Speculating About Rookie of the Year

Speculating About Rookie of the Year

People who like sports love to speculate about sports. Casual fans, diehards, sportswriters, franchise owners—everyone loves to try to predict the future, to answer the variations on the questions of who will win and who will lose, who will surprise everyone and who will disappoint. Right now is prime speculation time in and around the NBA as the league moves out of the preseason and into the first week of the regular season. With few real games played, anything seems possible, and people all around the league are making arguments for pretty much everything you can imagine. The Knicks will make the playoffs? Sure, Chuck! The Bucks are on their way to being a championship contender? Okay! Oh wait, you meant to say that the Bucks are actually going to miss the playoffs altogether? Whatever!

As they’ve done the past few years, NBA general managers threw their hats in the prediction ring last week with the release of NBA.com’s annual GM Survey. The survey asked GMs to respond to a series of 49 questions about topics ranging from offseason moves and international players to coaching and overall team improvement. In general, the results of the survey aren’t too shocking. GMs predict, among other things, that Cleveland will win the 2016 Finals, LeBron will win the MVP, and that the Thunder will be the most improved team. They also predict that Jahlil Okafor of the Philadelphia 76ers will win the Rookie of the Year (ROY) award. This prediction isn’t particularly controversial, but perhaps it should be. The argument for Okafor as ROY is based on a lot of misconceptions about his game, and there is another ROY candidate who looks poised to have a bigger rookie year than Okafor: Emmanuel Mudiay of the Denver Nuggets.

Before we get into the specifics of the Mudiay versus Okafor debate, it's important to look at the qualities that appear to matter in determining who wins in the voting for ROY. Convention holds that the ROY award is primarily given based on offensive production. Convention seems to have a point here, as a quick glance at the list of recent ROY recipients reveals that players who receive the award tend to lead their rookie class in the various measures of offensive production. Of the last 10 ROY award recipients, all but one led their rookie class in points per game (PPG), and half led in assists per game (APG). The one recipient who did not lead his class in PPG, Derrick Rose, averaged within 2 PPG of his class’s leading scorer (O.J. Mayo) and far surpassed his competition in APG. Overall team performance appears to have little to no bearing on ROY voting, as only one of the last ten recipients of the award (Rose) was on a team that made it to the playoffs in their ROY season. Thus, the question of who will win the 2015-16 Rookie of the Year award is probably better asked by the question: Who, from this year’s rookie class, will put up the most points and dish out the most assists?

On the surface, the argument for why that player might be Okafor makes sense. Okafor comes into the league with a developed post game, a polished series of jab steps, hook shots, and shoulder dip moves that allowed him to average 17.3 PPG in his one season with Duke. Now that he’s in the NBA, he plays for a team that last season ranked 2nd to last in PPG, according to stats provided by NBA.com. The 76ers roster hasn’t gotten much better since last season, and Okafor may well be the only natural scorer on the team. Somebody on that depleted roster, the logic goes, has to score the points this year. Okafor, with an offensive game that dominated at the collegiate level, will be provided every opportunity to be that player.

The issue with this line of thinking, of course, is that it assumes that Okafor will be able to score on NBA defenders as easily as he scored on college players. Anyone who followed Duke through this year’s NCAA tournament should see the issue with this assumption. In the tournament, which Duke ultimately won, Okafor dominated when put up against relatively undersized frontcourts. When facing bigger, stronger defenders of the sort that he’ll see in the NBA, however, he was much less effective. In the regional semifinal game against Utah, for example, he was held to 6 points in 32 minutes by Utah’s 7’0” 235-pound center Jakob Pöltl.

The picture wasn’t much better for Okafor in the preseason. While he had an impressive outing against Washington and each game had moments in which you could see glimpses of what he could ultimately become, Okafor generally struggled to score efficiently while playing against backup centers (like Cleveland’s Sasha Kaun) and defensively mediocre stars like Brook Lopez.

His performance in the October 23rd game against the Celtics was pretty indicative of how his first season might go offensively. He looked great early in the game as he ducked behind David Lee and Tyler Zeller to receive inside passes for easy layups. Once the game settled down, however, the Celtics’ defenders picked up on his moves and were generally able to contain him. The combination of Jared Sullinger and Amir Johnson was able to wall Okafor off from the basket and generally make his life much more difficult by hunkering down in the post, preventing him from establishing deep position inside, and swatting the ball out of his hands as he tried to jab step and spin his way towards the hole.

In essence, the Celtics’ backups were able to contain Okafor effectively by playing straightforward post defense on him, keeping him off the block and not biting on his fakes. It’s hard to imagine that these struggles won’t continue once Okafor is playing against established NBA starters. Guys like Hassan Whiteside and Timofey Mozgov, who are big bodies and great defenders, will pose real issues for Okafor. The fact that they will have access to hours of tape of him won’t help, either.

In addition to the difficulties he will have in trying to score this season, it's also unlikely that Okafor will dish out many assists. While much was made in the time leading up to the draft of his ability to pass out of double teams, Okafor averaged only 1.3 APG in college. In the preseason, he averaged less than 1 APG. Given the lack of talent on the 76ers roster, it's unlikely that his assist numbers will go up significantly over the course of the season, since in order for the passer to log an assist, the player receiving the pass needs to, uh, score. As evidenced by their aforementioned offensive futility last season, the 76ers aren’t so good at the whole putting the ball in the basket thing, and that doesn’t bode so well for Okafor’s assist numbers.

None of this is to detract from Okafor’s undeniable skill and potential. He did have impressive moments throughout the preseason, and when things are clicking for him, his offensive game is truly a thing of beauty. It seems inevitable that, sooner or later, he will be able to score efficiently against NBA defenders. He’ll get bigger and stronger, learn how to establish post position against bigger defenders, and diversify his moves even more to keep opponents constantly guessing. It’s not hard to imagine him ultimately becoming a 20-and-10 guy (or better), and when that time comes, Sam Hinkie will turn him into 4 first round draft picks and the #TrustTheProcess ponzi scheme train will keep rolling into the abyss.

Emmanuel Mudiay will probably produce more than Okafor this season for a variety of reasons. First of all, Mudiay has prior experience playing against professional basketball players. Though the level of competition in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), where he played last season, is lower than the level of competition in the NBA, there is something to be said for having had 12 games of experience playing against grown men. That he performed well over those 12 games, averaging 18 points and 5.3 assists, bodes well for his NBA career. At 6’5” and 200 pounds, Mudiay has elite size and athleticism for his position, which allows him to see the floor over defenses and penetrate with relative ease. The combination of his experience and elite physical tools served him well in the preseason, where he averaged 15 points per game and 5.9 assists per game.

Whereas Okafor’s ROY case is hurt by the dismal quality of his team, the presence of real NBA players like Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried on the Nuggets’ roster helps.

I was going to go on constructing an argument for why Emmanuel Mudiay will produce more on offense than Jahlil Okafor and thus win the Rookie of the Year award over him, but then this happened:




And then this:




Which reminded me, the best part about speculating about things is being able to be wildly wrong and get away with it. As this piece was being written, Jahlil Okafor put up 26 points on 10-for-16 shooting while going 6-for-6 from the free throw line in his regular season debut against the Celtics. Mudiay put up pretty respectable numbers himself in his debut against the Rockets, notching 17 points on 6-for-13 shooting and 9 assists, but he was also one assist short of a triple-double with turnovers. It's easy to make too much of one game, but if Okafor can put up those kinds of numbers throughout the season, he’d pretty much be a shoe-in for ROY. Then again, if Mudiay can trim back the turnovers and rack up even more points and assists, he could make an equally strong case. Trying to predict the future is for the birds (and NBA GMs, apparently). It looks like we may be in for a truly competitive Rookie of the Year race. It’ll be a lot of fun to watch, so we should just buckle up and enjoy the ride.

Perhaps we can revisit this topic in about a month or so.