Is Andrew Wiggins the Favorite for Rookie of the Year?
2014 was not the best year to be an NBA rookie, as injuries took their toll on several first-round draft picks.
With Jabari Parker expected to miss the rest of the season, the race for NBA Rookie of the Year is wide open the calendar flips to 2015. Parker was on pace to win the award, most likely, but who is the most likely candidate now?
Currently, Andrew Wiggins is playing his best basketball during his short NBA tenure. On a team that has lost 19 of its last 20 games and is currently 5-29, it is hard to find bright spots. Without starters Ricky Rubio and Kevin Martin, and Nikola Pekovic for much of the season, Wiggins has had to do more with less. In Wiggins’ recent surge, he has scored 20 or more points in seven of his last eight games and has averaged 51.5% from the field (67-of-130 on field-goal shooting) in 37.3 minutes per contest.
His recent form has upped his stats to for the season to 14.3 points per game, 4.1 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.1 steals per game. He ranks first among rookies in scoring, third in in field-goal percentage, fifth in steals, and sixth in rebounds. For context, last year's Rookie of the Year, Michael Carter-Williams, averaged 16.7 points per game, 6.2 rebounds, and 6.3 assists but shot 40% from the field and 26% from three-point range.
Detractors, though, will point to Wiggins’ performance throughout the season, in which he has been less than stellar. Of 142 qualified players, Wiggins ranks 139th (fourth to last) in nERD, which measures a player's total contributions based on his efficiency. nERD is like win shares and indicates how many wins above or below average a player is worth to a team as a starter. So, Wiggins ranks in the bottom four with a score of -10.6 just ahead of Kobe Bryant who is at -11.5. In last place is Carter-Williams at -12.7.
Many can argue that this rookie class has under-performed and has suffered due to injuries to Parker and other first-rounders. However, Wiggins’ recent performances have elevated him to the top of the chart for Rookie of the Year by default, as others are either injured or do not yet feature (in terms of minutes) as much as Wiggins in their respective teams.
But the season isn't over just yet, and other players could overtake the crown for which Wiggins seems destined. Who has a shot?
Nikola Mirotić, SF/PF, Chicago Bulls
Although initially drafted by the Rockets in the 2011 NBA Draft, Mirotić stayed with Real Madrid in the Spanish League until 2014 when he joined Chicago by way of a trade with the Timberwolves. Mirotić has been a pleasant surprise for Chicago. His strong play in December -- in which he had 9.9 points and 5.7 rebounds per game -- earned him the Kia Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month. Over the course of the season, he has scored 8.3 points per game in just 18.8 minutes per game as part of a successful rotation in Chicago.
Mitotic’s player efficiency rating ranks second among rookies at 17.16. Although he doesn’t crack double digits in any of the major stats, it is worth noting that he is doing it with limited amount of playing time. Further to support his claim for Rookie of the Year is his 5.4 nERD, which is 29th in the NBA and ranks higher than the other top rookies as well as some superstars such as Kevin Durant (5.2) and Al Horford (5.0).
On December 19th in a game between two of the best teams in the league, the Bulls and Grizzlies -- who rank 7th and 10th, respectively, in our power rankings -- that featured the two best Spanish players in the NBA -- Pau and Marc Gasol -- it was another Spanish League player, Mirotić, who stole the show with 27 points and eight rebounds on 7-10 shooting (including 6-6 from three-point range).
Jusuf Nurkić , PF/C, Denver Nuggets
Another contender who is coming on in 2015 is Nurkić. After a forgettable 2014, in which he compiled just 200 minutes in 32 games (an average of 7 minutes per game), Nurkić has increased his role. Playing 22 minutes per game since January 1st, he has averaged 10.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks per game. With Timofey Mozgov now in Cleveland, Nurkić, barring injury, will see an increased role with Denver as he looks to continue his current form. If he remains a dominant force, he will surely challenge Wiggins for Rookie of the Year.
Nerlens Noel, PF/C, Philadelphia 76ers
Another big with an outside chance of challenging Wiggins is Noel. Like Mirotić, Noel was not drafted in 2014. Noel is technically a second-year player, but because Noel had missed his entire first year due to injury, he is eligible for the award. Noel’s 76ers are performing as badly as the Timberwolves are this year and rank last by a significant margin in our power rankings, but that hasn’t stopped him from earning a good reputation for his defensive play. He leads all rookies in rebounds (7.1) and steals (1.5) while also chipping in 7.8 points per game.
It is good to see the rookies improve after a slow start in 2014. Going forward, players like Mirotić and Nurkić will likely see more minutes as a result of their good performances. If this is the case, they can challenge Wiggins for Rookie of the Year, but for now, Wiggins is still number one..