As the NBA season hit’s it’s halfway point, it’s time to turn the microscope to this years NBA rookie class with our third NBA Rookie Rankings of the season, as the top five start to distance themselves from the field.
Despite a combination of injuries and COVID protocols wreaking havoc upon NBA rosters, the rookie class has remained relatively untouched over the past month. That has given the leagues freshmen increased responsibilities – some have handled that better than others.
Let’s take a look at who has impressed over the last month of NBA action.
(For clarification, these rankings only take into account play since our last rankings in mid December)
1. Evan Mobley – Cleveland Cavaliers (LR: 3)
A return from injury means a return to the peak of Vendetta’s rookie rankings for Cleveland’s rookie phenom.
The surprising Cavaliers rookie’s worst game since returning to the court just after Christmas when the Warriors held him to an 11 and six effort. The fact that that is his offensive floor demonstrates just how capable Mobley is on the offensive end of the floor, where he averages 14.9 points on 50.7% shooting.
Mobley’s footwork and body control is exemplary for any player, let alone a seven foot tall rookie . His recent up and under against the Wizards reminded Kyle Kuzma of the great George Gervin (watch Kuzma give his man some props in the clip below). The move gave off some faint Julius Erving vibes to this writer. Either way, it’s heady company.
That footwork really comes to the fore on the defensive end of the floor, where Mobley’s agility and length allow a positional versatility that – alongside Jarrett Allen’s elite rebounding and rim protection – underpins Cleveland’s quality defense.
2. Franz Wagner – Orlando Magic (Last Ranking: 4)
The younger Wagner brother has, due to a combination of injures and COVID absences, become the Alpha and Omega to the struggling Magic over the past month. The Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for December leads all rookies in (takes a deep breath): points per game (15.6), points (657), field goals (247) and free throws (110).
Wagner also posted the highest scoring game of any rookie so far this season when he poured in 38 against the usually stingy Bucks just after Christmas.
The fact that he’s doing it on 45/36/85 splits despite missing Cole Anthony and Jalen Suggs, forcing Wagner into defacto point guard duties, is all the more remarkable.
In most years, Wagner would be the front runner for the Rookie of the Year crown. The fact that he’s merely in the conversation is a testament to the quality at the top of this draft class.
3. Cade Cunningham – Detroit Pistons (LR: 1)
Cunningham’s raw stats (15.4 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.3 steals) are impressive enough for a rookie point guard. Most impressive is the impact he’s had upon his team. With Cade on the floor, the chronically under-talented Pistons are 8-23 with an average margin of -9.3. Not an especially encouraging record. However, with the #1 pick in street clothes, Detroit is 1-8 (the solitary win by a solitary point)with an average margin of -17. Essentially, Detroit are eight points a game better when the rookie plays.
How does Cunningham impact the play? Predominantly through his play making. Detroit run the 4th most high pick and roll’s in the entire NBA (as per Second Spectrum). That’s partly to allow Cunningham to attack bigs with speed or small guards with his size, but it also buys the rookie guard time. Cunningham’s patience is already at near veteran levels and he uses that composure to pick apart a defense that, thanks to the relative lack of talent around him, is almost entirely focused on him.
Cade’s not a natural scorer by any means. He’s shooting 38.6% from the floor and 32.2% from deep. A large part of those underwhelming numbers comes from Cunningham forcing himself to take on more scoring responsibility, which isn’t really his natural mindset. He’s developing a tight chemistry with 2nd year wing Saddiq Bey and as Detroit place more capable scorers around him, we’ll see the best of what Cunningham can offer.
4. Josh Giddey – Oklahoma City Thunder (LR: 5)
With just the lazy 36 draft picks to their name over the next five years, Thunder general manager Sam Presti already has his back court of the future sorted.
Giddey continues to set himself apart as the best passer in the rookie class who at 6’8” can see over the defense, sling passes across court with either hand and use a crafty dribble to create angles that most of his contemporaries can’t even fathom.
Giddey is a box score stuffer. In just the past month he’s a pair of rebound/assist double double’s, including the ultra rare scoreless version, before finally breaking through for his inaugural triple double against Dallas earlier this month, becoming the youngest player in NBA history to achieve such a feat.
The Australian still struggles to finish at the rim, missing numerous easy shots every outing. But that’s a good problem. It shows that he can get to the basket. Once he stars to develop his finishing, he’ll become a walking triple double threat.
5. Scottie Barnes – Toronto Raptors (LR: 4)
On the surface, it seems almost criminal to slot Barnes in at number five in these rankings, but his drop isn’t due to anything specific that Barnes is or isn’t doing. Rather, it’s due to the return of Pascal Siakam cutting into his responsibilities and the performances of the rookies above him.
One of the few top end rookies to be sidelined by COVID protocols, Barnes’ role has dramatically changed since that short break.
Alongside the continued strong play of OG Anunoby and Fred Vanvleet (he should be an All Star this year – a teaser for next week’s article), the return to the court (and return to his best form) of Pascal Siakam has pushed Barnes into a secondary or even tertiary creation role. As such, he can focus his impact to his stifling defense, clever passing and energetic rebounding.
Since returning, Barnes hasn’t scored more than 13 points in any one game, but has approached double figure rebounding twice whilst recording games with six and eight assists.
6. Herbert Jones – New Orleans Pelicans (LR: 9)
Jones has vastly outperformed his #35 draft slot and might be the best defender in this draft class. At worst, he’s 2nd behind Mobley.
Jones has already become the go-to man for coach Willie Green in containing little guards in Donovan Mitchell and Damian Lillard, bigger ball handlers like LeBron James and Luka Doncic, whilst also taking extended shifts on big men in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Love. Against each and all, he does a fine job. He’s already legitimate NBA level stopper, giving the Pellies 1.4 steals and a block per game.
It’s on offense where his development has been most encouraging. Since Christmas, Jones has scored in double figures in all bar one contest, including 26 point effort against the Cavaliers.
Jones is a savvy cutter who uses his length and athleticism to finish in tight spaces. He’s developing as a shooter, as well – the lefty canning his three’s at 37.3% on the season including a 41% clip over his past eight games.
7. Jalen Green – Houston Rockets (Re-entry)
Since returning from injury in late December, Green has looked a different player to the exciting but inefficient chucker that graced the Houston back court in the early stages of the season.
Houston are still struggling – that inexplicable seven game winning streak aside – but they’ve found something since Christian Wood moved to centre and veteran Eric Gordon was inserted into the starting lineup. The extra shooting on the floor has allowed Green wider driving lanes and the threat of those drives has in turn opened up space for his outside shot. Green was shooting 27.8% from beyond the arc through to his injury in late November. Since returning, he’s increased that number substantially to 36.9%.
Green remains electric in the open floor and an explosive finisher at the rim.
8. Cam Thomas – Brooklyn Nets (New entry)
Thomas is a bucket getter.
In the early stages of this season Thomas has, in limited minutes, shown no hesitation in getting shots up, shooting more times per 36 minutes than Patty Mills, Joe Harris or Blake Griffin and under a shot less than James Harden.
With the Nets in recent weeks desperately searching for ambulant human beings who can play basketball, Thomas has gotten his shot (if you’ll excuse the pun) and made the most of it. He produced a week where he averaged 15.3 points, 4.7 boards, two steals and, uh….one assist. Well, we can’t expect too much, can we?
Whilst his passing could do with some work, Thomas’ defense has been better than advertised. The steals aside, he leverages quick feet and a relatively stout frame to keep his chest in front of his mark.
The Net’s expect to welcome Joe Harris back from injury in the next few weeks and are of course dealing with Kyrie Irving’s game on/game off availability. Thomas’ court time will likely be inconsistent from here on out, but rest assured he’ll be ready.
9. Omer Yurtseven – Miami Heat (New Entry)
Who? Exactly. This month’s bolter is a third string centre that has grabbed his opportunity with as much authority as he commandeers a defensive rebound.
The seven foot Turk didn’t crack 10 minutes of court time in any game until All Star big man Bam Adebayo went down in early December, but it was an injury to veteran centre DeWayne Dedmon a few weeks later that thrust Yurtseven to the fore.
In eight games as a starter, Yurtseven is averaging 12.1 points, 14.7 rebounds (!!), 3.1 assists and 1.2 steals in 32 minutes a game. Astonishing numbers for the back up to the back up centre.
The 23 year old Yurtseven isn’t much of a shot blocker, despite is size, but he has excellent hands and an underrated feel for the game, evidenced by his incisive play making from the elbow.
10. Ayo Dosunmu – Chicago Bulls (New entry)
Chicago born-and-bred, Dosunmu quickly carved out a role in coach Billy Donovan’s rotation as a high motor guy, slipping easily into the disruptive defensive roles that are filled by Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. It was an injury to the latter that has seen the 21 year old guard take on more responsibility.
He’s maintained his bolt-of-energy mindset, despite his increased minutes, allowing the Bulls to maintain their dynamic perimeter defense despite Caruso’s absence.
Encouragingly, Dosunmu has held his own of offense, putting up 8.1 points and 5.5 assists as a starter. On the season, he’s shooting a sparkling 42.4% from three, albeit in limited volume and he’s usually so alone he could learn a language before letting fly.
The next challenge for Dosunmu will be to take and make those three’s under greater defensive pressure.
Dropping out: Alperen Sengun, Chris Duarte, Bones Hyland, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl
This article also appears at leading independent media site FOOTYOLOGY.