Kia Rookie Ladder

Kia Rookie Ladder: Evan Mobley holds No. 1 spot as Cavaliers continue to win

The No. 3 overall pick is thriving in Cleveland, while other top rookies work to develop winning habits on not-so-winning teams.

Cleveland Cavaliers center Evan Mobley maintains the No. 1 spot in this week's Rookie Ladder edition.

As a new hire, you face being thrown into one of the following work situations:

  1. You’re thrown into a high-priority project as the junior member of an experienced group. The workload is immense, the deadlines are intense and any mistake you make or misstep you take will sound an alarm and get entered into your personal record. The reward opportunities, however, are tremendous, for you individually and for your co-workers, especially long term.
  2. You are assigned to some low-level duty where the completion of the project, never mind the success of it, barely seems to matter. If you mess up something, your somewhat-detached boss mostly shrugs. Your colleagues have settled into a punch-the-clock mentality, so you get to make a lot of the decisions, good or bad. Your paycheck is pretty much what it would be on a spotlight role, minus some warm-and-fuzzies.

Which would you choose? Which do you think would benefit you more in the long run?

The thing with the guys on the Kia Rookie Ladder is, they don’t really get to choose. They typically are funneled into one of the above situations, most often No. 2. That’s because the nature of the Draft is to send top prospects to the neediest teams, where they can learn, lose and help that club dig out.

High- and sudden-impact rookies are rare. We’re talking fellows such as Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, David Robinson, Jason Kidd, LaMelo Ball and, based on the results so far this season, Cleveland’s Evan Mobley, who retains the No. 1 spot after eight weeks.

Individual stats aside, Mobley’s contributions to the Cavaliers’ success are obvious. They play off him offensively, lean on his help defensively. When the No. 3 pick from July is on the court, his team is 5.1 points better than the opposition; when he’s not, the Cavs are 0.3 points worse.

In beating Miami Monday, Cleveland gained its 17th victory in its first 29 games. The three previous seasons it took 44, 58 and 47 games respectively to win 17. And going by the proverbial “If the season ended today…” filter, the Cavs would be hosting a seven-game first-round series as the East’s No. 4 seed. This, from a team trying to make the playoffs without LeBron James for the first time in 24 years.

Detroit’s Cade Cunningham is at the opposite end of the spectrum. The No. 1 pick is toiling for the NBA’s worst team by record, 4-22. The Pistons have lost 12 in a row and barring a turnaround in Indiana Thursday, they’ll match their 13-game skid from 2014.

Cunningham has put up some strong numbers lately, without any team consequence. He’s working in Scenario No. 2, while Pistons coaches labor to minimize any frustration or casualness.

“My main task is, no matter what the result is, try to create winning habits,” coach Dwane Casey said. “What you don’t want to do is get used to [losing] … Even though I think he’s creating winning habits, we’re not getting the benefits of it by winning. That’s the difference when you have a group of young guys together.”

After 26 games last season, Detroit was 7-19. A promising core of Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, Killian Hayes and Saben Lee hasn’t yet taken the next step. There are a handful of veterans – Jerami Grant (recently lost to injury), Cory Joseph, Kelly Olynyk – but the seven of the top 10 Pistons in minutes played are 24 or younger.

Compounding the losing, Cunningham inadvertently took some shade from Pistons Hall of Famer Dave Bing, the former mayor of Detroit who was being honored during Sunday’s broadcast for his Top 75 NBA status.

“I think he’s going to be an All-Star caliber player,” Bing said. “I don’t think he’s a guy you build your team around. We’ve still gotta get that guy, we don’t have it yet in my opinion. I also think our weakness is the backcourt – we’ve gotta get a good point guard.”

Cunningham has been resilient so far, and Casey is monitoring him closely. Losing stinks but the coach hasn’t seen it swamp the rookie yet.

“He’s a smart young man,” the Pistons coach said. “He’s a leader by DNA, one of the leaders of our team even as a rookie. He sees the big picture. That’s why it doesn’t bother me as much as it probably should … I don’t see [the losing] seeping into his personality.

“Defense is always an issue with rookies. He has the basketball IQ to read those situations, but now he’s got to apply it. Love where he’s at. I don’t love our record but I love what he’s growing into right before our eyes.”

The Top 5 this week on the 2020-21 Kia Rookie Ladder:

(All stats through Monday, Dec. 13)

1. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

Season stats: 13.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.5 apg
Since last Ladder: 12.8 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 1.8 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 1
Draft pick: No. 3 overall

Evan Mobley tallied 15 points and 15 rebounds in a win over Sacramento.

No other heavy-minutes member of the Class of 2021 is touching Mobley’s personal W-L mark – the Cavs are 17-8 when he plays, compared to Barnes’ 11-15. Ditto for his plus/minus, which at 127 has more than lapped No. 2 Chris Duarte’s 51. And it’s not as if the mature youngster just landed with a top contender – his readiness has been integral to Cleveland’s surprising results. It’s a testament to Mobley’s mobility and bag of tricks that he isn’t hampered or stats-deprived by playing next to two other 7-footers, Jarrett Allen and Lauri Markkanen. He tops all rookies averaging 20 minutes or more in defensive rating (98.2), with a bigger gap over Duarte’s 105.6 than between Duarte and the 10th best newbie. He won’t just be a lock for All-Rookie honors, he’ll get consideration for All-Defense teams too.

2. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors

Season stats: 15.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 3.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 15.3 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 3.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 2
Draft pick: No. 4 overall

Scottie Barnes posted 23 points and 12 rebounds against Brooklyn.

No clunkers. Seriously, you have to go back to before Thanksgiving to find a performance of which Barnes couldn’t be proud. His night-in, night-out consistency and ability to do many things well – but at least something important – in nearly every game is so atypical for a 20-year-old. His accuracy, his points production, his shot swatting, it’s always something with this guy. Said coach Nick Nurse the other day: “There’s energy, there’s offense, there’s defense, there’s passing, there’s blocked shots. It’s good to just see him play really well in all facets of the game like that, and see him continue to grow.”

3. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 15.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 4.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 21.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 4.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 3
Draft pick: No. 1 overall

NBA TV analyzes Cade Cunningham's strong outing against Brooklyn.

The No. 1 pick has perked up as a scorer, averaging 22.0 points in December on 43.6% shooting (48.6% from three) vs. 14.6, 36.9% and 28.6% in November. That included his 28-point, eight-rebound, six-assist performance against Brooklyn Sunday. Pistons coach Dwane Casey has identified working Cunningham off the ball as the next chapter in his rookie season, to move him around against defensive attention and allow for weak side opportunities.

4. Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic

Season stats: 14.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.8 apg
Since last Ladder: 19.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 4
Draft pick: No. 8 overall

Franz Wagner scored 20 points in back-to-back games in Los Angeles.

You score 20 points each against the Clippers and the Lakers on a back-to-back, you’re not a typical rookie. On Orlando’s five-game Western trip, Wagner averaged 18.2 points, five rebounds and four assists, while shooting 52.3%. That all-around play drew a nice comparison from teammate Terrence Ross: “He is really good at everything. He can shoot, pass, score, defend and he is 6-foot-10. He is really fun to watch. He reminds me of a Gordon Hayward with a lot more size, and I think [he can be] a little bit better down the road.”

5. Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season stats: 10.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 5.8 apg
Since last Ladder: 10.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 6.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 5
Draft pick: No. 6 overall

High-impact teenager from Down Under contributes something positive on most nights. He’s been growing as a team defender, too. You’ll like him more if you watch OKC’s games than if you just scan the scoresheet. Currently mired in a 3-for-31 3FG slump, contributing to his 39.4% (24.7%) shooting.

The Next 5:

6. Chris Duarte, Indiana Pacers

Season stats: 12.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 11.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 6
Draft pick: No. 13 overall

Streak of 8 double-digit scoring games snapped vs. Mavs.

7. Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets

Season stats: 9.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.7 apg
Since last Ladder: 11.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.8 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 8
Draft pick: No. 16 overall

Per 36: 18.0 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 5.3 apg and, er, 6.2 fouls per game.

8. Davion Mitchell, Sacramento Kings

Season stats: 9.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 3.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 12.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 4.8 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 7
Draft pick: No. 9 overall

Boosted offense is vital to justify keeping his D on the floor.

9. Herb Jones, New Orleans Pelicans

Season stats: 6.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.8 apg
Since last Ladder: 10.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.7 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: T-10
Draft pick: No. 35 overall

Tops rookies with 37 steals and loves taking charges.

10. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season stats: 7.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 0.8 apg
Since last Ladder: 8.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 0.7 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: T-10
Draft pick: No. 32 overall

Undersized at C, averaging 7.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg in Thunder home games.

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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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