009. He can run off screens for threes, dribble and create in the lane, or just shoot it with you in his grill. For a team lacking spacing and shot creation, he brings a much-needed third dimension beyond pick-and-rolls and a Joakim Noah-centered attack. He's a nightmare cover for most bigs, because he can and will beat you in two different ways - overcommit and he drives, fail to cover and he launches a three.

Add on that he's a very solid rebounder, and he can beat you there too.

His strong play has forced Tom Thibodeau to alter his big rotation, which had three fringe or actual all-stars ahead of him. He's played well even while out of position as a wing, and it's not possible to say that about the other contenders.

The Case Against: Almost entirely centered on minutes. Using any statistically sound argument on offense will give you Mirotic as the answer, and Noel's defense is what makes a compelling argument between the two. But Mirotic has played more than 750 fewer minutes than Noel and Payton, and more than 1,000 fewer than Wiggins. Can an international rookie, 24-years-old with several years of competitive experience, make up the minute gap and the deflated raw numbers? Doubtful.

Also, I'm not sure he's any good at defense. He plays in bench-heavy lineups near the ends of quarters, so I think any positive effect he has on the Bulls defense results from that or not being Pau Gasol, who bless his soul cannot move, and has also not boxed out in four years.

Elfrid Payton

Notable Achievements: Leads all rookies in assists per game.

The Case For: Payton's ROY case rests on his assist total, by far the best of a rookie this year, and the difference he makes on a not-good Magic team while on the court, with a net +/- of 6.7 compared to him being off the court.

Payton also excels at not turning the ball over - point guards who hesitate to shoot also tend to have turnover issues, because they'll forego easy shots for more difficult passes. Payton converts difficult passes often instead of committing costly turnovers. Typically, young guards commit too many while "finding their way" - Payton's found everything but arc and form on his jumper.

The Case Against: People who have seen Payton more often than me talk down his defense, which is fine but not yet spectacular (though he has a chance to get there, and soon).

More importantly, the guy can create, but he's built an Oz's worth of yellow-brick roads in Orlando, and at times he's been so hesitant to shoot that it will torpedo offensive possessions. Sixers fans know how this works, because we've had Michael Carter-Williams, the worst shooter in the league with volume. Despite improvement during the season, Payton's mark is still low, and any time he's on the floor, the Magic need to compromise their spacing.

Teams just don't cover Elfrid Payton behind the three point line, and you could attribute Orlando's positive offensive stats to the sub-par replacements (Luke Ridnour, Willie Green, and Ben Gordon) that could be on the court in lieu of Payton.

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