On the Beat | As Season Winds Down, Rookie of Year Race in Focus

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PHILADELPHIA, PA – The timing of Saturday’s pairing between the 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks brought even closer to the forefront the compelling, increasingly growing conversation about the 2017 NBA Rookie of the Year race.

Brett Brown hasn’t been bashful in offering his own take on the matter, with Saturday providing the latest case in point.

“What I feel most strongly about is, that’s our trophy,” said Brown, his conviction thick. “That’s our award. It comes through Philadelphia.”

With half a week to go in the regular season, popular sentiment points heavily towards the award ultimately falling to one of three leading candidates, all of whom have been groomed by the two teams that squared off Saturday at The Center.

Representing the Sixers, of course, are Joel Embiid and Dario Saric. The Bucks’ entrant comes in the form of Malcolm Brogdon, who last month solidified his status as the club’s top point guard during a critical stage of its season.

In recent weeks, as the Sixers’ home date with Milwaukee drew nearer, the match-up began to gain steam as an opportunity to see two of these three Rookie of the Year favorites – Saric and Brogdon – in action.

(Embiid has been sidelined almost two and a half months, and recently underwent left knee surgery in Los Angeles.)

This development, however, wouldn’t materialize, as Brogdon remained in Milwaukee to nurse back pain that has now sidelined him for five consecutive contests. As a result, Saturday’s stage belonged to Saric alone. There would be no co-headliner.

Very swiftly, Saric made his presence felt. He scored the Sixers’ first five points, and by the time he subbed out at the 5-minute, 13-second mark of the first quarter, he had also produced four rebounds, one assist, and one steal. With his minutes being monitored, the power forward finished with 14 points and eight boards, by far his best showing since his current 24-minute guideline was implemented four games ago.

Not at full strength, yet still scratching, clawing, and doing whatever he can to help the Sixers close the campaign strong, Saric’s efforts Saturday served as the latest reminder of why he’s managed to make such a legitimate Rookie of the Year bid.

As his head coach put it, the Croatian, who celebrated his 23rd birthday Saturday, has demonstrated steady progress within the context of a large sample size of games. Saric is one of only three rookies to appear in every outing that his squad has played. Phoenix’s Marquese Chriss and Denver’s Jamal Murray are the other two.

“I think there’s something to be said for the upward body of work people have done as the season has moved to the end,” Brett Brown said Saturday, when asked about Saric’s bid to join Allen Iverson (1997) and Michael Carter-Williams (2014) as the lone Rookie of the Year recipients in franchise history. “I think in that assessment, you can judge improvement. I just feel like those few things really make Dario’s I suppose opportunity to be selected very eye-popping.”

Not so coincidentally, Saric’s push for Rookie of the Year honors began to rev up considerably in February, shortly after Embiid’s left knee problems intensified. Since February 1st, Saric has logged more minutes – 990 – than any other rookie in the league. Next closest on this list is Dallas’ Yogi Ferrell, who has played 878 minutes in two fewer games amid this same period of time.

With the start of February again serving as the demarcation point, Saric has paced his fellow first-year peers in scoring, averaging 17.1 points per game. Sacramento’s Buddy Hield is second (12.8 ppg), and Brogdon third (12.3 ppg).

For the season, Saric stands as the second-leading rebounder (6.3 rpg) among active rookies, and has hit the third-most 3-pointers (105 3fgm). Saturday against Milwaukee, he became the sixth Sixer to generate 1,000 points and 500 rebounds in his debut campaign.

Before moving on from Saric, we’ll leave you with this last stat nugget – he’s one of seven players to manufacture a post-All Star break split featuring minimum averages of 17.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.0 3-pointer per game, while also shooting 75.0 percent from the free throw line. All-Stars James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, and Blake Griffin round out the rest of the list.

“He’s had a consistent delivery since the All-Star break when he’s had more of an opportunity in a very real way,” Brown said of Saric, who was promoted into the starting line-up following the trading of Ersan Ilyasova on February 22nd.

Brown, however, also pointed out Saturday the undeniable Rookie of the Year case that Embiid was able to make in limited action. Over the course of 31 appearances, the 7-foot-2, 275-pound center notched staggering averages of 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds in less than 26.0 minutes per game, a feat achieved by no one ever in the NBA’s existence.

As jaw-dropping as those numbers were, Embiid also accounted for a whopping 2.5 blocks per game, and nailed 36.7 percent of his 3-point attempts (36-98). To reset, the man is a hulking, massive 7-footer.

Then, there’s some of the defensive impact data that advanced metrics provide.

With Embiid on the court this season, the Sixers outscored opponents by 4.1 points per 100 possessions. Aside from Shawn Long and Tiaggo Splitter, whose respective stints with the Sixers have been even shorter than Embiid’s season, he is the only player on the roster with a positive plus-minus rating. Conversely, with Embiid off the floor, the Sixers were outscored by a noteworthy 8.1 points per 100 possessions.

According to stats.nba.com, Embiid yielded a defensive win share (0.048) that would put him third among all centers, trailing only Utah’s Rudy Gobert (0.060) and New Orleans’ Anthony Davis (0.054). Embiid also held opponents to 40.9 defended field goal percentage, one of the top figures in the league.

In respect to Embiid and the Rookie of the Year chase, Brown said, “Most everybody would say that was a no-brainer had he played volume of games. Now you’re just left with, ‘Well he didn’t,’ so now what?”

Votes from a select group of media members must be submitted by April 18th.

“It gets down to people’s judgment of how they weight 31 games versus a body of work,” said Brown. “We’re proud of both of [Saric’s and Embiid’s] efforts, and both of their progress and development. Personally, I feel very confident and strong saying that. The judges will judge.”

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