Even on a restriction that limited him to 25 minutes per game, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid was once a foregone conclusion to be named the Rookie of the Year. By midseason, he wasn’t just the league’s best rookie — by galactic chasms — he was making an All-Star case as the East’s best center.
So, when Embiid suffered a left knee injury that later turned out to be a meniscus tear, and the Sixers announced on March 1 their budding franchise player would miss the remainder of his debut season — after missing his first two years of NBA eligibility with foot injuries — the first question that popped to mind after acknowledging the bummer of it all was, well, Can Embiid still win Rookie of the Year?
Embiid averaged 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 2.1 assists through his first 31 games, all while shooting a respectable 36.7 percent on 4.5 3-point attempts per game and protecting the rim as well as anybody in the league. No other rookie comes within a whiff of that production, and few other players in the NBA made as many headlines as Embiid. He still dominates the rookie conversation.
Despite sitting out more than half the season, Embiid has played more minutes than all but 19 other rookies, so it wouldn’t be completely crazy to continue considering him for Rookie of the Year. And you might think he’d still like to bring that trophy home, even if he doesn’t believe it’ll get him any closer to that date with Rihanna he’s always wanted, but Embiid now appears ready to concede the honor.
After teammate Dario Saric dropped a career-high 29 points to go with seven rebounds and five assists in a 118-116 win over the L.A. Lakers, Embiid passed the torch, interrupting CSN Philly reporter Molly Sullivan French’s postgame interview with Saric to say, “He’s the Rookie of the Year. That’s the guy.”
Saric’s performance was merely the latest in what’s been an impressive run following his teammate’s injury. The 6-foot-10 Croatian leads all rookies not named Embiid in scoring (12.2 points per game), ranks second in rebounding (6.3 per game) and cracks the top 10 in assists (2.2). Since reentering the starting lineup on Feb. 24, Saric has produced the sort of numbers we became accustomed to only from Embiid, averaging 19.7 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game over his last 10 outings.
As recently as 10 days ago, Saric was merely the first player to pop to mind when weighing the not-so-exciting options behind Embiid for Rookie of the Year — a list that included Malcolm Brogdon, Jaylen Brown and Willy Hernangomez — and even his advanced statistical production wasn’t all that great.
The NBA Draft Class of 2016 ranks among the league’s least impressive rookie groups of all-time, and Saric winning Rookie of the Year won’t help them in the history books, since he spent the past two years playing in Turkey after being drafted 12th overall in 2014, but at least his effort on Sunday has capped a stretch that’s added some more respectability to a non-Embiid discussion for the award.
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