If Em­biid isn’t top rookie, who is?

The Washington Post Sunday - - PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL - BY TIM BONTEMPS tim.bontemps@wash­post.com

The NBA’s an­nual awards aren’t handed out un­til after the reg­u­lar sea­son. But when Joel Em­biid opened his NBA ca­reer Oct. 26 with 20 points, seven re­bounds and two blocked shots, the rookie of the year race was es­sen­tially deemed over. After spend­ing two years la­bor­ing through a se­ries of in­juries that pre­vented him from play­ing, Em­biid proved the Philadel­phia 76ers were smart to be pa­tient with the 7-footer, who im­me­di­ately looked like one of the NBA’s elite play­ers — let alone one of its best rook­ies.

As the sea­son dragged on, how­ever, Em­biid be­gan to miss more and more time. Al­ready locked into miss­ing one half of each of Philadel­phia’s back-to-back sets this sea­son, he started to miss time be­cause of in­jury as well be­fore even­tu­ally get­ting shut down for the sea­son two weeks ago be­cause of a menis­cus tear in his left knee.

Em­biid’s sea­son av­er­ages — 20.2 points, 7.8 as­sists, 2.1 as­sists and 2.5 blocks per game while shoot­ing 46.6 per­cent from the field, 36.7 per­cent from three-point range and 78.3 per­cent from the foul line — have clearly made him the NBA’s best rookie.

But then one looks at the “games played” col­umn and the de­bate about the wor­thi­ness of his can­di­dacy be­gins.

If Em­biid were to win the award, his 31 games played — and his 786 to­tal min­utes — would eas­ily rank as the fewest among past win­ners. And in a nor­mal sea­son, Em­biid’s brief stretches of great­ness wouldn’t be enough to win it.

Take last sea­son, for in­stance. Karl-An­thony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and Nikola Jo­kic would have beaten out Em­biid thanks to their strong de­but sea­sons and games played.

Those types of can­di­dates, how­ever, just aren’t there this sea­son. And that’s why Em­biid, de­spite his lim­ited time on the court, de­serves to win.

Dis­agree? Go ahead and find a can­di­date to back in the race. It isn’t easy.

The pop­u­lar name be­ing cited as a wor­thy chal­lenger to Em­biid is his team­mate, for­ward Dario Saric. Iron­i­cally, like Em­biid, Saric was taken in the 2014 NBA draft, but he chose to re­main over­seas for two sea­sons.

Since the all-star break, Saric has been ex­cel­lent, av­er­ag­ing 19.0 points, 9.0 re­bounds and 4.6 as­sists en­ter­ing Satur­day. But Saric’s num­bers be­fore the break — 10.8 points, 5.9 re­bounds and 1.9 as­sists — are far more or­di­nary. And on a team de­void of scor­ers or creators, re­ward­ing Saric for putting up hol­low num­bers for six weeks — par­tic­u­larly when he wasn’t any­where close to Em­biid in terms of im­pact when he was healthy — is hard to jus­tify.

The best can­di­date might be Mal­colm Brog­don, the for­mer Vir­ginia star who was a sec­ond-round pick by the Mil­wau­kee Bucks. Brog­don has stepped into a prom­i­nent role for the Bucks, play­ing close to 26 min­utes per game en­ter­ing Satur­day and start­ing 17 times while tak­ing plenty of min­utes from prom­i­nent free agent sign­ing Matthew Dellave­dova. But while Brog­don im­me­di­ately looked like he be­longed in the league, it’s hard to ar­gue he’s had any­where near the same im­pact Em­biid has.

As for the play­ers taken at the top of the 2016 NBA draft? Good luck find­ing a can­di­date among them. Six­ers for­ward Ben Sim­mons, the top over­all pick, was ex­pected to win the award if Em­biid didn’t be­fore the sea­son started, but he has missed the en­tire sea­son after break­ing his foot in the open­ing week of train­ing camp. The sec­ond pick, Bran­don In­gram, has had min­i­mal im­pact on the Los An­ge­les Lak­ers, one of the NBA’s worst teams. Jaylen Brown has be­come a nice role player on a strong Bos­ton Celtics team but hasn’t got­ten a chance to show he can do more.

Of the lottery picks, Den­ver Nuggets guard Ja­mal Mur­ray has been the most im­pres­sive, show­ing flashes of be­ing a strong lead guard to pair with Jo­kic in the Mile High City mov­ing for­ward. But, like the rest of th­ese names, his sta­tis­ti­cal pro­file — 9.1 points, 2.5 re­bounds and 1.8 as­sists — just doesn’t mea­sure up.

So yes, Em­biid’s sea­son was un­for­tu­nately cut short by in­jury, leav­ing the door open for some­one else to step in front of him and claim the rookie of the year award. A look at the pos­si­ble can­di­dates to do so, how­ever, should leave any­one ar­gu­ing against Em­biid’s can­di­dacy with one con­clu­sion: They don’t have a leg to stand on.

MATT SLOCUM/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Philadel­phia cen­ter Joel Em­biid’s sea­son has been cut short by a knee in­jury, but the 7-footer made a big im­pact for the 76ers in the 31 games he played.

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