For months leading up to the 2021 NBA draft, we praised the depth and star power of the class, calling the group the strongest since the 2003 class that included LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
This rookie class featured three No. 1-caliber picks in Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley and Jalen Green, with future All-Stars, longtime starters and instant-impact rotation players right behind them.
Now that we’re almost a quarter of the way into the 2021-22 NBA season, how has the class lived up to expectations? Which rookies have shined brightest?
In the first version of Rookie Power Rankings, we rate the top 10 rookies based on how they’ve played so far. Keep in mind, this is not a re-draft or based on future potential, but rather a fluid list that spells out which rookies have been most valuable until this point.
1. Evan Mobley, center | Cleveland Cavaliers
No rookie has had more of an impact on his respective team than Mobley, who has turned the Cavaliers into a playoff contender with his defensive versatility and offensive skill set at just 20 years old. After ranking 28th in defensive rating a season ago, Cleveland currently sits sixth so far this season, being able to toggle between big and small lineups thanks to Mobley’s defensive range that allows him to switch onto guards, check wings and protect the rim effectively. According to CleaningTheGlass.com, the Cavs’ defense is allowing 8.9 points fewer points per 100 possessions when Mobley is in the game than when he sits. Cade Cunningham has generated more points for himself and his teammates, and Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes has been a revelation in The 6, but Mobley has done everything on both ends of the floor.
He has proved valuable as a lob catcher, 3-point shooter, short roll passer, pick-and-roll ball handler, midpost scorer and a true defensive game-changer with Defensive Player of the Year potential. He is more than deserving of the No. 1 spot, even with his recent elbow injury that could sideline him two to four weeks. While I’d still take Cunningham No. 1 if the draft were tomorrow, Mobley has made it a compelling conversation, reviving the Cavs in the process.
2. Scottie Barnes, forward | Toronto Raptors
Barnes has taken the NBA by storm with his Giannis Antetokounmpo-like strides, frenetic energy, playmaking ability and jovial nature. Barnes is the modern NBA player, being able to defend 1 through 5 seamlessly while functioning as a transition initiator, pick-and-roll ball handler or valuable screener at 6-foot-8 with arms that never end. Much like Mobley, Barnes was viewed as a Swiss Army knife who could do nearly everything on the floor but wasn’t wired to score. Barnes’ defensive versatility, toughness, passing ability, scoring-averse style and shooting limitations are reasons why I compared him to a more explosive Draymond Green. But Barnes leads all rookies in scoring through 16 games thanks to a healthy dose of transition attacks, midrange jumpers and energy buckets. Barnes is a force in transition, needing just three dribbles to go the length of the floor to score.
While he is just 4-for-16 from 3 so far, the fact that Barnes is knocking down his free throws and at least attempting more than three midrange jumpers per game — and that he cashed two catch-and-shoot 3s against Golden State on Sunday — is a welcome sign. When I first started evaluating Barnes as a 15-year-old, his shot was all over the place with funky side spin and little natural touch, so to see him show some promise, even creating space off the dribble, is encouraging. Much like Antetokounmpo, the questions regarding Barnes’ scoring reliability will be tested in the playoffs when transition opportunities dry up and defenses tighten.
3. Cade Cunningham, guard | Detroit Pistons
If it weren’t for an early ankle injury, Cunningham would be No. 2 on this list, as he is still my favorite to capture Rookie of the Year honors. After starting his career an abysmal 1-for-21 from 3, Cunningham is getting comfortable, averaging 16.6 points, 7.4 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 2.0 steals on 54% from 2 and 27% from 3 over his past 5 games, including a triple-double in a down-to-the-wire bout with the Lakers. Cunningham will never generate the type of awe fans feel from a Mobley block, a Jalen Green dunk or a Barnes steal. But the Pistons are 4-7 when he is in the lineup as opposed to winless (0-4) when he isn’t, and the late-game heroics that characterized Cunningham at the collegiate level have followed him to the NBA, at least in spurts. The Pistons also are starting to weaponize him in more creative ways, slipping him out of screens and activating his catch-and-shoot jumper by using him as the back screener in Spain pick-and-rolls.
We’re also starting to see more of the court vision that played a big role in my Luka Doncic comparison thanks to Cunningham’s patience in the pocket and ability to find both the roller and the weakside corner. Cunningham’s strength has allowed him to get wherever he wants on the floor, dislodging defenders ranging from Kevin Durant to Jae’Sean Tate to OG Anunoby. Cunningham is shiftier than he looks at first glance, and his subtle changes of direction combined with his power and ambidexterity around the rim (70.6% eFG in the restricted area) have played a big role in Cunningham ranking 10th in the NBA in points per direct via isolations, according to Second Spectrum. He also has shown glimpses of brilliance on the defensive end, most notably against teammate Isaiah Stewart in the scuffle against the Lakers, showing the type of leadership you want from a franchise player. Cunningham is too loose of a decision-maker, has his defensive lapses off the ball and is still struggling to translate his smooth step-back jumper to the NBA line. But the No. 1 pick’s innate sense of late-game calm is nearly impossible to teach, and as his jumper stabilizes and the Pistons learn how to best use him, it won’t be long before he is in full contention for ROY.
4. Franz Wagner, forward | Orlando Magic
Despite having the lowest usage rate among players selected in the top 8, Wagner has been impactful thanks to his two-way versatility at 6-foot-10, hushing the NBA evaluators who questioned if his defense would translate and how he would add value offensively. Aside from Monday’s 0-for-9 clunker in a blowout loss to the Bucks, the 20-year-old German has been Orlando’s best rookie so far, and coach Jamahl Mosley has used him all over the floor. Wagner can push himself in transition, pick and pop to space for catch-and-shoot 3s (57% eFG above the break) and get downhill to his right hand as a pick-and-roll ball handler for poster dunks or hitting an open teammate. Wagner uses just 1.53 dribbles per touch according to NBA.com, and his low-volume, high-impact style is exactly what Orlando needed on the wing, as the Magic are +13.9 points per 100 possessions when he is on the floor.
He is a fiery defender and an elite cutter, and he looks the part of a high-end NBA starter for years to come. Wagner’s game might not be as electrifying or as smooth as that of other rookies, but he has been one of the most effective 2021 draftees to take the floor, and his winning style of play should become even clearer once the Magic play in more competitive games.
5. Josh Giddey, guard | Oklahoma City Thunder
It hasn’t taken long for Giddey to separate himself as the best passer of this class, firing fastballs to open teammates with either hand, showcasing the speed and accuracy you see from guards such LaMelo Ball. Giddey leads all rookies in assists and should eventually work his way into the conversation as one of the league’s top facilitators as he develops. Giddey’s size at 6-foot-8 allows him to see over the top of the defense even with opponents daring him to shoot, and he uses that frame to add value on the glass (10 rebounds per 40 minutes) and as a defensive playmaker (1.5 steals and 0.8 blocks per 40). Giddey still has questions to answer on the defensive end of the floor, but his natural size and feel have been enough to survive. It’s Giddey’s half-court scoring — or lack thereof — that’s been his biggest bugaboo, largely due to his slow jumper (25% from 3) and somewhat upright style of play.
Although his 15-point performance against the Celtics on Saturday was a step in the right direction, Giddey is one of only 19 players to play at least 25 minutes per game averaging less than 14 points per 40 minutes, boasting a 44.6 true shooting percentage that ranks 15th among the 19 rookies playing at least 10 minutes per game. But if Giddey can build on the Boston game — during which he knocked down 4 of 6 treys, including one isolation pull-up against Al Horford — and start forcing his defender to fight over the top of screens, his passing brilliance should come to light even more often and he’ll be able to maintain his status as a top-5 rookie.
6. Chris Duarte, guard | Indiana Pacers
While shoulder and ankle injuries have slowed his momentum in a new bench role, Duarte’s sweet shooting stroke, feel for the game, defensive smarts and hot start to the season are enough to land him in sixth place. At 24 years old, Duarte has an NBA-ready jumper that reminds you of Devin Booker‘s if you squint hard enough, and he is far more than just a standstill sniper. Duarte has proved incredibly comfortable rising up in midrange spots, creating space with step-back jumpers and slowing down in the pick-and-roll, keeping his defender on his back before elevating or finding an open teammate.
The Dominican Republic native told us he studies a lot of Booker (also the 13th pick in his respective draft) during our ESPN Film Session, and you can see the influence in how Duarte gets to his spots. Duarte already ranks 14th in points per chance as the pick-and-roll ball handler, according to Second Spectrum, and has proved comfortable playing out of pitches and dribble handoffs, a clear benefit to his age and experience. A 39% 3-point shooter who has been deadly from the corners and is already a brilliant off-ball cutter, Duarte is an ideal fit alongside each of the Pacers’ franchise cornerstones, Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis, both in the interim and the long term.
7. Alperen Sengun, center | Houston Rockets
It’s been a wild ride for Sengun’s biggest pre-draft supporters, as he has games in which he looks like a 6-foot-10 Nikola Jokic and others when his lumbering, risk-taking style looks better suited for the Turkish League than the NBA. Sengun’s flashes of brilliance and productivity are enough to land him in the top 10, as he is averaging 18.9 points, 10.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists (4.2 turnovers), 2.6 steals and 1.1 blocks per 40 minutes, while shooting 49% from 2 and 41% from 3. Sengun’s ability to draw fouls, generate extra possessions on the offensive glass, score in the post, spin past defenders and execute no-look passes out of short roll or grab and go situations has all translated from Europe, and the fact that he is taking and making 3s at a decent clip is encouraging given his ground-bound style.
On the flip side, Sengun has had issues finishing around the rim against longer, more explosive centers, and Houston is 4.4 points per 100 possession better defensively when he sits. Should the Rockets keep struggling, I’d expect more playing time and productivity from Sengun, who would be an ideal fit alongside projected No. 1 pick Chet Holmgren.
8. Jalen Green, guard | Houston Rockets
The start to Green’s rookie year reminds me a lot of Anthony Edwards’: some wow moments mixed with defensive miscues and inefficiency on a team in contention for the 2022 No. 1 pick. Playing an oversize, high-usage role for a rebuilding franchise, Edwards averaged just 12.1 points shooting 40% from 2 and 27.1% from 3 through his first 15 games, registering only four wins. Green through 16 games (one win): 14.5 points on 48% from 2 and 28% from distance with the fourth-highest usage rate among rookies. At times, Green looks like a Zach LaVine-type leaper with Bradley Beal’s scoring package, as he torched the Celtics for 30 on just 18 shots in October, looking like a future scoring champ in the process. Green hit step-back 3s over Anthony Davis and tore the rim off on downhill attacks in Staples Center, posting 24 points and five assists in a narrow loss.
But on the worst team in the NBA without a true point guard, Green has been a bit of a roller coaster so far, as the Rockets are 34 points per 100 possessions better when he sits (which would rank last in the NBA). Teams are going at Green on the defensive end, and his shooting consistency and shot selection remain a work in progress. But Green has shown promise as a passer and is improving as a finisher at the rim. And much like Edwards did as his rookie season went on, I expect Green to find a rhythm, exploding for more efficient performances and ultimately leading all first-year players in scoring before the season’s end, working his way into the top-4 conversation.
9. Davion Mitchell, guard | Sacramento Kings
While Mitchell’s perimeter shooting (27% from 3) and scoring ability haven’t quite translated to the NBA yet, his defense has been as advertised, already putting the clamps on elite guards such as Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell and Luka Doncic. The Kings are holding opponents 10.5 fewer points per 100 possessions when Mitchell is on the floor, as his sturdy frame, quick feet, incredible balance, relentless film study and no-nonsense approach are the reasons why he is the best perimeter defender I’ve ever evaluated. Of the 26 players who have been involved in 250-plus ball screens as the ball handler’s defender, Mitchell ranks No. 2 in points allowed per chance, ahead of notable defenders such as Marcus Smart, Lonzo Ball, Luguentz Dort and Alex Caruso. On the flip side, of the 61 players to attempt at least 20 step-back jumpers so far, Mitchell ranks dead last in eFG%. He has struggled to make shots off the bounce with much consistency, and his free throw woes have carried over from Baylor to the NBA (58.8%).
Even with some of the shooting struggles, Mitchell has still been able to add value offensively with his floor game and quickness. He is one of only five players averaging 25-plus minutes per game with a 3.8-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio or better. He also has added a fairly reliable floater that he didn’t have at Baylor. Even if he continues to struggle scoring the ball efficiently in the half court, Mitchell already is one of the best on-ball defenders in the NBA at 23 years old, which will make it hard to keep him off this list as he progresses under new coach Alvin Gentry.
10. Herbert Jones, forward | New Orleans Pelicans
I could have gone a variety of different directions here, with either a high-volume, on-ball guard like Orlando’s Jalen Suggs, who has shown more promise over the past five games, or a low-volume rookie who has stepped into a role like Herb Jones, Jonathan Kuminga, Bones Hyland, Dalano Banton, Ayo Dosunmu or Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. While Kuminga should crack the top 10 eventually, I opted to go with Jones for all that he’s done so far, as his defensive versatility and all-around feel for the game have been one of the lone bright spots for the New Orleans Pelicans this season. The 6-7 toolsy wing has looked like a future All-NBA defender all season, guarding four, sometimes even five positions over the course of a game while doing a number on several All-Star-caliber wings. To gain a full appreciation for Jones’ defensive brilliance, I’d recommend watching what he did to Paul George in a recent win over the Clippers, holding the star wing to 8-for-26 shooting while showcasing picture-perfect technique, a high motor and elite feet in the process. The former SEC Defensive Player of the Year is allowing just 0.548 points per direct isolation possession, second in the NBA behind only Kevin Durant, according to Second Spectrum.
His on/off numbers are up there with the best among rookies, and he’s added value as a cutter, straight-line slasher and distributor just like he did at Alabama, where he emerged as one of my favorite second-round sleepers. Jones still has a ways to go as a perimeter shooter, as he’s made just five 3s in over 420 minutes. He’s not much of a scoring threat in general with teams daring him to shoot, leading to a per-40 average under 10, last among rotational rookies. Having success playing 25 minutes a night on a team like New Orleans doesn’t carry as much weight as if it came on a playoff contender. But the fact that Jones has already started seven games as a rookie, is shooting his free throws at a 78% clip, making 31% of the 3s he does attempt, while looking the part of an elite wing defender, makes him worthy of a spot in the top 10. As I said during the pre-draft process, I could easily see Jones having a Terance Mann type of trajectory as he progresses in New Orleans.
Next Up: Jonathan Kuminga, Jalen Suggs, Bones Hyland, Dalano Banton, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Ayo Dosunmu
Versatility helping Mobley shine early
Sitting inside USC’s athletic offices with the Cavaliers set to take on Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers the following day, I asked Trojans alum and current Rookie of the Year front-runner Evan Mobley if he should have been the No. 1 pick of the 2021 NBA draft.
“I feel like it is what it is, and we’re just going to let the game do the talking,” said the soft-spoken Mobley, one day after beating the LA Clippers in Staples Center, the fifth game of his NBA career.
When I posed that same question to Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green during last season, both emphatically answered yes. But the No. 3 pick has long decided to let his game speak for him, and his laid-back personality and slight frame might have led some to diagnose him as soft or passive. When he didn’t attempt a shot in a game against Utah during his freshman season, I wondered if he would ever have the aggressive mentality to be the No. 1 option on a championship team. While we won’t know that answer for years, most likely, Mobley quickly dismissed any doubts about whether he belonged in the conversation for the No. 1 pick.
“I feel like I’m just naturally like this; I’m just a laid-back kind of guy,” the Temecula, California, native said. “But in the game, I’m locked in, focused and ready to do whatever to get the win.”
Mobley was nothing short of sensational through his first 15 games before going down with an elbow sprain, averaging 14.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.5 blocks and 0.9 steals in 33.5 minutes. The Cavs were 9-6 during that stretch, with wins over the Clippers, Celtics and Nuggets, among others, and Mobley looking like a future All-Star in the process. Mobley has instantly changed the Cleveland franchise with his two-way play that has executives leaguewide asking themselves the exact question I posed to Mobley that late October afternoon.
There was little question about Mobley’s defense coming into the draft. We regularly outlined his foot speed and ability to hound wings and point guards alike, something Mobley — the younger brother of USC junior forward Isaiah Mobley — attributes to competing against older players growing up.
“It forced me to move as a guard,” Mobley said. “As I grew, I feel like I kept that footwork.”
We compared him to a young Davis with his defensive range and instincts. Mobley is already performing as an elite switch defender in the NBA. Among 14 players who have defended at least 45 isolations so far, Mobley ranks No. 3 in points per chance allowed, according to Second Spectrum. He can talk through how to defend Ja Morant or Jaren Jackson Jr. Before his injury, he was leading the NBA in contested shots. The rim protection is as advertised given his timing, length and technique. Even if he struggles with traditional centers or gets boxed out of occasional plays, Mobley is a defensive game-changer who also is ahead of a star big man like Davis as a 3-point shooter, ball handler and passer at the same stage.
Offensively, we knew Mobley could handle and facilitate. We’ve seen him push in transition with the coordination and dexterity of a guard. We watched him operate as USC’s pick-and-roll ball handler, which he has done just once per game in the NBA, throwing lobs like a point guard to Jarrett Allen or Lauri Markkanen. Mobley can diagnose 4-on-3 short roll advantages like a longtime veteran.
But where Mobley is ahead of schedule is as a scorer and shot-creator. Not only is Mobley scoring within the flow of the offense as a lob-catcher, short roll finisher and floor-spacer (8-for-26 from 3), he also is generating his own offense. In a win over the Celtics, Mobley showed the entire scoring arsenal — knocking down hesitation pull-ups and short turnarounds over the lengthy Robert Williams III. Mobley punished Jayson Tatum switches in the post. Teams like the Clippers had success staying physical and just pushing him off his spots, which is something to watch as he becomes more of a focal point on scouting reports. However, Mobley has benefited from the space of the NBA game, and his handle and shooting ability are coming together to form a polished offensive attack.
So far, so good for Mobley, who is the clear Rookie of the Year favorite so long as he can return healthy and pick up where he left off.
“I definitely want to try to get Rookie of the Year — and also Defensive Player of the Year or first-team All-Defense, first-team All-Rookie,” Mobley said of his goals. “But mostly just win, get to the playoffs. That’s a big goal of ours that we want to accomplish for the Cavs.”
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