With the NBA season slowly winding down, the yearly award races are beginning to heat up. From the league's Most Valuable Player, to the leading reserves, down to the league's best first-year players, the awards races are picking up steam, even if some might already be decided.
For the second straight season, the Orlando Magic have someone with their name in the hat for the Rookie of the Year honors. Last season it was guard Victor Oladipo, who came agonizingly close to winning the award, finishing second to Michael Carter-Williams, then of the Philadelphia 76ers. This season it's Elfrid Payton, Oladipo's backcourt matem who is making a late push for the award thanks to some strong play, not unlike Oladipo did a season ago.
In the month of March, Payton averaged season-high marks in almost every counting stat, posting averages of 13.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 8.4 assists, and 1.8 steals per game, while shooting 45.8 percent from the field. On top of Payton's bump in counting stats, the rookie also did something that had never been done in Magic history: he posted back-to-back triple-doubles, doing so against the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers. The accomplishment also made Payton the first rookie to do so in some 18 years, joining of Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Alvan Adams, David Robinson, Jason Kidd, and Antoine Walker. Payton also posted double-digit assists in six of the Magic's 14 games, including a season- and career-high 13 in a loss to the Detroit Pistons.
Unfortunately for Payton, a few other rookies have also picked up their play as the season begins to wind down. Both Nikola Mirotic of the and Nerlens Noel of Philly have picked up their play, with Mirotic seemingly carrying the Bulls' offense with Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler out with injuries, and Joakim Noah struggling due to nagging injuries.
In 14 March contests, Mirotic has posted averages of 20.6 points and 7.7 rebounds on 43.5 percent shooting from the field and 83.5 percent from the free throw line. It's no surprise that Mirotic is contributing this much, however, considering his extensive professional career overseas and how highly coveted he was in the Draft a few years ago.
Noel, on the other hand, has turned into a true defensive force for the Sixers. Along with blocking 2.3 shots and grabbing 2.5 steals per game, Noel has scored more consistently than he has all season, averaging 14.4 points per game to go along with 11 boards Included in there are career-highs in rebounds (17) and steals (six).
While all three of these players are putting up extremely strong numbers, they're all still stuck chasing last June's number one overall pick, Minnesota Timberwolves swingman Andrew Wiggins. Despite playing on the worst team in the league, Wiggins has still put up great numbers overall, peaking in January when he averaged nearly 20 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.4 steals on 47.1 percent shooting. In March, Wiggins' numbers haven't been something to scoff at, with averages of 17.9 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game.
Payton, who leads all rookies in assists per game at 6.2--nearly three more per game than the next closest player--is clearly facing an uphill battle for top rookie honors. Payton also stands seventh in points per game (8.6), eighth in rebounds per game (4.2), and second in steals (1.6) per game among all rookies.
However, his poor percentages from the field, and general underwhelming numbers in the first three months of the season, will most likely be one of the bigger reasons why he doesn't take home the hardware. That's not to say he hasn't had a strong year, because he has, it just says that someone else--Wiggins in this case--has had a better, more consistent season.
For Payton, not winning the award probably won't mean a whole lot. Following his second straight triple-double against the Blazers, it was business as usual for the rookie, and he was just ready to go out and work to try and better himself and his teammates. Needless to say, he'll have the same mindset and attitude should he win the award, or come up short to one of his three competitors.