Nobody could have ever predicted the controversy that has developed for the right to join such basketball luminaries as Malcolm Brogdon, Michael Carter-Williams and Tyreke Evans.
Yet, here we are, with a battle brewing that has enthralled both sides of the country. Maybe never in the history of the NBA has the Rookie of the Year Award created as much interest.
Donovan Mitchell vs. Ben Simmons, the only two viable candidates for the award. For throngs of Jazz supporters, it almost has turned into a battle of good and evil.
Usually, interest in the award has been limited to the fan bases that root for the one or two players in contention for the honor. But this year is substantially different, with advocates on both sides weighing in to the point of almost surpassing NBA MVP talk.
All this for an award that sometimes is won by players with no real distinction. It seems like for every LeBron James and Kevin Durant who win the award, there are the likes of Brogdon, Carter-Williams and Evans.
Attention in the award has hit a fever, if not comical, level during in the past week. Simmons started the fun during an ESPN interview that included his assertion he deserved to win “100 percent.”
“I think I have been playing solid all year,” he said. “If you look at the numbers, you will see. People who know the game know.”
Mitchell responded by wearing a sweatshirt with the definition of rookie across the front. It read that a rookie is a player in his first year with a professional team.
The top pick of the 2016 draft, Simmons sat out all of last season with an injury for the Philadelphia 76ers. NBA rules list Simmons as a rookie even though was with the 76ers last season.
The battle raged on after Simmons was told of Mitchell’s attire.
“If his argument is I’m not a rookie, if that’s the only argument he has, I’m in pretty good shape then,” Simmons said. “There’s a rule in the NBA for a reason. I’m not going to wear a sweatshirt tomorrow, though.”
Of course, Mitchell responded to the response. On and on it goes, the rookie of the year award taking on a life of its own. Former and current NBA players are weighing in on the national discussion.
Longtime NBA player Richard Jefferson, who spent a season with the Jazz, wrote that Mitchell is a true rookie. He noted Mitchell has accomplished the difficult task of averaging 20 points a game for a team heading to the playoffs.
“He didn’t have an entire year to train and practice against NBA talent,” Jefferson wrote. “He didn’t get to sit on a bench and watch film and dedicate his life to basketball.”
Golden State Warriors All-Star forward Draymond Green wouldn’t mind seeing both players split the award, although he knows it won’t happen. Pressed for a choice, Green falls in line with Jefferson’s way of thinking.
“What Donovan has done just coming straight out of college and doing what he’s doing would give him the nod for me,” Green said.
Aside from the “what is a rookie” issue, both players have a strong case. Simmons has led the revitalization of a marquee franchise that will make the playoffs for the first time in six years. A 6-foot-10-inch point guard, he has posted impressive numbers across the board (16 points, eight assists and eight rebounds a game).
The 13th pick out of Louisville whom the Jazz acquired in a draft day trade with the Denver Nuggets, Mitchell has been brilliant almost the entire season. With Mitchell leading the way offensively, the Jazz have gone from nine games below .500 to 29-5 in their last 34 games.
A dream also all season off the court, Mitchell has consistently taken a humble approach to any individual glory. It’s all about the team.
“We’re trying to win a championship,” he said on the postgame broadcast after the Jazz beat the Lakers to clinch a playoff berth. “I’m not here to worry about individual awards.”
For several reasons, the guess here is the award will go to Simmons, who was the number one pick of the 2016 draft. He entered the season with much more hype than Mitchell and along with Joel Embiid has led a glamour franchise back to prominence.
“Ben Simmons is really fabulous, and Donovan is, too. But I think that one is going to be hard (for Mitchell to win),” Jazz broadcaster David Locke said an interview on 97.5-FM and 1280-AM The Zone.
In the end, the award is only an individual honor that eventually will get lost in the shuffle in the years to come. Taking him at his word, Mitchell has much greater aspirations anyways.