The very thing that makes the NBA’s end-of-season awards so compellingly debatable is also what makes them so vexing: they’re exceptionally squishy.
In baseball, the Triple Crown is won by a player who leads the league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in. In the World Cup, the Golden Boot goes to the player with the most goals. Sure, the NBA has a scoring leader, but like those other awards, that’s just math. The Most Valuable Player, though, can be maddeningly ill-defined. Best player on the best team? Pretty clearly Stephen Curry. Player who matters most to his team’s success? Maybe James Harden, maybe LeBron James. Player almost single-handedly pulling his team into the playoff picture? At times that was Anthony Davis, now it looks like Russell Westbrook.
The vagueness about MVP extends to the other awards: Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year and Rookie of the Year. In a season where injuries gave us truncated or non-existent glimpses of players like Jabari Parker (25 games), Joel Embiid (zero games) and Julius Randle (13 minutes and 34 seconds), the field of likely candidates for that last award has dwindled to three serious contender: Andrew Wiggins, Nikola Mirotic and Nerlens Noel.
Andrew Wiggins was the number one overall pick in last year’s draft and – after an uneven first two months – has played like it. He’s played 400 more minutes than the next nearest rookie and currently sits fourth in total minutes played in the entire league. He is the only player on the Minnesota Timberwolves with a shot to start and play every single game this season. At 16.3 points per game, he is the team’s active scoring leader and paces the field of rookies by almost five points in that category. It certainly doesn’t hurt his case that he’s scored many of those points on stunning and occasionally terrifying dunks and had star-making sequences where he’s looked like the complete package on both sides of the ball.
In other words: Yes, Andrew Wiggins is your Rookie of the Year.
The case for Nikola Mirotic is grounded in two things: a new-school emphasis on per-36 stats over per-game stats and an-old school belief in playing in games that matter. Once the Wolves began to lose substantial floor time for Ricky Rubio, Martin and Nikola Pekovic to injury, it was clear that Minnesota would not be sniffing the playoffs. Mirotic’s Chicago Bulls, on the other hand, are very much in the hunt for favorable seeding in the Eastern Conference, and Mirotic is helping them right now, when it matters the most.
Per 36 minutes, Mirotic is averaging 17.9 points per game for the season (1.4 points more than Wiggins) and in March he’s been an absolute beast: 30.8 minutes per game, with averages of 20.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per. His offensive game is varied and polished, not to mention futuristic: The direction of the game today is canted toward big men who can space the floor and handle the ball, and Mirotic has looked like the epitome of this type at times.
In other words: Yes, Nikola Mirotic is your Rookie of the Year.
The argument for Nerlens Noel is a little different because it’s based not on sterling scoring, but incredible defense and a burgeoning offensive game. Like Mirotic, Noel has come on strong down the stretch, averaging 14.3 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 2.4 steals per game in March. Unlike Mirotic (but like Wiggins), Noel is in no danger of playing basketball beyond mid-April on a Philadelphia Sixers team still driving their tank back and forth across the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge. But that doesn’t make the silky confidence of his defensive footwork or the surprising smoothness of his offensive footwork any less drool-worthy in isolation.
So: Yes, Nerlens Noel is probably your Rookie of the Year too.
But the problem with lining up stats – whether traditional or advanced – is that the numbers and decimals just lie there dead on the page, without an understanding of what you value in basketball. Point to per-game scoring over a season and you’re emphasizing volume and tradition. Counter with player efficiency rating and usage stats and you’re on the side of nuance and innovation.
So let me lay out a case that’s admittedly pie-eyed and romantic – one based on what it means to be a rookie in the NBA. Because as much as the NBA is built on dominant stars who put together season-after-season of superlative play and the teams constructed around them, it also demands renewal. And rookies are that renewal personified. They are the next generation of players who have dreamed of taking to the hardwood under the brightest lights on the biggest stage. They’ve been preparing for it their whole life.
And then the reality of it slams down on them: the travel, the practices, the media, the expectations of fans, the ridiculous length and athleticism of opposing players, the realization that just about every player on every NBA team was the best player on every team they’d ever been on. Until they got to the NBA.
What I want out of a Rookie of the Year is a player who can not only live beneath all that weight, but progress in spite of it; someone capable of crashing through the rookie wall.
This might be Mirotic’s first year in the NBA, but he’s 24 and has been a professional basketball player for nearly a decade. He was already viewed as the best player in Europe (and the best since Dirk Nowitzki) when he came to the Bulls. Noel sat out last year with an ACL injury, but nevertheless traveled and trained with the Sixers, including having his jump shot broken down and rebuilt wholesale in the process. Nothing compares to getting on the floor in the NBA, but both Mirotic and Noel had already been steeped in professional basketball coming into this year. That shouldn’t diminish their impressive growth and late-season runs, but to me, that doesn’t personify the rookie experience.
By contrast, a (then) 19-year-old Wiggins was thrust into uncertainty shortly after he was drafted by Cleveland Cavaliers, when LeBron James announced he was coming home. Forced to awkwardly address questions about his future with the Cavs during Summer League, he kept it together through the turmoil of his first month in the league before being traded to the Timberwolves, where he was thrown directly into the fire as a starter and new face of the franchise. Whether that team is competing for the playoffs is immaterial compared to the tremendous volume of minutes he’s logged without flagging. Yes, he’s gotten better. Yes, he’s put up highlight-reel plays. But more than any of that, he’s endured, a prodigy playing beyond expectations in his first professional experience.
Call it squishy or sentimental, but that’s what I want from the NBA: the human laid bare by the crucible of the game, made stronger and more resilient. That’s the year that Andrew Wiggins has had, and that’s what should embody the Rookie of the Year.