For virtually the entire season, Lillard has led all rookies in scoring, assists and free throws. But those are not his most impressive numbers, either.
As this version of our Rookie Rankings is published, Lillard leads in minutes played.
Not all rookies. All players.
The Portland Trail Blazers played their 75th game Wednesday, and Lillard has played in every one. He has played 2,889 minutes this season, inching ahead of Kevin Durant of Oklahoma City, which plays its 75th game Thursday night.
Since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, no rookie has led the league in minutes played. In fact, only eight rookies have finished in the top 10 in minutes played.
The closest a rookie has come to leading the NBA in minutes was Mark Jackson, who in 1987-88 with the New York Knicks was second to a guy named Michael Jordan. Jackson, the 18th pick in the 1987 draft, won Rookie of the Year.
Among active players, the highest finishers have been O.J. Mayo, who was third in 2008-09; LeBron James, who was ninth in 2003-04; and Tim Duncan, who was seventh in 1997-98. Mayo finished second to Derrick Rose in Rookie of the Year voting, and James and Duncan won the award.
Since it became an official statistic in 1951, only two rookies have led the NBA in minutes played. The first to do it was Wilt Chamberlain in his mind-bending debut 1959-60 season, when he played 3,338 minutes to finish in a dead heat with Gene Shue.
Chamberlain, who also led the NBA with all-time single-season records to that point for shots made and attempted, free throws attempted, rebounds and points, won both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player that season.
Ten years later, Elvin Hayes, the top overall pick of the San Diego Rockets, played 3,695 minutes as a rookie to lead the NBA. Hayes also led the league in points, shots made and attempted but did not win Rookie of the Year. That went to Wes Unseld, who also won Most Valuable Player.
This is not to say that Lillard is in a class with The Big Dipper and The Big E. In fact, if he even dreams of that, he should wake up and apologize.
But Lillard’s durability as a rookie does put him in a very exclusive group, which hasn’t been welcoming many new members lately.
And keep in mind that Chamberlain and Hayes dominated as rookies because of their size. At 6-3 and 195 pounds, Lillard has good size for a point guard but deals with contact from a bigger player whenever he gets to the rim, which is often.
At its roots, minutes played is a merit stat. To be among the league leaders, you have to be very good. You also have to be very fortunate.
While Lillard has a chance to join Chamberlain and Hayes, the rest of his rookie class has spent the season dropping like flies. Fellow lottery picks Anthony Davis, Bradley Beal, Dion Waiters, Jonas Valanciunas, Andre Drummond and Austin Rivers all have missed significant chunks of the season due to injury. Others, such as Alexey Shved and Terrence Ross, were stopped in their tracks by the “Rookie Wall.”
The only rookies who have come close to matching Lillard’s durability are Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and Kyle Singler, none of whom is averaging more than 28.3 minutes per game. Lillard is averaging 38.5 minutes.
Lillard may fall short of leading the league in minutes and becoming part of the answer to a trivia question. The Blazers have stumbled to six straight losses and are out of the playoff chase. It may seem like a good time to give the kid a breather.
But if you still weren’t entirely sold on Lillard’s credentials for Rookie of the Year, remember how durable he has been. Ninety percent of life is showing up, and Lillard has done it every single day.
On to the rankings.
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