Who Ya Got: Sixers' Ben Simmons or Utah's Donovan Mitchell?
The NBA's top two rookies in 2017-18 are already stars.
Ben Simmons has the Philadelphia 76ers in the playoff picture with more wins by the All-Star break then they had all last season. Meanwhile, Donovan Mitchell leads the Utah Jazz in scoring and ranks among the top 30 leaguewide, above veterans such as Andrew Wiggins, Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Carmelo Anthony and Kyle Lowry.
Each player's impact and star potential are fueled by different styles. Coming out of the All-Star break, both of their respective teams have won the same number of games (30).
Simmons and Mitchell are generating no shortage of debates about who's the better Rookie of the Year candidate and who's the superior long-term prospect.
So...who ya got?
Simmons' and Mitchell's offense comes in far different forms, making them difficult to measure against one another.
Mitchell is all about scoring firepower. He's already averaging 19.6 points as Utah's No. 1 option, something the Jazz lost when Gordon Hayward left for Boston.
Mitchell has the ability to generate offense on demand. He's the type of player who can carry a team with tough shot-making, both throughout a game and late in the fourth quarter.
In his first year, he has the sixth-highest usage rating in the clutch behind Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and DeMar DeRozan (minimum 10 games). He ranks among the top 10 in field goals made per game in the clutch as well.
Making 2.4 pull-ups a game and 61.0 percent of his attempts within 10 feet, Mitchell is a threat off the dribble as a driver and shooter. He can also work off the ball, as evidenced by his 89th-percentile ranking out of spot-up situations and his 42.1 percent shooting on catch-and-release jumpers.
Mitchell isn't as advanced as a facilitator, having averaged 3.5 assists to 2.6 turnovers to date, and he likely has a ceiling between five and six dimes per game.
The question is whether he can build on his scoring total and take it to the 25-point range to match lower-assist guards like Devin Booker, Bradley Beal and Victor Oladipo.
Meanwhile, Simmons' value is driven by versatility, which is beyond unique for a rookie.
He's already on pace to join Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Grant Hill, Russell Westbrook, Fat Lever and James Harden as the only players since 1975 to average at least 16 points, seven assists and seven rebounds across an entire year.
While he'll never be labeled a scorer, he's still averaging 16.4 points on 52.7 percent shooting as a rookie. He's doing so without a reliable jumper, which he'll likely focus on developing more than any other skill over the next decade.
Simmons is both a point guard and one of the league's top interior scorers, making 5.0 field goals per game within five feet. Only Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Clint Capela, Andre Drummond, DeMarcus Cousins, Tyreke Evans and Steven Adams average more.
He's so effective around the rim thanks to his athleticism, ambidexterity and instincts, which consistently leads to easy baskets. But what separates Simmons is his ability to make the game easier for teammates.
Tied for fourth in the NBA assists, he excels by setting the table as a passer in transition, off pick-and-rolls and the drive-and-kick game. And given his unteachable vision, smarts and size—mixed with mismatch ball-handling skills for a 6'10" player—Simmons could finish among the top five in assists every year until he retires.
He'll continue to be a top source of distributing and scoring for his team, regardless of how his jumper develops.
Mitchell's defensive value shows in the form of playmaking. After averaging 2.1 steals last year at Louisville, Mitchell is forcing turnovers again in Utah, racking up 1.5 steals per game as a rookie.
Quick with a strong base and an extraordinary 6'10" wingspan, he has excellent tools for guarding ball-handlers and enough strength and length to match up against most 2s. Mitchell also has the ability to lock in and become a pest by applying disruptive on-ball pressure.
But steals and pressure aren't everything when it comes to evaluating defense. The Utah Jazz's defensive rating is 1.0 points per 100 possessions lower when Mitchell is sitting.
Simmons provides both defensive playmaking (1.9 steals, 0.9 blocks) and unique, valuable switchability. He's spent time defending guards, wings and bigs, demonstrating foot speed around the perimeter and strength inside of 12 feet.
The Sixers are tied for third in defensive efficiency this season, per ESPN, after they ranked 17th a year ago. Simmons is also No. 31 in defensive real plus-minus, tied with Boston Celtics' veteran Al Horford. Mitchell ranks No. 311.
Simmons' .056 defensive win shares is tied with Joel Embiid's, Rudy Gobert's, Kawhi Leonard's and Jayson Tatum's, trailing only Andre Roberson's and Marcus Smart's leaguewide.
Simmons is the more experienced, natural leader. He doesn't come off as a rookie in how he carries himself on or off the floor.
Having won state championships in high school and gone No. 1 in the draft, you can sense a mix of confidence and cockiness, which comes with pros and cons.
Simmons is more likely to be visibly frustrated by teammates' poor play. We saw it more often during his days at LSU.
He's competitive and unafraid to back down from anyone, which was evident when Simmons got into it with Kyle Lowry in January before both players were ejected.
Few players show higher basketball IQ than Simmons. The unselfish ball-dominator is brilliant with the rock when it comes to reading defenses, seeing teammates and anticipating the right time to feed them.
Mitchell's smile shows more than Simmons'. He's the more charismatic of the two. You can sense more humility with Mitchell, the No. 13 pick who was never considered a top prospect in the same tier as Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum, Josh Jackson, De'Aaron Fox or Dennis Smith Jr.
But Mitchell isn't timid, either. His game and shot selection scream confidence, sometimes to a fault. Mitchell touts a killer instinct, making him a fireball capable of going on relentless scoring outbursts.
He'll likely be a locker room favorite of teammates and coaches, regardless of whether he's one to settle for hero jumpers. Simmons may turn some off with arrogance, but he's better built for leadership duties, specifically given the core Philadelphia has put together.
Rookie of the Year
When it comes to Rookie of the Year votes, unless the Jazz surge up the standings, Simmons' all-around production should tip the scale in his favor over Mitchell's volume scoring.
Mitchell is averaging only 3.2 more points than Simmons, who has tallied six triple-doubles and flirts with one on a near-nightly basis.
Even on off nights, Simmons finds ways to make a positive impact as a passer, rebounder and defender. He's also been more efficient from the field by a wide margin (52.7 percent to 43.9 percent).
Five years from now, the 2018 Rookie of the Year award won't matter. And there isn't a loser in this debate, given the high level of play we've seen from both and the upside each have left to unlock.
But Simmons has been the most complete rookie, and he's likely to continue holding that title until playoff time.
Rookie of the Year prediction: Simmons
Projecting upside takes into account age, physical tools and athleticism, current skill level and production and the players' room to improve.
Mitchell is already averaging 19.6 points despite shooting 35.4 percent from three-point range, a number that his 2.3 makes per game suggests can only rise.
Mitchell may well peak as a 25-point-per-game scorer capable of leading a playoff team. We'll predict he averages roughly five assists in his prime and hovers around the 45.0 percent mark from the floor based on his shot selection.
There is no doubt that Mitchell has All-Star potential, which he appears on track toward reaching by his third NBA season.
However, he'll never be able to match Simmons' ability to add value in every facet of the game. If the Sixers point forward ever improves his shooting ability, he could become one of the most unique mismatches in NBA history.
Both players are 21 years old and have significant room to improve, despite immediately emerging as stars during their first NBA seasons. Simmons' potential to average a triple-double on 20 points per game—while adding substantial value on defense—is simply too compelling to ignore.
Better long-term prospect: Simmons