Along Came A Spider
A month into the 2017-18 NBA season, the Rookie of the Year Award seemed to be a foregone conclusion. It had to be Ben Simmons. Although Jayson Tatum looked polished well beyond his 19 years of age, Ben Simmons was playing like a five year NBA veteran. But there was another new face raising some eyebrows out in Utah, the 13th overall pick from Louisville, Donovan Mitchell.
Lets start with Tatum, who it seemed was the best player taken in this draft. (Ben Simmons was drafted in 2016, but missed his entire first year, making him technically a rookie this year.) The Boston Celtics claimed to be enamored with Tatum after his one year at Duke University, and traded the #1 overall pick to the Philadelphia 76ers for future picks and the #3 overall pick in 2017. The Celts knew the Sixers were trading up to take Markelle Fultz, and that the Los Angeles Lakers would take UCLA star Lonzo Ball with the second pick. With the unfortunate (and gruesome) Gordon Hayward injury just minutes into his first game as a Celt, Jayson Tatum was given an unexpected opportunity to log big minutes in his rookie year.
Tatum has managed to start in all 53 games and average 31 minutes with the Eastern Conference leaders. He has posted 13.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1 steal and 0.8 blocks a game, while shooting 49% from the floor. He led the league in 3 point FG% for most of the season before falling off, dropping to 44%, fifth overall and miles ahead of any other rookie. While making less 3 pointers recently, he has developed a nose for the rim, and appears to have inspired at least one song:
Unfortunately for Tatum's Rookie of the Year dreams, Ben Simmons, the #1 overall pick in 2016, missed the entire season that year. Although he didn't play for the Sixers last year, he did get a year with NBA trainers, eating an NBA diet. It also didn't hurt that he was a transcendent talent. He came into the league looking like a man. A man without a hint of nerves, ready to take on anyone. Triple doubles came with ease. (He's got 5 already) For a guy that can't shoot a jumper, he's managed to make 53% of his shots on 13.4 attempts per game. Simmons is averaging 16.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.8 steals and 0.9 blocks. But its not just the numbers he puts up, it's the way he does it. Calm, serene, smooth. These words come to mind, but maybe the best way to describe him? Cerebral. He acts like a veteran, he plays like a veteran, and he puts up numbers a veteran aspires to.
But along came a spider, more accurately a "Spida". (@spidamitchell on twitter) As mentioned, Donovan Mitchell was drafted 13th overall, but not by the Utah Jazz. The Jazz loved him in pre-draft workouts, but didn't think he would be available by the time their pick (24th overall) came around. They were right. The Denver Nuggets took Mitchell at 13 and offered him up to the Jazz for Trey Liles. Although nobody, including the Jazz, could have seen this coming, the Nuggets are certainly kicking themselves now. Once again it was injuries that enabled a youngster to step to the forefront in his first year. In this case it was Ricky Rubio and Rodney Hood missing time that opened up a starting position and plenty of minutes for Mitchell. He has not disappointed. Mitchell is averaging a rookie best 19.7 points along with 3.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals. He averages 2.3 made 3 pointers per game and shoots 45% on 16.2 shots. He has scored at least 40 points twice, while no other rookie has scored 40 this year. Just like Ben Simmons, Mitchell's numbers are less impressive than the way he gets them. To say Donovan Mitchell passes the eye test would be a gross understatement. Here are his highlights from January alone:
Ben Simmons, the Fresh Prince, will most likely be crowned the Rookie of the Year, but Donovan Mitchell is making his case night after night. As for Jayson Tatum, born in the wrong year, but he is going to be the rookie that makes the biggest impact in the 2018 NBA Playoffs. Too bad there's no trophy for that.