As the season winds down, the race for the Rookie of the Year award is tightening up. Andrew Wiggins has held a sizable lead for most of the season, but things are not trending in his favor down the stretch. The Minnesota Timberwolves have struggled mightily in the month of March — albeit against many quality teams — and that has drawn eyes elsewhere in search of other worthy candidates.
Elfrid Payton, Nerlens Noel, and Nikola Mitotic have made pushes late in the season, and all have strong cases for the award as well as Wiggins. Let’s take a look at the merits of each candidate.
If you think the Rookie of the Year award should go to the player who puts up the gaudiest stats all season long, then the award should undoubtedly go to Andrew Wiggins. He’s averaging 16.2 points per game — far more than any other rookie — and he’s consistently been a top option for the Timberwolves all season. He’s started every single game for his team, something no other candidate has done, and he’s demonstrated steady improvement throughout the season on both ends of the floor.
Offensively, Wiggins makes at least one play that dazzles the crowd on an almost nightly basis, and on the other end he often draws the assignment of guarding the opposing team’s best scorer. He’s squared off against some of the league’s best defenders (read: Tony Allen) and some of the best offensive juggernauts (read: James Harden and Chris Paul), and he’s gotten better throughout the process.
The argument against Wiggins is that his on/off numbers aren’t flattering, thus he isn’t actually making his team better. That’s a tough argument to make though seeing as basketball is a team sport and Wiggins isn’t exactly surrounded by great talent. There’s a reason the Timberwolves are in contention for the No. 1 pick in the upcoming 2015 NBA Draft.
It took awhile for Orlando to fully turn the reigns over to Payton, but he’s started every game he’s played since the turn of the year. He posted two triple-doubles in the March on back-to-back nights, and he came really close several other times. Only one other NBA player (Antoine Walker) has ever registered a triple-double on back-to-back nights as a rookie. Bolstering Payton’s case is his ability to play against tremendous point guards on a nightly basis while not looking out of his depth. Just over the past month, Payton out-dueled Damian Lillard, Eric Bledsoe, and Jeff Teague. He’s often been a menace defensively against even the best point guards, and he leads all rookie guards in steals with 1.6 per game.
The biggest problem with Payton’s case that will deter award voters is his shooting. His stroke is a disaster, and his true shooting percentage is a brutal 45.6 percent while his free throw percentage isn’t any better at 54.3 percent. His range doesn’t extend to the three-point line right now, and it’s mostly poor from mid-range. The silver lining is that Payton’s touch around the rim has improved as the season has progressed, and he finally looks comfortable being an aggressive attacker in the pick & roll.
Noel is an absolute terror defensively. He possesses a rare combination of size and athleticism that enables him to guard players in the post and on the perimeter. He leads all rookies in blocks and steals, and his phenomenal play on that end makes it easy to project him as a defensive force for years to come.
Offensively, Noel remains a project, but he has been able to average close to double digits in points (9.9) because he mostly plays within himself and doesn’t try to do too much. Most of his buckets come around the rim on duck-ins, put-backs etc., but he’s demonstrated a new found touch on his mid-range jumper as the season is coming to a close. He averaged a double-double in March with 14.0 points per game and 11.0 rebounds per game.
Defensive specialists don’t usually win Rookie of the Year, but Noel is the only reason Philadelphia is watchable at this point, and he hasn’t shied away from being an on-court leader. He’s met the challenge of being a key player on both ends and upped his game as his role has expanded. That’s always admirable — especially for a rookie.
It feels like Mirotic has been somewhat discounted as a candidate for Rookie of the Year this season because of his untraditional situation. Before coming to the NBA, he played at the highest level in Europe against clearly better competition than his challengers for the award faced in college. Throw in the fact that Mirotic is 24 years old, and he’s clearly more seasoned than any other rookie. Whether right or wrong, voters could certainly discount him for that reason.
Despite the obvious case against Mirotic that is centered around things out of his control, his play this season won’t make it easy for voters to forget him. He averaged 20.8 points per game in March, more than any other rookie has averaged in a single month this season. What’s impressive about that is that he did so while playing for a playoff team. It’s hard for rookies to break into the rotation if they happen to be drafted by a team that was already good without them, but it’s been impossible for Tom Thibodeau to keep Mirotic off the floor given his versatile skill set and impressive comfort level for a first-year NBA player.
With Mirotic on the floor, the Bulls have outscored opponents by 6.5 points per 100 possessions compared to outscoring opponents by a mere 0.9 points per 100 possessions when he’s off the floor. With Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler sidelined, Mirotic has stepped into a bigger role and played a huge role in keeping the Bulls afloat.
The Rookie of the Year award is probably still Wiggins’ to lose, but Payton, Noel, and Mirotic all deserve strong consideration given late pushes.