Metrics 101: NBA Rookie of the Year Watch
Last year's NBA rookies combined to earn 54.2 win shares, paced by Malcolm Brogdon's 4.1 for the Milwaukee Bucks and Willy Hernangomez's 3.4 with the New York Knicks. Even though we're not yet to the end of the 2017-18 season, this campaign's superior crop has totaled 75.6.
That's a world of difference, and the individual excellence is even more impressive. Ben Simmons (7.5), Jayson Tatum (6.4), John Collins (4.9) and Donovan Mitchell (4.3) have already topped the mark earned by the reigning Rookie of the Year, and Bam Adebayo (4.0), Kyle Kuzma (3.7) and Jarrett Allen (3.6) still have a chance to get there.
But that's only one metric. Win shares alone won't tell us how the standout members of this remarkable class stack up.
For every player in the NBA who's logged even a single minute, we pulled scores in five different overarching metrics: NBA Math's total points added (TPA), ESPN.com's real plus/minus wins (RPM Wins), player efficiency rating (PER), win shares (WS) and minutes per game. The first two look at volume/efficiency combinations, while the third focuses on per-possession effectiveness and favors offensive production. The fourth element rewards those whose individual merits lead to more victories.
The last—a new addition for this particular countdown—is intended to reward the rookies who have earned larger roles during their inaugural campaigns. Volume and time on the court matter more than they might in other evaluations.
To standardize between five metrics that operate on drastically different scales, we found the z-scores in each category and summed them to find a player's total score for each of the 55 rookies with at least 200 minutes recorded. Those cumulative z-scores are all that matter for these selections, which focus entirely and exclusively on work in 2017-18.
Jarrett Allen, C, Brooklyn Nets: 0.55 Player Score
Though Jarrett Allen provided one of the more memorable moments of the 2017-18 season when he mashed all over fellow rookie Lauri Markkanen, the Brooklyn Nets center hasn't been a consistent enough presence to rise any higher in these rankings. He's been playing more in recent outings, but his production (14.7 points, 9.9 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.7 steals and 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes) hasn't been enough to overcome logging fewer than 20 minutes per night.
OG Anunoby, SF, Toronto Raptors: 0.35
Somehow, OG Anunoby has managed to miss fewer than 10 games for the Toronto Raptors, displaying Wolverine-inspired healing abilities that allowed him to expedite recovery timetables and debut far sooner than anyone expected. The injury concerns stemming from a torn ACL during his time at Indiana dropped his draft stock low enough that the Raptors landed him at No. 23 overall, after all.
Anunoby's rangy defense has impressed throughout his rookie campaign, but scoring woes have plagued him since calendars flipped over to 2018. Dating back to the beginning of January, he's shot just 42.4 percent from the field, 26.5 percent from downtown and 64.3 percent from the stripe.
Lauri Markkanen, PF, Chicago Bulls: 0.13
Lauri Markkanen is likely the name you're surprised to see listed among the notable exclusions, and that's valid. Contextual factors mean he'll rise quite a bit higher in the actual Rookie of the Year voting, since he's been forced into an overextended offensive role and faced an inordinate amount of carry-the-load pressure.
He's better than our numbers would indicate. There's no point denying that.
But in this particular analysis, Markkanen's high-scoring proclivities are actually detrimental. All volume shooting is when it comes with low percentages, and the Finnish forward's 54.1 true shooting percentage lags well below the league-average mark of 55.7 percent. He's still done enough to finish with a positive score (indicative of above-average play, which is always impressive for a rookie), but the total package isn't quite there.
10. Bogdan Bogdanovic, SG/SF, Sacramento Kings: 0.61
Per-Game Stats: 11.6 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.2 blocks
Minutes Z-Score: 0.89
PER Z-Score: 0.1
TPA Z-Score: minus-0.5
RPM Wins Z-Score: minus-0.02
WS Z-Score: 0.14
Rookie wall? What rookie wall?
Since the beginning of January, Bogdan Bogdanovic has averaged an impressive 12.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists while shooting 42.6 percent from the field, 40.4 percent from beyond the arc and 90.9 percent from the charity stripe.
"He has been great. He can really shoot the ball. He's like another point guard on the floor," teammate De'Aaron Fox said about his fellow rookie in February, per The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks. "He doesn't play like a rookie. He's basically a seasoned vet."
Bogdanovic, who's already 25 years old and has the luxury of earning high-level experience in Europe as a draft-and-stash prospect, isn't your typical first-year contributor. That's allowed him to keep thriving as a scorer, avoid turnovers like the plague and avoid becoming too much of a defensive liability—in spite of his lackluster tools on the less glamorous end.
He might not have the same ceiling as some of the other rookie standouts featured in this countdown, but his floor is a rather lofty one. At worst, he's going to settle in as a floor-spacing wing with secondary ball-handling skills who can thrive as a role player for years to come.
9. Daniel Theis, C, Boston Celtics: 1.14
Per-Game Stats: 5.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.8 blocks
Minutes Z-Score: minus-0.44
PER Z-Score: 0.37
TPA Z-Score: 0.66
RPM Wins Z-Score: 0.01
WS Z-Score: 0.54
Before a torn meniscus compounded the Boston Celtics' injury woes and stopped Daniel Theis' rookie campaign in its tracks, the 25-year-old big man had quietly emerged as a rotation stalwart. With a physical brand of defense and a respectable level of self-awareness on the offensive end, he made for a consistently positive presence upon whom head coach Brad Stevens could rely.
Carving out 14.9 minutes per game in a rotation this crowded is impressive. Theis earned trust that came at the expense of established contributors such as Al Horford, Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris, which allowed Stevens to use him more frequently and keep the veterans fresh for the stretch run and subsequent playoff possibilities.
Offense hasn't been his forte, but that's fine. He's aware of his limited arsenal and spent 28.2 percent of his possessions rolling to the hoop after setting a screen—valuable in and of itself because of the space it creates, even if he's still growing as a finisher around the basket.
But it was still on defense where Theis stood out, switching between assignments, showing off lateral quickness as he recovered to contest shots at the rim and displaying an advanced understanding of positioning not typically found in many first-year frontcourt members. Among all players who have logged at least 200 minutes this year, just 14 have superior scores in defensive box plus/minus.
Only one is a fellow rookie, though you won't see him pop up until we get to No. 6 in this countdown.
8. Bam Adebayo, C, Miami Heat: 1.16
Per-Game Stats: 7.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.6 blocks
Minutes Z-Score: 0.12
PER Z-Score: 0.32
TPA Z-Score: 0.1
RPM Wins Z-Score: minus-0.12
WS Z-Score: 0.74
Starting at center is hard.
Since Hassan Whiteside succumbed to the injury imp, Bam Adebayo has gotten a chance at operating in the opening lineup. But the 20-year-old has had difficulty with the nightly rigors of going against the league's best, most physical centers. As Ira Winderman detailed for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, his recent struggles are more part of the developmental process than a statement about his abilities:
"This was always more of a developmental process than a rotation assignment. And beyond physical development, it also is a matter of getting up to speed with all the veteran savvy that has been thrown at him in recent weeks amid Whiteside's absence. Yes, once Hassan returns I well could see Bam moving back into a secondary role, with minutes have been increasingly earned by Kelly Olynyk and James Johnson. I'm not sure this is necessarily a rookie wall, but rather a neophyte being thrown into playoff-race basketball, when no one is stepping out of the way of dunks or allowing youthful energy to carry the day. This is not a setback, but rather part of the expected growth process."
Fortunately, these dips haven't negated the fantastic work Adebayo has done throughout the majority of his rookie season. He remains a solid rebounding presence with a developing offensive game, and he's dominated on defense when allowed to function against fellow second-stringers.
Though this is partially due to rotation effects, Justise Winslow is the only big-minutes player in Miami with a better on-court defensive rating.
7. Kyle Kuzma, PF, Los Angeles Lakers: 1.3
Per-Game Stats: 15.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.5 blocks
Minutes Z-Score: 1.21
PER Z-Score: 0.18
TPA Z-Score: minus-0.7
RPM Wins Z-Score: 0.0
WS Z-Score: 0.62
Scoring tends to be the most glamorous type of production, currying far more favor with voters and fans than any other statistical element. That's why Kyle Kuzma will likely get more love in the actual Rookie of the Year race and why perception rises above his actual production.
Little doubt should exist that this relatively unheralded Utah product is already a potent point-producer. Scoring 15.8 points per game while slashing 44.9/37.1/72.0 isn't an easy feat as a first-year forward, especially when it stems from a wide-ranging arsenal that includes spot-up jumpers, transition slashes and plenty more.
In fact, only the following qualified rookies have averaged at least 15 points per game with a true shooting percentage above 54 percent during the current millennium:
- Stephen Curry
- Pau Gasol
- Eric Gordon
- Blake Griffin
- Kyle Kuzma
- Damian Lillard
- Donovan Mitchell
- Ben Simmons
- Karl-Anthony Towns
That's a nice list of names to be associated with, and Kuzma could join the established studs populating it in the All-Star club if he figures out how to play better defense, ups his efficiency levels and and begins averaging far more assists than turnovers. Those three elements, which comprise a major part of basketball, also depress his current standing, as you might have guessed.
6. Jordan Bell, PF, Golden State Warriors: 1.44
Per-Game Stats: 4.9 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.0 blocks
Minutes Z-Score: minus-0.46
PER Z-Score: 0.63
TPA Z-Score: 0.82
RPM Wins Z-Score: 0.21
WS Z-Score: 0.26
Of course Jordan Bell ended up on the Golden State Warriors following the Chicago Bulls' short-sighted decision to sell their second-round pick for cash. The defending champions are the organization most suited to glean as much production as possible from this malleable prospect, allowing him to excel in their switch-heavy schemes while operating in a limited offensive role.
Bell's per-game numbers, which come in a meager 14.6 minutes per contest, won't make your jaw drop. And they shouldn't, given the All-Stars with whom he shares the court most frequently. To his credit, he's been willing to accept a low-usage role that highlights his established talents.
Need a forward who can protect the rim? Bell is allowing opponents to shoot just 50.8 percent from within six feet, which gives him the No. 2 mark on the entire Golden State roster, trailing only Kevon Looney in his minuscule role. He can also show off his lateral mobility and switch onto a plethora of different player archetypes, allowing him to blend in seamlessly with the Dubs' fearsome small-ball units.
Better still, Bell turns the ball over less than once per contest and shoots 64.6 percent from the field. He rarely makes bad plays and hoists ill-advised attempts even less frequently. He's everything a contending team could want in a second-round pick receiving marginal run.
5. John Collins, PF, Atlanta Hawks: 2.77
Per-Game Stats: 10.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.1 blocks
Minutes Z-Score: 0.45
PER Z-Score: 0.67
TPA Z-Score: 0.62
RPM Wins Z-Score: minus-0.07
WS Z-Score: 1.1
You don't have to watch the Atlanta Hawks long to witness the skill for which John Collins has become most famous.
After stealing the show at Las Vegas with a plethora of summer-league slams, he's yammed on Cedi Osman, skied over Russell Westbrook for a putback jam and created enough posters and highlights to justify multiple compilation videos. In fact, only 10 players this season have completed more dunks—not too shabby for a rookie ranked No. 155 in total minutes registered.
But throw-downs aren't Collins' only strength.
His defensive game has been decent when he's not asked to function as the last line of Atlanta's defense, and he's an efficient producer of points who rarely overextends himself. The trademark athleticism helps him finish plays at the hoop, where he's knocking down a whopping 72.5 percent of his field-goal attempts. He's also shown flashes of shooting range, connecting on 43.1 percent of his looks between 10 and 16 feet while making the occasional triple.
Throw in per-minute rebounding skills (11.0 per 36), and you have a well-rounded package.
Aside from his dunking prowess, Collins hasn't received too much attention for a tanktastic team trending toward the bottom of the standings. Perhaps that should change.
4. Lonzo Ball, PG, Los Angeles Lakers: 2.79
Per-Game Stats: 10.1 points, 7.0 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.9 blocks
Minutes Z-Score: 1.59
PER Z-Score: minus-0.07
TPA Z-Score: 0.66
RPM Wins Z-Score: 0.82
WS Z-Score: minus-0.22
We're not going to pretend Lonzo Ball can shoot.
Though his catapult-emulating jumper has heated up on occasion, the season-long numbers remain putrid. Not only is he knocking down just 35.2 percent of his field-goal attempts, but he's hitting only 30.2 percent of his treys and connecting from the charity stripe at a 44.9 percent clip. During his last 10 outings, his slash line is down to a horrific 28.9/20.3/31.3.
And yet, the Los Angeles Lakers are still decisively better when he's on the floor. It's not just a product of whom he lines up alongside, either. ESPN.com's RPM gives him a distinctly positive overall score, stemming almost entirely from his defensive production.
Ball's passing wizardry helps mitigate some of his shooting woes, but his primary advantage during his rookie season comes from his cerebral defense. He understands when to rotate and when to step into a driving lane. Beyond that, he has quick enough hands that he can poke the ball free from a careless ball-handler or swipe down to deter a shooting attempt.
Jumping back to RPM, Ball's score in the defensive component trails only the mark earned by Dejounte Murray among all qualified point guards. He may still have plenty to learn in the pick-and-roll game (still a solid 68th percentile against PnR ball-handlers), but that should just serve as a terrifying reality for opposing floor generals in the near and distant future.
Ball is already an advanced defender, and he can get that much better.
3. Donovan Mitchell, SG, Utah Jazz: 5.09
Per-Game Stats: 20.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.4 blocks
Minutes Z-Score: 1.5
PER Z-Score: 0.4
TPA Z-Score: 0.55
RPM Wins Z-Score: 1.78
WS Z-Score: 0.86
Donovan Mitchell, if you'll pardon the cliche, was born to score the basketball.
Even though he's gone cold in some recent outings to the tune of a 41.8/29.5/72.5 slash line during his last 10 games—perhaps a sign that the rookie wall is affecting him during the nightly battle for playoff positioning in the Western Conference—his numbers on the year are phenomenal.
The overall efficiency level isn't quite where it needs to be, but that's out of sheer necessity as he puts up points in bunches for a Utah Jazz outfit in constant need of a go-to scorer. Mitchell is tracking toward becoming one of just 19 qualified rookies in NBA history with a true shooting percentage no worse than 54 percent while scoring at least 20 points per night. The last five to do so before him? Blake Griffin, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning.
Of course, Mitchell's game is far from perfect. That's why he's checking in at No. 3, even as his scoring average and status as a crucial member of a probable postseason squad in the devastatingly competitive West will likely push him at least one spot higher in the actual voting.
That true shooting percentage, much like Lauri Markkanen's in the notable exclusions, lags behind the league average. His passing is coupled with a few too many turnovers. His defense, though it's shown distinct signs of improvement as the season has progressed, isn't on the same level as the next two up-and-comers in this countdown.
But the young man can surely score.
2. Jayson Tatum, SF, Boston Celtics: 5.38
Per-Game Stats: 13.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.8 blocks
Minutes Z-Score: 1.2
PER Z-Score: 0.23
TPA Z-Score: 0.52
RPM Wins Z-Score: 1.73
WS Z-Score: 1.7
What can't Jayson Tatum do?
The standout Boston Celtics rookie has come up big in a number of different areas for head coach Brad Stevens. Some nights, he's functioned as a spot-up shooter capable of spacing out the floor for the rest of his teammates. Other times, he's content to dribble the rock and create opportunities for himself, navigating his way past defenders and finishing plays at the rim.
He's a switchy defender. He's an instinctive stopper.
He's a perfect role player.
Tatum should eventually develop into even more for the C's, but he hasn't needed to while surrounded by Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown and other more established players...until recently, when injuries decimated the lineup. During the Duke product's last 10 outings, he's averaged 15.5 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.4 dimes while slashing 49.1/38.2/77.8—a stretch highlighted by back-to-back 23-spots against the New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder.
Now that Kyrie Irving is out three to six weeks recovering from surgery on his left knee, per Boston.com's Rachel Bowers, that could become the new normal.
Tatum might not have consistently been granted the chances to accumulate as many positive plays as Donovan Mitchell for the Utah Jazz. But he's avoided becoming a liability in any one area for a team that's won eight additional outings, save for the stretch of the season in which he was dealing with finger trouble. That's allowed him to outpace his Salt Lake City foe in win shares and push ahead in the overall standings despite losing each of our other four categories.
1. Ben Simmons, PG, Philadelphia 76ers: 9.73
Per-Game Stats: 16.0 points, 7.9 rebounds, 8.0 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.8 blocks
Minutes Z-Score: 1.59
PER Z-Score: 0.74
TPA Z-Score: 2.68
RPM Wins Z-Score: 2.59
WS Z-Score: 2.14
Ben Simmons, thanks to his 6'10", 230-pound frame and athleticism, is already one of the NBA's best rebounding point guards. He's a brilliant facilitator whose passing chops rightfully earn comparisons to LeBron James and Magic Johnson; seriously, just look at this transition feed. He's a devastating defensive presence with quick hands and quicker instincts, allowing him to switch onto almost every type of adversary while always staying disciplined.
At this point, his lone weakness is his limited shooting range. And even that hasn't mattered much, since he still gets to the basket and finishes with aplomb. Among the 105 players who have taken at least 200 shots from three feet or closer this season, just 12 have been more efficient in that close-range zone. Of that baker's dozen, only Giannis Antetokounmpo (48.6 percent assisted), James (34.2) and Simmons (38.8) have created the majority of their makes for themselves.
During his delayed rookie season, the oversized point guard has become a statistical juggernaut, racking up triple-doubles for the playoff-bound Philadelphia 76ers and remaining near the top of ESPN.com's positional DRPM leaderboard.
Among all rookies, Ball is the lone man logging more minutes per game. Simmons leads the field in PER, despite that metric typically favoring players more willing to fire away with increased frequency. He literally laps the field in TPA; his score (205.98) is more than triple that of second-place Jordan Bell's 62.58. No first-year player has more win shares or RPM Wins.
Simmons is truly in a class of his own.