Rookie Ladder (old archive)

Minutes limit main challenge Joel Embiid must overcome in Kia Rookie of Year race

In NBA lore, every ROY winner has logged at least 30 minutes per game except for two players

Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers put the conflict on display from the beginning. From the very first week of the season of Embiid swaying from 20 points, seven rebounds and two rebounds (in the opener) to playing all of 15 minutes the next game to word he would sit out tonight in Charlotte as a precaution on the Sixers’ second night of a back-to-back.

That’s the Rookie of the Year race right there. Embiid getting real time and playing to his potential — his 2016-17 potential, not even how good he could be with experience — is the front-runner for the award. The question for him is whether the minutes will become a factor in the final vote. That’s been the case from the earliest days of training camp as it appeared the No. 3 pick in 2014 would finally, really, actually get to his NBA career.

This has a lot to do with the rest of the field as well. Embiid can turn balloting into a rout while averaging just 20 minutes a game if he puts up good numbers and no one mounts a challenge. But for now there is one certainty: Every Kia Rookie of the Year winner has logged at least 30 minutes per game except Mike Miller in 2000-01 (29.1 minutes) and Tom Heinsohn in 1956-57 (29.9). Embiid will essentially need to have the time limits removed to get that high into the 20s.

The current cap is 20, albeit apparently a soft 20 as coach Brett Brown let Embiid go all the way to 22 in the opener. And it’s a very encouraging sign too, an increase from the restrictions in exhibition games in the important perspective that indicates a continued recovery from the foot injuries that prompted the double-redshirt rookie season. In the context of the ROY race, though, it’s not close to what historically has been required, not to mention the 76ers still have 16 more sets of back-to-backs after this and Embiid has yet to be cleared for that benchmark.

He was fourth in the season-opening Ladder because of the minutes issue and jumps to first despite it, because the top three in that first ranking mostly cleared a path and because Embiid dropped 20 and seven on the Thunder’s deep front line as a small sample of what’s to come. The drawback to picking an order this early is that one game can so impact, but that possibility will fade the longer the season goes, at which point he will be judged on a lot more playing. Or not playing.

1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous ranking: 4)

Beyond the issue of Embiid and his minutes is the issue of Embiid and his time with 2015-16 rookie Jahlil Okafor as the 76ers continue sorting through front-court options to determine the best combinations. There might not have been many hard conclusions until Ben Simmons returned from his foot injury anyway — the Sixers are hoping January — except that now Embiid and Okafor are both playing with time restrictions and neither has been cleared for back-to-backs. The opportunities to play together are rare. Okafor is recovering from a knee injury that ended his rookie season in February.

2. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics (9)

His first three games were nothing spectacular — nine, eight and seven points. Brown was solid in every one, though, making at least half his shots in all three while playing 19, 20 and 15 minutes, a decent role for someone days past his 20th birthday on a team in win-now mode. He made 58.8 percent of the attempts in all. The Celtics were reminded of the risk when Brown committed a costly turnover in the final minute of the loss to the Bulls last Thursday. But he has already been the first man off the bench, played in crunch time and is shooting well, enough for a big early jump.

3. Kris Dunn, Minnesota Timberwolves (3)

His big chance comes unexpectedly early, with the sprained right elbow that will sideline Ricky Rubio indefinitely and move Dunn into the starting lineup at point guard. Some timing. In his first start, last night against the Grizzlies, he had 10 points (on 3-for-7 shooting), four rebounds, six assists and five steals. Next comes Emmanuel Mudiay and the Nuggets and Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. Dunn will have to contend with a lot of talent, explosiveness and experience right away.

4. Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers (2)

Ingram at 15.8 minutes per game is a skewed stat because he played just four minutes in one of the four games before being lifted because of a sore right knee, a precautionary move. He logged 21, 24 and 15 the other three appearances — the 21 came two days after the knee trouble — while coming off the bench behind Luol Deng at small forward. Ingram has also already played some point guard at 6-foot-9, partly because coach Luke Walton wants to develop his versatility and partly because backup Jose Calderon missed time with a calf injury.

5. Marquese Chriss, Phoenix Suns (8)

The minutes have bounced around — 22, 11, 14, 18 — but the production has remained consistent. Chriss has made at least half his shots in three of the four games and barely missed doing so in the other (3-for-7) while scoring seven points his first three outings and nine in the fourth. He also had, in the ongoing problem, three fouls in 11 minutes, three fouls in 14 minutes and four fouls in 18 minutes. He avoided trouble with three fouls in 22 minutes on opening night.

6. Domantas Sabonis, Oklahoma City Thunder (6)

Sabonis became the first Thunder rookie to ever start opening night and the first for the franchise since Kevin Durant of the Seattle SuperSonics in 2007. That’s where the big impact ended, though. The No. 11 pick had 16, 17 and seven minutes the first three games, needing only the seven to pick up four fouls Sunday against the Lakers. And now the next two matchups are Blake Griffin and the Clippers (Wednesday in Los Angeles) followed by Draymond Green and the Warriors (Thursday in Oakland).

7. Buddy Hield, New Orleans Pelicans (1)

The preseason pick for Rookie of the Year could have had a worse start. OK, maybe not. Hield missed 24 of 34 shots in his first four games, including his first eight 3-pointers (he went 1-for-6 last night) and had more turnovers than assists in three of the four. The slump won’t last, but few big first-year names need a re-start more. On the other hand, it does put him in position for a noteworthy climb up the board when the shots do fall.

8. Wade Baldwin, Memphis Grizzlies (not ranked)

From No. 17 pick after a sophomore season at Vanderbilt to immediately and successfully stepping in as Mike Conley’s backup. Baldwin is off to a bad shooting start – 28 percent the first four games – but has 14 assists (against eight turnovers) and should have more playing time ahead after averaging 21.8 minutes per game. He’s had one game of six assists, three blocks and three steals, and another of four assists without a turnover plus two steals.

9. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors (not ranked)

Yes, the Pascal Siakam. There’s every chance he didn’t expect to be here either as the No. 27 pick with two years at New Mexico State. But then Bismack Biyombo left as a free agent, Jared Sullinger got hurt and suddenly the Raptors had to press Siakam into the opening lineup at power forward. He responded with nine rebounds in the debut, followed by unspectacular numbers but good enough to remain a starter for one of the best teams.

10. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets (5)

See: Hield, Buddy. The slump won’t last, but few big first-year names need a re-start more, Part II. Murray is 0 for 2016-17, without a basket in 37 minutes over three games. It’s not just that he isn’t hitting shots, a projected strength. Murray is on the edge of the rotation, at 13, 12 and 12 minutes. The Ladder electorate is showing patience because this is a temporary condition for a versatile talent with the ability to contribute this season. That patience won’t last, though.

Dropped out: Dario Saric (7), Taurean Prince (10).

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

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