Before we get excited about Paolo Banchero and Chet Holmgren, who are expected to make the headlines in next year’s NBA Draft, let's talk about this year's batch of rookies.
The 2021 Draft promised to have superstars and future 14-year veterans. What’s been surprising is who among the talented prospects quickly adjusted to the NBA.
Six weeks into the season, here's a look at the top rookies. There's still more than 75 percent left in the regular season, so this list is by no means a predictor of Rookie of the Year.
It's no coincidence that the Cleveland Cavaliers' five-game losing streak coincided with Evan Mobley’s elbow injury. Even after missing around two weeks of action, the big man out of University of South Carolina (USC) is still the best rookie of his class.
He’s averaging 14.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.9 blocks per game, while being incredibly efficient, shooting 49.0 percent from the field and giving up just 1.0 turnovers per game. Mobley has been a beast and he’s doing it while he hasn’t fully matured physically.
Mobley is already a versatile defender, comfortable switching onto guards and defending the cavernous space created by NBA pick-and-rolls. His offense already offers plenty of variety, attacking smaller defenders while using a nifty face-up game against burlier bigs.
Many scouts pegged the 7-foot center to be an impact player right away, but few could have seen Cleveland’s playoff hopes hinging on a rookie. Don’t be surprised if Mobley continues to get better as the season goes along. Most rookies hit a wall once the grind fully kicks in, but obley is not like most rookies.
DG to Mobley...OMG 😍 pic.twitter.com/TRLfyutNA6— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) November 13, 2021
Coming out of Florida State University (FSU), Scottie Barnes was an intriguing prototype. He showed his speed, length, versatility and playmaking with the Seminoles, and scouts thought all those would easily translate into the NBA.
But it seems like FSU was holding Barnes back. His preternatural athleticism and frame have given the Toronto Raptors another reliable wing defender who can switch onto five positions. His offense, however, has been a massive surprise. Barnes is averaging 15.4 points on 48.6 percent shooting while still showing off his passing with 3.3 assists per game.
Barnes is a terror on the fastbreak. He’s one of those players who can grab a rebound and initiate the break himself by running or throwing a great outlet pass. He also hasn’t been limited in halfcourt sets as he is shooting 46.3 percent from midrange and 35.3 from deep – big developments since he only shot close to 25 percent from 3 in college.
He was tabbed to be a solid NBA player, but Barnes genuinely looks like an All-Star in the making. Toronto reaching to pick him with the fourth selection is looking more and more genius with every game Barnes plays.
Missing the first five games of the season, the hype around Cade Cunningham was already silent by the time he debuted. When he came out misfiring in his first few games, many quickly jumped off the Cade bandwagon.
Cunningham has been low-key, but he has certainly turned things around. It might have served him well that there’s been less of a spotlight on him this season.
In many ways, Oklahoma State’s product has been as advertised. He’s been an all-around threat, averaging 13.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 1.3 steals. His assists are deceivingly low since he plays for the Detroit Pistons, who don't have a lot of offensive weapons outside of him and Jerami Grant.
Cunningham’s 36.0 percent field goal percentage and 3.6 turnovers per game are worrying, but that’s to be expected from all rookie playmakers getting their feet wet in the NBA. What should matter for Detroit fans is that Cunningham definitely looks like he belongs in the league. He’s already showing he can make the quick reads needed to run an NBA offense and defend at an above average level.
Shut down the bust talks, Cade is going to be a stud for a long time.
TOUGH Cade take to help seal the @DetroitPistons win. 🔥 pic.twitter.com/hdxZaIpfBL— NBA (@NBA) November 14, 2021
We don’t blame you if you haven’t watched many Oklahoma City games. But if ever you get tempted, Josh Giddey is enough reason to tune it to the Thunder.
The Giddey-prototype players often struggle to adjust to the NBA. He isn’t athletically-gifted, but Giddey has a high IQ and he plays with an awkward pace that not many players are used to.
Shawn Mendes’ long-lost twin gets a long leash with the Thunder given their non-winning focus to rebuilding. In many ways, he’s getting the same type of freedom to express himself like he did with Adelaide in the NBL in Australia. The Thunder gave him the keys to the offense, and Giddey has delivered.
goodness Giddey pic.twitter.com/PcuZ8ZIN3m— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) November 18, 2021
The Australian guard has been a brilliant passer, not just on sets, but on the read-and-react situations that often trip up most rookie point guards. He leads all rookies with 5.8 assists per game while also contributing 7.2 boards and 1.0 steals.
It’s imperative that Giddey develops his scoring arsenal. The NBA has gotten better at punishing pass-first point guards who can’t shoot, and Giddey currently has horrid shooting percentages – 39.1 percent from the field and 65.4 from the free throw line. He does have a bag of floaters and pull-up jumpers, but he needs to be a bigger threat to unlock more of his playmaking.
Luckily, the Thunder have time to wait for Giddey to improve. Aside from him and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, it doesn’t look like the Thunder have many keepers on their roster, especially with their trove of 30 draft picks in the next five years looming.
The Orlando Magic have developed a reputation of drafting athletic wings who can’t shoot. They finally broke that curse with Franz Wagner.
From the start, it was going to be hard for Wagner to break into the Orlando rotation that has several solid options at the wings. Now that he has earned the starting spot, he’s making it difficult for the coaches to decide on whether or not he should be benched when Jonathan Isaac returns.
Wagner is shooting 36.0 percent from deep, but he’s surprisingly offering much more for the Magic. The Michigan alumnus is tossing in 13.4 points per game while also contributing 4.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists with 1.2 turnovers. He's been the second biggest surprise of the NBA Draft behind Barnes as he has shown his elite athleticism.
🔨 WAGNER 🔨@OrlandoMagic lead in the fourth on NBA LP.— NBA (@NBA) October 25, 2021
💻: https://t.co/V0kkYEEIkG pic.twitter.com/BN1OW0Ici7
No. 5 pick Jalen Suggs has been up-and-down – and he’s currently out due a fractured thumb – but Magic fans should still be excited because of Wagner’s potential.
Other notable rookies:
- Chris Duarte fell off this list as the Indiana Pacers got their veterans back from injury, but he’s still chugging along and serving as one of his team's reliable bench options.
- The New Orleans Pelicans’ Herb Jones hasn’t been the flashiest name, but he’s looking like he can be a top-flight defender in the league with his freakish wingspan and motor. His 6.2 points per game may not cut it for top five rookies, but averaging 1.5 steals is enough to get you a look.
- The Houston Rockets have plenty of problems as well, but one of their biggest flops has been limiting Alperen Sengun. If there’s anything Houston does this season, it’s freeing the “Ballet Dancer”.