The NBA’s stance on allowing redshirt freshman to vie for Rookie of the Year honors was controversial enough last year, in the case of Joel Embiid.
While Embiid ultimately lost the award to Malcolm Brogdon, most notably because of his minute’s restriction and eventual reinjury, pundits like Charles Barkley were repeatedly critical of Embiid’s potential Rookie of the Year bid. This year however, the focus of the conversation has shifted to Embiid’s teammate, Ben Simmons, who sat out last year after breaking his foot. Simmons has been electric so far this season, averaging close to a double-double(17.5points and 9.5 rebounds) and wowing NBA fans with his surreal court vision and passing ability. However, I think it’s time as NBA fans, that we draw a line between redshirt freshman and true freshman basketball players. Because, while Ben Simmons may be leading my “Way to Early Rookie of the Year” ladder, he had a decisive advantage over players like Lonzo Ball and Jayson Tatum.
So, following in that vein of a spiritual award given to the best true freshman in the NBA, who are the main players? Currently speaking, those would be Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox, and Beantown’s own Jayson Tatum. On a second tier of sorts lies dark horse favorite Dennis Smith Jr. and Kyle Kuzma, whose stake is largely momentum carried over from the preseason.
Everyone knows Lonzo Ball, more so for the ramblings of his Father than his own basketball career, but those who have closely watched Lonzo can tell that there’s an indescribable sense of electricity he can generate when he’s on the floor. Like De’Aaron Fox, his surrogate collegiate rival, Lonzo has the potential to rejuvenate full-court basketball, after spending the last few years in such a half-court centric game. While their games may exude youthful ignorance on the surface, relying on their natural explosiveness and athleticism to outpace their opponents, there’s a ge ne sais quois to it. So much so that both players give me hope that one day, deep within their primes, I can imagine a modernized version of eighties basketball, where everyone is racing up-and-down the court at breakneck speeds.
Standing opposite of that is Jayson Tatum, Boston’s newest wing threat that had become an interesting pair alongside sophomore Jaylen Brown. Tatum is an entirely different player than Lonzo or Fox though, or better yet, the antithesis to fellow rookie small forward Josh Jackson. While it’s obvious that a player like Jackson relied solely on his God-given physical gifts to propel him through his high school and collegiate years, the professional ranks demand more than athleticism and hustle. Tatum plays basketball the way that draft-experts like Chad Ford or Tate Frazier lauded Markelle Fultz for — using a variety of weapons in his offensive repertoire to completely change the pace of his game. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Tatum may be the most complete scorer as a rookie since Kevin Durant. His midrange jump shot is pure, he’s remarkably skilled in the post, his ball handling and craftiness allows him to finish around the rim or draw fouls, he’s an accurate free throws shooter, capable of hitting set three’s from behind the line, and he already has no shortage of highlights scoring with defenders draped all over him.
While Tatum may not be watched under a microscope like Lonzo Ball, or benefit from being apart of a team highlighted by Kyrie Irving, Tatum’s production speaks for itself thus far. Not just in how the numbers themselves translate to success, but in the totality of his performance, given his situation. I can guarantee you that Tatum didn’t have the same preseason as Lonzo, Fox, Smith, or Jackson — considering the Celtics had all intentions of playing him behind Hayward and Brown. Not to mention the fact that he’s not a point guard, handling the ball and putting his talents on display for thirty-five minutes or more every night. Tatum is, however, competing though, and the more he succeeds individually, in confluence with the Celtics succeeding as a unit, the higher he can climb on that ever-so-fascinating true-freshman ladder.