Two of the stars in tonight's NBA London Game - Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers and Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics - are amongst the leading candidates for the 2018 NBA Rookie of the Year award.
At the halfway point of the season, it appears as though the race is a four-way one between these two, Kyle Kuzma of the L.A. Lakers, and Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz. Even if everything was created equal among those four, there is a 50% chance we are seeing the rookie of the year in out hometown game tonight.
But since that is never how it works - how equal are they?
Simmons is in the running for the Rookie of the Year award by virtue of a quirk of NBA practice. According to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the agreement between the NBA and its Players Association, a player is credited with a year of service for any year in which they spend a day on an NBA roster, whether it is on the active list or not. Simmons, then, is technically a second year player even though he missed the entirety of his rookie campaign. But from the point of view of the Rookie of the Year campaign and from the marketing of the game in general, Simmons is considered to be a rookie - after all, this is the first year in which he has played any games. It is a double-standard, but it is a useful one when marketing.
Nevertheless, in having had a year of NBA life, NBA film sessions and NBA weight rooms, Simmons was the direct beneficiary of greater preparation for his 'rookie' season than all his rivals for the award have had. And perhaps this is why he started off with such a bang.
Simmons recorded a triple-double in only his fourth career game, and averaged an amazing 18.4 points, 9.1 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game in his first professional month. Opposing team already knew to give him the jumper, given how poor he is as a shooter, yet they seemingly did not realise quite how truly special Simmons was and is as a passer on the move.
Given shooters to throw to, Simmons is a threat probing into any kind of space. His own shot is currently no threat and something opposing teams want him to take, yet giving Simmons licence to shoot jumpers is not to say he should be given too much space. If he has space, Simmons can get a head start on the drive, be it driving to score or to pass - additionally, if a defender is not up in his face trying to deny space, then Simmons has a much clearer line of sight for passing angles, especially in his 6'9 frame.
Defensively, Simmons is also ahead of the curve. Whether he is a point guard or point forward matters not - the most important thing is that there is always an opponent he can check. And check them he does. The same awareness, athleticism, length and foot speed that he employs on the offensive end also works for him defensively, and Simmons's impact on that end - compare his 103 defensive rating to that of the 110 of Jerryd Bayless, who often subs in for him - is impressive for one so young.
Tatum, too, did not take long to get going. Although scheduled to come off the bench to at least begin his rookie season, Tatum was thrust into a larger role from quite literally day one. With star acquisition Gordon Hayward going down to injury in literally the first five minutes of the season, Tatum was given the starting spot for the next game, one he has held ever since.
He responded. Playing in a somewhat similar style to Hayward, Tatum has been hugely impressive on both ends of the court, holding that spot in the most assured fashion. On the season, Tatum has averaged 13.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.9 blocks steals per game, on a ridiculously-efficient-for-a-rookie 62.6% true shooting percentage.
Be it as an off-ball scorer or an on-ball defender, Tatum shows incredible nuance already for such a young player. He does not take bad shots, he does not drive into bad areas, and rarely does he miss a spot. Cerebral as well as athletic, Tatum's poise is beyond his years.
Team success is, consciously or subconsciously, held up as an important barometer when trying to evaluate one's individual success. This is partly inevitable - the more successful teams will be more spoken about, more broadcast, and will make longer inroads into the postseason - but also partly fairly. It is a team sport, after all.
To that end, Tatum may have the upper hand. Despite their success compared to previous years, the Sixers' "winning" is very relative, with only a .500 record on the year to date. They could be several games over .500 had they had better late game execution on the season to date, as their problems in clutch situations has cost them a few wins. As the primary ball handler and playmaker, Simmons must take a large share of the responsibility as to why that was.
Style of play, however, also tends to factor into the process. Fairly or otherwise, importance is often . To this end, as the go-to player for his team despite his relative inexperience, the aforementioned Donovan Mitchell may be making this athree-way discussion.
Perhaps with his highlight plays and ability (and desire) to lead an offence, Mitchell may draw more attention than Tatum, given his explosiveness and the role he plays. And perhaps if Mitchell does rank ahead of Tatum, that is OK. Mitchell is a phenomenal talent worthy of the award. His Jazz team are struggling right now, yet their wider offensive problems if anything are favourable to perceptions of Mitchell's own skills on that end, considering how dynamic he looks in comparison.
However, let us not conclude that a player succeeding in a role, rather than as a more over star, as being a bad thing. Players should be judged in the effectiveness of the role they were designed for, one that behoves their skill sets. And in that, both have been a success.
Simmons's role is to be everything, a role in which he has excelled already. Conversely, in addition to his crucial (and potential-laden) long term development, Tatum was given an immediate role to fulfill on zero notice. And he has been really, really good in it. They both have. It has been quite the rookie class this year, even if Simmons's inclusion into it is a selective marketing ploy.
The challenge now for both is to expand those roles outwards. A shooter of Tatum's calibre needs to have more shots found for him, and Tatum himself has quite a degree of control over this. Improving his own shooting off the dribble will be key, as will developing the confidence to call for his own shot. Simmons, meanwhile, needs to make shots better, pick up some defensive nuance on quicker players still, and become the leader and unstoppable force down the stretch of games that he can be in the first three quarters.
That is mostly for down the road, though. For now, we have two fantastic NBA rookies who will be in the NBA conversation for years to come.
And for the right now...enjoy tonight's game.