Like the NFL’s Eagles underperforming expectations or a hackneyed writer/commentator once again bringing up the ‘snowballs at Santa’ incident, discussion of the NBA Rookie of the Year race has become an annual tradition in Philadelphia. Following Michael Carter-Williams winning the award in 2013-14, and Nerlens Noel finishing as the second runner-up last season, the proverbial torch has now been passed along to Jahlil Okafor.
Currently, the 3rd overall pick out of Duke sits as the odds-on favorite to bring home the hardware for the upcoming campaign (+400 on most platforms that judge such things), ahead of a group that includes Emmanuel Mudiay, Karl-Anthony Towns, Stanley Johnson, and almost-Sixer D’Angelo Russell.
The argument for Okafor winning the award essentially boils down to one thing: getting buckets. As much as the NBA has embraced advanced analytics and different statistical ways to measure value on the court, at least when it comes to this award, points reign supreme. Over 10 of the last 11 seasons, the Rookie of the Year winner was the player who led the rookie class in scoring; the lone exception was Derrick Rose in 2008-09, who was the second-leading scorer among NBA freshmen behind O.J. Mayo.
It’s been discussed ad nauseam how the Sixers will funnel their offense through Okafor, but it’s worth pointing out that early indications from preseason play fully support that notion to a high degree. Big Jah currently sports a team-high 30.3% usage rate across the three preseason games in which he’s been a participant. That high a rate would have been a top-10 mark in the league last season among players who played at least a quarter of the season. Being force fed the ball to such an extreme, Okafor could sleepwalk his way to 15 ppg, which would already have him in the conversation for leading rookie scorer.
Aside from the simple fact that there are a number of players vying for the same honor, reasons for why Okafor might not win the award are more opaque. A large factor may be how weary much of the general public is about the length of the Sixers rebuild. It’s no secret that a certain media contingent finds Sam Hinkie and management’s tactics distasteful, and a less extreme sector feels there should have at least been more progress made by now. That feeling pervades into the area of player evaluation, combining with a ‘putting up stats on a bad team’ narrative, that masks what Sixers players accomplish to a certain degree.
It’s certainly part of the reason Noel finished behind Nikola Mirotic last season; the voting populace liked the fresh feel of a ROY candidate contributing to a playoff team. As a result, if Okafor and another player on a fringe playoff contender have roughly similar stats, one would think votes might swing in the other direction.
As for what takes place on the court, contrary to what I mentioned earlier, voters are considering facets of the game beyond counting stats more and more. I don’t think the NBA is far from it’s “Felix Hernandez winning the Cy Young” moment when King Felix won the award despite a largely-team-dependent 13-12 record in 2010.
However, unlike Noel, any dalliance with advanced statistics will likely be a huge detriment to Okafor’s case. He’s a net-negative defender at this point of his career and has struggled with turnovers and scoring efficiency in both summer league and preseason play. More than any other candidate this year, his chances strongly depend upon voters sticking to the status quo.
In the end, while he certainly has a legitimate chance, I wouldn’t financially back Jahlil Okafor winning the Rookie of the Year award this season. It’s hard for me to imagine voters being fine with this period of Philadelphia basketball resulting in ROYs in 2 out of 3 years. More importantly, I think concerns about conditioning and Okafor’s difficulty adjusting to bigger and stronger NBA defenders may hurt his efficiency numbers more than many people might anticipate. Unlike when MCW took hard the hardware in 2013-14, this year is a very crowded field; Jahlil Okafor may just get lost in it.