Philadelphia 76ers fans experienced yet another gut-punch on Wednesday, when the team announced that Joel Embiid — light of our lives, Internet superhero and, as of this year, honest-to-goodness NBA basketball-playing behemoth — will miss the rest of the season with a tear to the meniscus in his left knee. After missing the first two seasons of his professional career due to a fractured navicular bone in his right foot, Embiid finally got healthy enough to play this season, and looked for all the world like the superstar-in-the-making that Process-server Sam Hinkie expected him to be when he rolled the dice on the injured big man out of Kansas with the No. 3 pick in the 2014 NBA draft.
Even operating under a minutes restriction intended to preserve his body that limited him to 28 minutes per contest and ensured he wouldn’t play back-to-back games, Embiid was a revelation. Through 31 games, he averaged 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 2.1 assists in just 25.4 minutes a night, a level of per-minute production that evoked comparisons to the likes of Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neal, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Walt Bellamy and All-NBA marvel Anthony Davis.
He was an instant defensive game-changer, a rim protector who looked surprisingly comfortable and adept moving in space for a 7-foot-2-inch, 260-plus pounder. On most nights, he was also the Sixers’ sole reliable source of offense. He was an All-Star-caliber performer, and one of the most influential players in the sport. Provided he stayed on the court, he appear to have Rookie of the Year honors sewn up by Christmas.
He hasn’t stayed on the court, though. And now we have to start reckoning with that fact.
Embiid’s rookie year will end with 786 total minutes played over the space of 31 games. The fewest minutes ever played by a Rookie of the Year winner? Kyrie Irving’s 1,558 during the 2011-12 season, nearly twice as many as Embiid. The fewest games ever played in a season by a Rookie of the Year? Fifty, by Patrick Ewing in 1985-86 and Vince Carter in 1998-99 (which doesn’t really count, because that season was limited to just 50 games by a lockout).
The fewest minutes per game of any Rookie of the Year? That’d be 29.1, nearly four more per game than Embiid, turned in by Mike Miller for the Orlando Magic in 2000-01 — a season widely regarded as featuring the the worst rookie class of all time … until, perhaps, this one, which features only one other double-figure scorer, only four other players who have posted more than one double-double, and relatively few impact contributors of note, whether on good teams or bad.
During his time on the floor, Embiid was very, very clearly the best rookie in his class, and voters very well might opt to reward him for the excellence of what he provided rather than penalizing him for his inability to provide more of it. For the sake of argument, though, let’s say that you believe Embiid’s sheer unavailability — the fact that he will wind up suiting up for less than 38 percent of Philly’s games and only about 20 percent of their total minutes — should disqualify him from consideration. Who else should merit consideration for Rookie of the Year honors?
• Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers: Unlike his teammate, the Croatian forward wins the perfect attendance award in this year’s class, having appeared in all 60 of the Sixers’ games. Saric — who, like Embiid, was drafted in 2014, but only came over this summer after playing two seasons in Turkey — is this rookie group’s second-leading scorer and rebounder, averaging 11.3 points and 6.2 caroms in 25.4 minutes per contest. He leads all rookies in total points, made field goals and rebounds, and ranks third in minutes, 3-pointers and free throws.
Saric’s advanced statistical profile isn’t grand — a Player Efficiency Rating of 11.9 (league-average is 15), negative marks in Value Over Replacement Player and Box Plus-Minus, a subpar True Shooting percentage, etc. But he’s coming off a strong February (17 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.8 assists and one steal in 30.1 minutes per game) that earned him Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month honors, and has settled into the starting lineup since the trade deadline deal that sent Ersan Ilyasova to Atlanta.
Saric might already have the best résumé of any non-JoJo rookie. With Embiid and Ben Simmons shut down for the season, Ilyasova and Nerlens Noel shipped out, and Jahlil Okafor looking at times like he’d rather be just about anywhere else in the world than wearing a Sixers uniform, he should get plenty of opportunities to showcase his skills down the stretch.
• Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks: The former ACC Player of the Year didn’t come off the board until the second round of the 2016 draft, owing largely to the fact that he was set to turn 24 just over a month into his first season. But the four-year college standout has been a valuable contributor for the Bucks, earning a spot in Jason Kidd’s rotation with his steady hand, his work as an outside shooter off the ball, and his ability to handle a variety of assignments.
Brogdon’s third among rookies in scoring (9.8 points per game) and leads all first-year players in assists (4.2 dimes per contest), 3-point accuracy (42.3 percent from beyond the arc on 2.4 attempts per game), Win Shares and “RPM Wins,” which estimates “the number of wins each player has contributed to his team’s win total on the season.” He’s had some eye-popping moments of explosion — just ask LeBron, Kyrie and Nerlens — and has outplayed veteran free-agent acquisition Matthew Dellavedova, giving Kidd a somewhat surprising stabilizing agent on a Bucks squad that has needed supplementary playmaking alongside top gun Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The Bucks have outscored opponents by 4.2 points per 100 possessions in the 1,517 minutes Brogdon has played, and have been outscored by 3.9 points-per-100 in the 1,330 minutes he’s sat. He could wind up having something significant to say about whether a Milwaukee team sitting just two games (one in the loss column) out of the No. 8 seed winds up returning to the Eastern playoffs. If that’s not enough to sway voters, perhaps his tremendous nicknames of “Humble Moses” and “The President” will be. (Though, if we’re expanding the conversation to nicknames, we’ll have to weigh Saric being nicknamed “The Homie Dario,” and Knicks big man Willy Hernangomez being called “Bilt Chamberlaiñ.” OK, me and Joe Flynn are the only ones who call him that.)
• Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics: Along the same lines as Brogdon, the 19-year-old Brown has worked his way into a larger role over the course of the season. His role is smaller in Boston than Brogdon’s is in Milwaukee, but he’s also playing on a much, much better team, and he just averaged 10.4 points and 3.9 rebounds in 25.5 minutes per game in February, shooting 49.2 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from 3-point land.
The Cal product’s opportunities might dry up a bit now that veteran wing Avery Bradley is back from his Achilles strain. If they don’t, though, and if Brown continues to reward Brad Stevens’ trust with strong defense and production in his limited offensive chances for a Celtics team with its sights set on the East’s No. 1 seed, he could draw voters’ attention.
• Willy Hernangomez, New York Knicks: Another second-round pick, this one made by the 76ers with the 35th overall selection in 2015 before being redirected to the Knicks for two future second-rounders, Hernangomez spent last year with Sevilla of Spain’s ACB before coming over to join former teammate/dance partner Kristaps Porzingis. He’s proven to be a bright spot in another dark season in New York, averaging 6.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 16.4 minutes of floor time.
He’s the only non-Embiid rookie with an above-average PER (18.6 in 852 minutes), and he’s second to Embiid among rookies in Kevin Pelton’s Wins Above Replacement Player metric and to Brogdon in Win Shares. It took him a while to carve out a niche in a crowded frontcourt for a dysfunctional Knicks team, but he’s been a mostly reliable and positive contributor when he’s gotten the opportunity to take the floor. In this rookie class, that’s something, at least.
And, um, that’s about it.
If, say, Buddy Hield or Jamal Murray have a monster closing kick, maybe they crack the debate, but by and large, this is the list. (And, really, it probably ends after Saric and Brogdon.) The question, then, is whether voters will opt for quality over quantity — less than 800 minutes of A+ material, or respectable enough but significantly lesser contributions over a significantly larger body of work.
As Michael Baumann of The Ringer wrote, “Embiid has been a superstar in a power vacuum.” Nature abhors a vacuum; soon enough, we’ll find out whether award-voting media members do, too.
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