Dario Saric and Malcolm Brogdon are — depending on who you ask — battling for the Rookie of the Year award in Philadelphia tonight. This would be a cool storyline if the 76ers didn’t have a rookie player who lapped the field and left no real room for debate.
“Joel Embiid only played in 31 games,” you might say. Prioritizing volume by way of games and minutes played is reasonable enough, but it also assumes the candidates are producing at roughly equal levels in their respective games played. That’s not the case.
Despite the lack of games played, the burden Embiid carried during that time was so cartoonish that he quite literally has no peers. No rookie has ever played 25 minutes per game and amassed a usage percentage of 30 or above — Embiid’s season finished with him using 36 percent of his team’s possessions. To give you an idea of the scope of that stat, it pre-dates the use of a shot clock.
A normal rookie shouldering this responsibility would have derailed his team, leaving the net ratings of teammates in smoldering ash. But the opposite happened, and the team’s most played five-man lineup (of which Embiid was a part) was also its best. The lineup’s defensive rating -- despite featuring Nik Stauskas and Ersan Ilyasova — was 90.3, good for the fourth-best mark in the entire league. Their +14 NETRTG isn’t just better than teams at comparable stages of rebuilding, it stacks up against some of the best high-volume five-man crews in the league, sandwiched between Kyle Lowry’s Raptors and James Harden’s Rockets.
This was made possible by Embiid’s borderline transcendent defense. Rudy Gobert has been getting a lot of Defensive Player of the Year buzz, and rightfully so. Embiid defended shots from six feet and in four percent better than Utah’s defensive ace has this season, which is equal to the gulf separating Gobert and David Lee. To put it mildly, no other rookie was or is producing like a DPOY candidate.
If you want to talk raw production, the gap between Embiid and his next-closest rookie peer is comical in some categories.
Comparing Embiid and Saric in the scoring department, as one example, would be the equivalent of Russell Westbrook scoring 47.1 points per game to No. 2 man Harden’s current average of 29.2. The difference between Embiid and the man trailing him in blocks per game, Ivica Zubac, would be like if Rudy Gobert was blocking 6.36 shots per game to Anthony Davis’ current average of 2.26. Embiid got to the line at the rate of an All-Star, and in fact was the only player in the league’s top-10 in FTA per game not to be named to the 2017 All-Star team.
Despite the fact he was very nearly named an All-Star and has been recognized as one of the most promising players in the league, it doesn’t seem like his season and his production is getting the respect it deserves. None of what he accomplished should be possible at any reasonable level of volume for a rookie, let alone one who had taken two years off due to injury.
The biggest arguments against Embiid rely on the inclination to avoid “setting a precedent” given his games played total. A worse precedent to set is to award demonstratively inferior players for their ability to play sup-par basketball for a long time.
The case for Brogdon rests on the idea that he contributed to a winning basketball team. Joel Embiid turned the goddamn Sixers — a team that was coming off a 10-win season, a team national media spent three years deriding for being a directionless disaster — into a winning team nearly by himself. His final game of the season was basically played on one knee, and he was still good enough to keep the Sixers in a game where an opponent put up 51-13-13. Brogdon, Saric, or any other rookie in this class could chase that impact level through multiple layers of their wildest dreams, a la Inception, and never come close to what Embiid accomplished in 31 games.
Loaded language like “Most Valuable” isn’t attached to the top rookie honor, but if you were thinking of whose rookie year will endure beyond the trophy presentation, isn’t there only one answer? Nobody is going to look back 10 years from now and go, “Man, young Malcolm Brogdon was appointment television!” No one is going to say, “Hoo boy, Jaylen Brown had the most impactful 6.6 points per game I’ve ever seen!”
People will look back and remember Embiid stunting all over the league. They will remember him courting models and pop artists, imitating WWE stars, and dancing on stage at a Meek Mill concert. His numbers will continue to be considerably better than anyone else in the mix for the trophy.
When we look back on the 2016-17 NBA season in a decade or two, Embiid will be the rookie we use to help tell the tale. It could be a sad story about what could have been, or the introduction for the summary of his dominant career. Regardless, he is the Rookie of the Year in every sense of the phrase, and I am tired of humoring arguments to the contrary.