In recent scrimmages against Team USA, Payton Pritchard has shown flashes that should have Celtics fans dreaming big about his role for the upcoming season, but former #1 pick Cade Cunningham has looked like the best player on the court despite being a member of the USA Select Team, a team of prospects and practice players. Controlling the pace, running a professional pick and roll attack with teammate Jalen Duran, using his 6’7 frame to finish at all three levels, the Detroit Pistons star showed why many considered him to be a top prospect dating all the way back to high school.
Cunningham, however, sat out most of his sophomore season due to a nasty shin injury that caused him to miss 70 games. But, with this recent performance over Team USA, many are now back on the hype train that had stalled out during the 2022-2023 season.
Also a member of the USA Select Team is former #2 pick Chet Holmgren, who missed his rookie season due to a Lisfranc fracture in his foot. Holmgren, like Cunningham, dominated in his appearances in the NBA Summer League this year in Las Vegas. Looking like some government-funded lab experiment crossing the genetics of Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, and Chris “Birdman” Anderson, Holmgren is expected to push “the greatest prospect in NBA history” Victor Wembenyama for the Rookie of the Year Award during this upcoming season. I’m not going to lie — this is definitely a fun narrative to follow. Each player has a chance to redefine what’s possible for a 7-footer. But my question is: should Holmgren even be eligible?
Past winners of the award include Hall of Famers Lebron James, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan, and Larry Bird. It’s not exactly a predictor of future success, but a notable footnote to some of the greatest careers in NBA history. Case in point, let’s flashback to 2018 when Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons (Celtics fans beware: you are about to read four paragraphs about Ben Simmons) were entrenched in battle, both on the court and off the court, for the prestigious Rookie of the Year award. On the court, Simmons would ultimately win, earning 90 first place votes to Mitchell’s 11, but off the court, Mitchell poked fun at Simmons’ eligibility for the award by wearing a hoodie donning the dictionary definition of the word “rookie.”
His case: Ben Simmons should not have been a candidate for the award because he, like Holmgren this season, was drafted one year prior but missed his rookie season due to a foot injury. I remember thinking at the time that Mitchell’s argument might be valid, but that Simmons should still have been eligible for some type of recognition considering it was in fact his first year of professional basketball.
Looking further into this debate, Simmons’ initial injury left a gap in his own class where 6th Man of the Year Malcolm Brogdon earned the ROY honors, but he was widely chosen by default, not due to any sort of outstanding performance. Let’s take a look at his stats:
And just for fun because he’s my favorite player from my childhood, let’s review Allen Iverson’s rookie year, widely considered one of the most exciting rookie campaigns in NBA history.
There are levels to this game, and Malcolm Brogdon was definitely not at the level that we are accustomed to from a player earning Rookie of the Year. No shade to Brogdon; he’s become a very good player in his own right, but no one is putting him on the same list as a majority of the winners.
Which brings us back to 2016 when Simmons was injured. The #2 and #3 picks, Brandon Ingram and Jaylen Brown, were not quite who they would become, and the only other real candidate for the award was Simmons’ teammate, Joel Embiid (who also had missed his first two seasons as a member of the 2014 NBA Draft!). By the way, Celtics fans, go back and complete this exercise for the 2014 - it’s pretty fun. Where do you think Marcus Smart would’ve landed at the end of Year 3? It was actually yet another one of Simmons’ teammates, Dario Saric, who finished second in the voting that year, but the fact that Embiid was eligible was even more alarming than Simmons’ own candidacy in 2018.
This stuck with me over the years because I do think we overvalue the Rookie of the Year award. We obsess over the hot new thing and then don’t think too much about said rookies until they make the proverbial jump and start impacting winning basketball. The fact is that many rookies join teams that are several years away from competing for championships. And sure, people are obsessed with the idea of an NBA re-draft, but up until now, that has been nothing but blog and pod fodder. But what if we turned the hypothetical into a reality? What if we extended the Rookie of the Year competition to a 3-year contest, based on an escalating point system, that allowed members of the draft class to compete for the belt?
Without getting too mathematical, here’s the basic breakdown:
Proposed Rookie of the Last Three Years Voting
Pretty simple, right? Math nerds feel free to find a better scoring system, but basically each year is multiplied by 1.5 the previous year to reward player development as the years progress.
Let’s revisit Ben Simmons from the 2016 draft class, the year that Brogdon won it. At the end of Year 1, Brogdon would’ve earned 5 points, Saric 3, and since Embiid would have been ineligible in this scoring system, Buddy Hield would have received 1 point.
After Year 2 however, we start to get a better representation of who the best players in that class actually are. You can go dig up your own stats and complete this exercise yourself, but here is how I voted:
Now imagine we have just finished the 2017-2018 season. Former Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon feels slighted for finishing outside the top-3, but knows he can still win the belt in Year 3. The #2 pick Brandon Ingram starts to build a buzz with his second place finish, tying him with Brogdon and keeping him right there in contention for the belt. Jamal Murray has forced his way into the conversation, and Ben Simmons, Mr. Not a Rookie, is right there at the top of the leaderboard.
Going into Year 3, the final year of the competition, we still haven’t heard from players like Jaylen Brown, Domantas Sabonis, and Pascal Siakam, but each of these players would theoretically still be in the mix with a monster junior year in which first place received 12 points.
Here are their numbers Year 3:
Brown definitely showed improvement, but it was Siakam and Sabonis who would’ve been dominating this alternative past basketball discourse. Just for fun let’s look at Simmons, Ingram, and Murray.
Murray really was starting to show signs of becoming the player we saw in this year’s Finals, and Ingram flashed his talent but only played in 52 games, a trend that is still a concern to this day.
Oh, and what about Malcolm Brogdon? He just put up a casual 50-40-90 season and shut up some of the haters who thought he would never be more than a role player.
But when you look at these numbers, Ben Simmons, much-maligned as he is today, clearly had separated himself as the best player in this class through three seasons. At this point in his career, Ben Simmons was one year away from his All-NBA selection, Defensive POY candidacy, and surefire perennial All-Star status. He really was that special and deserved to be considered the player of the class. Anyways, here’s how I would’ve voted Year 3:
And the totals over the length of this competition?
I’ve also completed this exercise for all draft classes following the 2016 class:
What I love about this is certain players, like Luka Doncic and Ja Morant, sweep their competition and have 25-point belts. But can you imagine the hype in 2021-2022 after Zion’s impressive 2021 season? Ja vs. Zion, competing for the belt…until Zion got hurt. But who knows? Maybe this belt is the extra motivation Zion would have needed to stay in better shape to avoid yet another injury. Regardless, I think that would’ve been fun!
And finally, back to Cade Cunningham and Chet Holmgren. Year 3 Cade will be competing for the belt (at least in this writer’s eyes), despite missing his sophomore season. And Chet Holmgren can look at Paolo Banchero, last season’s winner and member of the official Team USA, and let him know that he is coming for him, too.
And who knows, maybe Brad Stevens will use a first round pick sometime in the next decade so that Celtics fans can argue that their guy belongs in future debates about who is the Player of the Class.