We’re rounding the corner on the final two weeks of the 2021-22 NBA regular season, and while there’s several major storylines worth keeping an eye on, one under-the-radar one that’s not getting a lot of attention is the Rookie of the Year race. Oftentimes the award for the best rookie goes to the player averaging the most points on a team that typically has a terrible record. And while there have certainly been some worthy contenders for the award that fit into that box — namely guys like Cade Cunningham, Josh Giddey and Franz Wagner — the top two players vying for the award happen to be on teams that are in the thick of playoff positioning.
Both Evan Mobley (Cleveland Cavaliers) and Scottie Barnes (Toronto Raptors) are on winning teams, where both of their roles are incredibly important to their teams’ success. All season long they’ve been incredibly consistent, and their numbers often mirror each other. With two weeks to go it’s not easy deciding who should be the clear-cut winner. With their teams right next to each other in the standings — the Raptors hold a one-game lead over the Cavaliers for the No. 6 spot — it makes it even more intriguing to see which rookie can help their team avoid the play-in tournament ahead of the playoffs.
Let’s move on to this week’s rankings. Remember these will reflect a rookie’s performance on a week-to-week basis only, and not the collective season. These are not Rookie of the Year standings. With that straightened out, here is a look at the top-performing rookies around the league.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox.
There was an error processing your subscription.
The Kings have essentially waved the white flag on the season with De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis potentially being shut down for the last handful of games. And although this season will end in another missed trip to the playoffs for Sacramento, one silver lining it can take out of it is the recent production from Davion Mitchell.
The rookie has started the last five games for the Kings, and in that span he’s been averaging 21.6 points and 7.2 assists while playing 41 minutes a night. That’s a significant bump in production and playing time compared to what we’ve seen from him for the majority of the season, which is a good sign for Sacramento going forward.
The Kings traded Tyrese Haliburton for Domantas Sabonis with the intention of acquiring an All-Star player to pair alongside Fox, which would hopefully push them in the right direction in competing for a playoff spot this year and beyond. While the ruling is still out on if Sabonis’ presence can help the Kings’ playoff hopes past this season, one thing it did do was open up more of an opportunity for Mitchell with Halliburton’s departure.
Sacramento was heavily criticized for trading Haliburton away, but perhaps it did so with the expectation that Mitchell could fill that void. These last few weeks have certainly showed that with a bigger role Mitchell can thrive, and he’s starting to knock down 3s at a higher clip, something that was concerning at the beginning of the season.
Mitchell’s defense was always his selling point entering the draft, and he’s certainly shown the potential to be a high-caliber defender in this league. But what’s been more eye opening is his scoring ability in a variety of ways. Mitchell can take a defender off the dribble, pull up for a mid-range jumper, or drive to the hoop and finish strong. If he continues in this direction, where he can be a secondary creator in the backcourt next to Fox, as well as a tough defender on the other end, then letting go of Haliburton won’t look as bad for the Kings.
If it weren’t for Cade Cunningham’s first month of the season where he shot the ball inefficiently and an ankle injury that delayed his pro debut, he would probably be leading Rookie of the Year for some people. That’s just how good he’s been for the majority of the season. He’s started to find his shot at a more efficient clip, and in the month of March he’s shooting 46.3 percent from the field, which is a 10 percent improvement from what he was shooting back in November.
But while Cunningham may not win the Rookie of the Year honors, I’m more intrigued with the type of leap we’re going to see from him in his second season. Based on his post-All-Star break play, where he’s averaging 21.3 points, 6.7 assists and 6.5 rebounds, it hints that we may be in store for a big sophomore season from the No. 1 overall pick.
What’s crazy is there aren’t really any glaring weaknesses in Cunningham’s game. He can score at all three levels, create for teammates, rebound and has shown flashes of a solid defender, so any improvements he does make between now and next season will only build upon the impressive rookie campaign he’s already having. His shooting numbers should improve next season, as he’ll have his first NBA offseason to work on his efficiency, and we’ve already seen him grow more and more comfortable as a floor general at the NBA level, to the point where he’s operating a few steps ahead of the defense most of the time.
What will be key in Cunningham’s development next season is the development of the players around him on the Pistons. Part of the reason Cunningham isn’t mentioned as heavily in the Rookie of the Year debate is because of his team’s success — or rather lack of it. The two front-runners for the award (Mobley and Barnes) are on teams that are contending for playoff spots right now, whereas Detroit has been eliminated from postseason contention since mid-March.
Yet while the Pistons are still racking up losses, there’s been fewer blowouts and more down-to-the-wire finishes, which is already a move in the right direction for this team. Just this last week alone all three of Detroit’s losses have come by an average of three points, with the most recent loss to the Knicks coming down to the final shot of the game. These closely-contested losses are showing improvement in the rest of the young players alongside Cunningham, and that should set Detroit up to be a team that could surprise everyone next season.
Jalen Green is another rookie who’s seen marked improvement since the All-Star break. He’s turning the ball over less, shooting with more efficiency and his assist numbers have been on the rise. He said after a loss to the Nuggets a few weeks ago that he evaluates how the defense is guarding him in the first five minutes of the game, and that influences how he’s going to attack on offense for the rest of the night.
So for example, in one of Houston’s two wins this week over the Trail Blazers, where Green had 25 points, six rebounds and two assists, Portland was playing a lot of 2-3 zone defense, with the hopes of exploiting the Rockets‘ 21st-ranked 3-point percentage. But Green didn’t back down from the challenge of the zone defense, and ended up going 6 for 11 from deep in that game:
At the start of the season opposing teams could live with Green taking 3s all day, as he was shooting 27.8 percent from beyond the arc through the first two months. But since February, Green’s been making 39 percent of his shots from deep on over seven attempts a game. If his recent shooting hot streak is more indicative of his ability, then he’s going to be a dangerous shooter going forward.
A crucial win over the Cavaliers last week helped vault the Raptors into the No. 6 seed in the East with just two weeks remaining in the regular season. If the Raptors finish the season ahead of the Cavaliers it might also swing the Rookie of the Year vote in Barnes’ favor. I’ve said this before, but Barnes and Mobley’s numbers are so close that I’d be fine with either one winning it, and if they tied for the award that also wouldn’t be a horrible decision either. That’s just how close they’ve been to each other in this race.
What Barnes has been doing for the Raptors all season long, where he’s averaging 35.7 minutes — the most of any rookie, and 15th in the entire league — has just been flat-out astounding. He’s filled multiple roles for Toronto, from leading the team in scoring in October as Pascal Siakam was out to start the season, to being perhaps the most important defender on the team when OG Anunoby was sidelined for 15 games.
He’s played point guard at times, while other times he’s just roaming around the court waiting for his opportunity to muscle his way in to the paint and score. He can defend all five positions well, and has often made clutch stops down the stretch. I think Barnes may have the edge over Mobley right now, but these last two weeks could flip flop all the way until the end.
Franz Wagner has been severely underrated this season, which speaks to the amount of talent in this rookie class. If this were any other year, he would get more consideration for Rookie of the Year, but with this crop of rookies I’d say he should at least finish in the top five for the award. He’s displayed such a unique skill set for a 6-10 forward, capable of regularly taking defenders off the dribble, moving incredibly well without the ball that often leads to points and his significant improvement as a passer has led to the Magic leaning on him a bit more as a point-forward in certain situations.
And that’s just on the offensive side of the ball. Part of the reason Wagner was drafted so high was because of his defensive capabilities, which he’s certainly lived up to this season. He’s taken on the responsibility of often guarding the opposing team’s best player, and while he sometimes struggles with shifty, speedy guards like the Trae Young’s of the world, he’s also flashed potential as a stout defender who can guard multiple positions. Though Orlando has the worst record in the league this season, the Magic should find comfort in knowing that Wagner’s rookie campaign has shown that he has the ability to be in this league for a long time.
Honorable mentions: Aaron Wiggins, Oklahoma City Thunder (15.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists); Trendon Watford, Portland Trail Blazers (14.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists); Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets (14.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists)