Last year’s battle for Rookie of the Year was one of the more contentious in recent history. Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell battled for the honor with many questioning whether or not Simmons counted as a “true” rookie since he had sat out what would have been his first season due to injury. Simmons ended up handily winning the award, garnering nearly ninety percent of the available first-place votes, but both players quickly established themselves as up and coming players who looked like they would be certain stars for years to come.
However, a month into their respective sophomore seasons, neither player has progressed in the way that many expected, though that may have more to do with unreasonable expectations than anything else. There’s an implicit assumption that players who are great as rookies will inexorably and inevitably progress and become better, but a player’s career and their growth is usually more fitful and less predictable than linear. Now, both players have expectations to deal with alongside the fact that opposing defenses are focusing on stopping them in a way they weren’t last season. It’s not that either player has necessarily gotten worse, but that there are more obstacles in their way than before.
Ben Simmons has had to deal with a lot of adjustments to his team and been forced to redefine his own role in the process. The 76ers have tried hard to integrate Markelle Fultz into the lineup, which has taken the ball out of Simmons’ hands when they’ve shared the floor together and hurt both players’ ability to score inside as their collective lack of outside shooting allows the defense to pack the paint without fear of reprisals. Nevertheless, Simmons has still taken nearly two-thirds of his shots near the rim and is converting them at above a league average rate. Taking a greater percentage of his shots in the restricted area has also led to a noticeable increase in his free throw rate, which is helped by the fact that his free throw shooting has improved a bit this year as well.
Of course, now that the Sixers have traded for Jimmy Butler, another player who needs the ball in his hands a lot, Simmons may be forced to negotiate his place on the team yet again. Their first game together displayed a bit of a learning curve for Simmons as he took just five shots against Orlando on Wednesday. Simmons is a good and unique enough player that it’d be foolish to really worry about his growth and whether he’ll find a way to stand out alongside Embiid and Butler. While it may appear on the surface that Simmons is the same player as he was last year, there’s been subtle growth and even if he hadn’t changed at all, well, he was still great in his rookie season.
Last season, after a less than ideal start, the Jazz went on an absolute tear — going 29-6 over their last 35 games before defeating the Thunder in the first round. Throughout that stretch, Mitchell quickly established himself as the Jazz’s best scorer, averaging over 22 points per game while also assisting on four baskets nightly, showing that he was a solid playmaker as well.
His real coming-out party, though, was against Oklahoma City in the playoffs when there were stretches where he looked like the best player on the floor, averaging nearly 30 points a game. However, like Simmons, Mitchell has struggled a bit to start this season, as have the Jazz as a whole. Mitchell’s raw numbers are quite similar to last season’s — he is still averaging over 20 points with a handful of assists and steals as well — but his shot just has not been there.
While he was not a great 3-point shooter last year, it’s nevertheless worrisome that Mitchell is only 1-of-9 on corner 3’s to start the year and shooting just 30 percent overall. On the bright side, Mitchell still displays a slipperiness and an ability to get to the rim with ease, where he’s taking over 40 percent of his shots, yet even that is a mixed blessing as he’s only making 51 percent of his attempts there, well below the league average of 57. Of course, sometimes shots just don’t fall and that’s likely all it is, meaning a turnaround may be just around the proverbial corner.
It’s worth remembering that both players turned 22 years old during the offseason, are likely years away from their prime and that, if they are to become the stars they looked like they could become last season, the path to reaching that status will not likely be straightforward. If their sophomore seasons seem like disappointments, that’s only because of unreasonable expectations being placed upon them from the outside. There’s no reason to be alarmed by their relative lack of progress — and relative is the key word here — following their exceptional rookie seasons. Simmons and Mitchell are still likely to become perennial All-Stars in the future, and focusing too much on whatever shortcomings may be present at this moment only distracts from the bright future both seem sure to partake in.