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April 07, 2017

Joel Embiid is the best rookie in a long time, but he shouldn’t win Rookie of the Year

On the first day of the Sixers 2016-17 season, right before leaving for the arena and a nationally televised matchup against Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder, I wrote a post titled “One not so bold Sixers prediction: Joel Embiid will win NBA Rookie of the Year.” And reading it back now, October seems like forever ago. If we lost 99.9 percent of our innocence during the first three years of Processing, at least the meniscus was still a random cartilage to most of us back then.

Things can change pretty quickly. Reflecting on Embiid’s preseason action, a couple of things were apparent at the time:

1.    He had all of the talent in the world.
2.    Partially due to rust from a two-year layoff and partially due to stepping up in competition for the first time, he had absolutely no idea what he was doing.

Remember, Embiid was credited with precisely zero assists in seven preseason games. When I informed him of this, JoJo insisted that he had picked up one in Miami to Dario Saric, which was both true and legitimately funny that he knew the exact play. With that limited look and also Embiid’s shockingly rapid improvement a few years ago at Kansas in mind, the following thought was included in my ROY prediction:

But as Embiid gets more comfortable with the speed of the game, sophisticated NBA defenses, and playing with his teammates, it says here that we’re going to see a lot of improvement. The guy that you see in January should be a decent bit better than the one you see tonight. And the guy tonight is already pretty darn good.

Hey, I finally got one right! Check out JoJo’s numbers from October-November vs. January (via    

 Oct-Nov 1222.8

Once Embiid finally made it on the floor, the Process was a breeze. Most impressively, the Sixers went from a -2.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor in October-November to +16.0 points per-100 in January. PLUS SIXTEEN! It was only 240 minutes, but Embiid had the Sixers (the Sixers!) playing championship-level ball during that stretch mainly by taking the defense to absurd levels. His rim protection went from great to better than great.

When the Sixers were en route to a 10-5 January as “Trust The Process” chants rained down from the rafters night in and night out, that prediction looked pretty safe. Embiid wasn’t just leading the pack, he was lapping the field.

And then Embiid got hurt. We’ll get back to that part at the end, but it left all of us with a tough question: With a rookie class that wasn’t close to setting the world on fire, could a guy that played only 31 games (forget the overblown minutes restriction) legitimately deserve the Rookie of the Year award?

One of my favorite podcasts is Dunc’d On simply because of how in-depth it goes on the NBA, and its host Nate Duncan remarked on a couple of occasions this year that he feels Embiid had the greatest on-court impact in terms of winning of any rookie since Tim Duncan. Needless to say, when expressed in those terms, that is a real eye-opener.

Not only was Embiid racking up counting stats, but he was making his team better. Take a look at the difference in on-court/off-court net rating (again, via between The Process and some of the other Rookie of the Year “contenders”:

 Joel Embiid +3.2 -7.9+11.1
Dario Saric
 -3.8 -3.3
Malcolm Brogdon
 -1.0 +3.3
Buddy Hield (NO)
 -6.3 +1.1-7.4
 Buddy Hield (SAC) -4.9
 -4.6 -0.3
Jaylen Brown
 +5.3 -7.7
 Jamal Murray +0.5 -2.2
Marquese Chriss


For some reference, +12.1 in the first two columns is Golden State and -7.5 is the Lakers. Now let’s take it one step further and compare Embiid to past winners of Rookie of the Year.

 Joel Embiid+3.2
Karl-Anthony Towns
Andrew Wiggins
Michael Carter-Williams
Damian Lillard
Kyrie Irving


(Can't lie, I giggled at those MCW numbers. What an incredibly bad team that was by the end of the year.)                       

These numbers all need context. For instance, Lillard played a ton as a rookie with a core consisting of talented vets Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Wes Matthews. Embiid and Lillard were both older rookies, which gave them a leg up. Jaylen Brown comes off the bench for a team with good starters, which hurts his numbers. All of these factors and many more need to be considered.

Still, the general point here is that rookies don’t help teams win all that much, no matter how good they are. And matched up against a pedestrian rookie class, Joel Embiid helped the Sixers win in a way that is extremely rare.

My gut feeling is that Embiid won’t win, and it will be interesting to see how the votes shake out. In the latest rookie ladder, Scott Howard-Cooper writes, “He is the guy who could get first-place votes and also be left out off the ballot by others.”

I wouldn’t fault someone for voting Embiid, simply because his 786 minutes could have been more impactful than Saric and Malcolm Brogdon’s 2000. Again, rookies aren’t good!

Call me old-fashioned in this regard, but I just can’t get there. Embiid is one of the most exciting rookies in NBA history, but just like his all-star case, Process trusting doesn’t make up for the minutes disparity. Embiid is one of the best rookies in NBA history, but he needs to play more consistently moving forward.

Make sure to keep that first part in mind, y’all: Joel Embiid is one of the best rookies in NBA history. Whether he wins the award or not doesn't change that.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann

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