LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – It’s tricky making the case this a Neutral Zone in the hissing contest between Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons over the NBA Rookie of the Year award.

Not true.

It isn’t tricky. It’s impossible.

Mitchell was the most popular and entertaining University of Louisville player in the post-Russ Smith Era. He’s a guy who gave solid clues he had Russell Westbrook tendencies over the final three months of his sophomore season.

He soared like Darrell Griffith. He shot like Milt Wagner. He knocked Grayson Allen on his fanny.

And Simmons?

He came from Australia to play for Louisiana State, invited filmmakers from a Showtime documentary to follow him around Baton Rouge, couldn’t get the Tigers to the NCAA Tournament and then howled like a 9-week-old about the unfairness of the NCAA system – as if there was a court order to make him play for Johnny Jones.

This is no Neutral Zone. Mitchell was a Go-To guy for the Louisville players – and the Louisville media – for his two seasons with the Cardinals. (For the record, I do not have an NBA rookie of the year ballot.)

Is it challenging making the case Mitchell deserves the Rookie Award over Simmons?

You bet.

Simmons led Team Tank to 52 wins, including the final 16 games of the season. Considering Toronto’s shaky playoff history and the churn in Cleveland’s locker room this season, Philadelphia is a sexy sleeper pick to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.

Credit Simmons, a triple-double threat every night. As my pal David Israel, the sportswriter turned screenwriter, noted in a Twitter message, “Ben Simmons is the closest thing to Magic Johnson since Magic Johnson, which even Magic Johnson will admit.”

Actually you can raise that to a more modern comparison: Johnson filed a Tweet that Simmons was the next LeBron James.

Done. I gave Simmons his love, more love than he has given Mitchell, considering a few of his dismissive comments. Mitchell delivered the proper response with his pre-game attire this week, merchandise you can now purchase on eBay.

Now, let me give Mitchell his moment: He checks the boxes for the rookie award.

Not because Mitchell averaged nearly 5 points per game (20.5 to 15.8) more than Simmons.

Not because he made 187 three-point field goals, 28 more than any other rookie.

Not because Mitchell led the Jazz to 48 wins and the fifth seed in the Western Conference in a season where outlets like USA Today projected 42 victories and a playoff whiff by Utah because Gordon Hayward fled to Boston.

Give Mitchell the award because he is a member of the Class of 2017 and has outperformed all 12 guys drafted ahead of him last June.

Hold the snarky Tweets and e-mails. I realize that Simmons missed last season with a foot injury. He played his first game Oct. 18 against the Wizards, scoring 18 points – the same night Mitchell debuted with 10 against Denver.

But Simmons was doing more than whining about the NCAA last season. He was training like a professional. Rehabbing with NBA personnel. Working out with NBA people.

Benefiting from the considerable advantage of a year of preparation with professional basketball people. Not being coached by Johnny Jones.

Technically Simmons remained a rookie when the 2017-18 season began. I haven’t called his accountant, but my guess is Simmons received an NBA W2 form in 2016. Makes him a pro

His rookie class was the one that included Brandon Ingram, Jaylen Brown and Malcolm Brogdon, the  second-round pick from Virginia who actually won the 2017 award.

Mitchell ruled the players from his group of rookies – and did it as the 13th overall pick (behind Luke Kennard and Jonathan Isaac). He did it without moving into the starting lineup full-time until the 12th game of the season.

When they posted the opening odds for NBA Rookie of the Year last fall, Mitchell was not the player to beat. Neither was Simmons.

Lonzo Ball of the Lakers was the guy. Put $100 on Ball, win $225. Put $100 on Simmons, win $250.

But put $100 on Mitchell and you had the chance to cash $1,400.  He was listed seventh in the odds at BetOnline.com on Oct. 17, the day before the season tipped.

If you wagered on Mitchell, I hope you cash.

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