Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid and the Rookie of the Year Chase

Joel Embiid has clearly established himself as the frontrunner in the Rookie of the Year chase–can anybody catch up to the Philadelphia 76ers’ big man?

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the season, Philadelphia 76ers’ big man Joel Embiid was a Rookie of the Year favorite–and he has done nothing short of live up to those expectations. Despite playing just 22.8 minutes per contest in 12 of the team’s games thus far, Embiid is averaging around 18 points and 8 rebounds per contest. He has also made an impressive impact defensively, averaging well upwards of 2 blocks per contest.

With two years to get acclimated to the style of life in the NBA, Embiid clearly had a leg up on a relatively weak draft class heading in, but nobody within reason could have expected such a massive level of production this early on. Taking on the load of first option scorer and defensive cornerstone, Embiid has been the unquestioned focal point of the Sixers’ scheme when he’s in the game.

There are still some rather obvious flaws to his game–namely turnovers–but he has been surprisingly apt in handling a hefty load of the offense in Philadelphia. He’s shooting 50% from deep, and has shown a level of polish in the post that will only become more impressive as his continues to get his feet under him at this level of play.

Embiid is already playing like a top 5 center in the Eastern Conference, more so than just a strong rookie. That, in and of itself, speaks volumes about where the Rookie of the Year race currently stands. For the time being, it appears to be Embiid and then everybody else, with no other players really putting up a solid argument.

Is their any possibility that we witness a shift in that dynamic as the season goes on? Here are some of the other candidates who are–at the very least–breaching the conversation for second best at the moment, as well as their standing in comparison to Embiid.

Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Jamal Murray– The Best Bet to Catch Up to Embiid (Possibly)

I can’t put enough emphasis on the word possibly here, as the likelihood of any rookie catching Embiid seems incredibly thin–despite it being early in the season. Murray, however, possesses the talent and the upside to make the best case outside of Philadelphia if a few things go his way.

After a slow start, Murray has heated up as of late. He had a three-game stretch of 20-plus points off the bench last week, and has managed to carve out a sizable niche with the likes of Gary Harris and Will Barton battling injuries for the Nuggets. While his play is certainly indicative of him continuing his minutes increase, how well Murray is able to remain remotely relevant in this race stems from how often Mike Malone utilizes him once the roster in entirely healthy.

This is a Denver team that has playoff aspirations to some extent, and has managed to put together a solid offensive run as of late. While that goal may be a tad lofty in the high octane Western Conference, it’s still a very real concern for anybody banking on Murray’s ability to break out as the season progresses.

Is he a better option that Jameer Nelson at the two-spot? Most definitely, and his instincts as a scorer and an offensive player in general surely could rival that of Harris, and even Barton, as Murray gets acclimated to the NBA. Denver has shown a tendency to lean towards experience though, and that’s a trend Murray will have to break as the campaign progresses.

Murray was my top ranked prospect heading into the season, and he’s still the best looking prospect from 2016 at the moment. He has all the tools needed to make a nice run at Embiid–albeit catching him is an entirely different story. How Murray’s season transpires is going to hinge more around rotational issues, more so than skill concerns or anything else.

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Sabonis, Siakam, Chriss–The Quiet Starters

While these three guys find themselves in different positions, the fact that they are all starting power forwards in the NBA has, at the very least, secured them an honorable mentions spot here. Domantas Sabonis has been the most effective of the trio while working off of Russell Westbrook, but the other two have shown a handful of flashes in their own right.

In terms of whose leading the pack here, however, Sabonis’ polished play has simply been more impressive. He’s averaging just under 7 points per contest with around 3 rebounds–nothing eye-catching–but he has executed at a high level in the role he has been asked to fill.

As a 3-point shooter, Sabonis has emerged as a legitimate threat, making him an unexpected stretch four option early on. He’s been able to produce well as a kick-out option for Westbrook off the drive, and his ability to make the smart pass and play within himself–a rare attribute for such a young big man–has helped him tremendously in fitting into that rather unique offensive unit.

Pascal Siakam, who’s averaging just ticks shy of 6 points and 4 rebounds per contest in about 19 minutes of action, is in the as similar boat as Sabonis from a role perspective, although his play style does differ. As a much longer, more athletic frame underneath, he’s a different threat around the rim–especially on defense. With that said, his offense also far more limited than that of Sabonis, relying on nifty positioning at the rim and hustle in transition for the majority of his basket. He’s more of a rim protecting high-energy guy than anything else so far, but is coming along surprisingly well for Toronto.

If I had to pick one of these three names to break out midseason, it’d likely be Marquese Chriss. That does come with it’s fair share of doubt, though, as the 8th overall pick out of Washington has failed to make much of an impact early on. As somebody I said would lead the Rookie of the Year chase prior to the season, Chriss’ raw defensive approach and sputtering offense has been difficult to watch at times, despite him holding onto a starting spot in Phoenix.

For such a freakish athlete, Chriss averages of just 6 points and 3 rebounds is somewhat underwhelming. Even though he has averaged a mere 15 minutes per contest, a short time constraint  for a so-called starting big, Chriss’ wealth of mistakes have piled up on a consistent basis.

Defensively, his lack of awareness and inability to remain focused at times have led to a number of careless fouls and ill-advised decisions. I swear I’ve seen him goaltend at least a handful of times this season, and his inability to channel his incredible leaping ability and excellent physical tools into productive defense is something that will continue to hold him back as his get used to the NBA pace of play.

All the tools remain in place for Chriss, it boils down to him putting together the pieces of the proverbial puzzle at this point. He can shoot the ball from deep with some consistency  and has the explosiveness to make exciting things happen on both sides of the basketball in time. None of these guys are major threats to Embiid–if you can even call them threats–but they’re worth mentioning on the rookie ladder.

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Dario Saric and Brandon Ingram–Versatility Off the Bench

Saric has, ironically in some ways, been the most productive rookie outside of Embiid thus far–stacking the odds almost insurmountably in the Philadelphia 76ers’ favor here. While he was recently moved to the bench in favor of veteran Ersan Ilyasova, Saric’s production as a versatile four man off the bench has still remained a critical part of the Sixers’ game plan.

With a solid 3-point stroke that is becoming increasingly confident and a nice array of skills at the power forward spot, Saric has molded nicely into Brett Brown’s rotation. He spaces the interior well for the Sixers’ core producers underneath, while operating as a secondary or tertiary facilitator at times when dribbling off the perimeter.

He’s not tallying up huge assist numbers by any means, but he’s capable of making smart plays with the ball in his hands and has proven himself to be one of the more polished rookies in this year’s class–if not the most polished outside of Embiid.

Brandon Ingram provides a different twist on the word versatile, but slides in this category as well. He’s averaging just shy of 8 points per game off the bench for an exciting second unit in Los Angeles, and has found some solid avenues of production despite a rough start to the campaign.

His painfully thin frame is still a hindrance in some ways, but his length allows him to move all over the court–esepcially on defense–which is something that Luke Walton has done a good job utilizing. His 3-point shooting has picked up a bit as of late (30% at the moment), and his ability to find space to shoot given his uncanny length is something he’s continuing to polish off at an ever-increasing rate.

He still experiences his fair share of struggles, but with such a weak rookie class around him, there’s no denying the fact that Ingram has worked his way well into the conversation as an Embiid-alternative. With that said, the likelihood of needing said alternative, once again, remains astronomically minimal at this stage.

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Rankings

With the highlights now covered, here is the full set of rankings for this year’s rookie class as of right now. This is a set of rankings I expect to fluctuate throughout the campaign, but is rather telling as to which types of rookies are finding success in such a unique environment in regards to first year players this season.

10. PF Marquese Chriss, Phoenix Suns

5.9 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 0.6 BPG

Chriss’ struggles don’t keep him out of the top 10 here, as the ultra-athletic four man has still been a legitimate part of the Suns’ rotation when he has been on the court. His ability to stretch the floor is a nice addition alongside a dynamic Phoenix backcourt, while his ability to, occasion, break out a big defensive play has helped offset some of the key negatives. He is, however, still learning how to play the game at the NBA level. It’s fairly clear that he’ll take some time at this point.

9. SG Buddy Hield, New Orleans Pelicans

7.4 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 1.1 APG

Hield was the preseason favorite for some, but has rapidly dropped himself out of that conversation. The Oklahoma-based standout hasn’t found the same room for shooting that he did in college, and has spent most of the season adjusting to a new role as a complimentary piece alongside the likes of E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway at the two spot. The Pelicans are a bad team and he’ll likely have his fair share of chances to crack into the rotational wall in front of him, but all-in-all, Hield is on track for an underwhelming campaign in comparison to most expectations.

8. PF Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

5.6 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 0.6 BPG

Siakam was somebody I was skeptical of coming into draft night, especially as a first rounder. He has since proven me wrong–for now. Utilizing his length around the rim, Siakam is a nice finisher in the interior, and has a knack for finding excellent position on the low block offensively. He also hustles the floor with impressive vigor, and is a budding rim protector to boot. He’s a really, really nice pickup thus far for the Raptors, and anybody starting for a highly competitive team deserves a spot in the top 10.

7. SF Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers

7.6 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 1.6 APG

Ingram, like most of the rookie class, has struggled to get his feet under him early on. He’s shooting just 29.7% from beyond the arc, and has been bullied at times given his unbearably thin frame. With all that said, though, Ingram has found a way to be a productive member of one of the league’s best bench groups. He’s pouring in almost 8 points per contest in reserve, and finding ways to utilize his length and versatility on both sides of the ball as he acclimates to NBA play. He’s still unpolished in a lot of areas, but he was the second overall pick for a reason–all the tools and talent necessary are certainly in place.

6. PG Malcolm Delaney, Atlanta Hawks

6.1 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 3.3 APG

Delaney hasn’t been all that exciting, but his ability to step in as the backup point guard for Dennis Schroder has been a huge boost for an Atlanta team that doesn’t have another point guard on the roster. He doesn’t score in bunches, but he’s a gritty defender on the outside and a smart playmaker who avoids forcing the issue with the ball in his hands. He’s a steady catalyst through which Mike Budenholzer can run his system while Schroder is in on the pine, and he has done more than enough to earn a spot on the ladder with such a weak rookie class around him. At 27-years-old, the former Virginia Tech star is by far the oldest rookie listed.

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

5. PG Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks

7.2 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 2.5 APG

Brogdon is another player whose game I didn’t think would translate well to the next level, but he has found a way to produce in Milwaukee. The former wing at Virginia has made a surprisingly effective switch to point guard off the bench for the Bucks, and has poured in over 7 points and a pair of dimes per contest as a result. He’s not overly explosive in any one facet and doesn’t really blow you away with his playmaking skills, but he has showcased the fundamentals needed to carve out a role in the NBA. He’s a gritty perimeter defender–something we always knew coming out of college–and he has shown himself more than capable of making smart plays with the ball in his hands. He’s good at playing within himself, and that has earned him a top 5 spot thus far.

4. PF Domantas Sabonis, Oklahoma City Thunder

6.7 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 1.1 APG

Sabonis’ solid two-way contributions alongside Westbrook and company in OKC earn him a solid placement here, although he might dip just a bit if his production doesn’t kick back up in the upcoming weeks. His shooting has been a pleasant surprise, and he has functioned well as a stretch four alongside a slashing-heavy backcourt as a result. His energy on the boards was a major part of his effectiveness at Gonzaga, and the son of a Hall of Famer has managed to carry that skill to the NBA quite nicely, despite his limited wingspan and athletic tools. He hustles on both sides of the ball in a fairly relentless manner, and has proven himself to be a real part of the Oklahoma City rotation this year.

3. SG Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

10.5 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 2.1 APG

Murray is gaining on that number 2 spot, and is likely to take it if he’s able to hold on to a significant portion of the minutes at the two spot in Denver. His scoring prowess has never been a doubt coming out of Kentucky, and his outside shooting is a much needed asset for a team that is filled with dynamic slashers on the outside, such as Emmanuel Mudiay and Will Barton. Murray has offensive instincts that few 19-year-olds can boast, and has picked up his production in a major way in lieu of a slow start to the season. He’s firmly entrenched in the top 3 for right now, without any real doubts in regards to that notion.

2. PF Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers

9.1 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 2.1 APG

The Homie holds onto the second spot for now, thus giving Philadelphia the two frontrunners, per say, in the Rookie of the Year race. Despite being moved to the bench upon Ilyasova’s acclimation to the Sixers’ rotation, Saric has still found avenues of production in a youthful Sixers rotation. His 3-point shot has been falling with much more confidence lately, and his passing skills are a rare asset for the four spot. He can operate in numerous different roles in a number of different positions for Brett Brown, and provides the type of versatile floor spacer that has been starkly lacking in the Philly frontcourt during recent years. He’s the most polished non-Embiid rookie at this stage in the season.

1. C Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

18.2 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 2.4 BPG

The two-year member of the Sixers has emerged as an almost uncatchable frontrunner at this stage, and the likelihood of anybody catching him seems slim to none if he’s able to remain healthy over the course of the campaign. Embiid still has his subtle flaws, but it has been overwhelmingly positive to start his first season as an active player. Defensively, Embiid is averaging upwards of 2 blocks per contest in less than 23 minutes played, and has anchored the defense as a premier stopper at the rim. Offensively, his polish as a shooter on the exterior has been an unexpected but enjoyable aspect of his game, while his interior scoring is already among the most effective in the Eastern Conference–a hefty accomplishment for a 22-year-old. Few players bolster the physical tools Embiid does, and he has shown the confidence and skill needed to exploit almost any matchup given to some extent. There is still room to grow, without a doubt, but the floor is already ridiculously high. Any time a rookie is in the All-Star conversation, they’re going to take home the top spot on the ladder.

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