Monday, January 17 2022
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We’ve officially crossed the quarter mark of the 2021-22 NBA season, so it’s a perfect time to take stock of the rookie landscape and see which top five players are out front in the ongoing Rookie of the Year race. The 2021 draft class is filled with so much talent, and that’s been on full display through the first 20-plus games of the season. It’s proof that this draft class was far deeper than just the top four or five picks; we’ve seen second-rounders like Ayo Dosunmu, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Herb Jones all have impact on their respective teams. 

Though this Rookie of the Year ranking will only focus on the top five guys right now, there are a few others who were just shy of cracking the list who deserve some attention. Indiana Pacers rookie Chris Duarte is certainly one of them. The former Oregon guard has enjoyed a blazing start to his NBA career, highlighted by a 27-point debut to start the season. Defensive stalwart Davion Mitchell has made an impact with the Sacramento Kings, while Houston Rockets big man Alperen Sengun is proving to be one of the most intriguing rookies with every no-look pass. 

Moving on to the top five rookies in the NBA so far, these players have stood out among the rest of their peers through the first quarter of the season, and look to be in the running to win Rookie of the Year at the end of the season. 

Cunningham’s had a rough go of it as a No.1 overall pick. He missed the first four games of the season with an ankle sprain, followed by inconsistent scoring and shooting efficiency through the first 20 games. However, there’s a reason he was drawing comparisons to All-Star guard Luka Doncic entering the league. He has the ability to impact the game in other ways outside of just scoring, which is what Cunningham’s been doing while he’s still trying to get his scoring on a consistent level.

He’s creating opportunities for teammates by drawing defenders and misdirecting them to create open passing lanes and windows, which lead to buckets like this:

His assist percentage ranks in the 98th percentile in the league among wing players, per Cleaning The Glass, and his 6.5 rebounds ranks fourth among rookies. Though he still has room to improve on defense, he’s already showing flashes of being a good defender, both as an on-ball defender and being active in the passing lanes off the ball.

There’s also the clutch factor to Cunningham’s game that’s been highly touted going back to his high school days. Already he’s shown off that ability with the Pistons in several games this season, hitting clutch 3s against the Nets and Rockets to either tie the game up or take the lead in the final five minutes of the game. He’s second among rookies in clutch points this season (13), showing that he can be the guy Detroit goes to with the game on the line. 

Though Cunningham didn’t have the greatest start to his rookie season, which was to be expected for someone who missed training camp, preseason and the first four games of the season, he’s rounding into form and resembling the player many expected him to be as the No. 1 overall pick.

4. Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder

Here’s a fun stat to show you just how special Giddey has been so far: He’s just the third teenager in NBA history to record 100 assists and 100 rebounds in his first 20 games. The other two on that list? LeBron James and LaMelo Ball. Not terrible company to be in for the young Australian guard. That milestone also speaks to the versatility to Giddey’s game, because he can really do a little bit of everything. 

If you turn on an Oklahoma City Thunder game on any given night you can watch him sling passes like this to his teammates:

Giddey’s presence in the backcourt alongside Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has shown great promise, giving Oklahoma City two incredibly capable playmakers in the starting lineup who can not only create for themselves, but put their teammates in the right position to succeed. He leads all rookies in assists per game, and that figure would undoubtedly be higher if his teammates knocked down more shots as he ranks in the top 20 in the league in potential assists (11.4). The guard’s 31.2 assist percentage also ranks first in the league among wing players, per Cleaning the Glass. But it’s not just the flashy passes that make Giddey’s game noteworthy; he delivers smart, well-placed passes to teammates who can just immediately catch and shoot the ball. 

Though Giddey’s passing is the best aspect of his game, he’s shown so far this season that it isn’t unreasonable to expect him to regularly rack up triple-doubles throughout his career. He’s aggressive in crashing the boards, and he’s shown no issue in being able to take defenders off the dribble and get to the rim, where he’s making over 54 percent of his shots. 

Giddey’s efficiency has been his biggest weakness thus far, connecting on just 27.7 percent of his 3s and shooting 40 percent from the field. However, that efficiency is expected to ebb and flow as he gains his footing in the league in his first season. That aside, he’s still been one of the top rookies of the year so far, and if he began producing bigger numbers it wouldn’t be surprising to see him climb this list even further.

Wagner’s been one of the best surprises in the rookie class so far, as he’s quickly become someone Orlando Magic coach Jamahl Mosley entrusts to guard the opposing team’s best player regularly. The best example of this came when Wagner was tasked with guarding Kevin Durant and James Harden when Orlando faced the Brooklyn Nets. Wagner forced Durant into five turnovers in that game, and finished the night with five steals, showing off his abilities as a tough on-ball defender.

His great instincts as a defender are shining through for the Magic, coming away with steals and disrupting the opposing team by always trying to deflect the ball or swipe it away. On offense, his versatility comes out in being able to play whichever position Mosley wants, and shapeshifting his role in the process. He can act as a catch-and-shoot guy, where he’s knocking down nearly 40 percent of his 3s in that scenario. Or he can act as a pick-and-roll ball-handler to get to the rim, where he’s shooting 52 percent in the restricted area. Wagner’s also shown to be an excellent cutter, generating 1.556 points per possession in the league. 

Wagner’s knack for knowing when to cut, how to cut at the right angles if he’s out on the wing and, most importantly, converting on the shots when he’s met with resistance at the rim are the most impressive aspects of his game through the first quarter of the season. He’s not going to have the flashiest of statlines on a nightly basis, but he’s proving to be Orlando’s best rookie thus far and a valuable piece for the team’s future.

There’s so much to like about Barnes’ game, and at every step of the way this season he’s proving the Toronto Raptors right in picking him with the No. 4 pick, a move that was considered controversial at the time. But through the first quarter of the season Barnes is displaying so many valuable qualities for the Raptors. His skillset allows him to guard all five positions on the floor, take a defender off the dribble and be a menace in transition, and his physical gifts result in him taking massive strides to the rim and covering an ocean’s amount of space in just a couple steps.

Barnes isn’t going to kill you with a bunch of 3s, or lull a defense to sleep with his crafty handles, but he’s going to get to his spots in the paint and punish you consistently around the rim, where he’s making 63 percent of his shots. Then there’s the relentless offensive rebounding, where Barnes averages 3.1 offensive boards a game, good for 11th in the entire league. That ranks ahead of guys like Deandre Ayton, Anthony Davis and Rudy Gobert. Barnes’ ballhawk nature on the offensive glass is the reason the Raptors rank third in the league in second-chance points (15.7 per game). 

On defense, Barnes has been even more impressive as his frenzied energy on that end of the floor irritates opposing teams. He ranks in the top 20 of the league in deflections per game (2.8), and can cause issues for every type of player, from guards to big men. He’s always looking to come away with a steal or cause enough chaos to throw the other team out of rhythm. Barnes has had one of the best starts among his rookie class so far, and if he continues his production and develops even further there’s a good chance he could end up with the Rookie of the Year award by season’s end. His toughest competition so far is the next guy on this list.

1. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

Despite missing four games with a sprained elbow, Mobley has still been the most impactful rookie so far this season, specifically on the defensive end. Mobley’s 17.6 defended field goal attempts per game ranks fourth in the entire league, ahead of the likes of superstars Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo. His 43.7 defended field goal percentage also ranks ninth in the NBA, a better mark than both Antetokounmpo and Davis. Those are some pretty ridiculous numbers, and when you watch him play the stats definitely line up with the eye test.

Mobley’s shown over the course of the season that he’s more than capable of getting out on the wing and guarding smaller players, and because of his endless length he’s impacting shots:

It’s actually pretty ridiculous that Mobley can move that well on defense, especially when he’s guarding smaller players on the wing. That’s definitely not normal for a player of his size, and almost unheard of for a rookie. His defensive impact has certainly been felt in the Cavaliers lineup, as Cleveland allows 8.8 fewer points when he’s on the floor than when he’s off. That figure ranks in the 87th percentile among bigs in the league, per CTG. When Mobley did go down with that elbow injury, the Cavs went 0-4 during his absence, showing just how important he is on both ends of the floor. 

Though Mobley’s offense doesn’t get as much shine as his defense has so far, he’s been just as impressive on that end of the floor as well. One of the major highlights that showed the depth off his offensive game came against the New York Knicks, where he punished Nerlens Noel and Mitchell Robinson to the tune of a career-high 26 points, nine rebounds, five assists and a steal and block apiece. Mobley easily discarded both bigs on several occasions that night, like this turnaround floater over Noel in the paint:

Or this easy dunk by Mobley where he gets past Robinson with a pretty dangerous hesitation move:

Mobley’s been better than advertised to start the season, and he’s only going to get better as his rookie campaign carries on. He’s established himself as the player to beat for the Rookie of the Year award with a quarter of the season in the books, but there are a couple players on his heels to try and overtake that top spot. 

Source: CBSSports.com

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