And so it turns out there is a Rookie of the Year race after all.
The only thing that could have happened to made the vote interesting did happen: Joel Embiid, in total control of the outcome after a month, lapping the field by Christmas (even with a max limit of 28 minutes per game and being barred from playing both ends of a back-to-back), got hurt. His season is over after 31 games and 786 minutes, and the debate is just beginning.
It is so just beginning that any determination of whether he still wins ROY is premature, because of what still may or may not happen: Someone must play good enough for long enough to catch him. Dario Saric, for example, needs to make his February run last through March and into April. Malcolm Brogdon needs to catch serious fire while benefiting from the additional help of the Bucks climbing the Eastern Conference standings, which would boost Brogdon’s case if it happens — and he has a role in the strong finishing kick.
This is not only about Embiid and knee problems and what by the end of the regular season will be appearing in all of 38 percent of Philadelphia’s games. Unless one of the voters among the media has already gone bottom line and decided 31 games is cause for elimination, this is about the challengers as well. Just as Embiid’s big lead from the first half of the season means it will take a little whole longer for someone to knock him from No. 1 on The Ladder.
To this week’s rankings:
1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Last ranked: No. 1
By the end of the season, Embiid will fall below the qualifying minimum for rookies and not be ranked in scoring, rebounding and minutes, appropriately, as the official statistical domination of the season fades to dust. He is currently first, first and fifth, respectively, in those categories. He will miss by 73 points in scoring, a little less than four games based on the 20.2 per outing, nearly double anyone else. But Embiid has already put up enough big numbers to qualify in blocks (currently first), shooting (fourth) and 3-point percentage (eighth).
2. Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers
Last ranked: No. 2
It’s not just the scoring surge, although 18.1 points the last 10 games is a nice line on in the campaign literature. Saric has been contributing in several areas, at 9.1 rebounds and 4.3 assists in the same stretch while shooting 44.6 percent, a big improvement from the season-long 40.2. His last five outings have been worth seven, two, four, eight and six assists, while topping 30 minutes twice and with no more than three turnovers in any of the five.
3. Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks
Last ranked: No. 3
While Saric has taken control of second place and has a better chance than Brogdon to continue to pile up splashy stats, Brogdon is not going away. He is shooting 50 percent behind the arc the last five games and 46.2 since the All-Star break as part of a climb all the way to eighth in the league. He is also fifth among rookies in field-goal percentage, along with first among non-centers and power forwards, while also first in assists.
4. Marquese Chriss, Phoenix Suns
Last ranked: No. 4
He is moving from one of the solid rookies as a resident of the top 10 in several categories to one of the hottest rookies, at 10.8 points and 47.7 percent shooting in his last 10 games. And, since the All-Star break, he’s shooting an even more impressive 56.1 percent. The five blocks Sunday against the Celtics tied Embiid (twice) for the most by a first-year player and were the most by a Phoenix rookie since Amar’e Stoudemire had six on Nov. 13, 2002. That helped move Chriss to fourth in the class in the category.
5. Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings
Last ranked: No. 5
So much for handling the challenge of being traded for the first time, especially after previously being in one place, the University of Oklahoma, for four seasons. Hield is shooting 52.8 percent overall the first six games as a King, compared to 40.6 overall this season. He’s making 48 percent of his 3-pointers since joining the Kings (compared to 38 percent this season), too. That has moved him in position for top-five finishes in scoring and 3-point percentage , along with top 10 in rebounding, shooting and minutes.
6. Willy Hernangomez, New York Knicks
Last ranked: No. 6
The rebounding machine was at least temporarily slowed by the sprained ankle that sidelined Hernangomez two nights and limited him to 14 and 18 minutes the first two games back. Except that he’s still at 10.5 points and 8.1 boards in just 22.3 minutes the last eight appearances, along with 65.5 percent, enough to stay behind Saric for second place in the class in rebounding, even with Saric’s hot streak, and maintain a sizeable lead for first place in shooting. Hernangomez is fifth in blocks and pushing for a spot in the top 10 in scoring.
7. Yogi Ferrell, Dallas Mavericks
Last ranked: No. 8
The follow-up to going from the NBA D-League to Western Conference Rookie of the Month for February is making a serious push for the top spot on the rookie assists leaderboard. Ferrell is averaging 3.8 per game, trailing only Brogdon’s 4.1, after the run of 5.4 assists per game in his last 10 outings as a valuable contribution to the Mavericks’ bid for No. 8 in the West. Ferrell is also fourth in scoring, eventh in 3-point percentage and third in minutes (although with only 27 appearances, the obvious negative).
8. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtcs
Last ranked: Not ranked
The No. 3 pick last June rejoins The Ladder on the strength of a big role with one of the best teams, always a layer of credibility even for players without sparkly numbers. How big? While just 17th in the class in minutes, Brown is playing a little more than half the fourth quarter for a team in win-now mode and with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. He is up to 25.9 minutes, 12.4 points, 55 percent overall and 47.4 percent behind the arc since the All-Star break.
9. Isaiah Whitehead, Brooklyn Nets
Last ranked: No. 7
Whitehead vs. Caris LeVert is a good intrasquad matchup for a spot in the rankings. Whitehead gets the edge while in the top 10 among rookies in scoring, assists, blocks and minutes, especially the third place in assists. Plus, his shooting is finally heading in a good direction. Whitehead may be at 39.8 percent for the season, but 46.5 the last 10 games as part of a scoring bump to 9.0 points in the same stretch.
10. Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers
Last ranked: No. 9
Ingram continues to capitalize on the increased role as a starter, averaging 9.6 points and shooting 44.3 percent overall in the 10 games since returning to the starting lineup. The shooting is particularly noteworthy in helping him drop out of the top 20 among rookies, a particularly bad look in a season filled with first-year players who have struggled in that area. Otherwise, he is eighth in scoring, fourth in rebounds, tied for 10th in assists, tied for eighth in blocks and first in minutes while starting at three positions. He is consistently playing into the 30s in minutes now.
Dropped out: Pascal Siakam (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.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.