by Nathan Smith
LOS ANGELES — Two players have jumped out ahead in NBA Rookie of the Year race, but most of their peers can’t decide which one is in the lead.
Donovan Mitchell, the top scorer for a Jazz team rolling into the All-Star break on an 11-game winning streak, and Ben Simmons, the 76ers do-everything forward, were the go-to answers for first- and second-year players participating in the Rising Stars Challenge when asked who, if given a vote, were their favorites.
“I’d have to flip a coin between Ben or Donovan,” Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox said after the U.S. Team practice. “Ben fills up a stat sheet, but Donovan’s had multiple 40-point games.… I don’t think you can go wrong with either of them.”
Pacers big man Domantas Sabonis called it “a close, close race” between the two. Kings guard Buddy Hield called them equals, highlighting Mitchell’s scoring and Simmons’ skill as a facilitator. The Knicks’ Frank Ntilikina and the Grizzlies’ Dillon Brooks cited both players without much elaboration.
“I think it depends what you feel like is most valuable,” Hawks forward Taurean Prince said. “If we’re going off stats, I feel like, obviously, Ben Simmons is at the top of the board. If we’re going off most need for your team, I feel like my guy Donovan could take it. It just depends what your outlook is.”
Among players who forced themselves to choose between the two, Mitchell had a decided edge. Bogdan Bogdanovic of the Kings and Jamal Murray of the Nuggets sided with the Louisville product, making no mention of Simmons. Hawks center John Collins was Mitchell’s most emphatic supporter.
“I just think his play has been more consistent,” Collins said. “Ben had a hot start, then he had a nice little middle. But there’s just been a couple dead spots here and there. I think Donovan’s just been hot and stayed hot.”
Collins, who has the rookie class’s top player efficiency rating (PER), shrugged off the suggestion that he could choose himself.
“I would–but if we’re being realistic–you know what I’m saying. Got to give it to one of those guys,” Collins said.
Simmons’ Philadelphia teammate Dario Saric defended the Australian point forward’s credentials.
“His ability, his size, his wingspan and his ability to pass the ball, you know, not so many people in the NBA who can do that,” Saaric said.
A few players broke from the consensus. Bulls point guard Kris Dunn favored his teammate Lauri Markkanen, citing the Finnish forward’s 33-point explosion against the Knicks in January.
“What’d he hit, eight threes that game?” Dunn said, “You’re not finding too many people who can do that.”
Celtics forward Jayson Tatum offered the most self-assured opinion on the award race.
“Myself,” said the rookie from Duke.