Andy Larsen's Twitter page. Andy Larsen’s Twitter page.

The revelation of individual writers’ votes for awards or Hall of Fame honors comes with positives and negatives, especially when it comes to outlier votes. When votes aren’t revealed, it means there’s no public explanation for them, and no indication of who it was who dissented from a consensus. But when they are revealed, that can lead to a whole internet pile-on for the dissenter. And that’s what happened to Andy Larsen of The Salt Lake Tribune with his vote for Walker Kessler of the Utah Jazz for NBA Rookie of the Year over Paolo Banchero of the Orlando Magic. But, interestingly enough, Larsen called that that was coming in advance in his column where he revealed his NBA Awards ballot:

The key part of that column, on the Kessler pick:,

I am going to get absolutely pilloried for this vote.

To be clear, I think Banchero is likely the better player, and likely will be the better player moving forward. He will certainly win this award this year.

But do you know what we’ve learned in the last couple of decades in the NBA? We’ve learned that high-usage, low-efficiency players in the NBA don’t contribute to winning. And that’s exactly what Banchero was in his rookie season. Banchero shot under 30% from three, under 50% from 2-point range this season. He has a good reason — he fell off in the middle-to-late part of the year thanks to nerve damage in his neck, he said, explaining the downturn in shooting. But the results matter, and Banchero scored with similar efficiency to players like Lu Dort, RJ Barrett, Jalen Green, or Caris LeVert.

The Magic were also much better when Banchero was off the court — among all of their iffy players, only Chuma Okeke had a lower plus-minus differential.

That’s why the advanced statistics favor Walker Kessler by an absolutely huge distance. Kessler certainly had a much smaller role on the offensive end than Banchero. But he made the most of it, leading the league in field goal percentage. Kessler will give you 0.8 fewer made baskets per 36 minutes… while also giving you 7.8 fewer chucks at the rim that can be distributed among other, more efficient players.

Meanwhile, Kessler’s had one of the biggest defensive roles in the NBA, and excelled at it. Remarkably, as a rookie, he was a top-5 rim protector in the NBA. Rebounding and shot-blocking gives him an advantage that Banchero’s lead as a playmaker doesn’t approach. Banchero, meanwhile, was just fine on that defensive end, maybe below-average.

Again, I will be made fun of for this vote. But I truly think it’s the right thing to do: I’d be making this decision even if I wasn’t a Utah voter. ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported this on the last episode of the Lowe Post: “Among the people I asked about these awards are analytics people who work for teams, and their response like unanimously is: ‘how are you even debating this? It’s Walker Kessler. Like, it’s Walker Kessler by a mile. It’s Walker Kessler and then everyone else.’”

So I’m going with Walker Kessler. He simply had the better season, the one that pushed his team to more wins.

There’s at least an argument there. While Banchero’s raw stats (20.0 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game) are above Kessler’s (9.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 0.9 assists per game), Banchero shot only 42.7 percent from the field and 29.7 percent from deep, and posted a player efficiency rating of 14.9 and 2.4 win shares. He also played 33.8 minutes per game. By contrast, Kessler shot 72 percent from the field and 33 percent from deep (on only three three-point attempts), posted a PER of 21.5 and 7.1 win shares, and did so while playing just 23.0 minutes per game.

The debate on if raw scoring or efficiency matters more has been raging through the NBA for years now, and both sides have their adherents. (Larsen explains at the top of his column that he finds value in advanced statistics, even if individual ones have issues, and his whole column is well worth a read for an explanation of his process.) But there’s certainly a case for either player, and Larsen’s quotation of Lowe’s discussion of team analytics staffers’ thoughts illustrate that Larsen isn’t alone in thinking Kessler was more valuable than Banchero this season.

However, as of Friday morning, Larsen was the only vote of the 23 confirmed Rookie of the Year ballots (tracked by Max Croes) to pick Kessler. And he also put Banchero third, behind Jalen Williams of the Oklahoma City Thunder as well. So that led to a lot of people (particularly, but not exclusively, Magic fans) criticizing Larsen on Twitter, and to them saying in particular that he only voted for Kessler because he covers the Jazz. To his credit, Larsen tried to fairly engage with a lot of the critics, and explain his reasoning further. Here’s some of that:

Larsen’s full list of replies is worth a look for just how many critics he engaged with, and how he seemed to largely do so by defending his process without taking shots at those who think differently (even when they brought personal insults into it). And he did note that he was not trying to do this for attention, and doesn’t love the attention he’s drawn for it:

From this corner, discussion of whether awards are unanimous or not feels a little overblown in many cases. “Unanimous” is nice, but it’s still just the same award. And it’s unfortunate that unanimous-but-one often leads to this kind of backlash against the one, sometimes even from the subject of the vote (as with Derek Jeter ripping the anonymous voter who prevented him from a unanimous selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame). In this case, too, we don’t know that the end result will be unanimous-minus-one; there are 100 NBA awards voters (selected by the league from pools of national, international, and local media, with some of those voters changing from year to year; Larsen notes he last had a vote in 2020), but only 23 ballots are in that tracker so far. So he’s just the public target for a non-unanimous vote to date.

Awards absolutely matter, often for both present and future contracts for players. And media members are in a tough place when it comes to voting on them; some outlets, including The New York Times, even prohibit writers from voting, arguing that’s putting themselves into the story. But despite all the problems with media-voted awards, they’ve often worked out better than player-voted or coach-voted ones.

And this is far from the biggest NBA Awards controversy, with it being an intentional move (unlike Maria Taylor forgetting about Anthony Davis), one without a profane attack on the player not chosen (unlike Bill Simmons’ “F*** Jalen Green“), and one with a public explanation and defense of the rationale involved. And Larsen is taking the criticism he predicted he’d get, but he seems to be doing it well. It’s fair to criticize his vote and to argue for Banchero instead. But this is one of the better explanations and defenses of an outlier vote we’ve seen in some time.

[The Salt Lake Tribune, Andy Larsen on Twitter]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.