September 25, 2022

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The Sports Fanatics

NBA Rookie Rankings: Cade Cunningham leads way after career night; Evan Mobley playing like an All-Star

The NBA season is officially at the halfway point as many teams have reached the 41-game mark. This point in the schedule is typically when first-year players start to hit that proverbial “rookie wall,” where the demands of an NBA season start to catch up to them and we see some flux in performances. So far we haven’t seen anyone get to that point, as many of the Rookie of the Year hopefuls continue to impress. We’ll have to wait and see if this year’s class can instead run through that rookie wall, and perform as well in Game 82 as they are right now. 

Moving on to this week’s rankings, remember these will reflect a rookie’s performance on a week-to-week basis only, and not the collective season. These are not Rookie of the Year standings. With that straightened out, here is a look at the top-performing rookies around the league.

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On Monday night against the Utah Jazz, Cunningham had a first half in which he’d probably like to forget (2 of 8 from the field, 1 of 4 from 3-point territory). But once the third quarter started, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft took complete control of the game, scoring 26 of his career-high 29 points and dishing out six of his eight assists after halftime. Cunningham helped lead the Pistons to a shocking win over the Jazz, and finished the game a plus-22 in the process.

It was the latest reminder of how special Cunningham’s going to be in his career. He knocked down 3s, attacked Utah’s interior defense without Rudy Gobert in the lineup and sunk mid-range jumpers over any defender the Jazz put in front of him. His scoring is what’s going to help keep the Pistons in games, and even win some surprising matchups like they did Monday. But what’s been perhaps the most impressive aspect of Cunningham’s game to start this season is his passing. 

It’s not that Cunningham is putting up great assist numbers; it’s the way he’s surveying the court before delivering a well-placed ball, and how he manipulates the defense to get a teammate open that really stand out. 

Like this:

The Pistons run a lot of high pick-and-rolls to not only get the switches they want for Cunningham, but to also give him options on either getting his own shot or looking for an open teammate. More often than not he’s pulling defenders toward him, and his high basketball IQ comes into play when he zips a pass like this to the open man in the corner as the Hornets scramble to rotate:   

There’s so many examples of Cunningham acting like a magnet with multiple defenders swarming him, and just when you think he’s stuck he whips a pass out to the 3-point line or to a teammate cutting to the rim. It’s in moments like these where you can understand the comparisons to Luka Doncic, even if they are lofty expectations to live up to:   

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This might just be me being too cavalier — see what I did there — but Mobley should at least be getting some serious consideration for the All-Star Game this season. I get it, he’s a rookie and for whatever reason that generally means they get left out of the conversation, but the way he’s played so far this season at least merits the discourse. 

From the jump, Mobley’s defense has stood out in Cleveland. He has the ability to get out on the wing and defend guards with success, which is very rare for a 7-footer. His length and fundamentals on defense make it difficult for guys to just blow right past him as they would with most other bigs in the league. His wingspan also comes in handy when blocking shots out on the perimeter, too. 

Then there’s the offense. He moves so gracefully and with ease that it shouldn’t even be possible for someone of his size. He’s not frantic when he’s trying to get to the rim, and he maneuvers through contact like he’s moving in slow motion and can already tell where the defender is about to go.

Mobley’s production (14.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists) is a key reason why the Cavaliers have been so successful this season. Cleveland returned a majority of its roster from last season where it won just 22 games, so it’s clear to see what the addition of Mobley in the frontcourt has done for the Cavs, as they’ve already passed their win total from a season ago, and sit in sixth place in the Eastern Conference. 

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Giddey’s already one of the league’s elite young passers, and when he starts making more shots, mainly around the rim, he’ll be even more lethal. Just look at some of these possessions over the past week that show his ability to create off the dribble, but that he doesn’t convert on the backend:

You can see the potential in these possessions, where if he would just make a few more of them, Giddey’s game would be elevated to another level:

These are good “problems” to have, by the way, because Giddey’s already proving that he can take a defender off the dribble and get to the rim. Once there, it’s the finishing he needs to work on. He ranks in the 16th percentile among all wings in the league in shot percentage around the rim (52 percent), and considering his 3-point shooting is still a work in progress as he’s shooting just 27.8 percent from deep this season, his conversion around the rim needs to be higher. 

But this isn’t concerning for a 19-year-old rookie, who also happens to be the second-youngest player in the league. Giddey’s already flashed so much potential as a secondary facilitator alongside Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, as well as a capable defender and scorer who can create for himself and everyone else on the floor. 

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Barnes returned to his first full week of action after being in the league’s health and safety protocols for three games. And he returned to being Mr. Do-It-All for the Raptors in the process. He flirted with a triple-double on two occasions last week, showing off his versatility on both ends of the floor.

The beauty of Barnes’ game is that scoring isn’t the only way he can have a positive impact, which is nice considering the Raptors don’t necessarily need him putting up 20 points a game … just yet. With scorers like Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby surrounding him, Barnes can pick and choose his spots better, act as a secondary facilitator when needed and be a staunch defender on the other end without worrying about putting up huge numbers every night. That’s been evident during Toronto’s six-game winning streak, as Barnes hasn’t put up more than 13 points during that stretch. But he has almost eclipsed double-digit rebounds twice, and put up over five assists two times as well. 

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When the Nets were struggling with fielding a team due to so many players in the league’s health and safety protocols, Thomas stepped in and made the most of the situation. Since then, his playing time has been in flux with the return of All-Star guard Kyrie Irving as a part-time player, but whenever Brooklyn needs him, he doesn’t disappoint. His latest impressive performance came Monday night in the Nets loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. Brooklyn was without James Harden, who was a late scratch, so it meant big minutes for Thomas off the bench.

In over 26 minutes of action, Thomas finished with 21 points, three rebounds and three steals. This comes after another performance earlier in the week in which he put up 14 points, five rebounds, two assists and a steal against the Milwaukee Bucks. If Brooklyn needs a player to go in and make an impact either through scoring, rebounding or playing tough defense, it knows it can call on Thomas to deliver. 

Honorable mentions: Keifer Sykes, Indiana Pacers (14.5 points, 4.5 assists, 3.5 rebounds) , Ayo Dosunmu, Chicago Bulls (12.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists), Omer Yurtseven, Miami Heat (10.5 points, 16.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists)