Rookie of the Year race tightening up?

The most heated race in the NBA is not occurring at the top of the standings, nor in the middle. No, it is down there at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. It is kind of hard to see with all the losses that have piled up for their respective teams.

Michael Carter-Williams and Victor Oladipo are locked in an epic clash for the NBA’s Rookie of the Year Award. And, until an injury knocked Oladipo out for two games, Oladipo was making some serious ground with some seriously strong performances to try and close the gap on Carter-Williams, the presumed favorite to win the Rookie of the Year Award.

The two have had some great battles and put in some great games this year — clearly the class of what has turned out to be a very weak draft class when it comes to stars.

Oladipo has put some serious pressure on Carter-Williams as he cruised along. His production has slowed since the injury. In his last five games, Oladipo has averaged only 13.2 points per game on 44.1 percent shooting in five games since a weeklong absence with a sore ankle. Those are decent numbers but hardly efficient. And hardly mind-blowing.

Oladipo’s best stretch came in January and February. He scored at least 10 points in 16 of 17 games from Jan. 4 until Feb. 9. That included a 35-point effort in a triple overtime loss to the Bulls. His biggest highlight-reel game of note came in a 30-point effort for a win over the Knicks, the Magic’s last win over a team that was not the 76ers.

In January and February, Oladipo averaged 15.2 points per game and 4.6 assists per game while posting a 46.4 percent effective field goal percentage. Oladipo’s raw numbers look fine, but there are still clearly issues with his efficiency as he continues to learn how to play point guard and improves his jumper.

“I’m just trying to be great, man,” Victor Oladipo said. “If they give me the Rookie of the Year, it’s a good thing. At the end of the day, I’m going to be great. Whether I get it or not, I’m just going to continue to go out there and get better. I’m going to play one game at a time and play as hard as I can.”

When it comes to winning the coveted award though, it has been widely assumed Michael Carter-Williams wrapped it up at the beginning of the season. He put in the killer performances early on in the year. He had a recent triple double at Madison Square Garden. And, frankly, no one cares the goings on at the bottom of the standings.

Oladipo had a lot of ground to make up and Carter-Williams has left some window for him to make up that ground.

The pressure of trying to perform as the Rookie of the Year favorite has weighed on Carter-Williams and the Sixers organization.

“Those type of awards, we’d all be naive to think they don’t factor into young players’ minds,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “I don’t want it to be the elephant in the room. We talk about it. It gets back to just playing the game the right way. He has had a fantastic year. He has grown to be a fantastic leader. He understands the responsibility and the weight of the city if we can get this right. How I coach him is what I just say. We hit it on the head and we coach him to be his position and to run our team — to be a point guard and to be a leader.”

Oladipo said Magic coach Jacque Vaughn has not had similar discussions with him. Publicly, at least, the thought of Oladipo winning the award is not even in the thought process for his team and his player. It is certainly a long career for Oladipo and Carter-Williams, winning this award is miniscule through that lens — remember Emeka Okafor topped Dwight Howard and Tyreke Evans topped Stephen Curry for the award in recent years.

It is hard to say if Carter-Williams has felt that pressure. He appears to be hitting a moderate Rookie Wall, averaging just 15.2 points per game in March as he has taken on a larger scoring load. Here is how his season has progressed:

Nov. 16.8 6.8 38.6
Dec. 19.3 8.2 44.9
Jan. 16.5 5.6 38.8
Feb. 16.7 4.7 38.4
March 15.8 6.5 40.2

Carter-Williams definitely hit something of a rookie wall but has pulled through, especially since he has had to carry the team more and more after the trades at the deadline.

The numbers or the games have not been pretty, but Carter-Williams still appears to have a vice grip on the Rookie of the Year race. Another strong month from Victor Oladipo or even Trey Burke to close out the season could put some pressure on him.

About Philip Rossman-Reich

Philip Rossman-Reich is the managing editor for Crossover Chronicles and Orlando Magic Daily. You can follow him on twitter @OMagicDaily