Joel Embiid throws Kia Rookie of the Year support behind teammate Dario Saric

MIAMI (AP) — Philadelphia’s Dario Saric was giving an on-court interview after the best scoring game of his young NBA career, only to be interrupted by a teammate.

Joel Embiid had something to say.

“He’s the rookie of the year,” Embiid emphatically said on CSN Philly after the 76ers beat the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday night. “That’s the guy.”

If only the debate could be solved that easily. Rookie of the year is already one of the most-debated of this season’s NBA awards, in large part because Embiid’s numbers are unquestionably the best in the class.

That is, except in one category.

The oft-injured Philadelphia big man will become the first rookie in six seasons to average more than 20 points, the fourth in the last two decades to do so while grabbing seven rebounds and the only one ever with those numbers while logging just 25 minutes per game. Yet his rookie of the year chances are, at best, murky because Embiid played in just 31 games before being shut down.

So, is playing only one-third of the year enough to win rookie of the year?

“I think it is,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said.

Not everyone, of course, would necessarily concur.

“I don’t know what the standard is,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “But I think the last man standing should get it, more than anything else.”

Embiid will get probably the most competition from Saric and Milwaukee’s Malcolm Brogdon. There’s a slew of other candidates – no rookie has started more games so far than Oklahoma City’s Domantas Sabonis, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Brandon Ingram leads rookies in minutes, and Miami’s Rodney McGruder has been a huge part of the second-half surge by the now playoff-contending Heat.

But no one has the numbers like Embiid, even though his sample size was highly limited.

“He was fantastic in those 31 games, head and shoulders above all the rest in those games,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It’s tough.”

To go back to Casey’s point, what complicates matters is that there isn’t a true standard set by the NBA for eligibility – and that only adds to the intrigue for this season’s rookie voting. There are certain standards the league has to qualify for year-end statistical honors, but anyone who got into an NBA game for the first time this season is rookie-of-the-year eligible.

Embiid and Saric can’t even decide. Saric told a story Sunday night about how, when Embiid’s knee injury ruled him out for the rest of this season, they had a conversation about what that would mean come award time.

“Can I give you a better gift than rookie of the year?” Saric recalled Embiid saying. “I said, `OK man.’ I know he’s the guy.”

If Embiid won, it would be precedent-setting.

Every past rookie of the year winner has appeared in at least 50 games, or 61 percent of the schedule. The last two rookie winners – Anthony Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns of Minnesota – played in all 82 games with the Timberwolves.

Patrick Ewing won in 1985-86 despite missing 32 games for New York, and prevailed in the voting quite comfortably despite Xavier McDaniel and Karl Malone posting relatively comparable numbers. Ewing averaged 20 points and nine rebounds; McDaniel had 17.1 points and eight rebounds in 82 games, Malone had 14.9 points and 8.9 rebounds in 81 games.

“Embiid is a very special, talented player,” Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd said. “If he was playing, he probably would have run away with (rookie of the year) because he is a dominant player. But playing 30-some games, maybe there should be more. But it isn’t up to me.”

If it were up to Kidd – the 1995 NBA Rookie of the Year – Brogdon would win.

“I don’t pay attention to accolades or any of that stuff because I think it can serve as a distraction, so for me I just focus on winning games, trying to make the playoffs,” Brogdon said. “If that stuff was meant to be, then it will.”