Joel Embiid became the overwhelming favorite to win the 2016-17 NBA Rookie of the Year award once it became apparent how dominant he’d be, even in limited minutes. While on a tight minutes restriction early in the season, Embiid put up outrageous per-minute scoring numbers and anchored a defense that was solid when he was on the court and abysmal when he was not.
Unfortunately, there weren’t many minutes on the court for Embiid this season. His campaign is ended after just 31 games and 786 minutes. Embiid’s per-game averages — 20 points, seven rebounds, two blocks — pass muster even with the low per-game minutes average (25).
But the number of games he will have played in really isn’t enough. By the end of the season, he was on the court for less than 20 percent of the Sixers’ minutes. When we got Embiid, we had so much to take in, but we just didn’t get enough Embiid overall.
So, we turn to other contenders for the Rookie of the Year prize.
The top challengers were Milwaukee’s Malcolm Brogdon and Philadelphia’s Dario Saric. Brogdon ultimately claimed the award, thanks to a late-season surge and his status contributing to a winning team.
But neither presented overwhelming cases.
Brogdon, a 24-year-old second-rounder, was a key rotation piece for a mediocre Bucks team. He played two and a half times as many minutes as Embiid ... yet still scored only 140 more points.
Brogdon is actually an intriguing piece for Milwaukee as they look ahead. The Bucks are replete with ball-handling wings like Giannis Antetokounmpo and the injured Jabari Parker, and Brogdon is a nice supplemental playmaker when Giannis is at the point.
But he averaged 10 and four per game. Was that worthy of a trophy? No one that averaged fewer than 11 points per game won Rookie of the Year in the modern era ... until now. The few who have averaged fewer than 15 put up huge numbers in other categories, with the exception of 2001’s Mike Miller. (It’s no surprise that this year has been compared to 2001, known as the worst year for rookies in the modern era.)
Saric scored nearly 13 points per game, and his stock rose near the end of the season. Sixers coach Brett Brown gave Saric more minutes (about 30 per game) and the forward has rewarded his trust since the beginning of February. He’s still shooting horrendously, though, and in a normal year he’d be a fringe candidate for first-team All-Rookie.
No. 3 pick Jaylen Brown has been a breath of fresh air, but he was deep in Boston’s rotation for so long that the minutes just aren’t there. No. 2 pick Brandon Ingram didn’t scoring much because he is shooting so poorly.
Buddy Hield and Jamal Murray were only modestly more productive than Isaiah Whitehead, yet only modestly less productive than Brogdon. Domantas Sabonis has started 66 games for a playoff-bound team. He averaged 5.9 points and 3.5 rebounds per game.
Kudos to Yogi Ferrell for fighting for his career, but we can’t give Rookie of the Year to a player who waived by the league’s worst team before Christmas and out of the league for two months. Do we want to talk about Rodney McGruder or Willy Hernangomez? No, we do not want to talk about Rodney McGruder or Willy Hernangomez.
Joel Embiid remained the most qualified player for the Rookie of the Year award, and Joel Embiid is not qualified to win Rookie of the Year.
Therein lies the problem. There was no Rookie of This Year.
It’s worth remembering that Rookie of the Year means nothing in the long run. Just four years ago, Michael Carter-Williams won the award by acclamation. Victor Oladipo finished No. 2 and Trey Burke came in third. Giannis Antetokounmpo received a solitary third-place vote. The crazy thing is that the voters actually did the right thing in 2014: Michael Carter-Williams was the best rookie that season.
What happens in your rookie season if you enter the league from the fringes — like Brogdon or Ferrell, for example — is madly important. You can build a career by showing you belong from Day 1. But if you are a lottery pick whose team is invested in your success, the rookie season is merely a beginning. The trophy and recognition is nice for whoever wins Rookie of the Year, but what truly matters is what happens next.
We know what happened for MCW and Giannis. We have no idea what’s next for Embiid, Saric, Brown, Ingram, Sabonis, or any of the others. What this rookie class lacks in immediate production, it makes up for in intrigue.
This story was originally published on March 9.