Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins is widely considered the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year this season. Bovada.lv has set the ROY odds heavily in the 20-year-old’s favor at 1/20 and anyone else’s chances at 9/1.
Leading all rookies with 15.9 points per game, Wiggins has won the Western Conference Rookie of the Month award every month this season, and locked up the Rising Star’s Challenge MVP over All-Star Weekend last month. He was expected to go head-to-head with Milwaukee Bucks' Jabari Parker, but Parker suffered a season-ending injury.
Scoring, considered the overriding indicator of a player's worth among many voting members, has essentially assured Wiggins he will win ROY this season. Over the last 11 seasons, the rookie who scores more claims the award, with the only exceptions being Derrick Rose in 2009 and LeBron James in 2004.
But one rookie could make a late push for the award: Philadelphia 76ers center Nerlens Noel.
For the reasons behind selecting anyone other than Wiggins for the award, let’s dissect each player’s case.
Case for Wiggins
All the hype surrounding Wiggins prior, during, and after, his freshman season at Kansas proved to be almost completely correct. Yes, he’s leading all rookies in scoring, but the No. 1 overall pick has displayed all the right physical attributes required of an NBA small forward.
He can finish at the rim with both polish and power, and already has the presence of mind to attack the basket for 4.8 free throw attempts, also best among rookies.
The issues with his jumper persist, but he’s still hitting at a solid 43.7 percent, and to start the season was actually fairly hot from the three-point line. He started off at a 41.7 percent success rate from deep in November, but he’s yet to hit one this month and his percentage has come back to earth at 34 percent.
On defense, Wiggins has shown the footwork and patience of veteran. He’s taken on the likes of MVP candidates like James and the Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden late in games.
Wiggins is also averaging better than a steal a game (1.1) and he’s kept turnovers down to two per game, an excellent sign that he’s already careful with the ball in a way that takes years for other rookies to learn.
You would like the Timberwolves dreadful 13-47 record to be even five games better, but as constructed they were never meant to be a team to win this season. Defensively the team is No. 29 in points allowed per game, and 24th in rebounding, all areas that can translate into a lack of wins and that can’t be completely held against Wiggins.
Also, since 2003, only two rookies have powered their teams into the postseason, Rose and Amar’e Stoudemire with the Phoenix Suns.
Wiggins has also shined against the league’s best players and teams. He put 30 points on the Rockets and Harden on Feb. 23, 25 points on a Memphis Grizzlies squad that’s one of the best defensive clubs in the league on Feb. 28, and tallied 33 points and four steals against James and the Cavs on Jan. 31.
That last one is especially telling. The Cavs traded Wiggins before he ever stepped on an NBA court for forward Kevin Love, believing they could win right away rather than waiting for Wiggins to develop. By the way he played against Cleveland, Wiggins will clearly try to make the franchise pay for that move the rest of his career.
Case For Noel
Remember Noel? He’s the guy that was considered the No. 1 pick by consensus in the 2013 draft even after he tore up his knee halfway through his only season as Kentucky’s big man.
Instead, Noel fell to the No. 6 overall pick by the New Orleans Pelicans, and wound up in Philly via a trade and sat out all of what would have been his rookie year rehabbing his knee and helping the Sixers corral another top first-round pick like general manager Sam Hinkie has become notorious for.
Well, Noel finally made it to an NBA floor this season, and while his offensive game is lacking, he’s in arguably the best defender of this year’s rookie class.
The 6-foot-11 Noel leads in almost every other category except scoring. He’s first in rebounds (7.4), steals (1.65), and blocks (1.95). And in blocks he’s actually sixth overall in the league.
Noel’s also second to Wiggins in minutes, though it is by a wide margin, at 30.6 per game compared to 35 per contest for Wiggins.
And like Wiggins, the Sixers 13-48 record shouldn’t fall entirely on Noel. For one, the Sixers are still in the midst of a major rebuilding process, and Hinkie continues to wheel-and-deal for more first-round picks at an astounding rate. Hinkie’s propensity to trades saw last year’s ROY and point guard Michael Carter-Williams ship off to the Milwaukee Bucks at the trade deadline last month.
Noel also hasn’t benefitted from any veteran leadership in his first season. The Sixers have only three players over the age of 24.
Conclusion: Wiggins. While the vote deserves to be somewhat close, it will likely be a landslide. Noel has managed to utilize his currently limited skill set to carve out one of the best defensive seasons by a rookie in years. He also gives the Sixers a reliable inside presence and help defender for the future. In the end, Wiggins has too much upside, and his scoring ability is unmatched among rookies.