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Jaylen Brown was never expected to be this good, this fast.

Except, perhaps, among a few of us who saw the raw potential and believed the motor was real, and not an illusion. I count myself among those few, and I am sure more than a few of you do, too. However, not even my lofty expectations had me thinking he might be in the running for Rookie of the Year (R.O.Y.), but a steady chorus of voices around the NBA media-sphere are starting to ask the question: Does Jaylen have a case?

Let's take a look.


More than maybe any year in the modern history of the award, context matters. Traditionally, the award has gone to a high-scoring new jack on a terrible team, but recent history has made a muddle of that trend. To start with, "the Process" plus Joel Embiid's most recent injury, plus the limited number of games he has played in for rest, plus his minutes restriction to have the - until last week - presumptive winner ending his season at roughly the halfway-point of the season, with only 31 games under his belt, and with an average of only 25.1 minutes per game in that smattering of games.

In the league's history, the three lowest game totals recorded all fall within the modern era, which I consider to start with the three-point line's introduction in 1979. The three rookies who hold that honor are, in chronological order, Patrick Ewing (50 games, 1985-86), Vince Carter (50 games, 1998-99), and Kyrie Irving (51 games, 2011-12). Ewing averaged 35.4 minutes per game, Carter 35.2 and even Irving averaged just over 30. In fact, only two winners have averaged under 30 minutes per game in the history of the game - Mike Miller, who averaged 29.1 per game, and Boston's own Tommy Heinsohn, who averaged 29.9. Miller did not miss a single game of his rookie season; Tommy, just ten.


So, it seems very unlikely Embiid will win the award, as impressive as his debut has been when he's been on the court. His victory would plunge into new lows in terms of both playing time and games played, threatening the meaningfulness of the award itself in the process. And this from a team which thought it might be fielding another candidate for the award (Ben Simmons), himself out for the year with an injury, also in the foot. It's as if the basketball gods are angry...what could have made them so angry?


I kid. Mostly. If such gods exist, they must begrudgingly accept an occasional tank job for the good of the game, and perhaps this is a warning to those who would pile risk upon risk in seeking to game the system. Or maybe it's just bad luck. Whatever the case, there's another layer to unpack with respect to tanking - when you get other teams to do it for you. In this case, when you push the envelope as hard as you can to stymie the intent of the Stepien rule (which prevents managers from trading away multiple year's draft picks in a row to avoid exactly what Billy King agreed to do with the Boston Celtics by adding a pick swap for this year's Brooklyn Nets pick, a tale I imagine most of you are quite familiar with).

How many times has a potential candidate for R.O.Y. been on a winning team? The answer might surprise you, depending on how you define winning. In this case, how often has a R.O.Y. has come from a playoff team seems like a good baseline to work with. In the 63-year history of the award, it has gone to a rookie who has played playoff minutes 24 of those years. However, in an era with talent concentrated on fewer teams, this should come as less of a surprise. Eliminate first-round exits, and the number shrinks to 12 years. In the modern era (again, since 1979), this has happened only four times in 36 years, likely because the NBA was smaller and talent thus more concentrated. Fast forward to the expansion era of the 1980s to the early 2000s, and it became rarer - because adding a single impact player on a team with less talent had less of an effect (or so my theory goes - feel free to give me your best counter-arguments).

Who were those four modern-era R.O.Y.s? In reverse chronological order, we have: Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Mitch Richmond, and Larry Bird. Assuming Brown's Celtics make it out of the first round - no guarantee, depending on matchups, health, and many other factors - he'll be poised to join this rarefied air, a veritable Mount Rushmore of basketball. Notably absent from this list? Not just the current "king" of the league LeBron James, but even His Airness, Michael Jordan. That, if anything does, should punctuate just how hard it is for one player to make in impact on his own in the modern league, though we can debate about why that is.


Before we bother to ask if he deserves to be in the R.O.Y. conversation, we should maybe ask if he has any business whatever in this company. The build-up might have you excited with names like this floating around, but let's walk things back a bit. In order to be in this crowd, Brown would have to WIN the award, and there's plenty of folks likely ahead of him in that line. But, given that splash of cold water to the face to remind us it's pretty unlikely (more on this shortly), let's just finish that assessment. How would Jaylen stack up?

In short, not well. Even if we use his per-36 projections, Brown is putting up very respectable but not exactly earthshaking numbers: 13.7 points, 6 boards, a steal, and just over a half a block. Nothing to sneeze at, given his projected fouls (3.9) and turnovers (1.8) suggest he's not just a bull in a china shop, padding his stats at the expense of the rest of his game. Even still, his per-36 numbers pail in comparison: Duncan logged 19.4 points, 11 boards, 2.5 assists and 2.3 blocks per-36, Robinson 23.9 points, 11.8 boards, 2 assists and 3.8 blocks, Richmond 23.1 points, 6.2 boards, 4.4 assists and 1.1 steals, and Bird 21.3 points, 10.4 boards, 4.5 assists, 1.7 steals and .6 blocks per-36 minutes.

Jaylen, as good as he may become and has been so far, is nowhere near this league - and that's OK.


How does he stack up against the other likely candidates, though? Dario Saric, another leading name, has been putting up 11.3 points, 6.2 boards, and 1.9 assists per game on one of the worst teams in the league, and Buddy Hield 8.9 points, 2.9 boards and 1.3 assists per game on two equally awful squads, though has only been on the floor about 20 minutes per game. In these instances I would normally use per-36 minutes to get a finer-grained comparison, but it wouldn't make sense - neither of their respective teams are sniffing the playoffs save a minor miracle, and if they can't get on the floor with such miserable competition for floor time, it's really not a valid comparison. An argument could have been made in Saric's case had Simmons not missed the entire season, except Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel and Embiid have played nearly all their minutes at the five this season, leaving Saric alone in heavy minute rotation for the 4.


Malcolm Brogdan is another name held up as a likely candidate. However, he's only seeing heavy minutes in the wake of the Khris Middleton injury on an injury-riddled Milwaukee Bucks squad, and still only logging about 25 minutes, 4.2 assists, 1.2 steals and 9.8 points per game. Similarly, Marquese Chriss can't even crack 20 minutes per game on a horrific Phoenix Suns squad, though to his credit, he's been fighting for minutes behind vet Jared Dudley and fellow lottery pick Dragan Bender, so we can entertain per-36 projections of 6.7 boards, 1.2 assists, 1.2 blocks and 14.7 points. Willy Hernangomez has been a bright spot for the New York Knicks, but largely at the expense of Joakim Noah's injury, and still only manages 16.4 minutes, 6.1 boards and 6.8 points per game.


In this context, Brown's 16.2 minutes, 6.1 points, 2.7 boards, .7 assists and .5 steals per game are actually not far from other candidates left in the running (assuming Embiid is out based on number of games played), putting him on the fringe with players like Isaiah Whitehead and Yogi Ferrell, and ahead of Brandon Ingram, drafted ahead of him in a supposedly two-man draft. Not bad company given the context surrounding his current situation, and perhaps a lesson to those who ignored the context of his college numbers in the prelude to last year's draft. Analytics are important, but without context, you aren't getting the full picture. And while it's unlikely Brown ends up a top R.O.Y. candidate by the end of the season, and slimmer still his team makes it into the second round (though not impossible), things would have to break in a very unusual way to put Mr. Brown in position to become the fifth R.O.Y. to be on a second-round-or-deeper squad in the modern NBA.

So, don't get your hopes up - Jaylen would likely have to fill in for an injured starter in the remainder of the season and/or the playoffs and do it well for that duration to seriously be a R.O.Y. candidate. Not impossible, but unlikely, to say nothing of the fact we'd be down a key player when we need them most. But even if Brown doesn't come close to winning that award, it's clear the potential many of us saw in him is very real and already on the precipice of making him a top-100 player in the league. That's nothing to sneeze at, even if you're allergic to BS.


For more stories about Jaylen Brown on Celticslife, click here. For more by Justin, click here.




Data via basketball-reference.com and NBA.com
Photo via Wendell Cruz/USA Today Sports
Follow Justin at @justinquinnn






Justin Quinn 3/02/2017 03:25:00 PM Edit
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