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.
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
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).
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
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.
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 @NBAHistory to average 22/5/7 in a month (minimum of 10 games). #Pistons
— Detroit Pistons (@DetroitPistons) April 1, 2022
3. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors
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.”
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) April 2, 2022
4. Jalen Green, Houston Rockets
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.
Reporter: "What have you learned about yourself this rookie year"
Jalen Green: "That I'm a bucket"
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 4, 2022
5. Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic
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
Assists, triple-doubles keep him anchored high through injury shutdown.
7. Herbert Jones, New Orleans Pelicans
Making presence felt in steals, deflections, contested shots.
8. Davion Mitchell, Sacramento Kings
Haliburton’s exit, Fox injury opened up opportunities for “Off Night.”
9. Bones Hyland, Denver Nuggets
High-energy guard continues to deliver off bench.
10. Ayo Dosunmu, Chicago Bulls
Drop in 3-point accuracy coincides with Lonzo-less starting role.
11. Jonathan Kuminga, Golden State Warriors
POBO Bob Myers suggest rookie’s playoff role might be “series dependent.”
12. Chris Duarte, Indiana Pacers
Strong start, limping end, will finish season with 12 injury DNPs.
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