The moment Donovan Mitchell threw shade at Ben Simmons with his “Rookie?” sweatshirt was the moment he admitted Simmons had a better season.
Why claim to be rookie of the year based on a technicality rather than sheer merit? The age difference between the two is little over a month, yet Mitchell supporters don’t consider Simmons to be a “true rookie”.
Why penalise Simmons for being an elite one-and-done college prospect whereas Mitchell stayed an extra year at the University of Louisville?
Although Simmons was crowned with the official NBA Rookie of the Year award, Mitchell won the players’ association version voted by his peers.
The debate has raged on, with many in the Mitchell camp going so far as to promote his case based on actual merit. This is where the argument disintegrates, as Simmons holds a far more compelling claim to the award.
The statistical debate has been done to death. However, it’s a clear win for Simmons in this department. Simmons averaged Points/Rebounds/Assists splits of 15.8/8.1/8.2 with 3.4 turnovers per game. Such all-round ability hasn’t been seen from a rookie since the likes of NBA legends Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson.
Simmons’ 8.2 assist average highlights his uniqueness as a 6’10 point guard and how he makes his teammates better. For instance, 34-year-old veteran JJ Redick had one of his best seasons, and there’s no doubt that Simmons played a major role.
Mitchell on the other hand recorded 20.5/3.7/3.7 with 2.7 turnovers per game. Mitchell’s shooting splits of .437/.340/.805 are impressive for a rookie taking a high volume of tough shots, but far from a smoking gun in this argument.
Simmons on the other hand has drawn criticism for lacking a jump shot and was even hacked in games at times, with a season free throw percentage of 56 per cent. This is the only area where Mitchell comes out on top.
Aside from his gaudy averages of 1.7 steals and 0.9 blocks per game, Ben Simmons has drawn plaudits for his defensive abilities. On average, his assigned player shot 4.5 per cent worse when guarded by him and he holds a +3.6 defensive box plus/minus (DBPM).
Mitchell on the other hand has a -0.2 DBPM, with opponents shooting 3.3 per cent worse when guarded by him. He also defends two fewer field goal attempts than Simmons each game. It should be noted that defensive statistics are rife with inaccuracies, but Simmons nonetheless comes out ahead when applying the eye test.
While Ben’s defensive play has often been celebrated, Mitchell is generally regarded by the NBA community as an average defender at best.
Even Mitchell supporters would most likely concede that Simmons wins the numbers game. Now we consider overall impact on the team and wins, which is where the debate becomes interesting. Ben’s 76ers won 52 games, with Mitchell’s Jazz winning 48.
Both teams were eventually eliminated in the conference semi-finals. It appears there isn’t much in it, but as we delve a little further it becomes evident that Simmons is by far the more impactful player.
Both rookies play alongside a dominant big man. Rudy Gobert from the Jazz missed 27 games last season, while 76er Joel Embiid missed 20. The difference between Mitchell and Simmons becomes clear when analysing their respective teams’ fortunes in such a situation. Utah were 36-19 with Gobert healthy, but only 12-15 when he was out.
While Mitchell is the #1 offensive option on the team, Gobert is the best player and their struggles without him are quite telling. There is a reason Gobert won Defensive Player of the Year.
While the Jazz struggled without Gobert, the 76ers hardly missed a beat without Embiid. Their record of 12-8 without him is only a minor regression from a season 52-30 record. Not only that, but this 12-8 figure includes a nine game winning streak to close out the regular season.
This shows how Ben Simmons grew as a leader and stepped up at a critical time heading into the playoffs. The sample size of 20+ games is sufficiently large enough to know that Simmons was a more impactful player than Mitchell this season.
All things considered, it’s hard to see how the Rookie of the Year award generated so much debate. It’s a shame to see NBA players and fans alike arguing the definition of a rookie, with both contenders virtually the same age. Based on sheer merit, Ben Simmons deserved the award without question.