Throughout the regular season, we have seen excellent performances out of the first-year players. Now in the playoffs, we are getting a taste of what these rookies are capable of under the bright lights.
In Game 1 against the Miami Heat, Sixers star Ben Simmons was a rebound shy of a triple-double, finishing with 17 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds in his playoff debut. He joined Spud Webb as the only rookies to finish a playoff game with at least 17 points, 12 assists and five rebounds. He then followed up that performance with 24 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in Game 2.
Although his performance was not enough to overcome Oklahoma City and Game 1, Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell put on a show in the loss. The 21-year-old had 27 points and 10 rebounds in 35 minutes of play. He is the first rookie since Tim Duncan to score at least 25 points on 50 percent shooting or better, while corralling 10 boards.
In an epic overtime thriller, Jayson Tatum stepped up big for the Celtics. The former Duke standout had 19 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three steals in Boston’s win over Milwaukee. Even OG Anunoby had a solid game off the bench for Toronto, finishing with 12 points in route to the Raptors victory over the Washington Wizards.
The league is getting younger, and these kids can really ball. The Rookie of the Year chase may be down to just Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell, but let’s take a look at the rest of the field and how they fared throughout the 2017-18 NBA season.
Let’s start with the future of the Lakers, Kyle Kuzma, and the face of the Big Baller Brand, Lonzo Ball. Possibly the most scrutinized rookie of all time, Ball, who had an up-and-down season, ended up with 13 double-doubles and a pair of triple-doubles. Say what you want about the kid, but the only rookies to average 10 points, seven assists and six rebounds are Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Ben Simmons and Ball. Without Ball in the lineup, the Lakers went 11-19.
Saying Kuzma exceeded expectations would be an understatement. The 27th pick in the draft, Kuzma became one of eight rookies since 2001 (Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor, Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony, Pau Gasol) to average at least 16 points and six rebounds. He had five games with at least 25 points and 10 rebounds, which was the third-most by a rookie since 2011, behind Griffin and Towns.
Kuzma joined Jayson Tatum, Steve Francis and Shane Battier as the only rookies to score 1,100 points, 400 rebounds and 100 threes. Speaking of Tatum, the Celtics rookie finished second among rookies in win shares. Tatum was the complete package for Boston, and joined Towns, Dave Greenwood, Christian Laettner, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Larry Johnson as the only rookies to finish the season with 1,100 points, 400 rebounds, 100 assists, 80 steals, 50 blocks and a free-throw percentage greater than 80 percent.
What about the big men? Lauri Markkanen started the year on fire from deep. He set the rookie record for most threes in his first three career games. Only eight players this season ended the season with 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 100 threes: LeBron James, Towns, Nikola Jokic, Dario Saric, Kevin Love, DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol and Markkanen. Atlanta’s John Collins was the fifth rookie since 2012 (Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, Nerlens Noel, Anthony Davis) to finish with 700 points, 500 rebounds and 80 blocks.
How about some standout individual performances? Against the Toronto Raptors, Miami’s Bam Adebayo finished with 16 points on 57.1 percent shooting, 15 rebounds and five blocks. The only rookies to do that since 1998 are Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol and Towns.
The 2016-17 Horizon League Player of the Year, Valparaiso’s Alec Peters, had quite the stat line in Game 82 for the Phoenix Suns. The former Crusaders star, who averaged 23 points and 10.1 rebounds his senior year, became one of eight players in NBA history to score 36 points with at least eight threes, while shooting less than 15 from deep and also adding nine rebounds. That list includes Ray Allen, Kevin Love, Vernon Maxwell, Jason Kidd, Russell Westbrook, Jason Richardson and James Harden. While most people have never heard of this kid, that is quite a list to be on.
Let’s take a look at the top two rookies from this past season.
If we were to re-draft the 2017 NBA Draft, Donovan Mitchell would go No. 1 overall, as he was clearly the best player in his draft class. Mitchell set the rookie record for most three-pointers made in a season (187), passing Damian Lillard (185) and Steph Curry (166). He led the Utah Jazz to a 48-34 record, averaging 20.5 points per game. He is one of seven rookies, joining Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Walter Davis, Pete Maravich, and Mitch Redmond, to average 20 points, three rebounds and three assists with a free-throw percentage better than 80 percent.
Mitchell’s seven 30-point games were the most by a rookie since Blake Griffin in 2011. In a game against the Suns, Mitchell caught fire, finishing with 40 points, six assists and five rebounds, becoming one of 14 rookies in NBA history to post a game with at least 40 points, five rebounds and five assists. This was Mitchell’s second 40-point game of the season, which put him in elite company with Griffin and Allen Iverson as the only three rookies since 1985 to have multiple 40-point games in their rookie season.
In all honesty, this is a one-man race. All respect to Mitchell, who clearly had a tremendous rookie season, but Ben Simmons is a once-in-a-generation type of player. Barring injury, this guy is a lock for the Hall of Fame. While that may sound crazy, Simmons’ rookie season was one of the best we have ever seen. The Australian finished with the third-highest win shares as a rookie since 2005, behind Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
Simmons led all rookies in rebounds, assists and steals. He became the first rookie in history to finish with 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 500 assists, 50 blocks and 50 steals. His 12 triple-doubles were second most in NBA history by a rookie, ahead of Magic Johnson, who had seven. Simmons joined Oscar Robertson as the only players to do average 15 points, eight rebounds and eight assists during their rookie seasons.
He also had a few legendary performances. Against LeBron James and the Cavs, the 6-foot-10 point guard collected 27 points, 15 rebounds and 13 assists. He did this while shooting 70.6 percent from the field. The only players to put up those numbers in a game are Wilt Chamberlin and Nikola Jokic.
Simmons also had four 15-assist games, including one against the Hornets in which he scored 20 points and added eight rebounds. He joined James, Westbrook and Jokic as the only players since 2014 to have a game with at least 20 points, 15 assists and eight rebounds while shooting over 55 percent.
Can Simmons carry the Sixers all the way into the NBA Finals? Time will tell.
Featured image by SLAM Magazine
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