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Rookie Rankings
Rocket rookie Jalen Green has shot up our NBA Rookie Rankings. (Photo: Getty)

2022 NBA Rookie Rankings: March

We’re in the home stretch of the NBA season, so let’s take one more look at this season’s crop of NBA first year players with our Rookie Rankings.

This is the point of the NBA year where the rookies start jockeying for positions atop the various media rookie rankings. It’s been a close run race, too. Which leads into a most important point regarding this rookie class: beware of definitive statements.

Detroit Pistons coach Dwayne Casey recently came out and said that his man Cade Cunningham was the rookie of the year and that it was ‘not even close’.

Nobody has a problem with Casey backing his man in and, in fairness, Cade could well win the Rookie of the Year, but to say it’s not even close? Come on, man. Any of four of five rookies could lay a legitimate claim to this year’s gong. It’s that close a race.

So let’s see who sits atop the Vendetta Sports Rookie Rankings over the past month.

(For clarification, these rankings only take into account play since our last rankings in mid February)

1. Cade Cunningham – Detroit Pistons (LR: 5)

Since our last rankings, Cunningham has found another gear. In nine games he’s putting up 22.2 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 5.6 assists a game. Most encouragingly he’s led the otherwise moribund Pistons to a 5-4 record over that span with Cunningham himself a +23.

Cunningham is showing that he can bend a game to his preferences, whether that be opening up passing lanes, getting his own shot – another encouraging sign is that his increased shot attempts are coming at the rim, rather than from the arc – or playing solid defense.

His performance against Trae Young and the Hawks was a gem.

This past month might not be enough to snatch the ROY out of Evan Mobley’s hands, but it’s enough to place him atop our monthly rankings.

2. Evan Mobley – Cleveland Cavaliers (Last Ranking: 2)

To be frank, Mobley looked like he was beginning to fade towards the end of February as a season of not just playing, but playing for genuine stakes had started to take a physical and mental toll on the rookie. He was looking like he was going to fall down these rankings, too.

Then, All-Star big man Jarrett Allen went down with an injured finger that will keep him out for the season, thrusting Mobley into a new role as a full time centre. It’s reinvigorated him.

Many see Mobley’s long term future as a do-it-all centre rather than a power forward, despite his rail thin frame. This chance to see what the USC product can do as a full time five man is fascinating. So far, he’s been electrifying. He’s averaging 19.5 points, 12 boards, three assists, 1.8 steals and 1.8 blocks. Ridiculous numbers for a rookie.

His game against the Raptors might be the best he’s played so far in his short professional career. He did it all in this one: playmaking from the elbow, pretty low post moves, outside shooting, attacking the basket, powerful rebounding and patient defense. This kid is going to be special.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NAo4iwfdko

3. Scottie Barnes – Toronto Raptors (LR: 3)

With Pascal Siakam back in the fold and playing some excellent basketball, Barnes has had to scale back his offensive contributions a touch. To his credit, he’s still finding ways to impact the game at that end of the court, namely with his clever off ball cutting.

Defensively, though, is where Barnes has stepped up even more. In a win against the Nets last week, Barnes spent time guarding – and smothering – Patty Mills, Seth Curry, Goran Dragic, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Kevin Durant…well, he didn’t quite smother Durant, but there’s no shame in that.

Barnes’ versatility as a defender is astounding and not just in the various positions he can guard. He also changes his coverage regularly. He will play a post up from behind, then front a play or two before three quartering. Against guards, he’ll switch getting up in their grill with laying off to allow his length to be a deterrent. That’s high level game intelligence from such a young man.

4. Jalen Green – Houston Rockets (LR: Re-entry)

Something has clicked in the 2nd overall pick in the last few weeks.

Since our last rankings, Green has given the Rockets 20.6 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.1 steals. Impressively his efficiency has vaulted upwards, shooting 62.5% from the floor and 39.4% from three over that span.

There are two keys to Green’s emergence: his outside shot and his patience. The two could well be intertwined.

As Green’s three has started to drop, defenders have no choice but to take away his space. That, in turn, allows the jet-heeled guard to get to the rim practically at will. Prior to the All-Star break, Green was either shooting threes that he felt he had to take, given the space his defender would afford him, or launching himself headlong into a thicket of bodies as he tried to make something – anything – happen at the rim.

This writer said at the start of the season that Green has the best chance in this class of one day leading the NBA in scoring. We’re starting to see some of that ability shine through.

5. Franz Wagner – Orlando Magic (LR: 4)

The 5th place on these rankings is almost an apologetic spot.

For the 3rd month in a row (previously Cunningham and Barnes) this spot has gone to a player that hasn’t really deserved to see their ranking drop. Rather, it’s the superior performances of those above him that have resulted in this spot on our ladder.

Wagner can lay claim to being the most complete offensive rookie this season. He’s still the only rookie to score over 1000 points, some 150+ ahead of Cunningham. It’s the variety in his arsenal that is most impressive. He was expected to be a good shooter with the size – and, frankly, nastiness – to punish smaller defenders. What wasn’t expected is an off the bounce game that combines Wagner’s power with a craft and footwork that has surprised many.

In last week’s win over Barnes and the Raptors, Wagner and his fellow rookie went at it repeatedly. Wagner consistently got to the basket and would have scored more than the 11 he had on the night facing a lesser defender.

6. Herbert Jones – New Orleans Pelicans (LR: 6)

Jones continues to greatly outplay his draft position of 35.

Jones is flying all over the court for the vastly improved Pelicans, already emerging as their defensive leader. With apologies to Mobley, Jones has established himself as the best defensive player in this draft class. He’s everywhere all at once, moving like Sonic the Hedgehog on smack.

Offensively, he continues to expand his game. Though his three point shooting has fallen away a touch, he has started to attack closeouts with confidence, taking the ball to the rim for easy shots or creating good looks for his teammates.

7. Jonathan Kuminga (LR: 10)

The Congolese teenager has started to get some regular court time of over the past month: he’s making the most of it.

In the 10 games he’s played since our last edition of the rankings, Kuminga has posted 14.6 points (on 64/40/85 shooting splits) and 5.4 boards in just under 27 minutes a night, predominantly as a small ball power forward.

The flashes with Kuminga are tantalising. We know he’s a nuclear athlete, but now he’s showing something new just about every time he takes to the court. It could be his 12 free throw attempts against the Blazers, or his six assists facing the Clippers, or garnering 11 rebounds against Giannis and the Bucks. If Kuminga ever puts it all together, the sky (which he jumps high enough to touch) is the limit.

8. Ayo Dosunmu – Chicago Bulls (LR: 7)

Dosunmu continues to impress for the injury ravaged Bulls.

He’s a perfect foil for the Bulls main men DeMar DeRozan and Zach Lavine, with his prowess to guard just about anybody one through three sparing those two a key defensive assignment, and his ability to play away from the ball allowing the stars to do their thing on offense.

This rookie class has produced three players that could conceivably contend for Defensive Player of the Year honours as they reach their primes. Just look at this clutch, late game defense on the quicksilver Trae Young, that ultimately led to yet another DeRozan game winner:

9. Brandon Williams – Portland Trailblazers (New Entry)

Talk about taking your opportunities with both hands!

The 22 year old undrafted point guard has taken advantage of the Blazers ever so naked tanking efforts to emerge as a scorer. Williams had a four game run where he posted 13.8 points on 53% shooting, earning himself a starting gig.

In those three games, he’s kept it going, scoring 16 points, though on considerably worse efficiency, snaring 6.3 boards and getting 1.3 steals.

Let’s be clear. The Blazers are very deliberately bad, right now. Playing an undrafted point guard is a play for ping pong balls as much as it is a dice roll on talent and, to that end, the Blazers have lost six of the seven games Williams has played significant minutes in. Kudos to them.

That said, it’s still a lovely story and, with a little luck, Williams might hang around the league as a second unit scoring point guard.

10. Jalen Suggs – Orlando Magic (LR: New entry)

For the first time this season, Orlando’s other top 10 pick enters these rankings.

Unlike his teammate Wagner, Suggs has had a roller coaster of a rookie campaign. From ill timed injuries, to prolonged shooting slumps, to explosive drives to the basket and canny playmaking, he’s peppered his season with a little of everything.

Prior to going down with a sprained ankle last week – he missed two games and has struggled in the two he’s played since returning – Suggs was finally starting to put it all together. He was averaging 13 points, 3.6 boards, 5.2 assists and 1.2 steals prior to the sprain, though his outside shooting (16.2%) continued to be a massive concern.

With Markelle Fultz and RJ Hampton back from injury, Suggs’ ability to play both on and off the ball will become more important. He’s already good at attacking closeouts when catching on the perimeter. He’ll have to earn some respect with his jumper to get more of those opportunities, though.

Dropping out: Chris Duarte, Cam Thomas

This article also appears at leading independent media site FOOTYOLOGY.

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