We’re now two weeks into the new NBA season, and early signs suggest the 2021 draft class is going to be incredibly exciting to watch this season and beyond. What’s been the most interesting aspect from this crop of rookies is the number of them who look like tough defenders this early in the season.
Some of these guys are busting the myth that first-year players struggle mightily on defense, as we’ve got rookies ranking near the top of several defensive metrics. It could regress as the season carries on, but it’s something to keep an eye on with this class. In other news, No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham made his NBA debut after missing the first four games of the season with an ankle injury. Although his offense wasn’t efficient (1 of 8 for two points), he showed promise on the defensive end.
Keep in mind that these rankings will reflect a rookie’s performance on a week-to-week basis only, and not the collective season. These aren’t Rookie of the Year standings. With that straightened out, here is a look at the top-performing rookies around the league.
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Barnes has started the season incredibly strong on both ends of the floor, but what’s been most impressive is his efficiency on offense. Against the Orlando Magic, he squared off against fellow rookie Jalen Suggs who many thought Toronto should’ve drafted over Barnes, and shot a ridiculous 64.3 percent from the field en route to 21 points, nine rebounds and two steals.
Barnes’ shooting has been so good that his 55.1 percent from the field ranks fourth in the entire league (among players taking at least 14 field goal attempts per game), right behind Kevin Durant. That’s absurd for a rookie. What’s even more impressive is the shots he’s making aren’t easy by any means. He’s hitting shots through traffic around the rim, making his start to the season that much more impressive.
On defense, Barnes’ hands are always active, and his 19 total deflections to start the season ranks in the top 20 in the league. Even at his size, he’s shown flashes of being a versatile defender capable of guarding multiple positions.
Mobley has already proven to be eons ahead of where most rookies are on the defensive side of the ball. Through just six games into the season, he already leads the league in shots contested on defense (152) by a wide margin, and his 44.7 defended field goal percentage ranks 10th in the league (minimum 100 shots defended). That ranks ahead of superstars like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis, so yeah he’s been incredible on defense so far.
Against the Clippers last week, Mobley was all over the place, impacting shots and showing off his versatility in being able to guard out on the perimeter and down in the paint. Like this possession against Reggie Jackson:
Jackson is typically great at getting to the rim, but the fact he couldn’t get past Mobley on this possession and instead settled for a long 2-pointer shows that the rookie is a tough draw on defense. In his following game against the Lakers, where he finished with 23 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals, Mobley made things difficult for Davis, who gave him high praise after the game was over.
Davis compared Mobley to himself when he first entered the NBA. “He’s probably the same size I was coming into the league,” Davis said. “Pretty skinny. Elite shot-blocker. Lob threat. Kind of has some of the same things I had when I was coming into the league. But probably shot it a little bit better than me.” That’s a great compliment from Davis, and is a glimpse into what Mobley could project to be in a few years.
It’s still early, but Franz Wagner may actually be the best player the Magic drafted this year, and not Jalen Suggs. Wagner is just balling with Orlando right now. He’s knocking down 3s at an absurd rate, and while he’s not gonna blow past elite defenders, he’s shown the ability to get to the rim. Just look at this possession against the Pistons:
Detroit big man Kelly Olynyk was not only late to rotate to Wagner, but once there the rookie was assertive in his first step and caught Olynyk on his heels for the easy drive to the rim. Oh, and then there was this eyebrow-raising dunk he had over two Timberwolves defenders that was just as surprising as it was exciting:
Wagner scored a career-high 28 points against Minnesota Monday night, and his confidence is growing with each passing game. If he’s this good to start the season, I can’t wait to see what he looks like with a few months under his belt.
Duarte has been an incredibly balanced scorer for the Pacers to start the season, and despite the team’s 1-6 start, he’s been one of the bright spots in Indiana. Since the Pacers have been shorthanded, he’s been given a significant role in Indiana, and he’s making the most out of the opportunity. He’s shooting 42.3 percent from 3-point territory this season on over six attempts a game, an absurdly efficient figure, especially for a rookie.
He’s also exhibited some defensive chops on the other end of the floor. He’s not a defensive stopper by any means, but he’s shown flashes of being disruptive. Duarte exerts so much energy on offense that him being an average defender is is more than enough.
Giddey had arguably one of the best rookie performances of the season last week with his 18-point, 10-rebound outing in a comeback win over the Lakers. The Thunder were down by 26 points, but Giddey helped lead Oklahoma City back for an astonishing win. He did it with his scoring and playmaking, and some of the passes he was pulling off were ridiculous.
Just look at this pinpoint bounce pass on the move right in the pocket for Kenrich Williams to get the easy dunk:
Or this pass that he whipped around to Derrick Favors with two defenders on him:
There was concern about how the Thunder would build around Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but Giddey’s already proving to be a more-than-capable backcourt mate.
Suggs’ efficiency has been a problem to start the season as he’s shooting just 30.8 percent from the field and 23.9 percent from 3-point territory. However, while he’s still trying to find his rhythm on the offensive side of the ball, he’s been incredibly active on defense. He’s getting out and blocking shots in transition and being disruptive in forcing turnovers and coming away with steals.
Suggs’ offense will eventually start to pick up, but in the meantime it’s good to know that he can still be engaged on the other side of the floor even when his shots aren’t falling at the rate he’d like them to. He did have a 21-point outing against the Raptors last week, which was by far his best offensive game thus far, so hopefully that gets him going.
Here’s a stat no one expected to see just two weeks in the season: Sengun’s 2.5 steals per game ranks sixth in the league. Even crazier, everyone else above him plays over 27 minutes a night, while he’s on the floor for 19 minutes a game. That’s what you call making incredibly good use of your time on the floor with the minutes you’re given.
Let’s just take a moment to appreciate how much Mitchell annoyed Luka Doncic on this possession, because that’s a very difficult thing to do.
Mitchell anticipated Doncic gathering to go into his patented step-back jumper, but before the two-time All-NBA guard could even get in the air, Mitchell’s hand came swatting down at the ball. Although it didn’t result in a steal, he disrupted what could’ve been a made jumper by the elite guard. It also shows how intelligent Mitchell is on defense.
Everyone in the league knows Doncic loves that move and that shot, and yet this is one of the rare times where a defender manages to nip it in the bud before Doncic can even get a shot off. That’s incredibly impressive.
Aside from a 30-point outing in his first week, Green’s had a tough go of it on offense. He’s been incredibly inefficient from the field, shooting 22.5 percent from the field this past week, and 9.5 percent from deep on seven attempts per game. But he’s remained engaged on both sides of the ball, coming away with steals and blocking shots to impact the game in some regard while he’s still struggling to make shots at an efficient rate.
With Zion Williamson out, second-round pick Jones was vaulted into the starting lineup, and he’s made an impact in the big opportunity, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Against the Knicks he made life tough for All-Star Julius Randle, forcing him into tough shots or passing out of scoring opportunities. When Williamson returns, Jones will surely remain a fixture in the rotation just for his defense alone.