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What history tells us about Victor Wembanyama’s Rookie of the Year chances

Analyzing the NBA’s past ROY winners and what it says about this year’s race.

Oklahoma City Thunder v San Antonio Spurs Photos by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

(The data in this post was compiled through 1/30/24)

As Spurs fans, we of course believe that Victor Wembanyama is the clear Rookie of the Year favorite. This year’s current top five candidates include the San Antonio Spurs’ Victor Wembanyama, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Chet Holmgren, the Miami Heat’s Jaime Jaquez Jr, the Dallas Mavericks’ Dereck Lively II, and the Charlotte Hornets’ Brandon Miller. There continues to be a large debate on whether Chet, who is admittedly also putting up pretty amazing numbers, should win, due to the Thunder having a more successful season. I have understood this argument in the past when voting for MVP, the classic “do we vote for the flat-out best player, or the best player on the best team?” But it seems like NBA analysts have suddenly pulled it out just generate controversy and discussion.

This week, I decided to investigate the past twenty years of Rookie of the Year Winners, as well as other nominees and snubs, to see if winning really matters more than production. I already knew that not every rookie instantly turned their team around, so it seemed like a legitimate path to go down. This first graph shows the winning percentage of the team (for 2024 candidates it is their percentage as of Jan 30) compared to their Player Efficiency Rating (PER). I have only labeled the data points for past winners, and this year’s candidates, but the nominees are also plotted to show the general voting direction.

So immediately we can see that there is a wide range of winners given their team’s win percentage. The league average in PER in a given year generally floats around 15 to which Andrew Wiggins is the only player to be the exception. Given that information, I would believe it safe to assume that Jaime Jaquez (while definitely being a solid contributor for the Heat), and Brandon Miller are out of contention for the award. Players with a PER above 20 are showing glimpses of all star status as most all stars each year have a PER above 25. Wemby and Chet fit this description perfectly.

Frozen in disbelief that there was no way to easily distinguish winners from other candidates, I tested an alternative method. Instead of the general win percentage, I calculated the change in win percentage from the previous season. We generally assume that all ROY candidates were lottery picks to tanking teams, but sometimes it is a late draft pick to an established contender. The strategy here was to identify which picks made the biggest impact on their team’s win percentage. Below I have plotted this change in win percentage and tried a different efficiency metric, this time using the NBA’s Player Impact Estimate (PIE).

Again it becomes difficult to simply stratify winners from nominees. There is an overall trend that more winners came from teams with better records than the previous year. But the distribution of nominees and winners across the change in win percentage is the same.

The point is there are still too many factors outside of the control of the rookie that can influence their team’s success. Are there enough minutes to allow them to blossom? Are they following a “Trust the Process” method that inhibits them from winning too much? Did the team lose other key players in the offseason? The list could go on and on, but generally speaking, only five of the last twenty winners were on teams that had a worse year after drafting them: Dame, KD, Wiggins, Carter-Williams, and Okafor.

So let’s take a deep dive into why the NBA felt comfortable awarding them ROY if they were supposedly on bad teams.

2005: 1st pick Dwight Howard and 3rd pick Ben Gordon both had better efficiency metrics and more wins compared to the winner, 2nd pick Emeka Okafor.

2008: 3rd pick Al Horford lost out on a chance to win against 2nd pick Kevin Durant as he wasn’t as productive despite winning more. However, 56th pick Luis Scola actually had a higher PER and PIE compared to KD, along with a better win percentage, and greater change in win percentage.

2013: 1st pick Anthony Davis was snubbed by 6th pick Damian Lillard despite beating him out in all four variables mentioned so far.

2014: 11th pick Michael Carter-Williams beat 2nd pick Victor Oladipo (best change win pct), 9th pick Trey Burke, 22nd pick Mason Plumlee (best win pct, PER, and PIE), and 24th pick Tim Hardaway Jr.

2015: 1st pick Andrew Wiggins won the award over 10th pick Elfrid Payton, 2011 23rd pick Nikola Mirotic (went back to Euroleague until 2014, best win pct, PIE, and PER), and 2013 6th pick Nerlens Noel (didn’t play his first year). I believe the decision to not go with Mirotic at this point was one we have seen similarly with Embiid and Simmons in the sense that they were just not technically rookies anymore.

In all of these scenarios, I struggle to find any common reason and it doesn’t even seem like voters could use production as their argument. This leads me to believe that narrative matters more than either wins or production. I know, not the exact eureka moment you were hoping for as we have seen this become controversial in recent years when it came to Harden vs Giannis or Jokic vs Embiid in MVP voting. But there is such little correlation between the winner and even where they were drafted, so it becomes difficult to assess what exactly influences the narrative.

Don’t worry, I am not going to leave you without anything though, we all need some numbers to pull out next time we are debating our friends. The last attempt I made was using the LEBRON metric, developed by B-Ball Index. They only have data dating back to 2010 so it’s a smaller data set, but I plotted the offensive vs defensive LEBRON numbers for each player below. This time I also included labels for all of the nominees as well.

This actually had a clearer line you could draw. It seems that voters are more drawn to the gaudiness of offensive excellence than defensive as more of the winners appear in the bottom right quadrant where offense is great but defense is poor. You can see previous snubs who were defensive menaces such as Mobley, Kessler, Rubio, and Porzingis were looked over.

Given that both Wemby and Chet are tremendous on defense, I would suspect the voters to lean towards the star that has the better offensive production. Yes, Wemby averages more points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks on less minutes per game than Chet. But the reason his O-LEBRON is lower is he has twice as many turnovers (3.4 vs 1.7 per game) and isn’t shooting as well (46.5 vs 53.3 FG%, 30.1 vs 38.2 3P%). Wembanyama has improved on all of these fronts in January, and has the back half of the season to clean up his numbers.

Nevertheless, it still all comes down to the story. People are going to cherry pick the stats that fit their ballot, and they will argue how much efficiency matters, and it is currently the one Chet has the upper hand (offensively at least). Many believe Wemby hasn’t lived up to the hype because the Spurs haven’t instantly turned things around, meanwhile he continues to make jaw-dropping plays every game. But it’s important to remind the doubters, that LeBron James, the last prospect to generate this much attention, didn’t take the Cavs to the playoffs until his 3rd season, and made the Finals in his 5th season and even then was swept by the Spurs. Ultimately, no matter what we say about Wemby’s success, the records he is breaking, the astonishing feats of display he puts on, it seems like the voters have their own criteria that changes from year to year based on how they see fit.