NBA Rookie Rankings: Cade Cunningham makes history, Evan Mobley continues strong play on both ends


It was another week of strong performances from the 2021 NBA Draft class, and first-year players are proving that there’s a slew of guys who can impact the game in a variety of ways. Several of these rookies have shown their two-way capabilities more than we’ve seen from recent draft classes, which shows that in a few years the NBA is going to be chock full of guys who can get out and defend at a high level on one end, and go put points on the board on offense. Defense has always been the biggest area where rookies struggle, but these first-year guys are breaking that stereotype. With that in mind, let’s dive into this week’s NBA Rookie Rankings.

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

Despite suffering an elbow injury that will see him miss 2-4 weeks, Mobley still put together the best week among rookies. Though he finished the week struggling to get anything going on offense against the Boston Celtics, going 0 for 11 from the field for just one point in 28 minutes of action before exiting the game, in his previous matchup against the Celtics earlier that week, he was putting on an absolute clinic in the paint. 

No other rookie is impacting winning as much as Mobley is to start the season. He’s averaging just shy of 14 points and eight rebounds on the season, and he’s been a significant reasons as to why the Cavaliers are 9-6 to start the season. He’s also to credit for Cleveland ranking seventh in defensive rating this season, as he’s shown tremendous poise as a defender, capable of guarding guys on the wing just as well as he can hold his own in the post.

After starting the season slow, and missing the first five out of the first six games due to a sprained ankle, Cunningham found his groove this past week. His 25-point, eight-rebound, eight-assist performance against the Sacramento Kings on Monday night was undoubtedly his best performance of the season so far. That statline also made some history, as Cunningham became the youngest player ever in the NBA to put up 25/8/8, breaking LeBron James’ record, who did it just 49 days later than Cunningham did. 

He also put together his most efficient week to date, as he was struggling to find his shot consistently from just about everywhere on the floor. Given the fact that he missed several games to start the season, it was to be expected that Cunningham would have somewhat of a clunky start. But last week proved that he might be shaking off the rust, which means we could be in for more performances like the one against the Kings all season long.

Barnes had another impressive week on both ends of the floor for the Raptors. On offense he’s consistently shown that he can score in a variety of ways, whether that’s down in the low post finishing through contact, off a pick-and-roll with Fred VanVleet or taking a defender off the dribble for a bucket. Against the Celtics that was on full display, as he exposed Boston’s post defense to the tune of 21 points, most of which came within a couple feet of the basket.

Defensively, he’s been just as versatile, as he was tasked with guarding players like Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and Tobias Harris all in the past week.         

With several players on the injured list for the Nuggets right now, Hyland’s role has seen a significant increase, and he’s certainly been making the most out of it. Hs standout performance came against the Trail Blazers, where he was launching 3s with the confidence of Stephen Curry. He finished that game with 18 points and made half of his eight 3-point attempts, and that was after another impressive performance against the Hawks. Hyland’s shown a tremendous amount of confidence shooting the ball and taking defenders one-on-one, so it’s not surprising to see why the Nuggets have managed to go 4-1 with Michael Porter Jr. sidelined for the past five games.

It wasn’t the best offensive week for Wagner, who coughed up the ball seven times over three games, which is unusual from the rookie forward. He still filled the statsheet, highlighted by a 19-point, five-rebound, three-assist performance against the Hawks, but shots weren’t falling quite the way we’ve seen them fall in the past few weeks. 

However, while his offense wasn’t as impactful this week, he was surely finding a way to impact the game on the defensive side of the ball. Despite being 6-foot-9, Wagner’s number was called to guard Trae Young, James Harden and Kevin Durant this past week. Chasing Young around proved to be a difficult task for the rookie, but against the Nets, he held his own against two former league MVPs. He forced Durant into five turnovers, and finished the night with six steals. 

Wagner was outmatched against an elite scorer like Durant, but he leveled the playing field a bit by being active all night long and being rewarded with a ridiculous number of steals. 

If you haven’t been watching much of the Oklahoma City Thunder this season, then you’ve been missing out on absolute gems of assists from Giddey nearly every night. Like this one:

Or this pass that I’m still not exactly sure how he managed to pull off with three Heat players swarming him in transition:

Giddey’s scoring numbers the past couple weeks haven’t been great, as he’s shooting just 28 percent from the field and 20 percent from deep in the last six games. That’s a stark difference compared to the first seven games of the season where he shot a respectable 44 percent from the field and 31.6 percent from long range. But despite the low scoring numbers, his passing and being a playmaker for his teammates has been a positive impact for the Thunder.

Going head-to-head against Cunningham at the start of last week, Green is the one who won the scoring battle between the two top picks in last year’s draft, but Cunningham came away with the win. That’s basically been the storyline for Green to start the season. He has managed to put up big scoring numbers every so often, but it has yet to result in a Rockets win. The lone win Houston has this season is from the second game of the year, where Green put up only nine points. It’s still early, so there’s plenty of time for Green to start impacting winning, and scoring the ball efficiently, but right now that just isn’t happening. 

The Turkish center recorded his first double-double of the season in a 10-point, 10-rebound outing against the Suns. He’s been doing a little bit of everything all season long, whether its crashing the boards, delivering ridiculous passes to teammates or being active on defense. His ability to impact the game in multiple ways is the reason why the Rockets score 10.1 points more per possession when he’s on the floor as opposed to when he goes to the bench. Although Houston hasn’t managed to get a win since the first week of the season, Sengun’s development has been a bright spot so far.

Here’s how crucial Mitchell’s defense has been to the Kings this season: Sacramento allows 8.8 more points per possession when Mitchell is on the bench compared to when he’s on the court. That ranks in the 84th percentile amongst all other players in the league, so yeah he’s pretty good on defense. His defensive prowess isn’t turning up in the form of steals, but when you watch him play you can see just how impressive he is as an on-ball defender. Though he isn’t starting for the Kings due to a logjam in the backcourt, Mitchell’s averaging starter-like minutes (26.3), showing just how important his presence is on the floor.

The highlight of the week for Jones and the Pelicans came against the Grizzlies, where New Orleans picked up its second win of the season as Jones put up 17 points and six rebounds off the bench. Even more impressive, he went 3 of 4 from deep and 5 of 10 from the field. With the Pelicans getting healthier after Brandon Ingram returned to the starting lineup, Jones was pushed back to the bench, but his seven starts this season showed that he more than deserves a spot in the Pelicans rotation. 



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