If Stat Nerds Gave Out the NBA Rookie of the Year Award, Andrew Wiggins Wouldn't Have Won
Andrew Wiggins' rookie season had a turbulent beginning, but all's well that ends well, right?
After being selected first overall in the 2014 NBA Draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers, Wiggins spent the entirety of his first summer as a professional basketball player under extreme scrutiny as a potential moving piece in a trade for Kevin Love. That deal would eventually go down and Wiggins became a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, where he played out his rookie season. Today, that uncertain beginning feels like the distant past, as Wiggins has been named the Rookie of the Year for the 2014-15 season.
Wiggins becomes the first Canadian player ever to win the award and only the second non-American, following Spanish forward Pau Gasol, 2001-02's honoree (although Wiggins' high school and college careers in the States maintain Gasol's status as the only winner trained entirely outside the US). Patrick Ewing (1985-86 winner, Jamaica), Tim Duncan (1997-98 winner, Virgin Islands), and Kyrie Irving (2011-12 winner, Australia) were all technically born outside the United States, but were all identifiable as US citizens by the time they won the award.
Wiggins certainly fits the mould of your typical Rookie of the Year honoree. He led all rookies in scoring at 16.9 points per game, while coming fifth in rebounds (4.6), eighth in assists (2.1), fourth in steals (1.0), and sixth in blocks (0.6) per game (minimum 50 games played). That makes 10 of the last 11 Rookie of the Year winners that led all first-year players in scoring, with Derrick Rose being the odd man out in 2008-09 (O.J. Mayo scored 18.5 points per game that year to Rose's 16.8).
And Wiggins kind of ran away with this thing, getting 110 of a possible 130 first-place votes and finishing with 604 points. The next closest contenders were Nikola Mirotic (14 first-place votes, 335 points) and Nerlens Noel (3 first-place votes, 141 points).
Mirotic was an absolute machine in March (20.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.8 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game), but he just wasn't a consistent factor on the season as a whole (with averages of 10.2 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.7 steals, and 0.7 blocks over the full 82 games). He might've gotten some love for being the rookie playing the most important minutes on a contender in the Chicago Bulls, but unlike an MVP award, how well a Rookie of the Year's team performs during his first season is more or less irrelevant. Hence why Wiggins' Wolves finishing an NBA-worst 16-66 had practically no bearing on his taking home the hardware.
Noel played for a team in the 18-64 Sixers that were just as bad as the Wolves, but his contributions weren't as flashy as Wiggins'. Nerlens became the only rookie ever to average a baseline of 8.1 rebounds, 1.8 steals, and 1.9 blocks (he led all rookies in all three categories) and the Sixers were a full 4.0 points per 100 possessions better on defense when he was on the floor (and vaulted from 27th to 13th in terms of defensive efficiency in his first season, amazingly enough). In the end, however, his slow start to the season and an unsexy single-digit scoring average (9.9 points per game) probably worked against him.
No, as the voting seems to suggest, scoring still conquers all. And at 1,387 points scored, Wiggins accumulated a full 554 more points than the next closest rookie (Mirotic), and his impact was therefore probably more obvious to the voting contingent than that of Noel or Mirotic.
But, if you look at more efficiency-based statistics, either one of Noel or Mirotic might've been a better choice -- at least if we were rewarding a player's overall impact on a team beyond how many points they scored.
In terms of some of the most common efficiency-based one-number statistics, both Noel and Mirotic were pace-setters among rookies (Note: rank among first-year players in parentheses):
|Andrew Wiggins||13.9 (6th)||.034 (14th)||-0.5 (6th)||-1.8 (19th)||-2.3 (12th)||-0.2 (13th)|
|Nikola Mirotic||17.9 (1st)||.165 (1st)||1.2 (2nd)||0.0 (8th)||1.2 (1st)||1.3 (3rd)|
|Nerlens Noel||15.0 (3rd)||.083 (5th)||-3.7 (18th)||4.5 (1st)||0.8 (3rd)||1.6 (1st)|
Wiggins comes in behind both Noel and Mirotic in Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Win Shares per 48 Minutes (WS/48), Box Plus-Minus (BPM, a box score estimate of the points per 100 possessions a player contributed above league-average), and Value Over Replacement Player (VORP, an estimate of the points per 100 team possessions that a player contributed over a replacement-level player). As you can see by the splits in Offensive (OBPM) and Defensive (DBPM) Box Plus-Minus, Noel's strength was in his defensive impact and Mirotic's was mostly on the offensive end, but Wiggins was decidedly mediocre in both.
The gap between Wiggins and the other two top candidates is made even larger when considered on a league-wide scale. Our in-house metric, nERD, estimates how many games above or below .500 a league-average team would finish an 82-game season with the player in question as one of its starters. Wiggins had the fourth-worst nERD in the entire NBA at -8.0, while Mirotic (4.9, 35th) and Noel (-1.4, 93rd) both finished in the top-100.
Of course, neither one of the above metrics should be the end all and be all of declaring a Rookie of the Year winner (advanced stats only tell one side of the story), but perhaps they should've been more closely examined than they seem to have been. At the very least, it feels like the vote should've been closer and Mirotic and Noel should've earned more first-place votes.
That said, it's hard to fault a 20-year-old Wiggins for not having the pro game solved yet and it's certainly not his fault that the voters handled this the way they did. Besides, Wiggins' low ranking in the aforementioned categories paints a picture of inefficiency, not necessarily of a bad basketball player.
The fact that Wiggins played all 82 games for the Timberwolves this season and came second in the league in minutes played with 2,969 (only 12 shy of leader James Harden) is very impressive, especially considering the pressure the recently-turned 20-year-old kid had to face with a usage rate of 22.6%.
The signs are there on both offense and defense to suggest that this young Canadian will become something special, even if low shooting percentage and turnovers at a high volume of shots, usage, and possessions killed his efficiency ratings. After all, the deficiencies in his line look awfully familiar to another Rookie of the Year to come along and change the NBA not all that long ago.
If Rookie of the Year were up to stat nerds, maybe one of Noel or Mirotic would've been given the hardware. For now, Wiggins did everything his team asked of him, performed the best he could with what he had, perfectly fit the mould of many of the winners that came before him, and has shown the kind of superstar potential that typically comes attached to winning the award.
For all that, it's hard to fault the kid for being a little bit inefficient in his first year. He'll learn, eh?