I recently saw a stat that identified Ben Simmons as just the second player (Oscar Robertson was the first) to accumulate 1,000 points, 600 assists, and 600 rebounds as a rookie, an impressive accomplishment for sure. However, Robertson did have 900 more points than Simmons, was third in the NBA in scoring and led the league in assists that season. So comparing Simmons to Robertson is like comparing Lonzo Ball’s rookie season to Magic Johnson’s. You know, points do matter. However, even though Simmons says that no other rookie has caught his eye this year, we must not forget that there are two rookies doing things we haven’t seen for a long time. In the last 40 years, only four rookies had ever compiled 1600 points, 290 assists, 290 rebounds, and 115 steals: Lebron James, Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan, and Larry Bird. Donovan Mitchell is the fifth. Mitchell haters are critical of the Jazz rookie’s efficiency and might argue that he joined this elite group only because of how much he shoots and how much he has the ball in his hands. However, of those five, only Jordan had a higher Effective Field Goal Percentage than Mitchell and none averaged fewer turnovers. In addition, Mitchell averaged the fewest minutes per game in compiling those numbers, not to mention that Mitchell broke the rookie record for three-pointers made.
While the Jazz have built an impressive roster full of defensive-minded players, the thing that makes what Mitchell did this season so dang impressive is that he has done it with so little offensive help. Mitchell led the Jazz in scoring with 20.5 points per game and the Jazz won 48 games. When you consider rookies who averaged over 20 points per game and led their teams in scoring as a rookie, none of them played on a team with as many wins as the Utah Jazz had this season while having as little help as Mitchell. In fact, when you consider that Mitchell’s highest scoring teammate is Rudy Gobert (13.5 points per game) and Mitchell is taking more shots by far (17.7) than the next closest teammate (Hood, who played 37 games for the Jazz before getting traded averaged 14.7 and now Jae Crowder is the next closest at 10.9), it makes what Mitchell did this season even more unprecedented. You see, other rookies in a similar position to Mitchell played for horrible teams or had much more offensive help. For example, Allen Iverson was a rookie guard who led his team is scoring, but had Jerry Stackhouse (20.7 points per game) at his side and still won just 22 games. Kyrie Irving led his team in scoring as a rookie and had Antawn Jamison (17.2 points per game) next to him and the Cavs won just 21 games. Glenn Robinson averaged 22 points per game and had Vin Baker (17.7 points per game) as a wing man and the Bucks won 34 games. Blake Griffin led the Clippers in scoring and had Eric Gordon (22.3 points per game) and the Clippers won 32 games. Lebron James led the Cavs in scoring and had Carlos Boozer (15.5 points per game) when they won 35 games. Kevin Durant had less help than many in this group and his highest scoring teammate, Chris Wilcox, averaged just 13.4 (almost identical to Gobert’s scoring average) and the Sonics won 20 games. Michael Jordan had way more help than Mitchell (Orlando Woolridge 22.9 points per game) and the Bulls still mustered just 38 wins. In cases where the rookie’s team won more than 48 games, the players had much more help. For example, Bird led the Celtics to 61 wins as a rookie, but had Cedric Maxwell (16.9 points per game) and six more double-digit scorers. David Robinson arrived as an NBA-ready 24 year-old and led the Spurs in scoring, but also had Terry Cummings (22.4 PPG) to lean on as an additional scorer on their 56 win team.
The rookie who was most statistically similar to Mitchell was Damian Lillard, who held the three-point record until Mitchell just broke it. But, Lillard had LaMarcus Aldridge and his 21.1 points per game to assist him and the Blazers still won just 33 games. So, the player who did something similar in a similar situation to Mitchell was Carmelo Anthony. Anthony’s highest scoring teammate was Andre Miller (14.8 points per game) and the Nuggets won 43 games. Donovan Mitchell’s biggest offensive helper, Rudy Gobert, averaged 13.5 points per game and the Jazz still won five more games than the Nuggets. In other words, no rookie in the last 40 years has led his team in scoring while carrying so much of the offensive load and won as many games as Mitchell and the Jazz have this season.
Comparing that to what Ben Simmons is doing with the Sixers this season, Ben Simmons is the third-leading scorer on the Sixers (Joel Embiid 22.9 points per game, J.J. Reddick 17.1 points per game, Simmons 15.8 points per game).
The Jazz’s rotation players look like a collection of cast-offs and rejects compared to many other teams. Ricky Rubio was highly touted when drafted 5th by the Timberwolves, but was run out of town by new Head Coach and GM, Tom Thibodeau after one season and being labelled as a solid defender, but a hapless shooter. Derrick Favors is the highest draft pick on the Jazz’s roster as the 3rd overall pick in 2010. He is viewed widely as a player who has not lived up to his pre-draft comparisons to Tim Duncan. Rudy Gobert was drafted 27th overall and was viewed as a “project” that most teams passed on without a second thought. Jae Crowder was a second round pick and is more of a junkyard dog than a scorer. Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neal were both undrafted and spent time playing internationally before landing with the Jazz. Coincidentally, both spent time in Summer league and camp with the Los Angeles Clippers, before both were cut. Somehow, you add the 13th pick from last year’s draft into this mix and the roster is a fifth seed in the hyper-competitive West playoffs.
Compare the Jazz roster to the Sixers’ roster surrounding Ben Simmons. Joel Embiid, was the 3rd-pick-turned-All-Star and this year may earn First Team All-NBA honors. J.J. Reddick, a two-time All-American at Duke and the nation’s leading scorer as a Senior who has spent the last 12 seasons torching opponents from deep by shooting 41.5 percent from three-point range. Dario Saric was taken earlier in the draft (12th) than Donovan Mitchell was (13th) and has proven his potential, averaging 13.7 points per game in his first two season (more than any Jazz player this season not named Mitchell). Markelle Fultz, the top overall pick in last summer’s draft, played in just 14 games this season, but in the season finale became the youngest player in history to record a triple-double. While Robert Covington would be a good exception to the lottery-filled Sixers’ roster because he was undrafted and spent time in the G-League, Covington, the Sixers’ lowest scoring regular starter, also averages (12.7 points per game) over his five NBA seasons, 2.7 points more than Gobert has averaged in his first five seasons. Ben Simmons had a very different supporting cast to help carry the offensive burden, than Mitchell had with the Jazz.
In close games, the Jazz almost completely turned the offense over to Mitchell. Mitchell and the Jazz played in 27 games this season with “clutch” time (defined as 5-point games in the last 5 minutes). Mitchell’s clutch time Usage Rate was an astounding 44 percent, fourth highest in the league behind only Lebron James, Kyrie Irving, and Russell Westbrook, and just ahead of James Harden. Simmons ranked 140th in the league with a Usage Rate of 19.0 percent. Mitchell made 34 shots in clutch time, 15th most in the NBA. His 85 attempts ranked 14th and is just 3 fewer than Simmons and Embiid took combined (Embiid 53, Simmons 35). Mitchell’s 40 percent shooting percentage seems a little low until you consider that it is higher than veteran All-Star Guards Kemba Walker, Bradley Beal, and Jimmy Butler and is only slightly lower than James Harden (41.1 percent) and Russell Westbrook (41.1 percent). From three-point range, Mitchell’s nine clutch threes are as many as Kyrie Irving. For comparison, “Mr. Clutch” Dame Lillard had 12 clutch threes this year. Mitchell’s 27.3 percent from three in clutch time is better than Westbrook (20.8 percent), Lou Williams (25.9 percent), and reputable closer, Kyrie Irving ( 26.5 percent). This is while everyone on the floor knows that Mitchell is going to create his own shot. The Jazz’s next most prolific clutch time shooter? Joe Ingles with 26 attempts. For the Sixers, Embiid 53, J.J. Reddick 42, Covington 37, and Dario Saric 34 have all taken more clutch shots than Ingles. The Sixers definitely had more options coming down the stretch than the Jazz, but Mitchell still performs in those situations. Lastly, Mitchell converts his clutch free throws at 81.0 percent, while Simmons makes clutch his free throws at just 56.3 percent.
While the stats and the winning are nice, perhaps where Mitchell and Simmons are most dissimilar (other than three point range) is the intangibles of attitude, humility, and likability.
Here is an excerpt from a recent interview with ESPN’s Chris Haynes with Ben Simmons (emphasis mine):
Haynes: What are you expecting when the postseason comes around?
Simmons: I’ll be playing hard, as I usually do, all game. I expect it to be similar to the Cavs game the other night. If I can put up those numbers, I think I’ll be fine.
Haynes: Who is the Rookie of the Year?
Simmons: Who would I pick? Me, 100 percent.
Haynes: What other Rookies have caught your attention this year:
In contrast, here’s an excerpt from a recent interview with Donovan Mitchell on ESPN’s First Take:
Stephen A Smith: Do you believe that you deserve to be the Rookie of the Year? Why or why not?
Mitchell: You know, Stephen A., I’m a person that tries to keep things consistent. This wasn’t a thought for me in October, so now that we are going into the Playoffs why would this be a thought for me now? Ben’s obviously a talented player, you look at the amount of triple-doubles he’s got in the season and it’s just incredible. The biggest thing is I’m just trying to see if we can push to the top four in the West. I think that would be a bigger accomplishment.
The approaches of these two players could not be more different. Simmons is talking about personal awards and numbers while not giving any credit or respect to his fellow players. Mitchell is more concerned with team success and getting better to help his team win, while praising and acknowledging the skills and accomplishments of his opponents. This simple comparison is what makes Donovan Mitchell so much more likable than Simmons. Simmons is an amazing talent and he’s going to tell the world how great he is. Mitchell is going to show you his greatness by helping his team win.
The last couple of weeks of this Rookie of the Year race have left me dreaming and wishing that Simmons and Mitchell will become this generation’s version of Magic and Bird. They are opposites just like Bird and Magic. One in East, one in the West. One is a giant for his position, the other was thought to be undersized. One was hugely hyped out of college, the other overlooked. One talks about individual awards and numbers, the other about team success. One is a rookie, one is a redshirt rookie. One plays in a large market, the other in a small market. One goes straight ahead with power, one twists and turns at impossible angles on his way to the hoop. One primarily looks to pass, one primarily looks to score. One represents Nike, one represents Adidas. One can shoot the lights out from downtown, the other can’t hit the broadside of a barn and doesn’t even try. But seriously, we can only hope that this little Rookie of the Year race turns into a decade long rivalry that sees these two stars meet in the Finals for years to come. While Mitchell doesn’t really care if he has a Rookie of the Year trophy to go along with his championship rings, I for one, certainly don’t want Simmons to have that trophy on his soon-to-be crowded mantle either.