Rookie Report: Race heats up with one month to go

Published March 11, 2022, 3:29 PMMiguel Flores

Several rookies have caught our attention, but the Rookie of the Year award might just come down to a couple of guys with just one month left in the regular season.

The 2021 NBA Draft class is already one of the deepest classes ever. It's too early to tell if this class will produce future superstars but a lot of rookies have helped their teams win.

Take the ones that didn't make this list. Second-round pick Herb Jones has been unquestionably the best defensive player for the New Orleans Pelicans. Ayo Dosunmu, another second-rounder, has been helping the Chicago Bulls stem the tide while their starting backcourt recovers from injuries.

Some have shown flashes of brilliance, inspiring just a bit more optimism for their teams. Jalen Green has slowly been adapting to the NBA game as the Houston Rockets run more of their system through him. Jalen Suggs got injured early in the season but has also been helping the young Orlando Magic continue to improve. Ditto for Golden State’s pair of lottery picks in Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga, who have picked up more minutes as the Warriors’ lineup gets ravaged by injuries.

The Rookie of the Year race is going to come down to the wire. The following are the players who have staked their claim for the award. They'll most likely be part of the First Team All-Rookie but the race for ROY has really come down to three candidates.

5. Josh Giddey (Oklahoma City Thunder)

The Aussie leads all rookies in assists per game with 6.4. Playmaking has been Giddey's biggest asset; his creative passing and high IQ have earned him OKC’s starting point guard slot.

It’s encouraging that Giddey has adapted to the pace of the NBA game. He doesn’t need to rush because he gets the job done at the speed limit. His shooting needs to improve, particularly from the 3-point line (26.3 percent) and the charity stripe (70.9 percent). Giddey has, however, shown he can be more aggressive when the Thunder need him. It’s a big possibility the Thunder shut him down if his hip injury doesn’t heal within the next couple of weeks. Regardless, Giddey has done enough in the 56 games that he's played to be named on the All-Rookie team.

4. Franz Wagner (Orlando Magic)

Magic fans could look back at the 2021 Draft as the turning point that led them back to the postseason. Who would have guessed that their biggest haul from in the draft would be Franz Wagner?

Coming out of Michigan, Wagner was seen as an all-around contributor that might struggle to specialize in a certain skill to earn immediate minutes. Luckily for Wagner, the Magic needed everything he could give them.

Wagner is dropping 15.6 points per game on 46.8/36.4/85.6 shooting splits – encouraging signs for the Magic, who finally drafted a wing who can shoot. He’s shown unexpected pops of athleticism with his handful of poster dunks this season.

The Magic are going to have a nice problem once they have all their pieces healthy. Wagner has earned more minutes moving forward so it’s going to be interesting how they decide to move forward with the rest of their young players.

3. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons

If you tuned out of the Cade show after his first couple of weeks in the league, you made a big mistake.

The top overall pick needed time to get his feet wet after injuries caused him to sit out during the beginning of the season. Cunningham has had to adjust to the league and it was around February when he truly found his stride.

If anything, Cunningham’s been good as advertised. He’s smooth and never seems phased by any situation he’s in. There’s a lot of Grant Hill in his game, especially lately with how he’s taking more shots going to the rim. The more the Pistons ask Cade to do, the more he delivers.

Statistically, Cade might have the best case among all rookies as his averages of 16.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 5.2 assists only continue to climb as the season goes along. Unfortunately, Cade is in a tight spot as the two rookies ahead of him in this race have one major thing over him: team success. It’s not that Cade doesn’t help his team win - it’s just hard to put him over two rookies who have carved out starting roles on playoff contenders.

2. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors

At this point, Barnes should have already calmed any nerves about his potential after the Raptors took a risk on him with the fourth overall pick.

The Raptors deserve plenty of credit for maximizing  Barnes’ skillset. Nick Nurse allows Barnes to do all the things he was great at in college like rebounding, defending, and pushing the pace. Barnes has reciprocated by displaying an advanced offensive game.

Barnes is a bully in the post and a terror out on the break. While his jumper has a long way to go, Barnes has learned from the school of Pascal Siakam on attacking extra space the defense gives him.

The Raptors would not be as successful as they have been without Barnes’ all-around contributions, especially given their injury lick throughout the year. It’s going to be a close race between Scottie and the current leader of this ROY ladder.

1. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavaliers really struck gold when Mobley fell to them with the third overall pick. From a pure eye test standpoint, no rookie from this class compares to Mobley. As far as NBA readiness goes, Mobley is in a class with guys like Blake Griffin and Ben Simmons who immediately made an impact. It’s important to note that Griffin and Simmons sat out a year before making their NBA debut. Mobley jumped in right away.

The Cavs have been in a slump lately after losing All-Star Jarrett Allen to a hand injury. This has opened more minutes at center for Mobley, a challenge he’s been adapting to. Still, the Cavs look like a shoo-in for the postseason, whether that be as a direct playoff seed or through the play-in.

Mobley’s averages of 14.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 2.6 assists are pretty close to Barnes’ 14.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 3.3 assists. It’s going to be a tight finish between Mobley and Barnes and the final weeks of the regular season will dictate who will win Rookie of the Year.