2022 Final NBA Rookie Ladder
With the 2021-22 NBA Regular Season fully wrapped up, it's time to take a look back at who the top 10 rookies were and how they project from next season and on.
History deserves to be celebrated, as does the 2021-22 NBA rookie class.
There was no shortage of top performers during the regular season. The pool of first-year players who outperformed any initial expectations exceeds the list of 10 I put together for a “rookie ladder” of sorts.
Yet these rankings are supposed to reflect who, in my humble opinion, deserved to be recognized on All-Rookie First and Second Teams, respectively.
So without further ado, let’s examine what my personal ballot would’ve looked like, with the top overall player in these rankings deserving, in my eyes, of the 2021-22 KIA NBA Rookie of the Year Award.
10. Jonathan Kuminga, Golden State Warriors
70 GP, 16.9 MPG, 9.3 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 0.9 APG, 15.2 PER, 60.0 TS%
This spot is exactly where I likely would’ve had Jonathan Kuminga on my personal draft board had I chosen to rank players last draft cycle instead of just slotting them in tiers.
That wouldn’t have been a reflection of his talent should he live up to his potential. I can’t recall if I’ve seen Kuminga, one of the most natural athletes I’ve ever evaluated at his 6’8” height, break a sweat during ANY game—let alone during his short time in the NBA.
But I wasn’t sold on what he brought to the table during his rookie season from a skill standpoint outside of line-drive finishing at the rim with the occasional spin cycle to help him get there.
Boy, was I wrong about how much his athleticism MATCHED with effort and drive could help him impact one of the best teams in the league, the Golden State Warriors.
Even though Kuminga struggled at times with turnovers, defensive lapses, and shooting, as all young players generally do, he did have flashes of making passing reads within a complex offense. He played small-ball center and executed on both ends of the floor; most importantly, he displayed the willingness to do the little things to help his team win.
Not every young player is always accepting of a role that’s less than what his talent suggests he’s capable of fulfilling. If Kuminga develops his skill and understanding that matches his God-given ability, he’s arguably one of the better players in the NBA, not just in his draft class.
I underestimated what he could be capable of so quickly, so even through the ups and downs, he deserves a spot in these rankings. Moving forward, I fully expect the Warriors to continue deploying him as a small-ball big while further developing his perimeter ability.
9. Ayo Dosunmu, Chicago Bulls
77 GP, 27.4 MPG, 8.8 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 3.3 APG, 11.2 PER, 59.6 TS%
Ayo Dosunmu is another player in this class that I underrated to a degree.
I had Dosunmu as a player I would strongly consider looking at in the second round because of what he brought to the table as a 6’5” shot-making guard who could defend multiple positions well at the next level.
Where I was troubled in my evaluation was in the position he was best suited to play. Dosunmu was the point guard at Illinois, but he wasn’t an elite decision-maker outside of one-read pick-and-roll plays. While he made plenty of improvements shooting the ball in college, I wasn’t confident it would all translate immediately.
Fast forward to the end of his rookie season, and I’m more than pleasantly surprised with his level of play after just one year in the league.
Dosunmu was a guard whom I believed if he could be “unleashed” to play to his strengths, he could have a long-term home in the NBA. To that point, I was correct. The Chicago Bulls didn’t ask him to do everything as a guard on the floor. Dosunmu came off easy actions, relied on his dribble pull-up inside the arc, got opportunities to make spot-up threes, and made passing decisions off simple reads.
Chicago didn’t ask him to do anything crazy when he got the ball. And the simplicity allowed Dosunmu to execute to his ability, and at the end of the day, it’s tough to stop someone at his size with his burst and quickness in the halfcourt if he knows where he’s going and what he’s doing.
As Dosunmu continues to enhance making multiple reads out of pick-and-roll and further diversify his offensive attack, it will soon become nearly impossible to have him only come off the bench. When the Bulls needed someone to step up due to the injuries of Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball, Dosunmu was ready and able to step up and maturely handle the responsibilities in front of him.
Backcourt players who can defend both spots as he can, and bring offensive value at multiple levels on the floor, are long-term starters. Whatever the future holds for Dosunmu, I can promise it’s more than what I initially expected and, at the very least, quicker than I anticipated.
Dosunmu impressed me during his rookie year, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.
8. Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets
72 GP, 20.7 MPG, 9.6 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 2.6 APG, 16.0 PER, 55.2 TS%
Alperen Sengun had a highlight-filled rookie season with enough plays that make you fall out of your chair with how impressive they were.
Behind-the-back passes, ball handling, scoring off the bounce, up-and-under finishes. The level of craft that was on display in Sengun’s playmaking and footwork were spectacular and breathtaking at the same time. Very rarely do big men come into the NBA and display his level of polish on the offensive end.
When the shooting, particularly spot-ups from the top of the key, comes around, there will be very little that Sengun isn’t capable of on the floor despite being a tad undersized from a height perspective at the center position.
His evaluation was a little trickier than what would be for a rim-running athletic center, for example. Post-up bigs with more limited lateral mobility and questions about translation in a space-happy league aren’t always the easiest to give Top 10 grades.
However, Sengun’s effort level, tenacity, high IQ, and shot-making ability give him leverage as a potential hub on offense capable of shouldering larger usage by helping everyone else play to their strengths on the court.
One can see how effective the halfcourt offense of the Denver Nuggets is with Nikola Jokic operating out of hand-offs, playing out of pick-and-roll, and posting up, forcing plays to be made out of double teams. His vision, footwork, and touch change the way defenses can play him, and believe me, he’s a nightmare to game plan for when he’s coming up on the schedule.
Jokic isn’t a direct comparison for Sengun. There is NO PLAYER who will EVER be a one-to-one comp for Jokic. He could go down as one of the greatest players the game has ever seen…BUT the similarities are evident on the tape. And any big who can sniff Jokic’s offensive value is a special talent.
The biggest difference between the two, in my eyes, that could help close one gap in Sengun’s development is on defense. We can all acknowledge Sengun isn’t someone you want defending in space, operating in a switch-heavy scheme, etc. But even in one-on-one situations, his foul rate was atrocious this season.
His lower minutes per game total than a number of rookies on this list wasn’t all because of multiple players in front of him at his position. Sengun would collect fouls so quickly in-game that his availability would naturally be limited.
If Sengun is going to live up to his potential as a Swiss army-knife center, he needs to be able to stay on the court. Making improvements defensively in his approach to guarding while maintaining his discipline will go a long way. Not to mention continuing to improve athletically and getting in better shape as Jokic continues to do.
I haven’t evaluated many players as skilled as Sengun before entering the league. He has a ton of potential, but he must improve as a spacer and defender to make full use of all of the gifts he has to offer.
7. Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder
54 GP, 31.5 MPG, 12.5 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 6.4 APG, 13.3 PER, 47.8 TS%
I’ve already mentioned three rookies who have brought uniqueness to the NBA in their rookie seasons.
We’re about to be four-for-four here.
Josh Giddey has proven he’s more than just a secondary creator. This dude thrives with the ball in his hands as a lead decision-maker for others.
Pick-and-roll creation, transition playmaking, second-side actions—you name it, Giddey excels from a passing perspective. LaMelo Ball was praised for his creativity and bravado as a playmaker during his first season, but Giddey arguably has even greater vision than he does.
Even what Giddey sees passing out of SLOBs and BLOBs has blown me away from some of the film I’ve watched. Few players can actually SEE what Giddey sees, let alone are at the height he is, with the ability to hit passes from all kinds of crazy angles.
I still don’t love the handle, and he’s not the shiftiest guy in traffic, nor does he have the excellent burst coming off a screen or getting himself accelerating downhill. But all of that matters in a very limited sense when it comes to Giddey. His passing gravity changes all of those things, and it’s something I wrongfully underestimated before he came into the league.
During the pre-draft process, I envisioned Giddey as a role player in the mold of a Joe Ingles. Could he handle the ball and create for others at times, maybe being a primary initiator with backup units? Yes. But there’s more in his bag than what Ingles has become offensively.
What will really unlock more for Giddey is in his scoring attack. He’s made some improvements, but the perimeter shooting, touch from inside the paint, and finishing through contact have been a little lackluster, as expected during his first year.
As he continues to work on his outside shot and get stronger to better finish through defenders, however, more of his numbers than just his scoring average will surge.
Giddey is tough and isn’t afraid to compete for boards on both ends. As his body continues to develop, I expect both his defensive AND his offensive rebounding numbers to increase, which will lead to better scoring and passing opportunities. He already became the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double, and I expect plenty more in his future.
Defensively I expect Giddey to remain a mixed bag throughout his career. But at a baseline, he’s 6’9” with length to bother certain matchups and hold his own against a number of positions on that end. He’s not “versatile” in the same sense as other players his size, but his competitive nature and willingness to get after it should help him at least get to an average level defensively a little later in his career.
There are plenty of draft analysts who believe in the notion that if a player sits at the intersection of size, IQ, and skill, there comes a point where that player “doesn’t fail” and should be bet on to succeed at an above-average level in the NBA. Giddey is one of those talents, and he offers plenty of upside to grow into for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
6. Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic
79 GP, 30.7 MPG, 15.2 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.9 APG, 14.7 PER, 55.9 TS%
Franz Wagner was drafted about where I expected him to be on draft night, yet over the course of his rookie year proved that might’ve been too low.
Through the pre-draft process, I was asked multiple times about my thoughts on Wagner. My conclusion was I expected him to be a long-term starting forward in the NBA, with the possible upside of Gordon Hayward. That name wasn’t used lightly, as there was a time when Hayward was arguably one of the top small forwards in the NBA.
After his first season, Wagner proved that there’s far more potential than might’ve initially met the eye at Michigan.
With a more open court and better spacing, Wagner showed improvements and diverse flashes as a ball-handler, decision-maker, and pull-up scorer. He ended up being far more early on than just a corner shooter and attacker on closeouts.
In his best performance so far for the Orlando Magic, Wagner totaled 38 points by not only hitting open threes but also flashing mid-range craft AND getting to the line 10 times and converting on all of his free throws.
Converting from the charity stripe, let alone getting there that many times per game, is generally one of the last developments for a player to make on offense at the next level. The physicality that’s required to make that kind of a leap and average five or six or more free-throw attempts per game usually isn’t there for rookies, but Wagner had performances where I can envision regularity in that area sooner than expected.
Combine his pull-up bag, open shooting, and aggressive nature around the basket, and we’re looking at a three-level pro scorer who can also pass out of those situations and execute easy reads. Throw in the potential to continue developing as a pick-and-roll playmaker, and there’s a more complete offensive package than I could’ve initially anticipated.
Defensively, Wagner has proven he can guard multiple positions and operate in a switching scheme. He’s not the absolute best option on an island against the twitchier guards in the league, but the way he can help and play angles with his understanding and footwork on that end gives him an edge, even if he isn’t a super athlete.
As Wagner continues to grow further into his body and improve his consistency from long range, Wagner will blossom into one of the league’s most talented offensive weapons. Orlando has a long-term answer at the forward position, and the number of boxes he checks makes life easier for the franchise to continue to experiment and bring in different talent to complement the team’s other young guards and bigs better.
5. Herbert Jones, New Orleans Pelicans
78 GP, 29.9 MPG, 9.5 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 2.1 APG, 12.3 PER, 57.3 TS%
Few could’ve predicted Herbert Jones would end up in the position he’s in today as one of the building blocks for the New Orleans Pelicans franchise.
While not as potent offensively as some of the other rookies in these rankings, Jones’ defensive value far exceeds anything that first-year players usually bring to the table.
Expectations generally are too high for young guys on defense. Adjusting to the speed and physicality of the pro game, on top of having to learn to communicate and play with brand new teammates, is a lot to ask. The best defensive units in the NBA have been together for a number of years, with the core pieces remaining intact and changes generally being made on the margins.
Look at the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Golden State Warriors, and Miami Heat. All of the core pillars have remained for a number of years and have grown with each other. They’re also NBA veterans, not first or second-year talents.
So that makes what Jones has done that much more impressive. He can guard on the ball, guard away from it, help protect the rim, and switch and cover space in the halfcourt. There’s very little Jones can’t do defensively, as both a stopper and a playmaker in passing lanes and helping from the weak side.
The angles Jones plays at on the perimeter, his timing and anticipation with using his length on post-ups and around the basket, and his communication and awareness of when to trap and help. What more can I say about one of the most complete defensive forwards in the league in his ROOKIE SEASON?
Jones had an All-Defense case this quick in his career. I wouldn’t have blamed anyone who would’ve voted him on a team.
Offensively, the shooting is still a work-in-progress for Jones, but he can score on the break, attack closeouts, and make quick decisions off those line drives at the rim. He’s a better ball handler and passer than he is given credit for, and as he continues to better his spot-up shooting, he should be able to provide similar or better offensive value to that of a Jae Crowder, for example.
Even if that’s the level that he reaches offensively with some more passing flashes mixed in, that’s more than enough, given what he brings defensively. It’s a little crazy to think about so soon, but he may very well be in line to receive one hell of a payday in the not-too-distant future. He’ll enter restricted free agency in 2024, and the sky-high numbers shouldn’t shock anyone if he continues to bring the same value to the table.
One of the best stories in the 2022 draft class, Jones should help bolster New Orleans for years to come.
4. Jalen Green, Houston Rockets
67 GP, 31.9 MPG, 17.3 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.6 APG, 12.5 PER, 54.7 TS%
There are a few players I just discussed who had very fair arguments to be ahead of Jalen Green. All of Giddey, Wagner, and Jones were more consistent in certain areas of their games over a more extended period of time.
Green came into the NBA as arguably the most lethal scoring prospect of his class due to his jaw-dropping combination of speed, verticality, and shooting.
And admittedly, it took a while for his best traits to mesh and form a scoring package as intended.
But towards the end of the season, Green started to go on an offensive rampage and didn’t look back. And for that stretch, I’m ranking Green here, ahead of those aforementioned rookies.
Let’s examine that stretch a little closer.
Over Green’s last 22 games, he averaged 22.6 PPG while shooting 48% from the field and 34% from three-point range on nearly eight attempts per game.
Those are impressive numbers at volume for a rookie perimeter option. Taking and making that many jumpers while maintaining a near 55% True Shooting mark is impressive. More of a two-level scorer right now, Green has his work cut out for him at continuing to develop the craft to operate in the mid-range and master the toughest level on offense.
But the touch, and the consistency, he displayed over that stretch gives me confidence he’s going to eventually get to that point and live up to his potential as the second pick in the 2022 draft.
Continuing to develop as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and better choosing his spots to get downhill instead of purely settling for the pull-up jumper (a similar issue for Anthony Edwards) will further his development as a primary offensive option. Over time, Green showed some passing flashes as he did near the end of his run with G-League Ignite, which leads me to believe he’ll be able to make easy reads and hit guys off quick decisions.
As long as Green can recognize when the right play needs to be made, and can hit the pass, then it’ll be easier to run more offense through him over the course of his career.
While there’s plenty to improve upon defensively, he’ll be able to guard multiple positions as he fills out physically and should also improve from a team defense perspective as he builds chemistry with the other young teammates around him.
I’m still bullish on the type of player Green can become, even in relation to his peers. If he had been as good for the entire year as he was in those 22 games, he might very well have won the Rookie of the Year award himself.
An exciting future lies ahead for the Houston Rockets between Green, Sengun, Kevin Porter Jr., Josh Christopher, and Usman Garuba, among others.
3. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons
64 GP, 32.6 MPG, 17.4 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.6 APG, 13.1 PER, 50.4 TS%
Even though he got off to one of the roughest career starts I’ve seen shooting the basketball, Cade Cunningham left one hell of an impression on me as a rookie with what he accomplished for the Detroit Pistons.
Becoming the face of a franchise is enough pressure, let alone having to run everything for his team on the floor. Killian Hayes has proven he’s not the long-term answer as an offensive engine in Detroit, so asking Cunningham to have the same levels of usage that he did at Oklahoma State was a tall order for the rookie. However, I feel as though he passed the test despite some of the shortcomings.
Sure the shooting percentages and a number of Synergy percentiles wouldn’t point to as much success as I would take away from the film. But I saw a leader on the floor, an excellent communicator, and a brave individual who could take and make the shots his team needed down the stretch late in games.
Cunningham ended up being one of the best isolation threats in college basketball due to his ability to knock down deep pull-up jumpers, and on his best days, he brought that same approach to the NBA court. His bravado and confidence on the offensive end soared once those same shots started falling for him later in the season.
While his decision-making out of pick-and-roll and isolation sets needs to improve from a passing perspective to cut down on turnovers, there were plenty of shots that should’ve been hit by his teammates off some crafty drive-and-kicks from Cunningham. As his handle tightens and he gets stronger to limit how often he’s pushed off his spots on drives, I fully expect more of the playmaking to shine, especially as he gets better teammates around him.
Scoring on drives, developing better touch around the basket, and taking better care of the ball are all things Cunningham needs to work on offensively while continuing to make improvements off the ball defensively. I fully expect his body to fill out over time, covering a number of these problems. But further developing trust in his teammates and those around him should also do wonders to cut down on forced mistakes.
While his turnover rate will never be incredibly low because of how often he’s expected to have the ball in his hands moving forward, he’ll still improve and hopefully widen the gap a bit between assists and giveaways as he progresses.
And should the scoring balance shift in a positive manner in terms of at-rim attempts to three-point looks, on top of improvements made getting to the free-throw line, Cunningham’s overall offensive output should continue to pop and lead to more wins for Detroit.
I’m still incredibly intrigued by his defensive potential as a roving playmaker and on-ball perimeter defender, not to mention everything he brings to the table offensively. He still has the greatest potential of any player in this class to me, yet he didn’t pass the two rookies in front of him this time around.
Great things lie ahead for Cunningham regardless of who won the award for top rookie in 2022.
2. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers
69 GP, 33.8 MPG, 15.0 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 2.5 APG, 16.1 PER, 54.9 TS%
It was going to take a lot for me coming into the year to rank any rookie ahead of Cunningham.
But both of these last two individuals succeeded, starting with Evan Mobley.
Coming back to what I said in regards to Giddey, Mobley sits even more so at the intersection of size, skill, and IQ.
At 7’0” tall, Mobley’s coordination, ball handling, court vision, and shooting ability form one of the most distinct offensive packages the NBA has today. Most comfortable operating at the top of the court (although his numbers in the post are pretty decent as well), Mobley can see over the defense and make the right play when his team needs it.
He can play on the ball, drive to the basket and dish or score, as much as he can play off his teammates and operate a two-man game with Darius Garland or play high-low with Jarrett Allen.
Having the touch on both passes and jump shots that Mobley does at his size is unheard of, at least up to this point in NBA history, and that’s what makes him such an important building block for the Cleveland Cavaliers offensively moving forward.
But arguably even more important than the utility Mobley provides on the offensive end, he’s even more special defensively.
More so than ever, the NBA prioritizes big men who can not only play drop coverage in pick-and-roll or switch but can do both while also defending in space. What Giannis Antetokounmpo can do defensively is help protect the rim while also going out to his man and defending one-on-one.
Mobley is capable of doing much of the same, albeit not in the same physical manner. He doesn’t have the same strength and bulk to his body as Giannis and may never find himself in that position. But he’s a fluid 7-footer who can cover a ton of ground with his lateral mobility, length, and positional understanding on the defensive side of the ball.
He makes the right reads, understands spacing and timing, and can contest and challenge at the basket. Mobley isn’t lost when he’s on the perimeter and coordinates and communicates well with those around him. The value he provides on that, similar to Jones, is unheard of for a rookie. He’s one of the rarest types of players in that I fully believe he will eventually guard 1-5 in the NBA.
It will take more maturity from him physically to fully live up to that potential, but that’s the expectation I have for Mobley. And even if he doesn’t take over games offensively like Green and Cunningham, he’s an efficient player at multiple levels who is a mismatch in his own right because of his passing ability. As he continues to improve his three-point shooting, he’ll only become that much more complicated for teams to game plan against going forward.
Mobley lived up to the hype as one of the best players in this draft class, but he fell JUST short of maintaining the top spot in my rankings.
1. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors
74 GP, 35.4 MPG, 15.3 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 3.5 APG, 16.3 PER, 55.2 TS%
Two months ago, Scottie Barnes wouldn’t have been my pick for the award. A close second, but not the top dog.
Fast forward to today, and after evaluating a full season’s worth of work and examining his output through a critical lens, I can safely say the voters got it right.
Barnes played the highest minutes per game total of any of his peers in these rankings for a reason. The Toronto Raptors relied on him to be a much more experienced player than what he actually is, yet he lived up to his billing as one of the most tantalizing prospects in his draft class.
Both Barnes and Mobley share a lot of similarities when it’s boiled down. Both are forwards who are better off playing next to a more traditional rim protector yet can play the five in smaller lineups and stand their ground. Offensively, they’re at their best with the ball in their hands, working off quick actions to make dump-off passes or score on mismatches.
The main difference between the two, though, is that Barnes is a legitimate point forward in just his first year.
I gushed over Mobley’s playmaking potential in the last section, but Barnes brings the ball up the floor for Toronto during numerous points in the game. A more skilled ball-handler and better playmaker overall, the threat of Barnes off the bounce getting downhill is an even scarier proposition than Mobley.
Because Barnes is a much more physical driver, he can create and finish through contact more effectively as a face-up nightmare. Depending on how he operates in the pick-and-roll, be it as a ball-handler or short-roll option, he can really put defenses in a bind because of his skill set matched with his physical profile.
Whether in transition or in halfcourt situations, Barnes’ body composition, force, and long strides remind one of Giannis. He’s a special talent making plays on offense and made significant improvements as a shooter in just one season.
While the percentages wouldn’t suggest that I use the word significant, the fact that he was confident in taking as many threes as well as mid-range shots this year is a step up from the limited number he ended up taking in college.
And he looks damn good on pull-up shots off one or two dribbles already. That shot is going to be in his bag for a long time at this level, and it gives him a major edge because defenders will have to come out to him and respect the shot, giving him better angles and driving lanes to get moving and do what he does best.
Defensively, Barnes offers the same versatility that Mobley does, although I wouldn’t call him as good of a rim protector. More of a deterrent than an at-the-rim shot-blocker, Barnes can still rotate and help from the weak side, cover as many positions one-on-one, and can cover ground in space.
He’s not a pushover in the post and can contain drivers better than Mobley because dudes flat-out bounce off him. As he continues to get better at recognizing WHEN to rotate and contest, particularly on baseline drives, he’ll become that much more dangerous of a defensive player.
Despite all of the skills and raw ability that I outlined, what impresses me more than his freakish athleticism is the joy with which he plays the game.
I made a point to see Barnes live in Philadelphia because I wanted to see his effect on his teammates both during the game and before. The way he warms up, dancing around the court and talking and laughing with everyone, even his opponents, is such a beautiful thing to witness.
Barnes truly loves what he does, and everyone around him is better off for it. While he’s certainly a fierce competitor, it speaks volumes that he’s already the type of leader who can uplift everyone around him by just being himself.
I can’t say enough positive things about this historically great rookie class. And even though I said prior that Cunningham would be the player I would most want moving forward, Barnes was the crown jewel, at least this season. He’s a special, special player, and the Raptors are lucky to have him as a centerpiece moving forward.