List of Kia Rookie of Year faves grows in wake of Ben Simmons' injury

Scott Howard-Cooper

Ben Simmons fractured his right foot last Friday when he landed on the foot of power forward Shawn Long in the final scrimmage of Philadelphia 76ers camp in Galloway, N.J. He underwent surgery Tuesday in New York and by most estimates – based on past recoveries from similar injuries, not any timetable announced by the team – will be sidelined at least three months.

There are important implications, foremost being the sudden turn in the career path of Simmons, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 Draft, and what his setback means for the planned NBA revival in Philadelphia. Much of the hope built on the uniqueness of the 6-foot-10 Simmons as a skilled ball handler. Center and fellow rookie Joel Embiid was finally healthy, rookie forward Dario Saric was finally over from Europe, Simmons was the definition of new energy … and then the franchise that has dealt with seasons of health woes got another one before its 2016-17 season reached its first exhibition game.

The Kia Rookie of the Year race is the trickle-down effect. Simmons almost certainly would have opened the season at the top of the Rookie Ladder as the best combination of talent, opportunity and ability to make an immediate impact. The 76ers needed playmakers and scorers, the ball would have been in his hands a lot, and Simmons – who is far from a finished product — could grab a defensive rebound, lead the break and deliver a pass.


Now there are options but no clear front runner with the season about 2½ weeks away.

Pelicans guard Buddy Hield has a strong case as the new player to beat, and wouldn’t hate the attention either. It’s still an Anthony Davis world in New Orleans, but the team needs 3-point threats after free agents Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon (who ranked first and second, respectively, in 3-pointers made last season) left. That’s a big opening for Hield.

Brandon Ingram should have a prominent role with the Los Angeles Lakers even if new coach Luke Walton starts Luol Deng at small forward in a move for experience and leadership. Ingram projects as a potential offensive star who can put up big numbers in transition or from the perimeter. The obvious unknown is how much of that potential will surface as a rookie and how much patience will be required.

Kris Dunn has a similar lineup uncertainty with the Minnesota Timberwolves, with Ricky Rubio as the veteran (and incumbent) point guard. The longer Rubio keeps the job, the worse Dunn’s chance gets for the award. Reserves, even reserves who play a lot, do not win Rookie of the Year — each of the last 10 recipients have either been full-time in the opening lineup or were full-time when healthy. (Brandon Roy finished first in 2007 while starting 55 of 57 games.)

There is the valuable insight from one general manager before the draft that is particularly relevant to the ROY discussion: “He’s good enough to start for a good team as a rookie.”

Simmons’ absence will also create additional opportunities for two other 76ers rookies who were on the radar anyway, just further down the list. Embiid, in fact, would have been a candidate for the top spot heading into some other seasons if not for the injury history that cost him each of the previous two would-be debut seasons. Now foot problems of his own make it chancy to project the No. 3 pick in 2014 into January, let alone to still be standing at the end of 2016-17.

Saric brings no such concerns, and at least he was playing in Europe and getting better as opposed to healing, but his game does not translate to a player who will surge to the forefront. Saric can be good, though, an important complementary player, and so he has a chance for big minutes early. He is also very good at moving the ball, with more of an opportunity to show that with Simmons, a possible future point power forward, out of the lineup.

Simmons, meanwhile, cannot be completely discounted as an option. While missing three months would be a huge early deficit, a January return, for the sake of discussion, would mean losing approximately 30 games. (Consider that Roy sat for 25 and won.) If no one else has impressed and if – if – Simmons returns and plays at a high level, he could work his way back into the conversation.

Others will make a case over time, but the bottom line remains the same: history shows that the most serious of candidates will be starters, average at least 30-32 minutes and score a lot, because voters love points over all else. Or play for the Timberwolves.

Minnesota newcomers have easily won the last two seasons, Andrew Wiggins in 2015 followed by Karl-Anthony Towns in ’16.

Maybe Dunn’s chances just went up.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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