Amongst a draft class regarded as the most talented since the 2003 group that gave basketball icons such as Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James, the 2017 rookie class has never been short of story lines. Between the Ball family’s business/societal antics and Markelle Fultz‘s mental shooting struggles, the mainstream NBA media has been scrambling to cover every angle and detail that these young players have provided. Those story lines are just the dead headlines.
2003 or 2017… Who ya got? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/vTrDT82BDs
— NBA TV (@NBATV) May 8, 2018
With the heavily-debated Rookie of the Year race coming to a head, promising development from rebuilding system such as the Los Angeles Lakers, and multiple first-year players turning into stars for playoff contenders, the youth in professional basketball had once again taken over the main channels of publicity over established veterans at the end of the season. This is the future. Of course, in the whirlwind of storylines that have been rookie-centric since the end of the season, it is easy to lose some of the details. Thus, it seems necessary to reflect on the past few weeks of postseason play, with a specific focus on three big rookie names in the playoffs: Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell, and Jayson Tatum.
April 11, 2018
The NBA season has officially ended. The match-ups are set and the season has infused parity back into a sport that has featured the same two teams in each of the last three championship rounds. At the center of it all: An intense ROY debate. There have been challengers, but there are two standouts in Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell, who are both headed as top-four seeds to the playoffs. Here are their respective statistics, with Tatum’s numbers also listed:
Clearly in observing the numbers, Mitchell appeals to the fans of pure scoring, while Simmons’ all-around numbers hail from the line of Magic Johnson. Regardless, while the votes for ROY have already been cast, fans clamor to find clarity on who is superior in the upcoming playoff race.
April 16, 2018
The first weekend of playoff action has ended with nothing less than chaos. In the midst of it, the three rookie stars all shine. Simmons sets the tone with 17 points and is one rebound away from a triple-double. Mitchell notches a double-double with 27 points on 50% shooting. Tatum also collects a double-double, contributing a standard 19 to his team’s defeat of the Bucks. Each player gains experience and a 1-0 advantage in his individual series. The debate rages on.
April 25, 2018
Ben Simmons moves on
Round one is in full effect. Some match-ups are done and some are still in limbo. The NBA universe clamors for clarity, elimination and to go on to the second round. As for the rookies, they each still hold a positive standing respectively. Simmons has closed his series in five games, exactly one assist shy of averaging a 18-10-10 triple-double against the Miami Heat. His 76ers, boasting an impressive mob of shooters and All-Star Joel Embiid, are now being labeled as Eastern Conference contenders by the media over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Mitchell also survives
As for Mitchell, he stands on the precipice of eliminating the reigning MVP: Russell Westbrook. Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder trail in the series 3-1, with uninspiring performances from Paul George and Anthony. They are surely doomed to lose at the hand of Mitchell’s Utah Jazz. While Utah has proven to be a strenuous match-up for Oklahoma City, Mitchell’s 28.5 points per game on 46 percent shooting through six games has put him in comparisons of scoring talent with his opponent, Mr. Triple-Double himself.
While not receiving the adoration that Simmons and Philly have, the Jazz’s stranglehold on the Thunder has inspired the media to mark them as a major barrier to their possible second round opponent: The Golden State Warriors. With Defensive Player of Year candidate Rudy Gobert and overproduction from role players like Ricky Rubio and Joe Ingles, Utah has cultivated a scary roster. In the case of Tatum, his Celtics had a 3-2 lead on the Milwaukee Bucks heading into their territory. Despite raising his season averages in points, rebounds, and assists, Tatum has been lackluster, not the scary presence he was from 3-point range earlier in the season.
The play of his role player teammates has been sufficient, but not enough to have security. With the series closing to a crucial point, Boston needed his shooting and athleticism to advance to round two. As for the ROY debate, closure still remains distant, neither side has air to budge.
May 3, 2018
The second round of the NBA playoffs is underway. The Celtics-76ers match-up provides us with two rookie stars in Tatum and Simmons. They dueled it out for the chance to boast that their rebuilding “process” has been successful in the 2017-18 season. By the end of game two, the debate has silenced a bit. Boston holds a 2-0 series lead. Furthermore, the advantage has been spurred by Tatum’s quality of play.
Following game two, Tatum collected his fourth straight 20+ point playoff game, becoming the youngest player to ever do it and the first Boston Celtic since Larry Bird. All while shooting 50 percent from the field, 33 percent from 3-point range, and 90 percent from the free throw line. On the other bench, Simmons is coming off possibly his worst career game of basketball ever. Simmons logged 31 minutes and shot 0 of 4 from the field with one point and five turnovers. In the series that was supposed to define the 76ers young legacy, versus a Celtics’ team who is without three starters, Simmons struggled. He failed to ascend his squad to the next level. He claims his struggles were self-medicated. His skeptics may claim otherwise.
Mitchell doesn’t do much better
In the West, Mitchell wasn’t basking in glory quite like the first round either. Unlike Simmons, in game two Mitchell’s squad got the win without an efficient performance from him. He gets a double-double with 17 points and 11 assists. However, he accomplished this shooting 29 percent from the field and 75 percent from the free throw line. While being better positioned for a series comeback than Simmons, Mitchell’s shooting struggles in the second round proved to be his individual downfall.
May 9, 2018
The Conference Finals are set. Only four teams remain as the dust settles on the second round of the NBA playoffs and the rookie story lines have unfolded. Mitchell ends on a strong note, scoring 24 points on 53 percent shooting but lost to the Houston Rockets in five games. However, in examining his overall statistics, Mitchell holds main responsibility for the beating the Jazz suffered in the second round. It truly is not fair to put a rookie in such a position, but his magnitude of effect on Utah’s play left Mitchell with the bag when it all came crashing down. Through the series, Mitchell averaged less than 20 ppg on 36 percent shooting and 25 percent from 3-point range. Despite some high points, the Jazz rookie responsible for taking down Westbrook is left without satisfaction.
In the East, the light dims to one
In game five of the Celtics-76ers playoff series, the Celtics won the series 4-1. The talk of Simmons compared to LeBron has ceased, as the young star faded in the series. He was even overshadowed by T.J. McConnell‘s performance in game four. However it is not Simmons’ mediocre numbers (14-8-6, 47% FG, 70% FT, 4.8 TOPG) that cause the media to abandon him. It is his woeful +/- that features his 76ers at +48 when he was off the floor in the series, compared to -63 when he was on. This was the team to beat at one point… Embiid, Simmons, Dario Saric, and a crew of deadly shooters, what was not to like?
Now as the time comes for the Eastern Conference Finals, the Sixers do not face the Cavs, it is the Celtics instead. As for Boston and Tatum, their consistency has paid off. Tatum is now off his 7th straight 20+ point game and has become a pillar of the Celtics roster, providing shooting and athleticism in the absence of Hayward, Irving, and Jaylen Brown. Averaging 23-3-3 on 52% shooting, the rookie has established possibly his best stretch of basketball yet, at least since 2017. This is all while ‘boasting’ teammates that were once washed up or no-namers such as vet Al Horford and young blood Terry Rozier. Even with his roster being barren of flashy talent, Tatum still continues to perform and now stands while both Mitchell and Simmons fall by the wayside.
A pattern of consistency
This is the pattern seen constantly in professional basketball. Flash and showmanship garner attention, while consistency remains under the radar. Teams like the 76ers and Jazz have gained temporary acknowledgement with a cute behind-the-back pass from Simmons or a monster dunk from Mitchell, the Celtics continue to push an agenda of fundamental basketball. That comes from curating consistent play in guys such as Tatum. We’ve seen such dynamics in San Antonio with Gregg Popovich’s collection of young, foreign players to follow up on Tim Duncan’s quiet dominance in the early 21st century. While other franchises would fight for the players that garnered headlines, stories, and awards, the Spurs front office would draft late in rounds, relying on the player to fit the system, not the system to fit the player.
Simplicity is key
This simplicity is so rarely chased but so desperately needed to win, evident by this year’s playoffs. Simmons and Mitchell, fighting over the honor of being Rookie of the Year, go into the playoffs looking to prove their team AND individual merit. Eventually they fall by the wayside as Tatum continues on with little to no recognition. So while the mainstream media can have their heated debate over who is the ROY, Simmons or Mitchell, I want the simple answer. Give me the guy who is going to give me what I need to win, not what I want to see. Give me the player who provides night in and night out, seamlessly fitting into a system as need be. I want the guy who peaks up as time goes on, not shying away from the brightest of moments. Give me the rookie who doesn’t get the headlines, but just keeps shooting anyway.
Give me Jayson Tatum. After all, he’s the only one of the three still playing.