We’re a month into the 2021/22 NBA season and that means it’s time to unveil our first Rookie Rankings of the campaign.

Let me tell you, dear reader, this year’s class of freshmen is a hell of a lot more fun to write about than last year’s batch. Looking back at the first Rookie Rankings of last season, the third placed player was Payton freaking Pritchard. That should tell you all you need to know about the depth in last season’s rookie class.

This year, however, we’re enjoying a mixture of exciting athleticism, raw, unbridled talent and surprisingly mature NBA games from our first year men.

Without further ado, our opening Rookie Rankings of the 2021/22 season.

1. Evan Mobley – Cleveland Cavaliers

The string bean Cavs forward, taken with the 3rd pick in the draft, is perhaps the one rookie in this year’s crop that had the widest variance in what he could be.

A seven footer that weighs in at under 200 lbs, with guard like skills and absurd length, he could revolutionise the sport, or he could end up an enigma without a defined role, flaming out of the league in five years. So far, he’s leaning heavily towards the former.

Currently out for up to a month with an elbow injury, Mobley was averaging 14.6 points, an even eight boards, 1.6 blocks and a steal per contest. Those numbers only tell part of the story, though.

Mobley has shown an East-West agility that has surprised many, enabling him to stay with wings and even some guards when matched up on the perimeter. Coach JB Bickerstaff is using Mobley and his 7’5” wingspan at the top of a 3-2 zone where he just covers so much space.

Offensively, his jump shot hasn’t quite come around, though it’s looking decent enough. Where he’s shown some serious potential is as a playmaker. The set the Cavs commonly run where Mobley plays the pick and roll with Darius Garland, accepts the pass on the short roll and then finds Jarrett Allen on a baseline cut is a thing of beauty.

2. Scottie Barnes – Toronto Raptors

The surprise #4 overall pick has displayed a remarkably mature game in the early stages of his career.

Defensively, where he was expected to make his bones as a rookie, he has come as good as advertised, if not better. He’s giving the Raptors 8.3 boards as well as a steal and just under a block per game, but it’s his versatility that is eye catching.

Against Portland last week, he spent extended stretches guarding Damian Lillard, the slippery CJ McCollum and big man Jusuf Nurkic. He’s well on his way to being able to do it all at that end of the floor.

Offensively he has surprised. His 16.3 points leads all rookies. Whilst his outside jump shot is a long, long way from becoming a reliable weapon, Barnes’ maturity and patience belies his young age. He has already show the ability to wait out a defensive rotation to get the matchup he wants, or to push the pace to gain advantageous positions on the floor. He’s athletic enough to reel in just about any lob pass, a trait augmented by his canny movement off the ball.

Against the Celtics last week Barnes exploited Boston’s poor interior defense on his way to an almost embarrassingly easy 21 points.

Imagine how good this kid could be when he starts to assert himself.

3. Franz Wagner – Orlando Magic

Wagner has tailed off a touch of late, but through the first month of the season he’s been most impressive, proving able to do just a little bit of everything at both ends of the court.

Offensively he’s putting up 13.6 points, hitting 37.5% of his three pointers, whilst mixing in some nice passing and an ability to break down his defender off the dribble.

Defensively he’s proven a malleable opponent. Against the Hawks a few nights ago he guarded Trae Young for long stretches, whilst also taking on athletic big man John Collins and the tricky Bogdan Bogdanovic. Prior to that he spent extended periods against Brooklyn guarding a pair of former MVP’s in Kevin Durant and James Harden. Predictably, he struggled on Durant who might only be able to be slowed by the Tonya Harding School of defense, but he gave Harden fits on his way to six steals on the night.

As much as Wagner is emerging as a do-it-all type, he has had some notable stat lines: the six steals against the Nets, nine boards against the Knicks, 28 points against the Wolves, including this:

4. Cade Cunningham – Detroit Pistons

The top pick in the 2021 draft has had a troubled start to NBA life. He missed most of the preseason and then five of the opening six games with injured ankle. He then struggled to acclimatise in the early going, shooting less than 30% from the floor through his first five games.

Since then, though, we’ve started to see Cunningham approaching his best.

Cade’s all-around game has started to come to the fore in the past week, with the rookie putting up 15 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.5 steals in his last four matchups. He’s also started to find his range, shooting 46% from the floor over that span.

His 25 point (with five three pointers), eight board, eight assists, 2 steals effort against the Kings was a gem of a performance. He became the youngest player to post a 25/8/8 line, beating one LeBron Ramone James by 49 days.

Expect Cunningham to edge his way up these rankings as the season progresses.

5. Josh Giddey – Oklahoma City Thunder

The 2nd youngest player in the entire NBA, Giddey has already shown a rare feel for the game at this level.

His ability to make damn near every pass from both sides of his body is a skill that many 10 year NBA veteran point guards have yet to master.

Just look at that pass! He’s dissected three Rockets whilst on the move, with his off hand, putting the ball on a postage stamp.

As well as his outstanding vision and execution as a playmaker, Giddey has also flashed a well-developed floater game to the Oklahoma City. The Australian is able to finish with both hands on a variety of angles under pressure. But that shouldn’t distract us from the elephant in the room: his jump shot.

Giddey is currently sporting 38/24/62 shooting splits. He certainly wasn’t advertised as a shooter, but those are concerning numbers. Sure, he’s at least willing to let it fly, unlike another supersized, multi skilled Australian point guard we could mention. In fact, Giddey has launched more deep attempts (45) in 14 games that Ben Simmons has (34) in 275 career regular season appearances.

But whilst he’s not going to actively harm his team by refusing to shoot, he will have to improve on those numbers if he’s going to fulfil his potential.

6. Nah’Shon Hyland – Denver Nuggets

At pick 26, the man they call ‘Bones’ is proving an absolute steal.

With Jamal Murray sidelined for the foreseeable future, Michael Porter Jr struggling then injured and many of the Nuggets supposedly formidable depth players not performing to their best, Hyland has stepped up.

Before a bit of a stinker in the loss to Dallas, the 21 year old had averaged 15 points, four boards and 3.7 assists over the previous three contests, including an 18 point outing (with four treys) against the Blazers.

Hyland is incredibly quick and once in the lane is a solid decision maker. His passing chops mesh wonderfully with resident superstar Nikola Jokic and the versatile Aaron Gordon.

Once the Nuggets eventually get all their players back on the court, Hyland probably settles in as an overqualified 4th guard at this stage of his career. However, Denver’s injury issues have seen him quickly thrust into a key supporting role and so far has not looked at all out of place.

7. Jalen Green – Houston Rockets

Let’s be clear on this: the 1-14 Rockets are not winning basketball games, nor are they actively trying to win basketball games. It’s all about the ping pong balls for the next few years in Houston.

In that sort of environment, a highly touted rookie is going to get all the minutes – and with it all the mistakes – they can handle. That ecosystem makes a player like Green tougher to judge at this stage of his rookie campaign.

Take, for example, fellow highly touted pick and play-alike Jonathan Kuminga. The 7th overall pick is getting sparse playing time on a Warriors team that is gunning for the title, whereas Green is being force-fed touches. Take a look at the raw numbers:

PlayerMinsPPGRPGAPGSPGBPGTO3PAFG%FT%3P%
Green32.214.43.32.60.70.33.06.936.581.327.9
Kuminga8.53.82.00.40.40.90.90.952%42.9%14.3%

Clearly Green is having the greater impact on the court, but that is purely down to opportunity. Who’s to say that if the roles were reversed we wouldn’t see Kuminga doing exactly the same?

What we can say definitively about Green is that despite his horrible inefficiency he has shown more than enough flashes to justify his selection and #2 overall. He’s a nuclear athlete who finishes at the rim with fury. He’s also shown some unexpected playmaking chops, dishing out five assists a few times already this campaign. He looks the most likely player from this year’s rookie class to eventually claim a scoring title.

Defensively he’s a sieve, as most rookies are, but he does move his feet well on the perimeter. Once he adds some strength and starts to make NBA level reads, there is no reason to believe that he can’t become an at least average defender at this level.

8. Alperen Sengun – Houston Rockets

Sengun doesn’t carry the same general hype as his teammate Green, but the 19 year old Turk is just as exciting a prospect to the NBA Nerdom, including this writer.

The undersized centre shows flashes of prime Marc Gasol in as far as his ability to do everything at a high level relative to his experience. His per 36 minute numbers are very promising.

Most encouraging for beleaguered Rockets fans is that unlike Green, Sengun is impacting the Rockets in a far more positive way right now. With the Turk on the floor, Houston are scoring an even 10 points more per 100 possessions. On a team where there is no natural table setter, Sengun’s ability to fill the gaps as either a finisher or as a playmaker has proven most valuable.

9. Davion Mitchell – Sacramento Kings

‘Off Night’ Mitchell has well and truly lived up to his nickname. Mitchell’s offensive game has some way to go (40/29/69 shooting splits) but the rookie is earning minutes in a crowded Kings backcourt through his exceptional defense.

His lockdown D has given the likes of Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell and LaMelo Ball conniptions. Mitchell’s defensive prowess doesn’t show up through individual statistics – he averages less than a steal per game in his 26 minutes, thus far – but just sit down and watch this man play good old fashioned chest-to-chest defense:

These clips are from his first two career games! He is impossibly hard to shake off the dribble, he never dies on a screen and he always contests your jump shot.

An older rookie at 23 years of age, Mitchell is having a huge impact on a traditionally spongy Kings defense: the team is giving up 8.9 points less per 100 possessions with him on the floor.

10. Chris Duarte – Indiana Pacers

Our first Rookie Rankings of the season close with another experienced rook in Chris Duarte.

The 24 year old Dominican announced himself to the NBA in the loudest possible way, with six three’s in a 27 point game against the Hornets. He tallied double figure points in each of his first nine games and through he was beginning to cool down prior to a recent ankle sprain, he’s still giving the Pacers 14.3 points (on 40.3% shooting beyond the arc) and 4.4 boards per contest. Duarte is also a nifty passer who can make plays attacking the closeouts that the mere threat of his jump shot create.

Defensively, Duarte will never be confused for the man immediately above him on this list, but he’s a heady defender who reads the game well and leverages his 6’6” frame to fill any gaps he sees.

Coach Rick Carlisle – a notoriously hard man to please – absolutely loves Duarte’s game. It will be interesting to see if he continues to start when (if?) TJ Warren comes back into the line-up.

This article also appears at leading independent media site FOOTYOLOGY.