Kia Rookie Ladder

Kia Rookie Ladder: Final stretch for elite rookie class

Evan Mobley, Cade Cunningham and Scottie Barnes haven't been the only rookies to shine bright this season.

No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham is among the many standout rookies from the 2021 Draft class.

There was no better early indicator of the depth of this rookie class than what took place right here at the Kia Rookie Ladder.

By midseason, it became apparent we needed a bigger ladder.

In a typical season, 10 rungs are plenty. After the usual two or three prodigies and promising role players, the impact of first-year players drops off. The Ladder committee finds itself scrounging to fill the last rung or two with young guys who are as likely to slip into obscurity as cement themselves as rotation players.

This season, two extra rungs were added to accommodate the abundance of rookie talent. And it still ended up as a game of musical chairs many weeks to sort and rank rookies such as Jonathan Kuminga, Bones Hyland, Alperen Sengun, Cam Thomas, Tre Mann and more.

And this is only near the bottom. Up top, the production and potential of new guys who have taken their places as instant contributors is a whole other log jam.

• Rookie stats leaderboard

All that angst you hear about the difficulty of choosing this season’s Kia Most Valuable Player — Embiid? Antetokounmpo? Jokic? — is being felt this week by those charged with voting for the Kia Rookie of the Year Award.

Persuasive cases can be made for at least three: Cleveland’s Evan Mobley, Detroit’s Cade Cunningham and Toronto’s Scottie Barnes. A couple more, namely Houston’s Jalen Green and Orlando’s Franz Wagner, would be worthy winners in other seasons.

The lanky Mobley slid into a frontcourt slot for the Cavaliers and, offensively and defensively, has been as big a reason (along with guard Darius Garland’s ascendance and rim protector Jarrett Allen’s arrival) for Cleveland’s surprising (if now fading) improvement.

Barnes raised eyebrows when Toronto picked him at No. 4 and has raised them since with the many ways the Florida State point forward has made the Raptors look brilliant for the move.

Cunningham hasn’t enjoyed or infused the Pistons with comparable team success, but the scoring and playmaking skills that got him drafted No. 1 overall have been on full display since his slow, injury-hobbled start.

Who is “better?” It might come down to a matter of taste, as subjective as arguing vanilla vs. chocolate vs. strawberry. Or the Kia Defensive Player of the Year Award as folks sift through shot intimidators, perimeter hawks or the help defenders.

Should Cunningham carry some burden for Detroit not improving from last season, though the system is designed to send help to the neediest teams? How much should voters ding Mobley’s case for the ankle sprain that has sidelined him down the stretch? Has Barnes, slotted second or third much of the season, earned a leapfrogging over both?

Close as they might be, casting a 1-2-3 ballot requires ranking, which probably will overstate the differences among the three.

Voters have faced this challenge before. Draft classes stacked with talent have burst upon the NBA in the past, including 1984, ’96, ’03 and even as recently as 2018.

It’s silly to think that a handful of games in the final week is going to provide real separation. But it does buy extra pondering time. Next week we’ll wrap this up with one voter’s actual ballot and his choices for the 10 All-Rookie selections.

The Top 5 this week on the 2021-22 Kia Rookie Ladder:

(All stats through Monday, April 4)

1. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

Season stats: 14.9 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.5 apg
Since last Ladder: DNP
Last Ladder’s rung: 1
Draft pick: No. 3 overall

It’s only been five games, but it feels much longer since Mobley was active and helping the Cavaliers in what seemed like a dream season. The last time he logged regular minutes, he scored in double digits and Cleveland was 11 games over .500, two games out of fourth place in the East. Now? Home court is gone, the Play-In awaits and it is not clear how voters will react to Mobley’s late-season ankle sprain vs. his performance through the season’s first 90%. A popular MVP test is, how has his team done without him. Without Mobley, the Cavs are 4-9 (39-28 with him).

2. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 17.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.5 apg
Since last Ladder: 21.0 ppg, 1.0 rpg, 4.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 2
Draft pick: No. 1 overall

Well, you can’t accuse the Pistons or Cunningham of stats-hunting in a rush to influence ROY voters. Not when he sits down against OKC after playing less than eight minutes — that cuts into his per-game stats as surely as if he played 38, without the production. Then Cunningham missed entirely against Indiana with what was termed right hip soreness. 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.

3. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors

Season stats: 15.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 3.5 apg
Since last Ladder: 18.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 4.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 3
Draft pick: No. 4 overall

It’s conceivable that Barnes could scoot up the middle in ROY balloting if enough voters dig their heels in on Mobley vs. Cunningham ground. But this is no compromise candidate — more of a “Goldilocks” choice, as in “Just right.” The Raptors forward had a strong week, then added 19 points and 14 rebounds, including six of Toronto’s 20 offensive boards in its victory over Atlanta. The only thing Raptors fans might like more than Kyle Lowry is their old pal’s assessment of Barnes. “He’s going to be a cornerstone of the franchise,” Lowry said. “He fits in perfectly here — how hard he plays, how passionate he is for the game. And he’s only going to continue to get better.”

4. Jalen Green, Houston Rockets

Season stats: 17.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 32.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.7 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 4
Draft pick: No. 2 overall

Green already had strung together four consecutive 30-point games, a rookie scoring splurge harking back to what Allen Iverson and Michael Jordan did, when he added a fifth such performance 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 top takeaway from this newbie experience.

5. Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic

Season stats: 15.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 2.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 14.0 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 5
Draft pick: No. 8 overall

The iron man of the Class of 2021 couldn’t quite reach the finish line. Wagner sprained his ankle in the opening minute against Toronto Friday and missed the Magic’s loss to the Knicks. Then he lasted seven minutes in Orlando’s victory at Cleveland Tuesday. None of this erases Wagner’s strong first season as a write-him-in-and-leave-him piece for the young Magic squad.

The Next 7:

6. Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season stats: 12.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 6.4 apg
Since last Ladder: DNP
Last Ladder’s rung: 6
Draft pick: No. 6 overall

Assists, triple-doubles keep him anchored high through injury shutdown.

7. Herbert Jones, New Orleans Pelicans

Season stats: 9.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 9.0 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.7 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 7
Draft pick: No. 35 overall

Making presence felt in steals, deflections, contested shots.

8. Davion Mitchell, Sacramento Kings

Season stats: 11.2 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 4.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 14.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 9.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 8
Draft pick: No. 9 overall

Haliburton’s exit, Fox injury opened up opportunities for “Off Night.”

9. Bones Hyland, Denver Nuggets

Season stats: 9.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 2.7 apg
Since last Ladder: 14.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 6.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 11
Draft pick: No. 26 overall

High-energy guard continues to deliver off bench.

10. Ayo Dosunmu, Chicago Bulls

Season stats: 8.5 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.3 apg
Since last Ladder: 7.7 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 4.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 9
Draft pick: No. 38 overall

Drop in 3-point accuracy coincides with Lonzo-less starting role.

11. Jonathan Kuminga, Golden State Warriors

Season stats: 9.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 0.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 5.7 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 1.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 10
Draft pick: No. 7 overall

POBO Bob Myers suggest rookie’s playoff role might be “series dependent.”

12. Chris Duarte, Indiana Pacers 

Season stats: 13.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.1 apg
Since last Ladder: DNP
Last Ladder’s rung: 12
Draft pick: No. 13 overall

Strong start, limping end, will finish season with 12 injury DNPs.

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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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