With the Orlando Magic’s season coming to an end, we can turn our attentions properly to any end-of-year awards their players may be involved in.
Point guard Markelle Fultz has had a complete renaissance in the league this year, and even though he should get some Most Improved Player love, he sadly will not.
Franz Wagner is perhaps the best second-year player in the entire NBA, but they, unfortunately, do not give out hardware for that accomplishment.
But one player has clearly established himself as an award winner. Paolo Banchero has been the clear Rookie of the Year almost from the start of the season. And even with a February dip, he has been fairly consistent with his production and the attention defenses have given him.
This has never been a race.
However recently, several media members have tried to gin up some discussion and make this more of a debate than it clearly is. Oklahoma City Thunder guard Jalen Williams has had a strong closing kick to his season, but he still has not touched the full season Paolo Banchero has put in.
Paolo Banchero has led the Rookie of the Year race from day one this season. With his consistency and output, this has never been a race despite a late push to reconsider the award winner.
To be clear Williams has had a superb first season in the league. In March, he is averaging 19.7 points, seven assists and four rebounds. He is averaging 13.6 points per game on an outstanding 56.5-percent effective field goal percentage.
Like Banchero, he plays for a young team that looks destined to make some noise over the next few seasons.
He could certainly finish as runner-up to Banchero. He has been that good. Although Indiana Pacers youngster Bennedict Mathurin is sure to have something to say about that.
But really, this has never been a serious contest. Banchero has led this race from minute one.
If we start with just March, where Williams is having statistically his best period of the season, Banchero is averaging more points at 20.5, as well as 6.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists.
So even at his best, Banchero is still scoring at a higher rate than Williams, with his assist and rebounding numbers right there as well.
Banchero, alongside Fultz and Wagner, is being asked to do it all and is already the cornerstone of the franchise. Defenses send constant double teams at Banchero and he is at the top of most team’s scouting report.
Jalen Williams on the other hand, is playing with a top-20 talent this season in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Williams has played well in his role, but he feeds off Gilgeous-Alexander’s constant drives to the basket.
If the situation is taken into account for the MVP and MIP awards, then surely it should be for Rookie of the Year as well?
To that end, Banchero has come in and completely transformed the feeling around an organization almost overnight.
He is already such a gifted offensive player, and defensively he is going to end up being above average on that end.
What often gets lost in these discussions, is that this is a year-long award. In much the same way that the MVP trophy is for the regular season only, the ROTY encapsulates 82 games.
Both Banchero and Williams have played 66 games so far. You can probably guess which of the two has started every game, and which has started 53 of those contests.
Williams averages a shade less than 30 minutes per contest, while for Banchero it is just shy of 34 minutes.
Williams is always going to win the 3-point shooting percentage argument (34.8 percent), while Banchero has work to do from downtown in the coming years at 28.2 percent.
But if we go all the way back to the start of the season, Banchero actually averaged more than 22 points per game for the first two months of the campaign. Talk about hitting the ground running.
It is a conversation for another day, but when ranking the rookies this century who came into the league and immediately looked comfortable, Banchero will rank very highly.
Unsurprisingly this has meant he has had the highest usage on the roster this season (27.4 percent), while Williams ranks eighth amongst his own teammates (18.1 percent).
Imagine asking a player to come in right away and become everything a franchise needs offensively, and actually delivering.
Banchero did just that, all while being 19 months younger than Williams.
So while it is fair to say that Banchero both hit a rookie wall (not that it slowed him down too much) and has slowed down some in recent weeks, his body of work this season is unmatched.
The first notable scoring night Williams had was in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s final game in November, a win over the San Antonio Spurs in which he had 27 points.
Before that though, he had averaged 9.0 points in October, and 10.9 in November. Williams managed 21.4 minutes a game during this timeframe.
Again this is not a knock on Williams, and if it feels like the offensive numbers are being focused on too much here, that is only because these awards often feel like they are tailored this way.
The Sixth Man of the Year trophy typically goes to the player who averages the most off the bench, and the MIP gong is generally handed to a player who has had a massive scoring upgrade.
If you look at the defensive numbers, the Thunder are miles better when Williams is on the court (111.7), then when Banchero is out there for the Magic (115.2).
That is another part of the argument that Williams should win, although if you watch Banchero play you will know he is already a more versatile defender who is asked to use his big body.
We have seen him spend some time at the five in a small-ball lineup this season, and he stays in front of seasoned professionals pretty well.
But even if we concede the defensive and 3-point shooting numbers, Banchero has simply been on another level than Williams from the start of the season to today.
He scores more and in a myriad of different ways, has had the weight of a franchise on his back from day one, and is one of the best first-overall picks we’ve seen out of the gate in recent years.
Paolo Banchero has won Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month three times out of a possible four (Williams has won it once).
He will win Rookie of the Year, having never relinquished top spot in the race all year long.