Kia Rookie Ladder

Kia Rookie Ladder: Cavs' Evan Mobley reclaims No. 1 spot

Cleveland's star big man is back in the top spot in our weekly review of the rookie class.

Evan Mobley has moved ahead of Toronto's Scottie Barnes (right) for the No. 1 spot in our Kia Rookie Ladder.

If you want to ignite a heated argument, get a bunch of Cleveland Cavaliers fans in a sports bar with a like number of Toronto Raptors faithful, and throw this out as red meat: Who’s better, Evan Mobley or Scottie Barnes?

Instantly, it would be Black Friday all over again, one TV for a half dozen shoppers.

The more you see your favorite team’s new prize prospect, the more things you find to like about him. That’s the basic dynamic. Raptors fans have witnessed firsthand Barnes’ contributions on the court and his effervescent personality off it, contributing in a variety of ways through ups and downs, as well as lineup changes.

Ditto for Cleveland loyalists with Mobley, less of a sleeper as the No. 3 pick in the 2021 Draft than Barnes at No. 4, yet good enough to have some Detroit (No. 1 Cade Cunningham) and Houston (No. 2 Jalen Green) fans pondering some “what ifs.” Yet the work of those young guys has won over plenty who pull for the Pistons and root for the Rockets, because rookies are all about potential, their highlights projected as constants when they tap their full potential.

Check out the best of Mobley so far this season!

Consider the Kia Rookie Ladder to be just as proud and caught up in the leaders’ merits. On the day the league named Mobley as its Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month (October/November), the No. 1 rung here was held by Barnes. It had been his weekly spot for most of the season to that point … and it shifts only slightly this week.

A similar tug of war broke out last season between boosters of Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards and Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball. Edwards’ overall health and strong second half had his camp convinced that he was bound to win 2021 Rookie of the Year, while Ball’s backers touted his overall game and impact on Charlotte’s style and record despite missing 21 games to injury.

By the way, it’s not only fans who wind up wearing blinders in these debates. What Cleveland’s Jarrett Allen said upon learning of Mobley’s individual honor last week was textbook teammate myopia (and most coaches and general managers would want nothing less).

Check out the top rookie plays of the season so far.

“I’m proud of him,” Mobley’s frontcourt mate told The Athletic. “It’s deserved. I don’t know how Scottie Barnes from Toronto is doing, but I’m always gonna say Evan deserves that Rookie of the Year. He’s come in, got the month, and I’m gonna keep pushing him. I think he can do a lot better.”

You’re likely to find Toronto players who felt Barnes got snubbed on the monthly award.

Based on eye test, Mobley has that extra rookie asset of not playing like a rookie. As in, almost never. His help work defensively, his use as a fulcrum in the Cavs’ attack, the way he lets the game come to him is all so veteran-like. Watching him against Milwaukee, in a close-up shot, all he needed was a little gray in his beard and at his temples to pass completely as a savvy 10-year vet.

For that and his contributions to the surprising Cleveland record, Mobley edged back up this week’s Ladder.

For the moment, the two Jalens are holding the Ladder in support of the others. Both Jalen Green of Houston and Jalen Suggs of Orlando have been out with injuries, logging nothing but DNPs this week.

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

(All stats through Monday, Dec. 6)

1. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

Season stats: 14.0 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 2.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 12.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 3.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 2

The NBA’s Eastern Conference Rookie of October/November is the only first-year guy averaging 20+ minutes with a W-L mark above .500 — and he’s not just above it. The Cavaliers are 13-8 with Mobley, 8-2 when he blocks at least two shots, 8-3 when he grabs nine or more rebounds and 7-3 when he scores at least 15 points. Mobley also has the highest net rating of that group (3.9), one of only three — with Duarte 2.2 and Herb Jones 1.2 — in positive territory. The San Diego-born big man was in even more elite company in recording at least 30 blocks and 50 assists through his first 20 games, joining the likes of Bill Walton, Mychal Thompson, Michael Jordan and Chris Webber. The kid is getting raves at both ends of the floor.

2. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors

Season stats: 15.1 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 3.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 12.0 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.5 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 1

The flip-flop of the Nos. 1 and 2 stalwarts on the Ladder was ever so subtle. Barnes’ counting stats across the board dropped slightly in a 2-1 week. But he stills tops the rooks in minutes (35.6) and scoring, and he’s tied with Houston’s Alperen Sengun for offensive rebound percentage (7.2%). His net rating is minus-1.9 compared to the Raptors’ overall minus-0.2. But as a 20-year-old piece for the present and the future, there’s no quibbling on Barnes. He got some legit airwaves love too recently.

3. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 14.9 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 4.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 23.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 5.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 3

Cade Cunningham finished with 28 points and 11 rebounds vs. OKC.

It’s fair to say that Cunningham has caught up to his fellow rookies, and then some, after missing time due to his training-camp ankle sprain. He’s a year behind the curve of the Pistons’ bevy of youngsters from 2020-21 and Detroit (4-19) isn’t ready to win yet, but Cunningham already is asserting himself as a leader. His latest stats sample speaks for itself, with this addition: In his past four games, Cunningham has taken 8.0 3FGA among his 17.0 FGA (47%) and made 53.1%. Previously he had averaged 7.2 3FGA out of 14.0 FGA (51.4%) and made 23.8%. He’s finding his range and mixing his shot selection better. Former Piston point guard Chauncey Billups recently said of Cunningham: “I love everything about him. … He can kinda do it all. You can put the ball in his hands and he can play-make for you, get a basket for you.”

4. Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic

Season stats: 13.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.4 apg
Since last Ladder: 15.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 5.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 5

Wagner is putting up bigger numbers and excelling at both ends as a first-year pro than he did facing Big Ten competition at Michigan (12.0 ppg, 32.5% 3FG). His 36.5% from the arc for Orlando tops all rotation rookies. He shot 52.8% overall this week, with eight total steals against Denver, Houston and Golden State. A story out of Orlando likened Wagner’s point-forward skills to former Magic forward Hedo Turkoglu. Said the rookie of that duty: “Just making sure I have the right reads within the game when I run the pick-and-roll or run a play. Also, making decisions on the fly as a wing. You kind of just react to what the guard or the coach is running, and actually, when I get the rebound sometimes I start the offense. Now I’m doing that a lot more often.”

5. Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season stats: 10.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 5.8 apg
Since last Ladder: 12.0 ppg, 0.0 rpg, 5.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 4

Thunder guard Josh Giddey and Magic forward Franz Wagner have quickly shown their potential as playmaking forces.

Played just once in this Ladder period, due to the flu. Mercifully that kept him out of the Thunder’s embarrassing 73-point loss to Memphis. Giddey’s passing continues to delight — he tops all rookies with 121 assists, 38 more than Cunningham, with 10 fewer turnovers (59) than his Pistons’ counterpart. He was named the Western Conference’s Rookie of October/November in a 2021 Class dominated so far by East newcomers.

The Next 5

6. Chris Duarte, Indiana Pacers

Season stats: 13.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 13.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 6

One guy the Pacers won’t trade, key to their apparent rebuild.

7. Davion Mitchell, Sacramento Kings

Season stats: 9.1 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 3.4 apg
Since last Ladder: 10.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 2.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 8

Shots (10.3 FGA) and threes (4.7 3FGA) up as Kings go 2-1.

8. Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets

Season stats: 8.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 2.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 9.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 3.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 9

Impact on winning in Houston? Averaged 1.0 steal, 1.3 blocks past week.

9. Ayo Dosunmu, Chicago Bulls

Season stats: 6.0 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 1.1 apg
Since last Ladder: 8.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 3.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: N/A

Averaged 27.3 mpg in a 3-0 week, incl. 11p, 6r, 8a in 42 minutes vs. Denver.

T-10. Herb Jones, New Orleans Pelicans

Season stats: 6.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.7 apg
Since last Ladder: 7.0 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 1.7 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: N/A

Defense is his key, with 107.2 rating that’s 4th among rookies (20 mpg+).

T-10. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season stats: 6.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 0.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 5.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: N/A

Work reminiscent of Isaiah Stewart, Pistons’ Ladder guy last year.

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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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