There was no better early indicator of the depth of this class of rookies than what happened right here at the Kia Rookie Ladder.
Halfway through the season, it became clear that we needed a bigger scale.
In a typical season, 10 rungs are enough. After the usual two or three prodigies and up-and-coming players, the impact of first-year players diminishes. The Ladder Committee finds itself looking to fill the bottom rung or two with young guys who are as likely to slip into obscurity as they are to cement themselves as rotational players.
This season, two additional tiers have been added to accommodate the abundance of rookie talent. And it still ended as a game of musical chairs for several weeks to sort and rank rookies such as Jonathan Kuminga, Bones Hyland, Alperen Sengun, Cam Thomas, Tre Mann and more.
And that’s only down. Up top, production and the potential for new guys to take their place as instant contributors is another blocker altogether.
• Ranking rookie stats
All that angst you hear about how difficult it is to choose Kia’s most valuable player this season – Embiid? Antetokounmpo? Jokic? – is felt this week by those who voted for the Kia Rookie of the Year Award.
Compelling cases can be made for at least three: Evan Mobley of Cleveland, Cade Cunningham of Detroit and Scottie Barnes of Toronto. A few others, namely Houston’s Jalen Green and Orlando’s Franz Wagner, would be worthy winners in other seasons.
The lanky Mobley slipped into a front slot for the Cavaliers and, offensively and defensively, was just as big a reason (along with the rise of guard Darius Garland and the arrival of rim protector Jarrett Allen) for the improvement. surprising (if it fades now) from Cleveland.
Barnes raised his eyebrows when Toronto picked him 4th overall and has raised them since with the many ways the Florida State forward made the Raptors shine for the move.
Cunningham hasn’t enjoyed or infused the Pistons with comparable team success, but the scoring and playing skills that got him drafted No. 1 overall have been on full display since his slow start and hampered by the wounds.
Who’s better?” It may come down to a matter of taste, as subjective as arguing vanilla versus chocolate versus strawberry. Or the Kia Defensive Player of the Year award as people sift through shooting bullies, perimeter hawks or help defenders.
Should Cunningham bear a burden for Detroit not improving from last season, despite the system being designed to send aid to the teams most in need? How much should voters consider Mobley’s case for the sprained ankle that sidelined him until the end? Has Barnes, ranked second or third for much of the season, surged ahead on both?
As close as they are, the 1-2-3 vote requires ranking, which will likely exaggerate the differences between the three.
Voters have faced this challenge before. Talent-packed draft classes have burst into the NBA in the past, including 1984, 1996, 2003, and even as recently as 2018.
It’s silly to think that a handful of matches over the past week is going to provide real separation. But it saves extra thinking time. Next week, we’ll wrap up with a voter’s actual ballot and their choices for the 10 All-Rookie selections.
The Top 5 this week on the Kia Rookie Ladder 2021-22:
(All stats through Monday, April 4)
1. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers
Season statistics: 14.9 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.5 apg
Since the last Ladder: DNP
Step of the last scale: 1
Draft Pick: No. 3 overall
It’s only been five games, but it feels a lot longer since Mobley was active and helping the Cavaliers in what felt like a dream season. The last time he recorded regular minutes, he scored in double digits and Cleveland was 11 games above .500, two games off fourth place in the East. Now? The home court is gone, the Play-In awaits and it’s unclear how voters will react to Mobley’s late-season ankle sprain compared to his performance in the season’s opening 90%. A popular MVP test is how his team did without him. Without Mobley, the Cavs are 4-9 (39-28 with him).
The Cavs are 1-4 since Evan Mobley’s injury.
6-10 since Jarrett Allen’s injury. pic.twitter.com/VmozhHuoCn
— StatMuse (@statmuse) April 6, 2022
2. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons
Season statistics: 17.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.5 apg
Since the last Ladder: 21.0 ppg, 1.0 rpg, 4.0 apg
Step of the last scale: 2
Draft pick: No. 1 overall
Well, you can’t accuse the Pistons or Cunningham of chasing stats in a hurry to sway ROY voters. Not when he sits out against OKC after playing less than eight minutes – that lowers his stats per game as surely as playing 38, without the production. Then Cunningham completely missed Indiana with what was called right hip pain. The No. 1 pick has an impressive portfolio, ranking in the top six among rookies in scoring, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, minutes and free throw percentage.
Cade Cunningham posted averages of 22.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists in March, joining Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson as the only rookies in @HistoryNBA on average 22/5/7 in a month (minimum of 10 games). #Pistons
— Detroit Pistons (@DetroitPistons) April 1, 2022
3. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors
Season statistics: 15.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 3.5 apg
Since the last Ladder: 18.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 4.3 apg
Rank of the last scale: 3
Draft Pick: No. 4 overall
It is conceivable that Barnes could climb into the middle of the ROY poll if enough voters persist on the Mobley vs. Cunningham field. But he’s not a compromise candidate — more of a “Goldilocks” choice, as in “Just right.” The Raptors forward had a good week, then added 19 points and 14 rebounds, including six of Toronto’s 20 offensive boards in their win over Atlanta. The only thing Raptors fans might love more than Kyle Lowry is their old friend’s assessment of Barnes. “He’s going to be the cornerstone of the franchise,” Lowry said. “He fits perfectly here – how hard he plays, how passionate he is about the game. And he’s only going to keep getting better.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) April 2, 2022
4. Jalen Green, Houston Rockets
Season statistics: 17.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.6 apg
Since the last Ladder: 32.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.7 apg
Rank of the last scale: 4
Draft Pick: No. 2 overall
Green had already chained four straight 30-point games, a rookie scoring splurge reminiscent of what Allen Iverson and Michael Jordan did, when he added a fifth such performance on Tuesday in Brooklyn. Sure, the Rockets keep losing, but the No. 2 pick’s confidence is impervious. And he shared the other night what he considers his best takeaway from this newbie experience.
Reporter: “What did you learn about yourself this rookie year?”
Jalen Green: “That I’m a Bucket”
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 4, 2022
5. Franz Wagner, The Magic of Orlando
Season statistics: 15.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 2.9 apg
Since the last Ladder: 14.0 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.0 apg
Rank of the last scale: 5
Draft pick: 8th overall
The Class of 2021 Iron Man hasn’t quite reached the finish line. Wagner sprained his ankle in the first minute against Toronto on Friday and missed the Magic’s loss to the Knicks. Then he lasted seven minutes in Orlando’s win at Cleveland on Tuesday. None of this erases Wagner’s strong first season as a write-and-leave piece for Magic’s young team.
The next 7:
6. Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder
Season statistics: 12.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 6.4 apg
Since the last Ladder: DNP
Rank of the last scale: 6
Draft pick: No. 6 overall
Assists and triple-doubles keep him anchored high during the injury stoppage.
7. Herbert Jones, New Orleans Pelicans
Season statistics: 9.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.2 apg
Since the last Ladder: 9.0 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.7 apg
Rank of the last scale: 7
Draft pick: No. 35 overall
Make his presence felt in interceptions, deflections, contested shots.
8. Davion Mitchell, Sacramento Kings
Season statistics: 11.2 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 4.0 apg
Since the last Ladder: 14.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 9.0 apg
Rank of the last scale: 8
Draft pick: No. 9 overall
Haliburton’s exit, Fox’s injury opened up opportunities for “Off Night.”
9. Bones Hyland, Denver nuggets
Season statistics: 9.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 2.7 apg
Since the last Ladder: 14.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 6.0 apg
Rank of the last scale: 11
Draft pick: No. 26 overall
The high-energy guard continues to deliver off the bench.
10. Ayo Dosunmu, Chicago Bulls
Season statistics: 8.5 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.3 apg
Since the last Ladder: 7.7 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 4.0 apg
Rank of the last scale: 9
Draft pick: No. 38 overall
The 3 point drop in accuracy coincides with the starting role without Lonzo.
11. Jonathan Kuminga, Golden State Warriors
Season statistics: 9.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 0.9 apg
Since the last Ladder: 5.7 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 1.3 apg
Rank of the last scale: 10
Draft pick: 7th overall
POBO Bob Myers suggests the rookie’s playoff role could be “series dependent”.
12. Chris Duarte, Indiana Pacers
Season statistics: 13.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.1 apg
Since the last Ladder: DNP
Rank of the last scale: 12
Draft Pick: No. 13 overall
A good start, a lame end, will end the season with 12 DNP injuries.
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Steve Aschburner has been writing about the NBA since 1980. You can email him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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