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January 04, 2018

Some thoughts on Jayson Tatum beating out Ben Simmons for December Rookie of the Month

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After bursting onto the scene in October and November, Ben Simmons was basically on an island by himself as the NBA's top rookie. A rough December for his Sixers has cooled the national perception of his season, and if December's Rookie of the Month award is any indication, he as a couple guys nipping on his heels for end-of-season honors.

The NBA announced on Thursday afternoon that Boston's Jayson Tatum and Utah's Donovan Mitchell were the winners of the award for the final month of 2017. Mitchell has become a household name thanks to his crazy hops and a month-long scoring barrage, but it's Tatum who Sixers fans will be keeping an eye on for a long time. The trade that brought Markelle Fultz to Philadelphia keeps the Sixers and Celtics linked through the two players even more than they usually are.

And before we get into any comparisons, let's make one thing clear: Tatum was excellent in the month of December, holding onto his distinction as one of the best shooters in the NBA this season. He hasn't been asked to create a whole lot for his teammates early on, but he has surpassed all reasonable expectations for where he would be as a shooter already. His shooting has been a big component in Boston's success, and the raw production for the month (14.6 PTS, 5.9 TRB, 1.2 AST on 52.9 percent from the field) is top notch for a teenager.

What I find interesting, however, is the notion that his play in December has somehow brought him closer or level to Simmons in the race for Rookie of the Year. 

By all accounts, Simmons was nowhere near as dominant in December as he was in the month and a half prior, and his team suffered as a result. Yet when you look at their production side-by-side for the month, it's puzzling that one guy is painted as rising while the other is being "figured out" by opposing teams.

The true-shooting percentage of that list is really important, as it factors in three-point shooting and the free-throw line, two areas where Tatum is light years ahead of his fellow rookie. Those areas are critical for all NBA players in 2018, and it can't be taken lightly that Tatum has such a head start on Simmons there (though you could say the inverse about Simmons as a passer and playmaker).

But as always tends to happen with individual awards, team trajectory has shaped the narrative somewhat here. Simmons' responsibility for Philadelphia is bigger on both ends, and they have very little chance of winning if he doesn't play well. 

The same is not true of Tatum's Celtics, thanks to a combination of high-end talent and bench depth. Both players end up being judged by the same standard, when at this point one is responsible for running an offense and the other is asked to be a cog in one. That's no criticism of Tatum, who is excelling at his role and being put into a position to succeed by Boston's coaching staff. 

But for all the ink spilled about how players might be catching up to Simmons in the Rookie of the Year race, the truth may simply be that it takes a quieter month from Simmons and ridiculous, perhaps unsustainable shooting from Tatum — do we think he settles in as the third-best shooter in the entire NBA? — to even make it a conversation. 

It is the gift and the curse of playing as well as Simmons did to begin the season.

There's no way of knowing anything about these two just yet. Tatum's leap in shooting from Duke to Boston should remind you of how wildly players can swing from one end of the spectrum to the other; he has taken just seven more threes this year than he did in college total, where he shot 34.2 percent as a freshman. The same applies to Simmons, who lived at the free-throw line at LSU and has beaten back accusations of fearing the line as a pro player. The fun of this job is figuring out what is repeatable, what is real and what could just be an aberration.

One thing is clear at the very least: Simmons and Tatum are talented kids, and while their game and responsibility vary greatly, it should be fun to watch their styles clash for years to come. 

Now for the Sixers to just get their other rookie back on the court...

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