It is no secret that Ben Simmons is off to a hot start in his first healthy season in the NBA. After missing his true rookie season because of a foot injury, the first overall pick in the 2016 draft has shined brightly on a revitalized Sixers team. The “red-shirt” rookie has posted scorching averages of 18.0 points, 9.8 rebounds and 8.2 assists per game. The only rookie to ever match those numbers was Oscar Robertson, so Simmons has some elite company.
Simmons also has a chance to help Philadelphia toward their first winning season since 2005. He is paired with the young, outspoken center Joel Embiid, and has solid support from role players like Robert Convington and J.J. Redick.
Simmons (left) and Embiid (right) warming up before a regular season game. Photo: Jesse D. Garrabrant, Getty Images.
It is definitely too early to say Simmons has Rookie of the Year locked up, but we’ve seen enough games to get a feel for who the front-runners are. Simmons could suffer another major injury, which could severely hurt his chances to win the award. Embiid knows this best: he played 31 great games last season but failed to take home the hardware to show for it.
The clear impression thus far is that the award is Simmons’s to lose. If his performance slides for whatever reason, who are the most likely candidates to top him? Here are some of his competitors based on their play so far.
Kyle Kuzma (Los Angeles Lakers)
Kuzma has become a fan favorite in L.A. due to his electrifying play. Drafted 27th overall out of Utah, he is far exceeding his preseason expectations. In his first 10 games, he has averaged 15.4 points on 56.3 percent shooting, along with 6.3 rebounds per game. Kuzma is a gifted finisher around the rim, and his game looks very polished at 22 years-old. He uses his long frame to maneuver through defenses and get to the basket with ease. He has the strength to take contact and the height to finish over defenders.
Kuzma is taking advantage of an opportunity with starting forward Larry Nance Jr. currently out, but he may have proven himself worthy of a bigger permanent role with how well he has stepped up. The Lakers have started 5-5, and while their relative success may not last for long, they have some intriguing pieces to work with for the future.
Lauri Markkanen (Chicago Bulls)
The Finnish 7-footer Markkanen was taken seventh overall in the draft, and he has impressed so far. He is currently one of the top rookies, sitting right behind Simmons in both points and rebounds per game. His jump shot looks polished, and he has hit threes at a dependable 37.9 percent. Markkanen fits the profile of a modern NBA big man with his rebounding and ability to shoot from long range. There are concerns with his defense, but he is only 20 years old with plenty of time to improve.
Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
This is another situation where team wins, or lack thereof, will definitely be a factor. The Bulls are not looking good as an organization right now, especially since the practice altercation between Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis. Critics of Markkanen’s case for the award can point to a dismal Bulls team as the reason for the flashy numbers.
Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics)
If Tatum manages to win the award, the Celtics’ winning percentage will likely help his case tremendously. Tatum and second-year forward Jaylen Brown are both stepping up and contributing to the team’s hot start in the absence of Gordon Hayward. Tatum has been very accurate on threes, shooting 52.9 percent including a blistering 81.8 percent from the corner. The sample size is small, but the numbers are nonetheless impressive for a rookie.
For now, Tatum appears to be a consistent role player the Celtics can count on for the occasional offensive boost. As long as Hayward stays out, he will surely have a prominent role in the Celtics’ success this season. Kyrie Irving, the new star of the team, seems more than motivated to help him get better every game. After Tatum buried a signature corner three to help push the Celtics over the Hawks on Monday night, Irving said postgame, “If he doesn’t shoot it, then I’m going to be right in his face telling him that he needs to (expletive) shoot it.”
Dennis Smith Jr. (Dallas Mavericks)
The Mavs’ new starting point guard has his work cut out for him, as it looks to be another long season for the team. Smith’s play has been a bright spot in a dismal 1-9 start. The Mavs are clearly in rebuilding mode, and they picked Smith ninth overall in the draft hoping he will be a key piece in the rotation moving forward.
Photo: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
He needs to improve his shooting efficiency, as right now he sits below 40 percent overall and at just 30 percent on threes. Still, he hasn’t been afraid to toss up shots from long range, and averages 4.4 attempts per game. Smith has shown some confidence for a rookie and has looked very explosive going to the rim. He even tried to dunk on the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Draymond Green, to which Green taunted back, “You’ll never dunk on me.” Green may be eating his words soon enough if a confident young player like Smith takes his comment to heart.
Lonzo Ball (Los Angeles Lakers)
No, the Summer League standout has not lived up to his expectations by any means. He’s not even the best rookie on his team based on what we’ve seen so far from Kuzma. Ball’s shooting percentages are horrendous: 30.8 percent from the field and 25.6 percent on threes.
However, Ball is still the starting point guard on a decent Lakers team. It’s also worth noting that he is averaging 6.9 assists and 6.4 rebounds per game, and only three rookies have ever averaged at least 6.0 in both of those categories for an entire season. Of those three players, two went on to win Rookie of the Year, and the other was Magic Johnson.
It’s reasonable to believe Ball will get into a better groove as the season progresses. Seasoned point guards like Patrick Beverley and John Wall have set out to make his life more difficult in their first matchups with him. There will be less pressure on him as the season goes on due to lower expectations. Given the massive media attention he’s dealt with from his vocal father Lavar, and his record-breaking Summer League performances, the hype around Lonzo will likely (read: hopefully) settle down soon.