For the third straight year, Philadelphia 76ers fans have a rookie center who, if he can stay healthy, should battle for rookie of the year. For the third straight year, it's Joel Embiid.
The wrinkle this year is that he's not the only rookie who projects to play well. Philly is positioned with three guys who should get substantial minutes this season - the oft-injured Embiid, Croatian sensation Dario Saric, and #1 pick Ben Simmons. Sixers brass has so far as to substantiate this claim, saying that they believe all three could contend for the crown. In my opinion, we're looking at two wild-cards and one headline-stealer. Let's dig in.
Embiid is still anyone's guess. Word all summer has been that he's in great shape, moving well, and prepping for the season. He is not playing in either the Utah or Las Vegas Summer League, so all speculation is still just speculation. He hasn't played a competitive game in about three years, and I've already spent plenty of column-space on how I'm extremely skeptical of him right now.
Having said that, here's how he could end up being a major player in the RotY race: Defensive players are not flashy unless they block a lot of shots. Joel Embiid was an excellent shot blocker. If Embiid plays like a mobile 7-footer can play - grabbing 8-10 boards and powering home a few dunks a game - he could easily end up with a 10 point/10 rebound/2.5 blocks line. In a typical season that would place a guy in the running for top rookie. Helping his cause this year is that suddenly people want to pay attention to the Philadelphia 76ers. It's not just because of Ben Simmons, but that helps. People around the league really want to know if they're turning the corner and suddenly they have enough young pieces for folks to think it's happening.
Once again, I'm a bit of a skeptic. Of the three, I think Saric has the lowest chance to bring home hardware this season. That's not to say he won't be a useful cog in what Philly fans hope will be a mediocre team, but the more I read about him, the less it seems like he's going to be an explosive player. Saric seems like the kind of guy who will go about his business stretching the floor and making the occasional open shot, but he's not going to take over a game offensively with any kind of consistency. He will almost certainly end up as a role player and I genuinely hope he ends up a good one, but non-dominant European players almost never become dominant in the NBA.
However, starting July 14th, Saric is expected to participate in whatever is happening from here forward and begin working out with the team. It's hard to imagine him immediately being a game-changer, but time will tell. He's expected to sign on the 15th.
The Ben Simmons hype machine is real and it's relatively well-deserved. NBA Summer League is not a great gauge of how good a player someone is or can be, but great players should look outstanding in Summer League. Simmons, jump shot notwithstanding, has looked good.
Winning the NBA Rookie of the Year is actually a bit different than winning the MVP. Advanced metrics are beginning to play more of a role in MVP voting but RotY is still oddly driven by hype, minutes played, and scoring. In 2013 Damian Lillard received every 1st place vote for RotY over Anthony Davis, despite Davis having more win-shares and a (substantially) higher WS/48. Why? In large part the vote swung because Lillard averaged 19 points a game. Davis was a very good all-around player, but the voting skewed to the guy who scored more.
Take a look at the 2015 Rookie results. Did anyone have a shot at unseating Andrew Wiggins after the highly publicized Wiggins/Love trade? (for the record, both then and now I was pulling for Nerlens Noel to win that one) Wiggins "deserved" it because he was going through a harder situation than other rookies and made some impressive plays along the way. He was certainly the most utilized rookie that year, and that was a huge factor in his win.
My favorite example was 2008 when Kevin Durant won the award before ever playing in an NBA game. He shot poorly, turned the ball over too much, and played for a terrible team, but 75% of the votes went to him while only about 25% went to Al Horford, who put up a 10/10 average with top-shelf defense as well.
The point is that hype plays a part, and Ben Simmons has hype. The kid has been making great passes and athletic plays regularly this summer, scoring 18 in one game and averaging 5+ assists and 7 rebounds a game. If he keeps doing things like this, he'll be in the top 2 of the award, even if he continues to turn it over 5 times per game.
He's got skill, he's got hype, he's got eyes on him. Ben Simmons is far and away the best bet to win the Rookie of the Year award of the three rookies in Philly. That's not to say that he's a lock for winning the award, as there are some other rookies who've looked nice in the summer and positioned themselves for a run. Jaylen Brown has been turning heads in Boston and the top 5 picks in the draft are usually in the race.
If it's Ben Simmons vs. the field, it's a tight race, and Field might have the edge. Even so, that's pretty damn good.