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2022 NBA Rookie Ladder 1.0 | The Morning Dunk
As we approach the All-Star break, now is as good a time as ever to take a look at rookie performances from the 2021-22 NBA season.
Welcome back to a special edition of The Morning Dunk!
I’ve extensively covered the 2022 draft class in this column each week, with my current count of players written about sitting at 62. If you’ve missed ANY of my previous columns, feel free to scroll back through AFTER you subscribe to No Ceilings!
With that being said, I thought it would be nice to take a break in the action to cover what could end up being the deepest rookie class in NBA history.
I don’t use that phrase lightly. I understand there are classes that could still stand as being loaded with the most “star power”—however, there are plenty of talents this year who could have long careers in the league as starters, not just in rotational roles.
There are plenty of guys I could write words about here, but I only have so many words to work with here.
What I’m going to do today is outline ten players who are worthy of being ranked on my “ladder” as of now, with six honorable mentions. The goal for this exercise is to offer a picture into MY view of where I stand on All-Rookie First and Second Teams.
If your favorite rookie isn’t listed below, again, I apologize. To further illustrate how deep this class is, I had previously graded 37 (!!) players in Tier 4 or higher during the draft evaluation process. Tier 4 by my system classifies a player as either a fifth starter, sixth man, or specialist. The tiers above (1-3) would classify as starter-caliber players or greater.
In a normal draft class, roughly 15 or fewer players actually have careers as starters, and even fewer make it to “star” level. Admittedly, that number of 37 will likely trim down as the game of life plays itself out. However, I would be surprised if that number didn’t even out at least at 25. That’s how many solid contributors were in the pool last year, in my humble opinion.
Without further ado, let’s dive in with some of those honorable mentions and work back to front-ending at who I would currently dub as the best rookie this season.
*All stats are as of 1/30 and do not reflect the games played that day*
HM: Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland, Denver Nuggets
36 GP, 0 GS, 17.5 MPG
8.3 PPG, 2.5 REB, 1.7 AST, 36.4/33.7/87.8 Shooting Splits, 1.1 TOV, 10.2 PER, 50.2 TS%
When the Denver Nuggets drafted “Bones” Hyland, it was expected that he would play a valuable role for the team off the bench. Without Jamal Murray for a significant amount of time, Nikola Jokic needed someone else to step up and establish two-man game chemistry with.
Arguably no one better to step up in Murray’s absence than Hyland, whose game is similar in terms of style. An electric spot-up shooter, capable pick-and-roll playmaker, and adept cutter, Hyland is the type of hybrid guard that can thrive next to one of the best offensive centers of all time in Jokic.
While he’s been a streaky shooter at times, expected for any rookie, he’s been lethal when on. Multiple times this year, Hyland has gotten hot from three and has made a difference for the Nuggets. As slippery a guard as you’ll find in the league, Hyland knows how to navigate off-ball screens and get to his spots for easy catch-and-shoot looks.
Finishing around the basket at a more efficient rate (19th percentile at doing so in half-court situations per Synergy Sports) is the next step for him offensively. Still, Denver has a good contributor off the bench who can spot start in the fold, hopefully, for quite a while.
HM: Quentin Grimes, New York Knicks
32 GP, 2 GS, 15.7 MPG
5.7 PPG, 1.6 REB, 1.0 AST, 41.2/40.3/66.7 Shooting Splits, 0.6 TOV, 11.4 PER, 58.0 TS%
Quentin Grimes fits the bill of “3-and-D” guard in the league. While he doesn’t do much outside of his typical shot diet, his game has translated well in terms of efficiency in the league.
Currently, Grimes rates out in the 89th percentile on spot-up shooting, 90th off screens, and 90th on jump shots overall. The New York Knicks have needed more guys who can be trusted to convert from the corners off drive-and-kicks from Julius Randle or one of their guards. Grimes is as trustworthy of a shooter as there is in this class.
While I believe Grimes still has more ability to be unlocked, especially out of PnR, he’ll still have a home in the NBA for a long time thanks to his timely shot-making and awareness defensively. He’s struggled at times on that end, as all rookies do, but he was one of the best two-way guards in the country last year and should eventually be more of the same over the years. New York should be pleased they drafted the pure shooter they did in Grimes.
HM: Ziaire Williams, Memphis Grizzlies
32 GP, 11 GS, 20.7 MPG
6.8 PPG, 1.6 REB, 0.8 AST, 41.0/25.8/85.0 Shooting Splits, 0.6 TOV, 7.3 PER, 50.5 TS%
Ziaire Williams has gotten starting opportunities far sooner than initially anticipated for the Memphis Grizzlies. While Williams was a top recruit coming out of high school, he didn’t have the freshman campaign at Stanford everyone hoped he would have.
That being said, Williams was valued highly by the Grizzlies front office thanks to his combination of shooting and overall IQ at 6’8”.
Williams still needs to continue his physical development, but he’s a quicker and bouncier athlete than he’s given credit for, and that shooting stroke of his is sweet. He also rates out in the 88th percentile in transition scoring and 62nd on cuts.
What Williams did show on a more consistent basis last year was his on-ball defense, and the Grizzlies have trusted him to show more of the same on the wing. He has plenty of great defenders around him, but adding another long playmaker in the passing lanes makes it that much harder for opposing teams to score effectively on the perimeter.
The jury is still out on when we can expect to see Williams step it up in terms of shooting percentage and/or develop a better arsenal off the dribble. However, as a spot-up shooter with size, he fills an important need for any NBA team—let alone Memphis. His development will be fascinating to watch for years on end.
HM: Davion Mitchell, Sacramento Kings
45 GP, 3 GS, 25 MPG
9.4 PPG, 2.3 REB, 3.3 AST, 39.3/31.1/57.9 Shooting Splits, 1.0 TOV, 10.0 PER, 46.2 TS%
Coming out of the draft, Davion Mitchell was viewed as one of the better bets to make an All-Defense team one day in the league. Watching him up close against the Philadelphia 76ers this past weekend, I would say that’s still a solid choice.
He has the court vision to make others around him better, but the scoring inconsistencies have hurt that part of his game to an extent. He struggles at times to get downhill and penetrate against the bigger defenders in the NBA, and when he’s on an island, his streaky jumper isn’t always the shot his team is looking for on offense.
But there’s no denying his impact defensively (82nd percentile in terms of total defense) and how he can change the tone of a game with his timely takeaways and overall intensity. He’s brought the nickname “Off Night” over to the NBA, and he’s proven to be a disruptive menace on a night-to-night basis.
The silver lining for Mitchell offensively is that he does rate out in the 72nd percentile scoring out of PnR. When he gets a screen up top, he’s quick to turn the corner and can make things happen just as he did in college. And he can finish at the basket when he gets there.
Continuing to work on that jumper is crucial to his further development, but the Kings got someone who should be a rotational guard and potential starter for a long time.
HM: Jonathan Kuminga, Golden State Warriors
38 GP, 4 GS, 12.1 MPG
6.6 PPG, 2.5 REB, 0.5 AST, 47.6/32.8/64.6 Shooting Splits, 0.8 TOV, 13.5 PER, 56.1 TS%
I admittedly underestimated how quickly Jonathan Kuminga could impact an NBA game.
He hasn’t set the world on fire as much as some of his counterparts have, but when he’s seen playing time, he’s been a positive for the Golden State Warriors in multiple regards.
First off, he’s a really tantalizing option to finish plays in transition. Kuminga is one of the better athletes in his class, and his speed with or without the ball in his hands is lethal when paired with his size, strength, and length. Not to mention he has a filthy spin move he can go to in order to get to the basket.
Kuminga has also been an effective scorer out of isolation, PnR, and out of post-ups (78th, 96th, and 87th percentiles respectively). He also rates above the 72nd percentile in all of PnRs, post-ups, and isolations including passes.
I never expected Kuminga to be as effective in half-court scenarios as he has already. There have also been plenty of signs defensively both on the perimeter and as a small-ball 5 protecting the rim and sealing off drives.
He hasn’t gotten quite the same opportunity as his peers because he’s a member of one of the best teams in the NBA. But Kuminga has a great chance at being one of the best players in this class and far more than an honorable mention as he’s been up to this point.
HM: Jalen Suggs, Orlando Magic
29 GP, 26 GS, 28 MPG
12.7 PPG, 3.8 REB, 4.0 AST, 37.1/25.4/76.2 Shooting Splits, 1.2 STL, 3.3 TOV, 9.1 PER, 46.9 TS%
Jalen Suggs’ ranking here was one of the toughest choices on the board, but I went with another guy ahead of him.
Suggs has dealt with injuries this year and got off to a horrid start offensively, struggling both shooting the ball as well as making plays out of PnR. A lot of these struggles were expected early on, as his shot wasn’t perfect in college, and his handle still needs work to this day.
But this dude has been spectacular defensively when he’s been healthy. While Mitchell has technically been the more consistent defender up to this point, Suggs has more going for him because of his size and strength as a guard. He can match up easier with bigger opponents, and his will to force turnovers is incredible to watch at times.
He has struggled to defend isolations, but he rates out well everywhere else defensively, according to Synergy. Flip on the tape, and you’ll see him sitting in a stance and as active as he was at Gonzaga.
Thankfully, he’s been better offensively lately, averaging 13.9 PPG over his last eight games. It’s unlikely he develops into a star primary decision-maker, but he is someone you want to go to war with in your backcourt. A very capable secondary ball-handler, shot-maker, and defensive weapon, Suggs should continue to provide competitive fire in Orlando for the foreseeable future.
10. Ayo Dosunmu, Chicago Bulls
44 GP, 10 GS, 23.1 MPG
7.6 PPG, 2.6 REB, 2.0 AST, 52.8/41.6/63.3 Shooting Splits, 1.1 TOV, 11.1 PER, 61.0 TS%
Ultimately I went with ranking Ayo Dosunmu on my “ballot” here as one of the ten best rookies up to this point.
He doesn’t have as many starts as Suggs, but he’s also had offensive performances that Suggs hasn’t quite been able to match from a shot-making perspective.
Dosunmu rates in the 97th percentile scoring out of PnR, and he has looked incredibly smooth coming off a screen and either finding the open man or pulling up for a jumper. What Chicago has done with Dosunmu is exactly what I had hoped for to unlock the best version of him. He’s not forced to operate as the primary decision-maker on every single possession, which has freed him to look for opportunities to score more often than having to make multiple reads out of certain sets.
An aggressive Dosunmu can swing a game offensively, as he rates well on jump shots, runners, and finishing around the basket. The best part about his overall efficiency has been his catch-and-shoot form, as he rates out in the 81st percentile on such looks. I questioned how effective he could be as an off-ball shooter in the league, but so far, he’s proven me very much wrong.
Overall, the Bulls have a very capable guard off the bench who can fill in and hopefully grow into a starting option in time. He’s getting better by the game defensively and can still get better offensively in the half-court. But Dosunmu has been one of the best stories in the league from this draft class, and I’m happy to see him have such success so early on.
9. Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets
41 GP, 2 GS, 18 MPG
8.8 PPG, 4.6 REB, 2.5 AST, 48.8/27.7/70.4 Shooting Splits, 2.0 TOV, 17.4 PER, 56.7 TS%
I just love watching Alperen Sengun play basketball.
He’s one of the most fun players I can remember coming into the NBA in quite a while. The 6’9” center boasts the highest PER amongst anyone else on this list and has great per 36 numbers of 17.6 PPG, 9.1 REB, and 4.9 AST, along with 3.5 combined steals and blocks.
Sengun is capable of so much on the floor I’m just left in awe sometimes. A VERY inventive passer out of the post or off the dribble, a crafty finisher with exceptional footwork, and an improving jump shooter off the catch—what’s not to appreciate about his game offensively?
While not perfect on that end, Sengun has shown flashes of being a legitimate hub for the Houston Rockets offensively. He’s a willing playmaker, gets to the line, and has hit tough shots over the course of the season.
Defensively he’s put up numbers but has struggled mightily with actually staying on the floor. Sengun is only playing 18 MPG, which isn’t only because of the frontcourt options that are in front of him in Christian Wood and Daniel Theis. There have been games where he’s been a foul magnet, and he needs to try to find ways to avoid making contact and biting on pump fakes in certain situations.
As long as he can stay on the floor and not tank his team defensively, there’s so much to like about his offensive upside. I had him as a prime candidate to go anywhere after #5 in the draft, and he’s making Houston look very smart for trading for him in the middle of the first round.
8. Jalen Green, Houston Rockets
34 GP, 34 GS, 30 MPG
14.3 PPG, 3.3 REB, 2.2 AST, 37.3/29.0/82.5 Shooting Splits, 2.4 TOV, 8.7 PER, 49.8 TS%
There’s an argument to be made that Sengun has been the better overall rookie for the Rockets when he’s actually been on the floor. But Jalen Green has been a starter in every game he’s played and has had moments where he’s shown out offensively.
Green had a stretch before the beginning of 2022 where he averaged 20.5 PPG over six games. He’s been in a massive shooting slump over his last four games, but there have been flashes of shot-making brilliance during his rookie year.
Arguably the most explosive athlete in this class, the 6’5” shooting guard was expected to take his lumps because of the style of game he plays. Green is a long-range scorer who can get to the basket and finish but often settles for easy perimeter looks; he’s best categorized as a “volume scorer” for the time being.
Those types of players who don’t possess the same feel as some of the other names ahead of him don’t translate as well early on in their careers. A popular comp for Green in Zach LaVine didn’t have a glamorous run his first few years with the Minnesota Timberwolves either.
There were expectations for Green to average 20 PPG as a rookie and set the league on fire. Given that he plays on one of the worst teams in the league with enough warts of his own, that notion was unrealistic from the jump.
But athletic scorers who can get a shot whenever they want don’t come around every day. I still believe Houston made the right choice to take Green, as he still has one of the highest ceilings in the NBA.
In the short term, however, it’s hard not to have at least a small amount of regret given how well a couple of bigs who were drafted right behind him have played.
7. Chris Duarte, Indiana Pacers
43 GP, 31 GS, 28.8 MPG
13.3 PPG, 4.2 REB, 2.2 AST, 43.6/35.0/74.7 Shooting Splits, 1.1 STL, 1.6 TOV, 12.8 PER, 53.4 TS%
No rookie started the year better than Chris Duarte. Due to injuries in the backcourt for the Indiana Pacers, Duarte was given the opportunity to start from day one, and he ran away with the first month’s honors for the best first-year player.
Since then, he hasn’t been quite as effective but has still maintained one of the better stat lines across the board amongst his peers.
While he was the oldest player to enter the 2021 draft by a significant margin, that doesn’t mean Duarte didn’t deserve to be taken in the lottery. His combination of shot-making and toughness at 6’6” was too much for Indiana to pass on at 13.
What’s stood out to me is how much responsibility he can handle on his shoulders. Duarte was an efficient shooter in multiple categories both on and off the ball in college, but the Pacers had him experimenting as the primary ball-handler in Summer League and haven’t been shy with his offensive role during the season either.
Duarte has been involved in 176 PnR possessions this year and has rated out as “Good” both scoring and passing in such situations. He’s really only struggled with finishing around the basket, as he’s not overly explosive both getting to and converting at the rim.
But Duarte rated out no lower than “Average” anywhere outside of the paint, which is what the Pacers were hoping when they drafted him. Duarte’s made the most of his opportunities, and he has one of the most diverse shot profiles of any rookie. He may never be a star, but Duarte will remain a valuable rotational piece for as long as he’s in the league.
6. Herbert Jones, New Orleans Pelicans
46 GP, 37 GS, 29.8 MPG
9.5 PPG, 3.8 REB, 2.0 AST, 49.4/36.5/81.9 Shooting Splits, 1.5 STL, 1.0 TOV, 13.0 PER, 57.8 TS%
I struggled to keep Herbert Jones essentially off my first team All-Rookie in this column. He could still find himself there at the end of the season. All of these spots are fluid.
But man, Jones is truly special on the defensive end.
I’ve already highlighted Mitchell and Suggs, who will wreak havoc in the backcourt for years to come. But before the draft, I highlighted a number of forwards/big men who I thought could eventually guard 1-5 in the NBA.
Now I don’t use those words lightly. I could probably count the number of players who can ACTUALLY do that in the league today on one hand. So to suggest that there were a few coming in who could live up to that potential is borderline irresponsible on my part.
I did my homework, however, and stood by that claim. Two of those players you’ll read about very shortly. There’s Usman Garuba, who didn’t make this list but could be a standout sophomore next year. Then there’s Herbert Freaking Jones, the defensive playmaking terror who has given the New Orleans Pelicans the best player they’ve had on that end in quite some time.
Yes, I know Steven Adams was there last year. But Jones is different. He’s an older rookie coming in, but I can’t think of another first-year player who has been routinely tasked with guarding the other team’s best player regardless of position.
He plays passing lanes, helps protect the rim, guards in a stance, and downright locks down opposing players at times. Go flip on one of his recent games, and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.
On top of all that, he can bring the ball up the floor or handle it in transition, he can find open teammates, and he has knocked down open perimeter shots at a better-than-expected clip.
When people inevitably re-draft this class, I would bet on Jones going much higher than where he was drafted. I had him pegged as a priority second-round talent bordering on a first-round grade. I didn’t expect the jumper to come around like it has, nor did I expect this level of play defensively so quickly.
I was so, so wrong about Herb. He’s been a great story this year, and he still has room to continue improving.
5. Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder
43 GP, 43 GS, 31 MPG
11.6 PPG, 7.5 REB, 6.1 AST, 40.6/26.3/66.0 Shooting Splits, 1.0 STL, 2.9 TOV, 13.1 PER, 46.4 TS%
It takes one heck of a group of players to keep Jones out of my top five after some of the games I’ve watched of his.
He’s been a triple-double threat every night he’s stepped on the floor and has been a very good on-ball option for the Thunder when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander hasn’t been at the helm.
Don’t get me wrong, Giddey has had plenty of nights where he’s either shot poorly from the field or has piled up the turnovers. There’s also the matter of his defense, which hasn’t exactly been stellar over his rookie campaign.
But Giddey’s court vision is ridiculous. The angles from which he’s hit passes left my mouth gaping as I was catching up on some tape. I understood his passing ability and overall IQ coming in, but the fact it translated immediately as it has, wow.
Whether it’s playing out of PnR, making a quick decision off a baseline cut, hitting ahead, it doesn’t matter. In any situation Giddey is in, he can create something out of nothing.
Now I still have questions about his scoring impact overall. He’s only shooting 40.6% from the field as a 6’9” forward in the league. Giddey’s outside shot has continued to leave something to be desired. But there have been signs that he has touch, particularly on his floater once he gets into the paint.
It’s been popular on “draft Twitter” to reference the notion that plus-sized playmakers generally don’t fail in the NBA. I still have questions as to just how much responsibility he can handle on a nightly basis, but at the very least, he’s an unquestioned starter with plenty more room to grow. Oklahoma City made a great choice in drafting Giddey.
4. Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic
50 GP, 50 GS, 32.3 MPG
15.7 PPG, 4.7 REB, 2.9 AST, 46.1/34.7/85.1 Shooting Splits, 1.6 TOV, 14.8 PER, 55.2 TS%
Speaking of being wrong regarding the immediate impacts of certain prospects, Franz Wagner exceeded my expectations within the first two weeks of the season.
And he hasn’t let his foot off the gas since.
The bet before the year would’ve been on Suggs to be the Magic’s best rookie starter. That has been so much further from the truth than I could’ve ever anticipated.
I pondered before the draft what Wagner’s ultimate upside was. The name Gordon Hayward came to mind because of the combination of size, shooting ability, overall IQ, and defensive versatility. That being said, I knew that was a high bar for Wagner to hit.
At his best, Hayward was one of the five best small forwards in the league. While Wagner isn’t the same level of athlete Hayward was, you watch him play for the Magic now and he looks a lot like Hayward does these days—which is remarkable for a rookie.
Wagner’s shot-making, both off the bounce and off the catch, has helped Orlando have any level of success on the floor. Not only has he been able to convert on easy drives or wide-open looks, but his creation ability overall has been incredibly impressive this early on.
He can really put it on the deck and attack. Wagner is a really smart and crafty playmaker. A threat to score from all three levels, it just seems like the new phrase should be “death, taxes, Wagner scoring in double figures.”
Defensively, Wagner should absolutely be regarded as one of the best in the class despite some of the names I’ve already mentioned. I’m not QUITE sure he’s the best option to guard true bigs in the post, but 1-4 he can more than hold his own.
I rightfully questioned his potential before the draft, but I still would’ve taken him comfortably inside the Top 10. Now though, I have absolutely no idea how good Wagner could be. The sky is the limit for this youngster.
3. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors
39 GP, 39 GS, 36 MPG
14.8 PPG, 7.8 REB, 3.5 AST, 47.2/30.8/72.3 Shooting Splits, 1.0 STL, 1.9 TOV, 15.6 PER, 53.7 TS%
There was a point before Scottie Barnes missed time in which he was viewed as a lock to be the primary challenger to a certain someone at the top for KIA Rookie of the Year.
I’ve leaned toward giving that honor to another deserving talent, but that’s not to undersell how good Barnes has been for the Toronto Raptors.
At 6’9”, Barnes is practically a point center. There have absolutely been moments where he’s played that role for Toronto, and he has thrown some interesting wrinkles into his game on the ball including as a pull-up shooter.
I got the chance to see Barnes up close in Philadelphia and left the game as high on him as I was before the draft, if not higher. The jumper was the one part of his game that no one expected him to have success with early on in his career, yet I witnessed him walk into open shots like he’s been hitting them in games his whole life.
His comfort level taking threes and mid-range looks is a bigger positive to me than the actual makes he’s had. Barnes still isn’t hitting at high percentages away from the basket (he’s even struggled at times finishing around the rim), but his willingness to do whatever his team needs him to do is the real selling point.
And that’s why I loved Barnes before the draft. His leadership on the court is as special as anyone else in the class. I’ve never seen a player so happy to be playing the game of basketball at all times as Scottie. In warmups, he’s always dancing around, laughing, and having fun. When timeouts are called, he’s the first one to run to the bench so he can be as attentive as possible to what Nick Nurse is scheming up next.
Barnes’ joy and exuberance is something to behold, not to mention his feel for the game and exceptional understanding of how to impact the game on both ends. His passing ability and transition play are breathtaking at times, and those long strides of his remind me of Giannis Antetokounmpo (shoutout to Coach David Thorpe for saying that very early on).
I likely had Barnes a spot/tier too low coming into the draft last year. However, that’s not to say I didn’t see who he is now and what he could become as realistic outcomes. Barnes is a special, special talent and fits Toronto’s plans long term of having the most versatile lineup possible of plus-sized forwards in the NBA.
2. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons
39 GP, 39 GS, 32.2 MPG
16.0 PPG, 5.4 REB, 5.2 AST, 40.1/32.8/85.2 Shooting Splits, 1.3 STL, 3.6 TOV, 12.4 PER, 49.9 TS%
For those concerned about Cade Cunningham’s shooting numbers to start the year, have you watched him lately?
In Cunningham’s last eight games, he’s shot 45.7% from the field and 36.1% from three on significant volume overall. He’s taken the reins as the primary option through and through for the Detroit Pistons and started to really look comfortable as both a playmaker and isolation scorer.
His efficiency has been much better since later in December up through now, which is encouraging considering he was coming off an injury to start the year and had to get used to the physicality of the NBA game.
At 6’6”, Cunningham has good height and length as a lead guard but has a slight build despite being listed at 220 lbs. He still struggles with contact on both ends of the floor, but he has been able to avoid such situations more often, thanks to how he’s caught fire shooting from the perimeter.
It’s a little ironic how everyone was hoping his jumper would improve once he got to college and beyond, as that was once the weakest part of his offensive game. Now, his shooting is arguably the best thing he brings to the table on that end.
Over the last few weeks, Cunningham has regularly sized up his man and drilled some cold-blooded jumpers. What’s more encouraging to me is how he’s played off screens and operated in the second box.
Cade has gotten more comfortable with getting his man on his hip and playing off that angle to score in the mid-range. Clearly, he’s worked to get stronger as I didn’t see much of that craft in Summer League or as much at Oklahoma State. He’s always had the ability to post up smaller guards, but that development in terms of handling similar-sized defenders is a major plus in my book.
His PnR creativity overall has been much more effective as his teammates hit more of the shots he creates for them. Cunningham has quite a few highlights where he’s drawn doubles and has hit difficult passes that have led to wide-open shots.
I don’t think he’s a step too slow to excel in the NBA, nor do I think he won’t continue to fill his body out over time. Cunningham has a nice base, broad shoulders, and plenty of room to pack on needed muscle.
As he continues to round out his offensive game and provide versatility on the defensive end, Cunningham’s climb to stardom is easier to picture than it was at the start of the year.
He still has a chance to be one of the best players in the league and one of the few TRUE offensive engines this game has.
However, the battle is an uphill one; the player ranked above him has not only played well himself but also has contributed to winning in ways rookies generally haven’t historically.
1. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers
41 GP, 41 GS, 34.4 MPG
15.0 PPG, 8.1 REB, 2.6 AST, 50.8/30.5/67.6 Shooting Splits, 1.7 BLK, 1.9 TOV, 16.0 PER, 55.3 TS%
As it stands, the Cavaliers are one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference and in the league overall, only one year removed from picking third in the draft.
Yes, there’s more to what Cleveland has done than just Mobley. Darius Garland has taken a leap and is playing at an All-Star caliber level. Jarrett Allen will, in all likelihood, be named to the reserves as an All-Star. Kevin Love has quietly been putting together a Sixth Man of the Year campaign.
But Mobley’s presence defensively has changed things incredibly so far for the Cavaliers.
We live in an era where it’s not quite common to play two seven-footers on the court at the same time, let alone three. But lineups of Allen, Mobley, and Lauri Markkanen have put opposing teams in a real bind. Throw in another wing like Cedi Osman or Isaac Okoro and it’s nearly impossible for offensive units to generate consistent success even with Garland being the weakest link in the lineup.
Mobley’s unique blend of size, length, and quickness has laid waste to players big and small. Go at Mobley on the interior, and he can hold his own and block the shot. Bring him out on the perimeter on a switch, and he can do more than hold his own by staying with and ultimately swallowing up smaller matchups. Yes, he blocks jump shots away from the basket just as well as he does around the rim.
Offensively, Mobley can handle the ball and make plays for others on the elbows or even facing up out of the post. His jump shooting hasn’t been consistent from deep YET, but his mechanics are pure, and there’s little doubt in my mind he’ll be much more consistent from outside.
He’s already effective as a scorer in the mid-range and has rated better in the post than I initially expected, given his slight frame and narrow base. Despite looking like he needs to add about 15-20 pounds to bang down low with the best bigs in the game, Mobley has competed and held tough.
Mobley’s two-way impact can’t be emphasized enough. I questioned before the draft if he could be a number one option in the way I could envision Cunningham or Green being in time.
At this point, I feel silly for even making that question the reason why I didn’t have him as a Tier 1 prospect. It truly doesn’t matter whether he’s a first, second, or third option offensively. Mobley changes the game in so many different ways it’s foolish to question how good of a player he could become in the league.
Mobley has insane upside as a star in the NBA. Given Cleveland’s success this year, so long as they stay the course next season Mobley is likely an All-Star in just his second year. Barring really unusual circumstances, I can’t see any other rookie taking home the hardware this year.