Kia Rookie Ladder

Kia Rookie Ladder: Evan Mobley earns No. 1 spot in final ranking

Cleveland's standout forward holds off Scottie Barnes and Cade Cunningham to lead an elite rookie class.

Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes finish the season on top of the Rookie Ladder.

Yesterday, it was for Defensive Player of the Year. Today, our NBA Awards ballot reveal looks at the Rookie of the Year race through one voter’s eyes, plus picks for All-Rookie 1st and 2nd teams:

1. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

2. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors

3. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons

It’s long been said in NBA circles that, by the end of a player’s first season, he’s really not a rookie anymore. After 82 games (or thereabouts) and a complete cycle of training camp-preseason-regular season-rookie wall, the new guys are ready to leave their donut-fetching days behind them.

With Cleveland’s Evan Mobley, though, it took maybe half a dozen games. Before the schedule hit November, Mobley had posted two double-doubles and scored 23 points on the Lakers’ court. His early averages – 15.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, 53% shooting – essentially held up to the end.

It was that consistency, in fact, as well as his impact on the Cavaliers offensively and defensively that earned him the top spot here from a rookie class as deep as any we’ve seen in years.

As challenging as it was differentiating Nikola Jokic from Giannis Antetokounmpo from Joel Embiid atop the MVP race, slicing and dicing the cases mounted by Mobley, Toronto’s Scottie Barnes and Detroit’s Cade Cunningham was every bit as difficult.

Rookie stats leaderboard

You could go back across the last 15 years or so of ROY balloting and find three or four winners who would have finished fourth or lower this time. It’s not even clear that someone like Jalen Green, Josh Giddey or Jonathan Kuminga won’t rise up in time to surpass even Mobley, Barnes and Cunningham as the shiniest of gems from the Class of 2021.

But for now, with this trophy, it’s Mobley. He hit the ground like a veteran for a team with a clear generation gap between those who’ve done things and those still hoping to. He brought the demeanor as well as the rough outlines of Hall of Fame big man Tim Duncan to the Cavs, a plug-and-play solution for Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff beyond all expectations.

“If he continues to progress and stays healthy, I truly believe he has Hall-of-Fame talent,” Cleveland assistant coach Greg Buckner told The Ringer for a story this week on Mobley. “And he has a Hall-of-Fame brain. A basketball mind. Most rookies, you try to keep it real simple and basic with ’em. But with him, he’s just on another level.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know most teams talk about their prize rookies, especially when ballots are being cast. But Mobley’s instincts, work ethic on and off the floor, grasp of fundamentals, athletic abilities, and lanky height and wingspan put him in the middle of everything Cleveland did this season.

He was terrific in the high post, finding cutters or shooters on the arc. He was slippery getting to the rim himself, an excellent roll guy. His hands are good as is his shooting touch, with future work coming to extend his range.

Evan Mobley made an instant impact with Cleveland during his rookie season.

Mobley’s adaptability was arguably the biggest key to Bickerstaff’s ability to play three bigs – with Lauri Markkanen and Jarrett Allen – across the front line. Given the Cavs’ injuries, he handled the hiccups well, whether working with rotating guards or plugging holes up front.

Defensively, Mobley was frequently referred to as a “one-man zone” for his ability to check his man, cut off passing lanes, rotate when needed and provide emergency help. As the No. 3 pick overall after a year at USC, there wasn’t anything to dislike, other than the 13 games he missed (the Cavs went 4-9).

Guard Darius Garland, a Most Improved Player candidate, raved about Mobley last month after an overtime victory against Denver. “He does everything for us,” Garland said after his teammate scored 27 points (nine in OT) with 11 rebounds going head-to-head with Jokic. “Defensive-wise, offensive-wise. He’s a 7-foot unicorn.”

Barnes likely heard that word a few times this season, too. His numbers yielded nothing to Mobley – 15.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 3.5 apg – and his knack for filling different roles for coach Nick Nurse was exceeded only by his willingness to do so. Considered a minor reach by casual fans at No. 4 out of Florida State, the 6-foot-9 wing might wind up topping his class in All-Star selections.

NBA TV breaks down the race for Rookie of the Year.

So why Mobley over Barnes on this ballot, especially with Toronto winning four more games to secure a playoff berth? Defensive impact. Consistency (Barnes had a dip in January). Available help (Pascal Siakam had an All-NBA-worthy season as did Fred VanVleet). Razor-thin differences, but still.

Cunningham, like Houston’s Jalen Green, found his afterburners out of the All-Star break. Looking like the No. 1 overall pick he was, the 6-foot-6 guard averaged 21.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 6.5 assists over his final 20 games, shooting 45.7% compared to 39.4% over his first 44. His mastery of pace and passing grew by the month after that bumpy October/November. Obviously, he had the ball in his hands (27.9% usage rate) more than Mobley (20.7%) or Barnes (19.2%).

As for the Pistons’ 23-59 record, it wasn’t the lack of team improvement over last season – Cunningham only had a sliver of control over that – so much as it was playing a succession of games that meant nothing.

Now, my picks for All-Rookie teams (which are not position-specific):

All-Rookie 1st Team

• Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

• Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors

• Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons

• Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic

• Jalen Green, Houston Rockets

All-Rookie 2nd Team

• Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder

• Herbert Jones, New Orleans Pelicans

• Ayo Dosunmu, Chicago Bulls

• Bones Hyland, Denver Nuggets

• Jonathan Kuminga, Golden State Warriors

Honorable mentions: Davion Mitchell, Sacramento Kings; Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets; Chris Duarte, Indiana Pacers.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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